The troubled Rakhine region of Myanmar can potentially become a trade hub between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Myanmar's army chief Min Aung Hlaing expressed special thanks to Bangladesh in his address to the countrymen on the occasion of Myanmar's Independence Day. According to a media report, Min Aung Hlaing gave special thanks to some countries, including Bangladesh, India, China, and Thailand. He thanked these countries for advancing cooperative relations despite various adversities.
January 13, 2022, marked 50 years of bilateral ties between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Myanmar recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign state on January 13, 1972. But there weren’t any seminars, discussions, statements, reciprocation, or felicitations between the two neighbors to mark the special day. There have been many ups and downs between the two neighbors over 50 years. Despite having many possibilities, the two countries have not been able to build a real relationship with each other. And the sufferers have been the people of the two countries.
The improved ties between the two neighbors can ensure some common regional advantages. Geographically, Myanmar is located in the eastern part of Bangladesh with a 271 km border. To its southeast, it is at least 150 km wide, 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 applies to Bangladesh. Myanmar and Bangladesh both can be used 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 Northeast India easily. Bangladesh and Myanmar share some regional common 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 which seeks strategic and economic development. If Bangladesh and Myanmar improve their relations, their dependence on China and India can reduce and 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.
Enhanced bilateral ties between Bangladesh and Myanmar could contribute to the growth of trade and investment relations with ASEAN and BIMSTEC countries.
Resolution of Rohingya issue
But for all this to happen, the two issues that caused major friction between them needed to be resolved. 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, both share the Bay of Bengal area and a 271 km long border, Myanmar and Bangladesh both can take part in tackling nontraditional security threats in the Bay of Bengal such as piracy, illegal drug dealing, human trafficking, environmental degradation, countering terrorists in the region.
The second is on the Rohingya refugee issue. Between August and November 2017, a military operation in Myanmar forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to cross the border into neighboring Bangladesh. 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. Again in 1991-92, a second wave of more than 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh to escape military repression.
Closer Bangladesh-Myanmar ties have great economic potential, but the Rohingya issue must be resolved and needs a sustainable solution.
Myanmar is rich in natural resources such as tin, zinc, copper, tungsten, coal, marble, limestone, natural gas, hydropower, etc. Myanmar could thus be a major source of energy for Bangladesh to ensure its energy security.
Religious tourism can be a source of great potential in improvement of ties. A number of important Buddhist archeological sites have already been discovered in different parts of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is believed to be a rich repository of South Asian Buddhist heritage. There are a number of magnificent modern-era Buddhist temples in Bangladesh. The Golden Temple at a hilltop in the Bandarban district is probably the most charming Buddhist temple in Bangladesh. Gigantic Buddha status in Dhaka, Chittagong, and other parts of Bangladesh are special attractions for devotees and tourists. There are also a number of Buddhist learning centers and pilgrimage spots in Bangladesh of interest to Myanmarese Buddhists.
Rakhine can be a trade hub
The proposed construction of the Asian Highway, funded by the Asian Development Bank, can 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 the completion of its 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 potentially extended to Northeast India, Nepal, and Bhutan. If this line can be extended to China-South East Asia via Bangladesh’s Ghundhum-Myanmar as part of the proposed Trans Asian Railway Network Asian Highway Network, the whole region can benefit.
Myanmar, which at present does not have sophisticated manufacturing, can import electronics and pharmaceutical products that are readily produced in Bangladesh and benefit from the technology transfer.
The two countries can also increase agricultural production through joint ventures. Bangladesh can increase imports of various agricultural products including pulses, spices, fish, and rice.
The troubled Rakhine region of Myanmar can potentially become a trade hub between Bangladesh and Myanmar. The agro-products in Rakhine need a viable market; Bangladesh can be a big market for goods produced in Rakhine. This will create an opening to solve the Rohingya problem and stop cross-order militant activities.
Myanmar and Bangladesh can also set up some border haats (border markets) to boost bilateral trade.
India and Bangladesh are benefitting from such kinds of border haats at the border. Strengthening people-to-people contact and bolstering public diplomacy can mend the strained ties between the two neighbors.
(The author is an educator-researcher who did her master's in International Relations from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Views are personal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)