Interviews

Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed, Professor of International Relations & Director of Centre for Genocide Studies, University of Dhaka

Amidst Political and Humanitarian Predicaments, Bangladesh’s Turning Point in 2018

Could you elaborate upon the diplomacy situation of the Rohingya crisis? Do you believe it is a diplomatic success or failure?
It is too early to decide as to whether this is a failure or a success. Until we see the repatriation of these people, we cannot make such prediction. In such cases repatriation also entails that these people are entirely securely situated back to the Rakhine. These people will go back indeed, but the question is when and how long will this take. This exodus is also different from the ones that took place in the 70’s and 90’s, which, save a few thousand, ended with the repatriation of the bulk of them. But this time there is a global recognition that some form of ethnic cleansing, crime against humanity or genocide took place. The repatriation of the Rohingya community must include the right to citizenship with security guaranteed by the state. This time the Rohingya issue is no longer a bilateral issue between Bangladesh and Myanmar, it is an international issue, mainly because of the atrocities committed by the Myanmar military. Pressure is already building on Myanmar to assure that these refugees are not returning to the same situation they were in earlier. Bangladesh certainly cannot forcibly send these people to Myanmar. Myanmar must ensure that the Rohingyas have rights when they return, and this could be done by enacting new laws or ordinance guaranteeing such rights for the Rohingyas, including making explicit the process by which the Rohingyas would be granted citizenship in Myanmar. Also, there is a need for the presence of the UNHCR and other international agencies in places where the Rohingyas would be temporarily ‘camped’ following their repatriation. Only then they would feel secure and would be willing to join in the repatriation.

Bangladesh has developed new relations with a few countries, Turkey being amongst one of them and will this be beneficiary for Bangladesh? What is Turkey’s interest in this case among a few other nations that have expressed?
We have to first look at the current situation from a broader perspective; we are a developing country housing 1.1 million refugees. Furthermore, Bangladesh is now housing the 5th largest refugee population in the world. This crisis has earned the Bangladesh government global recognition and appreciation for handling the situation professionally and efficiently. We had the backings of the European Union and a large number of countries of Asia and Africa after a long time. India abstained though from the vote, and only nine nations voted against our position.
In addition to this global support, we also had the help of some of the countries, including that of Turkey, for socio-historical reasons. The first one being that the Rohingyas are Muslims. One must not forget that the Turks ruled Bengal for 500 years, so they have a historical attachment to the population of this region. Turkey has now emerged as a major Muslim country inclined to increase its influence within the Muslim Ummah. Earlier the Turkish Ottoman Empire was part of a more prominent civilization, which contributed to the building of the Islamic world. The Turkish Ottomans and the Mughals, who were Chagatai Turks, were both Hanafis, and this led to the proliferation and dominance of the Hanafi mazhab (school of thought) in South Asia. Unlike the Hanbalis/Wahhabi/Salafis/Saudis, the Turks have always seen themselves as global players and thus, historically supportive of the Rohingya cause.

“The repatriation of the Rohingya community must include the right to citizenship with security guaranteed by the state. This time the Rohingya issue is no longer a bilateral issue between Bangladesh and Myanmar, it is an international issue, mainly because of the atrocities committed by the Myanmar military. Pressure is already building on Myanmar to assure that these refugees are not returning to the same situation they were in earlier.”

How will Bangladesh be a beneficiary of this attention?
The Father of the Nation had it outlined in seven words: “Friendship towards all and malice towards none.” I think both the society and the state are quite knowledgeable enough to know the consequences or what could result from the Rohingya exodus. Bangladesh has opened itself to all nations, except Israel, for helping the Rohingya refugees. The Prime Minister of Turkey, Binali Yıldırım, has already visited Bangladesh and this visit has succeeded in overcoming the misunderstandings or misgivings between the two countries regarding the war crime trial. By welcoming Turkey’s participation in the Rohingya refugee crisis, Bangladesh has helped bridge the communication deficit between the two countries. Furthermore, Emine Erdoğan, Turkey’s First Lady, visited both Myanmar and Bangladesh several times. I recall her speech at a conference in Istanbul where she was moved to tears when speaking about the plight of the Rohingyas in the Arakan province of Myanmar. If nothing else, this awareness created space for better communication between the two countries.

With the citizen registration or the Assam population, it is estimated that 1.34 million people could be stateless and moved into Bangladesh. Should this be a growing concern for our nation?
I do not think that this a matter that concerns us gravely. This decision is part of BJP’s politics for years and India’s domestic politics. The bulk of the Bengalis residing in India’s north-east are from West Bengal, a fact that is known to both India and Bangladesh. Our per capita income is much bigger than those of the north-eastern states of India, in specific categories of the Human Development Index Bangladesh is in a much better position than India’s. So, whatever economic gains one would attain in earlier times by crossing the border to India is no longer there. Mamata Banerjee has also made it clear that she will side with the Bengalis in the north-east region. It is a domestic issue of India, and not something between India and Bangladesh. At the same time, however, we should remain alert to the situation, but it is evident that India has the matter under control.

The US has expressed this keen interest in helping Bangladesh with regional safety issues. For example, the rise is extremism which is recently happening. What measures do you expect from the country in 2018?
This issue is primarily a matter of having a negative image. If you look at the 2017 World Terrorism Index, we are not even in the first 20; whereas three South Asian countries are in the first 10. Afghanistan is third, Pakistan is fifth, India is eighth, and Bangladesh is 21st; we are even behind Thailand and the Philippines.
However, you never see anyone saying that they are not going to visit Bangkok. The subtext behind Dhaka is very different. We have neighboring countries that are competing for investments, and the negative image could redirect such investments to newer locations. We have to overcome this dystopian image. Even if you look at the US, it is far more violent and the number of civilians being killed by firearms is much higher. This was evident at a recent concert in Las Vegas, but you do not see the city stopping its every function or the public insisting that they will not visit. What has happened in Gulshan’s Holey Artisan is incredibly tragic, but one or two such incidents are making Bangladesh ‘unsafe’ is not fair. We also do not know how to handle terror attacks. For example, the police checkpoints at the entrance of Gulshan are not the answer. We are in the age of globalization and technology. In fact, we are in the age of iWar where ‘checkpoints’ have to be built not on the roads and highways but in the cyberspace.
I recall going to Ankara 48 hours after a massive terrorist attack in their downtown region, killing nearly 300 people. I was expecting the conference to be canceled however my hosts, primarily officials working in security think-tanks, informed me that they were ready and the city was functioning. Their logic was that counterterrorism is about “not letting the enemy know where you are.” The police checkpoints and other physical security measures make the ‘terrorists’ know exactly what to do! We should focus on the safety of the population without intimidating them. Our government has a deficit in this regard, and it must take better measures to safeguard the population at the local or street level. The most definitive example of this is London. The city has experienced many attacks but remains the most-visited in the world. If you are going to project a negative image of yourself, you are further inflating the idea of insecurity. It is the time that we start welcoming people from other countries and provide them some of the lessons that we have learned over the years in dealing with some of the problems facing the world. The work of our NGOs, particularly in empowering women, for instance, is commendable and a model that can be replicated elsewhere. Unfortunately, such good practices never get highlighted or made into a foreign policy tool by the government.

You said countering terrorism is not acknowledging it and image. Are there any other solutions that you would propose for this image?
I have stated this for years; you need to make the country festival-friendly. We should not limit the festivities to the winter months. Bangladesh is the seventh largest nation in the world, literally a cultural powerhouse of 160 million people. Once you expand the cultural practices within and beyond the cities and make them regular your streets, and eventually the country become safer and more open. You have a better nation when you give people a creative outlet catered to their own culture; it provides them recreation, purpose, and identity. An example of this is the month of Ramadan. You will see the roads of old Dhaka teeming with people who are there to eat sehri at dawn. Hundreds and thousands of people are out in an unusual time and safety, or ‘insecurity’ is not an issue. I am sure you will also see that the level of crime during the month of Ramadan, particularly in Dhaka, decreases. The way is to have faith in the people, bring them to the streets, colorfully, in a festival mood every month. Then I believe we will be able to counter intolerance and terrorism more efficiently.

The previous election years were ones that changed the course of the nation. What are your predictions for the upcoming election?
Two can easily be flagged. One, all parties will participate in the coming national election. And, I guess, because of this, the world, including some of our neighboring countries, will be looking at the election very closely. Unlike the last election, this time all the major powers will keep a distance from the election. Participation by all the parties will also result in a substantial turnout of voters on the election day.
Two, there will be more intra-party than inter-party contestation and violence. There may be several candidates from the same party. And each of these parties must decide who they will choose to represent them. It is too early to say how this will play in politics. But I think within the next four or five months we will know. The nomination will start getting fixed by that time. Indeed, we will know what kind of conflicts there will be and how each party will handle them. So a big task for the political parties this time will be how to have a single candidate who can lead the party to victory and get the maximum support from the constituency. But it looks like all the political parties are aware and have started working on that.

Previous elections have led to inconsistencies in the GDP and the DEP. We have graduated with a 7% increase for the first time. How do you think this will change during the election year?
There will not be much of a change. There is an intriguing contradiction that our politics and economics are heading in the opposite direction. Politically, we may have a deficit, but when it comes to economics, we have a surplus. By ‘surplus,’ I mean, 7% growth, which is quite a lot and it is one of the countries now globally recognized as a fast-growing economy, and there is a lot of attention that we see from different countries of the world. It can have a higher growth provided we have a peaceful election, which would certainly attract more significant investments. But then you must be very careful because if that comes about the question would be whether our governance is ready to absorb more significant investments. Our governance is still weak in many respect; we need to work on that. Secondly, there is also an issue with external actors because there is a competition and some of the external actors may think differently and may try to take advantage of it. We need to be watchful about this competition.

Will there be a remarkable shift in the bilateral relations between Bangladesh and its development partners?
I do not believe that it will. For example, our relationship with China should continue and not because this party or that party wants it. This relation has more to do with the size of China’s economy, and it is only 90 kilometers from Bangladesh. We forget that it takes only 2 hours to go to Kunming and this is evident with the number of people traveling between the two countries. The re-rise of China is now apparent, of course, one must keep in mind that in the eighteenth century China was the largest economy in the world. Undivided India, on the other hand, was the second largest. At the same time, suspicions and misgivings between India and China that are portrayed in the media can be nullified when you see the number of Indian students traveling to China. For the first time, more Indian students are going to China for higher studies, particularly in pure sciences, than the UK. Many will tell you that it is because education in China is cost-effective, but given the demand for pure sciences, globally as well as nationally, the quality of science education in China must be commendable. Otherwise, why would so many Indians decide to go to China; this will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the relationship between the two countries in the coming decades.
Finally, the very issue of One Belt One Road (OBOR). Since Bangladesh is a member of OBOR and the latter is nothing less than a Marshall Plan, there is no reason why we should not participate and make best of it. Critics would say that what is the guarantee that we would not end up in a debt trap. But the point is since it is mainly investment in infrastructure, which is so visible, any shortcomings would result from our intellectual limitations and misgovernance. A greater focus ought to be given to rectify the latter. We want bridges, roads, and airports, but other nations will not do these calculations for us. We must see what kind of infrastructure would bring an economic upliftment for the people.
It is not only Bangladesh which is a member and which wants to engage with China. About 60 countries have already joined the OBOR initiative. I am quite sure that India too would devise a plan of its own and take benefits from the OBOR initiative, maybe without officially calling it so! This is because it makes so much economic or business sense, not joining would be to deny the forces of capitalism and globalization. It’s only a matter of time. In fact, such a plan is already there. India and China have a $100 billion trading regime, with China now building a fast-track or bullet train in India. So my argument is that there is no reason why Bangladesh should not go ahead with the kind of relationship that this government already has with China. Infrastructure development will only help the entire region. If we have Padma Bridge or a seaport, for example, neighboring countries will also benefit.

What is your remark regarding political unrest due to the election year?
There will be some public or noisy pronouncements of agitation. Do not take things seriously when you read matters in the newspaper; there’s much more going on behind the scene. I cite Bill Clinton’s famous statement when it comes to political hype, “It’s the economy, stupid!” At the end of the day if you can make a better living standard, if you can bring more significant investment, if you can create opportunities for more profits, people will line up. And that is what I think Bangladesh needs very quickly. Politicians understand this very well because ultimately that is what guarantees them votes when credible and participatory elections are held.

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