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. A feather in Bangladesh’s cap is its pioneering role in the formation of SAARC, the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation. Some of the core issues of SAARC include regional connectivity, bilateral trade and border security in the South Asian region. There is still a long way to go, especially with two neighboring nuclear powers competing for influence and the region experiencing a refugee crisis.
Bangladesh has been successful in facing many challenges such as settling disputes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. However the problem remains in dealing with the prolonged crisis of the Rohingya refugees, victims of atrocities in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. The fate and status of this minority Muslim community living in Bangladesh as refugees is the most critical problem in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations.
Dr. Maimul Ahsan Khan, professor of law currently teaching Jurisprudence and Law of International Institutions at the University of Dhaka, aired these opinions during an interview with 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. He spoke on the strategic relationship of Bangladesh with China and India. Kamruzzaman Bablu interviewed Dr. Khan from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
SAM: There has been an increase in the exodus of the Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh following the killing, rape and arson by the Myanmar army and hardliner Buddhists. However, Bangladesh is not prepared to take them in as refugees and provide shelter. As it is, a good number of Rohingya have already taken shelter in Bangladesh. In this context, some are in favor of offering refuge to the Rohingya’s while the others oppose. What do you think?
Khan: The first question is whether it is merely harmful for the Rohingya’s or also a great loss of credibility for Bangladesh? The issue should be considered from international and national perspectives. In the global village we are in today, this invokes many questions that require some realistic answers and solutions.
The issues are related to ethnic-religious relations between Rohingya Muslims and Muslims of Bengal, a shared history of about one millennium. Ethnic tension between state-sponsored terrorists and peaceful civilians in Myanmar has been repeatedly occurring for decades. Rohingya Muslims are often deemed as bandit groups, attacked by the Magh 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. As a sovereign neighbor, how have we, along with numerous human rights organizations and groups, been tolerating these crimes against humanity? In fact, there is every reason to consider these heinous and widespread atrocities as war crimes. There is a popular saying, “winners have a thousand mothers and losers have none”.
SAM: 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: It does not indicate anything directly about the status and prospect of our own statehood. However, it demonstrates the lack of capability of our governmental machineries when it comes to display 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 as a burden, another time as a problem that could flare up in an unmanageable magnitude. The tragic events are directly and indirectly revisiting us with a terrible picture of ethnic cleansing at our doorsteps, and we have been failing to address those in any responsible manner that match our image as an emerging tiger in the 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: How do you think other powerful countries in Asia, especially India, will react if Bangladesh decides to protect Rohingya refugees?
Khan: A huge multi-ethnic country like India has its own predicaments regarding issues with its bordering territories. Why does India have to be compassionate to Muslims in Myanmar, especially under the leadership of PM Modi, who represents Hindu fundamentalists? However, we need to separate his leadership from a variety of issues of India as a state and its 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-wishers of Bangladesh when it comes to a major regional, humanitarian or religious issue because they have their own stakes and constituencies to reckon with. We all need to appreciate that in this region of the world we are still fearful of the creation of a new state entity. For India and Pakistan, Rohingyas might be reminiscent of the episode of our liberation struggle. For China, it might be the same.
SAM: Is the position of India and China same regarding Bangladesh as both are willing to use Bangladesh for their own interests?
Khan: Firstly, look at the unprecedented rise of China in all fronts of the global stage. Two decades ago many Chinese governmental officials, including the premier or president of China used to say that they would never be a strong rivals of the US as it had accumulated so much power of every type that was known to the human history. Since 1997 the addition of the concept of Two Economies in One Country added a stronger value to the theory of mainland China. Now the new geopolitical scenario of global trade and business favors Beijing. While I had been teaching a course on the possible rise of Chinese economy as a competitor of Japan or United States, with a timid voice I had to compare China with India. Even then I was under direct attack from my fellow American professors, who believed firmly that New Delhi had 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 of the revival of the 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 Westerners is that they often argue like politicians rather than far-sighted researchers and innovators.
SAM: Bangladesh and China signed 26 deals and MoUs (Memorandums of Understanding) involving $24 billion during the two-day Bangladesh visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping. How do you evaluate this?
Khan: Actually 24 billion dollar is nothing for a country like China. The country’s Silk Road project will involve nearly 18 trillion US dollars in the coming decades. China is the only country in the world that maintains a foreign reserve of over 3 trillion. Western Chinese cities are now directly connected with many European cities, such as London. Londoners can buy even furniture or electronic goods from China via the Chinese online giant Ali Baba. Chinese willingness and capability to invest one trillion dollars every year in other economies around the world is anything but a fantasy. In 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. 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 nature is still reminiscent of the East Indian Company sponsored by the British. India came up with an 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 comparison with the offer made by China. Beijing’s attitude is clear: the size of the joint venture between China and Bangladesh is not a problem and there is no dearth of capital for Bangladesh. It tells India: do not be jealous, you can also have 10 to 20 billion dollars for any joint ventures. Our problem is who would be concerned for our environment protection? As all these capitals are coming here to make quick profit, so our tiny country may turn into a big junkyard of India or China.
SAM: 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: The dynamism of Chinese policy makers and their economy is a miracle. What have they done so far? One study shows that the amount of building materials like cement and rods they have used within the last few years, is whatever the entire America did within one hundred years. So how huge was the development work? In addition, it has a population of 1.28 billion. The size of the 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: How can Bangladesh earn benefits through tactful diplomatic channels by developing good relations simultaneously with India and China?
Khan: 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: India barred more than 50 upstream rivers to Bangladesh, thus imposing fatal natural calamity on us. However, why do the people of Bangladesh and its politicians fail to be vocal unilaterally on the issue?
Khan: Bangladesh is the biggest delta of the world. The country was created by the accumulation of silt over thousands of years. That is why it is called the “Poli Mati Desh” (land of silt) and the people’s mindset is like the silt. Once they created Pakistan, then went against Pakistan, and then created Bangladesh. Once 90 percent people supported Awami League and then 90 percent people supported BNP. It is may be because of the climatic conditions of this country.
Now look at Farakka Barrage. If you look at the history, the Chanakya and Manu laws of India categorically prohibit even the Brahman (the highest class of Indian people) from creating any artificial barrier on anything including water, wind and whatever. If somebody does that, it is said that the person should not come to the temple for worship. It means that even a Brahman becomes unholy if he blocks the flow of water. Therefore, India even has no moral right to continue Farakka Barrage or other dams. However, the Bangladeshi people including the narrow-minded and divided politicians show no sign of uniting against this aggression.
SAM: There is a negative attitude from the Indian side regarding any development and progress in Bangladesh. During the agreement between Bangladesh and China last November (2016) for purchasing two Chinese submarines, the reaction of India was very harsh. How do you consider this?
Khan: 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, the Chinese may not continue to work on the Padma Bridge project along with all other projects. Bangladesh has fewer options. Now China has offered a proposal for building a bullet train line from Dhaka to Kunming City of China through Myanmar. From Dhaka to Kunming, it will take only two and half hours or maximum three hours. At the present, one cannot even go to Comilla in three hours from Dhaka. Dhaka-Kunming connectivity looks very promising on that respect. The Chinese may move into healthcare industries both in Bangladesh and in China. Many Bangladeshis travel to India for healthcare purpose and China might invest in this promising sector, promoting a healthy competition between China and India.
SAM: Any Chinese project with Bangladesh is being opposed by India from the very beginning. How can Bangladesh overcome such pressure from India?
Khan: The Soviet Union used to impose their will on Afghanistan, which they ended up invading and paid a terrible price. Then came the United States and they fell into same trap. They find it so hard to extricate themselves from that now. The Bangladeshi people historically have stronger opposition to any foreign entity imposing their will on their motherland. Many Asian countries started far down the ladder when comes to achieving national development. The present day Malaysia was much like Bangladesh.