Bangladesh-Myanmar relations step into a new gear

Bangladesh-Myanmar relations step into a new gear

Myanmar is the other neighbour of Bangladesh besides India. Bangladesh shares 271 km of border with Myanmar- both land and water. The border shares the boundary Naaf River between the two countries. Bangladesh is adjacent to two states of Myanmar-Rakhaine and Chin.

Myanmar is one of the earliest countries which recognized Bangladesh on 13th January, 1972 (7th country to recognize Bangladesh) and Bangladesh remembers this friendly gesture.

Somehow or other, observers perceive that Bangladesh has not paid due attention as it should have deserved to the close neighbour Myanmar (Burma). The main reason could be the continuing military rule in Myanmar since 1962 to 2011 March only when a civilian elected government, dominated by former military officials, has been installed.

During the military rule the country became insular and did not open up for interactions with other countries. Furthermore the denial of forming a government in 1990 by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kui after a landslide election victory and her arrest have created a negative image for the military government in almost all democratic countries.

But that did not stop China, ASEAN and later India to turn their attention to Myanmar for bilateral interaction for national interests. Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister of the 19th century once said that no country is a permanent enemy or permanent ally, what is permanent is national interest and these countries have followed the Palmerston’s dictum.

Even when Bangladesh’s foreign policy “Look East” was activated, Myanmar was not in the radar screen for active bilateral efforts and the result is that though Myanmar is so close geographically but too far to travel. One has to fly to a third country to Myanmar from Bangladesh and vice versa. There is no air link, no road link and no coastal shipping connection between the two neighbours.

The lack of interconnectivity in transportation is unacceptable during the 21st century when countries in all regions across the world have been interconnected with each other. For example, one can take train from Singapore to Bangkok without any hassle through Kuala Lumpur by “Oriental Express”.

Given the context, Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh Mijarul Quayes’ visit to Myanmar to meet his counterpart on 24th August for two days to discuss bilateral and regional issues. The last meeting at the level of Foreign Secretaries took place in Dhaka on 28th December 2009. The trip is to be welcomed.

It is reported that the issues, among others, during the meeting included:

• Multi-modal transport connectivity
• Border security to prevent criminal activities and illegal immigration
• Facilitation of trade
• Repatriation of remaining Rohingya refugees
• Cooperation in other areas including energy and agriculture

Bilateral relations are friendly but interactions between the two neighbours leave much to be desired to blossom their potentials. There are about 10 Agreements between the two countries including those in areas of land boundary management, trade, transport, and prevention of narcotics. But none of them are actively pursued.

With the availability of all weatherproof road, people- to- people contact is bound to increase and consequently commercial and trade opportunities will receive further boost between the two neighbouring countries. The road could also be used for establishing links with China and Thailand. Meanwhile China has agreed in principle with the Bangladesh’s proposal of road connectivity through Myanmar to China’s Yunnan province.

Since the present government came into power in 2009, there has been an attempt to inject momentum and dynamism in bilateral relations. On 16th May 2009, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr Dipu Moni visited Myanmar and held official talks with her counterpart U Nyan Winz.

Both the Foreign Ministers reportedly discussed a host of issues, including repatriation of the remaining Myanmar refugees, relaxation of visa requirements for citizens of either country, .facilitation of the banking services, , increased border trade, export of surplus power to Bangladesh, road link between the two countries up to China, direct air link, and sharing bandwidth with fiber-optic cable.

In January 2011, Bangladesh Foreign Minister attended 13th ministerial level meeting of BIMSTEC in Myanmar and on the sidelines she discussed bilateral issues with her counterpart. She held discussions with a private company in Myanmar to purchase hydropower from adjoining Rakhaine state ( Arakan).

The amount of bilateral trade is meager. It is reported that in 2008-09 Bangladesh’s exports stood at $9.17 million and imports from Myanmar at $66.65 million. To increase trade, the joint trade commission of Bangladesh and Myanmar held its fifth meeting on July 21-22. It was agreed that the two countries would raise bilateral trade to $550 million from $160 million now.

At the meeting both countries agreed to increase the ceiling for transaction value to $50,000 per consignment from $30,000. Officials also discussed the potential for setting up wholesale border markets at Bangladesh’s Teknaf and Myanmar’s Maungdaw, a border town.

They also discussed how to complete border transactions through the Asian Clearing Union payment system as Bangladeshi importers now settle their payments for bulk shipments through bank drafts issued by foreign banks to a third country.

One of the bilateral issues that often cause tension is related to the issue of Rohingya refugees. It first cropped up in 1978. Within a year, it was resolved amicably with Myanmar. The result was all the refugees were repatriated to Myanmar with the assistance of the UNHCR. However the flow of refugees came to Bangladesh in 1991 and in 1997. About 21,000 refugees remain in Bangladesh and negotiations on the issue continue.

The migration of Rohingya people to Bangladesh is a complex matter. It should not be seen merely as a refugee problem with humanitarian dimension partly because Rohingya Liberation Front has been reportedly fighting for decades for a separate land in Rakhaine state.

Given the background, both countries need to identify the root cause of the issue and jointly develop an effective border management to prevent the flow of migration of Rohingyas to Bangladesh.

The political environment in Myanmar is different from that of the past. Myanmar had elections in November and a civilian government ( dominated by former military officials), has been in power since 30th March.

The opposition leader Suu Kyi has met twice in recent weeks with representatives of the government who have delivered conciliatory overtures toward her. On 14th August, she made her first political trip into the countryside. On 19th August, the government invited Suu Kyi for the first time to participate in an economic development workshop and she met for the first time with the country’s President, Thein Sein..

Given the above conducive political atmosphere, Bangladesh may now seize the opportunity to expand its relations both in depth and dimension with the government of Myanmar including the desirability of a visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister to Myanmar.

The geographical proximity makes both countries natural partners and both countries should see cooperative efforts and interconnectivity as catalyst for economic growth and prosperity for the people of Bangladesh and Myanmar.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva

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