Historically, relations between Bangladesh and Burma, now Myanmar, date back to the rule of the King of Arakan in 951 AD and King Meng Khamaung extended his authority up to Chittagong, now a part of Bangladesh where he built a strong fort and stationed a strong naval force. Geographically, Myanmar is located on eastern part of Bangladesh with whom it has 27 kilometres of border. In its southeast, a stretch of at least 150 kilometres is porous in view of rugged hilly area and densely forested terrain. Strategically, Myanmar enjoys distinctive position between two Asian giants China and India. The same position is applied to Bangladesh. Naturally, both Bangladesh and Myanmar enjoy important strategic positions in South Asia and South-East Asia.
Since the National League for Democracy won in a democratic election in 50 years of Myanmar's history after military and quasi- military-civilian rule, the foreign policy of the government has been to build relations with its neighbours in the first place and with important countries of the world, apart from resolving conflicts around common borders. That has been reflected in the visit by Aung San Suu Kyi, Counsellor (de facto head of government) and Foreign Minister of Myanmar to Laos, Thailand and China. President of Myanmar Htin Kyaw also visited India from August 27 for four days to ensure management of over 1,600-kilometre India-Myanmar border and stepping up bilateral relations. This was followed by the visit of Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj on August 22 to Myanmar.
This being the scenario in the context of foreign policy of Myanmar, Bangladesh should make an effort to build friendly and cooperative relations with the newly and democratically elected government of that country. In 2012, dispute over maritime demarcation between Bangladesh and Myanmar was resolved through arbitration by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Repatriation of persecuted Rohingya Muslims of Arakan, now known as Rakhine state of Myanmar, who took asylum in Bangladesh, remains a bottleneck in bilateral relations, apart from occasional border skirmishes, the last being in May of 2016 when a Bangladesh border police guard was killed in an unprovoked attack.
During the visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Myanmar in December of 2011, immediate past President General Thein Sein assured to take back Rohingyas from Bangladesh but his commitment did not materialise as yet. This is the only irritant issue between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Gen.Ne Win, President of military government of Myanmar, took back by 1980 as many as 200,000 Rohingyas during the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party under President Ziaur Rahman through bilateral agreement because of pressure exerted by the Malaysian government of Datuk Hussein Onn.
Myanmar Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi thanked the Chinese government for initiative of Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor (BCIM) during her recent visit to China. This has been reflected in a joint statement. Myanmar is also a member of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) which was formed in 1997 with its permanent headquarters in Dhaka.
Economic cooperation has become a priority factor in diplomacy in the 21st century and Asia has turned out to be a pivotal factor in this sector. China, Japan, South Korea and India are leading leaders in economic development in Asia followed by Bangladesh whose GDP (gross domestic product) stands at over 6.0 per cent annually. Trade plays an important role in increasing economic development. As of now, trade between Bangladesh and Myanmar is quite negligible. During 2012-2013 fiscal year, exports from Bangladesh to Myanmar stood at $1,092.45 million while import at $ 67.03 million. Myanmar is the second biggest country in South East Asia after Indonesia with a population of 56 million. Geologically, Myanmar is a resourceful country but its people lag behind their ASEAN neighbours. As recorded in 2011, the gross domestic product per capita reached $824.19 dollars, as reported by the World Bank.
Bangladesh should avail the opportunities in BCIM and BIMSTEC forums to develop relations with Myanmar. It is heartening that a special envoy of the Prime Minister met Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar defence forces on June 30.This seems to be a beginning of Bangladesh's efforts to develop relations with Myanmar. The Bangladesh Ambassador in Myanmar should also take initiatives to develop relations with the business community in Myanmar in particular and develop avenues of joint ventures in garment and shoe factories by utilising Myanmar's manpower. Bangladesh may also persuade Myanmar to buy hydropower to meet shortage of electricity.
Since Myanmar has emphasised on reconciliation with an armed group along its border, Bangladesh should extend a hand of cooperation to Myanmar in its peace process.
Bangladesh should explore business opportunities in Myanmar which is expecting foreign investment on a large scale in oil and gas sector in particular. Bangladesh should take further initiative to expedite ties with China for construction of Chittagong-Mandalay-Kunming highway which will expedite trade relations with these countries, apart from reaching Mekong sub-region including Cambodia, Guangxi Zhuang province of China and Vietnam. This route has become a part of BCIM which was endorsed in 2013. The history of this route could be traced back to the historical Silk Road connecting eastern China and India with Central Asia.
Bangladesh should chalk out a comprehensive programme in consultation with think-tanks and the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry to begin discussion with Myanmar. Modus operandi should be found out to resolve Rohingya refugee issue. This humanitarian problem needs to be settled. Bangladesh needs Myanmar on its side to secure its economic and strategic interests. Bangladesh cannot become a pawn at the hands of one of two Asian giants for its own national interest.
The writer is a retired Bangladeshi diplomat.