BANGLADESH FOREIGN POLICY ACHIEVEMENTS, CHALLENGE AND WAY FORWARD
By Ambassador S.M. RASHED AHMED
The twin objectives of Bangladesh Foreign Policy are geared towards achieving security and development. The objectives are generally common to the foreign policy of independent nations to help ensure protection and promotion of vital national interests through the mechanics of diplomacy and negotiations. The quest for security and development has been the recurring theme of Bangladesh foreign policy since independence.
The emergence of Bangladesh as an independent sovereign state, following a bloody war of liberation, was the period of cold war era characterized by polarization of the world into two contending camps involving the west and its allies and the Communist World lead by the Soviet Union and its allies. The open support of the Soviet Union and India including conclusion of the Indo-Bangladesh treaty of friendship was perceived generally by the Western Countries, China and the Muslim countries as Bangladesh’s foreign policy orientation towards the Soviet block. In this backdrop the main challenge to the foreign policy of Bangladesh after its inception was to try to achieve a balanced orientation of its foreign policy to gain wider international acceptance, recognition and consequent entry into the UN and the OIC. This was no easy task given the external and domestic compulsion of the country at that time.
It is to the credit of Prime Minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that he was able to achieve a degree of success in balancing Bangladesh’s foreign policy through a number of significant initiatives including withdrawal of Indian troops from Bangladesh, getting a reasonable share of the Ganges water by using his personal equation with the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Bangladesh’s participation at the OIC conference in Lahore led by him, tripartite agreement of 1974 involving India, Bangladesh and Pakistan to grant “clemency” to the 195 Pakistani prisoners of war held in India taking into account the appeal of the “Prime Minister of Pakistan to forgive and forget mistakes of the past” (Para 15 of the agreement); visit to Washington and membership of the non-aligned movement to cite some of the main achievements of Bangladesh Foreign policy during the formative phase. All these significant diplomatic moves paved the way for recognition of Bangladesh by a large number of countries including Pakistan, the West, the non-aligned and Muslim countries; he also took serious initiatives to seek recognition of China, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh entry into the UN. This, however, materialized after the change of government following tragic assassination of Sheikh Mujib in 1975.
The period of President Ziaur Rahman from 1975 was characterized by a pro-active foreign policy and diplomacy which considerably raised the image and stature of Bangladesh in the comity of nations. The principle achievements of the period were consolidation and strengthening of relationship with China through widening and deepening of cooperation in vital areas of defense and development and establishment of personal equation with the Chinese leadership; positive initiatives for resolution of outstanding issues with India particularly during the time of Prime Minister Moraji Desai; formation of SAARC by enlisting support of South Asian countries particularly of the two major countries involving India and Pakistan; paradoxically both India and Pakistan had initial reservations about the proposed regional grouping. Interestingly, India, was suspicious that it would be a ‘ganging’ of smaller countries of the region against India while Pakistan felt that it would be a ‘club dominated’ by India. Through adroit and persistent diplomacy President Ziaur Rahman was able to convince both these countries with historic animosity to set aside their differences and anxieties to give concrete shape and reality to the concept of SAARC. This was a major achievement and carries the potential of bringing about qualitative changes in the relationship as well as condition of South Asian countries from one beset with poverty and conflict to one of peace and development as success of such regional groupings elsewhere have demonstrated.
The other diplomatic achievements of President Ziaur Rahman were election of Bangladesh as a non-permanent member of the Security Council by defeating Japan and active participation in the multi-lateral diplomacy and fora including the UN, the OIC and the non-aligned movement. It is not possible to go into details of all the achievements due to constraints of time and space. In a nutshell President Ziaur Rahman succeeded in infusing remarkable vigour, dynamism and positive direction to Bangladesh foreign policy and diplomacy which served Bangladesh national interest well at a crucial period of our history.
The principal pre occupations of Bangladesh foreign policy and diplomacy under successive governments have been consolidating the achievements of the past and to a large extent handling of Bangladesh’s relationship with India; to bridge the trust deficit with solid mutual understanding to achieve the goal of cooperative and friendly relationship between the two countries based on mutuality of interest. This single most important objective continues to remain as the main challenge to Bangladesh’s foreign policy and diplomacy. In this context it may be useful to remind ourselves of a number of truism namely: that in the realm of foreign policy and diplomacy there are ‘no permanent friends or enemies’; that expectation of eternal gratitude do not constitute durable basis of inter-state relationship as history would demonstrate; while a country should not ‘negotiate out of fear, it should not fear to negotiate’ but the outcome of negotiations to be successful should lead to a win-win situation for parties involved.
The relationship with India has regretfully got entangled in narrow bureaucratic technicalities and inertia. It is just not a question of perception or misperception, as some experts believe, which has contributed to the present state of our bilateral relationship. There are hard core issue involving our security and development which need to be resolved with India without delay to clear the debris of mutual mistrust and pave the way for a genuine friendly relationship with India.
I feel that time has come for a reappraisal of Bangladesh foreign policy direction by giving greater attention to regional and sub regional cooperation in tandem with bilateralism. It is noteworthy that critical issues involving water, connectivity, energy, transport and communication, trade, investment, economic cooperation, terrorism, drugs, human trafficking and so on can be more effectively dealt within the regional and sub regional framework for obvious reasons.
In this context it would be prudent to begin with certain outstanding pending issues of purely bilateral nature which should have been resolved by now; their non-resolution has significantly contributed to the present state of trust deficit between the two countries. These, inter-alia, are the undemarcated land and maritime boundary, drawing up of riverine boundaries, exchange of enclaves and adversely possessed territories, erection of permanent boundary pillars, the handing over of the Tin Bigha corridor and implementation of Indira-Mujib Agreement: the 1974 land boundary Agreement. Although Bangladesh ratified the agreement soon after its conclusion India is yet to ratify it as 6.5 km still needs to be demarcated. Non demarcation of border has led to some serious border clashes including continued killing of Bangladeshi civilians by the BSF, the most tragic being the killing of Felani, a 15-year-old Bangladeshi girl which has evoked outburst of public anger and sorrow in Bangladesh. The unresolved boundary issue is greatly agitating the public mind in Bangladesh and feeding into negative sentiments towards India. One would have thought that this unresolved border demarcation issue would have been finalized during the last visit of PM Sheikh Hasina to Delhi.
We would need to ensure now through serious negotiations at the highest political levels that, these pressing bilateral issues are resolved and publicly announced during the forthcoming visit of the Indian PM Manmohan Singh to Dhaka. These should include, but not limited to, the resolution of the boundary issues I have detailed earlier; total stop to the killing of Bangladeshi civilians by the BSF and BSF incursions which cannot be justified on any ground whatsoever; Teesta water sharing agreement; amicable solution to Tipaimukh dam issue; and reduction of trade imbalance through removal of all tariff and non tariff barriers for easy entry of Bangladeshi goods to India.
The linkage between the military security and non military security can hardly be over emphasized; when we speak of the menace of terrorism, militancy and extremism we often fail to take into account that in the ultimate analysis the success in overcoming these is contingent upon winning the hearts and minds of the people.
The UNDP Human Development report 2010 in its multi dimensional poverty indicators which reflects “acute, deprivations in heath, education and standard of living reveal that” half the worlds multi dimensionally poor live in South Asia (844 million people) in contrast more than a quarter live in Africa (458 million). This underlies the key challenge and the need for mobilization of collective Political Will and Resources of South Asian countries to overcome the grim challenges of poverty and development. And this goal can only be achieved in an environment of peace and stability. Peace is no longer an option; it is imperative need of the hours without which South Asia would continue to remain mired in poverty and backwardness as the poorest region of the world with the highest concentration of population.
For negotiation and diplomacy to succeed there is need, among others, for a degree of consensus involving the government, the opposition and the civil society on the key issues of foreign policy; a bipartisan foreign policy which has the approval of the parliament. Unless one is able to present a united front to the outside world on issues vitally affecting the nation despite political differences, which are natural in a democratic polity, one would not be in a position to negotiate with strength. This has to be backed by a credible professional defence force, a strong economy and democratic good governance — to cite a few of the elements.
In Bangladesh we were looking forward to new era of democratic good governance, free from the confrontational politics of the past, including an effective parliament with active participation of the opposition based on lessons learnt from 1/11 and the failures of the democratic political process since independence. Unfortunately, we continue to be a divided and polarised nation along party lines, with hardly any consensus on vital issues of foreign and domestic policies. This has seriously affected our negotiating capacity with the foreign countries.
This growing divide has to be reversed without delay by achieving a modicum of consensus on vital national issues between the government and the opposition. I would, therefore, suggest that the prime minister and the leader of the opposition should meet and come to an understanding on all critical issues, including the caretaker issue for paving the way for return of the opposition to the parliament. This should be followed by a constructive foreign policy debate in the parliament with a view to achieving a bipartisan foreign policy for Bangladesh — something which has eluded us since independence. This will empower the government to negotiate with foreign countries particularly with India on crucial issues with strength.
The need for national unity and consensus at this critical juncture of our history cannot be over emphasized. This alone can strengthen our diplomacy which is our first line of defense.
July 16, 2011
The writer is a former UN Regional Representative in KOSOVO and former Bangladesh Ambassador to JAPAN His email is: firstname.lastname@example.org