M Humayun Kabir is the former Bangladesh envoy in the US, Australia and Nepal. He has spoken with Prothom Alo’s Sohrab Hassan and Monzurul Islam on prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s forthcoming Delhi visit, geopolitical challenges, Bangaldesh-US relations and regional cooperation.
How do you see the forthcoming Delhi visit of prime minister Sheikh Hasina? Is it just a conventional visit or a tour of any special significance?
I will not term it special, but it has a significance. Bangladesh-India relations saw an impetus when prime minister went to Delhi in 2010. Context of this year’s visit is somewhat different. The world has undergone a sea off change due to Covid-19. Ukraine war has intensified the problem. Our regional, geopolitical and environmental challenges have increased. So, it would not be possible to advance the bilateral relations by bypassing these problems. I don’t also think much can be achieved from a single visit.
Bilateral trade, connectivity, energy and defence would get priority during the prime minister’s visit. Several memorandums of understanding (MoUs) are likely to be inked. How much benefit will Bangladesh get in these sectors? There is an allegation that India reaps more benefit from bilateral relations
Yes, such an allegation is there. Bangladesh is unhappy about the uncertainty over the Teesta water sharing deal and killing of Bangladeshis along the border. There may not be any lack of political will in the highest levels regarding the advancement of bilateral relations, but there is always lack of impetus in implementation. The good initiative taken from Bangladesh side in last 10 years in terms of regional or sub-regional cooperation is extending the scope of cooperation. We have also allowed Nepal and Bhutan to use the Mongla port. India, too, said Bangladesh can use their ports. But there are other areas of cooperation. We want to enhance connectivity up to Myanmar, Thailand and other ASIAN countries.
There is a chance to ink Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) during the PM’s visit. Will it reduce the duty we would enjoy from India as per SAFTA agreement?
I don’t think so. India has already given duty-free facility in 97 per cent of goods. India might want duty facility from Bangladesh under the CEPA treaty. The crux of the problem lies with massive trade gap. Our export to India is very low in comparison with import from them. CEPA treaty has emphasized not only on trade but also on investment. Bangladesh would be benefited if we can increase the volume of export. India has a market of 1.3 billion people, but only a handful of Bangladeshi products are exported there. Anti-dumping duties are imposed on some goods including jute. India should remove these barriers. Another aspect of CEPA is it is not only about trade, rather investment and enhancing economic relations have also been stressed in it. If Indian investment increases in Bangladesh, our export will also increase too. Several thousand Indians are employed in Bangladesh. Our citizens should get same employment facility in India. India’s anti-dumping duty gives a wrong message. It was discussed during the prime minister’s Delhi visit in 2017 but the duties were not withdrawn.
Teesta water sharing treaty comes up for discussions between Bangladesh and India. Do you see any possibility of advancement of the issue during the PM’s visit?
No; I don’t see any such possibility. The highest political leadership of India has been assuring us on this since 2011 but that did not bring any fruition. There might be more assurance this time around. The positive thing is that the meeting of Joint River Commission took place after 12 years.
What was the reason of such long hiatus of JRC meeting—lack our interest or India’s noncooperation?
As far as I have heard, both the factors contributed to this. JRC meeting should be held regularly. This meeting would not only discuss water sharing. They can also discuss things such as how can we utilise the water of transnational rivers and how climate change can be fought. Although the Teesta issue was not discussed, they have reached an agreement on water sharing of Kushiyara river. This is a good side.
Bangladesh has always been speaking about joint effort of countries for the sake of the best use of water resource of common rivers. Setting up water reservoir in Nepal, constructing hydroelectric power plant and in Nepal and Bhutan and bringing the electricity to Bangladesh using India’s power grids was part of the initiative. How much progress took place in this plan?
I don’t think any progress took place on construction of water reservoirs. But there were several tripartite meetings on hydroelectric project. India is comparatively flexible in this end. This is important for Bangladesh’s energy security. We can ensure energy security by investing in hydroelectricity project in Nepal and Bhutan along with purchasing electricity from India.
Elections in Bangladesh and India are due in one and half years and two years respectively. What can be the political significance of the prime minister’s visit in this context?
Diplomacy is not out of politics. Rather the heads of states and governments are the highest diplomats of their respective countries. National elections in Bangladesh and India will take place in quick succession. Both the countries will surely consider the wish of their respective citizens. Records are not kept even the politics is discussed in such high-level meetings. So, we wouldn’t know what they will discuss. We will only know what would be there in the joint communiqué.
Foreign minister AK Abdul Momen has made some comments on Bangladesh-India relations earlier which created much controversy. How do you see his remarks as a diplomat?
Embarrassing. We are not just an independent country rather the honour of our statehood is different as Bangladesh became independent through the liberation war. I don’t think we need any other country’s assistance in forming the government. The foreign minister’s remark is disrespectful. Such comments are not expected from policymakers.
China and India are our big neighbours. Awami League in the beginning adopted a policy of balancing between these two countries. Does this balance still exist?
Yes, it still exists. But the geopolitical situation is changing rapidly. So I think maintaining this balance in the future would be tougher and we have to increase our internal strength to face the challenge. We have to strengthen the national unity. All political parties have to reach some form of consensus.
But is Bangladesh in that position? Bangladesh’s political leadership has always been divided.
Consensus and division, both are present. There is divisiveness and animosity in terms of politics. Power has changed hands multiple times. But in the past 45 years, nothing much has changed in the country’s economic policy. This means, there is a consensus in economics. If we could achieve it in politics too, our dignity and competence as a nation would increase.
A big area of consensus could be democracy. But does that democracy exist right now?
Bangladesh is now 51 years old. The type of democracy we are practising right now, won’t benefit us much. Now, we need to rethink. We have to sign fresh social agreements. The participation of the people is necessary to run a country that was achieved through a war for independence. We also have to take the global and regional context into account. In 2026, we will enter the list of developing countries. Then, the international pressure will also increase. It will be challenging to survive with the current political culture. We will have to face a lot of competition.
What do you mean by this new arrangement?
Since 1991, we had many big dreams. We had dreams of creating a democratic country. For whatever reason, we couldn’t achieve it. Practising democracy is not limited to just an election. We have to strengthen democratic institutions if we want to create a country for the people. We can’t progress much in the current political climate of the country. The thing is that we don’t do anything unless there is some external pressure. We have to break free from this cycle.
Before the prime minister’s Delhi visit, the Chinese foreign minister visited Dhaka, mostly out of their own interest.
China was under pressure before. Since the war in Ukraine broke out, the pressure has increased further. The US wants to create distance between China and Russia. The US has a stronger relationship with Japan, Australia and India. The recent Taiwan crisis further increased China’s problems. In this situation, they are going to their international friends asking them to boldly say that they believe in the one-China policy. The Chinese foreign minister asked the same from Bangladesh.
So, there is no connection between the prime minister’s Delhi visit and the Chinese foreign minister’s Dhaka visit?
Not at all. My assumption is that there was only one agenda for that visit. Before coming to Bangladesh, the Chinese foreign minister visited the ASEAN countries and visited Indonesia.
You are emphasising the regional support. But SAARC is almost completely inactive.
The current state of SAARC is unfortunate. When Sri Lanka recently declared bankruptcy, we, as a country, tried our level best to assist them. So did India. But as there was no regional organisation, we couldn’t take a collective initiative. Even during Covid, many spoke about revitalising SAARC. We are in a deep crisis. No country by itself can recover from it. We need help from our neighbours. To achieve economic prosperity in this region, there is no other option than to revitalise SAARC. Everyone respects ASEAN because of its unity. If we can strengthen SAARC, the outside world will also respect us. And no country alone can solve the crisis of climate change by itself. So, the time has come to re-evaluate the entire situation. As SAARC is the outcome of our thinking, we can’t just abandon it.
Will the Rohingya crisis be discussed during the prime minister’s Delhi visit?
There will be a lot of discussions about the Rohingya crisis. It has happened before. But seeing the recent reaction from India, their relationship with Myanmar etc, we can’t expect anything with certainty. We must remember, that the Rohingya crisis is not just a problem for Bangladesh. This is a regional and global crisis. Because of this, the possibility of Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh getting connected by road is halted. BIMSTEC is also completely inactive. India is also at risk of the Rohingya crisis. I think they could’ve been a bit more active.
There has been a lot of criticism over giving transit to India. How much will Bangladesh gain from it?
It’s running on a trial basis. In Bangladesh, people are criticising giving India transit and in India, people aren’t happy because the transit is not fully operational. There is also a difference of opinion over transportation cost and duty. The issue of transit is completely commercial. The businessmen will only be interested in transit if they can make a profit from it. We have always spoken about multifaceted transit facilities. Bangladesh gave a proposal to India in 2016 to build a road that connects Bangladesh and India with Myanmar and Thailand. There were also discussions about it. But after that, the Rohingya crisis began.
There is a belief that in regard to Bangladesh or South Asia, the US mostly depends on India. Has this situation changed?
The US now wants to speak directly. This proves that the US is creating strategic bonds with Bangladesh on many matters. But according to the news in Indian media, Delhi is at unease about this.
The US has declared sanctions on seven former and current RAB officials. How much will it affect our internal politics?
It didn’t happen out of the blue. Whether we agree with it or not, the US influences and plays a pivotal role in global politics. They decide many things. In 2001, they brought the topic of terrorism into the forefront. To curb terrorism, they conducted armed invasions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Now, they are not focusing on terrorism as much. After the Biden administration came to power, they have brought democracy, human rights, good governance and stopping corruption to the forefront. They are trying to divide this globe into two halves, the democratic world and the undemocratic world, using the Ukraine war. And the sanctions they imposed on six countries, including Bangladesh, were done to uphold human rights. If we can integrate our democratic institutes, then the equation of relationship will be one way and if we are unable to do it, the equation will be different.
Thank you as well.