‘Free media is essential for a functioning democracy’
On a recent visit to Bangladesh, the UK state minister for foreign affairs Mark Field dropped in at the Prothom Alo office. In an exclusive interview there, he spoke of British-Bangladesh relations, trade, the Rohingya issue, Bangladesh’s recent elections, good governance and press freedom.
Prothom Alo: Welcome to Prothom Alo
Mark Field: It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s my second visit as a minister and my fifth visit in total. I represent a central London constituency which has got quite a significant Bangladeshi population. I’ve gone to Sylhet of course, where so many British Bangladeshis live.
Prothom Alo: Since you have visited so many times, how do you assess the relationship between the two countries?
Mark Field: I think our relationship goes from strength to strength. There are 600,000 people of Bangladeshi origin who live in the UK. Many of them still regularly visit this country and increasingly we are trying to encourage many of those who are entrepreneurs to start more trade between the two countries. There are great opportunities for strengthening that relationship. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the foundation of Bangladesh, there is a great opportunity again for us not just to remember past connections, and there are many Bangladeshis who will particularly remember the important part that UK played in 1971, but I also look to the future and hope diplomatically in relation to trade as well as obviously politically, there will be great opportunities for our bilateral relationship to go from strength to strength.
Prothom Alo: In your felicitation message to prime minister Sheikh Hasina early January for being elected the third time, you mentioned that the UK wants to continue to supporting the people of Bangladesh in their aspirations for a more stable, prosperous and democratic future. Can you elaborate, what you mean by more stable, prosperous and democratic future of the country?
Mark Field: It is important obviously to have a free, fair, peaceful, participatory election and a fully functioning democracy. The participation of opposition parties within an election process is important and obviously I called for an open investigation into specific concerns within the electoral commission here. But I think it is vital in a broad way that the government and all political parties to work together to address the differences and find a positive and peaceful way forward for Bangladesh. You need only to look at the success of this country.
There has been compound growth of 6 per cent going back 20 years and obviously hoping to get 8 per cent economic growth this year. But the single most important thing is, from my perspective as a British minister, working with Bangladeshi diaspora in the United Kingdom to play their part. One of the most important sectors, one of the traditional trading sectors, is readymade garment industry for example. But there is also energy, power, infrastructure and above all, education.
Education is the essence of people to people connection between our two countries. I very much hope there will be cooperation in that sector here, particularly the higher education sector. I know there are some strong private universities here, but I think they have little to fear from the idea of UK universities playing their part maybe in joint universities.
I know there are some UK universities here, but given that demand for education, we obviously very much encourage the idea of scholarships for the brighter and less privileged students to come the UK, and I hope that will increase in time. I think the one thing I was very struck by, it has been 15 years since I came to this country, is the prevalence of English language.
The quality of the English language among the younger generation of Bangladeshis is very profound. I think all aspects of education partnership between our two countries will be a big focus for the 2020s.
Prothom Alo: Since trade is a major focus of the two countries, there is a sort of uncertainty since the evolution of Brexit and there is the question as to whether we are going to lose in the market, more precisely the RMG in the UK. What is your take on the particular issue of post Brexit scenario and the market access of Bangladesh?
Mark Field: Brexit negotiations are very fluid, they are taking up a lot of time. I had hoped to have a longer visit here, go to Chittagong, but I have to get back for the Brexit votes. I have long since tried to predict exactly how those negotiations will go. I think the regulatory framework around garments will be identical. I am sure that those in the RMG industry or other industries where there is already strong connection between our two countries can be confident that it will be business as usual once we leave the European Union.
I was a businessman before I became a politician so I do understand the concerns about the uncertainty around Britain leaving European Union. We feel very strong connections between our two countries are the ones we will be paying particular attention to, to ensure there is a smooth transition as possible.
Prothom Alo: Going back to 2017 September, that was the time you visited immediately after visiting Rakhine and the exodus occurred. Despite pressure from the international community including the UK, we are yet to see any progress from the Myanmar side, the initiative for creating conducive environment in Rakhine for the Rohingyas to go back to their place of origin. So in such a scenario, what should be the next step of action for a tangible solution, including the political rights of the Rohingyas to once again return to their place of origin?
Mark Field: Let me first say how grateful the international community is, including the UK, for the work that has been done by the Bangladesh government to look after the 730,000 Rohingyas. Perhaps the world at large is unaware there was already an issue there. Over the previous 30 years, 300,000 had already come and were living on the Bangladeshi side of the border. The world has been very grateful for what has been done by the Bangladeshi people to look after the Rohingya.
We want to see them return, but then those returns have to be safe, voluntary, they have to be dignified. It is quite clear that the conditions in the Rakhine state are not suitable for their return anytime soon. That has been quite understood.
Clearly, the United Kingdom has been a very large provider, 129 million pounds in funding for that refugee crisis. And increasingly I am keen that the money should be used to support developing education skills and access to livelihood for Rohingya in particular.
Obviously English language skills will place them in good stead when they return. Within the international community, we are working very hard in a number of different areas.
I know that progress seems to be slow but the reality is we are doing significant work in trying to ensure that those guilty will be held to account. We have EU sanctions now that name 14 individuals in the Burmese military and police force. But we also need to recognise that inevitably the eyes of the world may disappear from this and this is a major issue that Bangladesh will have to deal with.
We feel there will be a panel review in the Security Council. The pledge we will give to you is to keep this issue as high profile as we can and try to work together for a long term solution. But I think the world has recognised a large scale return to Burma any time soon is unlikely and therefore we will try to retain as much of our attention on the humanitarian side to keep it as safe as possible.
I visited Cox’s Bazar on my visit last summer. Obviously last year the monsoon and the season of the floods were mercifully less severe. The important thing is keep the pressure on the international community.
One of the things is to try ensure education because if they are going to return soon, they are going to need to have skills. The message I would like to give is that the world at large recognises the generosity of the government and the people in this regard. We also recognise Bangladesh can’t shoulder that responsibility alone.
Prothom Alo: You mentioned that you put sanction on 14 military personnel and you want to keep the Rohingya issue high profile in the Security Council, but despite pressure or a more vocal role from the UK or the US, unfortunately we see a sharp division within the Security Council on the Burma issue. Do you feel there is any conclusive decision among the four or five members of the Security Council for a political solution?
Mark Field: You identify what is the real problem. That is one of the reasons we have sanctions at EU level rather than the UN with China there and Russia too. So that is obviously a concern.
We have also been able to make some progress in Geneva at the Human Rights Council. One thing I have learnt in my two years as a foreign office minister, and I had an international role as secretary general of my party, is that sometimes diplomacy requires a lot of patience and you have to sometimes take three steps forward and two back when things become more complicated.
I and some others equally would have to work within the international community. This is a very difficult issue. It’s something we keep very much in the forefront of our mind trying to work towards having a lasting solution.
Prothom Alo: Coming to the internal scenario of governance in Bangladesh, how do you look at governance as well as the human rights and freedom of expression scenario?
Mark Field: This is a very critical issue across the world. We are having a conference with Canada that will take place on 10 and 11 July on this issue. Let me also say we don’t always get his right ourselves. There has been an inquiry in relation to our own investigatory powers act which was about security and privacy on the Internet.
We all need to work together to find a solution to this. However, it is also very much our view that freedom of expression and a free and independent media are essential qualities of a functioning democracy.
Clearly there were concerns expressed to us from NGOs and many in the media industry about the Digital Security Act that came in last year. We recognise that social media and the Internet are potentially a threat, an easier way to have fake news or disinformation, misinformation in the public domain.
We should be trying to have a level playing field not making things more difficult for other media outlets. One of the things I would contend is free media, irritating though it may be to a politician being criticised from time to time, but I think it is a vital safety valve to ensure there is an active, informed and creative engaged population.
Whilst I recognise that there has been strong economic growth in this country, to fulfil its full potential I think media should be encouraged. So we hope by having this conference to raise the profile of this issue across the world.
I very much hope that the very strong sense that I have picked up from many I have spoken to about Bangladesh, is that the narrowing of press freedom can be reversed.
I would say the current government in a way has every reason to be confident. They got through an election and have obviously a very large majority in parliament. One thing that one sees again looking at what’s happened across the world, the Arab Spring came about a almost a decade ago, at a time when young people were getting engaged with social media.
I see in Bangladesh a lot of young people who are very ambitious, very well educated, with a passion for education. They certainly are the lifeblood of this country’s success in the days to come. They too will expect freedom of opinion. I very much hope, now that the election is behind, they will look to ways to fulfil its full potential.
Bangladesh should look towards many of its freedoms. It is not for me as a foreign politician to be dictating these things, but I come here as a friend of Bangladesh because I have a significant Bangladeshi population in my constituency.
I have seen their passion for education. Often I remind myself of an episode in my last election campaign in 2017, I was in my constituency and there was a middle-aged Bangladeshi couple and they barely spoke a word of English. The man was working in a little restaurant and he took me to his front room and he showed me photographs and degree certificates of his three daughters. He was very proud that they all got university degrees.
One of the things I found is this passion for education. So I think there is so much that this country can achieve both with the 175 million who are here and the 600,000 in the UK. And therefore when I say things, it’s not me to interfere. I hope you will regard me as friend of Bangladesh who wants to see this country going from strength to strength.
Prothom Alo: Recently Dhaka contacted London for repatriating BNP leader Tarique Rahman who is staying in UK. What is the position of the UK government?
Mark Field: It is a policy of UK government not to comment on individual immigration cases. Obviously the UK will consider any extradition request received from Bangladesh within the extradition treaty between the two countries. It is a little complicated. Our courts and our police deal with these matters and so obviously if the request is submitted, it will be dealt with according to the UK law. It is something to be taken very seriously, particularly on very sensitive issues of extradition. These are not issues for politicians to deal with directly. If any of these issues finally go to any politician’s hands, it is the home office rather than the foreign office.
Prothom Alo: You have so far written two books, one on the economic crisis and another one on British politics, economics and foreign affairs. So what is your next project?
Mark Field: I am far too busy as a minister to write books! I love writing books. It’s a good way to expend my energies. I like writing essays and most of those articles are published in newspapers like the Daily Telegraph, Financial Times and I have had a chance to re-read the books and I am rather proud of them. Quite a lot of the judgements have been pretty right. There is a lot of political commentary, and on financial services and economics, but increasingly on international affairs.
One of the consistent messages, well before I became minister, was how the shift of economic power is eastwards and you look at the opportunities here in Asia. We all know that very few trends in politics and economics are entirely linear. There will be ups and downs.
Obviously, looking at the two big economic superpowers of the future emerging here, China and India, the trend is towards that. And obviously one looks at a country like Bangladesh with great historical connections with its neighbour India and the synergies between the two.
But more generally, just the sheer hunger in many ways, not in the literal sense but the hunger to learn, hunger to get on, the young population here in Asia. My thoughts a decade ago about the way things are developing in this part of the world have been accelerated. It is very much the priority of the UK to maintain strongest connections with that part of the world.
PA: Thank you so much
Mark Field: Thank you