Bangladesh has come a long way in the last 49 years. However, there are some issues that need reformulation -- even reinventing -- while going forward. With that in mind, Youth Policy Forum (YPF) launched its landmark "Road to Reforms" series on 18th July 2020 with a focus on the reforms required for Bangladesh in different pressing areas. The inaugural webinar was titled "Bangladesh's foreign policy priorities in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic" and was organised in partnership with Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI) and The Daily Star. This was followed by the second episode on 24th August, titled "Foreign Policy reforms: Academic Panel", the aim of which was to gather insights of prominent academics regarding the reformulation of Foreign Policy in Bangladesh.
The esteemed panel consisted of Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed, Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka and Director of Centre for Genocide Studies, and Dr Lailufar Yasmin, Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka. The dialogue was moderated by Marjuk Ahmad, Deputy Lead of YPF Policy Advocacy.
The webinar began with a definition of "youth" provided by Dr Ahmed, who said, "The word 'Youth' is not about age. Anyone who wants to make a difference and is ready to work for change irrespective of his/her age falls in this category."
He went on to say that Bangladesh has a good relationship with India, China, US, Japan and several other countries. Our foreign policy principle of "Friendship towards all and malice towards none" is maintained even with countries like Myanmar. Bangladesh doesn't want to generate any kind of hostility with Myanmar, which is reflected in the fact that Bangladesh is still maintaining a bilateral relationship despite the Rohingya crisis.
The China factor
Dr. Lailufar Yasmin expressed her opinion that Bangladesh is no longer the Bangladesh of early 2000s -- it is now assertive, a rising economic power at the regional level. She further stressed that India was our friend in 1971 and it will remain as such. But at the same time, we must probe into furthering our relationship with other great powers. In other words, the engagements of great powers in Bangladesh since the resolution of maritime boundary disputes with Myanmar and India has elevated Bangladesh's geopolitical significance, which is internationally recognised now. Therefore, we welcome any great power that comes to our assistance to develop the country further.
While shedding light on China's rise to power, Dr. Ahmed suggested using the term 're-rise' while describing it. Historically, one can see that the rise of new powers never took place peacefully. It is too early to say whether China's re-rise will take place peacefully. China was the largest economy in the 18th century and 'undivided India' was the second largest economy in the world, and 'undivided Bengal' was the richest province. He said, "China's rise to power was not due to colonialism, it was largely due to globalisation."
Bangladesh's success story in containing the Covid-19 pandemic and the initial fear of radicalization in the Rohingya camps went unnoticed in many respects, Dr. Yasmin pointed out. She suggested the need for "keeping the issue alive" in every forum possible where YPF can play a significant role, especially the youth diaspora. While Dr. Yasmin pointed out that it is innate in Bangladesh's foreign policy to support the causes of people whose voices are being suppressed, therefore, taking cue from the "Concert for Bangladesh", a "Concert for the Rohingya" can be arranged. Dr. Ahmed enthusiastically pointed out how YPF can arrange the Bangladesh youth diaspora community and can arrange this globally using an online platform.
Both the panelists reminded the audience that this issue has bilateral, multilateral and global implications. Bangladesh cannot geographically shift its position, which compels both Bangladesh and Myanmar to find a mutually convenient solution on this issue. Dr. Ahmed reminded us of the two unique characteristics of the ICJ verdict, where he was a part of the Bangladesh delegation sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA). He pointed out that the verdict was unanimous and that the nomenclature of 'Rohingya' was used in the verdict. These two particular elements have constrained Myanmar's position on the issue. Bangladesh is eagerly looking forward to the final verdict on the issue.
Dr. Ahmed further stated "Rohingya repatriation seems like a lengthy process this time around unlike the reflux and the subsequent repatriation in the 70's and 90's because the United Nations and the international bodies are putting emphasis on ensuring the citizenship of the Rohingya population before forcing Myanmar to take them back."
While discussing the role of youth in the Rohingya crisis, Dr. Ahmed pointed towards more publicity of the matter through documentaries, comics, paintings and cartoons by changing the pedagogy. This, he believes, will definitely put pressure on Myanmar, making its citizens understand that their government must act quickly to resolve the Rohingya crisis otherwise the moral foundation of their state would come to a naught.
What does a rise in right-wing governments imply for the world?
During the pandemic, unfortunately many right-wing (or conservative) governments are in power in some of the big countries in the world. According to Dr. Ahmed, right-wing governments champion the cause of insularity and singularity in politics, and they don't give importance to international organizations like the UN and WTO. They make people believe that globalization is bad for them. The international community is concerned that the USA might redefine its role in the United Nations. If the US lessens its engagement from international politics, it will have a major impact on the rest of the world. Dr. Yasmin reiterated that "Multilateralism will be threatened if right-wing governments are on the rise"
At the end, Dr. Ahmed reminded everyone that with more development, Bangladesh will have more enemies. He stated, "Given that it is the 7th largest country in the world, we have to be smart in our policies. I believe the youth (that is, those who are ready to work for the change) has a big role to play in shaping the future of our country." He pointed out that Bangladesh perhaps is the only example of "growth without enmity" globally.
The dialogue can be viewed on Youth Policy Forum's Facebook page & YouTube channel. More episodes of the "Road to Reforms" series will be aired periodically leading up to Bangladesh's 50th anniversary of independence.
Shamayla Mahbub is a BSS final year student of International Relations at University of Dhaka.