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Myanmar’s Relations with Bangladesh since 1988

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  • May 15, 2009
    Fellows' Seminar

    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:

    • It is necessary to analyze if the bilateral relationship between Myanmar and Bangladesh has undergone any tremendous change after the end of the Cold War. In this context, China’s role, in particular, should be taken into account.
    • Emphasis should be given on how China has been trying to develop its relationship with both Bangladesh and Myanmar on economic and strategic issues.
    • There is a need to highlight the role of China as a decision maker as well as middleman over the years in the context of both Myanmar and Bangladesh. At the same time, the possible role of China in those two countries in the future also should be analyzed.
    • The paper needs to analyze how having China with veto power in the UN has helped in furthering Myanmar’s cause in the world affairs.
    • The paper also needs to analyze how China is playing the role of a stabilizer in the bilateral relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
    • It is necessary to highlight the constraints in improving the bilateral relationship between India and Myanmar.
    • The paper discusses Myanmar-Bangladesh relations from both regional as well as bilateral standpoints. However, it has not talked much on growing Indo-Myanmar relations on various aspects, especially on military issues.
    • As Myanmar is quite a resource rich country while Bangladesh imports most of such resources, the paper needs to analyze how both Myanmar and Bangladesh can take advantage of that aspect in improving their bilateral relationship.
    • The paper needs to discuss China’s role in the improvement of Myanmar-Bangladesh relations
    • Rohingya refugee problem is a significant issue in Myanmar-Bangladesh relations and so, an elaborate discussion on the issue is necessary. Indian perspective to this issue needs to be discussed as Rohingya problem offers breeding ground for Islamic terrorism.
    • While elaborating Rohingya issue, the paper needs to take into account Myanmar’s ruling junta’s refusal to recognize Rohingya people as an ethnic group of Myanmar. In this context, strong hatred of most people in Myanmar toward Muslim community should be discussed.
    • The paper needs to dwell upon the obstacles in improving Bangladesh-Myanmar trade relations. This will help in studying constraints on Indo-Myanmar trade relations as well. In this context, issues like weak working banking system, restrictions on visas to Bangladeshis as well as Indians, artificial exchange rate, etc., should be taken into consideration.
    • The paper needs to mention the recent evolution of an idea known as the ‘growth triangle’ incorporating Myanmar, Bangladesh and India, which, if implemented, will definitely help in improving the relations among the three countries.
    • The border dispute between Myanmar and Bangladesh should be addressed as a border management problem. At the same time, an analysis should be made on why border demarcation has not proved to be that much of a problem between India and Myanmar while the issue of border demarcation between Myanmar and Bangladesh remains a highly disputed issue.

    Prepared by Pranamita Baruah, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.