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    South Asia
     Nov 20, 2012

Obama doubles up on Myanmar visit
By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury

DHAKA - The opening up of Myanmar, highlighted by the unprecedented visit to the country today by US President Barack Obama, appears set to include its western neighbor Bangladesh, with an agreement this month to boost trade that at present struggles to reach US$100 million a year.

Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed during their 6th Joint Trade Commission (JTC) meeting on November 11 and 12 to gear up border trade and business visits between the countries. The

meeting targeted US$500 million in bilateral trade, which at present is skewed in favor of Myanmar, which in the year to March 2012 exported $65 million worth of goods to Bangladesh, accepting $13.5 million in return.

President Obama has been urged to speak out against continued ethnic conflict in Myanmar's western Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh and through which most of the targeted new trade will flow. Most of the recent destruction in the state affected the homes of Muslim Rohingya, considered by the Myanmar government to be stateless, though local Rakhine and other Buddhists were also affected.

"Unfortunately there are some communal problems in our area, which is delaying the enhancement of border trade. When the conditions improve our border trade will also increase. It is assured," Deputy Commerce Minister Pwint San, who led the Myanmar side at the JTC, was quoted by the Daily Star in Bangladesh as saying.

During a meeting with Buddhists and Muslims of Myanmar on Friday, which was televised on Myanmar's state television, President Thein Sein blamed nationalist and religious extremists for the violence in which, he said, "167 people had been killed in two periods of violence in Rakhine in June and October this year, while 223 were injured. Some 101,000 buildings were destroyed and 111,000 people were made homeless."

The JTC meeting decided to "establish shipping and air connectivity, arrange banking procedures with the Asian Clearing Union and also maintain regular communication between the businesspeople of the two countries," according to Commerce Secretary Mahbub Ahmed, who headed the Bangladesh delegation.

Myanmar last week also expressed plans to set up a wholesale market and hold trade fairs along the border to increase bilateral trade. Increasing the number of commodities traded at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border was also discussed at the meeting. A mere 125 are traded at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, compared with an estimated 10,000 at the China-Myanmar border and 3,000 at Myanmar's border with Thailand border.

When Myanmar opened its economy in 2010 after years of direct military rule ended, trade with Bangladesh eased to some extent through moves such as the direct opening of letters of credit with Myanmar. Earlier, these had to be done through a third-country, especially Singapore. Last year, the governments increased the consignment value through their shared border to $50,000 from $30,000.

While trade between Myanmar and Bangladesh remains low, other markets are opening up quickly, notably the United States, which lifted a ban on most imports from Myanmar ahead of Obama's visit, the BBC reported on Friday. Quoting US officials, the BBC said that the "move was intended to support political reform in Burma [as the US and some other countries still call Myanmar] and to offer new bilateral business opportunities".

Those efforts will do little to benefit Rohingya, according to Khairul Quader, a Bangladeshi journalist who has covered the Rohingya issue extensively and visited Myanmar this month. "While such bilateral business opportunities may help the Myanmar economy and can also enhance bilateral trade between Bangladesh and Myanmar, the Rohingyas will most likely not be better off even after this," he told Asia Times Online.

"The Rohingyas dominated the border trade between Bangladesh and Myanmar till 1982, when these businesses were captured by the Burmese and the Rohingyas lost their citizenship rights. Rohingyas are at present living on agriculture and related fields in Myanmar," he said.

Many Rohingyas fleeing this year's violence tried to reach Bangladesh by boat but were pushed back by the local authorities. The Bangladesh government this year has resisted international pressure to open its borders to the Rohingyas, as the country still already hosts as many as 100,000 refugees who have fled Myanmar in several waves following the cancellation of their citizenship rights there.

The biggest exodus occurred in early 1992, when 250,000 fled to Bangladesh when faced with "military persecution" in Myanmar. Rohingya refugees were last repatriated into Myanmar in May, 2005.

Although the situation has calmed down since the October conflict this year, Rohingyas still fear more persecution.

Last week, Marķa Otero, US Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, accompanied by other US officials, visited the two Rohingya camps run by the UN High Commission for Refugees and the Bangladesh government near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.

Otero, who arrived in Dhaka on Thursday on a three-day visit, later termed Myanmar's Rohingya issue a "complex one" having "an international dimension". She conveyed that the US is "ready to assist the relevant countries including Bangladesh for a lasting solution to the decades-old problem".

Md Feroz Salauddin, Commissioner of Bangladesh's Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission, who was with the US officials during their camp visits and news conference, told Asia Times Online on Friday that Otero had been assured that the US will call upon Myanmar "to restore stability" in its riot-hit Rakhine State.

"At the same time, Otero urged Bangladesh to respect the rights of Rohingya Muslims and other individuals fleeing violence in the Buddhist-dominant country and to allow international non-government organizations to provide assistance to these refugees," he said.

Reuters reported on Friday that President Thein Sein had sent a letter to the United Nations "promising action to tackle the problems in Rakhine, home to an estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims that Myanmar does not recognize as citizens".

Quader pointed out that the Rakhine capital and main port of Sittwe is likely to become very prominent within the next few months as, not only is it very near to the Bangladesh border, "It is also well-connected with a road opening up to the seven northern states of India."

He also confirmed Asia Times Online reports that Rohingyas and local Buddhists are losing their land to incoming foreign businesses seeking to exploit local energy and mineral resources.

"Chinese and Indian organizations have already set up offices and plants in Rakhine state. The lands are mostly occupied from poor Muslim Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists," he said.

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is the Editor of Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age, in Bangladesh.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.) 

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