Bangladesh-Nepal Ties: The Neutrality Dilemma on the Rohingya Issue

Published On: August 29, 2021 07:55 AM NPT By: Anup Sinha

Anup Sinha

Anup Sinha is an independent researcher of South Asian affairs, with special focus on India. He has an M.S.S. degree in IR from the University of Dhaka.

Bangladesh, despite considering Nepal as an "all weather friend" has failed to find this friend in times of necessity once again.

On the last working day of 2020 (31st December), at the plenary meeting of the 75th UN General Assembly, a draft resolution regarding 'The Rohingya issue and other human rights situation in Myanmar' was adopted. Unsurprisingly global big shots like China and Russia defended Myanmar and India preferred to abstain from voting for obvious geopolitical reasons. But it was Nepal's silence that unsettled Bangladesh the most. Bangladesh, despite considering Nepal as an "all weather friend" has failed to find this friend in times of necessity once again.

Why Nepal took such a stance?

It is believed that India and China influenced Nepal's decision in this regard. Both India and China have their own stakes in Myanmar, but for Nepal, it looked like they were simply trying to play safe rather than following principles. More astonishingly, Nepal decided to remain silent despite being a member of the UN Human Rights Council.

Should Nepal stand by Bangladesh?

While it is understandable that Nepal like always was trying to maintain a stance of neutrality, this dilemma is certainly harmful for its warm bilateral ties with Bangladesh, who is the prime suffers of the Rohingya genocide committed by the Myanmar military junta.The August 2017 crackdown of the Myanmar military on the ethnic Rohinya people of Rakhine state led to the largest exodus of refugees to neighboring Bangladesh. And as of 2021, Bangladesh shelters more than 1.3 million Rohingya refugees. This has become a huge burden for a country like Bangladesh, which is already densely populated.

Bangladesh, since its inception, has stood beside Nepal and its people in times of need. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, Bangladesh sent Nepal 50,000 metric tons of urea to tackle an acute shortage of fertilizer. Bangladesh supplied medical equipment to Nepal in September 2020 as a token of friendship under the SAARC Covid-19 Emergency Fund. And during the Nepal earthquake of 2015, Bangladesh sent 10 tons of relief material consisting of water, tents, blankets, food etc. So it is only natural that Bangladesh can expect support from a neighbor like Nepal at international forums regarding the Rohingya issue.

Opportunities missed

Geographically, Bangladesh and Nepal are only separated by a thin strip of land (22 kilometers wide) named the 'Siliguri corridor'. Despite having such a close geographical proximity many trade and investment opportunities between the two countries have largely remained untapped. For instance, after the formal inception of ties between the two countries in 1976, a 'Trade, Transit and Payments Agreements' was signed. The Bangladesh government offered Nepal six transit points (both entry and exit) for the purpose of trade. However, due to Nepal's lack of prompt action, these points are still not fully functional. In 1997, following request from the Nepali government, Bangladesh allowed the usage of both Mongla and Chittagong ports. In the same year, the 52 km Fulbari transit road that connects Kakarvita (Nepal) and Banglabandha (Bangladesh) was made functional with the same purpose. But despite keen interest from Nepali traders, their government is unable to make full usage of this facility.

Future ahead

Despite such backlashes, the two countries still share enormous prospects in multiple sectors. Particularly in the power sector, the Bangladesh government has expressed its intent to purchase 9,000 MW of electricity within 2040. Another potential aspect for development is the tourism sector. Nepal, despite being only 20 km away from Bangladesh, hasn't been able to lure a large number of Bangladeshi tourists. In 2018, Bangladeshi tourists only accounted for 2.2 percent of the annual arrivals in Nepal. And in case of infrastructural development, the Bangladesh government has expressed interest to develop water terminals in Nepal's Koshi and Narayani rivers. This would add great advantage for Nepal in accessing the Bay of Bengal and would easily benefit both countries economically.

Nepal was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of Bangladesh as early as January 1972. And the two countries have shared a faithful bond of friendship over the last half a century. Although it is understandable that for a country being in Nepal's position, whose foreign policy has always been framed by sorting of balancing between the Sino-Indian dynamics. Neutralizing the dynamics of India and China has always been the top priority for Nepal's foreign policy. But this does not exempt Nepal from standing up for an 'all-weather friend' like Bangladesh. For two countries that share such a long history of cooperation and partnership, it is quite logical that these two should stand up for each other when necessary. And particularly on the Rohingya issue Nepal needs to come out of the neutrality dilemma and showcase solid diplomatic support for Bangladesh.

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