In a hypothetical war between Bangladesh and Myanmar, who could win?

Myanmar Army General Min Aung hlaing (left) and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh (right)

The neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and Myanmar had a generally cordial relationship under the Burmese military junta, although the presence of over a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh often served as a major irritant.

They estimated that 330000 Rohingya were beaten, and 36,000 were thrown into fires. The military operations displaced a large number of people and created a refugee crisis. The largest wave of Rohingya to flee Myanmar happened in 2017, which resulted in the largest human exodus in Asia since the Vietnam War.

The Rohingya conflict is ongoing in the northern part of Myanmar’s Rakhine State (formerly known as Arakan), characterized by sectarian violence between the Rohingya Muslim and Rakhine Buddhist communities, a military crackdown on Rohingya civilians by Myanmar’s security forces, and militant attacks by Rohingya insurgents in Buthidaung, Maungdaw, and Rathedaung Townships, which border Bangladesh.

Border Conflict

Bangladesh and Myanmar share a land border of approximately 271 km, and a maritime border.

Since then, the boundary area has often been unstable owing to armed conflicts such as the Chittagong Hill Tracts conflict (1977-1997) in south-east Bangladesh and the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The latter has been ongoing for decades yet has reached a particular intensity since 2016.

Source Al Jazeera

In the first week of September 2020, Bangladeshi forces reported that the Tatmadaw started amassing troops and doing unusual buildups in three different locations on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border; as a consequence, Bangladesh’s foreign minister summoned Myanmar’s ambassador and said to work for beneficial relations between the two countries.

In November 2008, the relation between two countries deteriorated further after Bangladesh–Myanmar naval standoff, a result of Myanmar allowing the South Korean company Daewoo to explore the seabed in an area SW of St. Martin’s Island, the area that was contested between Bangladesh and Myanmar as part of their respective exclusive economic zones.

Rohingya Crisis

The Rohingyas are an ethnic Muslim minority living in the Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships of Rakhine state in Myanmar, formerly called Arakan state, on Myanmar’s west coast.

Source BBC News.

At least 6,700 Rohingya, including at least 730 children under the age of five, were killed in the month after the violence broke out, according to medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Amnesty International says the Myanmar military also raped and abused Rohingya women and girls.

What caused the Rohingya refugee crisis? The Rohingya refugee crisis is caused by the Rohingya people having long faced violence and discrimination in Myanmar. The armed conflict escalated in August 2017 in Rakhine State, causing Rohingya to flee to nearby Bangladesh.

Today, about 880,000 stateless Rohingya refugees live in the world’s largest and most densely populated refugee camp, Kutupalong. Almost half of the refugees are children.

Economic Factor

Bangladesh, with a GDP of $274 billion ranked the 44th largest economy in the world, while Myanmar ranked 71st with $71.2B. By GDP 5-years average growth and GDP per capita, Bangladesh and Myanmar ranked 10th vs 13th and 155th vs 164th, respectively.

But despite being a large country in a region of economic growth, Burma is also the poorest country in the region. About a quarter of the population is living in poverty, and, despite Burma’s being an extremely resource-rich country, its economy is one of the least developed in the world.

Trade Between Bangladesh and Myanmar

Trade between Bangladesh and Myanmar has much scope for improvement.  Figure 1 shows that after reaching an all-time high in 2011, it has dipped. Separate data from Myanmar’s Commerce Ministry confirms the trend – bilateral trade between the two, which stood at $84 million in 2011-12, fell to $42 million in 2012-13, rising to $75 million in 2013-14, only to fall to $39 million the following year and $33 million in 2015-16, showing only a slight recovery to $44 million in 2016-17.

Drug Trafficking and security concerns

There are security issues on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, and both sides want to secure their border better.  Bangladesh’s Department of Narcotics Control has identified the Myanmar border as an important entry point for illegal drugs.

In two years, 2017 and 2018, Bangladesh has either arrested or killed more than 100 Rohingya drug traffickers as they were crossing the border.

Drone image of Rohingya settlement in Bangladesh.

The appalling living conditions in the camps set up for Rohingyas in Bangladesh, along with lack of educational and employment opportunities for them, is leading to increased criminal activity.

‘Yaba’, also called the ‘madness drug’, has become especially popular in the last few years. The size of the Yaba consignments pays agents they bring in – 5,000 Yaba pills transported to Dhaka or any other urban centre in Bangladesh can earn the trafficker 10,000 taka (around US$120). For the impoverished Rohingyas, this is very tempting. Also, protection from drug peddlers makes it easier for many Rohingyas to exit Myanmar, despite border security, using the Naf River running between the two countries.

Source BBC news.

Globally, Bangladesh is mainly a transit point for drugs produced in the Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand). Teknaf, in Cox’s Bazar, has become notorious as a drug gateway to the West. It is said that there are 15 syndicates smuggling drugs through Teknaf to Dhaka and beyond, with Rohingyas at the heart of the operation.

Military Comparison

According to the Global Fire Power Index 2017, Myanmar is ranked the world’s 31st most powerful military while Bangladesh’s position is 57th. Bangladesh is far ahead of Myanmar on the basis of population but is far behind in military terms.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin takes part in the Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, on March 27, 2021.

The Myanmar Army maintains the second-largest active force in Southeast Asia after the People’s Army of Vietnam. The highest rank in the Myanmar Army is senior general, equivalent to field marshal in Western armies and is currently held by Min Aung Hlaing after being promoted from vice-senior general.

The JF-17 fighter jet with the Myanmar Air Force (MAF) logo emblazoned on its tail parked at a China airfield in Chengdu, where it has been conducting taxiing and flight tests since at least April 24. 2017.

Bangladesh is far ahead of Myanmar on the basis of population but is far behind in military terms. In the comparison, the list did not only include matters like military manpower, arms and vehicles, but also population, geographical location, industry, and performance.

The defence budget of Bangladesh is $4.1 billion, while Myanmar’s is $2.4 billion. Myanmar has a far larger air force than Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has mostly obsolete 166 aircraft, including eight inoperable MiG-29 and F-7BG attack aircraft. On the other hand, Myanmar has 56 fighter aircraft and 77 attack aircraft, including fourth-generation JF-17 Block II, Su-30SME and MiG-29. Myanmar has 86 helicopters, including Mi-35, while Bangladesh has 61, including Mi-17 helicopters.

Su-30SME of Myanmar Air Force undergoing factory trial.

According to the report, Bangladesh Army has obsolete type 59G tanks while Myanmar has Chinese made MBT-2000. Bangladesh has 982 armoured fighting vehicles, while Myanmar has 1,358.

Myanmar has one of the most powerful infantry units in Asia regions, and most of them are specialized in Jungle warfare. Attacking Myanmar is almost as similar to repeating a Vietnam war. Besides, Myanmar has a cooperative defense contract with Vietnam, so the said infantry forces could be empowered further by those of Vietnam infantries.

Bangladesh has 18 self-propelled artilleries and 32 rocket projectiles. Myanmar has 108 self-propelled artilleries and 108 rocket projectiles, including Ballistic missiles. Myanmar has 884 towed artilleries, the report said.

Myanmar Army parades Chinese-made SY-400 short-range ballistic missiles. On the left, missile canister or launch vehicle and on the right command center.

Myanmar Army also possesses vast arrays of anti-air assets, including Russian-made Pantsir, Belarusian Buk-MB, Chinese KS-1 surface-to-air missiles with local production capabilities. Myanmar Army and Air Force also operate Russian Ural drones and Chinese CH-4 drones.

Bangladesh has 89 naval assets, including six frigates and five mine warfare vessels, where Myanmar has 155 naval assets with advanced fast attack craft.

  1. Armed personnel: Myanmar has the advantage of number, but the Bangladesh army has experience from UN missions, not a combat operation. Also, the Bangladesh army often trains themselves with other international forces, which will give them some edge.
  2. Air force: Myanmar has the upper hand in terms of the number of fighters and personnel.
  3. Naval force: Almost equal – Bangladesh may have the edge if they have more frigates.
  4. Conflict inside the country: Myanmar is cracking down on Rohingya, Karen, Shan, MDF and Kachin. Any war will give rise to unrest inside the country. Bangladesh gets the upper hand in terms of ground combat if Bangladesh survives onslaughts of the Myanmar air force.
  5. International support: Being a democracy and a lot of international organizations, Bangladesh will rally more international support. Myanmar recently held an election, but the power transition is still in the balance between Military Junta and elected officials. Also, there’s a lot of allegation (and proof) of violating human rights against the Myanmar army, which will generate support for Bangladesh as well.

International Support

A report published by UN investigators in August 2018 accused Myanmar’s military of carrying out mass killings and rapes with “genocidal intent”.

The ICJ case, lodged by the small Muslim-majority nation of The Gambia, in West Africa, on behalf of dozens of other Muslim countries, called for emergency measures to be taken against the Myanmar military Tatmadaw until a fuller investigation could be launched.

From a religious perspective, Bangladesh is a Muslim country, and Myanmar is a Buddhist country. Should Bangladesh invade/win/conquer any portion of Myanmar, Thailand (another Buddhist country), India (Hindu country which has close ties with Buddhism), and China (a multi-religion country which has long roots with Buddhism) will all feel uncomfortable and rush to defend Myanmar.

From a geopolitical perspective, after the western influences have waned, Russia and China have become very involved with Myanmar that India has no choice but to turn a blind eye to Myanmar for the Rohingya issue, in worry that Myanmar would give further power to China should India upset it, as such India will again turn a blind eye should a crisis arises.

Over the past 45 years, the relationship between China and Bangladesh has been developing, with mutual cooperation and friendship on both sides.

Myanmar has long been a buyer of Russian military hardware. Being the country’s number three arms supplier (15%), virtually on par with India (16%), Russia has exported 30 MiG-29 jet fighters, 12 Yak-130 jet trainers, 10 Mi-24 and Mi-35P helicopters, and eight Pechora-2M anti-aircraft missile systems since the 2000s. Moreover, shortly before the coup, the Russian Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, signed a deal with Min Aung Hlaing for the delivery of an undisclosed number of Pantsir-S1 SHORAD systems, accompanied by Orlan-10E Multirole Unmanned Aerial Systems. This makes Myanmar the first country to which Russia exports drones. Additionally, the Tatmadaw was present during the Kavkaz-2020 exercise in Russia, just like in previous years.

Myanmar seems to be quite receptive to Russia’s intentions to expand arms trade, as they seek to counterbalance their overdependence on China, who is responsible for 48% of all Myanmar’s arms imports. Russia thus presents an attractive alternative for Myanmar to diversify its mix of powers that it is dependent on.

BelligerentArms ImportsInternational support during the warPossibility of arms embargo during the war by countriesCurrent Sanctions
BangladeshChina, Russia, United States, United Kingdom, Serbia, Turkey, France, South Korea, Ukraine, Belarus  United States, United Kingdom, France, South Korea, TurkeyRussia, China and IndiaNone
MyanmarChina, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Serbia, North Korea, India, Israel, Czech RepublicChina, Russia, India, Belarus, Serbia, Ukraine, IsraelUnited States, European Union, Great Britain, South Korea, Japan, FranceUN Sanctions, U.S. and EU sanction targeted at Myanmar junta

Hypothetical War

In a hypothetical war between Bangladesh and Myanmar, both countries have some advantages and disadvantages.

On day one of the war, Myanmar could destroy Bangladesh’s economic hub port city Chittagong including Chittagong port, airports and industrial bases in that Southern region. 

Bangladesh lacks any meaningful air defense systems to deter the Tatmadaw air campaign using JF-17 and Su-30SME. Bangladesh could lose all of eight MiG-29 on day one of the war if it faces off with JF-17 armed with SD-10 BVRAAM and CM-400AKG air-to-ground missiles.

Suppose Bangladesh could gain an advantage in the ground and quickly move into the Rakhine state and take the fight to the Tatmadaw. In that case, Myanmar Air Force will start focusing on bombing Bangladeshi troops in Rakhine state. Bangladesh Navy could come to aid of the Bangladesh military if Bangladesh plays well in the Bay of Bengal and quickly assault Myanmar naval bases depleting Myanmar’s naval capability, but Bangladesh does not have any amphibious ability to move in Rakhine state and inside Myanmar.

Myanmar Army has enough armored vehicles, artillery and tanks to hold Bangladesh Army within Rakhine state. Bangladesh Army will take mass causalities of a bombing campaign by Tatmadaw air force and might not have their position in Rakhine state within a week.

If Karen and Kachin rebels can come to the aid of the Bangladesh Army and create broader conflict with Myanmar Army, then Bangladesh would be able to fight a month or two.

Economically, Myanmar cannot afford to have a lengthy war with Bangladesh and its rebel groups.

At the end of the war, Bangladesh will be the biggest loser in the war as Bangladesh will ultimately lose its economic activities, and the destruction of Chittagong port would end twenty years of economic growth. On the contrary, Myanmar has nothing to lose in terms of vital infrastructure as it doesn’t have any.

Economically, Myanmar will bankrupt, and Bangladesh will suffer major setbacks. Myanmar also depletes its twenty years of weapons cache. Both countries will back off under pressure from the West and China.

Bangladesh will be forced to settle one million Rohingya refugees under the peace deal initiated by India and China.

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