Australia and Bangladesh: 50 years strong

Australia is proud to count itself as a close friend of Bangladesh

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Today, January 31, Australia and Bangladesh celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations. It was on this day 50 years ago, that Australia’s Foreign Minister Nigel Bowen, announced that Australia had recognized the government led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the government of the new state of Bangladesh. Whilst the announcement was made on January 31, the Australian cabinet made the decision to recognize Bangladesh some days earlier on January 25 itself.

Australia is proud to count itself as a close friend of Bangladesh. Those of us who have had the privilege to work for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are reminded of our close history with Bangladesh and Bengal each time we enter our diplomatic headquarters in Canberra, the RG Casey Building.

As many readers would know, Richard Casey was governor of Bengal from 1944 to 1946. He also served as Australia’s foreign minister and governor general. When he was governor of Bengal, his secretary was James Lawrence Allen, who was an Australian born in British India and spoke Bangla and Urdu. On this day 50 years ago, JL Allen became the head of our inaugural diplomatic mission in an independent Bangladesh. 

Australia was not a passive bystander to the liberation struggle and is proud to be one of the first countries to have recognized Bangladesh’s independence. 

During the liberation struggle, Prime Minister William McMahon wrote to General Yahya Khan four times urging a political settlement based upon negotiation with the Awami League and its leaders, particularly Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The fourth letter was written after Mr McMahon’s meeting with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Washington DC on November 4, 1971. 

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations we commemorate the long and arduous struggle for Bangladesh’s independence. Our thoughts are with all the soldiers, men, women, and children who suffered during the liberation.

I would like to remember the contribution of Dutch-Australian William A S Ouderland, who fought in the Liberation War and was the only foreigner to have been awarded fourth-highest gallantry award, the Bir Pratik, by the Bangladesh government. Ouderland organized and trained the guerrilla fighters of the Mukti Bahini and provided them with food and shelter and medicine. 

I also acknowledge Australian Dr Geoffrey Davis who in 1972, at the request of WHO and International Planned Parenthood Federation, travelled to Bangladesh to support the hundreds of thousands of Birangonas. This is a stark reminder of the scale of the suffering and the civilian cost of the war. 

While we remember the struggle and the fallen, we also take stock of how much has been achieved in these past 50 years and look towards the future. 

When Australia recognized Bangladesh and its government led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Foreign Minister Bowen noted that “…as a country of 75 million people bordering the Indian Ocean, Bangladesh was likely to play an increasingly important part in the affairs of South and South East Asia.” 

Perhaps it would be fair to say that, like so many people at that time, Mr Bowen might have also underestimated Bangladesh. Over the past 50 years Bangladesh has demonstrated that its role in international affairs extends well beyond our shared Indo-Pacific region. 

Bangladesh is a country with an international outlook. It is a major contributor to international peacekeeping efforts and a key voice for countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 

Bangladesh has also achieved extraordinary, sustained economic growth. Trade between Australia and Bangladesh has grown by 550% over the last decade. By 2019-20, our two-way trade in goods and services reached nearly AUD2.6 billion. We want to see mutually beneficial trade continue to grow as our economies recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In September 2021, we signed a new Australia-Bangladesh Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA). Under the TIFA we look forward to exploring how our governments can work together to boost the recovery of the private sector and lead economic growth. We also look forward to welcoming Bangladeshi officials to Australia in February 2022 for the inaugural TIFA joint working group talks, Covid-19 permitting. 

As we celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations, I would particularly like to acknowledge the people-to-people links that have made our relationship so strong, warm, and enduring. As Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison noted in his message today: “With such enormous goodwill between us, I hold much hope for the years ahead.”

Jeremy Bruer is the Australian High Commissioner to Bangladesh.

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