Is Myanmar the new gunslinger in town?
The 'body language' of our neighbour resembles that of a trigger happy gunslinger who comes to town with a bad attitude. For quite some time now, Myanmar has been flouting diplomatic norms as well as showing total disdain for common civility that a country maintains with its neighbour. Before looking back at their many acts of misdemeanour in the past, we can reflect on what has been happening at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border since June 17.
On that day, without provocation of any sort, some Border Guard Police (BGP) personnel of Myanmar swooped down on a regular patrol team of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) on the Naf River and opened fire. The shooting left some members of the BGB team injured and in the scuffle that followed, BGP personnel forcefully took away one BGB member named Razzak to their camp. But, instead of handing over Razzak to the Bangladesh authorities, after lodging a complaint if there was any, Myanmar authorities kept him in confinement in their camp. The shocking part of the story is that they even released a photograph in the social media showing Razzak in handcuffs, with dried blood on his face. Such attacks on and subsequent treatment of the members of the border force of a neighbouring country undoubtedly cancels out all forms of diplomatic decency. Dhaka has very rightly termed the incident "unfriendly towards a neighbouring country and a clear departure from diplomatic norms". But it leaves us wondering what the Myanmar army would have done, had our men picked up one of their men and kept him in confinement in such deprecating manner.
We understand Dhaka is taking diplomatic measures to bring back the BGB man, but the Myanmar government has not come out clearly with an explanation as to why he is kept in confinement and what they intend to do with him. Though Myanmar has sent messages on June 22 that Razzak would be released soon, Bangladesh considers the attitude unacceptable, and not befitting a "good and friendly neighbour." We may recall that last Thursday, the foreign ministry of Bangladesh had summoned the Myanmar Ambassador in Dhaka, and demanded the immediate return of the BGB man.
It is learnt from the media that Bangladesh Ambassador to Myanmar Sufiur Rahman has been doing his part by meeting high-ups in Myanmar and handing over a protest note.
The sudden and rash move by the Myanmar border police has given rise to much speculation. People at all levels are talking about possible ire of the Yaba smugglers of Myanmar behind the attack on the BGB patrol team. BGB's tough stance against smuggling of Yaba from Myanmar was making it difficult for them to do their illegal business across the borders. The shocking revelation came out in a report in this daily that "there are at least 37 Yaba factories on the Myanmar border, and BGP personnel not only know about those, but also facilitate illegal smuggling of Yaba to Bangladesh. And a section of BGP men have close ties with smuggling syndicates."
A look back
The relation between the two neighbours has never been as smooth as it was expected to be in the last 40 years. Myanmar's complex internal power structure and its use of the various forces in uniform with total impunity made it difficult for many countries to maintain a normal relation with it. Bangladesh has always been at the receiving end of roguish behaviour of this neighbour but it never retaliated with similar kind of waywardness. Bangladesh always believed in and pursued diplomatic guidelines to solve certain nagging issues that contributed to souring bilateral relations. Among them are: the influx of Rohingya refugees, Myanmar's refusal to accept them as their citizens, demarcation of land and maritime boundary and illegal drug trafficking. The two countries came close to war in 1991 when Myanmar's army units came inside our territory and launched a surprise attack without any provocation. They destroyed the border outpost at Rejupara under Cox's Bazar and killed some members of the then BDR (Bangladesh Rifles). And yet, without opting for military action, Bangladesh solved the debacle through possible diplomatic channels.
A huge wave of Rohingya refugees (nearly 2,50,000) entered Bangladesh in 1991-92, having been victims of torture and persecution by the Myanmar army. It created a complex humanitarian and security issue for Bangladesh. Here again, Bangladesh appealed to the international community to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels but Myanmar remained adamant in not responding to international suggestions. Since then, Rohingyas have been entering Bangladesh in groups as persecution continues inside Myanmar. Bangladesh avoided another major skirmish in 2008 when in a total unilateral move, Myanmar hired South Korea's Daewoo International Corporation to explore the Bay of Bengal, 90 km south-west of Bangladesh. As maritime boundary demarcation had not taken effect till then, the move to drill for oil there and to flex military muscles to scare Bangladesh off were most unbecoming on the part of a neighbour. In 2014 Myanmar BGP had opened fire on our patrol team and killed a BGB soldier. This time also there was no provocation from our part. The tension was defused through diplomacy.
We are sure the present crisis will be solved in a day or two but what remains to be seen is Myanmar's total commitment to all bilateral and international rules of business when it comes to maintaining peace at the borders and solving other long-standing issues with Bangladesh. Bangladesh's good intentions and practice of abiding by the diplomatic niceties should be reciprocated by Myanmar if it believes in peaceful coexistence.
The writer is Special Supplements Editor, The Daily Star.