On the verge of celebrating its silver jubilee as an independent nation, Bangladesh has seen many changes, reached milestones in reducing poverty, improving healthcare and education, and empowering of women.Â A feather in Bangladeshâ€™s cap is itsÂ pioneering role in the formation ofÂ SAARC, the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation. Some of the core issues of SAARC include regional connectivity, bilateral trade and border securityÂ in theÂ South Asian region.Â There isÂ still a long way to go, especially withÂ two neighboring nuclear powers competing for influence and the region experiencing a refugee crisis.
BangladeshÂ has beenÂ successful inÂ facingÂ many challengesÂ such asÂ settlingÂ disputes in the Chittagong HillÂ Tracts.Â HoweverÂ the problem remains in dealing with the prolonged crisis of theÂ Rohingya refugees, victims of atrocities inÂ theÂ Rakhine state of Myanmar.Â The fate and status of thisÂ minority Muslim community living in Bangladesh as refugeesÂ is the most criticalÂ problem inÂ Bangladesh-Myanmar relations.
Dr. Maimul Ahsan Khan, professor of law currently teaching Jurisprudence and Law of International Institutions at the University of Dhaka,Â aired theseÂ opinions duringÂ an interviewÂ withÂ the international online news portal South Asian Monitor (www.southasianmonitor.com). Dr. Maimul Ahsan Khan is specialized in jurisprudence, Islamic law, political science, human rights, Middle Eastern, South Asian and Oriental studies. Khan taught at the University of Illinois-UIUC, the University of California-Davis and Berkeley and the Technical University of Liberec-Czech Republic. He has served as a Fulbright Fellow at the College of Law in University of Illinois-UC.Â HeÂ spoke on the strategic relationship of Bangladesh with China and India. Kamruzzaman Bablu interviewed Dr. Khan from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
SAM:Â There has been an increase in theÂ exodus of the Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh following the killing, rape and arsonÂ by the Myanmar army and hardliner Buddhists.Â However,Â Bangladesh is notÂ prepared to take them inÂ as refugeesÂ andÂ provideÂ shelter.Â As it is, aÂ good number of Rohingya have already taken shelter in Bangladesh. In this context, some are in favor ofÂ offering refuge to theÂ Rohingyaâ€™sÂ while the others oppose. What do you think?
Khan:Â The first questionÂ isÂ whetherÂ itÂ isÂ merely harmful for the Rohingyaâ€™sÂ or alsoÂ aÂ great lossÂ ofÂ credibility for Bangladesh? The issue should be considered fromÂ internationalÂ andÂ nationalÂ perspectives.Â InÂ theÂ globalÂ village we are in today, thisÂ invokesÂ many questions that require some realistic answers and solutions.
The issuesÂ areÂ related to ethnic-religious relationsÂ betweenÂ Rohingya Muslims andÂ Muslims of Bengal, a sharedÂ history of about one millennium.Â Ethnic tension between state-sponsored terrorists and peacefulÂ civilians in MyanmarÂ has beenÂ repeatedly occurringÂ forÂ decades. Rohingya MuslimsÂ areÂ oftenÂ deemedÂ as bandit groups,Â attacked byÂ the MaghÂ Buddhists who were not supposed to be engaged in such a whole scale brutality against innocent people living more than five hundred years in their vicinity as fellow-citizens.Â AsÂ aÂ sovereignÂ neighbor, how have we, along withÂ numerous human rights organizationsÂ andÂ groups,Â been tolerating these crimes against humanity?Â In fact, thereÂ isÂ every reason to consider these heinous andÂ widespreadÂ atrocities as war crimes. There is a popularÂ saying, â€œwinners haveÂ a thousandÂ mothers and losers have noneâ€.
SAM:Â Does it mean that Bangladesh has been marked as a weak and ineffective country before the world for its failure to assist the ousted Rohingya Muslims as refugees?
Khan:Â It does not indicate anything directly about the status and prospect of our ownÂ statehood. However, it demonstrates the lack of capability of our governmental machineries when it comes toÂ displayÂ respect for our own public opinion and concerned international communities. Our governmental approach can be considered as immature or rather shortsighted when it comes to addressing the hopes and aspirations of our people and international communities. Bangladesh is considering the Rohingya issue once asÂ aÂ burden, another time asÂ aÂ problemÂ thatÂ could flare up in an unmanageable magnitude. The tragic eventsÂ areÂ directly and indirectly revisiting us with a terrible picture of ethnicÂ cleansingÂ at our doorsteps, and we have been failing to address those in any responsible manner that match our image asÂ anÂ emerging tiger inÂ theÂ South Asian region.
Sometimes it is argued that we have not signed any treaty or international legal instruments or documents on this. This is totally nonsense. In such a grave circumstance, we do not need to put emphasis on the legal texts. We need to see what we can do to rescue the lives of human beings irrespective of race, religion, and gender.
SAM:Â How doÂ you think other powerful countries in Asia, especially India, will reactÂ if BangladeshÂ decides toÂ protect Rohingya refugees?
Khan:Â A huge multi-ethnic country like India has its own predicaments regarding issues withÂ itsÂ bordering territories. Why does India have to be compassionate to Muslims in Myanmar, especially under the leadership of PM Modi, whoÂ representsÂ Hindu fundamentalists? However, we need to separate his leadership fromÂ a variety of issues of IndiaÂ as aÂ state andÂ itsÂ Muslim community, which has to live up to its own responsibilities and liabilities. Modi or Mamata of West Bengal may or may not be well-wishersÂ ofÂ Bangladesh when it comes to a major regional, humanitarian or religious issueÂ because they have theirÂ ownÂ stakesÂ andÂ constituencies to reckon with.Â We all need to appreciate that in this region of the world we areÂ stillÂ fearful of the creation of a newÂ state entity. For India and Pakistan,Â RohingyasÂ might be reminiscentÂ of the episode of our liberation struggle. ForÂ China,Â it might be the same.
SAM:Â Is the position of India and China sameÂ regardingÂ Bangladesh asÂ both areÂ willing to use Bangladesh for their own interests?
Khan:Â Firstly, look at the unprecedented rise of China in all fronts ofÂ theÂ global stage. Two decades ago many Chinese governmental officials, including theÂ premierÂ orÂ president of China used to say that they would never be a strong rivals of the US as it had accumulated so much powerÂ of every type that was known to the human history. Since 1997 the addition of the concept of Two Economies in One CountryÂ addedÂ a stronger value to the theory ofÂ mainland China. Now the new geopolitical scenarioÂ of global trade and business favorsÂ Beijing. While I had been teaching a course on the possible rise of ChineseÂ economy as a competitor of Japan or United States, with a timid voice I had to compare China with India.Â EvenÂ then I was underÂ direct attackÂ fromÂ my fellowÂ American professors, who believed firmly thatÂ New Delhi hadÂ a much brighter future than Beijing. My disagreement appeared as an insult to their academic prudency, superiority, clarity and comprehensiveness. On the other hand, Shining India could easily overshadow even the prospect ofÂ theÂ revival ofÂ theÂ Japanese economy, which is shrinking day by day in size and performance. The major academic problem with many of our academics and some of the WesternersÂ is that they often argue like politicians rather than far-sighted researchers and innovators.
SAM:Â Bangladesh and China signed 26 deals and MoUsÂ (Memorandums of Understanding) involving $24 billion duringÂ theÂ two-day Bangladesh visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping. How do you evaluateÂ this?
Khan:Â ActuallyÂ 24 billion dollarÂ is nothing for a country like China. The countryâ€™sÂ SilkÂ RoadÂ projectÂ will involveÂ nearlyÂ 18 trillion US dollarsÂ in the coming decades.Â China is the only country in the world that maintains a foreign reserveÂ ofÂ over 3 trillion. Western Chinese citiesÂ areÂ now directly connected with many European cities, such as London. Londoners can buy even furniture or electronic goods from China viaÂ theÂ Chinese online giant Ali Baba. Chinese willingness and capability to invest one trillion dollarsÂ every year in other economies around the world is anything but a fantasy. InÂ the entire African Continent, no Western companies can beat the companies sponsored by the Chinese government and Chinese business communities. In this backdrop, the 24 billion dollar investment package for Bangladesh is not a great deal at all.Â The problem is that whether we can absorb that money and I am telling you we are completely unprepare and incapable to absorb that kind of fund.
Though India is our nearest and biggest neighbor, our business communities prefer Chinese companies over Indian, which by natureÂ isÂ still reminiscent of the East IndianÂ Company sponsored by the British. India came up withÂ anÂ offer of $2 billion loan and assistance during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2015. This 2 billion dollar is actually nothing in comparisonÂ withÂ the offer made by China. Beijingâ€™sÂ attitude is clear: the size of the joint venture between China and Bangladesh is not aÂ problem and there is no dearth of capital for Bangladesh. It tells India:Â do notÂ be jealous, you can also have 10 to 20Â billion dollars for any joint ventures. Our problem is who would be concernedÂ for our environment protection? As all these capitals are coming here to make quick profit, so our tiny country may turn into aÂ bigÂ junkyard of India or China.
SAM:Â Â Â Do you think that China has taken Bangladesh as one of the vital strategic gates to exercise its supremacy in this region as well as in the international arena?
Khan:Â The dynamism of Chinese policy makers and their economy is a miracle. WhatÂ haveÂ they done so far? One study shows thatÂ the amount ofÂ building materials like cementÂ andÂ rodsÂ they have usedÂ within the last few years, isÂ whatever the entire America did within one hundred years. So how huge was theÂ development work? In addition, it has a population of 1.28 billion.Â The size ofÂ theÂ American population is about one-fourth that of China. Now 300 million Chinese can speak in English, the country is ready to provide scholarships to foreigners more than America, Canada, and European Union combined just with a condition that you have to learn Chinese language.
SAM:Â How can Bangladesh earn benefits through tactful diplomatic channels by developing good relations simultaneously with India and China?
Khan:Â There is a theoretical possibility. However, practically we do not see that will materialize. We are still in a very preliminary stage of our diplomatic growth regarding our maneuvering capabilities as a diplomatic power. We have very little maneuvering power.
SAM:Â India barred more than 50 upstream rivers to Bangladesh,Â thus imposing fatal natural calamityÂ onÂ us. However, why do the people of Bangladesh and its politicians fail to be vocal unilaterally on the issue?
Khan:Â Bangladesh is the biggestÂ delta of the world. The countryÂ wasÂ created byÂ the accumulation of siltÂ overÂ thousands of years. That is why it is called the â€œPoliÂ MatiÂ Deshâ€ (land of silt) andÂ theÂ peopleâ€™sÂ mindsetÂ is likeÂ the silt. Once they created Pakistan, then went against Pakistan, and then created Bangladesh. Once 90 percent people supportedÂ Awami League and then 90 percent people supportedÂ BNP. It is may be because of the climatic conditionsÂ of this country.
Now look at Farakka Barrage. If you look at the history,Â theÂ Chanakya and Manu laws of India categorically prohibit even the Brahman (the highest class of Indian people) fromÂ creating any artificial barrier on anything including water, wind and whatever. If somebody does that, it isÂ saidÂ that the person should not come toÂ theÂ temple for worship. It means that even a Brahman becomesÂ unholyÂ if he blocks the flow of water. Therefore, India even has no moral right to continue Farakka Barrage or other dams. However,Â theÂ Bangladeshi people including the narrow-minded and divided politiciansÂ showÂ noÂ signÂ ofÂ unitingÂ against this aggression.
SAM:Â There is a negative attitude fromÂ theÂ Indian sideÂ regardingÂ any development and progressÂ inÂ Bangladesh. During the agreement between Bangladesh and China last November (2016) for purchasing two ChineseÂ submarines,Â the reaction of India was very harsh. How do you considerÂ this?
Khan:Â I think Bangladesh government has no option but to maintain good relations with China. The government had to buy the submarines. If government is unwilling to buy those from China,Â theÂ Chinese may not continue to workÂ on theÂ Padma Bridge project along with all other projects. BangladeshÂ hasÂ fewer options. Now China hasÂ offered aÂ proposal for building a bullet train line from Dhaka toÂ Kunming City of China through Myanmar. From Dhaka toÂ Kunming,Â it will take only two and half hours or maximum three hours.Â At the present, one cannotÂ evenÂ go to ComillaÂ in three hours from Dhaka.Â Dhaka-KunmingÂ connectivity looks very promising on that respect.Â The Chinese may move into healthcare industries both in Bangladesh and in China. Many Bangladeshis travel to India for healthcare purpose andÂ ChinaÂ might invest in this promising sector, promoting a healthy competition between China and India.
SAM:Â Any Chinese project with Bangladesh is being opposed by India from the very beginning. How can Bangladesh overcome such pressureÂ fromÂ India?
Khan:Â Â The Soviet Union used to imposeÂ theirÂ will on Afghanistan, which they ended up invading and paid a terrible price. Then cameÂ theÂ United States andÂ theyÂ fell into same trap. They find itÂ so hard to extricateÂ themselves from that now.Â TheÂ Bangladeshi peopleÂ historicallyÂ have stronger oppositionÂ toÂ any foreign entityÂ imposing their will on their motherland.Â Many Asian countries started far down the ladder when comes to achieving national development. The present day Malaysia was much like Bangladesh.