Friday, October 16, 2009

Myanmar and Bangladesh: Alarm bells on the eastern border

BANGLADESH and Myanmar are on a collision course with tension in the border that has been heightened by amassing of troops in their respective sides of the border. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, when asked by journalists about the construction of pillars for barbed wire fence along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border at Naikkhangchhari in Bandarban, said that the action is in accordance with international law. The Foreign Minister, however, told journalists that she was not aware that the Myanmar military had gathered 10,000 Rohingas in the border on their side with the intention of pushing them into Bangladesh. The Foreign Minister also did not comment on the amassing of troops near the border. She was trying to diffuse the tension diplomatically, which is understandable.

Bangladesh and Myanmar relations have been faltering in recent years. During the emergency, the two sides faced off a confrontation in the Bay of Bengal where they have disagreement over demarcation of maritime boundary with potentials of armed conflict. In fact, the two sides brought their warships into the area during the emergency period in Bangladesh when it protested Myanmar's decision to allow the Korean company Daewoo to move vessels and rigs in a disputed block to drill for hydrocarbons. In fact, Myanmar warships had escorted the Daewoo ships and rigs into the block provoking Bangladesh to move its warships. Although the Daewoo ships and rigs were later removed without any incident, the tension later shifted to the border where Myanmar continued to lay landmines, thus moving the tension from the sea to the land.

Myanmar has a history of securing its border with landmines. Between 1995 and 2000, Myanmar's military junta mined its side of the border with landmines to allegedly stop Arakanese rebels from entering into Myanmar from Bangladesh. It stopped planting more landmines after the alleged threat receded. Myanmar had earlier abstained from voting on the pro Mine Ban Treaty at the UN in 2002 and hence has no obligations under international law not to plant land mines on its territory. Despite the tensions at sea over the maritime boundary demarcation and planting land mines on its side of the border, the two sides have accepted diplomatic channels to resolve their disputes. In fact, during the Caretaker Government's tenure, Foreign Affairs Adviser of the CG and Myanmar's Foreign Minister had met in New Delhi on the sidelines of BMSTEC in a cordial meeting where both agreed informally to resolve the thorny issues in their bilateral relations through diplomatic channels.

Recent actions of Myanmar's military junta have not been following that informal understanding; in fact, these actions are overtly provocative. The rounding up of 10,000 Rohingas bring back to memory the ruthless action of Myanmar's military rulers in 1977 when they forced into Bangladesh over 2,00,000 Rohingas by scaring the daylights out of them, leaving them with no alternatives but to flee to Bangladesh for their dear lives. Although by 1979, most of them went back to Myanmar, they again flooded back to Bangladesh in greater number in the early 1990s and by March, 1992, 2, 60,000 Rohingas were pushed into Bangladesh. Bangladesh, with its scarce resources, had to look after the refugees with UNHCR assisting for a long time and still over 20,000 of them are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh. A new influx of Rohingas in the numbers seen in 1979 and 1992 could have far reaching disastrous economic, social and political consequences for Bangladesh.

Bangladesh's current apprehensions are not restricted to just a new influx of Rohinga refugees. Myanmar is an unpredictable regime ruled by a military junta that has scant respect for international opinion, having chosen isolation on its own volition. It has strengthened itself militarily over the years and today possesses formidable defense and offense capabilities. In recent times, it has added missiles of both the short and the medium range capabilities to its military arsenals from China, North Korea, Russia, Bulgaria and Ukraine. On a comparative scale, Myanmar's military is thus extremely well equipped to pose a serious threat to Bangladesh.

The contentious issues notwithstanding, the two countries have so far preferred diplomacy in conducting bilateral relations. Thus the recent provocative actions of Myanmar are unexpected. However, they are not surprising. Myanmar has been steadily building its relations with most of the western countries without giving much in return. The demand of USA for the release of the Noble Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has fallen on deaf ears. The military regime's ruthlessness, last witnessed in 2007 when it put down dissent of the country's much revered monks, shows no signs of weakening. Yet all the western nations together with Japan and South Korea, are vying with one another for doing business with the country's military junta. The USA has finally also joined the bandwagon by deciding to engage with the regime having concluded that economic sanctions to bring the military junta to submission have failed. Engagement, without relenting on the economic sanctions, could encourage the junta to accommodate popular participation with the military in sharing power where the possible inclusion of Aung is being seen by the US administration as a possibility. Myanmar today is finding wide acceptance internationally through the back door.

For Bangladesh, none of the above is good news. It has given Myanmar a new importance with powers that could otherwise have come to its assistance to persuade Myanmar to stop its provocative acts against Bangladesh. In fact, the scenario is more depressing when it comes to countries that have in the past come to Bangladesh's assistance in time of need. China is one such country that Bangladesh could have depended upon in the past as a friend in need. China's recent engagements with Myanmar that it values very much for strategic reasons have weakened Bangladesh's bargaining position because it cannot now expect China to use its influence to back Bangladesh against Myanmar. China may have other reasons to be upset with Bangladesh, for instance, over the granting to Taiwan the permission to open a Trade Office in Dhaka unilaterally in 2004. Even India, that Bangladesh could otherwise expect to support its cause against Myanmar because of the historical closeness between the incumbent ruling parties in Delhi and Dhaka, may only be lukewarm in the event Bangladesh has to seek its assistance to talk to Myanmar. India has gone ahead and developed its own relations with Myanmar, allowing its democratic commitments to take back seat.

At the back of the junta's mind there is also a lingering suspicion about Bangladesh in the context of its not very effective national reconciliation where there are many groups still fighting the military junta for freedom and right of self-determination. The junta also has a score to settle with Bangladesh for declining the joint request it made with India to Bangladesh during the last BNP Government for a gas pipeline to India at a time when the military junta needed hard cash very badly. Although there may have been then and still may be good reasons to deny the request; the denial had not been handled diplomatically nor communicated to Myanmar (and India) in a satisfactory manner.

Despite the tension in the border, the chances of Bangladesh and Myanmar fighting even a limited war soon is very unlikely. Nevertheless, the current situation on Bangladesh-Myanmar points to failure of Bangladesh foreign policy vis-à-vis Myanmar for which responsibility should be pinpointed at the doors of the past governments of Bangladesh in the last one decade. Scarce attention has been paid during this period to foreign policy and foreign relations. It is foreign policy nevertheless that can help Bangladesh with not just Myanmar but with its future as well. In this instance, although the Foreign Minister is not saying so, Myanmar's provocation may have been caused by Bangladesh granting lease in the Bay of Bengal to US companies in the part that it disputes, a part that has good prospects of striking oil and gas. The decision of Bangladesh to see UN arbitration to which Bangladesh is legally entitled may have enhanced that provocation.

Published in The Daily Star, October 17, 2009

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