For countries like Bangladesh, the focus on traditional military and geopolitical concerns has often been at the expense of comprehensive security. Non-traditional security threats remain the most destabilising and difficult to resolve.
“Poverty, not the lack of military hardware, is responsible for insecurity across the southern half of the planet,” once remarked US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. He could have been talking about modern day South Asia where non-traditional security threats (NTS) override the country’s territorial boundaries.
For a region where 35 percent of the population live below the poverty line, NTS threat drives regional foreign policy. From a traditional perspective, South Asia’s security complex is overshadowed by India and Pakistan’s uneasy relationship. Apart from other traditional security threats like drug trafficking, violent extremism, and transnational organised crime, South Asian NTS comprises issues like natural disasters, poverty, public health, food/water/health security, and economic development. These issues affect both the Central and South Asia regions. Understanding NTS requires a conceptual space combining both “comprehensive security” and “human security.”
For Bangladesh, while arms trafficking, maritime security, and terrorism are undoubtedly critical for Dhaka’s security framework, political, economic, health, environment, and energy concerns top the priority list.
Bangladesh, one of the most disaster-vulnerable countries in the world, frequently encounters cyclones, floods, water-salinity problems, and eroding river issues. In May 2019, Cyclone Fani caused US$8.1 billion in damage to both India and Bangladesh. For leaders in Dhaka, since the 1990s, the major focus has been in reducing disaster risks. To this end, the country has adopted a number of action plans, including Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (2009-2022), Bangladesh Delta Plan (2018), National Adaptation Plan (2022), and the National Plan for Disaster Management (2021) to concentrate on mitigation and adaptation of natural disasters and climate change.
In the food security domain, Bangladesh has gradually improved over the years. As of 2021, the country’s hunger statistics stands at 9.7 percent compared to 15.9 percent in 2001. However, even in 2022, 17 percent households claimed to have trouble fulfilling their basic food and non-food needs. Given the nature of food security and the contributing factors of natural disasters and income disparity, Bangladesh’s development agenda has been critical to the increase in food security, particularly in rural-urban areas.
On the economy, Bangladesh has developed into an emerging Asian tiger, achieving strong economic growth over the past two decades. The poverty rate declined by 24 percent over this time and GDP grew by over three percent per annum from the 2000s onwards. Bangladesh, in other words, has developed a powerful economy that will soon see it graduate from the Least Developed Country category. This rapid growth is owed to the country’s immigrant remittance input, which has further fuelled the Ready Made Garment sector. This industry has been strongly supported by government, non-government organisations, and private development assistance. To continue this economic success, the country needs to keep a close eye on debt sustainability, development progress, and productive investment outputs, which are the principle contending questions surrounding development and democracy in the country.
As for politics, Bangladesh finds itself confronting geopolitical and strategic challenges. The lack of political and economic cooperation with regional countries has isolated Dhaka among other South Asian nations, leading to higher levels of political insecurity. This has manifested itself into ethnic communal violence, cross-border illegal migration, drug-trafficking, and domestic political turmoil in every state. Bangladesh, sandwiched between India and Myanmar, is strongly affected by the vicissitudes of the India-Pakistan and India-China relationships. This, of course, is notwithstanding the troubles produced by ethnic and political conflict in Myanmar. For this reason, Bangladesh has tried to ensure that its political institutions remain robust while solidifying its territorial integrity. Small states like Bangladesh frequently hedge against regional powers; one of the reasons why its chief priority is to continue its “friendly” foreign policy by balancing relations with India and China.
On a domestic level, the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) – a group of three districts that share borders with India and Myanmar – is a critical political challenge for both the Bangladesh government and the Jumma community. Despite the CHT Peace Accords, signed in 1997, it did not contribute to a functioning peace in the region, which has often been marred by mistrust and insurgency between Jumma and settlers communities. The government has no alternative but to arrange a working CHT Land Commission to settle the disputes, however this is likely to take time and no doubt good relations with India and Myanmar.
Terrorism and drug-trafficking are two critical concerns for Bangladesh. For two decades, Bangladesh has experienced waves of Islamic militancy, leading to an organised state-war against militant groups, including the Assembly of Mujahideen—Bangladesh (JMB), Neo-JMB, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami. This state action came into effect after the Holy Artisan Attack in which five militants took hostages at the Holy Artisan Café in 2016. However, terrorist activities have shifted to CHT border areas in recent times, providing a base-hub of Jamaat Ul-Ansar-Fil-Hind-Al-Sharqiya, or JAFAR, a primary terrorism threat for Bangladesh in 2023. The country also sits in between three drug trafficking zones known as the Golden Triangle, Golden Crescent, and Golden Wedge. Bangladesh has become a favorite transit point for the drug lords, and despite a war-on-drugs undertaken in 2018, the emergence of crystal meth and yaba (a drug mixing methamphetamine and caffeine) is creating a new threat in recent times. This zone also serves as a human-trafficking point where almost 100,000 women and children are at risk.
Bangladesh also struggles uneasily with the protracted Rohingya refugee situation, sheltering over 1.1 million refugees in Cox’s Bazar. Now the country is shouldering the cost of generosity as Myanmar is unwilling to recognise Rohingya people as their citizens and take them back. Bangladesh is in need of issuing a repatriation agreement with Myanmar while also facing challenges to maintain the supporting costs of refugees, which is reaching US$1.2 billion per year.
Aside from political and socio-economic challenges, Bangladesh’s military is gaining global attention, too. The country ranked 40th in Global Firepower (GFP) 2023 among 145 countries. It was listed as 12th in power-on-the rise in GFP’s review list. It is also the top Troops Police Contributor in UN peacekeeping operations. This development reflects the country’s Force Goal 2030, an attempt to modernise the armed forces and employ them in humanitarian front-lines instead of politically turbulent domains.
As discussed, Bangladesh’s non-traditional security dynamics cannot be explained thoroughly by traditional security analysis. Threats can emerge from both military and non-military sources, and issue-linkages. For example, the Rohingya crisis can extend into terrorism and border-security threats. The CHT instability is intertwined with the issues of natural disasters, rural-urban migration, and terrorism.
For Bangladesh, how the future security landscape unfolds is a question of time. However, the NTS complex has been a critical priority alongside traditional security issues in Bangladesh’s national security policy. Interestingly, this also aligns with the country’s foreign policy dictum of “Friendship with all, Malice towards none.” Given the increasing volatility in the South Asian region, both in politics and economy, it is to be seen how the policy of deemphasising nuclear arms and prioritising non-traditional threats will substantiate the country’s national integrity and security requirements in the near decades.
Towkir Hossain is a Dhaka-based research analyst on international affairs and strategic issues.
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