Rebuilding confidence with Myanmar


by Md. Masum Billah Of recent several bitter incidents and apprehensions took place between the Bangladesh-Myanmar borders putting Bangladesh into diplomatic concern. The Myanmar army turned up in Mongu and Alitanjo to evict ethnic Muslim Rohingyas from their ancestral homeland. They forcibly acquired around 1000 acres of arable land and distributed it among the Buddhist citizens of Mongdu town. The authority has also told the Rohingyas to go to the hills or to take refuge in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has experienced a small but regular infiltration of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar in recent months. They speak of terrors being unleashed on them by Myanmar troops as in 1988 with the aims of completely flushing the Arakn clean of Rohingya Muslims who have been living there for centuries and should be treated as full Myanmar citizen like the others. Tensions have arisen particularly over Myanmar`s planned construction of a 40 kilometer fence along the border, ostensibly to check cross-border smuggling. Recently in October 2008 a standoff between Myanmar and Bangladesh occurred when Myanmar not only permitted a South Korean ship to explore natural gas in the disputed vessel. Claims and counterclaims of the two neighbors in the Bay of Bengal continue to occur regularly. What Myanmar could not accomplish in the sea because of the relative weakness of its navy, it may seek to compensate on the rough through its army that outnumbers Bangladesh by nearly three to one. Reportedly, Myanmar is building a new naval cum military base at a place called Mutek facing the Bay of Bengal and very near Bangladesh. Heavy military arsenals have been also mobilized. The preparations are certainly not of a defensive type but smack of aggressive intensions. It could well be that Rangoon would set the stage for a direct clash on the land borders to avenge their humiliation on the sea. During the 1980s when Myanmar was the largest opium producer in the world, the basic goal behind Myanmar Bangladesh bilateral relationship was to cooperate in anti-drugs cooperation. But over the years, the relationship started facing a lot of complications with the emergence of issues like maritime border demarcation, Rohingya refugees and drug trafficking.

Diplomatic relations between any two countries are based on their national interests. And if such two countries in question happen to be neigbours , then the issues in question become more sensitive. But there is no reason that the existing problems should overshadow the further growth in the relation between the two countries. The building of 25-kilometre long road within Myanmar by Bangladesh, about which the Myanmar government has reportedly shown fresh interest, is certainly a development worth nothing. The prospect of further extension of the road through Myanmar territory up to the Chinese border, if materialized in the mutual interest of the three countries will contribute immensely towards taking the existing level of relation and cooperation among the three countries to a newer heights.

Bangladesh has a population that is more than three times the population of Myanmar. The contrast becomes sharper seeing that rich in natural resources with 16 percent cent of its land area under cultivation and 52 percent of its land covered with forest, let alone the mineral resources lying below the surface of the earth. Bangladesh enjoys certain advantages over Myanmar in terms of expertise in different fields with that she may draw on to a lower cost compared to other developed and developing countries. But the more important argument in favour of such cooperation at an enhanced level is that the two peoples have a long history of close cultural relation and exchange. The political will of the two governments would play here the key role in maintaining the pace of further growth of trade and commerce between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

As far as economic aspect of Myanmar-Bangladesh relationship is concerned , the signing of the border trade agreement of May 1994 legalizing the informal border trade between the two states, the inauguration of Teknaf-Maungdaw trade in September 1995, Bangladesh trade delegations` visit to Myanmar in 1998, Sr. Gen. Than Shawe`s visit to Bangladesh in December 2002 and consequent agreement between the parties to cooperate in road and water transportation , can be pointed out as significant developments.

However, on strategic issues, a lot remains to be done. The very fact that Myanmar-Bangladesh border offers a safe haven to terrorist organizations in the region makes it necessary for both countries to cooperate in counter insurgency activities. The refugee problem in Myanmar is another significant aspect which needs to be addressed adequately by both Myanmar and Bangladesh. According to a recent estimate even today around 19200 remain in Bangladesh. Smuggling of arms and ammunitions is considered another area in which both countries need to cooperate. Despite lack of cooperation on certain strategic issues, both Myanmar and Bangladesh have been trying to improve bilateral ties through certain regional and sub-regional forums such as the Bay of Bengal initiatives for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation the ARF, the Bangladesh China India Myanmar Forum.

The Myanmar government`s renewed interest in the tri-nation network has breathed new life into the prospect of a wider window of relations with its Southwest Asian neighbor. The earlier proposed idea of building a 25-kilometre road link between the two countries was a leap forward towards developing a stronger bond of relationship between the two neighbors.

But some past as well as recently arising developments like the disputes over maritime boundary between the two reighbours in the Bay of Bengal that led to a brief face- of over exploration of gas, the building of border fence by Myanmar along the common border between the two countries without consulting with Bangladesh, the fresh influx of Myanmar minority Muslims into Bangladesh due to their alleged persecution by the authorities there stand in the way of good neighbourly relationship. It is quite interesting to note that the case of Myanmar-Bangladesh relations, the demographic factor plays quite a different role. Over the years while flow of refugees from Bangladesh has been a source of trouble for its neighbors, in case of its relation with Myanmar, Bangladesh is the affected party. The burden of refugees seems to be particularly high in case of Bangladesh due to its poor economic condition and limited resource. In addition, there are constant assessments that some of the refugees may be associated with terror groups.

For India, both Bangladesh and Myanmar have their own special significance from geopolitical as well as strategic points of view. On the Indian side terrorism prone states like Arunachal, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram share border with Myanmar. The problem of insurgency and economic underdevelopment in this region cannot be addressed adequately without India`s cooperation with Myanmar on these issues.

Indo- Myanmar relationship is also significant due to India`s emphasis on Look East Policy. Growing Myanmar China relations may affect India`s improving our relations with Myanmar.

Bangladesh needs to take extra caution and subtle diplomatic policy as some international political analysts say that Myanmar cannot be trusted with sensible pacific intensions. If it were otherwise, then it would not push into Bangladesh as many as 3000000 Muslims of Myanmar origin from it Arakan state in 1988 after inflicting tortures on them in a manner not much different from the ethnic cleansing of the Muslims in Bosnia by the Serbs. They attribute to the fact that Myanmar is no democracy or a pluralistic society where clamour for human rights, adherence to international norms and standards have any chance of a patient observance. It is one of the few Stalinist type bastions of totalitarian governance in the world today. Ruled by a bunch of xenophobic generals whose instincts are further faced by ugly racialism? Myanmar today is pariah state in the international sense. But the country has the largest military in south east Asia and the fanaticism of its leaders to be guided by no reason in dealing with outsiders. And these dealing make it dangerous for any neigbouring country to be tangled in bitter confrontation with it.

But the highest stress on Bangladesh`s part to counter Myanmar`s aggressiveness should be put on diplomacy. China has the greatest influence on Myanmar at present.

China also is a friend of Bangladesh. Bangladesh must use its China card to restrain the generals in Rangoon from indulging in any misadventure against it. It should also seek to apply all other forms of international pressure on Myanmar to rethink its aggressive plans against Bangladesh. But everything should be done in peaceful, ingenious and subtle ways. The renowned nineteenth century American columnist and orator Wendel l Phillips said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. Bangladesh must understand its meaning.


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