Issues Discussed in Interview
1. Suspension of SAARC
2. Bangladesh view on Pakistan
3. State of democracy in Bangladesh
4. Bangladesh-China Relations
5. BIMSTEC – BRICS Meet
Bangladesh was a founder of SAARC in the 1980s, but it has also been one of the first countries to pull out of the summit in Pakistan this year. Is this the end of SAARC?
No, as we said in our official statement on pulling out, we consider that the environment prevailing in the SAARC region at this particular time is not conducive to hold the SAARC summit. Bangladesh has certain sensitivities over the International Crimes Tribunal [ICT of Bangladesh], where Pakistan showed its dissatisfaction with our processes and even raised the issue in their parliament. They started interfering in our internal affairs by making unacceptable remarks. There is a lot of pressure on me to cut off all diplomatic ties with Pakistan for their behaviour. But I have said the relations will remain, and we will have to resolve our problems. The fact is, we won our liberation war from Pakistan, and they were a defeated force.
Wasn’t terror emanating from Pakistan the main issue for you? The fact that Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan and India pulled out of SAARC at the same time after the Uri attack seemed coordinated, to isolate Pakistan.
It was over the situation in Pakistan that we decided to pull out. The common people are the biggest sufferers of terrorism there. And that terror has gone everywhere, which is why many of us felt frustrated by Pakistan. India and Pakistan also have their bilateral problems, and I don’t want to comment about that. India pulled out because of the [Uri attack], but for Bangladesh the reason is totally different.
There have been calls from around the world to stop the hangings of people charged with collaboration during the war of liberation from Pakistan at the ICT. Have these hangings 45 years later brought any sense of closure for Bangladesh?
Of course they have. After what happened in 1971 — they massacred civilians, raped more than 2,00,000 women, burnt village after village — it was a national demand from those who suffered at that time that these people must be tried.
You’re saying this is the people’s demand. Yet elected Jamaat leaders have been hanged or are in jail, many opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) office-bearers are under arrest or have gone abroad to escape prosecution. Aren’t you confusing the war crimes trials with your own political rivalries?
No, it isn’t about my political rivalries. If you believe in freedom, in an independent country, how can you support these anti-liberation leaders? The BNP has patronised the war criminals. The cases against BNP leaders are different, and relate to corruption or crimes committed by them. So if these leaders are not guilty, they should face the trial and not try and flee the country. When I was in opposition, they filed a dozen false cases against me too.
You brought back democracy to Bangladesh in 1996, yet today you preside over a parliament with no opposition in it. Do you think in the next election, you will bring the BNP opposition back into the process?
As far as the BNP is concerned, they decided to boycott the elections. I telephoned [BNP leader] Begum Khaleda Zia, but she didn’t take my calls, and even refused my condolence visit for her son’s death by closing the door on me. She has ordered her party workers to protest, to carry out acts of violence. It was her fault to stay out of elections and I hope she doesn’t make the same mistake next time. But I won’t allow democracy to be jeopardised by her misdeeds.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Bangladesh ahead of his visit to India for the BRICS-BIMSTEC summit which you will also attend, and your ties with China are being watched very closely in India. Despite the opening of ties, why does trade with India lag so far behind trade with China?
It depends on the private sector, where they want to buy goods from. Bangladesh has also been quite vocal about the huge trade imbalance between our two countries and removal of trade barriers, which is going on in phases. We also plan for the establishment of Indian SEZs at Mongla and Bheramara that would increase the FDI flow into Bangladesh and narrow the trade gap.
China is Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner, it is its biggest defence partner, Bangladesh plays a large role in China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. Isn’t it a valid concern for India that Bangladesh could become what is known as China’s ‘string of pearls’ in the region?
You spoke of the good relationship between India and Bangladesh. If that is the sentiment, then how can you make the allegation that Bangladesh is inclining more towards China? No. Our policy is very clear. We have good relations with everyone and we want to maintain that. And I believe connectivity is a very large part of good relations, so we can all join and improve our trade volumes and that means the economic condition of our people will improve. If the purchasing power of our people will increase, who will be the bigger beneficiary of that in our region? India.
You will visit India for the BRICS- BIMSTEC summit this week, and then hopefully later this year for a bilateral visit. Tell us what you hope to achieve.
The problem in our region for all of us is almost the same: we have one common enemy and that is poverty, which we must fight to eradicate. With neighbouring countries we may have many problems, but I believe it can always be solved. India and Bangladesh have done it, like we agreed to a Ganges water treaty. As far as BRICS is concerned, we have expectations that BRICS leaders will extend a supporting hand to BIMSTEC with its New Development Bank at affordable terms.
Will you discuss ways of better border management during your visit, since despite the implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), while the enclaves have been settled, other issues remain, like illegal migration and border firing?
Yes, the LBA was a long-standing problem which we solved after 45 years. So if the big problem has been solved, we can resolve these smaller problems too. As far as border killings are concerned, our border forces on both sides, the BSF [India’s Border Security Force] and the BGB [Border Guard Bangladesh] have agreed to jointly investigate the incidents where BSF personnel have shot and killed innocent Bangladeshi villagers, and the Home Ministers are discussing this. A few dots [problems] may remain, but see what a big, extraordinary example we have set for the world by exchanging our people and land so smoothly.