From the third dimension 'Tritio Matra' to multiple dimensions

An excellent team made the Bay of Bengal Conversation -- a series of conversations -- a great success

An uninitiated may be forgiven if she/he thought that the Bay of Bengal Conversation, a conference Mr Zillur Rahman, the anchor of Tritio Matra helped organize, was a grand gathering of the alumni of the Tritio Matra under the banner of Centre for Governance Studies, a think-tank. 

At first blush, that's what it looked like. But what made it more than an alumni gathering was the participation of a bevy of high-quality international participants. 

Among the heavyweights was the former president of Serbia, Boris Tadic (2004 – 2012). The former president in his inaugural address chose to address the issue of Kosovo which NATO hastily recognized without the due process of vetting by the United Nations and much to the dismay of Serbia which saw it as a part. 

The precedent was thus set and it unfortunately opened doors for President Putin's intervention in some of the disputed regions of Ukraine. Tadic, a psychologist, also highlighted the importance of education, arguing that 5% of the student population is likely to be very high calibre

; given Bangladesh's 170 million population, this could be a huge asset if properly nurtured. 

The ex-president could be briefed to share his experience of the democratic transition in Serbia following the tragic and brutal period of Milosevic. He could also be queried to shed light on challenges of state capture by big business or of democracy which would be more relevant to the concerns of the Bay of Bengal region.


The conversation or the conference was truly multi-dimensional. It covered a swathe of areas from the challenges of foreign policy and strategic analyses around the Bay of Bengal zone to climate change, the Blue Economy and the fisheries, and the South Asian identity. 

Lessons of Covid-19 response were not forgotten either. The Russia-Ukraine war came up, as did the plausibility of the China-Taiwan confrontation. In a session that could be called “a night of the generals” two former lieutenant generals of Bangladesh and India respectively, and other high-brass former armed forces officials, speculated on the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and how it would pan out.  

The Indo-Pacific diplomatic theatre occupied several speakers as they speculated on how Bangladesh should position itself in this new diplomatic competition. 

Some speakers spoke thoughtfully and prudently in their brief 5-minute slots, others had to be restrained. Some members of the audience, while pretending to ask questions, delivered mini lectures, despite the approbation of the chairs and moderators.

The Blue Economy was featured in the remarks of Ms Van Nguyen, Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP Bangladesh who highlighted the potential of the Blue Economy for the region as she mentioned that in Vietnam, the Blue Economy accounts for 47% of its GDP, while in Bangladesh and India, its share in the GDP is 3% and 4% respectively. 

The session on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) was a session of high quality and deserves special mention. The brief but highly articulated remarks of Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya were as succinct as they were thoughtful. 

He focused on South-South cooperation as the outcome of the Bay of Bengal conversation and connectivity, which he argued was a global public good. 

The insertion of public good into the conversation and how regional public good adds to global public good added a highly thoughtful and innovative dimension. 

He noted that the institutions were not in short supply. BIMSTEC and BBIN are around but what is lacking is the synergy that would make these multiple intersections work. Trust building is of utmost importance. While brainstorming on regional connectivity, Ali Riaz declared that the SAARC was dead.

Some sessions were of high quality, others less so, as is always the case in international conferences. The true merit of the conference was its mixture of intellectual rigour with the discussion of public issues in lay terms. 

Notable luminaries

Editors of the like of Suhasini Haidar, National Editor and Diplomatic Affairs editor of the Hindu graced the occasion and enlivened the discussions with their sharp interventions. Leading South Asia scholars such as Dr Saira Khan of McGill University, and Professor Christine Fair of Georgetown University interfaced with young scholars of Bangladesh. 

The presence of the ambassadors of the US, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, and Korea, and the High Commissioners of Australia and the United Kingdom added an international flavour to the conference. 

On the whole, it was an impressive event. The remarks of the US ambassador and those of his Japanese counterpart were lessons in the art of public speaking, full of substance, subtlety, and diplomatic nicety. 

Lest we forget, the Japanese ambassador recounted the visit of Bangabandhu to Japan in 1973 to lay the ground for a fruitful and productive diplomatic relationship between Japan and Bangladesh. 

The presence of former diplomats of Pakistan and their fine contributions provided a new dimension. Ambassador Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhury, a former foreign secretary was suave and intellectual. 

Valuable perspectives seasoned with experience were shared by them as well as by their Bangladeshi counterparts such as Touhid Hossain, former Foreign Secretary, and former ambassador Munsi Faiz Ahmad.

Despite the long list of officials -- ministers and the likes of the Bangladesh government in the program, unfortunately, very few of them took the opportunity of public engagement and publicity. They were conspicuous by their absence. It is hard to fathom why public officials will miss a truly public event. Alas, an opportunity to share the achievements of Bangladesh and the challenges the ministers are tasked to tackle was lost.

Some of the top opposition leaders took the podium and turned every question thrown at them into an occasion to peddle their political positions and take a dig at the government, to which no one was present to respond. 

Who's who in Bangladeshi public intellectuals from Debapriya Bhattacharya, Fahmida Khatun, Iqbal Habib, and Nurul Kabir to Asif Nazrul and Ali Riaz were visible on the podium and off the dais to discuss their views on the sideline. 

Seasoned politicians such as Sheikh Shahidul Islam, former minister of education, and young politicians such as Mahjabeen Khaled and Shameem Haider Patwary took the podium to share their perspectives on important subjects such as education, women's empowerment, and climate change respectively. Young politicians such as Mr Junaid Saki were visible mingling with the crowd. 

The corporate sectors had their presence as well. The highly articulated young corporate leaders such as Vidiya Amrit Khan of Desh Garments and Taskeen Ahmed of IFAD autos left their mark.

The audience included veteran Bangladeshi diplomats who were a class by themselves and were restrained only to intervene from the audience. Conversations on the sideline with the likes of former ambassadors Imran Ahmed Chowdhury or Waliur Rahman were illuminating. 

The conference was a blend of the young and the old. The likes of Rani Yan Yan and the veterans such as Rashed K Choudhury left a deep impression on the audience as their interventions were spilled over into discussions off the podium over coffee. 

The audience, which included many luminaries as well as novices, was engaged in conversations with the speakers. 

The food and beverage supplied was more than generous. The high-budget conversation sparkled with a brilliant performance of Mehreen and a stand-up comedian from India; Papa CJ, the Oxford-educated comedian, also deliberated on a session of culture. 

Mr Zillur Rahman, the main organizer, not only chaired some of the important sessions but was visible everywhere.  

With amazing organizational skills, Zillur Rahman was ably assisted by his wife, Fahmida Haq who ensured that everything went well. An excellent team of assistants made the Bay of Bengal Conversation -- a series of conversations -- a great success. The conversation ended with the announcement of the 2nd Bay of Bengal Conversation in October 2023.

Habibul Haque Khondker is a professor of Sociology at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi.