An Unobstructed Letter To Myanmar’s Policymakers From Bangladesh

Jubeda Chowdhury

Bangladeshi citizens want friendly relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar with a neighbourly spirit. Because you are our immediate neighbours, Thus, you should strengthen bilateral ties with Bangladesh by resolving bilateral problems such as the Rohingya crisis. Myanmar and Bangladesh should bolster their ties with a neighbourly spirit for various reasons. Currently, the strained Myanmar-Bangladesh relations need to smooth. January 13, 2022, marked 50 years of bilateral ties between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Myanmar recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign state on January 13, 1972. However, there were no seminars, discussions, statements, reciprocation, or felicitations between the two neighbours to mark the special day. But Myanmar-Bangladesh needs to strengthen ties to ensure the greater interest of the two regions, such as South Asia and Southeast Asia.

When Bangladesh celebrated its glorious journey of 50 years, many countries felicitated Bangladesh. Even Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan has felicitated Bangladesh for marking 50 years of Bangladesh’s independence. But it’s a matter of sorrow that its neighbour, Myanmar, didn’t congratulate Bangladesh. Even both countries’ respective embassies remained silent on the issue. Why is this so? Because the relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar are strained now. But this strained tie must be smoothed to ensure greater regional interest.

However, the relationship between Myanmar and Bangladesh has never been smooth and has gone through frequent ups and downs over the last 50 years on several issues. Despite having many possibilities, the two countries have not been able to build a real relationship with each other. The people from both sides are deprived of enjoying neighbourly advantages because of these stained relations. The improved ties between the two neighbours can ensure some common regional advantages. Geographically, Myanmar is located in the eastern part of Bangladesh with a 271-kilometre border. It is at least 150 km wide to its southeast due to its hilly terrain and dense forest cover. Strategically, Myanmar enjoys a distinct position between the two Asian giants, China and India. The same position applies to Bangladesh. So naturally, both Bangladesh and Myanmar enjoy important strategic positions in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Moreover, Myanmar and Bangladesh can both use as a gateway between South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Myanmar can use Bangladesh as a transportation route to reach the markets of Bhutan, Nepal and North East India easily. Bangladesh and Myanmar share some common regional platforms, such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation (BIMSTEC). An organization made up of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand that seeks strategic and economic development. Suppose Bangladesh and Myanmar improved their relations with each other. In that case, their dependence on China and India could be reduced, and they could increase trade with other countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia.
Bangladesh can be used as an important hub to connect ASEAN and SAARC. Myanmar, too, as an ASEAN member, can access the SAARC free-trade bloc through Bangladesh if the Myanmar-Bangladesh ties can be improved.
In the case of bilateral relations, there were two issues that caused some annoyance between them. The first was the demarcation of the sea-boundary between them. It is a matter of satisfaction that the matter was settled peacefully by the 1982 International Tribunal of the Sea Convention in March 2012. As Myanmar and Bangladesh share the Bay of Bengal area and a 271km long border, Myanmar and Bangladesh can both take part in tackling nontraditional security threats in the Bay of Bengal, such as piracy, illegal drug dealing, human trafficking, environmental degradation, and countering terrorists in the region.

The second is on the Rohingya refugee issue. It was said that between August and November 2017, a military operation in Myanmar forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to cross the border into Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh government has faced the Rohingya crisis many times. In 1978, an anti-insurgency operation by the then military government of Myanmar in Rakhine State resulted in a massive, brutal crackdown, with some 300,000 Rohingya crossing the border into Bangladesh. This was again in 1991-1992, when the second wave of more than 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh to escape the ongoing military repression. The two countries have resolved the issue peacefully through bilateral talks. But the current 2017 Rohingya crisis needs a beneficial, sustainable solution between Myanmar and Bangladesh to bolster the ties. Indeed, Bangladesh and Myanmar should find a long-term solution. Closer Bangladesh-Myanmar associations have great economic potential, but the Rohingya issue must be resolved. Increased cooperation between Bangladesh and Myanmar could help trade and investment with ASEAN and BIMSTEC countries grow.

There are other routes to bilateral cooperation. For example, Myanmar is rich in natural resources such as tin, zinc, copper, tungsten, coal, marble, limestone, natural gas, hydropower, etc. Bangladesh could thus be a significant energy source for Bangladesh to ensure its energy security.
Myanmar is also a significant supplier of natural wood to the world. While it has traditionally eyed foreign investment in the oil and gas sector, the country has recently focused on attracting production-based investment. The government is well ahead in power generation, following a good investment in hydropower generation. There are many Buddhist Biharis in Bangladesh.

Several important Buddhist archaeological sites have already been uncovered in different parts of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is believed to be a rich repository of South Asian Buddhist heritage. To draw the world’s attention to the rich Buddhist heritage in Bangladesh, the government organized an international event in collaboration with the World Tourism Organization in October 2015.

There are several magnificent modern-era Buddhist temples in Bangladesh. The Golden Temple, perched on a hilltop in the Bandarban district, is probably the most charming Buddhist temple in Bangladesh. In addition, giant Buddha statues in Dhaka, Chittagong, and other parts of Bangladesh are unique attractions for devotees and tourists. There are also several Buddhist learning centres and pilgrimage spots in Bangladesh.
These archaeological sites refer to Paharpur in Naogaon, Mahasthangarh in Bagura, Mainamati in Comilla, and Bikrampur in the Dhaka district. Each of these sites has unique qualities as part of history. In addition, some archaeological sites are important for both Hindu and Buddhist investigations because religious sculptures of each can be found. Thus, Myanmar and Bangladesh can exchange religious tourism.
By importing gas and electricity, Bangladesh can obtain its future energy security. In addition, the two countries can jointly explore oil and gas fields in the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh can also contribute to the development of Myanmar’s infrastructure.

The proposed construction of the Asian Highway, funded by the Asian Development Bank, could increase land connectivity between the two countries and increase trade in products such as fertilizers, plastics, cement, furniture, etc. Bangladesh is on the way to completing its railway project, Dohazari-Cox’s Bazar railway line. The line will run from Dohazari in Chattogram to Cox’s Bazar (one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country). This line can be extended to North-Eastern India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Suppose this line can be extended to China-Southeast Asia via Bangladesh’s Ghundhum-Myanmar as part of the proposed Trans Asian Railway Network Asian Highway Network. In that case, the whole region can benefit. Myanmar should take such an initiative to join the Trans-Asian Railroad.
Myanmar doesn’t have very advanced manufacturing right now, but it can import electronics and medicines easily made in Bangladesh and benefit from the transfer of technology.
However, the two countries can also increase agricultural production through joint ventures. Apart from adopting collaborative investment projects, Bangladesh can increase imports of various farm products, including pulses, spices, fish, and rice. Enhanced bilateral ties between Bangladesh and Myanmar could contribute to the growth of trade and investment relations with ASEAN and BIMSTEC countries. This will create an opening to solve the Rohingya problem and stop militant activities.

The Rakhine region of Myanmar can be used as a trade hub between Bangladesh and Myanmar. The agro-products in Rakhine need a viable market. Bangladesh could be a big market for the goods that are produced in Rakhine. On the other hand, Bangladesh has vast and tremendous experience in garments and agricultural production. Myanmar can exchange Bangladeshi expertise to benefit. Myanmar’s products (known as Burmese products are top-rated in Bangladesh). Myanmar and Bangladesh can set up some border hats (border markets) between Bangladesh and Myanmar to boost the trade. Both India and Bangladesh benefit from these types of border hats. By strengthening people-to-people contact and bolstering public diplomacy between the two sides, we can mend the strained ties between the two neighbours. Thus, we urge the policymakers of Myanmar and Bangladesh to bolster the relationship.

(Jubeda Chowdhury graduated from the International Relations department of the University of Dhaka)