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Border tension between Bangladesh and Myanmar

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • August 22, 2014

    Bangladesh and Myanmar have had a not-too-stable a relationship on the border – both land and maritime. In 1980 an agreement on border cooperation was signed between the two countries. A verdict was subsequently obtained from the International Tribunal on the Law of the Seas in March 2012 concerning delineation of their common maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal and accepted by both the governments. This backdrop enabled deployment of respective border forces (Border Guards Bangladesh and Border Police Force of Myanmar) without provocative maneuverings and also peaceful exploration of hydrocarbons in the Bay of Bengal. However, tension had again flared up along the 270-km long land boundary in May this year, leading to killings of border guarding personnel on both sides and also some persons alleged to be from the Rohingya Security Organisation (RSO) – reportedly an anti-Myanmar militant outfit to protect Rohingya interests.

    Both the countries had thereafter interacted with each other to downplay the tension, but the overall situation does not seem to have returned to normalcy. In both Bangladesh and Myanmar, the ruling governments have numerous pressure groups and detractors to contend with. Therefore, an early resolution of the border problem seems difficult and irksome, particularly on ways to deal with the Rohingya refugees moving out of Myanmar in large numbers from Rakhine province. India has an interest towards containing the Rohingya issue, so that the refugee spillover do not disturb the political situation and economic conditions in the adjoining Indian states of Mizoram and Tripura and also adversely impinge on the security of other north-eastern states.
    Notwithstanding the recent bilateral differences between Bangladesh and Myanmar a broad measure of accommodative relationship has been prevailing between the two countries. The Rohingya problem, notwithstanding issues of human rights, can be permanently resolved only when devolution of politico-economic powers to regions dominated by different ethnic groups and their inter-se rights are settled within the framework of Myanmar`s Constitution and enacted within its ambit. This, however, appears unlikely in the next couple of years, at least before the next parliamentary elections in Myanmar in December 2015, considering that the Aung San Suu Kyi`s National League for Democracy and other political parties drawing upon the support of the dominant Burman ethnic community would not like to concede much to the Rohingyas.

    There are logical reasons for India to suitably intercede with both its neighours to facilitate an agreement on the border. There are geopolitical reasons for this. It is in India`s interest to avoid an emerging situation in which the Rohingyas in general or RSO takes to arms, develop tactical ground-level cooperation with other militant groups operating in India`s north-east and transgress into the north eastern states through Bangladesh territory. Hot pursuit of Rohingya militants – and in the process some incidental action against harmless Rohingyas fleeing from persecution of other Myanmarese ethnic groups and also state elements – by the Myanmar army across the disputed portions of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, will only exacerbate the existing border tension.

    A mediatory role by India may not be unwelcome by Bangladesh and Myanmar as both have friendly relations with India. On humanitarian grounds, New Delhi may try to subtly prevail upon the Myanmar to at least provide the Rohingyas rights to continue to reside in the places where they were originally settled, give them permits to work and earn their livelihood through their traditional economic activities, ie., without pressing for their political rights of citizenship. These concessions may be acceptable to the moderate ethnic Burmans if suitably advocated by the existing Myanmar state establishment. Spillover of persecuted Rohingyas from Myanmar to Bangladesh and also their forced eviction thereafter from Bangladesh is likely to lead to their eventual movement towards India to find shelter in the north-eastern states like Mizoram and Tripura, jeopardizing normal civic life and demographic balance.

    Relations between the military hierarchies of Bangladesh and Myanmar have been generally cooperative. It is the political attributes such as, latent sympathy of some political elements in the south-eastern districts of Bangladesh for the Muslim Rohingyas and the advocacy by the former of a strong stand by Dhaka on so-called border provocations by Myanmar army, which have caused the border tension. Given the political turnaround between Myanmar and Bangladesh, the border problem can be resolved to mutual satisfaction. Apart from the fencing issue, there is no major divergence of perception between the two countries on either delineation or demarcation of their common border. It is basically cross-border Rohingya refugee movements viewed as legitimate by one country and not by the other, and occasional RSO-related activity, which had caused the recent fracas. Therefore, it is pertinent to put in place a mechanism to jointly monitor these developments.

    If India can help facilitate normalization of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border related problem then its Look-East Policy also gets traction. Some beneficial outcome of India`s trade with Myanmar from the north-east region particularly Mizoram will be tangible. Active trade is expected to impact Maynmar’s upper and lower western regions, including Rakhine state, which is an economically backward and food scarce Rohingya homeland. However, tensions on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border will have adverse impact on the economic flows to Rakhine state located not far from the area of tension.

    The author is Shri Gautam Sen:(IDAS :Retd.), presently serving as Adviser (Finance) of India`s State Govt. of Nagaland.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India