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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Bangladesh-Myanmar relations: Strategic imperatives

Ashish Banik
Myanmar has been diversifying its foreign orientation in the context of rapidly-changing regional geopolitical dynamics since the military dominated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) assumed power in November 2010. It has recently seen significant political developments which moved the country from the ‘policy of isolation’ towards a ‘policy of engagement.’
Political developments include the recently enacted bill in parliament allowing citizens to protest peacefully, initiatives to resume dialogues with other political parties, release of political prisoners and the hosting of parliament election on 9 July 2012. As a result, Myanmar, to some extent, has elevated its position in international politics. Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed that Myanmar would chair the regional bloc in 2014. These changes have already given an indication that the country wants to realign its foreign policy breaking its long phase of isolation for decades. It also gives an assessment of which direction the country might take in the coming months and years.
Myanmar has witnessed a steady stream of visits by heads of state or government, foreign ministers of many countries of the world. Regional powers and the international community are very keen to realign their relations with Myanmar. In recent times, a ‘scramble for Myanmar’ might begin among the regional and international players to establish dominance over the oil and gas reserves of Myanmar. In light of these developments, this article will particularly focus on the state of bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and Myanmar. It will also identify the bottlenecks in developing a new era of relationship with Myanmar delineating an assessment of what Bangladesh could do to set the bilateral ties based on mutual trust and mutual benefit.
Many analysts in Bangladesh used to perceive the foreign policy of Myanmar in light of regional power settings. However, one should understand that the foreign policy of a country is shaped by their respective geopolitical, cultural, domestic and international compulsions. It may be mentioned that the military regime that assumed
power in Myanmar in 1962, in the face of internecine fighting of the ethnic groups, restored the law and order in the entire country by using coercive means. It was also forced to build a strategic partnership
with China to ward off strenuous international pressure of the
western world. This country later moved forward to cement its ties with another regional power,
India after the end of the Cold
War. One can easily understand the trend of the foreign policy of Myanmar from the perspective of regime security.
Bangladesh officially began diplomatic ties with Myanmar on January 13, 1972, the date on which Myanmar recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign state. However, over the last 40 years, the bilateral relations did not realize its full potential despite having a lot of opportunities for strengthening mutual cooperation on many areas. Both the countries have not undertaken any pragmatic approach till date.
One can easily understand this trend of bilateral relationship to look into the nature of transactions between the two countries. A local media report stated that Myanmar had exported over 8.5 million U.S. dollars’ worth of goods to Bangladesh through Maungtaw border point in the fiscal year
2011-12, up about 1.85 million USD from 6.65 million USD in 2010-11. Of the total, Myanmar’s import
from Bangladesh reached 692,000 USD while Myanmar’s export to Bangladesh stood at 7.8 million USD.
Myanmar exports to Bangladesh marine products, beans and pulses, and kitchen crops, while it imports from Bangladesh pharmaceuticals, ceramic, cotton fabric, raw jute, kitchenware and cosmetic. The main reason for the limited transactions was that businessmen of both the countries had been settling their payments for bulk shipments through bank drafts issued by foreign banks to a third country.
In January 2012, the state owned Sonali Bank of Bangladesh and the two other private banks were given permission for opening of Letter of Credit (LCs) facility to Myanmar. The other reason for this minimum interaction was that both the countries have failed to identify the areas from where they could achieve comparative advantage.
Myanmar, closed to the outside world for more than 50 years, showed few distinct patterns of behaviour in developing effective bilateral relations with Bangladesh. These distinct patterns of behaviour included the capitalization of Bangladesh’s geographical vulnerability, the reluctance to enter into meaningful bilateral
relationship, the stubborn attitude and behavior to solve bilateral disputes and more inclination towards India and China to harness benefits. Due to these reasons Bangladesh was discouraged to develop effective bilateral relations with Myanmar.
Although Bangladesh is aware about the potential of its Look-East Policy, it has, to date, failed to achieve anything by pursuing this policy with Myanmar. Despite having a close geographic proximity with Myanmar, there are no air links, no direct road connectivity, and no shipping links between the two countries. Therefore, it is high time to strengthen the economic and political interactions with that country. Bangladesh should understand Myanmar in the context of recent changes which have taken place there and the needs of the common people in that country. Bangladesh must find common issues to foster bilateral relations because cooperation with Myanmar has reached a paramount importance if Bangladesh wants to gain benefit through perusing its Look East Policy.
The Stateless Rohingyas
The Rohingya issue mostly affected the bilateral relationship since they have started entering into Bangladesh from 1978. Though Bangladesh officially accommodates 29,000 Rohingya refugees, different estimates suggest the number of the Myanmarese minorities living in and around Cox’s Bazar ranges between 2.5 and 5 lakh. It is a major concern for Bangladesh that Myanmar is reluctant to accept these persons as their citizens. They are now involved in drug trafficking, land grabbing, deforestation and commit other criminal offenses to lead their lives.
During the 70’s decade, Pakistan based militant organizations particularly Harkatul Jihad, getting financial help from the Middle Eastern countries, recruited some Rohingya refugees to fight against Soviet Union in Afganistan. These militants returned after the end of the Cold War organized three insurgent outfits named the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO) and Arakan Liberation Front (ALF) to launch insurgent operations inside the Rakhaine state of Myanmar. As they were operating from near the Bangladesh Myanmar border areas, Myanmar alleged that within Bangladesh, forces sympathetic to the causes of Rohingya did not oppose the militancy of the latter. They, on the contrary, came forward with arms and materials to help the Rohingyas fight against the security forces of both Myanmar and Bangladesh. However, the Rohingya issue starts affecting the security of both the countries which has become the main barrier in promoting bilateral relations with Myanmar. Policy makers in Myanmar have fear that this insurgency problem might escalate if any direct road link is to be established between the two countries. Bangladesh should undertake a policy of constructive engagement to erase this wrong apprehension from the mind of the policy makers in Myanmar.
The writer is Research Associate, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute

Source:  The Independent, 26 August 2015

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