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Can Myanmar-Bangladesh ties promote ASEAN-SAARC regional stability, prosperity?

By Sufian Siddique* 

Naf River flows through Bangladesh and Myanmar. The Rohingyas who fled through this river crossing the tortured, oppressed, expelled and fearing for their lives have taken refuge in Bangladesh. However, trade between the two countries can continue on this river route, cargo ships can crowd the river ports of the two countries.
Boats full of tourists can be floated on the river where tourists can see the sights of Bangladesh and Myanmar. Although the ongoing Rohingya problem with this neighboring country of Bangladesh is an obstacle, initiatives should be continued to improve the relationship between the two countries.
Bangladesh's two neighbouring countries are India and Myanmar. There is a 271 km border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Although the two countries are close to each other historically and socially, there is a lack of close contact between the people of the two countries.
Burma (now Myanmar) recognized Bangladesh on January 13, 1972 after independence, making Burma one of the first countries to do so. Soon after this, formal diplomatic relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh were established on 21 March 1972. As a result of Bangladesh's successful diplomatic initiatives, President Ne Win visited Bangladesh in April 1974. Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman spent a sincere and fruitful time with Ne Win.
Bangabandhu's river cruise diplomacy ushered in a new horizon in Burma-Bangladesh relations through a successful and warm sea voyage. In a joint manifesto at the time of farewell, both leaders expressed their hope that the Bangladesh-Burma border will always remain a border of peace and goodwill and will reflect the eternal friendship of the people of the two countries. To develop Bangladesh-Myanmar relations, strategic, diplomatic, military, economic, commercial, public diplomacy and integrated multifaceted long-term programs should be emphasized.
Bangladesh, which has been placed on the highway of development in the 21st century, must not look back and move forward in the fields of trade, communication, diplomacy and security by developing relations with neighboring countries, regional countries and organizations. Neighbouring country Myanmar can establish communication links between ASEAN countries and China with Bangladesh and also help Bangladesh to increase its communication with Seven Sisters of India.
The only obstacle in the way of these developments and progress is Myanmar's ongoing civil war and years of ethnic conflict. If this violence can be stopped, Myanmar will be able to move forward on the path of development. As a neighboring country, Bangladesh can also play a role in the economic, commercial and communication development of the two countries.
There is no direct communication between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Although there are about 20 bilateral agreements and memorandums of understanding between Myanmar and Bangladesh, there is no progress in them, which is unfortunate. Myanmar's trade relations with Bangladesh are negligible compared to Myanmar's other neighboring countries, India, Thailand, and China.
A memorandum of understanding was signed in 2007 for a direct road link between Bangladesh and Myanmar to boost trade and economic growth, so far progress has been slow. Efforts to develop connectivity with Myanmar should be continued to exploit mutual benefits and both China and India should be considered for connectivity through Myanmar. A road will be built by Bangladesh and Myanmar from Chakoria through Alikadam and Madak to Kaletwa inside Myanmar, which will be connected to the Kyuktao-Paltwa connecting road.
This road of Kaladan Multimodal Project connects Mizoram in India with China and Rakhine State in Myanmar. If the road is built, the communication of Bangladesh with ASEAN countries including Myanmar, China will be easy. It will reduce the cost and time of trade between Bangladesh and Southeast Asian countries including China, and the economic and social development of the area will result from the road construction.
The Asian Highway, if opened, will improve land connectivity between the two countries and help expand trade in fertilisers, plastics, cement, furniture and other goods along the route. Dohazari-Cox's Bazar railway line from Chittagong to Cox's Bazar will be launched soon. It is possible to improve inter-country connectivity by extending this railway line to Nepal, Bhutan and Northeast India.
As part of the proposed Trans-Asian Railway Network and Asian Highway Network, the entire region will benefit if this route connects the three countries from China through Gundum, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Not least the existing bilateral trade links between Myanmar and Bangladesh, the two countries could greatly benefit from improved trade contacts. Bangladesh and Myanmar are members of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). If Bangladesh and Myanmar increase their bilateral relations, their dependence on China and India will decrease and their trade with Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Southeast Asia and South Asia countries will expand. Bangladesh can act as an important link between ASEAN and SAARC.
If relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar improve, Myanmar as an ASEAN member will be able to increase trade in the SAARC free-trade zone through Bangladesh. Bangladesh and Myanmar can play a special role in connecting these two regions of South and Southeast Asia. By using Bangladesh as a transit, Myanmar will be able to access the markets of Bhutan, Nepal and India. Myanmar's Rakhine region can serve as a trading hub for Bangladesh and Myanmar. Rakhine needs a sustainable market for agricultural products and Bangladesh can be an ideal market.
Bangladesh has experience in garment and agriculture industries. Myanmar can benefit from Bangladesh's knowledge and experience in this regard. Myanmar and Bangladesh may organize trade fairs in Dhaka, Chittagong or Rangoon at regular intervals. Myanmar can benefit from technology transfer with advanced manufacturing facilities and imports of electronics and pharmaceuticals from Bangladesh. Myanmar's joint venture with Bangladesh could also work to increase agricultural productivity.
The pharmaceutical industry of Bangladesh is playing a big role in the country's economy and the pharmaceutical industry of Bangladesh has earned the glory of being an exporting country. In the last financial year, this medicine was exported from Bangladesh to 140 countries of the world and the largest export was to Myanmar.
Medicines exported from Bangladesh to Myanmar were worth 2.76 million dollars which is about 15 percent of the total medicine exports. Despite the Rohingya issue and crackdown on insurgents in border areas under the junta government, Myanmar's pharmaceutical exports have increased. With only 5 percent of Myanmar's total pharmaceutical demand met by exports from Bangladesh, there is scope for increasing exports from Bangladesh in Myanmar's pharmaceutical sector.
Initiatives can be taken to develop the relationship by identifying other possible areas for bilateral cooperation between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Myanmar has natural resources of wood tin, zinc, copper, tungsten, coal, marble, limestone, natural gas, hydropower etc. Bangladesh can get energy assistance from Myanmar and import essential minerals.
Myanmar has a lot of limestone and bamboo, Bangladesh can set up cement factories and paper mills in Myanmar. Myanmar is also a major supplier of natural timber to the world. Bangladesh and Myanmar can jointly invest in fish, wood processing, clinker industry, gas and mineral extraction, textile and agro-based industries. Myanmar is also a major producer of agricultural products. During Bangladesh's onion crisis with India in 2019, Myanmar supplied onions to Bangladesh.
If Bangladesh-Myanmar relations develop, interdependence in these areas will decrease. Myanmar can legally send cattle to Bangladesh to earn foreign exchange and both countries will benefit from it. In Bangladesh, Myanmar products are known as Burmese products, there are buyers for these products in this country. To increase bilateral trade and economic cooperation, Myanmar and Bangladesh should establish a border haat, which will increase communication between the people of the two countries and expand trade.
There is a huge potential for development in the tourism sector between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Beaches in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar and Myanmar's Rakhine state can be turned into attractive destinations for local and foreign tourists. They can experience two countries by visiting one country. The two countries can sign effective agreements between themselves for the development of tourism.
If student exchange, education scholarships, sports and cultural events are organized to improve the relations between the people of the two countries, Bangladesh-Myanmar relations will gradually become warm and sincere. Communication between Myanmar and Rakhine people, political parties and civil society can play an important role in building the foundation of trust and relations between the two countries. Both countries will benefit in many ways if engagement between academics, students, businessmen, civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is strengthened.
Bangladesh can support Myanmar's human resource development and simultaneously work together on microfinance, education and women's empowerment. If the Rakhine region is developed, Bangladesh will also benefit and peace and stability will prevail in the region. Internationally renowned NGOs of Bangladesh can help Myanmar's human resource development by providing vocational training in Myanmar.
Bangladesh has many years of experience in disaster and relief operations, Myanmar can learn from Bangladesh's experience in dealing with climate change and disasters and provide training in this area. Strengthen control through information exchange on cross-border and international terrorism, human trafficking, arms and drug trafficking. . Myanmar and Bangladesh can work together to address non-traditional security challenges in the Bay of Bengal, such as piracy control, drug and human trafficking, terrorism and ensuring environmental security.
On the occasion of Myanmar's Independence Day on January 4, 2023, Myanmar's army chief Min Aung Hlaing thanked China, India, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh for promoting cooperative relations despite various challenges. The people of Bangladesh extended warm greetings and congratulations to the people of Myanmar on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee of Myanmar's independence and wished them inclusive peace and prosperity. While the relationship between the two countries has many ups and downs, both countries should focus on strengthening the bilateral relationship for mutual benefits as well as greater interests in regional cooperation.
There is great potential for the development of relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Both countries can benefit from the development of political, social, commercial, diplomatic, military and people-to-people contacts. Such close contact between the two countries has not been established for many years due to various reasons. In the 21st century, the Rohingya crisis between the two countries has led to an increasing awareness of the need to establish this connection. It is hoped that when peace and stability return to Myanmar, such initiatives will add new dimensions to the development and prosperity of the region.
*Independent researcher and freelance columnist, Dhaka



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