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Bangladesh extends road near Myanmar, NE India to combat cross-border smuggling

Bangladesh officials on Tuesday announced an extension until 2024 for a road-building project in the remote Chittagong Hill Tracts and Cox’s Bazar, saying the improved infrastructure would help combat illegal smuggling across the nearby frontiers with Myanmar and India, among other uses.

An army-run initiative, which was to have wrapped up in June 2021, is being extended to June 2024 and will more than double in price, to 38.6 billion taka (U.S. $448 million), they said.

Bangladesh’s southeast has 210 km (130 miles) of land border with Myanmar and 330 km (205 miles) with India. Insurgents, such as the Arakan Army from Myanmar, have slipped across the porous borders, according to an analyst, even attacking Bangladeshi border guards on at least one occasion.   

On Tuesday, the National Economic Council Executive Committee, headed by the prime minister, approved the updated proposal for the road system in the hilly and largely inaccessible southeastern region, Shahedur Rahman, the planning ministry’s spokesman, told BenarNews.

He said the project, approved at an earlier committee meeting, was supposed to finish by 2021, but would end in June 2024 after the extension approval. The system is to connect all roads along the bordering areas of four southeastern districts and ultimately link with the region’s existing road system.

According to a copy of the updated proposal obtained by BenarNews, the roads and highways department is to build a 317-km (197-mile) border road in three districts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts – Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban – and Cox’s Bazar district along its frontiers with Myanmar and northeastern Indian states.

The hills and dense forest in the region hamper Border Guard Bangladesh efforts. In 2020, the government for the first time acquired two helicopters for the BGB along the southeastern border.

“There is no road in this highly inaccessible and hilly region; our soldiers need to walk at least eight hours to cross 1 km. The distance between two BGB border outposts in this region ranges between 4 and 6 km, depending on terrain,” Lt Col. Foyzur Rahman, the BGB operations director, told BenarNews.

“Construction of the border road would enable our soldiers to reach one outpost to another very easily and quickly, making guarding the border[s] an easier task. The smuggling of arms and narcotics would stop,” he said.

‘Many security considerations’

The original timeline for the road ran from January 2018 to June 2021 and set the project cost at nearly 17 billion taka ($197 million), according to the document. But that deadline passed before the project was finished – the government estimates more than 30 percent of the project has been completed.

The new timeline runs through June 2024 and increases the cost.

A.K.M. Manir Hossain Pathan, chief engineer of the roads and highways department, said his department had been constructing the border road system with assistance from the army’s engineering corps.

“The border road involved many security considerations which the roads and highways department engineers are not supposed to be involved with. Therefore, we have been implementing the project through the Bangladesh Army,” he told BenarNews.

“The inaccessible hilly terrain has slowed the implementation of the border road project. Getting machines, construction materials and the engineers and workers [to] the site is a herculean task so the project’s deadline has been extended to June 2024,” he said.

In addition to the road project, the proposal calls for establishing improved communication links in Rangamati, Bandarban, Khagrachhari and Cox’s Bazar districts and “establishing government control in the bordering areas through heightening security measures.”

Such measures would be used to combat the smuggling of illegal arms, narcotics and human trafficking at the border, it said.

The proposal also says construction of helipads and security enclosures have been added to the original project.

Cross-border infiltration

Separatist groups have taken advantage of the rugged and remote terrain. On Aug. 25, 2015, a group of Arakan Army insurgents from the other side of the Myanmar border attacked BGB in Bandarban district, injuring two soldiers.

The border road would benefit Bangladesh, said retired Maj. Gen. K. Mohammad Ali Sikder, a security analyst.

“The terrain along the border in Chittagong Hill Tracts and Cox’s Bazar has been very tough and inaccessible. Exploiting this tough hilly terrain, the cross-border criminal syndicates carry out smuggling of arms, narcotics and other contraband while different separatist groups move freely between countries,” he told BenarNews.

“The members of the Arakan Army very often enter Bangladesh territory from Myanmar as the BGB members cannot guard all the time, and the anti-Bangladesh groups easily cross into Myanmar,” he said. “After completion of the road, the movement of the criminals and separatist groups would stop.”

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.