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Could Rohingya issue derail the BIMSTEC initiative?

  • Published at 12:51 pm February 13th, 2018
Could Rohingya issue derail the BIMSTEC initiative?
Unless the current diplomatic ties between Bangladesh and Myanmar improve significantly, the BIMSTEC initiative for ensuring South Asian regional economic development and connectivity may suffer the same fate as its predecessor, the SAARC. BIMSTEC stands for Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, while SAARC is an abbreviation for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) warned some time ago that bilateral economic ties between the two countries had been affected owing to the ongoing Rohingya crisis. A number of ADB officials felt that both countries are losing an opportunity to strengthen and expand their economies. The bank also feared that the deadlock might continue for some time, which could stall development progress in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Despite the ongoing dialogue between the two countries on Rohingya repatriation, many analysts in India say they feel that an easy solution to the issue is still far out of sight. The analysts say that unless both countries reach a mutual agreement to prioritize economic growth over political and other differences, growth prospects of India and Thailand could also be greatly affected. Myanmar’s recent decision to procure missiles, grenades, rocket launchers and other heavy weapons to strengthen its armed forces only further confirms the uneasy diplomatic situation prevailing in the region. Some observers feel that the move to purchase more weapons was made by Naypyidaw keeping Dhaka in mind. On the other hand, Myanmar recently pointed out that Bangladesh had recently acquired submarines, warplanes and other modern weapons. Bangladesh also had to send its naval vessels to the Bay of Bengal to protect its maritime territories during a disagreement with Myanmar over drilling rights some time ago. In contrast, the settlement of respective maritime rights between Bangladesh and India was resolved far more cordially.

An analyst’s point of view

Subhoranjan Dasgupta, a Kolkata-based analyst, shares ADB’s concerns about the future of major regional connectivity projects and other game-changing schemes involving the long-awaited link between South and South East Asia. “The Rohingya issue has the potential to be the greatest destabilizing factor in the South and South East Asia region unless handled with sensitivity and care. The Rohingyas must return to Myanmar, as Bangladesh simply cannot shelter any more of them,” Subhoranjan told the Dhaka Tribune. He added: “Some international mechanism must be worked out to make sure Myanmar accepts its responsibility for them and also for the reluctant refugees to return to their Rakhine homeland. Any other outcome would be a disaster. “And in case there is no broad agreement between the two countries on this, the BIMSTEC and other proposed projects linking South with South East Asia may have to be written off. The BIMSTEC will simply be the old SAARC story told under a different title.” It is common knowledge that the disagreement over the Kashmir issue between Pakistan and India was the major reason why the proposed regional co-operation among the SAARC countries could never be carried forward. The difference in the East is that by and large international opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of Bangladesh on the contentious Rohingya issue. However, with China not condemning Myanmar in the dispute and Myanmar’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi apparently unable to overrule the army, sending back thousands of terrorized people to the Rakhine state will always be a formidable task for any government. Subhoranjan feels that in the days ahead, Dhaka will naturally maintain close ties with China and India to ensure that some acceptable formula is eventually worked out. The political establishment in Bangladesh was not too happy with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence on the Rohingya issue during his last visit to Myanmar. Since then, India has taken up the matter with Myanmar diplomatically, besides helping Bangladesh materially. “But more action may be necessary on its part,” said the analyst.

Far-reaching effects of the diplomatic row

The ongoing diplomatic row is not only jeopardizing the promising BIMSTEC initiative, but also the future of India’s “Look East” policy, and not to mention Thailand’s “Look West” initiative. Bangladesh and Myanmar form the crucial land-bridge between South and South-East Asia. The trilateral ADB-backed 1,360km highway project running from Moreh in India to Mae Sot in Thailand through Myanmar has already been delayed after Myanmar authorities raised some questions. India is already helping Myanmar with 132km road construction project, linking Tamu with Kalewa with a cost of Rs1,117 crore. Both India and Thailand have plans to continue the highway to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, to achieve seamless South to South East Asia road connectivity. The success of these and other related project is reliant on Myanmar’s co-operation and more importantly, on how it proposes to settle its differences with Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue.
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