In a rare interview, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has been accused of wielding a heavy hand on her opposition, the media, and terror suspects, speaks for the first time about Bangladesh’s troubled ties with Pakistan, and pulling out from the SAARC summit. Ahead of her visit to India this weekend for the BIMSTEC summit, Ms Hasina counselled India and Pakistan to maintain the sanctity of the Line of Control.
Bangladesh was a founder of SAARC in the 1980s, but it has also been one of the first countries to pull out of the summit in Pakistan this year. Is this the end of SAARC?
No, as we said in our official statement on pulling out, we consider that the environment prevailing in the SAARC region at this particular time is not conducive to hold the SAARC summit. Bangladesh has certain sensitivities over the International Crimes Tribunal, where Pakistan showed its dissatisfaction with our processes and even raised the issue in their parliament.
They started interfering in our internal affairs by making unacceptable remarks. We felt hurt by this, as this is an internal matter for us, we are trying war criminals in our country, and it isn’t their concern. There is a lot of pressure on me to cut off all diplomatic ties with Pakistan for their behaviour.
But I have said the relations will remain, and we will have to resolve our problems. The fact is, we won our Liberation War from Pakistan, and they were a defeated force. We won the war and freed the country from them, and it is expected that they won’t take it so well.
Wasn’t terror emanating from Pakistan the main issue for you? The fact that Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan and India pulled out of SAARC at the same time after the Uri attack seemed coordinated, to isolate Pakistan.
It was over the situation in Pakistan that we decided to pull out. The common people are the biggest sufferers of terrorism there. And that terror has gone everywhere, which is why many of us felt frustrated by Pakistan. India and Pakistan also have their bilateral problems, and I don’t want to comment about that. India pulled out because of the [Uri attack], but for Bangladesh the reason is totally different.
Did you support India’s decision to launch a cross-LoC strike into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in order to kill terrorists on the other side?
Well, I do feel that both the countries should maintain the sanctity of the LoC and that can bring peace.
But do you support the principle? Last year the government had also announced that they had crossed over the border to Myanmar in pursuit of terrorists. Would you support a similar action with Bangladesh?
I think you should ask these questions to your government and your Prime Minister. I do believe these boundaries, this LoC must be maintained.
I ask because since you took over as Prime Minister in 2009, the single most important driver in Bangladesh-India ties has been your government’s crackdown on terrorism: Shutting down terror camps, handing over more than 20 most wanted. What does that terror cooperation mean today?
Look, I believe that terror should not be allowed to take root in Bangladesh. Whether it is with India or Myanmar, who we share a border with. Since 2008, the steps we have taken, you can see the results. Along our borders there used to be daily incidents of violence, bomb blasts, terror, and we have controlled that.
We will not allow any group to use our soil to launch a terror attack against any other country. Bangladesh is no longer an exporter of terrorism, nor is it a silk route for arms smuggling as it once was.
I believe that terror should not be allowed to take root in Bangladesh. Whether it is with India or Myanmar
How has the Holey Artisan Bakery terror strike this year changed your war on terror?
Terror is now a global problem, and I’m trying to take some different steps to fight it. I am reaching out to teachers in schools and colleges to spread awareness about it. Next I’m telling parents to watch where their children go, whom they meet.
We are asking clerics in mosques and madrassas to teach that Islam is a religion of peace, and ensure that none speak of violence. With awareness and a social movement against extremism, we can prevent our children from becoming terrorists.
You spoke to the Hindu community here at the Dhakeshwari temple a few days ago about zero tolerance. Why did it take so long to act, given that many of the fundamentalist groups you are targeting now had earlier killed so many Hindus and so many bloggers?
That’s not true. Bangladesh has been the first mover against terror activities. Investigations take time, not just here, but in all countries. But it is not fair to say we have been slow to react to these killings.
Human rights groups say law enforcement agencies are going overboard in this war on terror with custodial killings and disappearances, “kneecapping” terror suspects.
It is very unfortunate that human rights agencies are more vocal for the rights of the criminals than they are for the rights of the victims. What is happening in America? When they have an attack on their schools or anywhere, what do law enforcement agencies there do? Don’t they kill the attackers and rescue people? Should our law enforcement agencies not kill terrorists who attack them?
After the Holey Artisan attack, your government said the groups involved were local and not with the Islamic State. But given that the IS claimed it, the main suspect was trained by it, how do you respond to the charge that you are in denial?
Maybe some of them are attracted to IS, but IS doesn’t have a base here as an organisation. If anyone has any evidence of IS camps here, they should give us that evidence. We have identified the attackers, we know where they are from, and they are local.
There have been calls from around the world to stop the hangings of people charged with collaboration during the War of Liberation from Pakistan at the ICT. Have these hangings, 45 years later, brought any sense of closure for Bangladesh?
Of course they have. After what happened in 1971 -- they massacred civilians, raped more than 200,000 women, burned village after village -- it was a national demand from those who suffered at that time that these people must be tried.
You’re saying this is the people’s demand. Yet elected Jamaat leaders have been hanged or are in jail, many opposition BNP office-bearers are under arrest or have gone abroad to escape prosecution. Aren’t you confusing the war crimes trials with your own political rivalries?
No, it isn’t about my political rivalries. If you believe in freedom, in an independent country, how can you support these anti-liberation leaders? The BNP has patronised the war criminals. The cases against BNP leaders are different, and relate to corruption or crimes committed by them. So if these leaders are not guilty, they should face the trial and not try and flee the country. When I was in opposition, they filed a dozen false cases against me too.
The BNP not only boycotted the 2014 elections, they tried to sabotage them. Their workers torched schools that were polling booths, attacked electoral officers, destroyed buses and trains. In 2015 they held the country to ransom for three months with their terror activities, killed more than 250 people. So they must face the law.
These aren’t political cases, these are criminal cases. When I was in opposition, they filed a dozen false cases against me too.
You brought back democracy to Bangladesh in 1996, yet today you preside over a parliament with no opposition in it. Do you think in the next election you will bring the BNP opposition back into the process?
As far as the BNP is concerned, they decided to boycott the elections. I telephoned Begum Khaleda Zia, but she didn’t take my calls. My father promoted her husband Gen Zia and we knew each other from those times. But she speaks in the worst possible way, and even refused my condolence visit for her son’s death by closing the door on me.
She has ordered her party workers to protest, to carry out acts of violence. As a human being, what else can I do? It’s her fault, her decision to stay out of the elections, and I hope she doesn’t make the same mistake next time. But I won’t allow democracy to be jeopardised by her misdeeds.
Another part of democracy is freedom of the press. Yet the recent arrest of a prominent editor, the new digital laws on defaming the liberation movement, with harsh punishments, send the signal that you are clamping down on the media …
When I came to power we had only one television channel, now we have 23. Who did this? Who allowed hundreds of newspapers to flourish here? And let me ask, if there is no freedom of the press, how come they have the freedom to write that there is no freedom? We arrested the editor (magazine editor Shafik Rahman, who was arrested for sedition) for other crimes. If he has acted against the country, he must face trial. Otherwise Bangladesh has so many editors, how many have been arrested?
Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Bangladesh ahead of his visit to India for the BRICS-BIMSTEC summit which you will also attend, and your ties with China are being watched very closely in India. Despite the opening of ties, why does trade with India lag so far behind trade with China?
Actually our bilateral trade has improved a lot, especially after India gave us duty free, quota free access (2007-08). In the past, we bought our food grains from India, but now we are self-sufficient, so that is one reason, perhaps, for trade being lower. But we have a lot of capital goods, machinery, cotton, now coming from India. Our relationship is good and will continue to grow.
With neighbouring countries we may have many problems, but I believe it can always be solved. India and Bangladesh have done it, like we agreed to a Ganges Water Treaty
But bilateral trade at $6-7 billion is behind trade with China ...
It depends on the private sector, where they want to buy goods from. Bangladesh has also been quite vocal about the huge trade imbalance between our two countries and removal of trade barriers, which is going on in phases. We also plan for the establishment of Indian SEZs at Mongla and Bheramara that would increase the FDI flow into Bangladesh and narrow the trade gap.
China is Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner, it is its biggest defence partner, Bangladesh plays a large role in China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Isn’t it a valid concern for India that Bangladesh could become what is known as China’s “string of pearls” in the region?
You spoke of the good relationship between India and Bangladesh. If that is the sentiment, then how can you make the allegation that Bangladesh is inclining more towards China? No. Our policy is very clear. We have good relations with everyone and we want to maintain that. And I believe connectivity is a very large part of good relations.
We have established the BBIN network, and good relations with Bhutan, India, and Nepal as a result. We also have the BCIM economic corridor with China, India, and Myanmar. So we can all join and improve our trade volumes and that means the economic condition of our people will improve. The purchasing power of our people will increase, and who will be the bigger beneficiary of that in our region? India. India is best poised to benefit from the Bangladeshi market. You should realise that.
You will visit India for the BRICS-BIMSTEC summit this week, and then hopefully later this year for a bilateral visit. Tell us what you hope to achieve.
The problem in our region for all of us is almost the same: We have one common enemy, and that is poverty, which we must fight to eradicate. With neighbouring countries we may have many problems, but I believe it can always be solved. India and Bangladesh have done it, like we agreed to a Ganges Water Treaty. As far as BRICS is concerned, we have expectations that BRICS leaders will extend a supporting hand to BIMSTEC with its New Development Bank at affordable terms.
Will you discuss ways of better border management during your visit, since despite the implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement, while the enclaves have been settled, other issues remain, like illegal migration and border firing?
Yes, the LBA was a long-standing problem which we solved after 45 years. So if the big problem has been solved, we can resolve these smaller problems too. As far as border killings are concerned, our border forces on both sides, the BSF and the BGB have agreed to jointly investigate the incidents where BSF personnel have shot and killed innocent Bangladeshi villagers, and the home ministers are discussing this.
A few dots [problems] may remain, but see what a big, extraordinary example we have set for the world by exchanging our people and land so smoothly.
The date for your bilateral visit hasn’t been confirmed yet ... Is that tied to solving the Teesta water-sharing agreement first then?
No, no, it is not conditional on that, even without a state visit, I have come to your country. I had come for the funeral of President Mukherjee’s wife. I rushed as soon as I heard that she passed away, because when I was in exile, in 1975, she did so much for us. During the Liberation War, India did so much for our people, they took care of our refugees, they helped train our freedom fighters. So when you have such close bonds you don’t think about such protocol. To a neighbour’s house, I can go anytime.
Do you think BIMSTEC as a grouping will see progress now that SAARC is in abeyance?
No. SAARC is a South Asian group and is still there. As PM in 1997, I was a founder of BIMSTEC for countries around the Bay of Bengal for economic development. Modiji has been taking this forward and I am grateful to him. But I don’t see one group as a substitute or alternative for another.
Suhasini Haidar is Deputy Resident Editor & Diplomatic Affairs Editor, The Hindu. This article previously appeared in The Hindu.