YANGON (Reuters) - As Myanmar’s army was stepping up an anti-insurgency operation in the country’s northwest in October, senior officers canceled talks with their Bangladeshi counterparts, straining ties with a key potential ally in dealing with the violence on their border.
The canceled meetings, revealed in documents seen by Reuters, are the latest on a long list of failed initiatives to improve relations between fractious neighbors who both see the largely stateless Muslim Rohingya 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 cooperation 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 Nov. 1, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination 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 canceled 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 Oct. 13.
The military cited “unforeseen commitments” as a reason to cancel the nearly week-long talks scheduled in Bangladesh from Oct. 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 Oct. 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.
“We went everywhere and met with everyone, but we have been met with delays and lack of interest,” said the senior Bangladeshi official.
Bangladesh is the only neighboring country Suu Kyi, who serves as Myanmar’s foreign minister as well as being the de facto leader of the government, has not yet visited.
The Myanmar military’s press office and presidential spokesman Zaw Htay did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Aye Aye Soe, an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said there had been an “earlier meeting” between the two militaries on the “current refugees issue but (that) also involved other border related issues - drug trafficking and other transorganized crimes”. She said she had no other details.
Bangladesh Army spokesman Colonel Rashidul Hasan said he could not comment because he was not aware of the meeting. Gowher Rizvi, an external affairs advisor to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, declined to comment.
Tensions between the two countries were exacerbated last month, when Myanmar’s envoy in Dhaka was reprimanded over reports in state media that some of the insurgents blamed for the Oct. 9 attacks had crossed the border from Bangladesh.
The violence in Rakhine is the biggest crisis faced by Suu Kyi’s government, threatening her No. 1 goal of ending years of ethnic war. Insurgencies dogged Myanmar through decades of military rule, and fighting has also recently flared near the border with China.
Rohingya activists claim a centuries-old lineage in Rakhine, which like the rest of Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist. Myanmar sees the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Predominantly Muslim Bangladesh disowns the Rohingya and has refused to grant them refugee status since 1992.
The United Nations’ refugee agency supports more than 32,000 registered Rohingya in official camps in the east of Bangladesh, and estimates up to 500,000 undocumented Rohingya live in the country.
The population has grown since 2012, when communal clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya killed more than 100 people and displaced thousands.
Richard Horsey, a former UN diplomat in Myanmar, said relations with Bangladesh had always been characterized by “deep tension and suspicion”, adding that Myanmar was missing an opportunity by not seeking more help from Dhaka in the wake of the Oct. 9 attacks.
“The Bangladeshi side has cooperated in the early stages,” he said. “And, given their track record of investigating radical organizations, it is somewhat surprising Myanmar has seemingly not reached out more openly about cooperation on the attacks.”
Additional reporting by Wa Lone; Editing by Alex Richardson