POST TIME: 8 August, 2016 00:00 00 AM
Bangladesh-Myanmar relations
Bahauddin Foizee

Bangladesh-Myanmar relations

The history of relations among the people from some territories, which currently exist as the political entity of modern-day Bangladesh and Myanmar, dates back to centuries, with renewed elements added to the relations every now and then. As the communities around the globe are  globalizing, it would be disadvantageous for any country not to be proactive in seeking greater engagement with other countries, especially when it is a next door neighbour.  Therefore, the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent attempt of seeking greater engagement with its next door neighbour Myanmar is a pragmatic approach on the part of Bangladesh. Trade & investment (amid end of economic isolation for Myanmar), BCIM-EC (Bangladesh China India Myanmar Economic Corridor), environment, insurgency etc. are the areas where both sides may cooperate.
Shahidul Haque, Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary, met Myanmar’s State counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and conveyed, as Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s envoy,  a message that Bangladesh wants to forge friendship, good neighbourliness and close cooperation with neighbouring Myanmar in all areas of common interests. Daw Suu Kyi, famously known as Aung San Suu Kyi, responded with a sincere and warm gesture by expressing her government’s willingness to move forward bilateral relations with Bangladesh. Suu Kyi also emphasized that there should be frequent engagements between the two neighbours. She expressed her firmness sincerely when she said that no issues and incidents should distract the willingness of frequent engagements and increasing cooperation between the two countries. She feels that both neighbours should face all challenges jointly. Suu Kyi’s expressions somehow directed at the very idea that the relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar should not be hostage to any third party, be it any third state or any other non-state actors.
There is a vast scope for the bilateral relationship between Myanmar and Bangladesh. There are a number of areas where the two countries may cooperate and work together; the key area being the improvement of existing trade relations, which is not in good shape at the time being. Bangladesh has lot to gain from the improving trade relations with Myanmar amid end of international economic isolation for Myanmar. Since the international community, the West in particular, is depressurising Myanmar through withdrawing the economic sanctions imposed on the country, the intra-trade and inter-trade for Myanmar would increase by many times from the current scenario. With comparatively a sizable population, beautiful tourist-favoured atmosphere, vast natural (including energy) resources and a reasonably positive attention from the West, Myanmar is the appropriate destination for any country to invest heavily and make huge profits thereby. The fact that Bangladesh is the next door neighbour of Myanmar simply makes Myanmar the appropriate-most trade partner for Bangladesh.
Another scope for cooperation between the two countries is the proposed economic corridor among Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar that is famously addressed as ‘Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar Economic Corridor’ (BCIM-EC).The BCIM-EC initiative intends to connect the relevant countries through a network of airways, railways, roads and waterways. It is supposed to connect China’s Kunming (Yunnan province) to India’s Kolkata through Myanmar’s Mandalay, Bangladesh’s Dhaka and Chittagong and India’s Northeast. The BCIM countries are inhabited by 2/5 (two-fifth) of the planet’s human population and includes 21st century’s new superpower China. BCIM-EC is aimed at improving the relevant countries’ infrastructures, energy resources, agriculture and trade-&-investment. Since Bangladesh and Myanmar would be able to access the markets in India’s seven Northeast states and China’s Yunnan province through this BCIM-EC, both Bangladesh and Myanmar would become a lucrative destination for foreign direct investment. These two small countries may export their typical local products into the other two BCIM countries (China and India) that are big enough to consume them in no time. Moreover, as China would be developing the infrastructure of BCIM countries for its own economy’s sake, such voluntary infrastructure-buildup would help progress the potential economies of Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar, which are the major victims of climate change with the worst victimization still awaiting, may work together in order to address the issues related to the global environmental deterioration. Besides the major problems of poverty and illiteracy, Bangladesh and Myanmar’s vulnerability to environmental deterioration is very alarming. The overall economic developments of these two countries have been troubled to a considerable extent by the adverse effects of deteriorating global environmental conditions.
With flat and low-lying landscape, the coastal areas of Bangladesh and Myanmar are highly vulnerable to floods and storms.  Among the major impacts of the environmental deterioration – particularly of the global warming – the increasing rise in sea-level every year has been the most alarming one so far, with the possibility of submerging 6-8% of ‘flood-prone’ Bangladesh under water by 2030 (a prediction made in 2007 by the UK Department for International Development). Like Bangladesh, Myanmar could also lose a substantial percentage of its total coastal landmass under the sea water. From the 4th assessment report published by the International Panel on Climate Change or IPCC, it appears that a substantial portion of ‘flood-prone’ coastal areas of Myanmar is predicted to be submerged under water by 2050.
A substantial portion of the total population of Bangladesh and Myanmar live in the coastal areas, where majority of the population are affected, directly or indirectly, by coastal floods or tidal flows, salinity, tropical cyclones, erosion of river-bank etc. With the rise of sea-level “even by a metre”, Bangladesh and Myanmar could lose a substantial percentage of their total landmass under the sea water, turning millions of inhabitants living in the coastal areas of Bangladesh and Myanmar into climate refugees.
Another challenge posed to the relations between the two countries is the cross-border communication of general people from the two sides of Bangladesh and Myanmar. People to people connection between two sovereign countries is the most effective way to progress together and to keep a peaceful relationship between the concerned countries. This factor is particularly important when the concerned countries are neighbours. There was a smooth and vibrant relation between the people of both Bangladesh and Myanmar in the pre-Mughal era that continued till the British era. However, the post-British era saw degradation in the relationship between the people from both sides and circumstances only got worse when the Rohingya issue took the centre stage in shaping up Bangladeshis’ perceptions towards Myanmar. A large number of people from Bangladesh have some sort of anger against Myanmar because of the same. Solution to this problem would, without doubt, open the door to a smooth communication of people between the two sides.
A positive gesture was shown from Myanmar’s side in working for the solution of Rohingya issue during recent meeting between Suu Kyi and Shahidul Haque. The press release, which was made from Myanmar’s side after the meeting, highlighted Myanmar government’s firm resolve to find solutions to the challenges in the Rakhine State (regarding Rohingya issue) and elaborated various initiatives undertaken by the new government under the leadership, but not presidency, of Suu Kyi.
To add to the above mentioned problems concerning the bilateral relations (especially in respect to trade and investment) between the two neighbours, the insurgencies in Myanmar are  a burning issue. Among many insurgent groups in Myanmar, the notable ones are: the Kachin insurgents in the north of Myanmar, the Karenni insurgents in the east of Myanmar, the Karen insurgents in the south and the southeast of Myanmar and the Arakanese/Rohingya insurgents in the west of Myanmar. The Arakanese insurgents and other small insurgent groups in Shan state, who are likely to be aided by the Kachin insurgents, would perhaps be the major challenge for the uninterrupted use of the proposed BCIM-EC route within Myanmar.
Myanmar has been at armed conflict with these insurgent groups for decades and all sides have suffered way too much loss to carry on the fighting much longer. That is why Myanmar’s government has repeatedly tried to reach ceasefire agreement with the insurgents and attempted to persistently work for peaceful settlement.
Most of the times, the ceasefires that were maintained by all sides were short lived. This time, although a ceasefire deal has been reached at the last quarter of 2015 under previous government and this ceasefire has been largely continuing until now under the current newly formed government, it appears from the precedents of previous occasions that the ceasefire is unlikely to hold for much longer.
Insurgencies in Myanmar have the potential to become barriers to the trade between Bangladesh and Myanmar as both (i) the commercial consignments from Bangladesh to Myanmar (and vice versa) and (ii) the Bangladeshi future business interests in Myanmar may well be under attack from insurgent groups unless the Myanmar’s government take appropriate initiatives to neutralize the conflicts.
With regard to Bangladesh and Myanmar’s case in BCIM-EC, there are few challenges to make it operational: (i) armed insurgencies in Myanmar; (ii) lack of people to people communication; (iii) the Rohingya issue; (iv) sincerity from governments; & (v) adversarial relationship between China and India.
Bangladesh and Myanmar may work for reducing the mistrust between China and India, making it easier for these two Asian giants to cooperate with each other in order to make the BCIM-EC a reality. Moreover, taking a step towards genuine solution regarding the Rohingya issue would likely to normalize and smoothen the communication between the people from both sides. Since Bangladesh and Myanmar governments have good relations, a good relation between the general mass from both sides would help to make ideas like BCIM-EC to become operational and, thereby, functional.
On the environmental front, both Bangladesh and Myanmar should make sure that the climate conferences at global stage should not just focus entirely on climate issues, but also should set practically applicable measures and a constructive framework, with the genuine intension to ensure reduction of environmental deterioration.
For Bangladesh, the only relevant thing that is to be taken into account is that there are immense economic opportunities for Bangladesh within Myanmar. There should be no concern on Bangladesh’s part as to who runs the show in Myanmar, be it the military, the semi-civilian establishment or the proper civilian one. Instead, Bangladesh should push for closer ties with Myanmar irrespective of who holds Myanmar’s power. With the transfer of power from a military government to a semi-civilian one in 2011, Myanmar went on board towards economic liberalization. Although military setup in Myanmar’s Constituent Assembly still remains strong, this year’s election (2016) enabled a (mostly) civilian government to arise into the Myanmar’s decision making structure, strengthening the way towards further economic liberalization.
Since international isolating for Myanmar ended, opportunities have emerged for other countries to earn billions from exporting to, and investing in, Myanmar. Therefore, being one of the five neighbours of Myanmar, Bangladesh should try to grab such opportunities, should bolster its relations with Myanmar and take the benefit of Myanmar’s economic liberalization.
The writer, who teaches law at DCLE (Dhaka Centre for Law and Economics), is a researcher at BiLD (Bangladesh Institute of Legal Development)