How the Rohingya Crisis May Help Pakistan’s Cause in Bangladesh

In the rundown to the Bangladesh elections, Pakistan would love to see Hasina defeated and Khaleda victorious.

5 min read
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (Left); A newly arrived Rohingya girl carries bags of food rations in Kutupalong, Bangladesh. 

It is no secret that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina does not get along well with Pakistan.

The difference between the two countries has sharpened since Hasina came to power in January 2009. Diplomats suspected of being ISI agents have been thrown out of Bangladesh and the two countries have exchanged much fire over the 1971 war crime trials . The Pakistan High Commission has been gheraoed by pro-liberation organisations whenever Pakistan and its parties have challenged verdicts of the war crime tribunals.

Without getting into the legitimacy of these trials, it is enough to say that ever since they started, Pakistan-Bangladesh relations have nosedived. The Pakistan government, its all powerful army and ISI, have no reason to feel friendly towards the Hasina regime. Hasina's ministers have accused Pakistan of backing jihadis and anti-liberation forces like Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh.


On the other hand, Pakistan feels comfortable with Khaleda Zia for ideological and tactical reasons. This is no secret. Khaleda was the honoured guest at the 'Defence Day' celebrations in Pakistan High Commission in London, this year. Bangladesh media is agog with reports that she met several top Pakistani military officials including at least one from the ISI since she landed in London on 15 July 2017.

In the rundown to the Bangladesh elections due in Nov-Dec 2018, it is thus natural that Pakistan would love to see Hasina defeated and Khaleda victorious, while India would love to see Hasina victorious and Khaleda defeated, though Delhi often has a Plan B in place to handle a situation if BNP wins.

There are no heroes or villains in this game. Indians and Pakistanis have their favourites in Dhaka and they want them to win. While India’s motive is to ensure a safe North-east which is only possible if there is a friendly regime in Bangladesh, Pakistan needs an anti-Indian regime in Bangladesh to contain India in the East, and force it to divert military assets to the North-east and East from Kashmir.

Now, without a friendly Bangladesh, Modi’s ‘Act East’ will not work. With a pro-Indian regime in Dhaka, Pakistan’s bleed-the-East plans will not work.

Hasina is, however, no Indian lackey as her domestic detractors allege her to be . She took on the BJP bigwigs in 2001 when NSA Brajesh Mishra tried to coax her to allow natural gas exports to India. The BJP's inexperience in governance showed up as Hasina hit back at Mishra, telling him bluntly that his advice was unwelcome in domestic affairs. No Bengali Indian leader, Pranab Mukherjee or Jyoti Basu, despite their warm personal relations, would make the mistake of telling Hasina what to do, let alone dictating.

An angry Mishra activated the RAW and ensured Indian support for BNP. RAW station chief in Dhaka, Amitabh 'Tony' Mathur escorted BNP's Tareque Rahman to India amidst much bonhomie as Mishra touted his 'not all eggs in one basket’ line on Bangladesh.


Within months, the scene changed when Indian intelligence found clinching evidence of BNP-ISI links and Rahman's meeting with top ISI officials in Dubai.

The ISI, in its efforts to unseat Hasina and ensure a BNP victory, got the ARSA guerrillas to attack 30 police stations and one army base in Rakhine.

To be fair to Aung San Suu Kyi, she gave peace a chance when she went against the wishes of her army and set up the Rakhine Commission under former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.

But the day she accepted the report of the Commission and promised to implement it, the ARSA offensive derailed the process of reconciliation.

The Tatmadaw (Burmese army) told the Lady in so many words to mind her own business and leave issues of national security to be handled by them, oblivious to their colossal intelligence failure in anticipating such a widespread coordinated offensive.

Like the massacre of Burmese students and youths in 1988-90, the Tatmadaw went after the Rohingya civilians with a vengeance.

They played into the ISI trap. And fleeing the atrocities of the Burmese army, nearly half a million Rohingyas entered Bangladesh.

The Awami League first called for joint military operations against ARSA terrorists, then as Burmese military atrocities led to a groundswell of support for Rohingyas, it backed off and took a pro-Rohingya line on 'humanitarian ground' with Hasina insisting her government could feed one million Rohingyas if it could feed 160 million Bangladeshis.

The serial attacks of 24-25 August have created a huge humanitarian crisis which has thrown Myanmar and its pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi on the mat and Hasina in the open to face a surge of hardline Islamist sentiments that would surely erode her support base in an election season.

When issues like war crime trials dominate the poll agenda, the Awami League wins elections. When 9/11 happens, they lose polls because radicalised Islamist opinion will always boost Hasina's opponents, not her cause. She may suffer occasional illusions of splitting the hardline Islamist constituency by pandering to groups like Khelafat Majlish or Hefazat-e-Islam as a counter weight to Jamaat-e-Islami, but that will just not work. On the other hand, she risks losing out on her committed support base – secular Muslims and religious minorities like Hindus, Buddhists and Christians.

When Hefazat holds a rally in Chittagong asking to arm the Rohingya, when ARSA fighters call for jihad openly in north Arakans in refugee camps, it does not bode  well for Hasina or the Awami League. She may have good reasons to support the Rohingya on humanitarian grounds, but backing the Pakistan-backed ARSA is not going to help her cause.

There is sufficient evidence of JMB-ARSA links and both have links with Pakistan’s LET.

So the 24 August attacks have served the purpose of Pakistan – Hasina is having to swallow a bitter pill as the dividing line between the humanitarian and the security issues on the Rohingya question gets blurred. The surge in Islamist sentiments threatens her party in an election season more directly than 9/11 did.

Round one in Rakhine goes to Pakistan – with Myanmar on the mat, Hasina just staying afloat but with vicious currents all around, India's difficult balancing game between the two ladies in Dhaka, and Nay Pyi Taw getting ever more difficult by the day.

The only minus for Pakistan is that its BNP friends still don’t believe the ISI can pull it off for them alone when it comes to the elections.

So while Khaleda and her son continue their closed-door meetings with Pakistani generals and brigadiers in London, smaller leaders of the party make a beeline for the BJP leaders in India.


The lobbying efforts are based on the presumption that with the BJP in power, a repeat of 2001 is possible.

Khaleda is keen to hunt with the hound and swim with the crocodile.

That is where the Bangladesh media reports of a BNP-ISI nexus based on the covert London meetings has ruined Khaleda's chances of befriending India's ruling party.

Even after promising 50 MP seats for Hindus and at least 5 ministers if elected.

If the target of the ISI's "Operation Rakhine" was to ensure a Khaleda victory, the exposé of the London meetings have worked against it.

But if under the pressure of public sentiments, the Bangladesh agencies which were hunting for ARSA leaders are compelled to host them, the ISI would have covered a long way towards unsettling Sheikh Hasina and helping her rivals.

(Subir Bhaumik, a veteran BBC Correspondent, is now Consulting Editor with Myanmar's Mizzima Media Inc. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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