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North-East India, Myanmar and Bangladesh’s exchanging of regional strategic advantage

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By: Mehjabin Bhanu

The northeastern part of India as well as the surrounding countries of Southeast Asia is a fascinating zone and the region is bordered on the north by the eastern and northeastern Himalayas, on the east by the Indo-Burma ranges/Myanmar, on the south by Bangladesh, and on the southeast by the Andaman-Sumatra region.

Bangladesh’s southeast has a 210 kilometers (130 miles) land border with Myanmar and India of 330 kilometers (205 miles). According to some analysis, insurgents such as Myanmar’s Arakan Army have slipped through the porous borders, attacking Bangladeshi border police on at least one occasion.

The three bilateral ties have enough content and context to begin working on potential trilateral cooperation initiatives. This would not only benefit all three nations participating, but it will also encourage increased cooperation in broader setups like BIMSTEC or BCIM-EC, as these three countries serve as the geographical fulcrum for the other frameworks.

Bangladesh and Myanmar are two of India’s most important potential economic partners, but non-trade obstacles such as connectivity, investments, infrastructure, logistics, and technical capacity have prevented them from realizing their potential.

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk in Indian policy circles about expanding regional cooperation with India’s eastern neighbors. Although politically difficult, the concept of more commerce, investment, and connection among Bangladesh, Myanmar, and India’s North-Eastern states is worthwhile to pursue, especially given that this region, one of the least integrated in the world, is home to some of the world’s poorest people.

The recent economic and political changes in Myanmar, as well as the Modi government’s ‘Look East’ economic policy, highlight the critical need to integrate one of South Asia’s least developed regions, namely India’s north eastern states, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, which share borders.

According to media reports, Bangladesh has already announced that a road-building project in the remote Chittagong Hill Tracts and Cox’s Bazar will be extended until 2024, claiming that the increased infrastructure would assist combat illegal smuggling across the nearby Myanmar and India borders, among other things.

The amended proposal for the road system in the steep and generally inaccessible southeastern region was approved by the National Economic Council Executive Committee, led by the Bangladesh prime minister.

The roads and highways department plans to construct a 317-kilometer (197-mile) border road in three Chittagong Hill Tracts districts – Rangamati, Khagrachhari, and Bandarban – as well as Cox’s Bazar district, which will run along Myanmar’s and northeastern Indian states’ borders.

Border Guard Bangladesh’s operations are hampered by the region’s hills and dense vegetation. For the first time in 2020, the government purchased two helicopters for the BGB along the southeastern border.

The construction of the border road would make it easier for our soldiers to get from one outpost to another, making border patrol more efficient. Arms and narcotics smuggling would be prohibited.

Improved communication linkages in the districts of Rangamati, Bandarban, Khagrachhari, and Cox’s Bazar, as well as “government control in the bordering areas through increased security measures.” Can help to tackle some common regional problems amongst India-Bangladesh-Myanmar. Border smuggling of illegal weaponry, narcotics, and human trafficking would be combated with such methods.

The rugged and inaccessible terrain has been exploited by separatist movements. A group of Arakan Army militants from the Myanmar side attacked BGB in Bandarban area on Aug. 25, 2015, wounded two soldiers.

The terrain in Chittagong Hill Tracts and Cox’s Bazar along the border has been extremely difficult and impassable. Cross-border criminal syndicates use this rugged hilly terrain to smuggle arms, narcotics, and other goods, while different separatist factions travel freely between countries.

The Arakan Army frequently enters Bangladesh territory from Myanmar because BGB members are unable to patrol all of the time, and anti-Bangladesh forces readily cross into Myanmar Once the route is finished, criminals and separatist organizations will be unable to move.

India suggested the pipeline in the early 2000s, but the Bangladeshi government rejected it.  In 2015, during talks between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a pipeline was once again suggested. It was included in India’s Hydrocarbon Vision 2030 plan, which was published in 2016. India’s Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Dharmendra Pradhan, claimed in December 2018 that India was still looking on ways to expand its gas network to Bangladesh via Myanmar.  However, no updates on the resuscitation of this trilateral pipeline arrangement are publicly available as of August 2021, hence the project is presumed canceled. But this trilateral project will benefit India-Bangladesh-Myanmar if the project can be implemented successfully. Thus, all need to think about the revival India-Myanmar-Bangladesh Gas Pipeline project.

Bangladesh always shows interest in joining the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) trilateral expressway to improve connectivity with Southeast Asia, which would usher in a new age of Indo-Pacific trans-border corridors. During Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s virtual summit with her counterpart Narendra Modi in 2020, Dhaka showed interest in joining IMT, despite the fact that BCIM has made little progress. According to the joint statement issued at the end of the summit, she requested India’s assistance in enabling Bangladesh to join the effort. The higher connectivity of India’s North-Eastern states with Bangladesh and Myanmar can benefit the region.

Rohingya refugee crisis destabilizes the whole sub-region which needs to be resolved as soon as possible. India should and must help solve this long-pending refugee crisis for the greater interest of the three sub-regional countries. It is unnecessary to quote that India would be one of the beneficiaries if the fruitful and sustainable solution of Rohingya crisis could be found. India should make Myanmar understand about this issue.

After coming to power in January 2009, Sheikh Hasina adopted the policy of regional peace and stability and is taking action against Indian insurgents’ groups who have been using Bangladeshi territory. It is Sheikh Hasina (of course) who would never allow any kind of support towards the extremist and separatist groups from Myanmar and India. Thus, it is India and Myanmar’s responsibility to cooperate Bangladesh to keep the region peaceful. India, Myanmar and Bangladesh must work trilaterally in combatting these common threats.

In the case of Myanmar, after 1962, there was some confusion in Indo-Myanmar ties. Myanmar responded by allowing Indian militants to operate on its soil. Furthermore, India’s border with Myanmar is largely forested, and rebels exploit it without Myanmarese authorities’ knowledge. However, the Myanmar government has recently made various moves to combat Indian rebel groups.

Bangladesh shares a land border with India, which is strategically located in the Bay of Bengal. Greater connectivity amongst India, Bangladesh and Myanmar via India’s north east and Bangladesh would be strategically. Any trilateral initiatives to strengthen links will benefit the North East, and it will be interesting to see how the region evolves.

The improvement of political relations between Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar, as well as the resolution of long-standing maritime territorial issues in 2012 and 2014 respectively, present an ideal opportunity to explore trilateral cooperation in resource sharing, inter-linking connectivity, and combined security measures.

Even though bilateral security cooperation has grown over time, new forms of collaborative security activities between the three countries can be explored. Similar to the trilateral maritime security cooperation between India, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka, India can establish trilateral naval security cooperation with Bangladesh and Myanmar. India already conducts joint military exercises with Bangladesh and Myanmar, which might be expanded into trilateral drills to counter transnational security issues in the Bay of Bengal region. All three stake holders should ensure proper utilization of blue economy collectively.

Collaboration between the three countries can maximize the region’s abundant natural resources. The BoB’s maritime border disputes between Bangladesh and India, as well as between Bangladesh and Myanmar, provide an opportunity for the three nations to begin collaborative natural resource development.

Bangladesh shares a border with the five Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Tripura and Myanmar. This provides the three countries a number of interesting opportunities to work closely together. As the world ‘pivots to Asia’ and the Indian look East policy transforms to the Act East policy, Bangladesh, Myanmar and India have the potential to be an important part of the great endeavor of greater trade in the region.

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