Myanmar’s chronic martial rule (nowadays tends to improve) imposes upon major impediments towards the minimum maturation of effective bilateral relations with its closest neighbor, Bangladesh which was initiated through the Burmese recognition of Bangladesh as a sovereign state in 1972.
Even after passing four decades of bilateralism, asymmetric dyads prevailing over both countries’ regimes syndrome with occasional skirmishes and, number of border confrontations etc. As part of ongoing hostilities, recently on May 30, 2014, Myanmar Border Police locked into a fatal firing against Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) killing a BGB man named Corp. Naik Md. Mizanur Rahman, 43, near border post no 52.
Issuing a complaint letter after summoning Burmese ambassador, Bangladesh Foreign Ministry protested it terming the incident as ‘unprovoked eruption of gunfire’. Trashing the counter allegations stating it as ‘totally far from the real situation on the ground’, Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Naypyidaw responded saying the incident involved Myanmar troops and ‘two suspected armed Bengalis(Rohingyas)’ wearing yellow camouflage without any armband or badge which shows no identifiable Bangladeshi forces’ insignia. They also alleged that illegal intruders entered into 80 feet inside of Myanmar territory and one was killed as a so-called sectarian member of Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) and other survived fleeing into Bangladesh. Myanmar assured that the ‘guerilla insignia’ worn dead body does not match with BGB uniform but later on, it was proved opposite.
Racist Myanmar authority frequently uses the term, ‘Bengali’ to refer ethnic Rohingyas as alleged to be illegal immigrants (terming as ‘aliens’ or ‘impure bloods’ and thus, ‘non-nationals’ or foreign residents’) from Bangladesh who were settled couple of centuries ago (e.g. Arabs in 8th century, other ethnic Muslims in 14th century) . Therefore, stateless Rohingyas are denied of citizenship by Citizenship Act-1982 and live in ‘apartheid’ like segregated camps in communal Rakhine state.
This xenophobic law categorized Burmese nationals into— (1) Full Citizens, (2) Associate Citizens and, (3) Naturalized Citizens enlisting 135 national races which excluded Rohingyas (4 percent or 700,000 in number of total population). These also identified 428,000 persons of Indian origin (PIOs) as illegal settlers.
Like most democratic alliances, Bangladesh keeps its distance from the cleansing military regime and the distance was even widened more and continued so as Junta authority refused Noble Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of multiculturalist General Aung San who was involved with multiethnic and inter-faith comrades) to form her government after a landslide victory in 1990’s general election.
External intervention, absolutely China’s comprehensive endorsement mixed up with Junta’s ultimate determination help Myanmar’s militarism sustain its undemocratic evolution—coercive natures while dealing with small neighbor, Bangladesh. Due to Chinese border proximity, China intends to pursue its smooth interference in geo-strategically significant, South Asia and Bay of Bengal. Therefore, possible resolution of bilateral disputes between countries can create no-issue-situation for hegemonic China to engage in the region. As a result, Myanmar finds no way rather, has to keep the disputant issues sustain.
On the other hand, constant influx of ethnic Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh threats towards what remains the state-to-state relation nowadays. Moreover, land boundary settlement, demarcation of maritime boundaries, illegal trafficking and cross-border insurgencies (e.g. RSO, Rohingya Islamist Movement—RIM etc) impose upon bitter dimensions to the frozen relationship.
Rohingya issue alone surpasses the intensity of all bilateral disputes. Myanmar’s stateless people, ethnic Rohingyas started migrating to Bangladesh since 1978 when a number of 200,000 Rohingyas left their ‘terrorist state’, Myanmar for Bangladesh being feared to be persecuted by notorious ‘Nagamin Sit Sin’ operation of the Myanmar Army—Tatmadaw.
Later in 1990s, another group of approx. 250, 000 Rohingyas was added to the existing number of Rohingya people in Bangladesh as the possibilities of being persecuted multiplied. Recently in 2012, a large number of Rohingyas sought to enter into the southern Bangladesh as Buddhist Monk riots started to ethnocide in Rakhine State (erstwhile Arakan). These riotous eruptions of the sectarian violence snatched away the lives of at least 240 people and displaced around 140,000 others, mostly ethnic Rohingyas. UNHCR shows around 28,000 Rohingya refugees live in UN camps closed to the border and approximately 200,000 Rohingyas spontaneously settled outside the camps in Bangladeshi mainstreams.
Already overburdened Bangladesh strongly resisted taking more number of them. Later on world media showed cruel treatment and scenario while boat-laden Rohingyas cried fearing potential persecutions when they were pushed back in genocidal Myanmar under the treatment of heartless rejections from Bangladeshi forces when they reached the border crossing over Naf River. Bangladesh strategically rejects Rohingya entry to its territory, as Myanmar shows no interests to repatriate Bangladesh-settled Rohingyas ignoring 1978’s Repatriation Agreement and 1992’s Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). Who decides on the baby who is born today? Besides, increasing number of Rohingyas cause tensions in local communities through ranges of crime commitments.
Maritime disputes occurred military hostilities in 2008 when Bangladeshi warships confronted Burmese naval vessels in the disputed waters as escorting Daewoo International, a ship of South Korean firm engaged in oil exploration under the permission of Burmese military authority. The situation was further escalated in 2009 when Bangladesh entitled American Irish firms offshore exploration rights. The size and value of the reserved resources have locked both parties in to a ‘no-compromising-stand’ and Bangladesh is immovable to extract resources and then supply to its deficit national grid. Besides, Rakhine state’s hydroelectric and transport projects led it radical militarization to ensure the Militarized Myanmar’s grip over the lucrative resources.
However in 2010, Myanmar was found diplomatic solutions with the Bangladeshi oil and gas authority, PetroBangla restricting further exploration in Myanmar and India adjacent blocks until the dispute is resolved by international body.
The land and maritime boundary issues found a level of settlement through 2012 verdict of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) where Bangladesh was entitled over 111,000 square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) waters in the Bay of Bengal and 12 nautical miles of territorial sea around St. Martin Island. This verdict was win-win approach as both of the countries were satisfied in a sense that they took out national processions appreciating the verdict. Therefore, it is expected that the Myanmar government will materialize its commitment to implement the judgment towards resolving one of the chronic bilateral disputes in the bay. Regarding other issues, constant bilateral talks may bring about solutions on cross-border trafficking, movement and, insurgencies etc.
Rakibul Hasan is an Op-Ed Sub-Editor of The Bangladesh Today. CONTACT Alumni, U.S State Department. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org