This edition of the IPCS Column, 'Dhaka Discourse', is the precis of a larger document titled 'Bangladesh in 2015', published under the IPCS Forecast 2015 series.
Contrary to its violent beginning and potential of political instability, the year 2014 was generally marked by peace and tranquility in Bangladesh. The new government led by Sheikh Hasina was able to consolidate its power and authority through the year. The international community extended cooperation and support to the new government to a great extent, defying the conventional wisdom of political analysts at home and abroad. Sheikh Hasina demonstrated her diplomatic acumen to garner global support for Bangladesh as well as her new government. Starting with back-to-back high profile visits to the Asian power houses, Japan and China, Bangladesh continued strong relations with India despite the change in political regime in the latter. The major actors in the Western world -the US and EU - continued strong bilateral relations with Bangladesh while maintaining their basic positions about the need for inclusive and participatory elections in Bangladesh. Although the Hasina regime sailed through the first anniversary of its rule following the 5 January elections, the year 2015 has brought with it surprise and uncertainty in the political landscape of Bangladesh. In looking ahead, some critical issues are likely to dominate the discourse in Bangladesh politics.
Return to Political Violence?
Bangladesh has once again been drawn into a quagmire of political violence. The country has been witnessing a renewed spell of mindless violence due to confrontational and cynically partisan politics. It is true that the BNP failed to organise an effective movement against the 05 January elections, or rally people to force the government to follow through its pre-election statement - that the election was only to address the constitutional compulsion and there would be a talk regarding the 11th Parliament. But following the denial to the opposition alliance to hold a public meeting in a town near Dhaka, the script of current political violence was written. Subsequently, in 2015,the BNP was prevented from celebrating the “demise of democracy day” on the occasion of the first anniversary of the 05 January elections. The former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia could not move out of her office in the presence of heavy security forces at the entranceto her political office. On the surface, this has led to the announcement of a political programme, called a ‘blockade’ by the opposition parties.
It has already been amply proved that the people of Bangladesh have shunned the politics of ‘hartal’ and ‘blockade’ and other violent means of politicking by the so called mainstream political parties. However, this time the blockade has come with an unprecedented scale of violence tantamount to ‘terrorism’ against the common people in the country. An editorial in a national daily in Bangladesh termed it as the “most anti-people, unimaginative, cruel and destructive programme that the BNP is embarking on.” The indefinite call for blockade has been associated with gruesome violence that has already killed many people and burned more than 600 motor vehicles and other properties. More importantly, it has generated panic among the people about their safety and security in daily life. Bangladesh has never faced such violence except the Liberation War in 1971. In the name of politics, the lives of common people have been placed under constant threat. Previously, political violence was targeted mostly against the law enforcing agencies and political activists. Now it is indiscriminately targetting ordinary people and their resources. The big question is when and how these violent and terrorist attacks will end - people do not appear to know the answer.
No party- in the government and the opposition - appears to be nearing a deal to end this political violence. What is becoming evident each day is the instability, uncertainty and insecurity of the Bangladeshi political process. Although the political programmes of the opposition may end at some point, political violence may continue to dominate the political landscape of Bangladesh, making the relations between the opposition and government more confrontational and destructive. The ultimate price is being paid by the common people at the expense of their security, safety and livelihoods. People continue to remain disappointed and disillusioned. In fact, the animated political process has been tracing its own course, paving the way for more intolerance and violence. One can see the attempts atcreating political capital through violence and anarchy to serve the purpose of extremist and non-democratic elements. But history will follow its own lesson - no extremist and autocratic forces last long.
Continuing Thrust towards the East
In the foreign policy arena, Bangladesh carefully crafted its diplomatic thrust towards the east in 2014. Bilateral visits and development partnerships have substantively strengthened Bangladesh’s ties with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Myanmar, Malaysia and Vietnam and others. It is worth mentioning that within three months of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Tokyo at the end of May 2014, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Bangladesh. Notably, Abe’s visit filled up the fourteen-year gap in a Japanese head of State’s visit to Bangladesh, which can be termed a milestone in Bangladesh-Japan relations. Bangladesh has always attached a great deal of significance to its relations with Japan. The Japanese contribution to the economy of Bangladesh is well known. In the last forty years approximately, Japanese economic assistance to Bangladesh recorded at US$ 12 billion. It will not be wrong to claim that there is now a qualitative shift in Bangladesh-Japan relations from aid dependence to interdependence.
In a rare show of diplomatic moves the Hasina paid a six-day official visit to China from 6-10 June 2014 with a strong 70-member business delegation immediately after her visit to Japan. The much discussed China visit produced five deals, including Chinese assistance for the construction of a power plant in Patuakhali and building a multi-lane road tunnel under the Karnaphuli River. Chinese President Xi Jinping described Bangladesh as an important country for the ’maritime silk road’ (MSR) project he has been championing. The MSR envisages deepening connectivity, building ports and free trade zones, and boosting trade with littoral countries in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and in Southeast Asia. China made it clear that it attaches great importance to the Beijing-Dhaka bilateral and regards Bangladesh as an important development and cooperative partner in both South Asias and IOR contexts. As a demonstration of strong security cooperation between two countries, Bangladesh procured a new type of frigate from China built especially for the Bangladesh Navy.
Based on the spirit of friendship and cooperation for mutual development and benefits, Bangladesh has been building strong bilateral ties in the East, from Myanmar to Russia. The 2014 IMF Global Outlook, ranked Bangladesh as the 35th largest economy in the world in terms of GDP in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). Due to the size of economy and sustained growth of GDP, Bangladesh requires huge infrastructural change throughout the country that demands support from the development partners. Besides, as the 10th largest populated country in the world Bangladesh provides a huge domestic market with its growing middle class. In this context, Bangladesh’s Eastward emphasis for mutual development continues with new initiatives in 2015. In fact, 2015 would see a period of consolidation of engagement with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
Enhancing Global Image
Bangladesh’s pro-active role in global forums achieved new heights in 2014. Bangladesh was elected to the top leadership of two highly reputed multilateral bodies – the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) and Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU). These two global parliamentary bodies that exchange knowledge, practices of parliamentary democracy in the member assemblies and encourage parliamentary dialogue worldwide are very influential in the global arena. In yet another diplomatic accomplishment, Bangladesh became a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for the period of 2015-17. The country was also elected as an executive member to International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for the second time. The achievement of global support could boost the country’s image abroad – which is critical for national development, particularly for attracting foreign investors.
Undoubtedly, it has been a rare diplomatic success in the history of Bangladesh that the country has been elected to four global bodies via secret votes of member nations. Bangladesh’s ruling regime termed it a success in creating global leadership. They attribute these achievements to the global recognition of the country as a role model due to its stunning success in the socioeconomic development. The country maintained its diplomatic influence in regional fora, such as SAARCs. In the 2014, Bangladesh played a key role in salvaging the SAARC Summit. As widely appreciated by SAARC members, Dhaka initiated hectic efforts during the Summit to sign at least the energy cooperation agreement. This resulted in the foreign ministers of the eight countries SAARC countries signing the SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation (Electricity) during the concluding ceremony of the 18th SAARC Summit,
Re-engaging the West?
The historic engagement of the West in Bangladesh’s development and progress has often been questioned in the backdrop of West’s perceived attempt to influence domestic politics. Despite strong and historical ties, domestic politics in Bangladesh and bilateral issues did create some irritants between Dhaka and the West, represented by the states and multilateral agencies (2009-2013) culminating in the 5 January, 2014, elections. The Western diplomatic community was concerned with the electoral process in Bangladesh as the country was then moving towards the 10th parliamentary elections. The evolving political dynamics marked by confrontational politics, the issue of the war crimes trials, the legacy of extremism since 2005, and the abolition of the caretaker government system determined a negative role of political parties in establishing a workable democratic system. The US, EU and other European powers openly expressed their concerns and frustrations over the prevailing political situations in Bangladesh. But the 10th parliamentary elections went as scheduled much to the surprise of the West vis-à-vis inclusive and participatory elections.
In the post poll context, the Western diplomatic community demonstrated a better understanding of the complex domestic politics in Bangladesh. Issues of war crimes trials, rise of political violence, militancy, the threat of fundamentalist politics, and the vulnerability of minority communities to vested quarters matter for democracy and governance in Bangladesh.
They matter seriously against the backdrop of massive destruction and heinous attacks on the lives and properties of common people seen before and after the poll. These were all done in the name of political agenda, that cannot justify such actions in its remotest sense. The post-poll European Parliament resolution (16 January 2014), the Hearing on Bangladesh by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (11 February 2014), and the statements of several development partners of Bangladesh show a lot more wisdom and pragmatism of political situations in Bangladesh. As analysts argue, in the realm of foreign policy it is not the priority of any government to influence domestic politics for the sake of domestic politics. Rather it is national interests that dictate the terms.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited the UK and Rome in 2014 in connection with multilateral diplomacy. Several delegations from the EU too visited Bangladesh in connection with issues of mutual concerns including the readymade garments (RMG) industry. Bangladesh continued its security dialogue with the US. The third Bangladesh-US Partnership Dialogue was held in Washington DC on October 21, 2014, and it focused on the expansion of security, trade and development ties between the two countries. Bangladesh and the West have been moving forward to expand ties and rediscover the past warmth and depth as development partners. Yet again, it’s the Bangladeshi domestic politics, particularly the present spell of gruesome and systematic use of political violence, that comes in the way.
The Bangladesh government has already briefed the diplomatic community and clarified the position of the regime. Meanwhile, the European Parliament (EP) Delegation for South Asia has expressed its deep concern at the outbreak of political violence in Bangladesh culminating over recent days. The Chair of the delegation for Relations with the Countries of South Asia of the EP, Jean Lambert, termed the current situation as “profoundly disturbing”. In this context, 2015 may be marked by new tensions over holding inclusive and participatory elections as a means to resolve the crisis. However, considering national interests, Bangladesh and the West have abiding national interests to consolidate the process of re-engagement in 2015.
Maintaining Strong Ties with India
The continuity of strong ties between Bangladesh and India will feature critically in Bangladesh’s 2015 foreign policy agenda. Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government in India and the Sheikh Hasina regime in Bangladesh made it clear in 2014 that both the countries consolidated their bilateral relationship only to be cemented further. The first sign of such an understanding came in during the Swearing Ceremony of Modi as the Indian Prime Minister in May 2014. Bangladesh’s participation led by the Speaker of the National Parliament at the event clearly signaled the need for continuing friendly ties. Following the event, the Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, made an official visit to Bangladesh as her maiden standalone overseas tour from 25-27 June, 2014 – that was termed by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs as “extremely fruitful and satisfying.” The Indian MEA added that Swaraj was returning with an understanding that “it is an excellent beginning in addressing each others’ concerns and work together with the spirit of good neighbourliness”.
The Hasina-Modi Summit on the side lines of the 2014 UNGA is the most significant achievement of Bangladesh’s UN diplomacy. It was important for two major reasons. First, it was much-awaited against the backdrop of several high level contacts in recent days between the two friendly nations. Second, this was the first ever meeting between the two leaders. It was important to get to know each other to promote bilateral relations in the coming days. During the talks, Modi lauded the Bangladesh government’s fight against terrorism as he said ‘Bangladesh is a model for fighting terrorism’. During the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, Nepal, Hasina’s meeting with Modi was critical as the two leaders met for the second time in three months – a rare happenstance. Both leaders exchanged highly positive views about further strengthening bilateral relations. In 2014, another game changing moment in their bilateral relations came when a verdict from the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) based in the Hague was delivered on 7 July 2014. The verdict resolved the long standing maritime dispute between Bangladesh and India.
In 2015, Bangladesh will be looking forward to resolution of two outstanding issues: the ratification of Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) by the Indian Parliament and the conclusion of the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement. Both the leaders discussed the issues of ratifying the LBA and the Teesta water sharing treaty in a spirit of friendship. Regarding the LBA, Modi emphasised that it is just a matter of time – which is a very positive gesture to reach a resolution on the most vexing outstanding bilateral issue. Regarding the Teesta water sharing issue, Modi assured of a serious pursuit of a consensus-building process that must have a positive impact on the improvement of Indo-Bangladesh relations. Both Bangladesh and India now wait for huge diplomatic strides to take ties forward and embark upon a solid foundation for mutual development and security. The prospective visits of Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to Bangladesh are expected be a reality in 2015 as watershed developments towards deeper engagement in the areas of trade, connectivity, investment, culture and security.