An isolation that is being ignored

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Is it time for Bangladesh to reconsider its foreign policy with its neighbours?

Bangladesh’s foreign policy articulated by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was relevant at the time it was enunciated.

Those were the days when the non-aligned movement was strong and hadn’t been eaten at by the economic and more hostile foreign policy of the developed West and the then Soviet Union. Left wing politics was still holding its sway but already in a state of decline.

“Friendship to all, malice to none” was therefore, apt and appropriate, particularly in the shunning of armed conflict and incursions. This, in spite of the Vietnam War where the United States, the Soviet Union, and China were heavily and personally involved. The newly emerged Bangladesh didn’t need conflict given the priority of rebuilding a war-ravaged country. The superb statesmanship of Bangabandhu in getting the Indian Army to withdraw forces within the shortest possible time ranks as a first in such an endeavour.

As the demands of globalization grew, the wars changed dimension to economic terms — leading to formation of trading blocs and unions and the push for democracy of sorts. It was equally as true that in many cases, economic considerations outweighed democracy with the world, turning a blind eye to many dictatorial regimes. 

This continues today, as clearly evident in the Middle East and South America, to the extent of proxy wars being unashamedly fought, again keeping economics in mind. In the meantime, the required focus on climate change, for all the scientific documentation, is disastrously taking a back seat.

The non-aligned movement exists only on paper, with individual country corruption and dictatorial thought processes causing far greater dependence on dollops of foreign economic aid rather than advancing self-sufficiency. And with geo-politics and geo-economics taking centre stage, even the worst of human-made tragedies are being overlooked. 

Bangladesh has put on a brave face with the Rohingya crisis, but it is Gambia that has taken Myanmar to the ICT for the persecution and genocide perpetrated on the Rohingya. They have been supported by Canada and the Netherlands. But in spite of our PM’s clearly stated list of to-dos to address the situation at the United Nations, the two main players whose support is essential — China and India — have remained reluctantly silent in bringing pressure to bear. 

China is seeking use of the land that belonged to the Rohingya for strategic economic reasons and India is interested in investment opportunities. Despite years of isolation, Myanmar is attracting significant investments from all corners of the world, allowing it to survive soft sanctions that are in place. The outcome is that Bangladesh is sandwiched between the crisis on one hand and an alarming Hinduization of India that looks and sounds ominous, going as far as discriminatory punitive fines for Hindus and Muslims who overstay their visa tenures. 

Until now, Bangladesh’s ministers have not commented on the new visa regulations after the stated Indian stance of easing visa and travel restrictions for Bangladeshis. With Bangladesh being the biggest destination from which remittance flows to India, there are countless Indian nationals that are overstaying their visa tenure in our country, not to mention working while holding visit visas. 

We, on the other hand, have bent over backwards in providing trans-shipment facilities, originally stated to be a money-spinning decision but which now is essentially free of cost.

Moves are also under way to add to this significant reduction in goods transportation cost by creating an infrastructure of cheaper and more convenient people movement costs. That such movements will have an impact on our growing exports to the seven sister states is not being taken into consideration. Of bigger consequence has been Bangladesh’s moves to crack down on the once safe havens for separatist movements that were a constant thorn to India.

When it comes to reciprocity, not much has been forthcoming. The Farakka barrage project water sharing has been to our detriment and, in spite of official assurances, the Teesta barrage is progressing with Mamata Banerjee firm in her stand, not agreeing on water sharing. Yet, we have agreed to share waters of the Feni river without much fuss and bother. 

Though the protracted enclave issue has been resolved due to the statesmanship of the PM, a new threat is on the horizon. The increasing number of goods on which anti-dumping tariffs are being imposed isn’t helping the balance of trade between the two countries. The National Register, the bill which has just been passed by the lower and soon-to-be passed by the upper house of the Indian parliament and the comments of Amit Shah, suggests that at some stage, Muslims that crossed over to India will be pushed back and Bangladesh will be asked to take them in. 

Unless something major gives, it would seem we are stuck with the Rohingya to be either incorporated as our citizens or kept in their confines at an ultimate cost to our exchequer and the ire of the local population that may lead to dangerous consequences. If an additional number of newly declared non-Indians are pushed into our country, the results will be catastrophic. 

International aid agencies are fast losing interest in financing the care and rehab of the Rohingya, thereby putting further pressure on our economy. Bangladesh seems to be following an inexplicable intent, with a minister having publicly declared that Myanmar is not an enemy of Bangladesh and sending its army chief on a visit there. And Suu Kyi has taken the opportunity of pointing out at the ICT hearing that Gambia is not an aggrieved party. She is correct. 

It was the OIC that backed Gambia’s deliberation. Why Bangladesh did not force the issue could relate to its foreign policy. Then again, is it time for that to change? 

Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.