The Financial Express

Bangladesh's diplomacy, as it ought to be

Bangladesh's diplomacy, as it ought to be

In this fiftieth year of the declaration of Bangladesh's independence, there is a paramount need for a reconfiguring of the nation's foreign policy. With the country poised to graduate to the status of a middle-income nation, with all the economic strides it has made in the recent past, it should now be for the mandarins at the foreign policy establishment in Shegun Bagicha to go for a re-engineering of Bangladesh's worldview. It will not do for the country to be ignored by other nations where a preservation of its vital national interests is concerned.

The revival of diplomacy could begin with a concerted effort, both at the intellectual and policy levels, to have the genocide perpetrated by the Pakistan army in 1971 recognised for what it was a half century ago, a genocide. Indeed, there should have been a well-planned strategy within the parameters of the years that have elapsed to persuade the United Nations and other relevant global bodies that fifty years ago it was the murder of a nation which took place. When the murder of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 qualifies as genocide, there is little reason for the extermination of 3,000,000 Bengalis to remain unaccounted for in the global record of pogroms committed in the twentieth century.

Our facts must be collected, researched, collated and presented before the UN. Once that is done or once such an act gets underway on the part of the foreign policy experts in Dhaka, it will be regarded as a boost to the country's diplomacy. Fifty years is a long time for a nation to convince the world that genocide did take place in Bangladesh. It is now time for the country's diplomacy to get moving on the issue. Add to that one other crucial area that our diplomats ought to be handling, with a sense of urgency coming into it. Not long ago, the country was informed by the current Foreign Minister that a paucity of funds had been an impediment to efforts to have Bangla recognised as an official language of the United Nations.

That statement was concerning. It was embarrassing, for the simple reason that the nation was being informed that it did not have enough money to have its language find space beside the six official languages currently recognized by the UN. Diplomacy needs to be activated here, given especially that both Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Sheikh Hasina have spoken at the UN General Assembly in Bangla. It is therefore inconceivable that despite their roles in articulating foreign policy before the world body in their national language, the national language itself is yet to graduate to being an official language of the United Nations.

Foreign policy is a whole lot more than a mouthing of platitudes or clichés. Nations believe in friendship with other nations, but fundamental to the exercise of diplomacy is the idea that it is always the enlightened self-interest of a country which takes centre stage in foreign policy. That was the principle upon which Bangabandhu's government worked in the three and a half years in which it was in office, a time when such deals as the 25-year treaty of friendship with India in 1972, the land boundary agreement with Delhi in 1974 and the tripartite agreement between Delhi, Dhaka and Islamabad in 1974 were concluded. The old ethos needs to be revived at the foreign policy level in such areas as a sharing of the Teesta waters. For far too long the issue has remained unresolved because the state government of West Bengal has refused to agree on a deal between Dhaka and Delhi on the issue. Bangladesh's ties with India are on a firm ground, which should be an added reason on its part to go earnestly into engaging the latter on the Teesta issue. The longer the issue is allowed to fester, the more worrying will the state of Dhaka's diplomacy be.

Relations with Pakistan have for very understandable reasons been in limbo, despite the two countries maintaining embassies in each other's capital. For Bangladesh, proactive diplomacy in areas such as the requirement for Pakistan to come forth with an official apology if Islamabad wants normal relations with Dhaka is an imperative. The Pakistani authorities will need to be informed that the ball is in their court, that historical precedents are there for them to draw lessons from inexpressing contrition formally for the crimes their soldiers did in Bangladesh in the 1971 war. The people of Bangladesh and the people of Pakistan need to move on, but not before Islamabad opts for an acknowledgement of the historical truth.

The issue should not be put on the shelves only because Islamabad has so far not demonstrated a willingness to make amends for the behaviour of its army. And with that --- and this is of critical importance --- Bangladesh must re-register its claims to a division of the assets and liabilities of pre-1971 Pakistan. It will be naive to imagine that with a half century having gone by without a resolution of the problem, nothing can be done to bring Islamabad to negotiations on the issue. It is a sad commentary on Bangladesh's politics that in the years after August 1975, the Zia and Ershad regimes as also the government led by Khaleda Zia simply pushed the issue under the rug because 'brotherly relations' between Bangladesh and Pakistan were deemed more important than unresolved matters arising out of 1971. Through official diplomatic channels, Dhaka should be informing Islamabad that it expects meaningful talks on the assets and liabilities question.

Diplomacy also needs to come into play over the issue of the Rohingya refugees in the country. Policymakers in Shegun Bagicha can go for a two-pronged approach to the problem. In the first place, efforts towards bilateral talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar may be initiated. In foreign policy, as the late twentieth century has so amply demonstrated through diplomacy in the period of the Cold War, nothing can be more profitable than engaging with the adversary across the table. And with that engagement must come an accompanying approach --- and this is the second part of the process --- of Dhaka persuading Delhi, Moscow and Beijing into exerting pressure on Naypyidaw on the Rohingya question. Bilateral engagement to the accompaniment of multilateral pressure ought to be the cornerstone of policy regarding Myanmar.

Diplomacy is never combative, but it is always assertive. Foreign policy does not seek to undermine or humiliate adversaries but softens them through calculated, well-calibrated and focused intellectual arguments on the issues on the table. That should be key to a reassessment of Bangladesh's priorities on the global stage, fifty years after 1971.


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