Buttressing Dhaka-Yangon relations
Wasi Ahmed | Published:
February 29, 2016 21:31:45
October 25, 2017 01:45:28
Boosting up Dhaka-Yangon ties in the field of trade and commerce has for long remained a promising prospect, though still untapped by either country. When it comes to the subject of expansion of Bangladesh's trading horizon, Myanmar often figures prominently as a suitable trading partner. And very appropriately so, given not only the geographic proximity but also the not-too-dissimilar consumer tastes and preferences in both countries.
The present level of bilateral relations between the two neighbours is far from what it should have been. This, observers believe, is due to the lack of vision and the drive to work out mechanisms of engagements for mutual benefit. There are appropriate forums to discuss and reach understanding on various important areas. But as of now, these were not properly utilised to explore areas of cooperation. In the area of trade and commerce, the Joint Trade Commission (JTC) is the appropriate forum to discuss, resolve problems and facilitate bilateral trade issues. Although the JTC has had several meetings over the years, no noticeable activity is visible to facilitate and boost bilateral trade between the two neighbours. In the last JTC meeting, both sides had reached a consensus to scale up bilateral trade to around $500 million. Besides, gearing up collaboration in the fields of power and gas, opening up of banking operations, currency exchange, introduction of direct air and shipping links, procurement of rice from Myanmar by Bangladesh, strengthening of border trade were some of the key issues which both sides agreed to work on.
Of late, some developments have been found inspiring. Introduction of direct air link between Dhaka and Yangon is indeed one that should be hailed as a breakthrough, though it remains a riddle why this took so long. Next, there is a move to establish direct shipping links. In fact, the prospect of coastal vessel service between Bangladesh and Myanmar has been knocking at the door for quite sometime. But in the absence of a bilateral deal on the issue and standard operating procedures (SOP) for movement of vessels carrying export and import cargo, such prospects were not explored. This, many observers believe, has denied both the countries of the gains that could have ushered in a new era in trade and business ties between the two neighbours. Observers and business community alike are of the opinion that the coastal vessel service facilities, if appropriately worked out, would boost both-way trade. This would be a big stride towards the 'look east' policy Bangladesh has been eying for a while, not only for trade promotion but also for closer diplomatic ties with Myanmar. Knowledgeable quarters say that both governments are at the final stages of putting in place an operating procedure for movement of small to medium vessels along the coasts.
While establishing direct air and shipping links is crucial to buttressing ties, the need for proactive moves to increase bilateral trade is the call of the hour. It need not be emphasised that Myanmar, isolated from the rest of the world for a very long time, offers opportunities that are largely untapped, and as a close neighbour Bangladesh is well placed to explore those opportunities in all forms and shades of economic cooperation. Despite the possibilities for cooperation, positive interactions between the two neighbours have been rare, slow to develop, and have often been limited to formal or symbolic actions rather than substantive engagements. As a result, trade between the two countries has been negligible while far more attention is devoted to drug smuggling, refugees, etc.
True, the main obstacles impeding the growth of trade and investment lies in the business practices and government policies in Myanmar. However, with the change in governance of the counry, the practices and policies are set to come to terms with standard international business practices.
Business leaders in Bangladesh are well aware of the bottlenecks as well as the opportunities. The areas that need immediate attention, according to concerned quarters, include border trade and collaboration in power, gas, agriculture and fisheries sectors.
Myanmar's foreign trade is confined mainly to the Asian region with China, Singapore, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and India as its key trading partners. More than 70 per cent of its total export goes to the Asian region and about 90 per cent of the import also comes from this region. Export basket comprises mainly agricultural and primary products. Imports consist largely of manufactured goods, particularly capital goods and raw materials for manufacturing sector accounting for about 65 per cent of total imports. Because of certain peculiarities in business practices, especially pertaining to the mode of remittance, border trade is a preferred mechanism that Myanmar has been pursing for long. Currently, it has border trade agreements with China, India, Bangladesh and Thailand. But since the inception of border trade between Bangladesh and Myanmar as early as in 1994, there was barely any sign of its potential for growth in the absence of cross-border road link. Besides, poor trade is also attributable to the fact that Bangladesh and Myanmar still have no agreements on investment, shipping, tourism and currency exchange.
Given the low level of trading and trade-related engagements between Bangladesh and Myanmar, it is imperative for Bangladesh to explore all the avenues of cooperation for the mutual benefit of the two neighbours.