Resetting relations

How to restore Myanmar-Bangladesh relations

Trevor Wilson

Government and governance, International relations, National security | Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia

9 June 2017

Putting Myanmar-Bangladesh relations back on calm footing will require a whole of government approach by both parties, Trevor Wilson writes.

For most of last year, Myanmar-Bangladesh relations could be said to be on a steady, positive trajectory. That state of affairs changed in October 2016, however, when assaults on police posts by Rohingya militants in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, near the Bangladesh border, triggered a large military crackdown in the state by the Myanmar Government.

Since then, relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh have been placed firmly in the hands of military authorities, and concerns for national security and territorial sovereignty have dominated the relationship.

The repercussions of the October 2016 incident were bound to be serious. Yet unless other developments confirm an irreversible downward trend in bilateral ties, efforts to regain some of the previous cooperative bilateral arrangements between Myanmar and Bangladesh are still feasible. There are policy options available to normalise, stabilise and broaden relationships between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Several mechanisms can be used to achieve smoother and more even-handed management of bilateral relations where a substantial multi-faceted common border exists. Formal cross-border mechanisms can include broad, strategic meetings of relatively senior officials, meeting less frequently, but with sufficient authority on both sides.

Another common mechanism is the establishment of issue-specific or sector-specific committees which might meet more frequently, at a slightly lower level, but only focusing on narrower issues such as people movement, terrorism, cross-border trade, or smuggling. Issues that lend themselves to productive consultative dialogues of a technocratic nature include customs, the cross-border movement of goods, and routine day-to-day movements of local citizens.

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Often, such cross-border mechanisms can be usefully formalised through official, legally-binding agreements – in effect international treaties. Such arrangements presuppose a level of trust being developed between institutions and/or individuals. They also assume a general political willingness to attach priority status to such arrangements.

Sometimes this is feasible, sometimes it is not. However, achieving real trust usually requires regular contact between the same individuals, durable systems of confidentiality on both sides, the ability to withstand temporary “crises”, and decision-making that is to some extent flexible and alert to the other side’s sensitivities.

Arrangements between Myanmar and Bangladesh succeed in doing some of these things, but not all. One large challenge is to avoid having to cancel or suspend meetings as a sanction, since this can do untold damage to mechanisms that have been built up over years. This is evidently what happened after the October 2016 security incidents. Generally, giving broad political considerations higher priority in bilateral dealings would soon result in observable concrete benefits for all concerned.

However, even with such arrangements in place, high-level meetings or negotiations between the two governments will occasionally be needed to resolve some highly sensitive matters. This is quite normal, and ensures that pragmatic political perspectives can be brought to bear on situations. Moreover, experience shows that negotiating mechanisms can accommodate disagreements and disconnections, as well as quite reasonable complaints, which is precisely what helps defuse tensions and allows occasional mistakes or misunderstandings to be corrected.

Sometimes, politically sensitive issues can spill over from the bilateral to the multilateral level when they involve more than just two neighbouring countries, and when the participation of national governments would normally be necessary for political as well as protocol reasons. In the case of the Rohingya, both ASEAN and the Organisation of Islamic States (OIC) have raised concerns, at different times and in different ways. It would probably be futile to try to prevent high-profile issues like the Rohingya being raised through multilateral institutions, but it does become important to manage and temper such interventions to focus on what is politically achievable.

More on this: Diplomatic protection for the stateless Rohingya

Generally, the multilateral resolution of sensitive political issues between countries occurs only rarely and is very often unsuccessful, but the outside chance of a more positive outcome should never be ruled out. Whatever might happen when such issues become “multilateralised”, it is essential to manage expectations. It is notable, for example, that previous “interventions” by the OIC on the Rohingya over several years have not achieved anything concrete, but they have probably not made things worse either.

Locking bilateral relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh solidly into a framework of international norms and standards is highly desirable. “Best practice” cross-border procedures are often quite valuable for bilateral relationships like those between Myanmar and Bangladesh. This mostly happens through the involvement of the United Nations (UN) and other international agencies. It could relate to a development agenda – for example, under the United Nations Development Programme or the World Bank – or to alignment with the overarching international legal system. The latter could occur through the norms of various international conventions and with monitoring and technical support from various UN specialised agencies, all on the basis of the openness and accessibility of the countries concerned.

Increases in international assistance would also likely follow, if international donors could see attempts being made to comply with international norms, and this would be a bonus for both sides. Initially, after international assistance to Myanmar resumed after 1995, considerable assistance from UN agencies and international non-government organisations flowed into Northern Rakhine State, where Rohingya immigrants were detained. Some international assistance flowed into Chittagong in Bangladesh in parallel.

More recently, after the 2015 elections in Myanmar, the United States took the unusual step of providing Myanmar with assistance to conduct a defensive diplomatic campaign in the second half of 2016, casting aside political “neutrality” without going as far as pushing Myanmar into taking up more substantive policy changes.

The ultimate reason why countries such as Myanmar and Bangladesh continuously engage at a high political level is to avoid outright conflict. One objective is to avoid creating the impression that resort to force is always being contemplated. The use of force could easily result from miscalculation or accident, especially if both sides are unfamiliar with each other’s procedures.

More on this: Myanmar’s Rohingya need tomorrow’s fairer world today

Of course, wider benefits would also flow from any reduction in cross-border tensions. Generally, it is not in the interest of either party to allow tensions to spill into open conflict. Thus, outright fighting has largely been avoided, and if it occurs, it is normally at a low level and ceases fairly quickly.

However, a further step that could be taken would be to introduce deliberate conflict avoidance measures, or even low-key confidence building measures. Such measures are notable for their absence across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

Neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh has a good human rights record, but it is not often recognised that Rohingya are possibly treated even worse on the Bangladesh side of the border, where they are also regarded as outsiders with a (slightly) different language and customs.

The negative effects on Myanmar-Bangladesh relations arising from the poor treatment of Rohingya are all too obvious. Unfortunately, neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh has much incentive to try to improve treatment of Rohingya, who are regarded somewhat suspiciously on both sides of the border. Under current arrangements, it is no wonder that fleeing Rohingya will above all seek to avoid the reach of security authorities from both countries, which is worse for all concerned.

If Myanmar-Bangladesh relations are only ever controlled by the military on either side, especially along the border, broader beneficial outcomes will not be pursued. Rather, bilateral relations will be focused narrowly – and perhaps even exclusively – on “security” which will crowd out all other issues. Not only will bilateral relations face chronic difficulties, but opportunities to secure improvements will also be missed. The result will certainly be sub-optimal arrangements across the board, reflecting neither what is wanted, nor what is needed.

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