Ambassador Rezaqul Haider: Mediating for commerce
by Bernard KENNEDY
The borderline between the diplomatic and the military is increasingly blurred these days, with politicians often more willing to use force than commanders, and many major armies engaged primarily in peace-keeping and reconstruction activities. The career of Bangladesh’s new ambassador to Ankara, Major-General Rezaqul Haider, spans both sides of the frontier. Ambassador Haider first demonstrated his diplomatic skills as the UN’s chief military liaison officer during the East Timor crisis in 1999-2000. He now shares the enthusiasm of his Embassy colleagues for building up ties between Bangladesh and Turkey at every level from football to investment.
Q You have been in Ankara for about two months now. What are your first impressions?
A Well, I have seen the change of the seasons. We don’t have snowfall in Bangladesh. But what has impressed me most has been the hospitality of the Turkish citizens and their extreme cordiality towards Bangladesh and Bangladeshi citizens. I’m very impressed and humbled by this wonderful attitude. Turkish citizens in general are extremely cordial to Bangladeshi nationals. I have had the same feedback from our students in Istanbul. They tell me of instances when some of the shopkeepers did not want to take the money when they heard that they were from Bangladesh.
The same attitude was displayed in the quick audiences which I obtained with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and with Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül – both within one month of my arrival. I think this is a sign of the amount of respect and honour they give to Bangladesh. All this is very encouraging. In return, I may say that as a sign of respect to the home country, we did not leave the ambassadorial post vacant for long: I arrived two days after my predecessor left!
Q To what do you attribute these friendly relations?
A The relationship between Turkey and Bangladesh does not start in 1971 when Bangladesh achieved independence. It really dates back to the 1920s. In the past the sub-continent was one. After the First World War when the great leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk started his war of independence, the people of Bengal were very spontaneous in giving all sorts of support. To the extent that there is evidence that the womenfolk donated their own bangles and gold ornaments, and the funds were used for the establishment of a bank, the construction of the parliament building and the purchase of armaments and ammunitions to help the war of liberation. As you know our national poet, Nazrul Islam, was the first foreigner to write an epic poem about Mustafa Kemal.
In addition, when we were part of Pakistan, cooperation was very good. We were both members of the RCD, or Regional Cooperation for Development, together with Iran, and now as co-members of the Islamic community we have a rich, good, traditional relationship with Turkey.
Q Could you just sum up the history of formal diplomatic relations?
A Since our independence, cooperation with Turkey has been going on very smoothly. Turkey in fact recognised Bangladesh in 1974 just before the commencement of the Islamic Conference in Lahore – and in fact, Turkey only recognised Bangladesh once Pakistan recognised Bangladesh. The Turkish Embassy at Dhaka was set up in November 1976 and the Bangladesh Embassy at Ankara in January 1977. Our shaheed leader President Ziaur Rahman was himself a champion of freedom, so when he became the president he initiated the move to develop a friendly relationship with Turkey. President Ziaur Rahman was a member of the Al-Quds committee. That was the start. The president came down here on an official visit in October 1978. Various other important visits have followed.
The Turkish government has honoured our late President Ziaur Rahman by naming a very important road after him in Ankara, beside the presidential palace. In a spirit of reciprocity, Bangladesh has also named very important roads after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, not only in Dhaka but also in Chittagong, our port city.
Q What are the main goals of your Embassy at the moment?
A We maintain cordial and brotherly relationship with other Muslim embassies which have embassies in Ankara, but we do not overlook our relationship with other important major world powers with embassies here. Aside from this, we are mainly concerned with the development of trade and commerce between Turkey and Bangladesh.
Here at the Embassy, we are very liberal in providing visas to Turkish nationals and entrepreneurs who intend to visit Bangladesh. In fact, the number of visas which we have issued has doubled in the past one year. Most of the visitors come from business groups with operations in textiles, textile machinery and chemicals, ready-made garments and knitwear, jute and jute products, especially carpets, and leather products.
What we would really like to see is more investment from Turkish business people in Bangladesh. Turkish industrialists have a high level of technical know-how and their products are of world standards, so we believe Bangladesh will benefit very much if Turkish investors show more eagerness to invest. We have a very attractive business environment among the countries of our region. We have excellent human resources, and we are very cost-effective. We would like to see investment in all manufacturing sectors, education and health, transport, telecommunications, road and highway development and so on.
Q How is the trade relationship going?
A The statistics show that the commerce between the two countries is improving every year. Our exports to Turkey have doubled in the past year and we have a surplus in our trade balance. In 2004, our exports to Turkey were USD84m and Turkish exports were USD40m. There is no doubt that this trade relationship can be increased. The chairman of the Turkey-Bangladesh Parliamentary Friendship Committee Zülfü Demirbað agrees with me on this. He is hopeful that the volume of trade between Turkey and Bangladesh can exceed even the volume of Turkey’s trade with China.
There is certainly scope for Turkey to export more to Bangladesh. We have a very open market, with 150 million mouths to feed, and you can export and import whatever you like. There is a big demand for textiles machinery and chemicals and agricultural machinery, fore example. On our side, in addition to garments and leather and leather goods, our ceramics manufacturers have full order books. And we have also achieved world standards in pharmaceuticals. Most of the Arab states are now importing pharmaceutical products from Bangladesh, and the WHO will be buying essential drugs from us up to 2009. For example, we supplied about five tons of antibiotics to Pakistan at the request of the Pakistani government after the earthquake.
Q Yes, Bangladesh’s assistance to other countries has been in the news…
A Unfortunately, when people think of Bangladesh they think of floods. But just tell me one part of the world which does not suffer from natural calamities. The scenes after Hurricane Katrina were almost similar to the scenes which we have in Bangladesh. We contributed to the relief effort. You don’t often have the chance to donate to a superpower. It was a token of friendship. But the press was rather negative about Bangladesh in their reporting of the matter. Actually, we also sent 60,000 tents and 100,000 blankets to Pakistan after the earthquake, in addition to our financial support.
Q In what areas are Bangladesh and Turkey cooperating apart from trade and investment?
A There are a handful of Bangladeshi students who have got Turkish scholarships studying in Istanbul and Ankara. We would definitely like to see more Bangladeshis studying here and that will only be possible if the Ministry of Education provides more scholarships to Bangladeshi students. My discussions with officials suggest that there is a tremendous scope for improving relations in education. I can assure you that the standard of Bangladeshi education is very good. Our English language education can be of great help to Turkish individuals who would like to go study English in Bangladesh.
In local public administrations we are also very good. And you will be aware of our Grameen Bank micro-credit institution, founded by Nobel prize candidate Dr Muhammad Yunus, which has been acclaimed all over the world. They have been training up people in Diyarbakir and the region.
We have had a series of military cooperation agreements. Currently we have a regular exchange of military students training in Bangladesh and military officers doing training in Turkey. There are five officers undergoing training in Turkey at the moment: three in the staff college at Istanbul, one doctor at Ankara and one sailor at Izmir.
Q What about sport because I know it’s a personal interest?
A Yes, I was president of the Bangladesh Kabbadi Federation, which is our national game, between 2000 and 2004, and also vice-president of the Asian Kabbadi Federation. Football and cricket are two very popular sports in Bangladesh. Turkey has got a very good standard of football so as ambassador I would be very happy to see the top teams of the Turkish league visiting Dhaka to play exhibition matches with a Bangladesh team. Similarly, reciprocal visits can be organised by cultural troupes from Bangladesh and Turkey. This would also help to increase the relationship between the public of the two countries.
We need more visits. I impressed this on the foreign minister also. Visits are very important, at the state level, at the business level and at the cultural level.
Q How is Bangladesh positioning itself in its region and in the World?
A Bangladesh plays a very important stabilisation role in South Asia and Southeast Asia. It’s almost a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia. We have excellent relations with China and very cordial relations with Pakistan and India. Friendship to all is the main theme of our foreign policy. The last summit of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) was held in Dhaka in mid-November. The SAARC was in fact the late President Ziaur Rahman’s brainchild in 1985. Bangladesh is trying to make it an economic block like the European Union or ASEAN, to benefit from our population of around two billion. We have China and Japan as dialogue partners and Afghanistan is now a new member. Our goal is to trade without any barrier.
At the same time, Bangladesh is the largest contributor of troops to UN peace-keeping operations. The force commander in Sudan at the moment is a Bangladeshi. Earlier we had force commanders in Georgia and Somalia.
Q This brings us to your own experience in East Timor…
A I stayed a complete year in East Timor, starting with the registration of the voters, the voting itself, the consultation, the announcement of the results, when 76.8% of the people opted to be independent, and then the debacle and then the crisis which followed, when almost 250,000 internally displaced persons were moved out.
It was a time of great crisis when the UN was virtually forced to abandon its position and evacuate all staff. Only five military observers stayed back to oversee the situation at the time in Dili, and I was leading that group of five. Our presence in East Timor ensured that the UN flag was not taken down. It flew on until ultimately the multinational force and the international peace-keeping force came in to restore the situation.
Q It must have seemed an impossible task…
A In fact, my main job was to arbitrate between the three forces: Australia, the host country Indonesia and the Falintils or freedom fighters of East Timor. These were the three main forces - or the stakeholders - in East Timor. The UN office and I - being the chief military liaison officer before the peace keeping force came - had the important role of seeing that all three were satisfied, including the commander of the Falintils, Taur Matan Ruak, popular know as TMR. So I had to deal with all these individuals to see through this smooth transition to independence. I would say that displaying ethics in such situations is very, very important. And for the role we played at the time the five us were given the Eli Wiesel Ethics Award.
It was when I was working with the UN in East Timor that I got a feel for diplomatic norms and procedures. I remember the UN Secretary General Mr Kofi Annan and his personal representative Jamsheed Marker of Pakistan – they kept in very close touch with me to ensure that things went according to schedule.
Q Have you kept in touch with East Timor since you left?
A Yes, the president of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao, is a very close friend of mine, as well as the foreign minister, Jose Ramos Horta. I am well acquainted with Bishop Carlos Belo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 jointly with Jose Ramos Horta. And the current prime minister Mari Alkatiri, who is a Muslim, is also very familiar to me.
Q Do you feel that your efforts have borne fruit?
A The country went through a struggle. The country was devastated. There was no infrastructure left except for roads. It is now the latest LDC [Least Developed Country]. It will take time for it to recover, even though the UN was very generous in the first two years in its assistance for the restructuring of the East Timor economy and in helping to build up the public administration. The UN has really done a lot to establish a new state. It was a very commendable operation. It is one of the important success stories of the United Nations.
Q Somehow it managed to avoid becoming a Christian-Muslim conflict…
A I think a lot of credit should be given - which people are not giving - to the Indonesian government. It could have taken a very serious turn as you suggest, but I would say that the pragmatic views of the Indonesian leadership at that time including the armed forces largely contributed to the peaceful transition. They happened to realise quite early that there were no battles required but that friendship was in order – that the future should be more important than the present. East Timor has become a neighbouring country of Indonesia now, and I think I would give full credit to the Indonesian armed forces and the Indonesian government for playing a very cooperative role with the United Nations and Australia.
In addition, the Australians definitely were the major stake-holder in East Timor. They were the largest contributor to the peace-keeping force. Their interest was much greater than that of any other country, to see the existence of a peaceful neighbour.
(DIPLOMAT - December 2005 - Ankara)