Myanmar-Bangladesh ties hit by cancelled meetings amid crisis

YANGON: As Myanmar’s army was stepping up an anti-insurgency operation in the country’s northwest in October, senior officers cancelled talks with their Bangladeshi counterparts, straining ties with a key potential ally in dealing with the violence on their border.
The cancelled meetings, revealed in documents, are the latest on a long list of failed initiatives to improve relations between fractious neighbours who both see the largely stateless Rohingyas at the heart of the crisis as the other nation’s problem.
Bangladeshi diplomats say the abrupt cancellation of the talks, planned for mid-October, reflected Myanmar’s reluctance to deepen bilateral ties and press ahead with talks on security co-operation and the establishment of border liaison officers.
“Those two documents are incredibly important, particularly given the situation we’re dealing with right now, but we’ve hit a wall,” said a senior Bangladeshi official, who did not want to be identified because of the private nature of the exchanges.
Myanmar officials did not comment on the meetings.
Defusing the deep-seated mistrust between the two countries is crucial both to improving the plight of the Rohingya minority and curbing the insurgency Myanmar’s government says it is fighting in the northwest, diplomats and analysts say.
Close to 27,000 people have fled across the border from Myanmar’s Rakhine State to Bangladesh since November 1, according to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, with more people likely to have fled since the onset of violence in October. The Rohingya, of whom there are around 1.1 million in Rakhine, are denied citizenship by Myanmar and Bangladesh, who both cite census documents and historical accounts to argue they have a long-established presence in the other country.
The cancelled meetings also point to the growing isolation of the eight-month-old administration of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, facing criticism of her handling of the crisis from both Western nations and Asian countries such as Malaysia.
Myanmar’s military and the government have rejected allegations by residents and rights groups that soldiers have raped Rohingya women, burnt houses and killed civilians during the military operation in Rakhine.
“Regarding the Army to Army Talk between Bangladesh Armed Forces and Myanmar Defence Services. I deeply regret to inform you that our authorities would like to postpone,” said the head of the Myanmar military’s foreign relations department, Lieutenant Colonel Aung Zaw Linn, in a letter to Bangladesh officials on October 13.
The military cited “unforeseen commitments” as a reason to cancel the nearly week-long talks scheduled in Bangladesh from October 16.
The letter was sent four days after nine Myanmar police officers were killed in attacks on border posts. Since then, security forces have flooded northern Rakhine, hunting a Rohingya insurgent group the government says was responsible.
Five days later, the head of the Myanmar police division against transnational crime also pulled out of talks with the Bangladeshi border guard force planned for October 25-27 in Dhaka, citing the security situation in Rakhine.
One of the documents Bangladeshis were keen to discuss was a memorandum of understanding on security dialogue and cooperation. Another document, reviewed by Reuters, would set up border liaison officers (BLO) on both sides of the frontier and other collaboration measures including joint patrols.
Underscoring deterioration of the ties, Bangladeshi diplomats said last month they pulled out of bilateral foreign ministry consultations seen as a preparatory step before a meeting of heads of state. — Reuters