LOOKING from the civilisational point of view, 50 years may not appear to be a long time in the life of a nation. Historically, apart from some momentous events that brought major changes in political landscape very little in the life of the ordinary people is observed in the 50 years. Technological innovation, however, multiplied the pace of history, changes now take place in less than a decade.
Bangladesh is a relatively young political entity that celebrates its golden jubilee this March. During the same 50 years, the world has undergone radical changes in political philosophy, geopolitics, the global power structure, economy, and above all technology. The Soviet Union imploded; the largest communist party has fully espoused hard capitalism. China has awakened and is challenging the domination of the sole superpower. Non-state actors here and there are causing nightmares to established powers. Profound changes have also taken place in Bangladesh including her relations with the wider world.
For the most part, in the first two decades, Bangladesh was a marginal power with a marginal economy and a low political culture. She witnessed coup and counter coup, political killings, floods and famine, abject poverty, corruption and mismanagement, and the infamous branding as an ‘international basket case’. These constraints notwithstanding, during the next 30 years, Bangladesh has made significant achievements. Already a lower middle income country with sustained economic growth, she has been cleared for graduation from LDCs. According to Price Waterhouse Coopers projection, she is today the 31st largest economy in the world. By any reckoning, Bangladesh today is a much more important country. Let us see how she has conducted herself with the neighbours and beyond during this time.
Relations with India
THE most important foreign relation of Bangladesh unquestionably is her relation with India. At the most difficult time, when Pakistan army waged genocide on March 26, 1971, this relation had begun. The Mujibnagar Government, the first Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh took oath on 10 April in a village in Meherpur. The country having gone under the occupation of the Pakistani forces, this government shifted to Kolkata, India, where it actually took office on 17 April 1971. The government of India with Indira Gandhi as the prime minister helped this government to function from Indian soil. India also gave shelter about 10 million refugees from Bangladesh who crossed the border fleeing violence of the Pakistan army. The Mukti Bahini was created on Indian soil with training facilities and arms provided by India.
In addition to the disparate efforts of the Bengali diplomats who declared allegiance to Bangladesh, the Indian establishment contributed greatly to garner international support for the cause of Bangladesh. The all-out war in which the Pakistan army was in Bangladesh was softened by relentless attacks of freedom fighters and was finally defeated by the joint forces of India and Bangladesh. Towards the end of the war, a Soviet veto at the UN Security Council, at the instance of India, was crucial to this successful conclusion.
In the post-independence Bangladesh, deep and intense relations with India continued to flourish. India helped in the reconstruction of the war ravaged country, particularly restoration of the railways. Because of an astute move by Bangabandhu, the Indian military went back to their country within three months and the India–Bangladesh Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace for 25 years was signed.
Issues, however, started to crop up even in this atmosphere of bonhomie. The war was won by the joint forces, but there were allegations that all the captured arms and ammunition were transferred to India. In lines with the Shimla Agreement with Pakistan, India allowed the Pakistani officers who had committed war crimes in Bangladesh to go back without facing any charges. The Farakka barrage built by India was commissioned and water was withdrawn to test run the feeder canal, albeit with Bangladesh consent.
Relations soured following the killing of Bangabandhu in August 1975 which Indira Gandhi took as a personal affront. Of particular concern to Bangladesh was the unilateral withdrawal of Ganga waters at the Farakka barrage that severely strained lives and livelihood of its people. Situation eased only after the change of government in India and an interim arrangement for sharing of waters at Farakka was signed. Through the thick and thin, however, trade relations continued to grow, though that comprised mostly Indian exports to Bangladesh. Finally when Awami League came to power in 1996, the Ganges water treaty was signed stipulating sharing arrangements for 30 years.
The bilateral relations reached an all-time high, as is frequently vouched from both sides, during the 12 years since AL returned to power in 2009. India sought and received Bangladesh’s help in neutralising the Indian insurgent groups in the North-Eastern states. Bangladesh also allowed multimodal transit to these states through her territory. India continues to have trade benefits and about half a million Indians work in Bangladesh and remit more than USD 3 billion annually. All these unfortunately have not been reciprocated by India. Border killings by the Indian Border Security Force continues, non-tariff barriers to exports from Bangladesh remain and the citizenship register of Assam hangs over us like a Damocles’ sword. On the Rohingya crisis, India has clearly taken the side of Myanmar.
A perennial problem in India-Bangladesh relations has been the mismatch between the two countries in their speed of action. Immediately after signing of the Indira-Mujib agreement, Bangladesh ratified it. India took 44 years to implement her obligations. In the 24 years since the Ganges treaty, we could not finalise an agreement on Teesta.
More than Teesta or trade, however, I think the major challenge in Bangladesh-India relations is psychological. The Citizenship Amendment Act of India is a downright insult to Bangladesh, so are the derogatory remarks by Indian leadership. India, where 190 million people go to bed hungry, is no heaven where Bangladeshis will flock to. Still, the Indian leadership continues to harp on the ‘illegal immigrant’ bogey. In Delhi’s power corridors, there is a prevailing notion that Bangladesh should remain ‘ever grateful’ for the help India provided in the liberation war and the sacrifices made by Indian soldiers. While Bangladesh is grateful to India for the help, the reality is that India had its vested interest in, what they thought as the break-up of arch enemy Pakistan and the Bangladesh liberation war provided her a golden opportunity. We are a beneficiary of sacrifices made by the Indian soldiers in the 13 days’ war in December 1971, but they shed their blood for their own country, and the Indians know it.
It’s time that the Indian establishment takes cognizance of the obvious, and come out of the condescending attitude. This would remove much of the irritants in the mind of the people and help develop a healthy Indo-Bangladesh relation.
China and the question of balance
CHINA recognised Bangladesh after the change following the killing of Bangabandhu and relations with the country followed a sharp trajectory ever since, transcending changes of government. China is today the largest trading partner of Bangladesh and important source of economic cooperation and investment. She is almost the sole source of all important military hardware and has developed a close military to military relationship.
China also has worldwide reputation of promoting corruption. Powerful vested interest groups within Bangladesh benefit from Chinese deals and form a support base for China. Unfortunately, in the case of Rohingya crisis, China has thrown her lot with the genocidal Myanmar regime. Geopolitical and economic realities however require that Bangladesh continue to maintain close relations with China.
Bangladesh’s relation with China invariably brings about the question of a balance vis-à-vis India in view of the adversarial posture between the two countries. China is aware of the imperatives of Bangladesh in its relation with India. On the other hand India does not have the means to meet the investment requirements of Bangladesh in infrastructure development. In their mutual conflict, therefore, neither China, nor India should expect Bangladesh to openly side with either.
Bangladesh has been trying to maintain the balance by appeasing both sides, with mixed results. The development of Sonadia deep sea port with Chinese help was abandoned under Indian pressure. Then the Sylhet airport development project was given to a Chinese company despite Indian concerns. India was allowed to set up a surveillance system along Bangladesh’s coastline, which among other things can monitor Chinese maritime movements in the Bay of Bengal. Maintaining this delicate balance while pursuing beneficial relations with both countries will remain a challenge for Bangladesh.
Relation with the west
THE United States was against the creation of Bangladesh (or for that matter the break-up of Pakistan). Emergence of Bangladesh was viewed by the then US establishment as sort of defeat within the prevailing Cold War parameters. However, once Bangladesh became a reality, the US was quick to recognise her. The uneasiness of relations, however, continued, so much so that during the 1974 famine, the US refrained from sending food aid that exacerbated the situation. The relation eased when the government following the killing of Bangabandhu shifted loyalties to the US side of the divide.
Bangladesh now enjoys more or less a cordial relation with the US and is the largest destination of Bangladesh exports. The US on its part is concerned about terrorism, labour and social issues and has cancelled GSP benefits for Bangladesh following factory accidents.
Relations with the European countries had all along been cordial and they made important contributions in the post war reconstruction. As an LDC, Bangladesh enjoys ‘Everything but Arms’ facility for duty and quota free access to the EU market and the EU is the largest trading partner as a block. The EU is serious about democracy, human rights and environmental issues. Bangladesh is also under scrutiny as a source of human trafficking.
In maintaining cordial relations with the west, Bangladesh has to keep them convinced about zero tolerance against terrorism, remain engaged with them about democracy and human rights, and highlight efforts to stop human trafficking.
Love-hate in the Middle-East
APART from being a rather submissive partner of an elusive Ummah, Bangladesh’s interest in the Middle East lies in the huge expatriate community that works there and sends money back home. Saudi Arabia, which was late in recognising our independence, now hosts the largest number of Bangladeshi workers and is the biggest source of remittance. Here and in the other gulf countries, vast majority of them work in low paid unskilled jobs and are often treated badly. Unreliable for political support, these countries have nonetheless to be placated for economic interests. Bangladesh remains antagonistic to Israel. Paradoxically, all the Gulf monarchies are themselves cozying up to Israel.
Over dependence on this volatile and unstable region remains a cause for concern. Any conflagration there would mean return of a substantial number of our workers. This would not only cut remittance, but also put pressure on the job market with concomitant economic and social ramifications.
The Rohingya crisis
THE Rohingya issue is the gravest crisis Bangladesh is facing in its post-independence history. In August 2017, following widespread incidents of killing, rape and arson by the Myanmar military on the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state, 800,000 Rohingyas crossed the border into Bangladesh to save their lives. The UN secretary general has termed the action as a ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing’. These people have joined 80,000 more who were pushed into Bangladesh in 2016 and are lodged in camps in Ukhia and Teknaf of Cox’s Bazar. There is also another close to 300,000 Rohingyas who had trickled across the border during the previous years in the face of continued atrocities. Bangladesh is now burdened with 1.2 million Rohingya refugees.
Bilateral efforts to resolve the issue has so far been futile. Solution can only be on the basis of the proposal of Bangladesh prime minister at the UN, and the Annan Commission report. The Rohingyas must be allowed to return to their homes with security, rights and dignity, and their tormentors must be punished. For two reasons such a solution was in itself unlikely. The expulsion was part of a bigger game plan of the Myanmar military supported by the Buddhist clergy and Bamar chauvinists, with no intention of taking them back. With China, India and Russia firmly backing Myanmar, sufficient pressure could not be built on Myanmar and it’s military to allow Rohingyas to return. Two cases against Myanmar are being heard at the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. This is however a lengthy process with uncertain results.
The military takeover in Myanmar on 01 February 2021 and the detention of Aung San Su Kyi has added a new dimension to the whole affair. The decades old western adoration for Su Kyi was on the ebb during the last three years because of her open support of the Myanmar Military accused of genocide. The coup has suddenly reversed the tide and the west’s sole concern has again become the end of military rule and restoration of Su Kyi. A collateral damage to this has been the hapless Rohingyas languishing in crowded camps in Bangladesh, forgotten by the world.
The Rohingya problem will be long drawn, will have unforeseen ramifications — political, social, economic and security. In history, there is no instance of such a problem being resolved peacefully.
The image issue
THE image of the country before the international community has all along been a hot issue in Bangladesh. Those in power have always found those in opposition to be lacking in patriotism and consequently harmful to the image of the country by their words and deeds. The reality though, is that the image abroad is more a function of what those in power do rather than those in opposition. The sacrifices made by the people of Bangladesh during the war of liberation, and the victory and independence that followed, gave sort of a prestige to Bangladesh in the international arena. The events of the following two decades, however, did a lot to negate that image.
The ouster of the military regime through a mass movement in the beginning of 90s and setting up of an elected government improved Bangladesh’s image. Sustained economic growth and progress in social sectors also raised the country’s stature. Bangladesh finally came out of the unfortunate label of ‘international basket case’. However, vicious political bickering and soliciting intervention of foreign powers dented that prestige.
In the 12 years of the present government, Bangladesh has achieved remarkable economic growth. Her success in advancing the Millennium Development Goals has also been impressive. Barring Turkey, Bangladesh is the only Muslim majority country to have attained gender-parity in primary school enrolment. In the gender gap ranking published recently by the World Economic Forum, Bangladesh ranked 72, ahead of India at 87 and Sri Lanka at 100. Bangladesh’s role in UN peacekeeping increased her global visibility and the professional work of our troops brought prestige to the country.
However, the country has witnessed a persistent erosion of her institutions. In the Democracy index, the Economist Intelligence Unit rates Bangladesh as a Hybrid Regime since 2007, below Full Democracies and Flawed Democracies. In the Rule of Law Index published by the World Justice Project, she is 102nd among 113 countries surveyed. Likewise, in the Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International, she stands at 149th among 180 nations. Poverty reduction is being matched by increase in disparity.
Image suffers because of impunity enjoyed by the rich and powerful. It suffers when a member of parliament members is sentenced in a foreign country on charges of human trafficking and money laundering. It is not damaged by allegedly false and abusive statement of a citizen, it is affected when that person is sent to jail for saying so and is denied bail for months. To improve image, we have to better these indicators. We need to remove impediments to freedom of expression, improve rule of law, punish white collar criminals, hold credible elections and build minimum consensus on issues of vital national interest.
The way forward
BY ALL counts Bangladesh has achieved remarkable progress in her 50 years. She is now a lower middle income country and the official target is to reach developed country status by 2041. This appears to be somewhat ambitious. However, reaching anywhere nearby will require Bangladesh to perform better in the domestic front.
Bangladesh is not endowed with bountiful natural resources, so she has to depend more on her human resources. Unfortunately, the country has fallen far behind on this aspect and the standard of education from primary to tertiary levels leaves much to be desired. Bangladesh must make massive efforts to effect drastic improvements here. The economic foundation of the country also has to be widened, diversified and strengthened. We need to move from low end garments making to medium and high technology industries.
Most of the security experts and political scientists are of the opinion that with her large population, economic growth, and location at the crossroad between South Asia and South East Asia, the strategic importance of Bangladesh has increased and is growing. They surely have their points. However, I am unable to convince myself about this narrative. In my opinion, the Rohingya crisis has demonstrated our lack of relative strategic importance, as perceived friends have abandoned us. Bangladesh has to re-evaluate their worth, realign her strategic thinking and look for new avenues. Above all, she needs continued efforts to reach higher levels of power — political, economic and human.
Although this is an issue that is often not discussed, I firmly believe we also need to strengthen our military capabilities in order to be taken seriously by others. As our economic resources increase, we should also increase our investment in this sector and use it judiciously. Our over-dependence on China as the source of hardware is also a cause for concern. We should diversify our sources and could think of alternatives such as Turkey, South Africa or Europe. We need to increase our hard power not necessarily to fight a war, but rather to deter any possible conflict.
Md Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh.
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