Enduring links with Maldives
It is not merely the numerous exotic islands of the Maldives spread out on the Indian Ocean, but also the courageous and indomitable spirit of the people that makes the country a memorable one. Recently, the Foreign Minister of Maldives, Hon. Ahmed Naseem visited Bangladesh for a short trip.
During a politically momentous period towards the end of Gayoom's 30 year regime, I was posted to the Maldives as High Commissioner of Bangladesh. The first multi-party presidential election was to be held within a few months. The political scenario was an unprecedented one. Events unfolded like acts in a dramatic play as we waited for the impending election. Thousands of Bangladeshi migrant workers, including illegal, unemployed and without money roamed the streets, hungry, angry and desperate. Instigated by rumours that catapulted into fears they sought help from the Bangladesh Mission. A demanding period began.
After the first multi-party election, President Nasheed ratified the ILO Convention. The condition of migrant workers had to be stabilised. Ahmed Naseem, who was then the state minister for foreign affairs, accompanied me during discussions with the labour minister and was present at meetings with the Vice President, Dr. Md. Waheed, whose assistance went a long way in solving labour difficulties. It was possible to legalise over 17,000 illegal Bangladeshi workers. The process was complicated, complex and fraught with hurdles, but the workers were saved from harassment.
Then a new problem emerged. Unexpectedly, the labour minister decided to impose a moratorium against all Bangladeshi workers. I registered a strong protest on grounds of human rights and discrimination. This was immediately endorsed by Ahmed Naseem, who could not agree to such a sanction against migrant workers from only Bangladesh.
Yet again, another situation arose. Maldives was closing down missions in selected countries as part of a retrenchment policy and its mission in Bangladesh was one of them. Meeting with the then Foreign Minister, Dr. Shaheed elicited negative response. The only way forward was to see President Nasheed, to whom I reiterated the close ties between the two countries and timely assistance provided by Bangladesh to Maldives at time of natural disasters. Moreover, Bangladeshi labourers helped the country in its development process. The president assured me that the mission would remain open, and within six months a high commissioner would be posted in Bangladesh. Mr. Ahmed Sareer arrived as the High Commissioner. Bilateral relations reached a higher plane through mutual cooperation.
Living in an isolated state in the Indian Ocean, the people of Maldives were unaware of the rich cultural heritage of Bangladesh. This needed to be shared, so discussions were held with the president and the vice president. As a result, on March 26, 2009, the Independence and National Day of Bangladesh, Dr. Waheed announced a Cultural Agreement between Bangladesh and Maldives.
I finalised the Agreement and later prepared MOUs on manpower and education after negotiations. Bangladeshi physicians were recruited for hospitals/clinics and sports promoted to develop intercultural interactions. Initial discussions were undertaken on trade and investment with exports from Bangladesh of medicines, electrical goods, non-perishable food items and others.
In 2010, a 14-day Cultural Festival of Bangladesh was held in the Maldives. While arranging the Festival, I received concerted cooperation and help from Ahmed Naseem through regular meetings when management challenges were discussed and actions taken. It was an arduous task, but when the festival began with "Historical Links between Bangladesh and Maldives," chaired by the vice president, the exertions were forgotten.
Life in Maldives was not always stressful work. Sometimes, visits to enchanting resorts and inhabited islands gave me quality leisure time and provided intimate knowledge of the country and its people.
During the current visit by the now Foreign Minister, Ahmed Naseem, bilateral focus was placed on skilled manpower for Maldives, collaboration in education and enterprise building, recruitment of Bangladeshi physicians and nurses, cultural exchanges, collaboration on improving tourism in Bangladesh, possibility of air flight by Biman from Europe via Maldives, trade and investment.
The foreign minister pointed out that customs duty in Maldives would be replaced by Goods and Sales Tax (GST) by the end of the year. This positive move will enable all countries including Bangladesh to trade with Maldives through a much easier procedure. It is a matter of some satisfaction that I had promoted almost all the areas of mutual interest at a turbulent period in Maldives. This was possible through negotiations and collaboration with the current government of the country.
During my tenure, great changes took place, opposition parties with a majority in the Parliament turned confrontational, making it difficult for the ruling party to govern effectively. Now, with the ruling MDP having a majority in the Parliament, implementation of reforms to stabilise the economy, proactive policies and positive relations with Saarc, China, and western states, Maldives will go forward as a vibrant middle income country in the world stage.
During the recent visit, it was a pleasure to see the Foreign Secretary, Ahmed Naseer with his warmth and amiability. Mr. Jabbir of MDP, a new friend, was full of good will and commitments while the high commissioner praised the efforts I had taken to raise bilateral relations.
My interest in this bewitching island state will remain forever.