Can military talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar be a prelude to larger solutions?

Improved military ties between Bangladesh and Myanmar can aid in the smoothing of ties and the resolution of long-standing issues such as the Rohingya crisis, maritime disputes, and trans-border crimes. 

Samina Akhter Nov 12, 2022
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Military talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar(Photo: Twitter)

After mortars landed on Bangladesh's soil as the Myanmar military attacked the rebel Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine State, officials from Bangladesh and Myanmar's junta promised to mend bilateral ties. There has been a number of airspace violations over the past few months from the northwestern Rakhine region in Myanmar, which borders Bangladesh, as the Myanmarese forces fought local militants.

In the meeting at Cox Bazar between Bangladesh’s Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) and Myanmar Border Guard Police (BGP) on October 30, Myanmar border guards reportedly apologized to their counterparts in Bangladesh for these events and promised that airspace violation will not reoccur.

The meeting follows Bangladesh's strong protests against the violation of airspace and the landing of shells inside Bangladeshi territory. Myanmar's BGP team's leader, Col Ye Wai Soe, reportedly lamented that Bangladesh is now sheltering members of Myanmar's separatist groups who have crossed the border and are committing crimes there.

The meeting leads to more discussion and, of course, more plans for cooperation --such as joint border patrolling, exchanging of information and military exchanges. 

Above all, both sides also discussed the early repatriation of the Rohingyas -- the single biggest irritant between the two neighbours.

Shared history

Approximately 750,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh in 2017 as a result of a military crackdown on them. Not one Rohingya has reportedly gone back to Myanmar.

Despite spats over the border issue, it is undeniable that both countries have had a long-standing relationship, shared history dating back generations.

In terms of geopolitics, the 271-km Bangladesh-Myanmar border is strategically significant for Bangladesh, despite the fact that it is militarized due to Myanmar's continuous internal strife. Bangladesh might establish routes through Myanmar to access China to the east and other Southeast Asian countries to the south if this issue is resolved.

Relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar were formalized on January 13, 1972.   However, due to the presence of several unresolved issues such as Rohingya refugees and maritime border demarcation, the scene has changed in an unfavourable way, and ties between these two neighbours have not always been as friendly as envisioned.

Apart from India, Myanmar is the only other country on Bangladesh’s border.  Therefore, Myanmar is perceived as Bangladesh’s strategic land bridge to China and Southeast Asia countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Myanmar is also a country with abundant natural resources. Myanmar's forests and natural resources, such as gas, oil, and stones. From the economic spectrum, maintaining good relations with Myanmar is more in Bangladesh's interest.

More collaborations needed

A bitter bilateral relationship can pose a national security threat to both Bangladesh and Myanmar.  Without close collaborations, human trafficking, narcotics as well as cyber threats will continue to thrive.

Improved military ties between Bangladesh and Myanmar can aid in the smoothing of ties and the resolution of long-standing issues such as the Rohingya crisis, maritime disputes, and trans-border crimes. This military collaboration is expected to be the prelude to more collaborations between Nay Pyi Taw and Dhaka in areas such as medical cooperation, sports events, adventure activities and tourism.

Also high on the agenda is the Tatmadaw and Bangladesh military may collaborate on disaster management systems. A natural disaster has become a major threat in the Bay of Bengal.  For instance, Sitrang Cyclone last month severely affected communities in India and Bangladesh while Cyclone Nargis in 2008 brought Myanmar to its knees, forcing the junta at that time to open the country and accept help from ASEAN's disaster management task forces. Both Myanmar and Bangladesh have several opportunities to work in order to lessen the risk of environmental degradation and loss.

While Myanmar is globally alienated and grown inward, the relationship between Nay Pyi Taw and Dhaka reflects the necessity and inevitability of two neighbouring countries that share physical geography, culture and long history.

The most effective strategy to progress together and maintain a peaceful relationship is to talk and enhance people-to-people connections between two sovereign countries. This is especially essential when the countries in question are neighbours.

(The author is a Dhaka-based human rights activist.  Views are personal. She can be reached at saminaakhter1709@gmail.com)

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