Thursday, 09 July 2020

By M. Shahidul Islam

Look East policy revived

The foreign office in Dhaka has wasted much time since January in rubbing wrong ointment in wrong spots. The Indian north-east ought not to have deserved as much priority from Dhaka as Myanmar and its Arakan region. Yet, for obscure reason, there was a fixation of focus to India 's north-east.

Myanmar is the only nation which has imposed intermittent exodus of refugees upon Bangladesh . Besides, Myanmar remains the only gateway to the East and forms a confluence of Islamic and Buddhist civilisations in East Asia 's gateway.

Yet, delusion and diversion stalled the tide of history for decades along the 320 km Bangladesh-Myanmar borders and, there has been no road link between the two neighbours. Whatever trans-border trade occurred so far, two transit points were used to that end. It is time to get closer with Myanmar and Look East intently with focus, passion and perseverance.

Delving with dictatorship may not always be easy and Myanmar is being ruled by a military junta for years now. Yet, the visit to Yangon (April 25-29) by foreign affairs adviser, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, and the signing of a major deal to construct a road link with the nation's land and maritime neighbour is the first major breakthrough in shaping the nation's foreign policy by the non-political interim regime.

Road to realism

The deal's signing shows realism the otherwise hermetic foreign office. The deal has shifted focus of external relations back to where it ought to be: Looking East, a priority that was set out by the previous government but could not be brought to fruition due to time constraints and the political instability surrounding the formation of a caretaker government in late 2006.

Signed in Yangon on April 28, the deal includes a commitment by Dhaka to pay for the construction of 25 km road to connect Bangladesh 's south-eastern Gundhum area with Bolibazar of Myanmar. The road will be extended to connect Bangladesh with Thailand and China to increase trade and tourism with the fast growing Far East .

For this and other reasons, the deal is important; both symbolically and substantively. Dhaka-Yangon relations has been clouded by a number of irritants in the past, prominent among which was the intermittent exodus of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar 's Arakan region into southern Bangladesh . The ice has begun to melt with the signing of the latest deal.

The road will increase connectivity, enhance cross border trade and crime prevention capabilities and reduce tension with respect to the volatile Arakan region over which Yangon has wobbly leverage. The deal was inked at a time when the Muslim refugee crisis has made Arakan a flash point of some sort in the eyes of the world. So far, Dhaka has fended off a series of pressures from Western governments seeking Bangladesh to take a tough stand with Myanmar . Dhaka 's patience is paying off now.

National interest

We tempt to jog the memory because, since the assumption of power by the interim administration, the foreign office oscillated between high and low priorities in policy making to the point of indecisiveness. The deal with Myanmar shows that Chowdhury has chosen the right time to pick up from where former foreign minister Morshed Khan had left. It is a timely waking up to face an inescapable reality. The move will enhance our national interest.

This time, Chowdhury is learnt to have had extensive talks with his counterpart, Nyan Win, on April 27 and discussed several other bilateral issues. Later, he also had a meeting with Myanmar 's acting Prime Minister, Lt. General Thein Sein, at the latter office in the nation's new capital, Naypyidaw.

Besides the road link deal, the two leaders covered a number of other issues, including repatriation of refugees, border trade, contract farming, maritime boundary demarcation, simplification of visa regulations and the establishment of a joint-commission.

The two nations must do much more sooner to remove all the existing irritants so that the deserved regional integration for mutual benefits can be fast-tracked, and, Dhaka-Yangon relations can attain a higher trajectory.

Geopolitics of a crisis

Historically, an unstable Arakan has always spelt trouble for Bangladesh , although Myanmar 's Rakhine state, of which Arakan is an integral part, played a pivotal role throughout history in the exchange of cultures and religions between greater India and Southeast Asia .

The helpless Rohingyas cannot be faulted for those historical vicissitudes caused by ethnic and geopolitical manoeuvres of regional actors. For over a thousand years, the region constituted an independent state, with rich history, culture and literature. That is why some Rohingyas seek a homeland of their own amid Myanmar 's stubbornness in not granting them citizenship. Yangon must change that stance now, for citizenship by birth and domicile constitutes an inherent aspect of fundamental human rights.

Following Burma 's gaining of independence on January 4, 1948, tension increased between the Arakanese Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingyas, resulting in the exodus of a large number of Rohingyas to Bangladesh . The Burmese government maintains that the Rohingyas were relatively recent migrants from the sub-continent. Until now, the Burmese constitution does not allow the Arakan Muslims to qualify for citizenship; that too must change.

In March 1978, due to widespread arrests and expulsions of Rohingyas by the Burmese government, a large number of them fled into Bangladesh . Another exodus of approximately 250,000 Rohingyas took place during 1991-1992 and then again in 1996-97. The intermittent exoduses were triggered by a complex combination of political, social and economic factors. Each time, human rights violations were blatant.

Intense negotiations have so far resulted in the repatriation of around 200,000 to Arakan, while another about 20,000 still remain in Bangladesh . Myanmar must take them sooner to dispel public discontent inside Bangladesh as well as to deflect international outcry against human rights abuses.

Geopolitically, the Bay of Bengal is a glittering feather in Bangladesh 's semi-landlocked status and, Arakan played a vital role in shaping Bangladesh 's destiny in the past. Stretching along the Bay of Bengal from the Naaf River (which separates Myanmar from Bangladesh) to Cape Negrais in southern Burma, the land and sea routes of Arakan connect it with Bengal to the west and Burma proper to the east, hence to the Far East and China. Bangladesh 's Look East policy can not be fruitful so long Arakan remains unstable.

Looking back

These historical nuggets must serve as an essential diet for foreign policy makers in Dhaka . Lest we forget, military conflict and geopolitical brinkmanship have shaped the fate of the region since 1404 AD when the independent state of Arakan was invaded by Burmese forces, driving out king Min Saw Mun to seek refuge under the Sultanate of Gaur in Bengal.

The reminiscences are pretty disturbing. The Bengal Sultanate, independent of Delhi , was founded in the mid-14th century and the genesis of today's Bangladesh remains hidden in the blood-soaked history of the era. Ever since, a predominant Muslim Bengal began to emerge gradually under an Islamic culture that had been laying roots since the 13th century, leading eventually to the formation of East Pakistan in 1947 and then to Bangladesh.

In between came the Moguls, who too were Muslims as were West Pakistanis. Mugal emperor Humayan conquered the Sultanate of Gaur, sparking off a long period of civil war to provoke Arakan king Min Bin to take advantage of the instability and occupy East Bengal with a strong naval fleet and infantry.

Bengal remained a vassal of Arakan for the next one hundred and twenty years, till 1666. Its administration was left in the hands of twelve local rajas who all paid annual tribute to the Arakan king's Chittagong-based viceroy.

Almost similar power play characterised the region's colonization. From 1731-1784, instability gripped Arakan and thirteen kings vied for succession of the throne, the average rule of each not exceeding more than two years. The instability resulted in the annexation in 1784 of the entire region into the Kingdom of Burma, which in turn became part of the British dominion in 1826.

Ever since, Burma enjoyed sovereignty over the territory, but Bangladesh has had to suffer an unwanted burden with respect to sheltering Muslim refugees from the region. The geopolitical significance of the region was intensely felt by Japan that occupied Arakan from 1942 to 1945. The allies and axis powers battled each other in the same region during Second World War.

Source: The Weekly Holiday of Bangladesh, May 4, 2007.