Why should Myanmar put its cards on Bangladesh

With Myanmar being the 6th country to recognize the independent Bangladesh on 13th January 1972, it has been more than 50 years that Myanmar and Bangladesh has officially began their bilateral relation.  Over the course of time, the two states have maneuvered through various diplomatic ups and downs, nevertheless, cooperation has always been championed from Bangladesh’s flank. The Republic of Union of Myanmar has been embroiled with several internal strife ever since its independence from the British rule in 1948. Myanmar and Bangladesh share a border of 271 km, despite a relatively short border internal strife  can be ominously felt in Bangladesh.

The fleeing of Rohingya community at the onset of military crackdown from neighboring Rakhine State in 2017 has put severe strain on the resources of Bangladesh. Despite enduring one of the largest exodus of population in modern history Bangladesh’s policy is aimed towards promoting a peaceful and cooperative relations with her neighbouring countries. Bangladesh-Myanmar bilateral relation provides opportunities of multifaceted cooperation. The two countries share a series of common grounds from connectivity to tourism to security and economic cooperation.

Trade Boost

The potential of trade between Bangladesh and Myanmar is unbridled. Myanmar’s Commerce Ministry shows that, bilateral trade between the two stood at $112.5 million in 2020. Bangladesh imports various types of food items, agricultural and consumer goods from Myanmar popularly known as Burmese products. Albeit, the balance of trade is heavily on Myanmar’s side. Nevertheless, efforts have been made to increase trade. Bangladesh and Myanmar established direct bilateral trade in January 2012, opening letters of credit (LCs) with each other. Earlier, trade was routed through Singapore or Thailand.

Myanmar should consider increasing trade with Bangladesh for both economic and strategic grounds.  Bangladesh can act as an important hub for Myanmar to access the SAARC bloc thus connecting the ASEAN regions to the South Asia. If Bangladesh and Myanmar improve their ties with each other, their dependence on China and India could be reduced and trade with other countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia could increase.

The State of Rakhine has a perilous history but on an economic front can act as a trade hub between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Bangladesh can be a tremendously valuable market for Rakhine agro products. On the other hand, Bangladesh has vast and tremendous experience in garments and production of agricultural sectors. Myanmar can exchange Bangladeshi expertise to benefit. To strengthen people-to-people contact, Bangladesh and Myanmar can set up border huts just as Bangladesh has with India. Through bolstering public diplomacy, the two nations can shore up economic ties.

Facilitation of Tourism

On the forepart of tourism, Bangladesh has astounding Buddhist structures which would facilitate tourism.  The Paharpur Monastery, an 8th century Buddhist edifice, Mainamati Buddhist monastery in Cumilla, picturesque Buddhist Temples in Chittagong Hill Tracts, the magnificent Golden Buddhist Temple at Moheshkhali in Cox’s Bazar can be excellent tourist attractions not only for Myanmar, but also other Buddhist majority countries such as Sri Lanka, Japan and Thailand. In 2015, Bangladesh held an international conference in Dhaka on “Developing Sustainable and Inclusive Buddhist Heritage and Pilgrimage Circuits in South Asia’s Buddhist Heartland”, which called for sustainable development and promotion of cross-border tourism circuits in South Asia and the Asia-Pacific region- a commitment to its rich Buddhist legacy.

The Road to Connectivity

Myanmar is situated at the southeastern corner of Bangladesh, separate by the river Naf. Albeit, the border is relatively short, the two countries’ physical connectivity has been historically limited. In 2007, two projects linking the two countries through a direct road link were proposed, but none fructified. There was another agreement to lay a 130-km railway track from Dohazari in Bangladesh to Gundum in Rakhine via Ramu in Cox’s Bazaar as a part of the Trans-Asian Railway (TAR)- which would link several Asian countries including Bangladesh to six East Asian ones – Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore – as well as to European countries through Turkey.

The standoffish nature of physical connectivity has been attributed to problems in land acquisition, the estimated cost of construction, and lack of political will. The look East policy of Bangladesh has always prioritized connectivity in order to facilitate economic development. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar are the founding members of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), as well as Myanmar, a member of ASEAN and Bangladesh joining the ASEAN Regional Forum pave the way for strategic cooperation. Bangladesh and Myanmar’s joint geographical position serves as an important geopolitical flashpoint to act as the getaway between South Asian and Southeast Asia. Multimodal transport will help to streamline connectivity between the two countries. With better connectivity joint security exercises will cease illegal migration and drug peddling consequently enhancing trade and tourism.

Addressing Security Threats and Engagement

The lack of initiating better physical connectivity is concurrently ascribed to fear of increasing illegal migration and drug peddling. On the contrary, such connectivity would enhance trade relations and, with proper security, reduce illegal immigration.

Joint security cooperation can tackle border related security threats and counter terrorism. This commitment is evident on the 8th edition of BGB-BGP meeting where Bangladesh called for maintaining peace and curbing trans-boundary crime through building mutual trust.

Bangladesh can also be an alternative market for Myanmar’s energy. Myanmar has hydroelectric power as well as rich in mineral resources. Building strategic engagement with Bangladesh will diversify Myanmar’s strategic ties.

Ever since the independence of Bangladesh, high-profile visits from military high-ups graced the diplomatic circle of both Bangladesh and Myanmar. The Myanmar military officials used to take part in training in Bangladesh Defense College and Defense Service Command and Staff College (DSCSC). The resumption of training could improve military collaboration.

Bangladesh’s Department of Narcotics Control has identified the Myanmar border as an important entry point of illegal drugs. Myanmar is one of the critical points in Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Thailand, Laos), Bangladesh is mainly used as transit to smuggle drugs.  Bangladesh has made arrests and busted drug running networks. Continuous engagement between Border Guard Bangladesh and Border Guard Police will incur positive consequences.

The Leap Forward

Improvement of ties between Bangladesh and Myanmar will ultimately prove to be fruitful for both the countries. For the two nations are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), hence, both nations hold important geopolitical significance in the region.

A peaceful and cooperative bilateral relations will greatly augment economic and strategic ties between the two nations as well as provide as conducive environment for Rohingya repatriation.

Syeda Noshin Sharmily
Syeda Noshin Sharmily
Syeda Noshin Sharmily is pursuing her bachelor’s in International Relations at University of Dhaka. Her field of interest includes international politics, political economy, international regime. She can be reached at @noshin.sharmily07[at]gmail.com