What was the outcome of Bangladesh’s golden jubilee celebrations?
The physical and virtual participation of world leaders in the 10-day program entitled “the Eternal Mujib” celebrating the birth centenary of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the golden jubilee of independence has considerable diplomatic implications for Bangladesh. We do not usually see so many leaders together without a regional or international conference. This time Bangladesh has made a new history.
The arrival of five South Asian leaders, including India, in Bangladesh and the virtual participation of many world leaders has created multifaceted opportunities for the country. Other global leaders have sent their valued remarks and congratulatory messages.
What are the key outcomes of these events in the diplomatic arena of Bangladesh? Termed as a “diplomacy of festivity,” undeniably, new opportunities for Bangladesh have been created through this festivity. This festivity has not only contributed to strengthen Bangladesh’s diplomacy at bilateral and multilateral levels, but also produced legal instruments in the forms of memoranda of understandings (MoUs) and joint statements with some South Asian countries -- Bhutan, India, and Sri Lanka.
Covering a wide range of issues from trade to connectivity, these documents have expanded the existing partnerships with these countries. Besides, the virtual participation of global powers and major actors in international relations enhanced their diplomatic understanding and mutual cooperation with Bangladesh. Bangladesh as a host nation has fully benefited from such large-scale diplomatic gestures and overtures.
The concrete outcomes of the visits of South Asian leaders may be summarized in this context. To begin with Bhutan, the visiting Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering made an extraordinary remark by saying that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has given Bangladesh a very good story to share with the world. Tshering extended his gesture: “I am so proud today that I got to sit next to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and listen to this story.”
Bangladesh and Bhutan have agreed to explore a possible railway network between the two countries through recently launched India’s Chilahati-Haldibari railway connection. Both the countries have also agreed to examine the matter to establish railway network between Bangladesh and Bhutan. The two prime ministers also agreed to examine the possibility of establishing cargo flight communication connecting Bhutanese town Gelephu and Bangladesh’s Lalmonirhat and Saidpur.
The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh on the occasion deserves extraordinary significance for both the countries. The presence of the Indian prime minister in Bangladesh as the first of his foreign trips during the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates recognition of the great value of bilateral relations and the imperative of its further improvement for the mutual benefit of both sides.
In his long speech at National Parade Square, Modi spoke of the fraternal relations between the two countries that also reached the 50-year mark, and praised the leadership of Bangabandhu in forging the new nation of Bangladesh. Before coming to Bangladesh, Prime Minister Modi conferred Bangabandhu with the Gandhi Peace Prize 2020. He also mentioned how the countries worked together and supported each other during the global Covid-19 pandemic, further entrenching the bonds of friendship between the two nations.
The contribution of the Indian government and its people to the Liberation War of Bangladesh, and the sacrifice of their army during the war also featured in the deliberations. PM Modi in an op-ed speculated on what would have been the picture of South Asia if Bangabandhu were alive. Modi expressed a high degree of optimism about the future of Bangladesh-India relations, emphasizing multi-dimensionality and a win-win framework. He also stressed upon the fact that both Bangladesh and India could learn from past failures, just as there is a lot to celebrate from our past successes.
What is extremely significant in his approach is that he pragmatically highlighted that no time should be wasted in removing the irritants that still plague bilateral relations which, given the determination of both the leaders, should not take much time to overcome. Bangladesh and India signed five MoUs in different areas and inaugurated cultural and development projects between the two nations.
The visits of Prime Minister Modi to Tungipara Bangabandhu Mausoleum, Hindu religious places in Orakandi, Gopalganj, and Satkhira show a new level of cultural linkages between the two countries. Another aspect of Hasina-Modi summit is that the Bangladesh Prime Minister took the opportunity to raise unresolved and thorny issues between the two countries despite strategic and development partnership.
Prime Minister Hasina raised the issues such as signing of the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement, killings of Bangladeshis on the border, increasing exports of Bangladesh, and the Rohingya crisis in a friendly atmosphere.
The Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih highly appreciated the leadership of Bangabandhu. In his view: “Bangabandhu is one of the giants of South Asian history, whose actions were pivotal in securing an independent destiny for the people of Bangladesh.” President Solih referred to values and norms cherished by Bangabandhu.
He noted Bangabandhu’s six-point program and the historic March 7 speech for understanding Bangabandhu’s contribution to Bangladesh and global humanity. He also congratulated Bangladesh for the remarkable economic prosperity that Bangladesh has achieved over the past decade.
The Maldivian president called Bangladesh-Maldives cooperation “extensive” adding “we rely on your support for human resource development in various fields, in particular health and medicine.” He emphasized the issue of climate change for both the nations as low-lying countries in the Indian Ocean.
He did not forget to acknowledge the leading role of Bangladesh in the Climate Vulnerable Forum and development of a blue economy. President Solih commended Bangladeshi migrants in Maldives as one of the biggest expatriate workforces in the country and recognized their contribution to the socio-economic development of Maldives.
President Bidya Devi Bhandari of Nepal called Bangabandhu “an excellent orator, organizer, and crusader, Bangabandhu won the hearts and minds of the people of Bangladesh and attained the goal of creating a new nation. He is a revered leader of this region.” Hailing Bangladesh’s development as a fitting tribute to Bangabandhu’s contributions to the nation-building process of Bangladesh, she remembered his personality and achievements as “a charismatic leader, person of determination and courage, and a stout freedom fighter.”
Nepal and Bangladesh have signed four bilateral instruments as MoUs on tourism cooperation, sanitary and phytosanitary cooperation, cultural exchange program, and letter of exchange to designate Rohanpur-Singabad railway route as an additional transit route.
The Nepalese president also noted that her country was one of the first to recognize Bangladesh after independence.
Finally, the Sri Lankan premier Mahinda Rajapaksa stated: “Bangabandhu was a person of principle who dedicated his entire life for the Bangali people, their language and their wellbeing.” He deeply appreciated the development of Bangladesh. He mentioned that the relations between the two countries are rooted back millennia and highlighted that Sri Lanka was also one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Bangladesh after independence.
The Sri Lankan prime minister termed the Rohingya crisis as a serious issue and assured that his country would remain beside Bangladesh in resolving the crisis. Six MoUs have also been signed with Sri Lanka to enhance cooperation in various fields including youth development, agriculture, and technical education. Based on the legal instruments signed with five South Asian countries and remarks of all state leaders who joined the events, Bangladesh has unveiled an outstanding occasion for diplomatic outreach.
This “diplomacy of festivity” achieved a number of tangible and intangible national interests of Bangladesh that would certainly generate a new momentum in bilateral, regional, and global spheres.
Diplomacy of festivity
First, the festivity has further internationalized the glorious history of Bangladesh through Bangabandhu and the valiant struggle of the Bangalis. Leaders of the nations remembered the contribution of Bangabandhu as a global leader of humanity.
Second, the events have enhanced the image of Bangladesh in the region and beyond. It has turned into a great occasion to showcase Bangladesh’s development, historical achievements, and cultural heritage. There cannot be any occasion other than the birth centenary of Bangabandhu and golden jubilee of independence to uplift the image of Bangladesh to the wider world.
Third, the occasion has further cemented Bangladesh’s relations with South Asia as an example of a contemporary success story in economic, social, and diplomatic domains. Bangladesh as the second largest economy in South Asia has enhanced its position as a regional leader for advancing the causes of peace, security, and development.
Fourth, as far as relations with India are concerned, Bangladesh has fully utilized the events to focus on the existing areas of cooperation and to raise bilateral issues such as Teesta Water Sharing Agreement, border killings, the Rohingya crisis, trade barriers, and speedy disbursement of line of credit. Bangladesh also stressed upon the issue of sub-regional trade and connectivity, including interest to join the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway project.
Fifth, these events have been an occasion of powerful display of cultural diplomacy of Bangladesh. It may be argued that cultural diplomacy is a significant foreign policy instrument to advance national interests of Bangladesh in the region and other parts of the world.
Finally, Bangladesh has shown the world a contrasting image of Myanmar, a country that has been isolated from the world due to the recent military coup and genocide against the Rohingya. Bangladesh is an example of peaceful and cooperative diplomacy in the region despite having an opportunity to play a vicious zero sum game in the backdrop of geo-political and geo-strategic dynamics in the Bay of Bengal region.
Myanmar’s power politics
On the other hand, Myanmar has been fueling polarization and power politics in the region with its domestic political instability and enduring intrastate conflicts. In the conclusion, this commemorative event has advanced the dream of a brighter Bangladesh in the future through a proactive diplomatic engagement in the region and beyond.
It is also a vindication of continuation of diplomatic approach and strategic direction that Bangladesh has been pursuing vis-a-vis the external world over the past decade and more. Bangladesh has successfully blended its diplomatic prowess with the current geo-political environment in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Bay of Bengal region.
The transformation of the newly created diplomatic momentum into policy decisions and their effective implementation would surely benefit the nation in its new journey as a developing country and Sonar Bangla in the longer term.
Commodore MN Absar (Retd) is a security analyst and maritime expert.