There is no alternative but to improve ties with the West

Former foreign secretary Touhid Hossian and security analyst Major General ANM Muniruzzaman (retd), in an interview with Prothom Alo’s AKM Zakaria and Rafsan Galib, talk about the 12th parliamentary polls, economic and diplomatic challenges ahead of the new government and the country’s geopolitical importance

Prothom Alo :

The country has seen yet another election. It looks like a one-party parliament and a one-party government. How do you view the situation?

Touhid Hossain: Given the events of 28 October and thereafter, such a situation was expected. Some said that an extremely large number of independent candidates would win. That may not have happened, but their number isn’t insignificant either. Even if Jatiya Party won in all 26 seats, that really wouldn’t have made any difference. They contested in the elections with the government’s blessings. Another matter is that unless the US takes action, BNP actually does not have the capacity to create such problems for the government that power will change hands.

Muniruzzaman: We have, in effect, entered a one-party system. The state of Bangladesh was founded on the belief in multiparty democracy. The people of the country now believe that we have moved far away from that. I have serious questions as to how far this will be ideologically acceptable to the people. But one of the main dangers of a one-party system of government is that checks and balances don’t work here. As a result, the government has no liability towards the people. The government is always at risk of making a serious blunder, whether intentional or unintentional. May institutions are in a weak and fragile condition due to institutional deterioration.

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Prothom Alo :

The economic challenge is a big challenge for the government. How will it manage this?

Muniruzzaman: It does not look like the government has the capability to manage the economic challenge that looms ahead. Our two major sources of income – remittance and readymade garment export – are facing a worrying predicament. If the West even makes some minor changes in the readymade garment market, the impact will be serious. Also, with the gap between the market and the dollar value, there is little chance of remittance increasing. And if the dollar value is left to the market, it will spiral out of control. The price of essentials will go even further out of people’s reach. Then again, the manner in which the reins have been artificially pulled on the dollar value, remittance won’t come through the banking channels. As a result, economic problems will mount. We will have to reach out to either the West or to the Chinese. The government’s main supporter India does not have that economic strength to help our government. Whichever direction the government takes, it will have to make concessions. This will be difficult for the government.

Prothom Alo :

India, China and Russia have openly taken the government’s side. Some have criticised the US. For a year or so, the US had been very vocal with stern statements and criticism, but over the past one month or so that subsided to an extent. What is your take in the matter?

Touhid Hossain: The global powers were divided over our election. Rather unusually, India and China were on the same side in this matter. Basically, they are not bothered about whether democracy prevails in Bangladesh or not. Actually it is all about the interests of their respective countries. As for the US, they have seen many defeats all over the world, including in Vietnam, Afghanistan and elsewhere. They are unwilling to accept defeat.

If they do not see any success in their efforts taken over the past year or so, they may change their tack. We do not know their greater plan, but their Burma Act and other factors are indicators. If Bangladesh is part of those plans and if their plans go into effect, then they may economic interventions where Bangladesh is concerned. That will then be difficult for the Bangladesh government to tackle.

Even if the dollar value is left to the market, it will be difficult to bring remittance to the level that is was before. After all, looted money must be siphoned off overseas at any cost. Even if the price of the dollar goes up to Tk 150, there will still be people ready to pay even 10 taka extra for a dollar. But for as long as the middle class can afford three meals and their children’s tuition fees, they won’ take to the streets.

Prothom Alo :

So are your saying the government has no big danger ahead?

Touhid Hossain: Yes, that’s right. But there is another factor here. The US elections are ahead. There is possibility of Trump returning unless there are some legal obstructions. And I do not think there will be. Then Trump will come to power and say, Bangladesh? Where’s that? We have no issues with Bangladesh. So our government may be looking to stay firm and somehow let this year pass.

Muniruzzaman: The challenge and the vital question that lies ahead is, how long will the government be able to maintain this so-called balance? I do not foresee it being possible to keep India and China together in the future. The Chinese ambassador just last week said they will take up the Teesta project after the election. He hoped that the Bangladesh government would cooperate. India, on the other hand, will never accept the Teesta project. That may create a rift in the positions of India and China and this may spread to others areas as well. It will be difficult for the government to carry out the diplomatic balancing act with India and China. As for China, when they take up a policy in their interests, it cannot be changed all of a sudden. It will take a bit of time, at last six months, to see what policy they adopt for Bangladesh.

India will not want China to go ahead with the Teesta project, China will certainly want to go ahead with it. Now if China does not get that scope, will they abandon Bangladesh? I do not think so. They failed to do anything at Sonadia, but the relations prevail
Touhid Hossain, former foreign secretary

Prothom Alo :

The issue of geopolitics was much discussed in context of the Bangladesh election. Just how geopolitically important is Bangladesh?

Touhid Hossain: There was a time when it seemed that Bangladesh had very little geopolitical importance. If we shared a border with China, then too our importance would be more.  But with the US policy spreading, our importance has increased. Previously their eyes had only been on the Pacific, but now they have turned their attention to the Indian Ocean too. In fact, their attention has even given India cause for concern. India feels it is they are the main ones in control of the region and the US can support. This attitude of India may not tally with that of the US. That is why we are important here. The US feels it will have a foothold here if they have a friendly government in Bangladesh which is perched just above the Bay of Bengal. So this geopolitical important will increase with positive and negative impacts of this situation.

Muniruzzaman: I would like to add a point here. The Bay of Bengal features prominently in the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Because of our location, we can ensure entrance to this particularly vital place. This is a strong geopolitical strength for us. Another strength is that we may not give this scope to western powers or friends. The third strength is Bangladesh is important to the US because of the unrest in Myanmar and the policy the US is taking up in the region due to the Burma Act.

Concessions must be made in certain areas to improve ties with the US. The government must take that into consideration. India will play a supportive role in this regard
ANM Muniruzzaman, security analyst

Prothom Alo :

During the first 10 to 12 years of this government's rule, relations with the US were progressing well. Many agreements and MOUs were signed, particularly in foreign and security sectors. With the election over, will it be possible for the government to mend fences and improve relations with the US?

Touhid Hossain: The question is whether the government will be able to maintain a balance with the India and China stands. That may be possible. For example, India will not want China to go ahead with the Teesta project, China will certainly want to go ahead with it. Now if China does not get that scope, will they abandon Bangladesh? I do not think so. They failed to do anything at Sonadia, but relations still prevail. China may be miffed somewhat, but then they will turn their attention to the other projects.

The possibility with the US and the West is that if they do not go into direct confrontation with the government, then the government can make some concessions and mend relations with them. The government will understand that problems will only increase if they go into direct confrontation. If the US relents, the government will also meet them half way.

Prothom Alo :

The government has been balancing the large foreign powers well, it is said. What do you say?

Touhid Hossain: Actually all countries in the world are maintaining a sort of balance in their foreign policies. It is not just us alone. They are certainly siding with one big side, but still maintaining good ties with the other sides too. Under the AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) in Africa, the US facilities still prevail and China has accepted that. We see a balance in Latin America too.

Muniruzzaman: It is imperative for Bangladesh to maintain a balance. But I agree with Touhid, this is nothing unique. At the same time, we have to accept the fact that the government has been able to do this. But I think it will not be possible to go ahead too far with this balance. As Touhid said, concessions must be made in certain areas to improve ties with the US. The government must take that into consideration. India will play a supportive role in this regard.

Prothom Alo :

Can we have two recommendations for the government regarding internal affairs and the foreign policy?

We are not just linked to the West economically, but mentally too. We must maintain good ties with them. There is no alternative to that. Internally speaking, the election is over and we see a deep divide in society and politics. An understanding must be reached. Attitudes must be more humanitarian.

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


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