Dhaka Courier

Bangladesh-Myanmar Relations: An Overview

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Bangladesh-Myanmar relations are ancient and are rooted in history. It is worth noting that Shah Shuja (23 June 1616 – 7 February 1661) was the second son of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and Empress Mumtaz Mahal. He was the governor of Bengal and Odissa (Orissa) and had his capital at Dhaka in present day Bangladesh.

History has it that after the illness of Emperor Shah Jahan in September 1657, a power crisis occurred among the brothers. Shah Shuja proclaimed himself as Emperor but Aurangzeb ascended the throne of Delhi and sent Mir Jumla to subjugate Shuj Shuja.

He was defeated in the Battle of Khajwa on 5 January 1659. Shuja retreated first to Tandah (at present known as Oudh) and then to Dhaka on 12 April 1660. He left Dhaka on 6 May and boarded ships near Bhulua (Noakhali) on 12 May heading Arakan. Mir Jumla reached Dhaka on 9 May 1660 and was then appointed by Aurangzeb as the next Subah-dar (Governor) of Bengal.

It is a historical truth with Shah Shuja, many Muslims went to Myanmar and they are mostly in the Rakhine (Arakan) province.

Later, some Muslims from Central India and some from China settled in Myanmar.  Most of them are reportedly live in cities Yangon and Mandalay.  The Muslims who live in Rakhine (Arakan) are commonly known as “Rohingyas.”

It is fascinating to note that the name “Rohingya” is taken from "Rohang" or "Rohan," which was the name used for the Arakan region during the 9th and 10th centuries. According to Rohingya history, the group is descended from 7th century Arab, Mughal, and Bengali merchants who settled in the Arakan territory.

The above paragraphs simply demonstrate that the interactions between the two countries are not only ancient but also have significant impact on their relations from the past to the present.

Let me provide a few attention-giving features of Bangladesh and Myanmar. The size of Myanmar is very large compared to that of Bangladesh. Myanmar’s area is about 676,577 square kilometers while the area of Bangladesh is about 147,570 square kilometers. While its population as of 2018 is about 53,855,735 (Five million + plus) with density of 82 persons per kilometer, Bangladesh has a population of 165 million as of 2017) and the density of the population is around 1,252 people per square kilometer of land area, It is reported that 89% of Myanmar’s population is Buddhists, while Bangladesh has around 88% per cent Muslims.

Although the Buddhists are known to be peaceful, there have been many aggressive/militant Buddhists both in Myanmar (and in Sri Lanka) who reportedly do not tolerate people of other faiths and they wish to expel them to other countries.

Bangladesh shares border with Myanmar around 271 km. both in land and on the border Naaf River.  The terrain of the territorial boundaries is indistinguishable that one may cross across the border without realising it. The Arakan mountains separate Rakhine and Chin states which are adjacent to the border of Bangladesh.

When the British came to govern the countries of this part of the world, Myanmar (Burma) was a part of British-ruled India. The country was separated from British-India in 1937 and the British continued to govern the country until the country achieved independence in 1948.

It may incidentally be noted that the change of the country’s name from “Burma” to “Myanmar” was declared in June 1989.  It is reported that the meaning of Myanmar (Myan means quick or fast and Mar means hard, strong or tough). Though the country has been ruled by Burmans (68% percent majority), there exists many ethnic groups, such as Karens, Shans, Karenni and Kachins. In recognition to its multi-ethnic composition of the population, the country’s name has been changed.

The country capital has been shifted to about 300, kilometers north of former capital city Yangon (Rangoon in British days) in 2008 and the new capital city’s name is Naypyidaw (meaning  Abode of Kings).

On bilateral relations, there were two issues which caused some irritation between them.  First was the demarcation of sea-boundary between them.  It is a matter of satisfaction that the matter was settled peacefully on March 2012 by the 1982 International Tribunal of the Law of Sea Convention.

The second one has been with the Rohingya refugees issues.  Between August and November 2017, it is reported that the Myanmar military’s operations’ forced more than 622,000 Rohingya to cross the border into neighbouring Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh government has faced the Rohingya crisis many times. In 1978, an anti-insurgency campaign of Myanmar’s then military government in Rakhine state saw widespread brutal acts led nearly 300,000 Rohingyas to cross the border to Bangladesh. It was again in 1991-92, a second wave of over 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh to escape the ongoing military crackdown. Both countries had peacefully settled the issue through a bilateral dialogue.

The reactions of some foreign governments on the Rohingya issue are described very briefly in the following paragraphs.

The United States has called the treatment of the Rohingya ‘ethnic cleansing’ and threatened sanction against those responsible.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in June 2018 at a bilateral meeting in Beijing, extended the assurance to his Bangladesh counterpart AH Mahmood Ali. Describing the situation of 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Minister Ali sought China’s active support in the repatriation process, says a foreign ministry press release.

At the UN General Assembly, on 27th September 2018, Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had condemned the Myanmar government for the massacre of Rohingya in Rakhine. “I believe in non-interference in the internal affairs of nations. But does the world watch massacres being carried out and do nothing? ”Nations are independent. But does this mean they have a right to massacre their own people, because they are independent?” he said

Meanwhile, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina laid out a five-point plan that calls for protection of the Rohingya in UN-supervised safe zones inside Myanmar.

Rakhine State’s Maungdaw, where most of the listed Rohingya refugees originated from, Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali visited Myanmar on 23rd August 2018 to discuss progress on Rohingya repatriation with Myanmar leadership.  The Bangladesh Foreign minister reportedly said Myanmar had already cleared the list of 8,000 Rohingyas and Bangladesh has been matching their villages of origin.   “Now the effort will be to build housing in those villages in Myanmar so that they can live there once they return,” he said, Many  governments have stripped of awards given to her at the time when she was in prison for a long time in her country for  present muted reaction on the atrocities perpetrated by Maynmar authorities. It is no defence that she has no control over army, although her party NLD has formed the government and she designated as “State Counsellor”, the de facto leader of the country.

 Finally, there have been positive interactions between the two government of Bangladesh and Myanmar since June 2013. The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) regional grouping to establish an “economic corridor” among the countries. The first meeting of BCIM team met in December 19, 2013 and second meeting took place in Cox’s Bazar on 17-18 December, 2014.

With the availability of the economic corridor, people-to-people contact is bound to increase and consequently commercial and trade opportunities would receive further boost between the two countries. This economic corridor could later be extended to China and Thailand as well.

Barrister Harun ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

  • Bangladesh-Myanmar Relations: An Overview
  • Issue 27
  • Barrister Harun ur Rashid
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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