South Asian Leaders in Bangladesh: A New Diplomatic Outreach?

Bangladesh observed its Golden Jubilee of Independence and the birth centenary of Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, on 17-26 March 2021, where world leaders have made their remarkable presence through their virtual and physical participation in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic. 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 a new avenue of diplomacy. Other global leadershave sent their valued remarks and congratulatory messages.What does this participation of world leaders mean for Bangladesh’s diplomacy? Undoubtedly, new opportunities for Bangladesh have been created through this festivity which may be called ‘diplomacy of festivity.’This festivity has contributed to strengthening Bangladesh’s diplomacy at bilateral andmultilaterallevels and showcase a country that has transformed from a test case of international development to development success. Bangladesh as a host nation has benefited from such kind oflarge-scale diplomatic gestures and overtures.

The concrete outcomes of the visits of South Asian leaders may be observed in the signing of a host of memorandum of understandings (MoUs), bilateral summits, joint statements and congratulatory messages. To begin with, Bangladesh and Bhutan, both the countries have agreed to explore a possible railway network between the two countries through recently launched India’s Chilahati-Haldibari railway connection. 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 Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih highly appreciated the leadership of Bangabandhu and also congratulated Bangladesh for the remarkable economic prosperity that the country has achieved over the past decade. The Maldivian president 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 the development of a Blue Economy. President Solih commended Bangladeshi migrants in the Maldives as one of the biggest expatriate workforces in the country and recognized their contribution to Maldives’ socio-economic development.

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 first of his foreign trip during 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 his special op-ed in The Daily Star, speculated on what would have been the picture of South Asia if Bangabandhu were alive. In his all deliberations, Modi expressed a high degree of optimism about the future of Bangladesh-India relations emphasizing multidimensionality and 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 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 the 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 President Bidya Devi Bhandari of Nepal hailed Bangladesh’s development as a fitting tribute to Bangabandhu’s contributions to the nation-building process of Bangladesh. Nepal and Bangladesh have signed four bilateral instruments as Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) on Tourism Cooperation, sanitary and phytosanitary cooperation, cultural exchange programme, 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 recognise Bangladesh after independence. Finally, the Sri Lankan premier Mahinda Rajapaksa deeply appreciated the development of Bangladesh. He mentioned that the relations between the two countries are rooted back to millenniums and highlighted that Sri Lanka was also one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Bangladesh after independence. 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 in terms of its diplomatic outreach that would certainly generate new diplomatic momentum for this emerging South Asian power. First, the festivity has further internationalized the glorious history of Bangladeshin the world as a nation that achieved its independence through a guerilla war where three million martyrs sacrificed their lives, two hundred thousand women were violated in their valiant War of Liberation. 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 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 India-Myanmar-Thailand highway project. Fifth, these events have been an occasion of powerful display of ‘cultural diplomacy’ of Bangladesh. Finally, Bangladesh has shown the world a contrast of Myanmar, a country that has been isolated from the world due to the recent military coup and genocide against the Rohingyas. 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 geopolitical and geostrategic dynamics in the Bay of Bengal region. 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 conclusion, this commemorative eventhas shown a proactive diplomatic engagement of Bangladesh in the region and beyond.It is also a vindication of the continuation of the 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 geopolitical 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 recognized by the United Nations.

Delwar Hossain
Delwar Hossain
Delwar Hossain, PhD is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and Director, East Asia Center, University of Dhaka.