Bangladesh-Myanmar relations: Open all windows to look East

Bangladesh foreign relation is often denounced for one-eyed confiscated approach or one-sighted approach – none of which is conducive to a country’s economic advancement. Elsewhere looking east to enhance trading with South East Asian countries can be potential windows of hope for multipurpose development. Yes it is Myanmar, member of ASEAN, bordered with economic giant China, Thailand and Cambodia, the next door of Bangladesh after India. Geographically, Myanmar exists at a potential point that can be a new skyline of Bangladesh to extend connectivity with ASEAN countries, a fast growing economic zone after European Union.

A recent photograph

A recent photograph

Very unfortunately, Bangladesh-Myanmar bilateral relations never bloomed not only for indolence of Bangladesh, but also because of absence of a democratic govern­ment in Myanmar. It was under the military rule for approximately 49 years out of 68 since 1948. Currently Myanmar’s return to democracy with the country’s first free presidential election and winning of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in November 2015 has radiated rays of hope for Bangladesh to reinstall multipurpose relation. Nobel laureate Suu Kyi has chosen for Foreign Minister certainly would play key politico role besides President Mr Htin Kyaw.

Nevertheless, China has developed a cohesive economic relation even with previously military government exceedingly and makes it China’s largest trading space. But Bangladesh-Myanmar mutually shares apparently 271 km long boarder and prolonged historical, social and cultural coexistence. It is the 7th country who recognized independence of Bangladesh in 13 January 1972. People from the Chittagong area and adjacent districts in eastern Bangladesh routinely travelled to Myanmar, intermarried, conducted business and travelled to other parts of the world together.

Therefore it is potential time for Bangladesh to enhance engagement with Myanmar to improve and resolve several issues like emerging global terrorism, sovereign security, migration problems, bilateral trade and investment, education and regional connectivity.

Bangladesh and Myanmar border is now under severe threats by insurgency, transnational terrorism by several separatist and militant groups like Arakan Liberation Army (ALA), India’s ULFA, Maoist and UPDS actively operating militancy, intended, using both land, that exceeding vulnerability of sovereign security. On October 4, 2015, ALA abducted two Bangladeshi tourists along with their local guides from Bandarban area and again on September 5, 2015 and engaging in conflict with Bangladesh Army. Elsewhere frequent lunacy escalation and gunfights between Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and Border Guard Police (BGP) (of Myanmar) and recent abduction of BGB troops gratuitously often happening due to previously absence of a legitimate democratic government in Myanmar and poor relation between two countries.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 32,000 registered Rohingya refugees, Myanmar nationals, living in two camps of Cox’s Bazar district, and around 200,000-500,000 undo­cumented refugees living in the adjoining areas including the CHT due to routine harassment at the hands of the Myanmar government and killing attack by Buddhist extremists. Despite international assurance, a dense bilateral relation between Bangladesh-Myanmar can bring a sustainable solution to the crisis. Encouraging Rohingya to migrate and seek asylum cannot be a solution. Migration is ultimately making Myanmar Rohingya free and accelerating oppressors’ victory. Elsewhere small Bangladesh, within 142.3 million people with poor economy, cannot afford such large refugees. It is Myanmar’s legal rational obligation to take Rohingya back to their home and ensure their safety and security irrespective of any race, colour, cast and creed.

Bangladesh has no direct bus, train, air or shipping communication with Myanmar that is indeed unprecedented in the era of globalization. To activate Bangladesh’s look-east policy Myanmar is an ultimate window to entry into ASEAN market. Not only one road, but several roads at Cox’s Bazaar (Teknaf point), Thanchi-Modok-Likree, Alikadam-Poamu­huri-Likree points can be developed. Unfortunately after 2007 the 25-km Bangladesh-Myanmar friendship road at Balukhali-Gundum points in Cox’s Bazar is yet to be ready. Recently India, Myanmar and Thailand (IMT) are now negotiating signing of a motor vehicle agreement; Bangladesh’s scope will also be created to be integrated into the agreement.

The 54-kilometer long turbulent Naf-river bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar, has now been the world’s busiest drug-trafficking route. Yaba is a name of drug, a damaging threat to youths which basically comes from Myanmar with the help of both countries’ VIPs and local people under the shade of political leader. Like Mr Mohammad Bodi, a Teknaf (Cox’s-Bazar-4) MP from ruling Awami League, is known as ‘Yaba raj’, widely convicted for the drug smuggling. The Daily Prothom Alo reported (21 January 2014) that Bodi is considered the main yaba agent in Bangladesh who made billions of taka through drug trafficking. Government’s strict exertion is urgently required to stop drug smuggling.

Bangladesh is suffering from growing food scarcity and shortage of cultivable land. Myanmar is primarily agricultural country where a large portion of cultivable land remains unused due to lack of investors, shortage of finance and government restriction. Bangladesh government or business magnate can buy or take lease from Myanmar government to grow agricultural product. Interestingly BRAC, the country’s leading and world’s largest NGO, has already started its operation in Myanmar. Bangladesh suffers from imbalanced trade relation with Burma.

According to national economic review in last fiscal year 2014-15 Bangladesh exported is worth $25.08 million to Myanmar and imported $31million. Bangladesh’s major export to Myanmar include frozen food, chemical products, agro-products, jute goods, leather, knitwear, rice, fish, lentils and timber. Elsewhere Myanmar imports live animal, prepared foodstuffs, vegetable products, plastics, leather, articles of woods, footwear textiles, etc.

Different social policies like opening scholarship and joint programmes at universities can be good strategy to condense friendship at the root level. Alongside trade fair, joint security patrolling at boarder, free or easy visa opportunity, establishing school, hospital and RMG factories in Rakhine (Arakan) state can be initiated. So both governments indeed need an inclusive mind, intellectual stimulation, frequent officials tour, professional engage­ment with academi­cians, finding out the potential available scopes for investment, mutual trust and respect, not to be misguided by another neighboring country. Sufficient budget for regional connectivity, mutual sharing of ideas and thoughts can be complementary to bilateral relations.

Nevertheless, Bangladesh needs a good relation with China. Because Myanmar is highly dependent and influenced by China, which conducted several development programmes like new Capital Nypidwo.

The article is written by Mohammad Azizul Houqe, Research Fellow of BIPD. The article originally published in The Independent.