FOREIGN policy has been an integral element of all nation states since their very emergence centuries ago. Only its manifestation and execution have varied from one state to the other and with changing times, depending on their goals. What, however, has not changed is its declared objective of protecting one’s national self-interest, both perceived and real. The same is, or ought to have been, the case with Bangladesh.
During the early years of our independence, the foreign policy of the new state was driven by external pressures to demonstrate gratitude to the forces that had directly, or indirectly, supported our Liberation War. As a result, we had an Indo-Soviet centric foreign policy. This severely restricted the manoeuvrability of the country’s foreign policy and left us out of the equation with emerging and important global players like China and Saudi Arabia, a status that largely remained unchanged till the political changes of August 1975.
It was only in the mid- seventies that Bangladesh was able to create an independent foreign policy that reflected our geo-political realities, our true economic goals and the aspirations of the vast majority of the country’s population. It was aimed at protecting our national self interest by being more inclusive. Bangladesh regained its sense of dignity and earned the respect of the global community, our economic challenges not withstanding. This found reflection in the depth and dimension of our ties with the Muslim world and the form and content of our relations with China, without seriously compromising our thrust on regional diplomacy and our growing economic and trade ties with the West.
In the Muslim world, the image of Bangladesh was one of a moderator. This was reflected in her role in addressing the issues that most afflicted the member countries of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). Our leading role in the Al Quds Committee dealing with the all important Palestinian question and the efforts to end the fratricidal Iran-Iraq war earned special respect and praise for Bangladesh at home and abroad.
SAARC is a reality
The election of Bangladesh to the UN Security Council in 1978, defeating a power house like Japan, was the ultimate manifestation of the success of that pragmatic, and yet dynamic, nature of the foreign policy of Bangladesh as guided by President Ziaur Rahman. More importantly, the success of our foreign policy made the nation proud as Bangladesh was able to stand with its head high in the comity of nations. In short, Bangladesh had arrived.
On the regional front, President Zia’s concept of institutionalised regional economic cooperation in the highly divided and distrust ridden South Asia was not just bold, it was as much visionary. While it may have had its expected share of initial misgivings and had caught bigger regional players off guard, none could in the end resist it. SAARC is now a South Asian reality.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war had very little impact on the foreign policy of Bangladesh because our ties with the countries of East Europe had been largely marginalised since the mid- seventies.
Those were the glorious days of our foreign policy. It had a ring of pride and dignity around it and a Bangladeshi diplomat felt proud to represent this nascent state.
‘Look East’ policy
The ‘Look East’ policy adopted in 2001 added a new dimension to the country’s foreign policy. Under this dispensation, Bangladesh’s relations with the countries of South East Asia gave our foreign relations a strategic depth that went beyond South Asia.
I thought it was relevant to highlight here the golden days of the foreign policy of Bangladesh to put the prevailing situation in its proper perspective.
Today, things are in reverse. What the average Bangladeshi has been witnessing since the coming to office of the incumbent government is a subservient foreign policy that does nothing to protect our national interest. On the contrary, its sole aim is to appease. What is worse, the whole approach lacks any transparency.
That this was going to be the case was first signalled following the visit of the Bangladesh Prime Minister to New Delhi in January 2010. The contents of the fifty-point joint declaration issued following that visit raised more questions than it answered; even more so because the public in Bangladesh remained in the dark of what was actually agreed upon.
Importantly, what was in the script had very little relations to issues that are of grave importance to Bangladesh, especially, on the sharing of the waters of the common rivers. Being a riverine and irrigation- dependent country, this particular issue has assumed critical importance in Bangladesh following our harrowing experience with the present government’s handling of the Farakka Barrage Project in India from the very beginning and its debilitating impact on the ecology and economy of Bangladesh. Much is being made by the government on the thirty-year Ganges Water Treaty signed in 1996; but the present government does not feel it necessary to argue that the damage already done is irreversible and hence there has to be a sense of urgency in reaching mutually acceptable accords on the other rivers before large chunks of Bangladesh dries up.
The outcome of the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September this year and what has been happening since then has made the degree and extent of this government’s weak-kneed foreign policy all the more glaring. The sixty plus point joint declaration of September 7th is the perfect case in point. As subsequent events have shown, the follow up has been lopsidedly weighed against the interest of Bangladesh. Much hype was created prior to the visit on reaching an agreement, and that too an interim one, on sharing of the waters of the Teesta river.
What happened in the end is now history. It now seems to have entered the realm of uncertainty and periodic government assurances to the contrary are increasingly looking ridiculous. Similarly, disappointments are rife among the residents of the enclaves and protests and hunger strikes there have continued unabated as they feel cheated and deceived. But does the government care? It is too busy facilitating the uninterrupted passage of Indian goods through Bangladesh and without collecting any fees in return. So much was said that the revenue emanating from granting transit to Indian goods would not only mitigate our gaping trade imbalance with our giant neighbour, it would also turn Bangladesh into a Singapore. The reality is there for all to see.
Public umbrage in Bangladesh has been boiling over the sustained killings of Bangladeshis along the border by Indian border guards over the years, made worse by this government’s inaction on this issue. The government was content with denials coming from the Indian side on this, notwithstanding all the evidence that this was actually happening, that people, including young children, were being routinely killed.
It was not until the graphic image of a dead Felani, a 15-year old Bangladeshi girl, hanging from the barbed wire fence that our government woke up to the reality of the situation. But it was already too little too late for Felani, and others like her who have been victims of a failed foreign policy. What a shame!
Mutual benefit and mutual respect are among the fundamentals on which foreign policies are built. Today we have neither. What is even more demeaning for us as a nation is the sight of senior government officials, including and especially relevant Ministers and the all-powerful Advisers, conducting themselves in a manner as if their sole task is to hold the brief for the other side, that they have no responsibility to protect the interests of the people of Bangladesh.
It is indeed hard to imagine that the pride, dignity and interests of a people who did not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for a language and a country they could call their own are being bargained off with such impunity, all for the sake of appeasing a powerful neighbour. But that is exactly what is happening today.
The title of a recent book by a Bangladeshi residing in the United States, critical of the prevailing situation, “You can be sold yourself, but do not sell my Country” captures the true depth of the anger and frustration of the people of this country today.
This is not what we bargained for.
BY : Shamsher M. Chowdhury, Bir Bikram.