In Diplomacy in Focus for this issue, Nilantha Ilangamuwa of Lanka Courier sat down with Tareq Md Ariful Islam High Commissioner of Bangladesh to Sri Lanka. Prior to taking up the current post, he was the Deputy Permanent Representative in the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh to the United Nations in New York from 2016 to 2020.
Mr. Islam is a career diplomat and joined the Bangladesh Foreign Service in 1998. As for his other assignments abroad, he had another stint (2005-2009) in the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh to the United Nations in New York as First Secretary/Counsellor. He then served in the Bangladesh Deputy High Commission in Kolkata, India (2009-2012) as Counsellor.
Excerpts from the interview;
Please give me a brief profile of the country following its independence
We inherited a war-ravaged economy in 1971. But we were so fortunate to have a visionary leader like our Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He immediately started building the country from the scratch. It is very unfortunate that he had only three and half years before he was assassinated in 1975. Yet in this short time, he put in place policy frameworks which gave us a strong foundational base. Subsequently, her able daughter our Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasinatook the helm and followed her father’s footsteps. She went into a developmental overdrive, in particular from 2009. More importantly, she brought political stability in the country. As a result, today Bangladesh is considered a developmental miracle in the world. We have graduated to a developing country meeting all the UN threshold criteria.
We are having very consistent socio-economic development. Our socio-economic indices speak of it. Our GDP growth has been over 6% for the last 10 years, right before the pandemic it was 8.2%, one of the highest in the region. Even during pandemic, it was 5.8%, highest in Asia. Today, we are the 41stlargest economy in the world, going to be the 25thin 2035. This has been possible because the governmentrelies on people’s power. The focus has always been on helpingand encouragingpeople to do things on their own. Pragmatic policy facilitation for growth created the right conditions for individuals to switch to entrepreneurial mindset and scale up. Graduates no longer focus on seeking jobs only, rather they go for self-employment and job creation. Our agriculture sector has done marvels, making us, a 170 million people living on 145000 square kilometers, self-sufficient in food. We have one of the best rice research institutes in the region which has developed high yield rice varieties. They can withstand adverse climatic conditions. Our service and industrial sectors are also coming up very strong. Our bigger story is about the resilience of our people which withstood countless adversities and brought us where Bangladesh stands now.
You referred to the strategies in place that serve as an impetus for economic growth. What are they?
There were several strategic thrust areas. Let me mention a few. First, agriculture. Use of modern agricultural practices,new varieties of crops, cropping diversification, agro-processing have enabled this sector to flourish. We are now 4thlargest in the world in rice production, 5th in vegetable production, 4th in freshwater fish production and so on.The farmers no longer rely on traditional agricultural production only. They are going for other more profitable livelihood options and revenue streams, all surrounding agriculture. Greater road and digital/mobile connectivity enhanced marketability of their products. Technology has been a boon, farmers are not losing on middlemen since market prices are at their fingertips. Second, the power sector. Our Prime Minister herself oversees the Power Ministry. She took some bold and pragmatic steps due to which from a power deficit country we have turn into a power surplus country. Based on this, industry, ICT and service sectors developed. Third, women empowerment. Our Hon’ble Prime Minister, being a woman herself, made sure women are equal partners in the development of the country.
Our village women ventured into small businesses, from cattle rearing to cottage industries. In many households, women are breadwinners and decision makers. Their greater role took care of many other issues such as reducing child marriages and malnutrition, and ensuring education of their children which had a multiplier effect on the society as a whole. It changed the society’s outlooktowards women. Fourth, industry and service sector. Contribution of these sectors to our economy has surpassed that of agriculture. The manufacturing sector took off with the garment sector, there were many spin offs, backward and forward linkages which turned into a big industry. Uninterrupted power supply served as a huge booster to digitization of the economy based on which our service industry flourished.
As the economy improved, people’s purchasing power did too. As a result, domestic demand and consumer market expanded significantly requiring various other industries such as electrical appliances, plastics to come up. Fifth, infrastructure. We invested hugely here. With boom in infrastructure development, rose our construction material industry such as cement, steel. There are also developments in other areas such as: expanding social safety net to lift the marginal section of the population from poverty,digitalization, opening up the private sector, public-private partnership, economic inclusion, which have made tremendous contribution to our economic rise. I can go on but would stop here.
How do you get people to be committed to these policies?
People can make out which government is for the people and the poor. It didn’t take our people long to find out which leadership is pro-people. When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took over, she knew, having undergone many hardships herself, the strength of her people. So, when people saw that her government was working for their best interest, was genuine in its intention and was delivering on its commitments, they gave all the support.The decisive factor behind Bangladesh’s phenomenal success is that our Prime Minister has infused a sense of self-confidence in our national psyche often defying great odds. The US$ 3.7 billion Padma Bridge Project, which the government decided to fund from its own resources after the World Bank’s withdrawal is a perfect example of that. That is why people are rallying behind this government.
How does a government deal with citizens who are not equally confident and who take to social media to justify their allegations?
When the country is performing so well, there cannot be many complaints. But for any developing country, there will be developmental challenges and we also do. In any democracy, there will always be dissenting voices who would highlight the challenges only without acknowledging the country’s and its people’s achievements. The government is very much aware of the challenges and relentlessly trying to mitigate those. At the end of the day, what matters is what the majority of the people think. And here I believe we are on the right track.
Tell us about internal security of the nation and how it fits into the larger picture of development?
Our tremendous socio-economic development has been the biggest catalyst of ensuring internal security. We are mostly a homogenous society which has been another factor. In our country, people of all faiths particularly the minorities have been living side by side in peace and harmony. So, we hardly have ethnic and communal issues posing threat to our internal security. In 2016, we had one terrorist attack and that came as an eye opener. That made us do a soul searching and the government took some pragmatic steps. We didn’t look at containing terrorism from a security point of view alone. It has to come from society. So, while the security vigilance was on, we also adopted a ‘whole-of-society’ approach. Under that we activated a number of important actors in the society. First, mothers. Our Prime Minister took it upon herself to call on mothers to be more alert about their children. Second, religious leaders. Religious leaders have significant influence on our society. So, we utilized them to guide and mobilize our people particularly the youngsters. Our Imams came up with counter-terrorism narratives in the light of the Quran and the Hadith which were widely disseminated. At the same time, we modernized our madrassa curriculum and aligned it with our mainstream education. As a result, students coming out of madrasas can sit for competitive exams and get any job they want to. There is no bar. All these worked very well and so far we haven’t have any major terrorist incident. This is how we are ensuring our internal security. This has given a tremendous boost in carrying forward our development journey.
How do you continue to attract FDI’s into the country?
Ours is one of the most investment-friendly countries in the region. We have dedicated government bodies for attracting FDI and ease of doing business which come under the direct supervision of Prime Minister’s Office. All necessary policies and framework have been put in place. Our developments in infrastructure and power sector have been a boon for FDI. We initially had a few export processing zones most of which were located close to ports and big cities. We are coming up with 100 Special Economic Zones (SEZs) across the country. Now, you will find an SEZ even in a remote place of the country. This has been possible due to our good road and communication networks. Due to our very low production costs and availability of skilled human resources, we have become one of the most cost-efficient production hubs and outsourcing destinations in the world. Our increasing purchasing power and a surging domestic market of 170 million people is making large foreign companies invest in Bangladesh. We have gone into car manufacturing with Honda and high-end cell phone manufacturing with Samsung, both of which have set up plants in our SEZs. Rapidly emerging private sector and a tremendous international export success are some of the other factors, which have led international companies to focus on Bangladesh. Number of Japanese companies in Bangladesh has tripled in last 100 years. During the pandemic, we have seen foreign companies relocating their operations to Bangladesh.
In Sri Lanka we have had to face stiff opposition from people who take to the streets in protest over government’s decisions. How about in Bangladesh, how do you manage this kind of scenarios?
Being a democracy, we also face similar situation. The present government always listens to people’s genuine demands and addresses them to the best of its ability. Environment and development, there is always a debateon which one to choose. We have to strike a balance. Bangladesh is a strong voice globally in addressing the adverse impacts of climate change, being a victim of climate change itself. Without waiting for international support, we have developed a climate fund from our own domestic resources to address our climate change related challenges. We have in place stringent mechanisms for environmental assessments. We are also working on greening our industries
You also mentioned of your large diaspora. What role and how do they help in this process?
Our about 10 million strong diaspora play a huge role in our nation building. The foreign remittance that they send is the second largest source of our foreign currency earning. Initially, our manpower export was mostly about sending unskilled labour force to the Middle East. It is still there but we are now changing this by shifting to sending semi-skilled and skilled manpower. We have vocational training institutes all over the country. As we enjoy a demographic dividend of a large youth population, these institutions are turning them into efficient workforce. It’s not only the number. We also have highly educated, technical professionals settled in North America and Europe. With these qualitative changes, our diaspora is making greater contribution to our development.
During the last few years, you have been helping refugees who come into your country. How do you secure your border and assist them as well?
That has not been easy. But we had to. Having gone through the painful experience during our war of liberation when a large number of Bangladeshi had to take refuge in India, our Prime Minister decided that we must respond to the call of humanity. No matter whether others do it or not. We may not be the best endowed but we have had the heart of taking up bigger responsibilities. It was a risky political decision because the opposition was criticising the government for opening the border. This time it was a bigger challenge due to the size of the influx. The influx of forcibly displaced Rohingyas started with a small number and quickly snowballed to 1.1 million. We have in Cox’s Bazar one of the world’s largest camps. Maintaining such a big camp is not easy, the government has to allocate a lot of resources to help them. The international community has been very supportive. Particularly during this pandemic we need to be extra careful. But thankfully the rate of infection has been lower than the national average. Besides, it is not only about money, it is also about maintaining the law and order in the camps, containing the risk of radicalization as well as other unlawful activities which are easy to crop up in any camp situation. For any country, it’s always a challenge. But our law enforcement agencies remain vigilant to address all the security implications. We seek the political support of Sri Lanka in resolving this crisis.
Let us talk about the Sri Lanka and Bangladesh relationship.
I have some familiarity with the region, I served in Kolkata for four years. Then I looked after South Asia for another four years as Director-General from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dhaka. During that period, I dealt with Bangladesh-Sri Lanka relationship. Bangladesh attaches high importance to her relations with Sri Lanka. When it comes to our relationship, it is all about friendship and goodwill. People here are very friendly and full of warmth. I feel comfortable being here. There are so many similarities between our two countries that I hardly feel that I am abroad. Age-old civilizational links and shared heritage, socio-cultural ties and people to people contact have reinforced the warmth of the relations. There a number of areas of cooperation which could bring significant gains to both countries. The large number of Sri Lankans working in Bangladesh is a strong element of our people-to-people contact. Bangladesh is committed to further strengthening and expanding these ties. My sole purpose is to pursue that.
Prior to your appointment you were in the US. Tell us about your work there.
I have done a bit of multilateral diplomacy having been posted twice in the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh to the United Nationsin New York. My area of work included international peace and security, human rights, regional cooperation and migration. In New York, I have seen first-hand how Bangladesh and Sri Lanka carry on their traditionally close cooperation in multilateral and regionalforums. We hold commonality of views on many global issues and extend support to each other. I personally worked closely with the Sri Lankan delegation in New York in upholding at the multilateral discourses the issues of our common interest.
Most recently Bangladesh voted in support of Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council. What was the reason for that?
I understand it was about the spirit of good neighbourliness. And, this is not new. We have been supporting Sri Lanka on human rights issues for many years now.
Two days ago, Bangladesh offered a currency swap. Tell us more about that.
swap arrangement was in fact conceived when Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Bangladesh in March this year. It was discussed and agreed in principle then. This currency swap is a follow up on that on the part of our Central Bank. We are happy to be of assistance to Sri Lanka. This again is about helping each other particularly the neighbours in hours of need.
Given that all these nations are fighting a pandemic, how do you see regional cooperation?
Regional cooperation is very important. The pandemic has only reinforced the relevance and necessity of regional cooperation. We have two major regional bodies–SAARC and BIMSTEC and we need to put these two platforms to the best use. When developed countries themselves were struggling with the pandemic, most of them were not in a position to help us. Hence we, the developing countries, had to rely on ourselves. We are managing the most difficult pandemic in human history and that through our domestic efforts. You are also doing so. South Asia is not the most endowed region in terms of resources, here regional cooperation can helpimmensely.Pandemic management and vaccine could be the most important areas of effective regional cooperation. It is more about sharing best practices and experiences, and learning from each other.
Looking ahead, how do you see diplomatic relations improving?
Our two countries have been enjoying excellent relations. The relationship at the political leadership level is particularly cordial. The visit of Hon’ble Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to Bangladesh this March to participate in the Birth Centenary of our Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Golden Jubilee of our Independence has been a high point of Bangladesh-Sri Lanka relationship. This has been a wonderful gesture of neighbourliness. Now it’s our duty to ensure that this political goodwillgets translated into sectoral cooperation in a more meaningful way. Trade and shipping are the two key areas of our cooperation, as I see it. Our bilateral trade volume is still small and does not commensurate with our excellent political relations. Both countries have their own comparative advantages and we need to couple these to our mutual benefit.
We need to take the trade to the next level. This would need some sort of trade facilitation and that could take various forms. To begin with, we are currently looking at preferential trade agreement (PTA) to explore our respective strong points and how we can help each other. Initially, we are looking at a small basket of items and if that works, we can expand and then move on to more comprehensive cooperation framework. Let me turn to shipping. As Bangladesh’s economy is growing, so is our import-export. Our shipping connectivity with the rest of the world is naturally growing substantially. Our total container traffic stands at 3.2 million. I understand you want Colombo to be a bigger trans-shipment hub. We also want to shorten the freight travel time of our exports to the US and Europe. Here we have a win-win situation. So, we are working on somebilateral instruments in the shipping sector.
We are also working on several other bilateral instruments in investment promotion and customs cooperation which will have positive impact on our trade and shipping sectors. Pharmaceutical sector is another potential area of our cooperation since we have a big pharmaceutical industry exporting products to more than 80 countries including the US and EU. We also export pharmaceutical products to Sri Lanka but in relatively small quantity. It can be substantially increased. We are also planning to manufacture some of the vaccinesas we have the capacity. Agriculture is a very important area of cooperation, where also we have done very well. We can share our best practices with you. Both the countries are doing very well in IT. Due to exponential growth of freelancing, Bangladesh is currently the number 2 in the world in IT outsourcing, after India. We can join our hands in this sector to enhance our global competitive. Tourism is another area. Particularly during the pandemic, when tourist flows from the West have trickled down, regional tourism taking advantage of geographical proximity can be a way to revive our tourism sectors. Maritime cooperation is one of our thrust areas. Being a maritime nation, you have long experience in long line and deep sea fishing. We can learn from that. So, you see, potential of cooperation between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka is huge for the mutual benefit of our people. So, in my opinion our relationship can only grow and flourish.
In Bangladesh military officials are involved in national development in substantive manner. Can you tell us how do you use military while protecting the democratic norms and values?
We have a very patriotic military. Apart from their primary responsibility of ensuring the security of the country, whenever there is a national crisis or priority, they are pressed into service in support of civil administration. We have seen it during natural disasters when the military works with people and others should-to-shoulder in disaster response and relief and rehabilitation. They are helping our law enforcement agencies during law and order situations. They are helping implement some national priority projects like building somemajor infrastructures, national ID Card, e-Passport etc. During the pandemic, they are working in the front line with our other front line workers. Our valiant soldiers are working as UN peacekeepers in conflict areas all around the world. We are now the number one troops and police contributor to UN peacekeeping. So, our armed forces are making invaluable contribution to our nation building activities.
Tell us about the national Development policy framework promulgated by the Government of Bangladesh
Our Prime Minister have announced a number of plans: ‘Vision 2021’, ‘Vision 2041’, Vision of turning Bangladesh into a ‘knowledge-based economy’ and the ‘Delta Plan 2100’. Vision 2041 aims to end absolute poverty and to graduate into higher middle-income status by 2031. It also aims at eradication of poverty on way to becoming a developed nation by 2041, the platinum jubilee year of our independence. We have adopted a Perspective Plan of Bangladesh 2021-2041’, the second of its kind,to translate the policies and programmes into development strategies for ‘Making Vision 2041 a reality. The institutional basis of this plan is fourfold, namely, good governance, democratization, decentralization and capacity building. The Strategic Goals and milestones of the Plan include industrialization with export-oriented manufacturing; paradigm shifts in Agriculture to enhance productivity; a service sector of the future-providing the bridge for the transformation of the rural agrarian economy to a primarily industrial and digital economy; the urban transition; efficient energy and infrastructure; building resilience to climate change and other environmental challenges; and establishing Bangladesh as a knowledge hub country. The Second Perspective Plan (2021-2041) would cover the periods of 8th, 9th, 10th and 11thFive Year Plans. It will also complementour efforts to achieving the global agenda – called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)by 2030 through the next two five year plans.
The Bangladesh Delta Plan (BDP) 2100 has the vision of “Achieving safe, climate resilient and prosperous delta”. This is a techno-economic mega plan, first of its kind in the world that integrates all delta-related sector plans and policies, enveloping a Delta Vision and strategies that make it possible to integrate sector plans and policies for the long term and to present actionable interventions with a roadmap for realization.
With our people’s support, we are confident of implementing all these visionary plans.