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Tested friends were nowhere in trying times

Foreign policy 2019

Tested friends were nowhere in trying times

How did Bangladesh fare in its foreign relations throughout 2019? Broadly speaking, there were three significant issues for Bangladesh. One is relations with India, two, relations with China and three, resolving the Rohingya crisis.

Relations with India

There is no doubt that India is our closest neighbour and friends. Over the past few years, Bangladesh has fulfilled almost each and every one of its demands. However, India had not met any of the requirements put forward by Bangladesh, though the year had begun with repeated declarations that Bangladesh-India relations were at an all-time high and were a role model in bilateral relations.

It had been hoped that things would improve after India’s Lok Sabha elections in April-May this year. It was expected that India at least would keep its commitment about sharing Teesta’s waters. But that did not happen. And now it is speculated that BJP will take over West Bengal too in the 2020 Vidhan Sabha elections. Under such circumstances, it will not want to risk its votes by providing such facilities to Bangladesh. As usual, Bangladesh will be sacrificed for the sake of India’s domestic politics.

In the meantime, the draft of Assam’s second national register of citizens was published in July, in which about 4 million people have been identified as possible foreigners. Then on 31 August the final list was published, with 1.9 million. India has reassured Bangladesh that this was merely an internal matter and our government seems to believe them. If these declared foreigners are Bengali speaking, then no matter what India exhorts or what we believe, then it is obvious from which country they are supposed to have come from, though no explanation was given in this regard. Bangladesh’s prime minister went on a four-day visit to India from 3 to 6 October and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi gave her similar assurances.

During this visit, seven agreements and Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) were signed at the top level. And one of these agreements entailed that Delhi will get the opportunity to set up a surveillance system on Bangladesh’s coast and will gain a strategic foothold in the Pacific region through this. This will place India in an advantageous position to tackle any terrorist threat through the sea and also in light of China’s growing clout in the region.

Nothing has been said by either side of whether this agreement will benefit Bangladesh in any way whatsoever. On the contrary, security analysts are concerned that China’s growing ties with Bangladesh may be affected by this. Overall, it looks like only India stands to gain from this MOU.

This December was another impact of India upon Bangladesh when the Indian parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 which became an act. Under this law, other than Muslims, any Hindu’s and persons of other religions who were persecuted in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan and fled to India, will be given Indian citizenship. There is vehement protest against the bill all over India, particularly in West Bengal, Assam and India’s northeastern states. People have even been killed in the wave of protests.

To the apparent eye it may seem hat a law passed within India is an internal matter of that country, but it cannot be taken as an entirely domestic matter on two points. Firstly, it has bracketed Bangladesh with Pakistan and Afghanistan which is simply not acceptable to Bangladesh. Secondly, it says that members of the minority communities have entered India after being persecuted in Bangladesh (as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan). It is unprecedented and even painful that while claiming to have model bilateral relations with Bangladesh, India accused it of persecuting its minorities. There has been an increase of Bengali-speaking Muslims in India being pushed into Bangladesh in recent times. It is natural that the people of Bangladesh, and the government, are not happy with this. Bangladesh’s foreign minister and home minister cancelled their scheduled visits to India in December at the last moment.

So how can Bangladesh-India relations be evaluated in 2019? India has some gains, Bangladesh does not. The Teesta issue and the border killings remain unresolved. India’s stance concerning the Rohingya refugees is also disheartening. India’s heading towards becoming a Hindu state does not bide well for Bangladesh’s communal harmony. It has become hard, at the end of the year, to see Bangladesh-India ties as a role model in bilateral relations.

Fresh evaluation of relations with China
The post-1975 government of Bangladesh had good relations with China, with a slight deterioration during the 2007-08 caretaker government rule. The two countries have supported each other on various international political or multilateral issues. Bangladesh had given full support to China on issues sensitive to the latter. And China, in return, gifted Bangladesh with the friendship bridge as well as the China Bangladesh friendship centre.

China has gained immensely in importance to Bangladesh over the past decade or so, as an economic, trade and development partner. Of course, this is not just a matter of blessing. The loans from China are on commercial interest basis, not low interest loans as from the EU or Japan. After being awarded contract, the Chinese companies take inordinate time in implementation. Then again there is corruption and abnormal cost inflation. But China is still considered the ‘tried and tested friend’.

The first glitch in Bangladesh-China relations appeared in the shape of the Rohingya crisis in 2017. China opted to be an ‘honest broker’, but in actuality took sides with Myanmar for its geostrategic reasons and completely overlooked Bangladesh’s interests. China’s bone of contention with Bangladesh could be the proposed Sonadia deep-sea port. Bangladesh had almost finalized an agreement with China in this regard, but stepped back at the last minute due to pressure from India.

After Chinese president Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Bangladesh in 2016, China committed 20 billion dollars for various projects over the next four years. Three years have passed, but only 5 to 7 per cent of the commitments have been met. In July this year Bangladesh’s prime minister visited China. High level talks were held and some MOUs were signed. But the clouds over the relations between the two countries remain.

The Rohingya equation
The Rohingya crisis has been the biggest foreign policy challenge for Bangladesh over the past two years. After a large number of Rohingya took shelter in Bangladesh in 2017, Bangladesh tried to resolve the matter bilaterally instead of talking up the issue on an international level. While Myanmar’s brutality was being castigated by the international community and even the UN secretary general criticised the ethnic cleansing, Bangladesh remained more or less silent on the issue.

Bangladesh somewhat changed its attitude regarding the Rohingya crisis in 2019. Albeit late, it has realised that probably there is no bilateral solution to the problem. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina clearly stated in the United Nations that the only permanent solution is for the Rohingyas to be taken back with full dignity and rights. And those who are responsible for the killings and repression of the Rohingyas must also be brought to book. No progress was made in 2019, though certain positive initiatives have been taken. A case was filed against Myanmar with the International Criminal Court but as Myanmar is not a signatory of the Rome declaration, the effectiveness of this case is under question. A case has also been taken up in Argentina. And the third case has been filed with the International Court of Justice by Gambia, accusing Myanmar of genocide.

A three-day hearing was held at the ICJ in The Hague on 10-12 December. Myanmar’s Nobel laureate leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi rejected all accusations of genocide, saying the military had carried out a clearance operation against terrorists and some excesses may have been committed.

It will take long for this case to be resolved. But there may be an appeal for Myanmar to stop the killings during the trial. If this is heeded, it will be a moral victory for Gambia and the Rohingyas. And in the final verdict, if the genocide is proven, then the countries which had sided with Myanmar so long will come under moral pressure. The fact that Myanmar has admitted to certain war crimes itself is an achievement.

Bangladesh sent a delegation to The Hague for the hearing and will provide Gambia with certain evidence. This indicates that Bangladesh has finally realised and left the illusion of a solution through bilateral negotiations.

The coming year

The Rohingya crisis and other events of 2019 remind us that there are no permanent friends or enemies for a state, on its interests are permanent. During times of crisis, ‘tested friends’ did not lend their support. We must use this realisation to shape our future strategies. Without making new enemies, we must search for new friends, new equations that will help us deal with crises. This will be our foreign relations challenge in the coming year.

* Md Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary. This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

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