In a wide-ranging interview with Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint, Bangladesh Ambassador Mr Mohammad Sufiur Rahman talked about Bangladesh-Myanmar relations, the countries commonalities, and his hopes for relations under the new Myanmar government.
Mizzima: What are your views on the new government in Myanmar?
Bangladesh Ambassador: We have been waiting for this transition and have been observing it very keenly. Although it has taken longer than anticipated in comparison to other countries this three or four months of time was in a way required for all the stakeholders to collect their thoughts, to appreciate their challenges, and find out their comfort zones, as they will go into the actual implementation stage, hopefully from 1st April.
I think this transition has generated a lot of interest. The bigger challenge for the incoming administration perhaps will be to modulate the very high expectations and to address things in a way based on their maturity inclusive of all the stakeholders in Myanmar. It will be in the interest of all stakeholders in Myanmar. I see a very positive future in the coming days.
You witnessed the November elections how do you view the conduct and the performance of the election in comparison to you own experience in Bangladesh?
This particular election from campaign to the actual conduct of election and post-election phase was done quite well. I must say with all sincerity that the people should be happy on their own conduct, their enthusiasm and also on the choice they have expressed through the ballot box. It would be unfair not to give due credit to the Union Election Commission because it has done a splendid job without much experience. It has done a job which is very well done. I would also like to give some credit to the media because the way the media kept and sustained interest in the election despite a lot of aberrations and distractions from time to time. The media has been able to keep the focus on the election and that is how people could articulate their views on their choices and I think the election has thrown up all kinds of positives for Myanmar polity. It has created a foundation for Myanmar and particularly the incoming government to take steps towards reconciliation, address longstanding issues of development, keeping security both internal and external in mind. I think it has thrown up very many positive opportunities and created the right platform for Myanmar in the near future.
What are your expectations from the new NLD government for Bangladesh/Myanmar relations?
The NLD has come with a resounding victory and this victory is a reflection of the people’s long yearning for freedom, inclusion, democracy and development. In a way the NLD now epitomises the desires of all the people and we expect, based on this support, the NLD administration will be able to free its activities from perceptions and base their actions more on facts. As the NLD goes into their domestic actions, and primarily how the NLD is going to address ethnic issues, the NLD should have a high level of confidence after getting this resounding victory. They will not be required to pander to emotions. They can base their actions on the people’s support (groundswell of support) they have received. This is a very positive thing for Myanmar. I am sure the on-going process of reconciliation and political dialogue will now generate momentum. As it gains momentum domestically, it will also have an impact externally because a confident administration will be able to take the right decisions externally too. And in that context, we think the NLD administration will be able to see Myanmar's relationship with Bangladesh in the right context and make a durable friendship. In the coming days and years, it will be an engagement based on honesty, openness, and trust, ultimately leading to confidence-building which will define the contours of bilateral relations and which will be based on trust and respect. We look forward to an upturn in bilateral relations.
How would you describe the state of Myanmar/Bangladesh relations over the last few years especially in the last five years when we had President U Thain Sein?
I would like to go back slightly backward before answering the question of bilateral relations over the last five years. Ever since Bangladesh came into being we had our own internal problems related to democracy and development. We were also inward looking in many ways. And then, we were also more focussed on our relations with the West for obvious reasons. I would be honest in admitting that Bangladesh could not do justice to its eastern neighbours. And at the same time, Burma was inward looking from the very beginning, particularly after 1962. When Bangladesh tried to look east towards her neighbour Myanmar and develop friendship, I think Myanmar was not perhaps ready to reciprocate in the manner that was expected. So that was a problem that happened over three to four decades. Unfortunately it didn’t get better due to a lack of communication; Misperception that ruled the day. The divergences got more coverage and the convergences were buried under the divergences. .. So that was a big challenge for our two countries.
After the Thein Sein administration came, I think that expectations from the Bangladesh side were that we would be able to break free of these negatives and would be able to develop bilateral relations. The things have started moving but I wouldn’t call it a very positive outcome. We could have done much better in the last five years. What Bangladesh tried to do in the last five years is that our Prime Minister was here twice, our Foreign Minister came here a few times. We have sent all our security chiefs, the army, navy, air force, border force, all were here in Myanmar. We were expecting return visits because we believe that through exchanges at a very high level we will be able to appreciate the approaches of each other and that will be helpful for developing the right framework for bilateral relations. That didn’t happen the way we expected. So I would not call it a very dynamic-vibrant bilateral relation. Though in the last five years we have had a lull period, I think it is now looking up and we expect that upturn to take momentum during the incoming administration.
What would you say are the biggest challenges for the two countries, for example in terms of border security, crime and also illegal migrants?
These are very important aspects of our challenges and particularly if the border is not peaceful sectoral collaboration cannot be expected to flourish. That is why we have been focussing on developing better engagement in the security domain and in recent months we have focussed on a few instruments. One is on developing day-to-day level interaction. We call it BLO (Border Liaison Office). We have also been working with the Myanmar side [on policy level security issues] and we are happy that we have agreed to a framework for structured dialogue between our security forces and agencies. So with these two, we expect, we will have much better working relations on a day-to-day basis and also at the political and policy level.
If I may say something about the border as it stands today. I would say that the border is generally peaceful and we don’t have too many border skirmishes when compared to many other countries. It is not in a bad shape, rather it is in good shape. But, sometimes perceptions and realities are not the same. Once we get into this collaboration that we have talked about, I think it will be easy for us to bring that reality over perception. That will help us.
Secondly, as far as the illegal crossing of the border is concerned there are two kinds of illegal movement that happen. One is innocent, say movement of fisherman in the Naaf River or adjacent territorial waters. They cross unknowingly the borders and sometimes they are arrested, detained, and sometimes jailed. For these innocent crossovers, there is a mechanism in the 1980 border arrangement and if we can activate that arrangement effectively I think the innocent ones will be addressed very easily. Then, there are people who cross over-who are not innocent, who know that they are going for a purpose. On that I think the collaboration we are anticipating under the two MOUs would help us to control that significantly. But, we also have to bear in mind that the area in that stretch is a densely forested area where the Border Guard of Bangladesh have no permanent presence. That stretch of land on the Myanmar side also is not fully covered. It is porous and often taken advantage of by the miscreants. That is another area for our concern. Some miscreants and armed groups sometimes are moving along the area. We have been working with Myanmar at least in the last two years to flush out some of these people with arms and trying to move there taking advantage of the very difficult border terrain and also taking advantage of the tri-junction, a place where India, Bangladesh and Myanmar meet. So it is very difficult to monitor. But I think with enhanced collaboration we will be able to address these aspects of arms smuggling and movement of armed people there.
Third, I’m happy that both Bangladesh and Myanmar in recent months, particularly after the boat crisis, acted decisively on the human traffickers. That is a good thing that has happened on both sides of the border and it is ongoing. I think it will have a positive impact on our bilateral relations.
Last, but not the least, there are questions about the refugees. But, refugees are a bigger issue, a protracted issue that requires a different approach than those I have explained for other cases. For the refugees, it would need a very honest and intense engagement between our two countries. But, we are hopeful positive things will come through engagement in the coming time.
You mentioned about the MoUs can you tell me more about them?
These are still not fully concluded that is why I will not go into the full details of it, but I shall just touch upon them. On the MoU on Security Dialogue and Cooperation, the main emphasis is dialogue. So it will basically facilitate structured dialogue between Bangladesh and Myanmar Army, Navy and the Air Force level, at the border guard level and at security agency level. They will have this opportunity to discuss policy issues and once these policy issues are discussed they will understand the approaches of other side. . Often misperceptions in the security domain create problems for planning. This will be addressed through this mechanism that is our expectation. This is almost ready and we are awaiting conclusion of it.
On the BLO, (Border Liaison Office) MoU, the intention basically is to collaborate on a minute-to-minute real-time basis. The expectation is to set up two offices initially and we may have more offices later along the border. They will talk to each other. They will not only share information, advance information if possible, and undertake coordinated border patrols which is missing now. Many parts of the border are not manned by people at Border Police outposts. But in those stretches, based on information, if there is a need for a patrol to address some particular issues, this (BLO) will allow a coordinated patrol.
In recent years, religion has been increasingly used as a pretext by extremists to cause trouble. I think we have seen in Myanmar and we are seeing in Bangladesh, both countries. How do you see this issue, how do you see this issue can be dealt with?
Religious extremism and extremism in general is something that has been on the rise in at least one decade. In Bangladesh, what we have tried to do is to address the issue socially, first of all, and [then] also legally within the mechanisms available under our Constitution and laws. We have taken sufficient action to tackle this religious extremism in Bangladesh.
Many terrorist were tried in the past and many are under trials. They are all getting a fair trial. Our government is very strong in [dismantling] their finance networks and is monitoring them. We are reasonably successful in Bangladesh given experiences of much more violent expressions of religious extremism in other parts of the world. Bangladesh from that point of view has done better, and we should do much more and try to follow it with a harder determination.
Because of the [process of] globalization, extremism in one country, in one place, or in one society can have a reverberation in another society, quite far away. That is why, there is a need for collaboration among all countries in the neighbourhood and also countries outside. The financing of extremism is something that has to be dealt with globally. Transnational crime is also linked to that. It is not just linked to religious extremists. It might find articulation of extremism in other ways.
But then you have also to bear in mind that behind all kinds of extremism there are some reasons, like people becoming vulnerable to something, people becoming marginalized for some reasons. So if a society tries to address their vulnerability, their marginalization in the best manner possible, based on their own circumstances, many of these problems could be reduced significantly. This is where I think Bangladesh and Myanmar should be able to rise to the call of creating a better situation for the minorities and the marginalized and vulnerable people in our societies. These are the people who are more prone to radicalization. So first and foremost, I think the marginalization in society of a particular community or a particular group of people will have to be addressed in all of its dimensions, economic, political and social. This is where I find a lot of hope. Myanmar is taking the right path towards reconciliation. And through reconciliation, some of the religious indoctrination will also be addressed and that will be a positive thing for Myanmar and will also have a positive impact in the entire region. In the coming time, as we try to combat extremism in general in Bangladesh, we would like to have greater collaboration in this particular area with Myanmar.
I would like to discuss the issue of “Rising Asia,” many people are talking about this being Asia’s Century and the future and we are seeing the economic growth. So what is the position of Bangladesh in this changing Asia or rising Asia?
It is true that we have been observing a very high economic growth and positive development in Southeast Asia and South Asia. It would be perhaps correct to come to the conclusion that the century will belong to Asians. And as it is taking shape in that direction in the next 20 to 30 years, Bangladesh and Myanmar are well placed. They can offer themselves as a conduit between the two emerging regions of Southeast Asia and South Asia. And with that, not only will these two countries benefit, it will also allow the two regions – the South Asia and Southeast Asia – to come closer through connectivity, cultural linkages and other means. South Asian and Southeast Asian cultures are basically a subset of the greater Asian culture. If we have interconnectivity of ideas, connectivity of culture and connectivity of people, that will create the right atmosphere for the economic connectivity and the well-being of the people of this region.
As we discuss the prospect of Bangladesh and Myanmar playing this due role, Myanmar has a lot of catching up to do. The same is the case with Bangladesh. If I may take this opportunity of saying a few words about our resilience, our [Bangladesh] economy has been growing at 6 to 7 per cent for more than a decade now. We have reduced our dependence on foreign aid and similar kind of support significantly. It has now come to less than one per cent of the GDP. In the last three or four years, our Taka remains stable. At times, it has appreciated against the US dollar. For Bangladesh the biggest success comes in the social domain, than the economic domain. For our level of economic growth, I think our social development is much more attractive and impressive. We have done splendidly well in the case of health and education, women’s empowerment, and poverty reduction. Similarly, we expect the good progress that Myanmar has made in the last five years will continue in the coming time. And as Myanmar and Bangladesh grow, I think that will give the two countries confidence to offer themselves as the conduit of connectivity between the two regions.
But, our countries alone will not be able to unleash their true potentials. We will also have to avail regional benefit that is available. We should also contribute to developing regional public good. And through that we can also influence what is happening around us, and we can also benefit from the regional public good. It could be in climate change, it could be in connectivity, and it could be on culture and so on and so forth. So there has to be a very smooth integration of our national perspectives with regional perspectives. That is why both Bangladesh and Myanmar in recent times have been focusing on the regional mechanisms like SAARC, BIMSTEC and the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar initiative).
Now that we have a well demarcated boundary in the Bay of Bengal between Bangladesh and Myanmar and also with India, we have a well demarcated sea. The sea offers us huge opportunity for development for these littoral countries. I expect we will not only limit ourselves to land, we will also go into the exploitation of natural resources that are available in the Sea. And together, this region as a whole can emerge as one economic unit and may be at a later time, one social unit, because of the likeness of our cultures and the commonness of the aspirations of our peoples. I see a lot of prospect for regional collaboration as we try to address our own developmental challenges in Bangladesh and Myanmar.
We have seen this rising Asia in the last few years but we are also seeing the tension or competition between powers for example between China and the United States in Asia. How do you see this challenge for the region and for countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh?
These days, because of globalization, it is extremely difficult to remain aloof from what is happening around us. Bangladesh and Myanmar will also be somewhat influenced by what is happening in the Pacific, not only in the Bay of Bengal or the Andaman Sea. We have been able to resolve the Bay of Bengal issue, the maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar and between Bangladesh and India, and there is already a settled boundary between Sri Lanka and India. That makes us confident that if they have in place better communications and better approaches, they should be able to resolve it peacefully. This peaceful resolution is one experience we would expect countries and stakeholders in the South China Sea to also take inspiration from.
It is not something unexpected that the countries in a particular region often realign or reposition themselves strategically. It happens from time to time. But as it happens, the challenge for the international community and for those countries is to ensure that those changes in orientation are done in a peaceful manner and without confrontation. We would expect all the stakeholders in the South China Sea to follow a non-confrontational approach to this particular issue, engage with each other, try to appreciate each other’s positions on it, and try to do things in a manner which will be peaceful.
As far as Bangladesh is concerned, we have been following a foreign policy which is independent. We have not been aligned to any side and we have been following a foreign policy with a maxim of "friendship to all, malice towards none". So we would expect that countries along both sides of the Pacific and also around the Indian Ocean will be motivated more by the need for keeping the sea lanes open so that goods move smoothly, and there is no tension in the Strait of Malacca and in the South China Sea or in the Bay of Bengal or in the Indian Ocean.
Countries in the region are already challenged on development deficit. So we would like to be focused on development; not like to be distracted by confrontations of any kind. Our expectation would be that the international community as a whole, and the stakeholders in that area in particular, will be able to talk to each other and pursue resolution through peaceful means, based on mutual benefit and trust.
What will Bangladesh be doing in the near future to strengthen the relationship because we are also having a new government coming into power?
The people of Bangladesh and Myanmar are not very well conversant about each other. That has happened despite very strong historical linkage in the past. In recent times, we did not have the opportunity to project each other well. That is the problem, we will have to overcome. Because if you do not overcome them, it will create opportunity for misperception, it will create space for people who have extreme views. They can foment various kinds of indoctrinated views in the minds of the people. The best way to address this is to allow people to know each other.
Bangladesh people should know the civilizational strength and civilizational past of Myanmar, from the Pagan Dynasty of Anawrahta and Kyansittha to the dynasty that evolved in the Taungo or Pegu region under Kings Tabinshweti and Bayinnaung. But we have very little understanding of these dynasties and the civilizational past of Myanmar. Similarly, Bengal had its own civilizational past and we have done many things in the past that could be appreciated by the people of Myanmar.
We have linkages between our two countries in the form of Buddhism, how Buddhism flourished in Bengal and how it flourished in Myanmar. If there is communication between our two people, they will know that we have many commonalities, more than we tend to believe. There is a requirement of allowing this awareness to continue in a big way in the coming years.
Here, I see a big role of the media. We [need to] have communication through media on culture, on tourism, on religious commonalities, on how we are addressing the concerns of minorities and vulnerable people in our countries, how we are addressing the challenges of climate change, what kind of new interventions we are making to address civil rights, what are the new rice varieties that have been introduced to address drought and salinity. We belong to a similar agro-climatic zone, so the experience of other countries despite any superior technology, will not be immediately applicable in our situation here, because of the agro-climate differences. But between Bangladesh and Myanmar we should be able to share good experiences and examples, say in agriculture. Say, we do a programme on [culture of] our minorities. In fact we are thinking of doing a programme in the coming months involving the Buddhist communities of Bangladesh, bring them here to Yangon or perhaps to Nay Pyi Taw to tell the people how similar we are and at the same time where there are some uniqueness. These are the things that will create a higher level of confidence that these are our brothers; these are our people with whom we have centuries and millennia of relations. So in that context, I think there is the importance of people-to-people contact and cultural diplomacy. Sports can also important role.
We have done for the first ever painting exhibition with our friends in Myanmar through a workshop last year. We had a food festival organized last year. We are thinking of a visit of cultural troupe visit next month. We would like to pursue this kind of cultural diplomacy as part of our greater effort to bring the two peoples together.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Bangladesh and Myanmar both have huge developmental challenges and we should be more focused on the developmental challenges. And as we try to do that, I think we will need the support of each other. You cannot develop alone. You have to have the ability to access your neighbours and benefit from their contribution in your own development. Secondly, in the security domain, we expect that the initiatives we are thinking about will have a long-lasting impact and create the right atmosphere for sectoral level collaboration. In the sectoral level collaboration, we can have all kind of collaboration under the Sun that we can conceive between Bangladesh and Myanmar. The period of inaction, or indifference towards each other, should come to an end very fast and we should engage in a manner which should be based on mutuality of respect and mutuality of interest, and certainly following those principles of territorial integrity and non-interference in each other’s internal matters. Our two countries must have that confidence that we will not get involved in the affairs of the others but at the same time we would be standing beside each other in the times of need and together we should pursue a policy of collective self-reliance and see how best we can develop the region and also benefit from the region.
We should have to have a fundamentally new approach towards creating a right normal, a right standard for bilateral relations because the way we have conducted ourselves in the last few decades is not the best thing to do. We expect the incoming administration and the Bangladesh government to engage honestly, discuss issues of divergences as we discuss issues of convergences, undertake programmes which will be beneficial for our people, and through that I think we will be able to bring our two peoples closer, so as to be able to make things easier for our developmental aspirations to be met.