Myanmar's intransigence: It's time to bury the hatchet

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: October 15, 2018 21:54:56

The Myanmar attempt to claim a Bangladesh island as its territory goes far beyond the borders of credulity. That the beleaguered country can stoop to such a low has never occurred to the Bangladesh authorities. Obviously, the vile attempt has once again demonstrated the incorrigibly belligerent policy adopted by Naypyidaw vis-à-vis Dhaka. It exposes the quintessentially lame-duck nature of the country's 'democratic' government, veritably run on the advice of the previous military rulers.  Had not the news been surfaced in the media, and triggered diplomatic protest from Bangladesh, the situation could have ended up in a shocking turn one fine morning. Few in the outside world actually know what Myanmar still has up its sleeves.

The news of Myanmar's attempt to show Bangladesh's St. Martin's Island on the Bay of Bengal as part of its territory in a map is highly unsettling. Mere denouncing the bid as having been prompted by an 'ulterior motive' is undermining its gravity. What prompts observers to arrive at this conclusion is related to some disconcerting facts. Myanmar released a map online after it had conducted a population and housing census in 2014. The said map shows Bangladesh's St. Martin's Island as part of Myanmar. What troubles Bangladesh is the timing of the map's appearance -- in 2018. After a strong protest from Bangladesh side was lodged with Myanmar's ambassador to Dhaka on October 06, the information was said to have been corrected. But the colour of the Bangladesh's island-territory and Myamar's Rakhine state in the map remained similar to that of the country. It meant the neighbouring country had not given up its attempt to lay claim to the St. Martin's Island as its territory. The phony reason Myanmar had put forward for its misdeed was what it called the presence of Rohingya insurgents on St. Martin's Island.

That the Myanmar action has sparked uproar in Bangladesh, especially in the diplomatic and political circles, is no surprise in one sense. Before the diplomatic-level protest, a meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs took up the issue in all seriousness. Myanmar has been unabashed in demonstrating its unfriendly attitude towards Bangladesh in the last two decades. The most prominent of them was its foolhardy step of flaunting its military might through a naval presence on the Bay of Bengal. It occurred in early November, 2008, when the junta-ruled country sent an exploration ship escorted by a flotilla of naval boats to an area near the St. Martin's Island. The ships moved past the edge of the Bangladeshi island, reported the international edition of The Guardian, UK. As a defensive act, Bangladesh responded by sending a British-made frigate to an area 30 miles south of the island. It later joined three other warships there.

Myanmar had been eying the reserve of an estimated 14 trillion cubic feet of gas lying beneath the sea floor. The unwarranted military face-off took place four years before a long-awaited verdict on a case involving Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime boundaries went in favour of Bangladesh. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea delivered the judgement on March 14, 2012.

With the festering dispute long over, and Bangladesh about to start gas exploration in its part of the Bay of Bengal, the Myanmar attempt to claim St. Martin's Island as part of its territory triggers scores of misgivings. It has happened amid the raging crisis of Rohingya Muslims' influx into Bangladesh. The foot-dragging of Myanmar in taking back nearly 700,000 of its citizens has virtually been stuck in a stalemate. The atrocities let loose on the Rohingya Muslim-inhabited villages in Myanmar by its security forces in late-August, 2017, had set off a great humanitarian crisis: a mass exodus of refugees into Bangladesh. The nonchalance of the military-blessed government, with Suu Kyi as figurehead, over taking effective steps to cooperate with Bangladesh in the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees, has deepened the crisis. All this has been adding to the tarnished image of the country and its elected leader Suu Kyi. Myanmar is set to emerge in the broader global perspective as a pariah state.

Meanwhile, the universal demand for secure and dignified return of the Rohingyas to their homeland is feared to linger as an illusion. For Bangladesh, the adversities are apprehended to brew in the economic sector. In the case of Myanmar the crisis is set to comprise issues ranging from global ostracising, big-power sanctions and the dangling sword of being booked by the international criminal court.

To the chagrin of Bangladesh, Myanmar continues to indulge in provocations against it. Nevertheless, opportunities are always there to return to a state of peaceful coexistence. It's time to bury the hatchet. Hostility gives nothing. Instead, it robs nations of the prospects for progress. But in the present case, Myanmar has to act first by taking the Rohingyas back.

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