ONE of the mechanisms of injecting momentum and dynamism into relations between the two neighbours has been the holding of meetings at the level of foreign secretary. The scheduled 8th such meeting in Dhaka on 31st August, between Bangladesh and Myanmar, is to be most welcomed.
The main purpose of the meeting, I would argue, is to remove whatever misgivings Myanmar has about Bangladesh and adopt confidence building measures with Myanmar to put bilateral relations on a positive track. Cooperation on other issues should then move forward quickly.
Since 1972, there have been many initiatives and about ten agreements between the countries to improve relations, but nothing moved. There seem to be deep-seated misunderstandings between the two countries. Some originated in colonial times when many Bangladeshi nationals controlled the economy of Myanmar.
In modern times the rise of Islamic extremism is perceived as a threat to Myanmar. Since March 2011, the reformist President of Myanmar U Thein Sein opened the doors of Myanmar for foreigners and introduced democratic and economic reforms inside the country.
The Prime Minister of Bangladesh visited Myanmar in 2012 and thereafter Bangladesh took many initiatives to improve relations but did not get enthusiastic response from Myanmar. To this day, for example, Myanmar remains cool regarding road connectivity between the two countries, even though Bangladesh wanted to provide funds for the project.
There are certain issues which generate tensions between the two countries. First is the Rohingya issue and although Bangladesh refers the refugees from Myanmar as Rohingyas who live along the border of the two nations, Myanmar does not recognise any person as Rohingya.
The Rohingya issue should not be seen merely as a refugee problem with humanitarian dimension partly because many Rohingya organisations have been reportedly fighting for decades for a separate land in Rakhine state. Bangladesh is totally against this movement as it firmly believes in the territorial integrity of Myanmar. Given this, both countries need to identify the root causes of the issue and jointly develop an effective border management to prevent the flow of Rohingyas into Bangladesh.
An idea is floated whether Rohingyas could be moved from the border region and distributed over other areas in Bangladesh. So long they live near the Myanmar border, tension will occur because there are many undesirables among them who are reported to be involved in trans-border anti-social conduct. Secondly, Myanmar is also witnessing increased cases of religious intolerance. In spite of its rich cultural heritage and legacy of socio-religious harmony, present-day Myanmar is surely not the best place for its religious minorities. The worst part is that some discriminatory laws against minorities are reportedly being backed by radical Buddhist monks (collectively known as the Mabatha), and there have been petitions signed by as many as 1.3 million people calling for elimination of Muslims from the country. Thirdly, there appears to be no government level structured security cooperation between the two countries and on many occasions, border tension has risen including the kidnapping and killing of a policeman from Bangladesh.
It is reported that Bangladesh will make a formal proposal for security dialogue and discuss a coordinated border management plan. If this is agreed, many of the prickly issues relating to the border would be resolved. It is good to note that Bangladesh Biman now flies out to Myanmar from Dhaka twice a week since last December and negotiations of a coastal shipping agreement is at the final stage. This will facilitate trade between the two countries.
The amount of bilateral trade is meager-only a few hundred millions. It can reach easily to one billion dollar. For this to occur the ceiling for transaction value must be increased per consignment and payment could be made through the Asian Clearing Union. There is a report that Myanmar wants to set up a wholesale market with Bangladesh and hold trade fairs near the border to increase bilateral trade. Myanmar has similar markets and trade fairs with China and Thailand. Bangladesh has also such markets (hats) on the border with India and it has been beneficial to the people of both sides. Furthermore, this will stop the illegal smuggling of goods between the two countries.
It may be recalled that Myanmar, which recognized Bangladesh on 13th January, 1972, was the 7th country to do so and Bangladesh remembers this friendly gesture. Bangladesh shares 271 km border with Myanmar- both land and water. The border shares the boundary Naaf River between the two countries. Bangladesh is adjacent to two states of Myanmar-Rakhine and Chin.
Both nations are interested in establishing the economic corridor known as BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar) and both are members of BIMSTEC which is currently considering free trade area among the members in other development sectors. The diplomatic dialogue between the two will hopefully be able to create an environment in which both Bangladesh and Myanmar will be best of friends. Bangladesh may deepen its relations with Myanmar with a visit of the President of Myanmar U Thein Sein to Dhaka.
The writer is Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva