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Transcending Diplomacy beyond Borders: Bangladesh–Sri Lanka Synergy

  • Professor Sudharshan Seneviratne
  • 8th January, 2023 07:18:43 PM
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Transcending Diplomacy beyond Borders: Bangladesh–Sri Lanka Synergy

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“When the streams of ideals that flow from the east and from the west mingle their murmur in some profound harmony of meaning, it delights my soul” — Rabindranath Tagore

In 2022, the High Commission of Sri Lanka in Bangladesh celebrates the landmark event of 50 years of friendship and solidarity between our lands. The anniversary celebrates areas ranging from investments to culture, the oceanic scape of the Bay of Bengal, security and climate change among other matters. It is a synergy creating a platform reaching out to the resident communities of our lands.

Connectivity between our lands goes beyond 50 years of its modern-day existence. Legend has it that some two thousand years ago, a prince from Vangadesha descended on Tambapanni and married a local princess. Historical evidence shows an unbroken economic, cultural and religious interaction since C. 600 BCE. We represent two historic lands proud of their ancestry. That matrix shaped and cemented our commonalities and above all our shared destinies. It was nurtured within the oceanic scape of the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. Pre-modern connectivity is seen through the lens of trade exchange, religion, dance, and poetry and even celebrating personalities such as, Rabindranath Tagore as our shared heritage. Eventually, we overcame colonial occupation culminating in the rise of independent sovereign and democratic states known as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Our destinies, our past, present and future are essentially interdependent.

Present Interaction

The contemporary period witnessed Sri Lanka and Bangladesh rising from multiple adverse situations. Both countries have a chequered history emerging from colonial oppression, natural disasters and terrorism. Our people rose again from ashes and destruction with greater resilience.

Today our two countries maintain a healthy relationship with each sharing common goals “for our people and the region”. We celebrate shared sentiments of mutuality over economic and cultural aspirations. Our two leaders hold each other with trust and consider each country in the highest esteem as kin countries and most trusted friends. We stand together at good times and take equal care of each other and ungrudgingly extend a magnanimous hand of solidarity and assistance at times of adversity.

Today we are at the threshold of entering a new era of cooperation and solidarity. The philosophy driving our engagement in Bangladesh is a two-way process of establishing a healthy working relationship. This philosophy is based on a symbiotic relationship of interdependence and mutual respect for each other and not one based on a patron-client relationship. This synergy it fact presents itself as how Bangladesh provided a conducive environment and safe haven for Sri Lankan investments and in turn how Sri Lankan professionals invested towards the growth of Bangladesh's economy.

This mutuality evolved over some 40-odd years ago when Sri Lankan capital, expertise and technical know-how contributed towards a takeoff point in the apparel industry of Bangladesh which is now the primary provider of RMG to the world. As of now, Sri Lankan Investment amounts to around 2.5 billion US$ and some of the companies represent high-end professionals as CEO’s and middle management technocrats. Sri Lankan blue-chip companies cover banking, biscuits, gas, power and energy, apparel, shipping & logistics, health care, financial management and investments to mention a few. There are at least 25 cluster groups with 100% owned and 75% subsidiaries with controlling power around 80%. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina personally conveyed to us how Sri Lankan professionals have provided a major value-added service to the Bangladesh economy. Her Excellency is hoping there will be a further investment flow into Bangladesh, especially in education and hospitals. Bangladesh has rewarded Sri Lankan professionals with upper-level salary scales and other remunerations.

In 2021, the Sri Lanka Mission in Dhaka launched the Post-Pandemic Development Strategy. Our new investment plans have chalked out a long list of programs on two-way engagements. Among them are trade and investments, tourism, shipping and aviation, agriculture, education, heritage and culture and health among other areas. A team of travel writers and tour operators from Bangladesh toured Sri Lanka while the MICE initiative established a firm line of connectivity of hospitality management at both ends. An expanded plan on eco-tourism, luxury cruise travel between the two countries, wellness tourism, sporting events and high-end corporate tourism are on track. Events such as food festivals, investment sessions, IT-based operations, spices, gems, tea and renewable energy initiatives are on the cards.

Aviation and shipping are making headway with official discussions at the ministerial level on coastal shipping, mutual birthing rights and warehouse facilities which are under discussion. Private sector shipping companies from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka most recently commenced working on joint ventures with government-owned shipping corporations. As for reverse investments, it is heartening to learn that Bangladesh has lifted the restriction on the movement of capital as FDI. Some of the target areas in Sri Lanka are tourism, shipping, and pharma. The near completion of the PTA will provide greater opportunities in this endeavour.

Way forward as strategic partners within IOR & Bay of Bengal

Bangladesh and Sri Lanka need to prosper together. We also need to take care of each other in a newly evolving globalised world. We are also stakeholders of the larger family represented by the SAARC, BIMSTEC and IORA. As such we need to be strategic partners. Our partnership and alignment revolve around the protection of the seascape embracing the two lands. The engagement of the global power blocks and their aspirations in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal has a direct impact on peaceful coexistence.               We are now witnessing a sharply evolving competitive spirit that is setting the tone for the future of South Asia. The global neoliberal political and economic order is beginning to aggressively impact our region. It may effectively alter the balance of power and cordiality within the South Asian neighbourhood. Its impact is mainly felt over the seascape of the Bay of Bengal.

Our two lands hold an equally important role at the two strategic ends of the Bay of Bengal representing the “gateway” entry and exit points to the larger World systems. The Bay of Bengal essentially is an Oceanic highway. As such, the futuristic staying power and sustenance of our two countries revolve around the protection of the seascape of the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. It is now recognised that the Bay of Bengal is one of the richest resource areas in the world. Hence the highly competitive premium placed on its natural and human wealth. This implies common ownership of its total ecology: the wind, solar, aquatic and sub-surface mineral resources. It presents unison and not segments compartmentalised along narrow political fault lines or contours of hegemonic economic interests.

Bay of Bengal needs to be seen as an integral component of the IOR, where both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are members of IORA. Taking a leaf out of the IORA, our two countries could steer towards (i) Maritime Safety & Security (ii) Trade & Investment (iii) Fisheries Management (iv) Disaster Risk Management (V) Academic, Science & Technology and (vi) Tourism & Cultural Exchanges while Gender Empowerment is a significant area of engagement. If this is adhered to, it will be a permanent legacy of our trans-oceanic connectivity representing the best of Track 2 & 3 Diplomacy.

This ideal finds expression in the “blue economy” or the ocean industry. The Blue Economy envisages the sustainable harvesting of our oceanic resources. In 2017, this idea was narrowed down to the Bay of Bengal by Abdullahel Bari from Bangladesh calling it “Our Ocean and the Blue Economy: Opportunities and Challenges” with special reference to Bangladesh. Both countries face security risks and over-exploitation of aquatic resources. In 2019, David Brewster suggested an Indian Ocean Security Forum as a regional agenda for Geo-Environmental Security Challenges. Such security risks may spill across geophysical boundaries and trigger off creating conflict zones. Joint training of the armed forces is a firm foundation for our shared investment towards security concerns. An allied opportunity is seen with the Tri-continental Maritime Security Cooperation (since 2013) where Bangladesh needs to be a full-time partner along with Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives. Most recent discussions also highlight the need to make the Bay of Bengal a zone of Peace so as to neutralise big power competition and also as a strategic philosophy on oceanic studies. Both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka must work together to realise such ideals.

In view of this, we wish to suggest a broader action plan incorporating a value-added purview of Oceanic Studies for the Bay of Bengal and as an engagement by its Oceanic community. A joint policy charted by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka for sustainable environmental development is a way forward to how the oceanic front of the Bay of Bengal is treated with sensitivity, protected and nurtured as a priority agenda by our two nations. It is about humanising social, economic and cultural interactions within a sustainable environment. It is seen as an alternative to development imposed from above on unequal partners in the global world. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka need to be key partners in realising such an ideal.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I wish to note the admiration we have for Bangladesh as a friend and partner in progress. This is about the rise of Bangladesh. In the course of 50 years, this land achieved the impossible from ground zero level after the Liberation War. It is now at the threshold of a modern-day miracle. It reached the apex silently and in a dignified manner. It is about the commitment to advancing the ideals of taking care of its people, environment and culture. In many ways, the Padma Bridge epitomised this poetic ideal. It comes to mind the title ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’ celebrated in international literature. Similarly, the river Padma flowed gently for centuries earning poetic expressions from Tagore who resided on its banks. In many ways, the culture and the advancement of modern Bangladesh are crystallised in the amazing creation of the 6.5 km long bridge constructed over the gently flowing Padma River. It is not the steel and concrete that ultimately matter. It represents determination and creativity symbolising the inner strength of a nation overcoming all odds and presenting its personality and anatomy of a resilient nation. It is a direct outcome following the vision of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman translated to action by the leadership of his daughter, Sheikh Hasina.

As Sri Lanka and Bangladesh celebrate 50th anniversary of Diplomatic relations, we stand shoulder to shoulder with our kinsmen in friendship and solidarity both, during good times and at times of adversity, a sentiment transcending goodwill beyond borders!

(The writer is the High Commissioner to Bangladesh and Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Kingdom of Bhutan)

Source: Sun Editorial