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In the Wake of Cyclone Mocha: Burmese-Bangladeshi Cooperation and Friendship

People arrive to take shelter at a monastery in Sittwe in Myanmar’s Rakhine state on 12 May 2023, ahead of the expected landfall of Cyclone Mocha. From rfa.com

The geopolitics of South Asia and Southeast Asia are closely related due to their geographical proximity. However, their shared development—and problems—also stem from their ancient history as hubs of Theravada Buddhism and influential sanghas. Myanmar is one of Bangladesh’s closest neighbors and the two countries have had a long-standing relationship dating back generations. Relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar were formalized on 13 January 1972, when Myanmar became the sixth state to recognize Bangladesh as an independent nation.

The 271-kilometer Bangladesh-Myanmar border, which encompasses Cox’s Bazar and Rakhine State, is strategically significant for Bangladesh. The border has been militarized due to fighting between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army, an armed group claiming to fight for ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Due to the presence of unresolved issues such as this militarization, the presence of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and the maritime border demarcation, ties between the two neighbors have not always been friendly. For example, on 11 October 2020, the Rakhine Community of Bangladesh protested in front of the National Museum in Dhaka against the human rights violations of the Myanmar junta, including the displacement of Rakhine and Rohingya minorities from Rakhine State. Fighting on the border between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military prompted periodic mobilization by the Bangladeshi army. In March 2023, a delegation from Myanmar visited the refugee camps in Bangladesh, with few positive results despite it being the first attempt to restart negotiations toward repatriating the one million Rohingya refugees since 2019. (Nikkei Asia)

Nevertheless, the menace of Cyclone Mocha, which has just smashed into the coastlines of the two countries, represents a unique opportunity to work together amid adversity, and rekindle bilateral friendship by working through common problems. Since forming in the Bay of Bengal, Cyclone Mocha has intensified to the equivalent of a Category 5 Atlantic hurricane. The Bangladeshi meteorological department office said that the maximum sustained wind speed within 75 kilometers of the center of the cyclone was about 195 kilometers per hour, with gusts and squalls of 215 kilometers per hour. It was one of the most powerful storms in recent memory for Bangladesh.

Geographical proximity of Bangladesh from Myanmar. Image courtesy of the author

Fortunately, after making landfall on the early morning of Sunday, Cyclone Mocha did not hit Bangladesh as hard as feared, with Kamrul Hasan, a Bangladeshi disaster official, saying that no major damage had been caused. By late Sunday, the storm had largely passed, although landslides and floods have continued to hit the area.

In Myanmar, Cyclone Mocha hit Rakhine State, near Sittwe township. According to AP News: “Rakhine-based media reported that streets were flooded, trapping people in low-lying areas in their homes as worried relatives outside the township appealed for rescue,” and “more than 4,000 of Sittwe’s 300,000 residents were evacuated to other cities and more than 20,000 people were sheltering in sturdy buildings such as monasteries, pagodas and schools located in the highlands.” (AP News) At least five people have been reported dead. The Irrawaddy reported that as of Sunday afternoon, “the full extent of the devastation caused by the storm in the state capital [Naypyitaw] and nearby areas was not yet clear. The eye of the storm crossed Sittwe and nearby areas on Sunday afternoon and meteorologists warned of possible further severe weather, which normally follows the crossing of the eye.” (The Irrawaddy) The last storm to make landfall with a similar strength in Myanmar was Tropical Cyclone Giri, in October 2010. It made landfall as a high-end Category 4 equivalent storm with maximum winds of 250 kilometers per hour. Giri caused over 150 fatalities and almost 70 per cent of the city of Kyaukphyu was destroyed. The UN estimated that roughly 15,000 homes were destroyed in Rakhine State.

Myanmar and Bangladesh bear the brunt of cyclones regularly as a result of their intersection at the seven major basins of Southeast Asia. As such, Cyclone Mocha and past tropical storms have affected both countries. More broadly, they are major victims of climate change like many countries in the Global South. They could work together to address issues related to global environmental deterioration. Besides major national problems of poverty and illiteracy, Bangladesh and Myanmar’s vulnerability to environmental deterioration is very alarming.

Cyclone Mocha makes landfall on a road in Myanmar. From standard.com.hk

On the environmental front, it is evident that the Tatmadaw (or the “Grand Army” of Myanmar) and the Bangladesh military, the authorities of both countries, and NGOs can collaborate to lessen the risk of regional environmental degradation through co-ordinated disaster management systems, operations, and projects. Cyclone Nargis in 2008 was one example of a disaster that affected both coastal countries. In these adverse circumstances, there were ample opportunities for Myanmar and Bangladesh to work together in reducing environmental degradation. There was also Cyclone Giri in 2010, and Cyclone Sitrang earlier in 2022.

To reduce the harm brought on by the tragedies common to both nations, Myanmar and Bangladesh should work together more closely in managing and forecasting floods. Ways to collaborate might encompass what specialists are calling “integrated approaches” and “regional cooperation.” They denote the sharing of information between government agencies. Shared knowledge does not even need to be limited to bilateral relations, and it could be a potential advantage for countries across Asia to work together. Scientists from perhaps Sri Lanka and Thailand—as they are also a part of the Bay of Bengal and, correspondingly, neighbors of Bangladesh and Myanmar—should work together to find answers to environmental crises. Countries across Southeast Asia like Thailand share the same problems with violent tropical storms like Mocha.

Of course, one cannot overlook the regional superpowers of India and China in this potential “united response” to tropical disasters. India has had longstanding ties with Bangladesh and Myanmar for decades. The Myanmar-Bangladesh-India “arc” is an important one. But China also stands to benefit if it could assist with cyclone management cooperation alongside Myanmar and Sri Lankawhat one might call the Myanmar-Sri Lanka-China “arc.” This would allow the Burmese and Bangladeshi governments to balance relations with China and India, while potentially even helping to set the stage for Sino-Indian cooperation in certain fields of disaster management.

Friday flooding in Bangkok ahead of Cyclone Mocha making landfall on Sunday. From bangkokpost.com

The irony is that Myanmar’s junta, despite having been under a negative global spotlight, is probably the singular body that can take effective steps to foster these complicated ties. The generals, serving as Myanmar’s powerbrokers, are seen by countries like India and China as critical sources of bilateral communications. Bangladesh also wishes to be seen by Myanmar’s leaders as a friendly neighbor and peace-loving country. Should there be a sincere engagement between Bangladesh and Myanmar—and with other countries—in good faith and the modest scope of achieving specific climate crisis-related goals, it could mean some degree of progress in regional stability and harmony in the regions of South and Southeast Asia.

Aside from the military leadership, senior monastics in the Burmese sangha could prove to be effective interlocutors for bilateral cooperation, precisely because they do not have a formal government role and, despite the uneasy sangha-state relations at present, are seen to be unifying figures. What happens next will depend on a complex, convoluted network of stakeholders and powerbrokers that need to think big and put cooperation first, despite extremely difficult problems and disputes that cross multiple borders and nations.

See more

Tensions as Bangladesh accuses Myanmar of firing in its territory (Al Jazeera)
Cyclone Mocha: Deadly storm hits Bangladesh and Myanmar coast (BBC News)
Bangladesh and Myanmar brace for the worst as Cyclone Mocha makes landfall (CNN)
Myanmar visit to Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps leaves doubts, fears (Nikkei Asia)
Cyclone Mocha Wreaks Havoc in Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine (The Irrawaddy)

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