The current level of bilateral relations between Ankara and Dhaka is ready for takeoff, said Bangladesh's top diplomat on a visit to Turkey, stressing that a slight push by the two governments is needed to get things going.
In an inclusive interview with Anadolu Agency in Ankara during his four-day visit to Turkey, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said the economy and trade will be the key focus of bilateral relations.
He also talked about the Rohingya refugee crisis, Dhaka's fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and plan to revive the economy.
On the normalization agreements with Israel and Arab states, Momen said Bangladesh's objectives of the issue is to achieve a durable two-state solution with Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.
Anadolu Agency (AA): Since the establishment of diplomatic ties between Bangladesh and Turkey in 1974, both countries saw ups and downs in their relations. What is the current situation of bilateral relations?
AK Abdul Momen: We have a very solid relationship with Turkey. Turkey recognized Bangladesh in 1974. Since then, a bit by bit step by step, our relationship has improved. During the last 10-12 years, our relationship is really solid. Our prime minister visited Turkey and Turkish President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan visited [Bangladesh] when he was the prime minister.
Turkey is also doing very well. And Bangladesh is also doing very well in terms of economic growth, stability. We have achieved it. In fact, in the area of economic growth, we have become a model for developing countries. It's an overall development, not only in the per capita income. The GDP is increasing. Also the standard of living and the life expectancy, everything has gone up. Life expectancy has gone up from 62 years to 74 now. So, it's a geometric rise. And the purchasing power capacity of the common people has also shot up. So, all these have improved the purchasing capacity.
Now, it's [Bangladesh] a land of opportunity, if anybody invest anything, produce anything, there is a big market for it. Not only for its 165 million population, in addition, Bangladesh has a very good relationship with all its neighbors. We have strong connectivity with our neighbors like India for example, and also other neighbors like Nepal and Bhutan. Our location is very central. On the one side there is India then on the other side there is big China. So, we are in a very good location.
Now, given these, […] both Bangladesh and Turkey are Muslim countries. The principles and objectives of Turkey is to achieve the improvement of Ummah [Muslim community across the world] as well as to have a peaceful world. Bangladesh [follows] the same principle, we would like to have a peaceful world. Bangladesh is the leader in the world peace. We have successfully engaged in the post-conflict countries [via UN Peacekeeping Mission] in around 36 countries. Around 154,000 of our peacekeepers served the UN in many countries. So, we have achieved some position now. We are the largest country in the world.
And Turkey is doing well. Earlier, Turkey mostly engaged in doing business with Europeans and Russians. Now they're also looking forward. Turkey has achieved a niche in the area of construction work, we are doing a lot of construction.
So, in the process, we have developed some trade link with Turkey and more of a communication. Connectivity is increasing. Currently, in many areas we think alike, and that is giving us a level of confidence, self-confidence. No wonder we have really [many common grounds]. Yesterday, we just inaugurated our mission in Ankara, one of the largest missions of Bangladesh. And Turkey is already doing that. They will integrate it at the end of this month, in the process, I think. Our prime minister invited President Erdogan and his family, and the Turkish foreign minister agreed to visit Bangladesh. And also, along with it, they'll bring some businesspeople.
And I think since our political relationship is very solid, our business relationship will shoot up. Currently, we have around $1 billion business. President Erdogan wants it to go up to $3 billion. So, we are looking forward to it.
AA: Turkey and Bangladesh are doing very good in the field of economy, especially among the economies of developing countries and Turkey is one of the biggest economies in the world and also doing good in the sector. And you said that the trade volume between the two countries is around $1 billion. Is this not lower than their potential? And why do these two countries not sing a free trade agreement?
Momen: We have approached Turkey for, not a free trade agreement, but a proficient trade agreement (PTA), maybe we'll do it, it will be in the process. It always takes time, you know, in the bureaucracy, there are some processes, but hopefully this will be done.
So now, you are right that the trade volume should have been much more. Turkey, for the last many years, has been doing very good. And naturally, we expect that we should have a better trade relation. Many of the items we export, for example, garments. Turkey also produce the same thing. So, there is a time substitute. As a result, it did not go up. But not all the items. There are many which are complimentary in these areas. Turkey imposes additional tariffs on Bangladesh garments, this is the largest exportable. More than 84% of our exports are of the garment. But unfortunately, Turkey put some additional tariffs on this, fearing that it will compete with their own garment industry. We did a lot to explain to them that many of the items are not substitutes. They're complimentary. And we talked about it yesterday, and the foreign minister said he'll talk to the trade minister.
I believe that, because Turkey is a big economy. Naturally, our expectation is that we will have more foreign direct investment from Turkey. They argued that there has been an organization named TIKA, which helped facilitate this [investment] -- but its office is very weak in Bangladesh. Now, we are trying to mend and reduce those gaps. And in the process once those are reduced, hopefully, it will shoot up.
AA: In recent years Turkey has been doing tremendous job in producing indigenous items for the arms industry. At what point is the bilateral relationship in the defense sector?
Momen: Our first target is economic development. And also, we don't want to make Bangladesh a fortress. So, as a result, our interest in building the army, I mean, particularly buying equipment, was the secondary interest. It is changing. Naturally we have some trade agreements with Turkey. We are buying some of their weapons. We do like to buy weapons, but we don't buy too many weapons unlike many other countries. But whatever it is, we would like to have a portfolio of amendments from many countries, not just from one. So, this is a general principle that we would like to have a portfolio of suppliers of weapons or business even. We are buying some from China. They have good equipment, and our people are used to it. So, the process is on but now we have to be really careful. Bangladesh is an island of peace and stability. And whenever you have these extra weapons, they are the new developer mindset of your aggressiveness, so we don't want to do it. Therefore, we are very relatively low in this area. And our strength will be the economic development. Our strength is spreading the gospel of peace and friendship. We have a very strong friendship with all. Our principle of foreign policy was enunciated by our father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. And it is a very simple one: Friendship to all and malice towards none. And we maintain it. As a result, we don't have enemy. And we don't have to pile up the stockpiles of weapons.
You see, currently, this is a new lesson for us. In this COVID-19 pandemic, we found that stockpiles of weapons did not help save human life. The global leaders' community spends around $1.8 trillion a year, just for the weapons. Instead of spending so much money for the weapon, they should spend more of it in the medical areas, social areas, even for climate change. This is a wakening call for the global leadership. They should divert those resources and help improve the humanity, the lifestyle of people. These weapons, accumulation of weapons did not help save the human life.
AA: How do you evaluate Turkish soft power, particularly the Turkish TV drama series and their impact on people-to-people relations?
Momen: You see the environment has been created for people-to-people relations. In Bangladesh, we all know the heroes of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk is a household name. Suleyman the Magnificent and Ertugrul, nowadays, have become again household thanks to the TV series.
So, when people have a strong relationship, they relate to their history as well, to the history of the Khilafat and Sultanate and all those. So, the environment is right there. Now we only need to put some injection. The environment is set. It has been done. Now the government has to make little bit push. And if we do, our economic relationship will shoot up. That's my feeling. Everything is on, stage has been set. Now we have to make a little bit push and we are doing it. And hopefully, things will be different, much better.
- Turkey, key supporter of Bangladesh on Rohingya issue
AA: Turkey is always appreciating Bangladesh's great efforts for the Rohingya, a country which has accepted more than 1 million refugees from Myanmar. On the other hand, Turkey is also playing a vital role on this humanitarian issue and striving to raise it as an international agenda item. How does Bangladesh see Turkey's this initiative?
Momen: From the first day when around 800,000 Rohingya people suddenly came in August 2017, initially they were the Bangladeshi nationals who welcomed them. They gave them shelter and food. And as they [Rohingya] are persecuted, they were in a desperate situation, out of humanity. And our prime minister also welcomed them. And now around 1.2 million Rohingya are taking shelter in camps.
Turkey came forward at the very beginning. What did they do? They established a hospital, a very good hospital. And they have been running it with their own money. They also came up with a lot of help in humanitarian assistance. So, since the first day they have helped. The [Turkish] first lady along with the foreign minister visited Rohingya camps. And they have been very supportive of us. And they also made a proposal that they would like to take care of some of them [Rohingya refugees] in Bangladesh if we provide some land for them. But you know, we don't have much land in Bangladesh, so we couldn't do that. But they [Turks] have been helping us. Even recently, because of COVID-19, one of their doctors [in Bangladesh] died.
In the international arena, they [Turks] have been a big supporter of this issue from the first day on. And they have been supporting Bangladesh in the OIC [the Organization of Islamic Cooperation], in the UN, everywhere they have been supporting. Not only that. Currently, on behalf of the OIC, Gambia has taken the issue of Rohingya – as the whole world wants accountability for the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Rohingya – to the ICJ [the International Court of Justice]. And there, Turkey is supporting us, and they're assisting us. And also, they promised that they will go all the way in helping Bangladesh. So, we are very proud of Turkey. Because from the day one, they have been steadfast in this support over Rohingya. It's not only because they [Rohingya] are Muslim, but also thanks to the humanity they [Turks] have helped and are supporting us.
- Global political, economic pressure on Myanmar key to Rohingya repatriation
AA: Media reports last week revealed that two Myanmar army soldiers confessed their atrocities and they admitted killing dozens of people with a high-level order. Do you think that these confessions of Myanmar soldiers would have any impact on the Rohingya repatriation?
Momen: These are two issues. One is accountability and the other is repatriation. There are two courts. One is the ICJ, where the Gambia case is going on. If they give the judgment, they will make the whole country responsible for genocide, not any individual. So, in that case, they [the court] will order them [Myanmar] to change their approach in handling their ethnic communities. And they [the court] have already given provisional rulings and Myanmar must follow them. And those [rulings] are that they must not any longer discriminate and kill the ethnic community. They must preserve, you know, all the evidences of the genocide and ethnic cleansing. And they must treat them fairly with justice. But Myanmar till today is not following those.
The other case is at the International Criminal Court (ICC), where these two army men confessed their atrocities. There have been many evidences, but Myanmar don't allow anyone to go inside the country, particularly in the Rakhine province and to collect evidence. But there are many evidences, as you know, there are now 1.2 million Rohingya who are in our camps. If anybody wants to have evidence they can go there [camps] and interview them [Rohingya], and they will tell their stories of plight and misery. In these processes you can have those evidences directly from the Rohingya.
But these two young men, on their own, volunteered to disclose the information that they were ordered to kill people at the site regardless of whether they were child or woman or anyone. So, this is a very strong evidence… and they have given the evidence to the ICC. The ICC can impose their orders on individuals. So, in that case, some of the leadership of Myanmar could be involved in the criminal case. And in that case, the ICC can order their arrest and put them in jail. But that also depends on the big powers and how they look into it. In some cases, their orders carried some doubt. But this gives a signal to Myanmar that they must behave [Rohingya well] and must not jeopardize the life of the people that it takes -- minorities.
This does not guarantee them a [peaceful] repatriation. We have made agreements with Myanmar, because Myanmar is our neighbor with good neighborly relationship, Myanmar is our friendly country. Myanmar created this problem. This Rohingya issue was created by Myanmar, so solution also lies with them.
Myanmar agreed to take them back after a verification process. Myanmar agreed to provide safety and security for them. Myanmar also agreed to create conducive environment in the Rakhine province so that these displaced people can return home voluntarily. They [Myanmar] agreed to all but they have not enforced anything yet. So, as a result not a single one has gone back to Myanmar.
But we are hopeful that this problem will be resolved. Hopeful, because earlier in 1992 around 253,000 Rohingya were uprooted from their homes and they took shelter in Bangladesh. Afterwards through negotiations and dialogue, around 230,000 of them went back. Even in 1970. These Rohingya people, they have been living in Myanmar for centuries. The Burmese constitution was drafted by one of those Rohingya leader who was a Cabinet member during the era of Aung San Suu Kyi's father. But unfortunately, now they have been differentiated and became stateless. This is so sad.
So, it's not Bangladesh's problem. Rohingya is not our problem, it is the problem of the global leadership. Everybody should come forward, put pressure, political pressure, economic pressure on Myanmar. And if pressure is put on… In 1992, why did they take them back? One reason was Myanmar was under a lot of political and economic pressure. The US put up sanction on them, and so did many other countries.
Currently, although Myanmar is violating human rights and committing worst kind of genocide, yet, most of the industrialized countries are doing good trading with Myanmar and investing in there. This must change. And I cannot ask for that. It is their ethical and moral position that should allow them take a stand [against Myanmar] and stop doing business [with them] or put up economic sanction on Myanmar or a moratorium on the economic relationship until those people are repatriated. And they [Myanmar] agreed to take them back. They [Rohingya] are their people. Myanmar is in the process of development, and they will need lots of people, these people – their own people – could be an asset to the country in their development process.
The other side, the worst side, is if problem of this large number of people is not solved, then it may create pockets of radicalism and terrorism. And terrorists have no borders, they have no faith. They may create some uncertainty in the area. And if there is uncertainty, then investment of the Western countries or even China or other countries in Myanmar would be questionable, because their investment could be in difficulty.
If there was uncertainty in the region, it would be bad for everybody. It would be bad for Bangladesh, it would be bad for Myanmar, it would be bad for all the neighboring countries including China, India and those who are investing in there. So, therefore, we must resolve the problem as fast as possible. Myanmar and Bangladesh and the whole of South Asia, we are looking forward to a more peaceful [environment] and more economic development. We cannot have a good life and living without resolving this issue.
All countries in the region should come forward to resolve these issues at their earliest. It's for their benefit, it is not only for our benefit but for everybody's benefit. For example, look at the Middle East. One problem in the Middle East, the Israel-Palestine issue, is key to so many problems throughout the world, and you don't want to see a similar problem anywhere else.
AA: It's nice to hear that you are very hopeful for the repatriation. But the Bangladeshi government is planning to resettle more than 100,000 Rohingya in a remote island called Bhasan Char. Does it not give a message to the Rohingya that there is no hope for repatriation and we are permanently settling you down there?
Momen: This is a temporary arrangement. Because there is too much congestion in the [current refugee camp] area in Kutupalong, [Cox's Bazar]. These 1.1 million people live in 6,800 acres of land. It's too many. And our fear is that these are hilly areas where we have currently settled them. So, if there is a lot of rainfall in the monsoon season, there is possibility of landslide. And if there is landslide, hundreds of them will die.
In order to reduce this risk and the congestion, we decided that we will move around hundred thousand of them to this island just as a temporary phenomenon. It's not a permanent [settlement]. These Rohingya people can have a better life, they can achieve their goals and have a decent life only when they return back home. That's why our number one priority is repatriation of these Rohingya people to their land of origin. Another issue is that any other country can take them as well. If they [those countries] would like to take the Rohingya, they're welcome to take them. But not two or three people. If [you] take them, take in large numbers and reduce the burden. So that option is also open. But this is a simple temporary phenomenon.
The other thing is to look at these so many people in little places with no job, nothing. So, they're getting frustrated. But we are moving around 20,000 families to another place [Bhasan Char ] and will allow them to do some economic activities there. There is plenty of space, they can do some economic activity there like fishing, farming, roaring goat and cow and in the process they will remain busy. But in Kututpalong [current Rohingya refugee camps in Cox's Bazar], they have nothing to do other than eating three times a day and creating problems.
In Cox's Bazar, we have housed them at this time, initially the local people really welcomed them. But now, the number of these displaced people, Rohingya, is more than double of the local population and they are taking away their job. Inflation has shot up in the area. So, a lot of people are very upset. And many of these Rohingya people, they have nothing else to do. They have become involved in drug trafficking, human trafficking, a variety of criminal activities.
So, we are taking some of them to Bhasan Char in order to first reduce the risk of death. Second, it will give them a little better life. They can do some economic activities [there]. It is not enough to just feed them. It's not good for the future. Bashan Char is a lovely land, beautiful place. And we have built a beautiful place for these people to be accommodated there spending around $300 million, with our own money.
AA: Recently, a group of 40 Rohingya visited the island for inspection. But the issue is while international organizations, especially the UN refugee agency, are criticizing this resettlement on Bhasan Char, why did the government not take any international observer for tour with the Rohingya?
Momen: Of course, they [international aid groups] are willing to go there. You see, this is the saddest thing. Personnel of these international aid agencies and all the UN agencies who are there [in Cox's Bazar], they're supposed to help those persecuted people. But they first care of their own better living. Currently we have 34 camps. These are pretty close to our resort center of Cox's Bazar. It's around 15-minutes drive. So, what they do, they come to these areas to help these displaced people, come around 10-11 a.m., and work till 3-3.30 p.m., then go back to their hotels, five-star hotels, four-star hotels in Cox's Bazar, and then enjoy the rest of their evening there.
Now in Bhasan Char, they don't have that type of hotels, we don't have five-star hotels there. If they go there, they cannot have this luxurious life. They work one week, they get two weeks off and they go to Bangkok and other places and there is flight free for them. So, they're very critical of going to Bhasan Char as they won't get such an advantage.
And another thing, in Cox's Bazar, these agencies [workers] bring their friends from abroad just to have lots of fun. Now, if they have to go to Bhasan Char, it will take two and a half hours by boat. That's a long time. So, their friends who are coming from other places, they cannot visit them just for fun. So, they have to work harder there.
- Bangladesh uses Wuhan model to fight COVID-19
AA: Moving to the coronavirus pandemic, Bangladesh is performing a tremendous job in fighting the outbreak. The daily cases and death toll are comparatively very low, especially when compared with the situation in countries like the US, UK, France, Italy, and even India. What is the secret behind this success?
Momen: To tell you, the God is very helpful to us. But let me tell you that in the beginning, we were a little bit afraid, because the media in the Western world, even greatest institutions in the Western world, like Oxford Studies, came up with an estimate that five to ten million people will die of coronavirus in Bangladesh. So, we were afraid. Our prime minister from the day one was very serious about it.
We followed the Wuhan model; lockdown segregations and distances. But in our country, it was difficult to enforce the rules China did. We are not a martial country like China. We don't have that much facilities unlike the UK or US in the medical area. They have sophisticated technology; their people have better living and their natural nutrition is much higher. But our people don't have that. So, we were worried. Initially we were busy in getting more intensive care units, more ventilators, more personal protective equipment [PPE] and we had difficulties [to collect them]. But we took a bold step. And we wanted to provide enough.
Owners of our garment factories dramatically changed their production to manufacture PPEs. We not only produce enough for our country's people, we also export them. For example, we export 6.5 million PPEs to the US, the quality PPEs. And also other medical equipment; hand sanitizers, caps, name it. We sold around 22 different types of medical wipers to the US during this crisis time.
Now what did we do in the country? Because of the lockdown, we are locked almost 16 days, many people were without job, no income. So, our prime minister made it a condition that we must provide essential food items to every household. And indeed, the distribution was very fair.
We did an excellent job. People talk about good governance and management, which shows that we have an excellent good governance system in Bangladesh. We created a public awareness program also. [We promote] hand washing, using masks, although many did not follow them. But maybe it is also our weather condition that helped us. As a result, initially they had expected the death of 5 to 10 million [but] we have 4,600 deaths so far. Thanks God.
- Bangladesh turns to new normal
AA: Do you expect a second wave of virus in Bangladesh?
Momen: It could be, but my reading is we will not have the second wave.
AA: What are the government's plans to revive the economy after the coronavirus fallout?
Momen: We have already started. Our lockdown is already over. All offices, factories and everything are open, except schools. We never closed our garment factories. We didn't close our major industrial units, even the tea gardens. They worked even the worst time of outbreak. Because we wanted to keep people working and energize. So, we did not close all those factories unlike many other countries. And now, basically things are normal. Look, I'm an old man, but yet I'm visiting abroad, taking the courage. We have foreign dignitaries visiting Bangladesh.
We are becoming more normal. We are trying to come back to pre-COVID-19 situation. Our offices are ongoing as usual, but we maintain distance and hygiene to stay away from this virus.
We're becoming normal, economy's button is booming. You see our export – the area for which we have a lot of fear. Our export of readymade garment last two months has boomed more than 3 million each month. So, everything is going in good shape.
- Two-state solution of Israel-Palestine issue is a must for durable world peace
AA: Bangladesh is a big supporter of the Palestinian cause. How does Dhaka see the normalization agreement between Israel and some Arab countries, especially from the Gulf states?
Momen: We look forward to that the Palestinian people have their homeland. We believe in the two-state solution. There must be the state of Israel as well as the state of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital. That's our principal position, the cardinal principle position.
Now whatever happening currently – there's a lot of changes in the political situation, particularly in the Middle East – hopefully these will lead to creating the two-state solution. If they create the two-state solution, that is a good welcome. We are studying it. But our objective would be to create the two-state solution, durable two-state solution, with safety and security and peace.
Without the two-state solution, we believe there cannot be durable peace in the Middle East and in the world.