Rohingya shadow on South Asia free trade pact

A flood of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh threatens to hold captive India's efforts to cobble together a Bimstec free trade pact which would cover nations with combined GDP of over $3 trillion.

By Jayanta Roy Chowdhury in Dhaka
  • Published 16.10.17
CRISIS: Rohingyas cross floodwater in a refugee camp near Bangladesh (File picture)

Dhaka: A flood of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh threatens to hold captive India's efforts to cobble together a Bimstec free trade pact which would cover nations with combined GDP of over $3 trillion.

"We all have our geopolitical considerations, but this (Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh) has strong ramifications for the security of our region. If we don't work jointly on it... I fear it may undo some of the good work that has happened over the years," warned Gowher Rizvi, the international affairs adviser to the Bangladesh Prime Minister at the Track-II India-Bangladesh security dialogue held here last week.

Around 5.2 lakh Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh's Cox Bazar area from Myanmar's Rakhine province in the last two months after the Myanmar army began a crackdown on the community following a surprise raid on a large number of military and police posts in the remote border province on August 25. The Rohingyas are not classified as an indigenous minority in Myanmar and, so, are denied citizenship under a law that links nationality to ethnicity.

Bimstec, or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation, which comprises India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, have been negotiating a free trade agreement for some years which could potentially cover a marketplace of 1.6 billion people, and negotiators say recent breakthroughs could mean that the nations are very close to clinching a pact.

India has invested heavily both its diplomatic equity and money in a trilateral highway linking the Northeast through Myanmar with Asean lynchpin Thailand.

The highway will eventually extend to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam covering around 3,200km of roadways and may also link, under a separate initiative, to the new boomtown of Kunming in China's Yunan.

New Delhi has also offered three lines of credit worth $7.5 billion to promote connectivity between India and Bangladesh.

The trilateral highway, which was initially proposed as Asia's No. 1 highway, is expected to turn into an economic corridor, drawing huge investments for industry and commercial agriculture into a poor and often tense region beset with militancy .

Japan has been backing India and Asean's bid to link Asia as it sees better market access through it and creation of its own counter to China's Silk Route.

A parallel but little reported initiative by Tokyo to part-fund a string of ports in South Asia and the Asean is expected to link this highway to Japan.

However, Bangladesh's stand poses a dilemma before Bimstec and the projects under it. India's eastern neighbour wants the Rohingya crisis solved first before proceeding to build roads to Myanmar.

"It's a tough call for friends in India... (The Rohingya crisis) will affect ongoing connectivity projects... in your (India's) endeavour to capture an elusive bird in the bush, you may lose the one in hand," said ambassador Tariq Karim, the former High Commissioner of Bangladesh to India after the Track-II meeting organised jointly by the Observer Research Foundation and Bangladesh Enterprise Institute.

The dilemma has been compounded by the fact that both Bangladesh and India has little leverage with Myanmar.

India has proposed a cross-country gas pipeline in the first half of the last decade to evacuate gas pumped from Myanmar's offshore fields awarded to Indian firms in the Rakhine province. However, the then Bangladesh government under Begum Khaleda Zia had not agreed to the proposal.

Ambassador Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, a former secretary in the external affairs ministry, said, "Deeper economic integration acts as incentive not to upset the status quo... (however)for Myanmar, there is no guarantee that it would not have expelled the Rohingyas. Often national security and xenophobia trumps economics."