Dhaka-Islamabad relations: Improving ties with Pakistan not easy

Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan made a phone call to Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina towards the end of July. Earlier that month, Pakistan’s newly appointed high commissioner to Bangladesh, Imran Ahmed Siddiqui, called upon foreign minister AK Abdul Momen. Relations have been cold between the two countries for long. Many eyebrows have been raised at Pakistan’s sudden overtures at a time when India had developed border tensions with both China and Nepal. There are speculations as to whether it is under China’s influence that Bangladesh’s relations with Pakistan are looking up.

Bangladesh’s diplomatic circles see no dramatic reason for any sudden normalisation of relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan and so improved ties seem a nothing but figment of imagination.

Relations with Pakistan grew colder ever since the Awami League government came to power in 2009. Things deteriorated further over the trial of crimes against humanity committed in 1971. Diplomats of the two countries were summoned time and again over repeated remarks made concerning the trial. A Pakistani diplomat was expelled from Dhaka for questionable activities, after which a Bangladesh diplomat in Islamabad was posted to another country.

Diplomats who had worked in Dhaka and Islamabad in the past and present, told Prothom Alo that if it wants to normalise relations with Bangladesh, Pakistan will have to make an unconditional apology for the 1971 Liberation War and also sort out a number of other issues.

Diplomatic relations will exist between two countries. There can be differences. Pakistan is a defeated force of 1971’s Liberation War and so they are shedding tears for their dear followers. But we didn’t halt the trial. It continues. Pakistan made a statement, we are replying. We will continue our diplomatic ties with the country and our quarrels.

Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina

However, Pakistan’s politicians and diplomats have made no indication in the recent years of changing their past stance. And Bangladesh has no scope of compromising on the 1971 Liberation War and other unsettled issues. So trying to read improved relations in the Pakistan prime minister’s phone call and the high commissioner call on the foreign minister, has no palpable substance.

In the meantime, these overtures of Pakistan have alerted India’s political and diplomatic arena. The Indian diplomatic circles are particularly concerned about how far China’s influence has played a role in the phone conversation between Imran Khan and Sheikh Hasina. After all, certain quarters within India feel that Bangladesh’s relations with China have become stronger over the COVID-19 pandemic. In a nutshell, Bangladesh’s proximity with India, China’s longstanding closeness with Pakistan, and now Pakistan’s sudden reaching out to Bangladesh, had given rise to speculations within India. These speculations are reflected in the country’s media.

When asked about the matter, foreign minister AK Abdul Momen told Prothom Alo, “In the greater interests of the country, we want friendship with all countries, not enmity. And in diplomacy, there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. No country or its people should do anything that sours relations between two countries. But if it wants to have good relations with Bangladesh, Pakistan will certainly have to apologise for 1971.”

Senior officials of the foreign ministry have said, Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan made the phone call on his own accord. As relations do exist, the leader of one country can call the leader of another. There is no reason to think that this is anything special. In this regard, a senior official referred to a statement made by prime minister Sheikh Hasina in 2016 regarding wither or not to keep relations with Pakistan.

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina had been asked whether diplomatic ties with Pakistan would be reconsidered after Pakistan had made various remarks about the trial of crimes against humanity. In reply to this question at a press conference in Gonobhaban, she had replied, “Diplomatic relations will exist between two countries. There can be differences. Pakistan is a defeated force of 1971’s Liberation War and so they are shedding tears for their dear followers. But we didn’t halt the trial. It continues. Pakistan made a statement, we are replying. We will continue our diplomatic ties with the country and our quarrels.”

Pakistan mission suddenly active

Officials of the foreign ministry told this correspondent that the Bangladesh high commission in Islamabad was not aware of the plan for Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan to call prime minister Sheikh Hasina. The foreign ministry in Dhaka told the high commission in Islamabad to find out about Imran Khan’s phone call. In Dhaka the Pakistan high commission had sent a letter to the Bangladesh foreign ministry informing them about the matter of Imran Khan’s phone call.

About two years after the previous Pakistan high commissioner Rafiuzzaman Siddiqui left Bangladesh, in January 2020 the new high commissioner Imran Ahmed Siddiqui arrived in Dhaka. He had been the Pakistan consul general in Toronto. This is his first posting as an ambassador. Prior to his Canada posting, Imran Ahmed was posted as joint secretary with Pakistan’s National Security Council for two years.

Unsettled issues between the two countries: • Unconditional apology from Pakistan for atrocities committed by the Pakistan army during the Liberation War • Trial of the 1971 war criminals • Repatriation of stranded Pakistanis • Settlement of assets

Islamabad’s diplomatic sources said that Imran Ahmed, who served at the UN headquarters in New York and at the OIC headquarters in Jeddah, is a trusted man of Pakistan’s centre of power. That is why this diplomatic ambassador is active in his efforts to contact various quarters to improve ties between the two countries. China’s influence in recent years has been increasing in the region’s geopolitical, economic and trade context. Pakistan perhaps is wanting to put this opportunity to use.

According to diplomatic sources, as soon as he arrived in Dhaka this January, Pakistan’s new high commissioner has been endeavouring to build up communication and contacts with local and foreign diplomats as well as other quarters here.

Thorn in the flesh

Unconditional apology for the atrocities committed in the 1971 Liberation War, taking back the stranded Pakistanis, settling the issue of assets including the foreign aid provided during the 1971 cyclone, and trial of the 154 war criminals of the Pakistan army who were taken back – these four issues remain a thorn in the flesh when it comes to relations between the two countries.

When the trial of 1971 war criminals was taken up in Bangladesh by the international criminal tribunal for crimes committed against humanity, Pakistan repeatedly interfered. This interference added yet another thorn to the relations between the two countries.

Pakistan’s stand about relations between the two countries is very clear – let’s leave the past behind and move head. But Bangladesh does not have the scope to move ahead without settling the past. So this basic difference had kept things just as they were. Courtesy calls, follow-ups and so on cannot make a tangible difference, said Bangladesh’s diplomats.

Bangladesh’s diplomats in Islamabad and Karachi, speaking to this correspondent, said that before the coronavirus outbreak, that is, up until March, surveillance on Bangladeshi diplomats by the intelligence was very normal in Pakistan. That has lessened in recent times. However, this had become such a routine year after year, that it didn’t bother them anymore. They said after the coronavirus pandemic was over, they would again have shadows outside their homes, offices and following them wherever they went. Also, there was no relenting in the tough stance both sides had adopted about visas. A diplomat, on condition of anonymity, said it is contradictory to talk about normalising relations while continuing with intelligence surveillance, strict visa procedures and so on.

The fifth and last meeting of the two countries’ foreign secretaries took place in November 2010 in Islamabad. A member of the Bangladesh delegation at that meeting, presently Bangladesh’s ambassador in a certain country, told Prothom Alo, Bangladesh’s foreign secretary at the time, Mijarul Quayes, in his meeting with Pakistan’s foreign secretary Salman Bashir, has raised the issue of the unsettled issues of 1971. Salman Bashir said talks in this regard could be held at any level. However, as time passed, particularly after the beginning of the trial of crimes against humanity, Pakistan moved away from its previous stance.

Former foreign secretary Md Touhid Hossain, speaking to Prothom Alo, said, “Has their stance concerning 1971 changed? Have they apologised? Their position about 1971 has not changed at all. And the main obstacle to relations between the two countries is their opposing stance on the Liberation War. I feel the present government in Pakistan is even more inflexible on this issue. I do not see any scope of relations between the two countries being normalised unless these basic issues are resolved.”

* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English online edition by Ayesha Kabir

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