The enigma of Myanmar

As Myanmar prepares for its first general elections in 20 years, barring many leading political leaders and representatives from participating, Saad Hammadi highlights the concerns for Bangladesh and delves into the history of the troubled nation


With the national elections of Myanmar scheduled to be held in two days, international quarters and concerned countries such as Bangladesh,

look forward to the impact the elections will have on the political landscape of the country, as well as its relationship with the rest of the world.

Neighbours Myanmar and Bangladesh naturally have many issues in common, and as diplomats and experts on international relations believe, it is at the interest of the two countries that they maintain a friendly relationship. From the issue of maritime boundary, the construction of bridges and highways, facilitating export and import, to the longstanding issue of Rohingyas, the two countries have some major bilateral issues. Myanmar, being the only other nation to share a direct boundary with Bangladesh, draws all the more attention to its state of affairs. The two countries share a 180-km common border.

For the last five decades since 1962, Myanmar has been ruled by the military junta, and is currently led by Senior General Than Shwe. Ahead of the first general elections, 20 years since its last, the country has gotten itself a new name, a new flag and a new anthem. The second largest country by geographical area in South East Asia, the country known as Burma was ruled by the British until 1948. In 1989, Burma was renamed to the Union of Myanmar for English transliteration. The military junta has once again renamed the country to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar on October 21. However, for the people of the country, what remains of concern is, not the ornamental changes but transparency in the elections and a democratic representation.

Almost all the international quarters, including the United Nations and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have regularly criticised the military junta – that has held power for over five decades – for suppressing democracy in the country. The West and its media, on numerous occasions, have been critical of the Myanmar junta, for committing various human rights abuses and atrocities that can at times constitute war crimes.

At present, as preparations are underway for an electoral representation, doubts are cast over the nature in which the election is premised. ‘The election will be a farce and it will only legitimise the role of the military,’ says Muhammad Shahiduzzaman, professor of international relations with the University of Dhaka.

Myanmar’s top political leader and a democratic icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was barred from assuming the government in 1990 despite winning the election, remains under house arrest and is barred from participating in the upcoming election. Under the circumstances, although the national election is known to be an outcome of international pressure, the way in which the election is going to be carried out, remains a grave concern. The ruling junta has barred foreign election observers and international media from entering the country prior to the elections. The restrictions imposed by the military-ruled government give way to further speculation on how fair the election will fare. Besides, experts on diplomatic and international relations who have closely observed the country, fear that the election will vote to power a party that will continue to serve as a vanguard of the military junta.

The UN chief, Ban Ki-moon warned Myanmar that keeping thousands of political prisoners locked up could destroy the credibility of the election. The last such general election in 1990, was won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) with 59 per cent of the votes, following which, the military junta forcibly retained helm and put her under house arrest.

Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest, is scheduled to be released on November 13. However, Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of International Relations with the University of Dhaka is sceptical about whether she will be released or instead will be implicated under a new charge. Suu Kyi is Than Shwe’s greatest rival, whom he finds to be too opinionated and outspoken as a woman, according to Time magazine. In August 2009, Suu Kyi’s house arrest was extended by another 18 months after an uninvited man swam inside her lakeside house.

Than Shwe and his regime has been ruling the country for the last 20 years, suppressing the rights of the people. According to Andrew Marshall, a British journalist, the ethnic minorities like Wa, Rakhine and Karens have built militias of their own to fight the government. It casts further shadow over the unity and integrity that can be achieved in such an ethnically divided country.

Concerns for Banglades

As stated in article 25 of Bangladesh’s constitution, the country’s external relations are based on the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of any country. However, a democratic representation in Myanmar is welcomed by most academics and former diplomats, interviewed during this piece. Bangladesh continues to have bilateral relations with Myanmar even during the on-going regime of the military junta but an electoral representation is anticipated to improve the relationship. ‘Our first concern is to try and resolve the issues we have with Myanmar, as amicably as possible,’ says Abul Hasan Chowdhury, former state minister for foreign affairs.

Two major reasons why bilateral relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh have not been strong enough are attributed to a negligent Bangladeshi foreign policy towards Myanmar and Myanmar’s introversion. Otherwise, there is potential for jointly working in the sectors of energy, mineral resources, garments, and in the field of education, says Imtiaz.

‘If you look at the current picture of the state of Rohingyas, it is highly complicated,’ he says. The Bangladesh government has refused to document the Rohingya population, because doing so brings them under the legality of the state to protect them. ‘As our foreign minister says, there are some three lakh undocumented refugees.’

lines drawn by India and Myanmar. ‘Following their claims, we became sea locked,’ says Shahiduzzaman.

Meanwhile, India and Myanmar have reached a strategic ‘informal understanding’ to cooperate with each other on maritime boundary issues. Of late, Myanmar and India, which had separately agreed earlier in principle for an amicable settlement through bilateral negotiations, of the disputes, have stopped joining periodic expert-level talks on maritime boundary issues with Bangladesh.

‘We ardently hope that the issue of maritime boundary will be resolved on the internationally accepted norm of equity,’ says Hasan. ‘Mind you, the ultimate solution will have to be found in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),’ says Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, former foreign secretary and presently foreign affairs adviser to former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

Topping all the other concerns is the issue of the Rohingyas. The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority, constitutes 76 per cent of the population of the Northern Rakhine state of Myanmar and is ethnically, linguistically and religiously distinct from the majority Buddhist Rakhine. Conflicts between the two groups resulted in periodic violence, following which, the Myanmar military in 1978 forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh. Although there have been repatriation of a section of the population, the issue has remained unresolved. Experts on Myanmar and the Rohingya issue say that most of the Rohingyas deported to Myanmar have returned to Bangladesh, owing to the inhuman conditions they face there.

‘We hope there will be no situation in Myanmar which forces refugees to leave Myanmar and cross into our country,’ says Mobin.

Talking from past experiences, Imtiaz is hopeful that the election will give some Rohingyas recognition and identity. ‘There would be some pressure on candidates that they get the votes. If the Rohingyas get a voter identity card, that would give them some evidence of citizenship,’ he says.

‘In earlier phases, during 1962 or before the military coup, whenever there was an election in Myanmar, some Rohingyas were recognised,’ says Imtiaz. Although he is sceptical about any chance of democratic representation, the inclusion of some Rohingyas, like in the past, may still happen, since it is an electoral representation.

The recent attempts by the military regime to win over Rohingya voters at the expense of the majority Rakhine is a possible flashpoint, media reports reveal. The Myanmar authorities have become especially keen to enlist members of the Muslim community, including the Rohingyas, to vote. Memberships are being offered by both the regime-affiliated National Unity Party (NUP) and the Union Solidarity and Development Association.


Though the problems of maritime boundary demarcation at the Bay of Bengal, Rohingyas, flow of arms and narcotics, continue to persist, experts on foreign affairs believe, Bangladesh should engage with Myanmar in a way whereby it can have a foothold in Myanmar. Even eight to nine years ago, India had serious reservation towards Myanmar, due to its democratic obsession. Myanmar is very close to China and that also attributed to India having a bitter relationship with the former. However, India totally changed its policies and now its investment in Myanmar is almost next to China. ‘The economic compulsion,’ says Mohsin Ali Khan, former ambassador to Canada, ‘has led India to redesign its foreign policy towards Myanmar.’

According to Shahiduzzaman, Bangladesh’s relationship with Myanmar was never friendly but there were no problems in the past. There was no hostility and unofficial trade flourished.

Bangladesh has prospects of developing ties with Myanmar and upholding its diplomatic relations, which may be initiated through providing scholarships, fellowships and cultural involvement, say experts. The soft diplomacy is the most effective tool to build a strong relationship, says Imtiaz, whereby, a student from Myanmar can not only enjoy education but also seek development in the skills of music, art and crafts.

During the last visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to China, she requested that Bangladesh have a highway between China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The road link can increase the export import relation. ‘Over three billion dollars worth of Chinese goods currently come via China through ship; there is some $300 million worth of goods being exported from Bangladesh,’ says Imtiaz.

Myanmar has a scarcity of human resources with agricultural and technical know-how. In 2009, there were talks that Myanmar would allow rice growers from Bangladesh to use their lands. However, the issue did not reach any conclusion and there has not been any development since.

‘We need to have lobbies inside Myanmar and impress upon them, whereby both the countries can benefit,’ says Imtiaz. ‘Cultural diplomacy has hundreds of areas. If we had given 10 scholarships each in the last 10 years, then we would have had some influence like the United States and United Kingdom have on us. Our other neighbour India on the other hand has taken that advantage by providing such services to them.’

‘We always feel that economic and social progress will stimulate into having proper democratic governance,’ says Mobin. The people of Myanmar should decide what kind of government they want, he concludes.

However, Bangladesh’s economic opportunities will only make sense if there is a democratic setup in Myanmar, which according to Shahiduzzaman is farfetched. ‘They have developed economic ties with India at the cost of Bangladesh.’

Note: The article was first published in New Age Xtra on November 5, 2010.


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