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

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]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 is an international affairs analyst and columnist, and regularly writes on greater Asia-Pacific, Indian Oceanic region and greater Middle East geopolitics. He also - infrequently - writes on environment & climate change and the global refugee crisis. Besides Modern Diplomacy, his articles have appeared at The Diplomat, Global New Light of Myanmar, Asia Times, Eurasia Review, Middle East Monitor, International Policy Digest and a number of other international publications. His columns also appear in the Dhaka-based national newspapers, including Daily Observer, Daily Sun, Daily Star, The Independent, The New Nation, Financial Express, New age and bdnews24com. He previously taught law at Dhaka Centre for Law & Economics and worked at Bangladesh Institute of Legal Development.

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South Asia

Saudi-Chinese Friendship: Should India be Concerned?

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Image source: Xinhua/Xie Huanchi

Saudi Arabia hosted the grand China-Arab summit in December last year and leaders of the two nations deliberated on future trade ties and regional security. The summit happened at a time when USA and Saudi ties are at an all time low. There lies massive uncertainty on global energy markets after the West forced a price cap on Russian oil and Washington is looking guardedly at China’s rising influence in the Middle East.

In Oil trade, China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade more than $87 billion in 2021. Saudi Arabia is China’s top oil supplier, making up 18% of China’s total crude oil purchases. The two countries have deals in refineries, power and military & security.

 Africa’s natural resources have long been a Chinese favourite. Every year, China doles out billions in grants and loans to African governments as an inducement to secure raw material deals or to finance the infrastructure projects which are ultimately going to benefit its own companies.

What is India’s position on the China- Arab summit that intends to boost development and cooperation among the two? India would be in a bit of a quandary one may assume as Arabs are their good friends, as they claim; while the Chinese are not. The trio of the China, Arabs and Pakistan (being used as a mere proxy), uniting is bound to be a slight source of worry for India. What is India’s take on this friendship?

From a diplomatic perspective, if their friendship and goodwill is promoted, it’s a good thing but one hopes that this does not undermine Indian interest, as any bilateral relation must not  destabilize a third relation. In general when one talks of the Arab world, one thinks of its gargantuan energy power and energy crisis and its management is a global issue right now. With the Ukraine Russia war hanging around the energy crisis, it could be an ‘Energy Security’ thing they are trying to do bilaterally. If a big country like China enters the domain of energy, food etc it could turn out into a fairly big movement in the markets, in terms of prices and availability. India has to reckon by the fact that China is large and when you take out a large chunk of something that is available, that can create a pressure situation for others.

Also the union of China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan may have certain repercussions on India, as China and India already have problems and those are huge problems, there’s no denying that. Sachin Sawant, Senior leader of the Indian National Congress leader, the country’s main opposition party states that they are already over-exerting their power on India. The Chinese are going on building roads, tunnels and bridges nonstop along the border. India needs to develop stronger guiding principles, when dealing with China and its global intentions are concerned. It is a huge point of worry for India.

India definitely cannot do or say much if two good friends decide to meet, but it does have its  set of concerns. If China forges more business alliances with the Arabs in the energy and other sectors, India foresees instability in the markets which may be against its economic interest. It also is wary of the Chinese and Arabs getting together as this is a powerful alliance and its outcome may have a negative impact on Indian interest.

What could be the intentions of China to promote this friendship further and strengthen their relations with the Arabs. How does India look at this union of two economic superpowers? Every country wants to have good friends. They both have global ambitions and one goes about a decade back or lesser, they had invested heavily in Africa. They went there and tried to get hold of all the mines that were of strategic importance to them. They need nickel, gallium etc which are crucial for smart phone manufacturing. So, yes! They would be eyeing many such opportunities in their bilateral ventures.

China is known for its expansionism and they use their financial strength to arm-twist many countries, especially the economically weaker ones. “They are the Shylock kind of money lenders; they keep on lending money at exorbitant rates and then the poorer countries like Pakistan get into that vicious cycle where China takes hold of all their resources at very cheap rates. India is not at all bothered about their befriending the Arabs, because Chinese intentions are well known to the world,” says a concerned Sawant.

India says it is well aware that the Chinese mean business when they talk of befriending the Arabs. Together the two may explore many more avenues of business which strengthen their respective economies. Would their friendship affect India’s foreign policy in anyway? How affected or concerned is the Indian Government with this strategic partnership of China and the Arab nations?

Both Saudi Arabia and China are also part of G-20, and they must work in some areas of convergence that emerge from this global exercise. India closely follows whatever they are doing in terms of multilateral regional matters which impact the well being of all people, and also other matters that are taken up in G20, like climate change, green development and digital economy. India has sufficiently strong relations with the Arabs and its foreign policy will only be affected if China does something that is out of line of its interest.

Sawant reiterates that it is a matter of concern for India. The leader says that the alliance of China with the Arabs is definitely rooted in more trade and greater geo-political ambition. It can harm India. He says that China has this habit of deliberately targeting India’s neighbours, antagonizing them like it has been doing with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, all in a bid to weaken India. It has been their strategy and India should be worried about that. “India needs to revamp its foreign policy in dealing with China. On one hand we ban their apps but then our imports from them are also growing multi-fold, this has to stop. Even on the Bhutan front India needs to be more proactive in protecting the interests of people in that region,” argues Sawant.

If India looks at the China-Arab partnership through the prism of G20 then, it will jointly work on pressing global issues and is confident of a positive outcome. However, it would expect  China to cooperate with it in its G20 endeavours. Does the Indian Government have any certain policy to enhance cooperation and influence in the Mid East Region? Yes, the Middle East is India’s immediate neighbourhood. India has an authentic historical and cultural relationship with them which is now nicely developing into a stronger and closer economic partnership. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is India’s major economic partner; most of its energy comes from there. Also, it has huge Diasporas in the Arab countries who are emerging as investors in India’s growth and infrastructural development.     

“Any foreign policy is good until is serves the interest of the country. Just on the basis of how you are welcomed by foreign countries and how we welcome them cannot help determine foreign policy; this is a holistic issue. The Chinese President comes here and enjoys a resplendent welcome but that doesn’t stop their army from attacking us. What exactly we do in the interest of the country will help shape up strong foreign policy with any country. The Arabs, though our good friends will obviously be happy with the trade agreements with China, but we must be wary that it does not harm us or our economy inadvertently,” says Sawant.

In the end, India must be confident of its faith and friendship with the Middle East. Being a long time economic partner of theirs, they also benefit from the fact that Indians living in the Arab nations are a huge plus point for them. While there seems to be a bit of skepticism about the China- Arab ties, India should be confident that this will not come in the way of their strong relations with the other 7 GCC countries.

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Taliban and the crisis in Afghanistan

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Source: Twitter

In 2021, the Afghan Taliban took back control of Afghanistan after fighting a rebellion for twenty years. The Taliban reformed and began regaining territory less than 10 years after the American-led invasion that overthrew the previous regime in 2001. In line with a 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban, they staged a swift assault as the US started to evacuate its last forces from Afghanistan.

Even though they promised to preserve the rights of women and communities of religious and racial minorities, the Taliban have enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Taliban have failed to provide Afghans with sufficient food supplies and economic possibilities as they have evolved from an insurgent organization to a functioning administration.

Numerous instances of human rights violations have been documented by the UN mission in Afghanistan. Because the Taliban scared off journalists and put limits on press freedom, more than 200 news outlets had to close. Activists and protesters have been tracked and forcefully disappeared, and their government has ruthlessly suppressed protests. They also reinstated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was previously in place, and enforced laws against actions judged to be contrary to Islam. They instructed judges to apply their version of sharia in November 2022; in the following weeks, authorities resumed public hangings and floggings.

Women’s rights have been undermined. Due to restrictions put in place by the Taliban, girls are not allowed to go to high school, and women are not allowed to go to college or teach there. The group banned women from working for local and international voluntary groups in December 2022. According to estimates from the UN Development Program (UNDP), limiting women’s employment might cost Afghanistan’s GDP up to 5%. Amnesty International reports a substantial increase in the number of women jailed for defying discriminatory rules, such as those requiring women to cover their whole bodies while in public and to only appear with male chaperones. In addition, there are now more child marriages.

The UNDP says that the Taliban’s rule has also taken away the gains that Afghans made in their living conditions in the 20 years after the US invasion. In a study from October 2022, the organization claimed that practically all Afghans were living in poverty. Since the takeover, the economy has contracted by up to 30%, and there have been an estimated 700,000 job losses. More than 90% of individuals are impacted by food insecurity. The problem is getting worse because several countries and international groups have stopped giving aid, which is vital to the economy and public health.

International observers are nonetheless worried that the Taliban pose a danger to national and international security through their funding of terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda. Taliban leadership might convert Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists who could launch attacks against the US and its allies, despite Taliban pledges that the country’s territory wouldn’t be used against the security of any other country. The violence has also increased along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, which has always supported the Taliban. Tehrik-e-Taliban, a terrorist organization commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, has gained strength due to the Taliban’s ascent to power. The organization broke off a cease-fire with the Pakistani government in 2022 and began carrying out assaults throughout the nation. Officials from Pakistan have charged the Afghan Taliban with giving the extremists a safe harbor in their country.

For many years, the Afghan government relied on help from a number of countries; according to 2019 World Bank research, contributions from foreign partners funded 75% of the government’s public expenditures. Many of these countries stopped off aid when the Taliban took control, fueling concerns about potential future economic turmoil. Nevertheless, aid rose in 2022 as donors sent more than $2.6 billion. The US has donated more than $1.1 billion in help since the coup. However, according to UN authorities, the pledges fell short of the nation’s humanitarian requirements.

Many Western countries, most notably the US, shut down their diplomatic posts in Afghanistan when the Taliban took power. Diplomatic relations and recognition have been withheld from the Taliban regime, which refers to Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The UN General Assembly has also postponed a decision on who would indefinitely represent Afghanistan at the UN. The Taliban are now being investigated by the International Criminal Court for suspected atrocities, including crimes against humanity, committed against Afghans.

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Decoding Donald Lu’s Visit: A Positive Upward in US-Bangladesh Relations?

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The U.S Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu paid a visit from January 12 to 15. During his brief but swarming itinerary the two parties discussed various issues ranging from diplomatic to political. Interestingly, this is the 11th visit of any U.S high-official in the past two years. The frequent swapping of delegations from the both sides pose a critical juncture between the U.S-Bangladesh relationship. Experts believe that recurrent visits from US high-ups are definitely an auspicious sign between the relationship of the two nations. Therefore, the visit of Donald Lu is an offshoot of the “growing reciprocity and renewed engagement” between Dhaka and Washington.

Needless to say, Bangladesh has a long standing and steady relationship with the US since the latter recognized the former shortly after independence on April 04, 1972. Recently the US-Bangladesh celebrated the completion of 50 years of bilateral relationship and US President Joe Biden termed this as “robust partnership”. Amid such backdrop, it goes without saying that the recent visits signal to a significant positive tie-up between the two parties and the visit can be interpreted in the context of international and domestic backdrop of international politics.

The US is the largest market for Bangladesh’s RMG export. Naturally, the issue of GSP reinstatement plays a key role in bilateral camaraderie. Under such circumstances, Lu’s visit is important to hold talks of economic in the context of Bangladesh’s growing needs, especially after the LDC graduation. Moreover, in the annual Global Firepower 2023 Military Strength Ranking, Bangladesh is placed 40th out of 145 nations. On the other hand, Bangladesh came in 12th place on the GFP review’s list of ‘Strengths on the Rise,’ which emphasizes national military powers based on strong growth patterns until 2023. In this context, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) agreement indicates to a deeper and strategic engagement from the US rationale.

Bangladesh’s stands at the heart of a strategic position of the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims to counter the increasing footprint of China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, Bangladesh maintains a neutral position in terms of its foreign relations and has been carefully helming without taking any side of any major powers. Washington’s focus on free and fair election is important to maintain a stability in the greater Bay of Bengal neighborhood- an important feat in it’s IPS. Conversely, Bangladesh values economic partnership to sustain her ongoing upward trend. However, at the same time Bangladesh should be careful not to succumb to any pressure, a case in point when the Foreign Minister announced that the US proposed strategy is being vetted under the lens of economic opportunity.

On the domestic fore, arguably, the U.S has been advocating for a free and fair election, upholding democratic values, and condemning extra judicial excesses. However, continuous engagement between the two parties resulted helping to mitigate tensions and create a more positive atmosphere. The crux of Donald Lu’s visit is to reaffirm democratic ideals in state mechanism, rule based international system and Bangladesh to be part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Accordingly, Bangladesh has committed to hold a fair election and the recent decline of the controversial RAB’s extrajudicial excesses reported by Human Rights Watch as well as peaceful demonstrations of the opposition have been markedly praised by Donald Lu. From Bangladesh’s perspective rescinding of sanctions, reinstatement of GSP, and more support for Rohingya Refugees were reiterated. More importantly, Dhaka’s impartial foreign policy goals align with Washington’s interest in the South Asian region and it will be of American interest to consider Bangladesh as an important ally in the geopolitical chessboard of the Indo-Pacific region.  

However, the visit is also crucial for Donald Lu who is accused of meddling with the internal affairs of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. But, Donald Lu manifested his diplomatic acumen to “manage the fissures of the diplomatic ties’ and “highlight on the areas of convergence” in the recent visit. Evidently, the past year has been tumultuous for South Asian nations, following the collapse of Colombo, the Pakistani Economic Crisis and the revolving debt crisis around the region. Amongst her neighbors, Bangladesh has endured relatively steady political and economic pursuit. Therefore, US needs to formulate a comprehensive South Asian policy to accommodate the interests of the respective nations on its own merit.

Bangladesh’s relationship with the U.S is vital in both economic and political stance. Continued engagement and partnership between the two states is critical for the security of South Asia as well as Bangladesh’s ongoing economic prosperity. On a pragmatic tone, it would take more than just this one visit for Bangladesh to solve these complex geopolitical issues. For now, the visit has symbolized strengthening of U.S-Bangladesh relationship going forward by exonerating the mutual interests to diplomatically resolve pressing bilateral issues and elevation of continuous engagement.

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