By Joseph Allchin
Construction of a railway linking southern Bangladesh to neighbouring Arakan state in Burma has started as part of Dhaka’s goal for better connectivity with China.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina officially opened the construction project yesterday in the coastal town of Cox’s Bazaar. The $US255 million transport link is part of a broader initiative that Bangladesh hopes will connect its second city and major port, Chittagong, with China – another plank in a web of infrastructure that aims to increase connectivity in the region.
Both Bangladesh and Burma have seemingly gravitated towards China, with billions of dollars offered for such infrastructure projects and the possibility that they could tap into expected demand for out-sourced labour in industries such as garments.
China meanwhile prizes both southern nations for the links they provide to the Indian Ocean, meaning its inevitable rivalry with India rumbles on.
The railway line will connect Bangladesh and Burma at the Gundum border crossing, south of Chittagong. In August Qin Guangrong, governor of China’s southwestern state of Yunnan, visited Bangladesh to discuss the transport link, a project that Hasina seems keen on.
But complaints over rail construction near the historic Arakan site of Mrauk Oo stoked anger amongst locals last year. Among them was the chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Democratic Party (RNDP), Dr. Aye Maung, who told DVB: “Constructing railways is beneficial for the region and its inhabitants, but they should be constructed in a way that is not harmful to religious buildings in ancient archaeological zones.”
Relations between Burma and Bangladesh have fluctuated in recent years, with rights to lucrative gas blocks in the Bay of Bengal sparking tensions over maritime territorial claims. In 2009, two oil companies exploring in supposedly Bangladeshi waters claimed they were being “intimidated” by 12 Burmese warships that had approached their location.