The Daily Star>>>
Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh Mijarul Quayes will be paying a visit to Myanmar to meet his counterpart on August 24 for two days to discuss bilateral and regional issues. The last meeting at the foreign secretary level took place in Dhaka on December 28, 2009. The trip is welcomed.
It is reported that the issues to be discussed, among others, may include:
* Multi-modal transport connectivity;
* Border security to prevent criminal activities and illegal immigration;
* Facilitation of trade;
* Repatriation of remaining Rohingya refugees;
* Cooperation in other areas including energy and agriculture.
Myanmar is the only other neighbour of Bangladesh besides India. Bangladesh shares 271 km of border with Myanmar -- both land and water. The two countries share the boundary Naaf River. Bangladesh is adjacent to two states of Myanmar -- Rakhaine and Chin.
Myanmar recognised Bangladesh on January 13, 1972 (the 7th country to do so) and Bangladesh remembers this friendly gesture.
Soon after independence, Bangladesh attached importance to its relations with Myanmar and in May 1972, the Bangladesh foreign minister visited Myanmar, and sent our seniormost diplomat.
Myanmar is so close but at the same time it is too far because of lack of interconnectivity. One has to travel by air from Bangladesh to Myanmar through a third country. This is unacceptable and needs to be sorted out as soon as possible for mutual benefit.
Bilateral relations are friendly but interactions between the two neighbours leave much to be desired. There are about 10 Agreements between the two countries, including those on areas of land boundary management, trade, transport, and prevention of narcotics smuggling. However, there is no direct road connectivity, no air link and no shipping connection between the two countries.
With the availability of weatherproof road, people-to-people contact is bound to increase and, consequently, commercial and trade opportunities will receive further boost between the two neighbouring countries. The road could also be used for establishing links with China and Thailand. Meanwhile, China has agreed in principle to Bangladesh's proposal of road connectivity through Myanmar to China's Yunnan province.
Since the present government came to power, there has been an attempt to inject momentum and dynamism into bilateral relations. On May 16, 2009, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. Dipu Moni visited Myanmar and held official talks with her counterpart U Nyan Winz.
They reportedly discussed a host of issues, including repatriation of the remaining Myanmar refugees, relaxation of visa requirements for citizens of either country, facilitation of banking services, increased border trade, export of surplus power to Bangladesh, road link between the two countries up to China, direct air link, and sharing bandwidth with fiber-optic cable.
In January 2011, the Bangladesh foreign minister attended the 13th ministerial level meeting of BIMSTEC in Myanmar, and on the sidelines she discussed bilateral issues with her counterpart. She held discussions with a private company in Myanmar to purchase hydropower from adjoining Rakhaine state (Arakan).
The amount of bilateral trade is meager. It is reported that in 2008-09 Bangladesh's exports stood at $9.17 million and imports from Myanmar at $66.65 million. To increase trade, the joint trade commission of Bangladesh and Myanmar held its fifth meeting on July 21-22. It was agreed that the two countries would raise bilateral trade to $550 million from $160 million now.
Both countries agreed to increase the ceiling for transaction value to $50,000 per consignment from $30,000. Officials also discussed the potential for setting up wholesale border markets at Bangladesh's Teknaf and Myanmar's Maungdaw, a border town.
They also discussed how to complete border transactions through the Asian Clearing Union payment system as Bangladeshi importers now settle their payments for bulk shipments through bank drafts issued by foreign banks to a third country.
One of the bilateral issues that often cause tension is related to the issue of Rohingya refugees. It first cropped up in 1978. Within a year, it was resolved amicably. The result was all the refugees were repatriated to Myanmar with the assistance of the UNHCR. However, the flow of refugees came to Bangladesh in 1991 and 1997. About 21,000 refugees remain in Bangladesh and negotiations on the issue continue.
The migration of Rohingya people to Bangladesh is a complex matter. It should not be seen merely as a refugee problem with humanitarian dimension partly because Rohingya Liberation Front has been reportedly fighting for decades for a separate land in Rakhaine state.
Given the background, both countries need to identify the root cause of the issue and jointly develop effective border management to prevent the flow of Rohingyas to Bangladesh.
The political environment in Myanmar is different from that of the past. Myanmar had elections in November and a civilian government (dominated by former military officials), has been in power since March 30.
The opposition leader Suu Kyi has met twice in recent weeks with representatives of the government, who have delivered conciliatory overtures toward her. On August14, she made her first political trip to the countryside. On August 19, the government invited Suu Kyi for the first time to participate in an economic development workshop, and she met for the first time with President Thein Sein.
Given the political atmosphere, Bangladesh may now seize the opportunity to expand its relations, both in depth and in dimension, with the government of Myanmar, including the desirability of a visit of Bangladesh prime minister to Myanmar.
The geographical proximity makes both countries natural partners, and they should see cooperative efforts and interconnectivity as catalysts for economic growth and prosperity for the people of Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.