Bangladesh-Myanmar Relations: Time to break the stalemate?

In this age of interdependence, all countries are interrelated and interconnected to each other. It is true that there will be some issues between neighboring countries but close relations between countries help to address bilateral hurdles in the most prudent way. Bangladesh has two immediate neighbors- India and Myanmar. Historically the South-Eastern region of Bangladesh had close ties with the neighboring state Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state of Myanmar. But, in the 21st century, the two neighboring countries haven’t enjoyed much of its bilateral relationship.

Historical evidence of bonhomie

At the state level, Bangladesh-Myanmar relations officially began from 13 January 1972, the date on which Myanmar, as the sixth state, recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign nation. As the first state head of Asia, U Ne Win, the former President of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma (Myanmar), visited Dhaka on 26 April 1974 for a four-day official visit. President Ne Win said that he came to visit on a mission of friendship and goodwill and wanted to continue the good-neighborly relations and co-operation in all areas of mutual interest. On the eve of his departure on 29 April, President Ne Win said at a press conference at Dhaka airport that his visit was very fruitful and he had very fruitful discussions with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on all unresolved issues. However, with ups and downs throughout the history, the bilateral relations are not good enough as it was during the time of Mujib-Ne Win period.

Though political transition began in Myanmar in 2011, the military regime (Tatmadaw) had been enjoying full authority in the country. A year has passed since the military State Administration Council (SAC) took control of the government. The SAC leaders said that they took political power in accordance with the law and seemed to govern under military rule for many more years. Myanmar should now focus on improving its relations with the neighboring countries of South Asia and Southeast Asia. It is time to look for a win-win situation for the two immediate neighbors—Bangladesh and Myanmar—within the present political context. The paper suggests three areas to work on to break the current stalemate—economic engagement, military cooperation and regional connectivity. 

Deepening the economic engagement

To establish robust bilateral economic relations, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed several agreements on trade and business i.e., general trade agreement on August 03, 1973; border agreement in 1980 and demarcation of land section of Naaf River in 1988; and Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) on economic cooperation in 1989. The two countries later initiated formal trade relations on September 05, 1995. Therefore, to increase demand for Bangladeshi products in Myanmar, Bangladesh opened trade exhibitions from 1995 to 1996 in Yangon, former capital of Myanmar. However, that pleasant bilateral economic relations did not last for long, rather was soon interrupted mainly by Myanmar’s long term authoritarian rule and isolationist economic policy. In 2020, the total bilateral trade between Bangladesh and Myanmar was approximately US $112.58 million. Bangladesh exported US $48.5 million whereas Myanmar Exports to Bangladesh was US $64.08 million. The Bangladeshi export to Myanmar was reported at an all-time high BDT 2,355.494 million in 2021, with an increase from the previous BDT 2,122.031 million for 2020. Still a lot of untapped potential can be harnessed. Both the countries can expand trade and investment by utilizing the framework of Joint Business Council (JBC) between the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI).

Along with the formal state level economic relation, the economic engagement through the channel of ‘border hat (Bazar)’ could be a good option to accelerate bilateral economic engagements. It creates livelihood opportunities for border residents and connectivity of these remote regions with business hubs of their own countries. It is rational to note here that China is arguing that the root cause of the Rohingya crisis lies in poverty. So, creating economic opportunities through ‘the border hat’ will create an enormous opportunity for the underdeveloped Sittwe and Maungdaw region and thus it will help to address the root cause of the Rohingya crisis.

Myanmar-Bangladesh border trade through Maungdaw started on September 05, 1995, to mainly legalize informal border trade between the two countries. Similarly, border trade through Sittwe started on December 28, 1998. Goods from Sittwe to the Teknaf border in Bangladesh come via the waterway. Around 40 per cent of exports from Myanmar to Bangladesh and around 29 per cent of import of Myanmar from Bangladesh take place through these two borders.

Another important point to add is that better economic ties between the two countries will create the likelihood of mitigating other crises through creating room for discussion. On the international scene, there are a lot of examples where apparently rival states have a good economic relationship with each other. For example, China and India have been locked into several clashes through decades especially during the last couple of years. But, from supplying industrial components and raw materials to investments in India’s startups and technology firms, China is India’s biggest trading partner after the U.S. China is Asia’s largest economy and the world’s second-biggest with a GDP of about $13.6 trillion.

Military cooperation

Bangladesh’s 271-kilometer-long border with Myanmar is troubled with the issue of terrorism and insurgency. Lately, a Bangladesh Army NCO along with 3 others were killed in a terror attack at Bandarban. Several dozens of people were killed and abducted in the CHT region in recent years and the continuing sporadic skirmishes by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) against the Myanmar security forces. The inaccessible mountainous area and turbulent Naf River have made the border safe havens for the miscreants. The militant activities by separatist groups of Myanmar and transnational crimes like human and drug trafficking have shown the importance of cooperation between Myanmar and Bangladesh for a safer border.

Besides, the Indo-Pacific has become growingly important in geo-strategic calculations. For the safety and security of the oceanic area collaboration among the countries is a must. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar joined the massive multilateral naval exercise, MILAN 22, launched on February 25. MILAN 22 is the largest-ever participation of several South-East Asian navies along with those of the QUAD members which made it a significant event in the Indo-Pacific. On the other hand, Bangladesh and Myanmar armed forces (BAFs) may engage in a greater number of military training courses and regular staff talks for enhancing trust and mutual confidence.

Regional connectivity

Historically, both Bangladesh and Myanmar have been active proponents of the non-aligned and independent foreign policy which was best suited to safeguard the national interests by avoiding great power rivalries and military blocs. The current Ukraine crisis is forcing us to think once again about maintaining regional harmony to ensure greater peace and stability. Regional connectivity initiatives like the BCIM-EC could play a crucial role in maintaining strong state-to-state relations as well as people-to-people contacts.

Both the countries are members of the sub-regional grouping called the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), as well as of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Bangladesh is also moving towards a closer formal relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) of which Myanmar is a member. It has joined the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and is likely to enter into a Dialogue Partnership with ASEAN. Through these sub-regional/regional forums, Myanmar and Bangladesh hope to establish better rail, road, maritime and energy links, which will hasten better connectivity as well as trade relations.

The bottom line is that Bangladesh and Myanmar can accelerate the bilateral relations by leveraging their geographic proximity and diverse business opportunities. They can make strong economic connections through the formal and informal channels. The strong participation in the common interest of regional security and military cooperation will help to break the silence and create a win-win situation for the two neighboring countries of South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Nazifa Nawar
Nazifa Nawar
Nazifa Nawar is a researcher and columnist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.