By Anand Kumar*
Bangladesh and Myanmar share about 271 kilometres of land border, of which around 150 kilometres lie in hilly areas, as well as a maritime border. In the past, their relationship has been marked by tensions due to border disputes and dispute over the migration of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. On occasion, these have even led to armed skirmishes between their border guards. A major standoff had also emerged when Myanmar tried to conduct exploration activities in the formerly disputed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZs) and Bangladesh responded by sending three naval vessels. Although the dispute over the maritime border demarcation was resolved through international arbitration, the chill in the bilateral relationship had persisted. But the coming to power of a democratic government in Myanmar has significantly altered the political situation within that country and has also provided an opportunity to improve bilateral relations with Bangladesh.
In the past, especially after the 1962 coup, successive military-led governments in Myanmar were driven by narrow national sentiments. They emphasised upon military solutions to, rather than political resolutions of, bilateral problems with neighbouring countries. This situation has somewhat changed after the November 2015 elections, which resulted in a landslide victory for the National League of Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Now, Myanmar has a new president in Htin Kyaw, who is also the first elected civilian leader in more than 50 years. He took charge from Thein Sein who had introduced wide-ranging reforms. Suu Kyi could not become president because of constitutional restrictions that prohibit citizens with a foreign spouse and/or children from holding the high office. Instead, she has taken charge of the foreign ministry, though most people consider her as the de-facto president.
Suu Kyi as foreign minister wants to end Myanmar’s five decade old international isolation through a policy of opening up. This change in approach has the potential to bring about a major shift in Myanmar’s relations with Bangladesh and end decades of mistrust. The Myanmar-Bangladesh relationship was bedevilled in the past by the Rohingya issue, dispute over the maritime boundary and dispute over the Naf river boundary. Now, out of these three disputes, only the dispute over the eviction of the Rohingyas from Myanmar remains. In the last few years, Myanmar has come to see Bangladesh through the prism of the Rohingya issue and Bangladesh has come to see Myanmar through the prism of Rakhine state from where this minority group has fled sectarian violence and taken shelter in Bangladesh. There is now a realization in Myanmar that these prisms need to be changed. It seems that Bangladesh is also willing to carry the relationship forward by keeping the refugee issue aside.
Myanmar’s wish to improve relations with Bangladesh can be discerned in the statements of various senior leaders of the NLD. U Tin Oo, the most trusted patron of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, sees “no dispute” with Bangladesh after the demarcation of the Naf River and maintains that the new government in Myanmar wants to build “cordial relations” with all neighbours, including Bangladesh. The Secretary of the Foreign Relations Committee of Myanmar Parliament Bo Bo Oo has also stated that the new government wants to maintain good ties with Dhaka.
Bangladesh has also been quick to recognise the political change in Myanmar. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was the first world leader to congratulate Suu Kyi on her landslide victory. Bangladesh realises that the relationship with the new Myanmar is of strategic importance. Myanmar has a strategic location and is also resource rich. It is a gateway to China and South-East Asia. Besides, Myanmar can also be a potential supplier of natural gas, given that the much hyped gas reserves of Bangladesh have not been able to meet domestic demand. Now, Bangladesh hopes to import gas from the Shwe gas field in Myanmar. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar, along with India and China, are already working on the BCIM corridor. It has been suggested that this corridor would improve the condition of 400 million people living in the sub-region. Besides, Bangladesh also wants to develop a rail network from Chittagong to Kunming via Myanmar.
To achieve these objectives, Bangladesh has to improve relations with Myanmar and it is taking several steps in this regard. One of these is the resort to public diplomacy. Bangladesh is attempting to highlight the cultural linkages between the people of the two countries. In this regard, the Bangladesh embassy organised a programme to celebrate the Bangla New Year at the chancery in Yangon where a number of high profile ruling party politicians were present. In this programme, an attempt was made to highlight the common cultural aspects between the Bangladeshi tribal population living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the people of Myanmar living in Rakhine state. Bangladesh tribal cultural troupes, mostly from Marma, Chakma and Tripura tribes, performed in the programme.
Bangladesh has also allowed Myanmar’s frigate to use the Naf River to go into its part of the lake. The frigate stayed in Myanmar waters bordering Cox Bazar for a month before going back. Talks are underway to ink formal mechanisms for holding security dialogues and establishing border liaison offices.
For its part, the new government of Myanmar wants to observe the principle of Panchshila to foster peaceful coexistence between the two countries. It also wishes to improve the volume of bilateral trade, which stands at less than USD 100 million. Like Bangladesh, Myanmar too hopes to improve connectivity through the BCIM corridor.
For both Myanmar and Bangladesh, neighbourhood policy has become a priority. Bangladesh’s relations with its biggest neighbour India is said to be the best ever. Bangladesh now also wants to remove the chill in its bilateral relations with its other neighbour, Myanmar, so that it can reap economic benefits. Though the foreign policy of Myanmar remains unchanged under the new government, the technique to deal with problems has changed. Now there is a greater emphasis on political resolution to problems. However, at the same time, both sides are realistic and aware that the existing barriers would not vanish in a day. Nevertheless, the two countries are making efforts to reach out to each other to foster better bilateral ties.
*Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India. Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://idsa.in/idsacomments/bangladesh-myanmar-ties_akumar_180516