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Myanmar – Bangladesh Relations: Challenges and Opportunities
By Myint Maung Tun — Senior Policy Officer, NCA-S EAO OFFICE, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand.
Bangladesh is one of the five countries that surround Myanmar. Myanmar and Bangladesh share a border approximately 271 kilometers long and the two countries are linked historically and socially. Nowadays, however, people from the two countries are not in close contact with each other. Connections between the two countries such as roads and railways are also very limited and not fully developed. Furthermore, although Myanmar and Bangladesh are in close proximity, they do not have close bilateral relations; instead, border tension occurs sporadically and Myanmar’s trade relations with Bangladesh are dramatically lower than those with other neighboring countries such as Thailand, India and China.
Myanmar became an open country at the end of its military regime in 2011and is marching towards prosperity. Meanwhile, Bangladesh, following the lead of India’s Look East policy, is looking for potential connections with Southeast Asian countries, and Myanmar is central to the Bangladeshi plan. In this regard, it is the right time for both Myanmar and Bangladesh not only to cement their relations and promote bilateral trade but also to solve longstanding issues like the Rohingya problem and the demarcation of borders. However, these steps have yet to happen. Hence, this paper aims to examine impediments that prevent Myanmar and Bangladesh from improving bilateral relations and explore the potential for future relations between the two countries.
When it comes to relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh, the Rohingya issue cannot be overlooked. This issue is rooted in history, and many people have raised the question of which country the Rohingya people belong to. Therefore, one of the objectives of this paper is to focus on the historical context of these issues and to discover possible solutions for them rather than to single out one country for criticism.
Bangladesh and Myanmar share a land border of approximately 271 kilometers(150 kilometers of which lie in hilly areas), and a maritime border (Kumar, 2016). The territories now known as Myanmar and Bangladesh interacted for centuries and there were well-established trade routes and free movement of peoples before the British era (Morshed, 2011). The British annexed Myanmar over the course of three Anglo-Burmese wars: the first Anglo-Burmese war broke out in 1824, followed by a second war in 1852 and a third in 1885. Arakan (present-day Rakhine State) included one of the oldest of the Burmese Kingdom’s territories, which the Burmese had to concede to the British after the first Anglo-Burmese war. This concession laid the foundation for close economic and social interactions between the old Chittagong Division of Bengal in British India (now in Bangladesh) and the Arakan region of Burma, which strongly conditions the dynamics of Bangladesh-Myanmar relations to this very day (Morshed, 2011).
Bangladesh gained independence from East Pakistan on December 16, 1971. Myanmar, was one of the first countries1 to recognize the independence of Bangladesh, ahead of the West European Powers. The two countries established diplomatic relations on March 21, 1972.2During the early years of Bangladesh’s independence, bilateral relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh improved significantly. For instance, Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Abdus Samad Azad, visited Myanmar in 1972 after Myanmar had recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign state. It was the first official visit by the Foreign Minister3 of Bangladesh to any country after India.4 In addition, in 1973, the Bangladesh government sent K.M. Kaiser5as its first ambassador to Myanmar. In return, Ne Win made his first visit to Bangladesh in the mid-1974. Many top level visits took place between the two countries until the period of President Thein Sein’s government which transformed Myanmar’s military government into a quasi-civilian government. However, over the last 40 years, bilateral relations between the two countries did not realize their full potential despite their having a lot of opportunities to strengthen mutual cooperation in many areas (Banik 2015). The following tables show the visits exchanged by the two countries.
Despite these visits, the bilateral relations between the two countries were not significantly better in later years compared to the 1970s. Moreover, bilateral trade relations between the two countries remained relatively poor when compared to trade relations with other neighboring countries. On this, H.E. the Bangladesh ambassador to Myanmar, Mr. Mohammad Sufiur Rahman commented in his interview with Mizzima media that:
Ever since Bangladesh came into being we had our internal problems related to democracy and development. We were also inward looking in many ways. And then, we were also more focused on our relations with the West for obvious reasons. I would be honest in admitting that Bangladesh could not do justice to its eastern neighbors. Meanwhile, Myanmar was inward looking from the very beginning, particularly after 1962. When Bangladesh tried to look east towards her neighbor Myanmar and develop friendship, I think Myanmar was not perhaps ready to reciprocate in the manner that was expected. So that was a problem that happened over three to four decades. Unfortunately, it didn’t get better due to lack of communication; misperception that rule that day(Mizzima, 2016).
The development of smooth and friendly bilateral relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh was hindered for several reasons. For example, the 8888 uprising in Myanmar and its aftermath caused the government to pay more attention to domestic affairs than to international relations. The country was under a military regime, isolated from the rest of the world for decades. The military government perhaps did not consider Bangladesh a potential trade partner for Myanmar. Besides, the longstanding Rohingya problem and maritime dispute also contributed to a freeze in bilateral relations. The maritime dispute was solved through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in March 2012 (Panday, 2012). The Rohingya issue, however, has yet to be solved and is pivotal for bilateral relations. Therefore, this issue will be further discussed later in this paper.
There are a number of areas where the two countries could cooperate in the future, including on drug trafficking, insurgency and climate change. The Myanmar government occasionally seizes huge amounts of drugs on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, which are assumed to be connected to drug traffickers on the Bangladesh side. On the other hand, insurgent groups have been stationed at the Myanmar-Bangladesh border for years. The existence of insurgent group on the border might be a barrier to promoting bilateral trade in the future. Therefore, the two countries need to cooperate to combat insurgencies. In addition to sharing a border, Bangladesh and Myanmar are two of the biggest victims of climate change (Foizee, 2016). One of the two countries is hit at least once a year by a cyclone. Therefore, the two countries could work together in order to address issues related to global environmental deterioration(Foizee, 2016).