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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Bangladesh-Myanmar relations: Strategic imperatives: Our Correspondent

Drug trafficking and drug abuse have emerged as one of the most serious organized crimes in Cox’s Bazaar, causing  incalculable costs on individuals, families, communities, and governments. Drug traffickers are also draining huge amount of money from Bangladesh to Myanmar through Hundi.
Media reports revealed that Myanmar’s businessmen have set up many factories in the Shan Province, near Thailand border, to produce YABA targeting the domestic market of Bangladesh. Bangladesh has already given a list of businessmen to Myanmar about who is involved in the smuggling of narcotics in the Bangladesh Myanmar border. If intelligence reports are to be believed the Nasaka is directly or indirectly involved in this profitable business and for this reason drug traffickers are easily crossing the border. Despite repeated appeals from Bangladesh, they did not take any action to dismantle these factories.
The main strategic objective of Bangladesh is to connect itself with China and other South East Asian countries using the territory of Myanmar. Bangladesh is also interested to boost up its trade with the North Eastern States of India. The geopolitical importance of Bangladesh will remain intact to India, China and other South Asian countries if it can become a bridge between South Asia and the South East Asian Countries.
The recent visit of the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Monmohan Singh to Myanmar might have slightly uplifted the geopolitical importance of that country. Myanmar has already undertaken three major port projects on the coast, one each in collaboration with India, China and Thailand. The first project is the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTT) which will be implemented by India revitalizing the abandoned Akyab port, presently known as Sittwe port, in the Rakhine state.
The main objective of India is to connect Mizoram, via the Kaladan River with this port. Further down the coast, also in Rakhine state, is the Kyaukphyu project of China. To the south east of the country in the Tanintharyi Division, Myanmar is building the Dawei port where Thailand as the lead nation for implementation. Under recent agreements with Dr. Monmohan Singh, India will be able to use this port in order to establish direct road connections with Thailand and other South East Asian countries.
India also envisages developing a trilateral highway project between India, Myanmar and Thailand, with a vision of inter-linking the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. It is a component of the Asian Highway, which is to be compleated by 2016. This trilateral highway project will be constructed in line with the Asian Highway one and two proposed by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (UNESCAP).
It is important to note that the construction of the third route via Bangladesh to Myanmar will largely depend on the consent of Myanmar. Bangladesh, therefore, needs to undertake robust diplomacy to get cooperation from Myanmar in order to open this route with an aim to connecting itself with the Asian Highway. Myanmar has emerged as the major competitor of Bangladesh in utilizing the advantage of geo strategic location as it is offering transit facilities to India, China and other south East Asian countries. Thus, with the coming of the Asian Highway, Myanmar will become the point of convergence as well as the linking route between India, China and the South-East Asia as ‘Myanmar has consistently opposed the southern route proposed by Bangladesh as part of Asian Highway for reasons of national security.’
As such, Myanmar has taken aggressive measures to foster economic development by promoting trade and foreign direct investment (FDI), power generation, oil exploration as well as strengthening rail, road, and air connectivity. These activities taken by Myanmar clearly indicate that this country wants to become the hub of business activities in the forthcoming years. ‘Myanmar’s fortunes, as reforms roll on, are likely to rest on how skillfully its leaders, whether military or civilian, can make use of their geography.’
Another significant feature is that Chinese and Indian companies are sometimes jointly working in various sectors of Myanmar. Meanwhile, Indian businesses
have already started participating in major Chinese projects in Myanmar. Punj Lloyd, an Indian Company, is the major subcontractor in the project to build an oil pipeline from the Bay of Bengal to Southwestern China.
India’s public companies, OVL and GAIL, have already ensured minority stakes in Myanmar’s offshore hydrocarbon development projects that will supply energy to China. The possibilities of rivalry between India and China on capturing the resources of Myanmar are decreasing at this moment. Realizing the geo-strategic and geo-economic importance of Myanmar, China and India have already ensured their presence in the development process of Myanmar where Bangladesh remains nowhere.
Bangladesh Myanmar relations are now at crossroads. Bangladesh needs to inculcate a sense of trust into the mind of the present government of Myanmar that the longstanding unresolved issues between these two countries would no longer create hindrances in promoting economic prosperity. This economic prosperity will harness mutual benefit for the common people of both the countries. The policy makers in Bangladesh need to address some common areas where both the countries can strengthen their cooperation.
In view of the present situation, Bangladesh should take some concrete steps to boost up ties with Myanmar. These steps include diversification of the export items of Bangladesh targeting the domestic market of Myanmar, establishment of a smooth channel of financial transactions as well as building direct road and air links between the two countries and signing of an inland water transport protocol.
To deepen connectivity between the two countries, Bangladesh can proceed with Myanmar in joint investment to build a hydroelectric project from where electricity could be supplied to Bangladesh. It can also set up a fertilizer plant under a joint investment where Myanmar might supply natural gas. Besides taking bilateral initiatives, Bangladesh should also be active to improve bilateral ties through certain regional and sub-regional forums, such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMST-EC), the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum (BCIM).
In her recent visit to Myanmar in December 2011, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina signed an agreement on the establishment of a Joint Commission for bilateral cooperation between the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and a Memorandum of Understanding on the establishment of a Joint Business Council (JBC) between the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI).
These steps are important but not enough in view of the present pace of transformation in the regional politics. The main strategic objective of Bangladesh is to connect itself with the Asian Highway through Myanmar.
The success of this will strongly depend on solid bilateral relations based on multifaceted economic and political cooperation between the two countries.
However, the prospect of this relationship depends on how Bangladesh can seize the opportunities to expand its relations with the present government of Myanmar. Bangladesh should learn the lessons from China and India and must undertake a pragmatic approach to foster cooperative efforts and interconnectivity which are considered as catalysts for economic growth and prosperity for the entire region.
The writer is Research Associate, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute

Source:  The Independent, 27 August 2015

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