By Harunur Rasid
It is heard the term ‘Myanmar-Bangladesh rice diplomacy recently through media platforms. The use of rice as a diplomatic tool has received global media coverage (The Sun Daily, Modern Diplomacy, Eurasia Review, Pakistan Today, Burma News International, Counter Review) despite Myanmar-Bangladesh tensions. There is nothing new to say about the influence of food on politics. It is really appreciable that Myanmar and Bangladesh have already started rice diplomacy to mend the ties. Now, time will say how fruitful Myanmar-Bangladesh rice diplomacy would be.
In ancient times, many kings used food as a diplomatic tool to entertain their guests. The tradition continues in the modern political world. Many leaders of political parties and presidents have used and continue to use food diplomacy to strengthen relations between allies or diffuse tensions with opponents.
According to an English report, Rice appears to have emerged as a favourite diplomatic tool for building strong ties with neighbouring Myanmar and Bangladesh. It is said that the product is a staple food for most people in countries like Indonesia and Thailand and neighbouring countries like China and India. The agriculture sector is one of the most important and strategic sectors for the survival of a country.
Without food, the country can experience chaos and bankruptcy. Bangladesh government relies on various measures to maintain rice availability. The most popular way is to import rice. This import policy causes a lot of damage because Bangladesh is an agricultural country or country that mainly has rice.
Although Bangladesh’s agricultural sector is one of the best sectors, the country continues to import rice. Due to the current state of the world facing a global food crisis due to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, many countries have closed their doors to exports to maintain their domestic reserves.
Rice is an essential product in the life of the people of Bangladesh. Dhaka, which imports about a million tonnes of rice every year, has ordered imports from Myanmar despite tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Since agriculture and livestock are the backbone of Myanmar’s economy, it earns foreign exchange from rice exports beyond self-sufficiency. The state is helping stockholders including farmers and investors to bring business opportunities.
According to a memorandum of understanding between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the rice trade, two lakh tonnes of white rice will be exported from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
For the first time, 2,650 tons of rice will be sent directly to Bangladesh in January 2023. According to data from the ministry of commerce of Myanmar, according to the government-to-government agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh, Myanmar sent 150,000 tons of white rice to Bangladesh in 2022.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on rice trade on September 8 this year.
According to this MoU, Bangladesh has agreed to buy 250,000 tonnes of white rice and 50,000 tonnes of parboiled rice from Myanmar between 2022 and 2027.
According to the memorandum of understanding, the food directorate of Bangladesh and the Myanmar Rice Federation signed an agreement to sell 200,000 tons of Myanmar white rice for export to Bangladesh. According to the sales agreement, Myanmar has exported around 15,000 tonnes of white rice to Bangladesh till 19 December 2022. The remainder will be delivered within the deadline.
According to the memorandum of understanding between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the rice trade, 48 companies under the supervision of the Myanmar Rice Federation will export 200,000 tons of rice to Bangladesh in Chinese yuan between October 2022 and January 2023.
Myanmar will begin exporting 160,000 tons of rice to Bangladesh this month, the Myanmar Rice Federation (MRF) said.
Under the agreement with Bangladesh, MRF has agreed to export 200,000 tonnes of rice to the South Asian country, an MRF official said.
“We are waiting for the arrival of ships to export rice to Bangladesh. The export of rice to Bangladesh will start this month. According to the agreement between the two countries, we have to export two lakh tonnes of rice to Bangladesh this month. But there is always an understanding between buyer and seller. If there is a delay due to various reasons, we will discuss and send it,” explained the MRF official.
Rice exported from Myanmar to Bangladesh is planned to be transported from Sule port in Yangon, Pathein port in Ayeyarwaddy region and Sittwe port in Arakan state.
The governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a sales agreement for rice exports in September, agreeing to export 200,000 tonnes of rice to Bangladesh in December.
According to the Arakan State Rice Millers Association, 200,000 tonnes of rice is being bought from the region and state under a quota system organized by the MRF. Arakan State Rice Millers Association has decided to sell 22500 tonnes of rice to MRF.
Arakan State Rice Millers vice-chairman U Ni Ni Than said four rice mills in Kyuktao, one in Ponnagun and two in Sittwe, will supply export-quality rice to the MRF for export to Bangladesh, and rice exports will begin in January. Association.
“We will sell 2,500 tonnes of rice to the MRF for local farmers, who have to spend more on agricultural inputs due to price hike. Farmers were getting better prices when such rice was allowed to be exported. We sell to MRF at $400 (RM1,768) per tonne,” he explained.
“Purchasing rice from Arakan state may improve the rice market for farmers, but there are also concerns that the domestic rice market price will increase and become insufficient,” said a local veteran trader. “It would be good if there is no impact on the supply of rice in the domestic market due to the export of rice abroad. Domestic self-sufficiency may be affected if rice exports increase,” he added.
Arakan State has more than 1.2 million acres of farmland, but according to data from the Arakan Farmers’ Union, only 850,000 acres have been brought under rice cultivation due to various factors.
According to the MRF, Myanmar exported more than one million tonnes of rice and broken rice in the first seven months of the 2022-2023 fiscal year and earned more than US$400 million.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have started practicing their rice diplomacy. Myanmar supplies to Bangladesh will deepen their ties. This can be a great effort by both sides to build good relations with the Bangladeshi and Myanmar governments.
It will also build good bilateral relations between the people of Bangladesh and Myanmar. In the short term, the new generation on both sides wants better relations in terms of economy, tourism, etc.
There may be some problems between Bangladesh and Myanmar. However, these issues (Rohingya refugees and border issues) should be properly addressed by both sides. Bangladesh is going to become the economic miracle of South Asia. Bangladesh is praised by the international community in every international forum.
Ping-pong diplomacy led by China and the United States was set up to strengthen their relationship. We can also expect another application of ping-pong diplomacy similar to rice diplomacy.
Paddy’s diplomacy is a small initiative but its significance is huge. This small initiative will turn into a great achievement for both parties.
A high-level official visit could be a step to strengthen ties. The two prime ministers may exchange visits to normalize relations. This is good news for Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Harunur Rasid is a London-based Bangladeshi expatriate. A Bangladesh, Myanmar affairs observer, analyst, and researcher.