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SHOULD MYANMAR REMAIN OUR DISTANT NEIGHBOUR?

M Anwarul Haq
Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka March 16, 2002

The train
was on its way to Bahadurabad. Ambassadors of two European Union countries who were taking a group of reporters to show some of their funded projects more than a year back were chatting with them.
At one point, the topic turned to the border clashes that Bangladesh border forces, the BDR had with the Myanmar forces, the Nasaka. Someone asked the ambassadors what would be the position of their countries, if it erupted into a major conflict.
Both the envoys said, "There is no doubt we would support Bangladesh in its fight against Burma."
One added, "Bangladesh will become frontline state in a battle for democracy."
There is no doubt that both the diplomats, who were known for their love for Bangladesh meant it sincerely.
Burma, as many western countries, particularly the US, still prefer to call by its own name, has been in remarkable isolation first by its own choosing and later by its crackdown on democratic forces after Aung San Suu Kyi won the elections.
The ire and concern of western countries, of human rights activists and all democracy loving people including our own over delay in restoration of democracy in Myanmar is understandable.
But should internal conditions of a country prevent others from trading or dealing with that nation on the economic plane? One need not go further but look at the record of the United States dealing with countries with minimal human rights record. They know that internal democracy is one thing while bilateral diplomacy is a different ball game altogether.
For Bangladesh, there are only two neighbours. But the fact remains that our people led by the policy planners have been thinking only of India as THE NEIGHBOUR. In the process we are unwittingly pushing our only other neighbour Myanmar away. By following such a policy we are depriving ourselves the many advantages that we could reap by building a bridge of friendship with neighbouring Myanmar with whom we have a 317 kilometre land boundary.
Even our THE NEIGHBOUR India has long abandoned its policy of speaking openly in support of pro-democracy movements led by the SLORC in Myanmar. At one time Delhi even used to run a regular propaganda service by the All-India Radio lambasting the Burmese military regime, but that too has been disbanded.
The fact is that in the realm of foreign affairs, India has been pragmatic enough to follow a policy of better neighbourliness with Myanmar. Today it has many agreements in place with Yangon and is constructing highway networks to connect its north-eastern states. There is definite indication that not only in roads but the two countries are willing to enter into the sector of energy cooperation by building gas pipeline.
Why did India decide to woo Myanmar while Bangladesh keeps sitting with its BDR trained across the Naaf river? India could understand that a policy of isolation would drive Myanmar into the Chinese fold completely. China has already connected Myanmar with good surface links and is working on a deep sea port, a likely naval base deep south known as Coco's island. India, perhaps in response, has focussed recently on its Andaman and Nicobar Islands defence establishments and upgraded them into another command. The naval developments pose a peril for neighbours like Bangladesh, as it could become a potential flashpoint.
It is the turn of Bangladesh to be bypassed by Myanmar if we fail to act now. While we have a per capita income of less than 200 dollars, Myanmar's is 1200 dollars. Even in military strength, although exact figures are not available, Myanmar has a large if not larger land force than ours.
Should we look at the European Union for our Burma policy?
Investment of several European Union countries, besides China, Japan, Thailand and Singapore's in Myanmar, despite its lack of democracy, is simply phenomenal.
I do not have the latest figures of foreign investment in Myanmar, nor does our Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But what I learnt from Myanmar foreign minister U Win Aung during an exclusive interview two years back in Dhaka, I am stating:
"We tried to build the economy without foreign participation. This policy has now been abandoned.
"Presently we have foreign investments of over seven billion US dollars, most of those in the oil and gas sector and the rest in hotel and tourism industry. Earlier we had one hotel; now we have 700 hotel rooms.
"Myanmar," the foreign minister said, "never received one cent of international assistance. (Now) we would like to get international assistance but without any strings attached."
What is even more significant is that the western countries as well as China and India since some time now are re-inventing the strategic importance of Myanmar.
Myanmar's geographic location is most strategic. Whoever controls Myanmar, controls the gateway to Asia. It has long borders with China, Thailand, India, and of course Bangladesh. Due to its geo-strategic location it is essential that Myanmar is kept non-aligned with any single power. This perhaps the western countries are now realizing quickly.
Bangladesh, as anyone knows, has a major irritant with Myanmar. We had been swamped by the influx of Rohingya refugees. However, protracted negotiations have almost solved this problem. Myanmar has taken back 230,000 Rohingyas out of some 251,000 since the refugees began crossing the border way back in December, 1991. According to last week's figure there are some 21,627 Myanmar refugees, taking into account new born babies and split families. The trickle back is slow for these residual numbers but Myanmar watchers feel that this problem would have been solved long back had the visit of Senior General Than Shwe who is the prime minister, materialized, more than a year back. Not only the problem of refugees would have been solved but also the entire trade regime of Bangladesh and Myanmar opened up on a grand scale.
Although Than Shwe's illness was attributed to a last minute cancellation of the visit, it is time now to send a fresh invitation for the visit to Bangladesh of a neighbouring Prime Minister. This could be preceded by trips of our Foreign Secretary and Foreign Minister besides having the stalled BDR Nasaka talks completed at the earliest.
Cross border problems with neighbours are not uncommon. What is uncommon is not to have any irritants among neighbours. Problems of border demarcation and refugees no longer stand in the way of developing bilateral ties, particularly on an economic plane. China and India despite their long dispute over border demarcation are going ahead in building economic relations. Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji recently went on a lengthy trip of India after touring Bangladesh.
What is interesting to note is that another neighbour of Yangon Thailand has more than one hundred thousand illegal Myanmarese refugees living in camps in the country. Despite the problem, the two neighbours maintain harmonious economic relationship.
Myanmar, contrary to the old school of thought is no longer living in isolation. Thousands of western visitors flock to the country. It has succeeded in becoming a part of the South East Asian economy by successfully joining the ASEAN bandwagon. Even it decided to join what started as BISTEC comprising of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand the four-nation forum for economic cooperation. Mooted primarily by Dhaka, Yangon through its insistence became the fifth member to join the grouping now called BIMSTEC which the M for Myanmar added.
Bangladesh has a potential for tapping into the consumer market of Myanmar by exporting pharmaceuticals, toiletries, newsprint, fertilizer, ceramic products, bottled juice, leather goods and tobacco.
Myanmar too could benefit from the export of timber, rice, maize, pulses, gems and precious stones. Besides there are ample opportunities of expanding border trade, reviving old sea links and opening up road communications.
Bangladesh has worked out a weeklong marketing extravaganza in Yangon beginning March 26 where it will promote its culture and cuisine and also parade in traditional and non-traditional wares. During the promotional blitz, visiting members from Bangladesh delegation will play golf with locals while a team from the defence services will play hockey.
A new beginning in Bangladesh Myanmar relationship is being attempted. But the two countries will have to engage themselves in more constructive diplomacy, golf-wise and business wise for their mutual benefit. Otherwise they would continue to remain distant and remote neighbours.
Let Bangladesh tee off by putting the ball in Myanmar's court.


M Anwarul Haq is Diplomatic and Defense Correspondent of The Daily Star