Chair: Ranjit Gupta
Discussants: Y. M. Bammi and C. S. Kuppuswamy
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.
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; Bangladeshi trade delegation’s visit to Myanmar in 1998; Sr. Gen Than Shwe’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. But ironically, not much has been initiated by either side in this respect. 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 19,200 remain in Bangladesh. Smuggling of arms and ammunitions is considered another area in which both Myanmar and Bangladesh need to cooperate. Factors like recovering of arms and ammunition of the insurgent group Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Organization (ARSO) by the Bangladeshi Army and Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) in September 2005 and the recovering of a large amount of heavy weapons from the Naikhangchari sub-district in Bangladesh in the last eleven months clearly indicate lack of cooperation between Myanmar and Bangladesh in tackling smuggling issue.
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 Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMST-EC), the ARF, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum (BCIM).
Over the years, besides Rohingya and smuggling, issues like land border demarcation and maritime order demarcation have emerged as two major areas of friction. Tensions have arisen particularly over Myanmar’s planned construction of a 40 kilometre 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 area between the two countries, but also sent its naval vessel. Claims and counterclaims of the two neighbours in the Bay of Bengal continue to occur regularly.
It is quite interesting to note that in 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 neighbours, in case of its relations 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 resources. 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 shares 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 interest in the region until and unless we too start improving our relations with Myanmar. Besides, an amicable relationship with resource rich Myanmar will also help India to improve its energy security in the long run. However, it remains undeniably true that the success of New Delhi’s policy toward Myanmar would be incomplete if its objectives with regard to Bangladesh were undermined. Whether to tackle the growing insurgency problem in the region or to deal with rise of China, India needs to have a region wide comprehensive policy, including positive policies toward its immediate neighbours.
Important points raised in the discussion:
Prepared by Pranamita Baruah, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.