Thursday, January 5, 2012

3 Years of Government : Connectivity, transit dominated diplomacy

Govt focused on improving ties with India. 

Regional connectivity, transit to India, fight against terrorism and climate change debate dominated Bangladesh's diplomacy in the past three years of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government.

Even though Hasina tried to focus on a greater role for Bangladesh in the international arena, especially in the global climate change negotiations, Dhaka's diplomacy centred mainly around its closest neighbour India, according to foreign policy analysts.

Hasina braved opposition criticisms in her courageous move to warm up Dhaka's otherwise cold relations with New Delhi. She cracked down on the Indian insurgents using Bangladesh territory for operations in the northeast, arrested their top leaders and handed them over to New Delhi. Her foreign policy advisers also went out of the way to mobilise public opinion in favour of providing India the road transit facilities New Delhi has been asking for since Bangladesh's independence in 1971.

Bangladesh has yet to give India full-fledged road transit facilities, but it has already been allowed to tranship goods from West Bengal to Tripura by using both river and land routes. Providing transhipment facilities to India without charging any extra fees has sparked criticisms even from those who favour boosting road and railway connectivity with India.

Hasina went ahead with improving ties with New Delhi amid criticisms that Dhaka's friendly overtures have not always been reciprocated by it.

India's decision to allow duty-free access for Bangladeshi garments, round-the-clock access to Tin Bigha corridor and the signing of $1 billion loan deal were overshadowed by New Delhi's failure to sign a promised deal with Dhaka on the sharing of the Teesta water during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's much-hyped visit to Bangladesh in September last year.

The Indian move to build a dam at Tipaimukh on the Barak river not far from Bangladesh's Sylhet district has triggered more protests in Bangladesh testing the diplomatic nerves of Hasina and her advisers.

Critics say the dam will greatly harm Bangladesh's rivers and ecology, which India denied.
However, not all were lost with India.

Dhaka and New Delhi have signed a landmark land boundary agreement to exchange the enclaves, adversely possessed lands and for demarcation of 6.5 kilometre undemarcated border, problems the two countries have inherited since the British rulers left the sub-continent in 1947. The two countries also signed thousands of pages of documents on strip maps between them.

While Bangladesh forged greater relations with India, its ties with Pakistan, another regional power, has hit the lowest point. There have hardly been any exchange of high-level talks and visits between the two countries in the past three years since Hasina's Awami League-led Grand Alliance came to power in 2009.

In a sign of growing tension, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni used her first meeting with the newly-appointed Pakistani High Commissioner Afrasiab Mehdi Hashmi to ask Islamabad to offer a formal apology to Dhaka for the genocide the Pakistani military committed during the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh. The meeting took place on November 20 last year at the foreign ministry.

The United States has been another major focus of Bangladesh's diplomacy in the past three years.

Even though the removal of Nobel Laureate Prof Muhammad Yunus from his Grameen Bank upset Washington, Hasina's strong policy of zero-tolerance for terrorism earned her appreciation from the western powers.

Hasina still needs to work hard to heal the bruises Dhaka's relations with Washington have suffered over the Yunus issue. Diplomatic circles here say US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is delaying her trip to Dhaka because of Dhaka's maltreatment of Yunus, a recipient of America's highest civilian honour.

The foreign ministry has so far failed in its efforts to arrange a bilateral meeting between Hasina and US President Barack Obama. In her recent meeting with Dipu Moni, the US secretary of state urged Bangladesh to ensure that the media and NGOs are allowed to work freely.

On multilateral plane, Bangladesh was elected to different important bodies in the UN system, including the Human Rights Council and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

Dhaka has also been at the centre of the global negotiations on climate change and its impact on the disaster-prone countries. Vulnerable to global warming, Bangladesh has been active in pushing the developed nations to create the climate fund and disburse the money so that countries like it can cope with the change.

Dhaka's role in UN peacekeeping continued to be appreciated.

Regionally, Bangladesh's dispute with Myanmar on the Rohingya refugee issue has remained unresolved even though Dhaka's diplomats are hoping for an early solution following Hasina's recent visit to that country.

Dhaka has also moved for international arbitration on its maritime boundary disputes with India and Myanmar.

The foreign ministry deserves credit for the repatriation of thousands of Bangladeshis from Libya at the start of the anti-Gaddafi protests. But Dhaka, according to diplomatic observers, has made little progress in expanding the manpower market in the Middle East, the traditional destination of its manpower, and Malaysia.

Dipu Moni made over 100 often costly foreign visits in the past three years aiming to strengthen bilateral ties and promote multilateral diplomacy amid doubts over the benefits Bangladesh gained. 

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