Will US do a Bosnia on Myanmar? No-fly-zone move may involve India

Will US do a Bosnia on Myanmar? No-fly-zone move may involve India

If US goes ahead with the proposed no-fly zone, it would put both Delhi and Dhaka in a spot of bother. While Delhi seems to prefer "constructive engagement", Dhaka will be caught in Sino-US rivalry

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The New Year has opened with a flurry of high-level visits by top US and Chinese officials to Bangladesh and a fresh upsurge in fighting between Myanmarese military and rebel forces along Myanmar’s western borders, which has been marked by rampant and brutal use of air power by the ruling military junta.

The visit by Pentagon and State Department officials to Bangladesh has fuelled speculation that the US is perhaps actively considering enforcing a Bosnia-type no-fly zone over Myanmar, if not resort to a direct military intervention to facilitate the return of democracy in Myanmar. For effectively enforcing a no-fly zone over Myanmar, logistics support from Bangladesh and India may be necessary.

Security Council resolution

The US and UK took its first step to set the stage for a more effective intervention on Myanmar in December 2022 by tabling an UN Security Council resolution severely criticising Myanmar’s military regime and demanding an end to violence in Myanmar and the release of political prisoners, including President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

Also read: India, China, Russia abstain on 1st UNSC resolution on Myanmar

The vote marked the first Security Council resolution on the situation in Myanmar in decades, and in particular since the military overthrew the elected government in February 2021,

The resolution (S/RES/2669 (2022)) proposed by the UK, which was passed by 12 votes, made several references to the importance of the “ASEAN” process, referring to the “five-point consensus” passed by the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations last year.

India joined China and Russia in abstaining from voting on the resolution because Delhi still seems to prefer “constructive engagement” with the Myanmarese junta rather than military action. But China’s lack of comfort with the Myanmar junta’s failure to hold its ground against multiple rebel forces, including a newly thriving Bamar (ethnic Burman) insurgency, was evident in its refusal to veto the resolution.

Also read: UN council adopts resolution urging end to Myanmar violence

A no-fly zone, like the one NATO (mainly US) imposed over Bosnia, would re-balance the fighting to the advantage of the civil and ethnic armed groups, possibly leading to the defeat of the Myanmar military in the Rakhine, Chin, Sagaing and Kachin provinces, where the separatist groups like the Arakan Army and Kachin Independence Army has increased effective control over much of their provinces.

So far, the Myanmarese military has somehow maintained a foothold in these provinces by resorting to large-scale use of airpower. The bombing of a musical event organised by the Kachin Independence Army in October 2022, that led to nearly 60 deaths, have been followed by similar bombings in Rakhine and more recently in the Chin state. When bombs fell on Camp Victoria, a camp run by Chin National Front and the Bamar PDF jointly, on the border with Mizoram, Delhi woke up to the challenging prospect of a major refugee influx into Mizoram which already houses more than 20,000 refugees from Myanmar.

Also read: India must rethink Myanmar policy as junta loses grip over territory

Concern for China

A no-fly zone leading to huge reverses suffered by Myanmarese military may effectively thwart the operation of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) that connects the China-funded Kyaukphyu deep sea port with China’s Yunnan province (with the oil-gas pipeline). By toppling the junta and severely weakening the Tatmadaw (Myanmarese army), the US and its allies may thus block China’s land-to-sea access through Myanmar into the Indian ocean — surely a key US strategic goal to contain China.

One of the main challenges for the US proposal to create a Bosnia-style no-fly zone over Myanmar would be establishing and maintaining the logistical support to sustain it. An aircraft carrier off the coast of Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal could be sufficient to provide the air coverage, but some form of land-based supply system would also be necessary, especially if the no-fly zone became a sustained effort.

The US, therefore, may want access to Bangladesh ports and adjoining land regions to maintain logistics so that the no-fly zone over Myanmar is effective. The US may impress Bangladesh that strong backing for the Arakan Army may lead to the independence of the Rakhine province and the final solution of the Rohingya problem —  an attractive proposition for Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina, who will face elections amid considerable anti-incumbency later in 2023. The Arakan Army has promised to take back Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.

US pressure on Bangladesh

Top Bangladesh sources say the US has ratcheted huge pressure on the Hasina government on human rights issues and pushed for fair elections, basically to push PM Hasina to sign two military-related pacts GSOMIA and ACSA and may now add more pressure to provide logistics support for a possible no-fly zone. 

If she does not play ball, they say, the US may go all out to promote violent Opposition agitations and other forms of interventions to effect regime change. The back-to-back visits to Bangladesh by Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher, Senior Director for South Asia in the US National Security Council, and the State Department’s Assistant Secretary (South-Central Asia) Donald Lu have been interpreted in Dhaka as part of Washington’s mounting pressure on Bangladesh to go along with its plans on Myanmar.

But if winter comes, can spring be far behind? The new Chinese foreign minister, Qin Gang, made a sudden “technical stopover” in Dhaka on his way to Africa and met Bangladesh foreign minister Abdul Momen for two hours at the airport on a day Rear Admiral Laubacher was nearing the end of her trip. A high-level delegation of the Communist Party of China (CPC), led by the deputy head of the CPC’s International Department Chen Zhou, also visited Bangladesh and extensively interacted with major political parties and government functionaries to “interpret the spirit of the 20th CPC National Congress for improving bilateral relations.”

It is possible that the Chinese would have gotten wind of US plans and would like to checkmate them. They have a few cards to play in Bangladesh — especially the huge development assistance for key infrastructure projects, many of which are yet to materialise. Foreign Minister Momen is said to have raised the issue with his Chinese counterpart during the late-night meeting at Dhaka airport and Dhaka is likely to leverage the situation to get what it wants from China to expedite its crucial projects in the election year for all the mileage it brings to the table.

But the Chinese would oblige —  fully or partly — Bangladesh only if they were sure Dhaka would resist the temptation of supporting the US and its allies, who may plan to hit the Myanmarese military junta hard enough. Hasina’s diplomatic skills (her foreign minister is better known for gaffes than adroit diplomacy) will be put to huge test in an election year as her country risks getting drawn into the larger Sino-US rivalry. 

Much will depend on India’s role and how it will react to Hasina’s plea for help and support. India did help her out by receiving an US-sanctioned Russian ship carrying material for the Rooppur nuclear plant in Bangladesh that Russia is helping develop. But if the US goes ahead with the proposed no-fly zone in the Bay of Bengal, it puts both Delhi and Dhaka in a spot of bother.

(The writer is a former BBC and Reuters correspondent and author of books on South Asian conflicts)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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