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‘Myanmar’s best interests lie in stabilising Rakhine’

  • Published at 09:20 pm September 17th, 2017
  • Last updated at 09:09 am September 18th, 2017

The coastal state of Rakhine in Myanmar is rich in natural resources and man-made conflict. The most recent spell of violence has led to the exodus of nearly 400,000 Rohignya people prompted by military operations in villages and townships. While the conflict between the Myanmar armed forces and Rohingya insurgents fan the unrest, KB Ahmed, founder-president of Bangladesh Myanmar Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BMCCI), told the Dhaka Tribune's Asif Showkat Kallol in an interview that it is in Myanmar’s best interests to stabilise and restore peace in Rakhine.

Why is Myanmar important for Bangladesh’s economy?

Myanmar, as a neighbouring country, is a big source of cheap, staple food. We import a lot of rice and onion at low prices. Myanmar’s low food prices and reduction in arable land in Bangladesh and India have made importing food at a low price a big priority for both countries. They also have a huge supply of natural resources which China is firmly taping. In 2015, China constructed a deep-sea port and a pipeline from Kyaukphyu in Rakhine to Kunming in Yunnan. The pipeline can transport roughly 400,000 barrels of oil daily.

What is the Bangladesh-Myanmar bilateral trade like amid the Rohingya crisis?

Most of the bilateral trade Myanmar and Bangladesh takes place in Maungdaw township. The majority of traders are more enthusiastic about informal trade which conveniences them. The August conflict has put almost all of it on hold. However, we are still trading fish and pharmaceuticals. Bangladeshi merchants are buying fish from Myanmar’s maritime territories. Everyday about 70-100 tons of fish come to Chittagong port from Myanmar. In addition, local pharmaceutical industries like Square, Beximco and Incepta are sending their products via ships to Myanmar.

Have you come across any Rohingya businessmen in Yangon or Maungdaw?

No. I have not met any major Rohingya figures in commerce. Most of the commercial figures are Burmese who have good ties with the military regime. One cannot do business in Myanmar without the support of the military. But things have improved under the democratic government. We have signed bilateral agreements with the Rakhine Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

How are we dealing with trade barriers between Bangladesh and Myanmar?

Both countries signed a coastal shipping agreement to allow small ships to carry products to and from Myanmar and Chittagong. But it remains to be implemented. Myanmar recently became a member of the Asian Clearing Union. So the Myanmar currency has been recognised by Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and world businesses. So we have opened letter of credits through Sonali Bank and private commercial AB bank Limited to facilitate trade.

Is trading with Myanmar government easy?

It is not easy to import essential items. We have to negotiate with Myanmar government for importing rice and onion in bulk. We often have to go to Yangon or Naypyidaw for negotiations.

If Bangladesh places an embargo on rice imports from Myanmar, will it affect them?

If we do not buy the rice, then someone else will. India will swoop in to buy the rice in bulk for its low rates.

Who is the major trade partner of Myanmar?

China. In addition to the pipeline and deep-sea port, China has drilled in 11 gas blocks since 2007. They have also sponsored the building of a township on Cheduba Island in Rakhine. Currently, they are constructing a rail line to connect Rakhine to China. Myanmar has a huge supply of jade and mineral gems which have a huge market in China. Myanmar looks to make between $16 billion and $18 billion from the oil/gas exports from Rakhine, so it is in Myanmar’s best interest to stabilise and restore peace in Rakhine. Myanmar's second most important trade partner is Thailand. They buy a lot of Thai consumer products.

What benefits are there in investing in Myanmar?

In 2005, I proposed a Chinese gas pipeline from Myanmar go through Bangladesh. However, routing it through Bangladesh also placed it on Indian soil, which shelved the proposal for good. The pipeline is now directly connected with China alone. We can benefit from Myanmar’s cheap labour and global trade facilities. Both India and China have deep-sea ports in Myanmar which they are utilising.