Bangladesh-Myanmar cooperation: Investment opportunity, climate change, insurgency & Rohingya crisis

A
s the communities around the globe is globalizing, it would be disadvantageous for any country not to be proactive in seeking greater engagement with other countries, especially when it is a next door neighbour. Understanding this very reality, perhaps, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been seeking out greater engagement with its next door neighbour Myanmar.

The history of relations among the people from Bangladesh and Myanmar dates back to centuries, with renewed elements added to the relations every now and then. Although the relations is not quite good at the moment due to various factors (including Rohingya issue), the abovementioned approach for greater engagement with Myanmar on the part of the Bangladeshi side is a pragmatic move and deserves appreciation. The potential areas of cooperation between the two sides are, among others, trade & Investment (amid end of economic isolation for Myanmar), environment, Rohinya issue and insurgency.

Shahidul Haque, Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary, met Myanmar’s State counselor Aung San Suu Kyi last year and conveyed, as Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s envoy, a message that Bangladesh wants to forge friendship, good neighbourliness and close cooperation with neighbouring Myanmar in all areas of common interests. Daw Suu Kyi, famously known as Aung San Suu Kyi, responded with a sincere and warm gesture by expressing her government’s willingness to move forward bilateral relations with Bangladesh. Suu Kyi also emphasized that there should be frequent engagements between the two neighbours. She expressed her firmness sincerely when she said that no issues and incidents should distract the willingness of frequent engagements and increasing cooperation between the two countries. She feels that both neighbours should face all challenges jointly.

Bangladesh benefits by investing in Myanmar

There is a vast scope for the bilateral relationship between Myanmar and Bangladesh. There are a number of areas where the two countries may cooperate and work together; the key area being the improvement of existing trade relations, which is not in good shape at the time-being. Bangladesh will be largely benefitted from the improving trade relation with Myanmar amid end of the latter’s international economic isolation. Since the international community, the West in particular, is depressurising Myanmar through withdrawing the economic sanctions imposed on the country, the intra-trade and inter-trade for Myanmar would increase by many times from the current scenario. With comparatively a sizable population, beautiful tourist-favoured atmosphere, vast natural (including energy) resources and a reasonably positive attention from the West, Myanmar is the appropriate destination for any country to invest heavily and make huge profits thereby. The fact that Bangladesh is the next door neighbour of Myanmar simply makes Myanmar the appropriate-most trade partner for Bangladesh.

Cooperation in tackling climate change

Besides working for strong trade ties, countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar, which are the major victims of climate change with the worst victimization still awaiting, may work together in order to address the issues related to the global environmental deterioration. Besides the major problems of poverty and illiteracy, Bangladesh and Myanmar’s vulnerability to environmental deterioration is very alarming. The overall economic developments of these two countries have been troubled to a considerable extent by the adverse effects of deteriorating global environmental conditions.

With flat and low-lying landscape, the coastal areas of Bangladesh and Myanmar are highly vulnerable to floods and storms. Among the major impacts of the environmental deterioration – particularly of the global warming – the increasing rise in sea-level every year has been the most alarming one so far, with the possibility of submerging 6-8% of ‘flood-prone’ Bangladesh under water by 2030 (a prediction made in 2007 by the UK Department for International Development). Like Bangladesh, Myanmar could also lose a substantial percentage of its total coastal landmass under the sea water. From the fourth assessment report published by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it appears that a substantial portion of ‘flood-prone’ coastal areas of Myanmar is predicted to be submerged under water by 2050.

A substantial portion of the total population of Bangladesh and Myanmar live in the coastal areas, where majority of the population are affected, directly or indirectly, by coastal floods or tidal flows, salinity, tropical cyclones, erosion of river-bank etc. With the rise of sea-level “even by a metre”, Bangladesh and Myanmar could lose a substantial percentage of their total landmass under the sea water, turning millions of inhabitants living in the coastal areas of these two countries into climate refugees.

Challenges: Rohingya crisis & insurgency in Myanmar

One of the challenges posed to the relations between the two countries is the lack of cross-border communication of general people from the two sides of Bangladesh and Myanmar. People to people connection between two sovereign countries are the most effective ways to progress together and to keep a peaceful relationship between the concerned countries. This factor is particularly important when the concerned countries are neighbours. There was a smooth and vibrant relation between the people of both Bangladesh and Myanmar in the pre-Mughal era that continued till the British era. However, the post-British era saw degradation in the relationship between the people from both sides and circumstances only got worse when the Rohingya issue took the centre stage in shaping up Bangladeshis’ perceptions towards Myanmar. A large number of people from Bangladesh have some sort of anger against Myanmar because of the same. Solution to this problem would, without doubt, open the door to a smooth communication of people between the two sides.

A positive gesture was shown from Myanmar’s side in working for the solution of Rohingya issue during the aforementioned meeting that took place last year between Suu Kyi and Shahidul Haque. The press release, which was made from Myanmar’s side after the meeting, highlighted Myanmar government’s firm resolve to find solutions to the challenges in the Rakhine State (regarding Rohingya issue) and elaborated various initiatives undertaken by the new government under theleadership, but not presidency, of Suu Kyi. However, to the dismay of the benefit that both countries could earn from close cooperation, the recent and renewed crisis from last October in the Rakhine State has again flared up the angers of people from both sides. While a substantial portion of the Myanmarese population view the Rohingya as migrants from Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi people perceive the persecution on the Rohingyas inside Myanmar as a torture on the fellow Muslims.

In addition to the abovementioned Rohingya crisis, which is a major barrier to the bilateral relations between the two neighbours, the insurgencies in Myanmar is a burning problem. Successive Myanmarese governments have been at decades-long armed conflict, which is the longest running armed conflict in the world, against many domestic insurgent groups (including the Kachin, the Karenni insurgents, the Karen insurgents and the Arakanese insurgents) and all sides have suffered way too much loss to carry on the fighting much longer. That is why Myanmar’s government had repeatedly tried to reach ceasefire agreement with the insurgents and attempted to persistently work for peaceful settlement. Most of the times, the ceasefires that were maintained by all sides had short lived. A ceasefire deal with several insurgent groups has been reached at the last quarter of 2015 under the previous government and this ceasefire has been largely continuing (apart from few exceptions) until now under the current government.

The insurgencies in Myanmar have the potential to become barriers to the trade relation between Bangladesh and Myanmar as – (i) the commercial consignments from Bangladesh to Myanmar (and vice versa) and (ii) the Bangladeshi future business interests in Myanmar – may well be under attack from insurgent groups unless the Myanmar’s government take appropriate initiatives either to hold the existing ceasefire for longer or to neutralize the conflicts.

Observations

Taking a step towards genuine solution regarding the Rohingya issue would likely to normalize and smoothen the communication between the people from both sides. Since Bangladesh and Myanmar governments have good relations, a good relation between the general mass from both sides would help to make the trade relations better, benefiting both the neighbouring economies that are growing at faster rate.

On environmental front, both Bangladesh and Myanmar should make sure that the climate conferences at global stage should not just focus entirely on climate issues, but also should set practically applicable measures and a constructive framework, with the genuine intension to ensure reduction of environmental deterioration.

With the transfer of power from a military government to a semi-civilian one in 2011, Myanmar went on board towards economic liberalization. Although military setup in Myanmar’s Constituent Assembly still remains strong, 2015’s election enabled a (mostly) civilian government to arise into the Myanmar’s decision making structure, strengthening the way towards further economic liberalization. Since international isolating for Myanmar ended, opportunities have emerged for other countries to earn billions from exporting to, and investing in, Myanmar. Therefore, being one of the five neighbours of Myanmar, Bangladesh should try to grab such opportunities, should bolster its relations with Myanmar and take the benefit of Myanmar’s economic liberalization.

Bahauddin Foizee

Analyst and Columnist on international affairs, specializes on Middle Eastern, greater Asia-Pacific & European geopolitics. Primarily associated with law practice, formerly taught law at Dhaka Centre for Law & Economics and was Researcher at Bangladesh Institute of Legal Development. Holds law degree from University of London.

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