BANGLADESH, among Bhutan’s closest and friendliest neighbours, has every reason to celebrate not one but two landmark events — the golden jubilee of Independence and birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the architect of Bangladesh’s freedom struggle. The father of the nation would have been proud to see that his dream for ‘Shonar Bangla’ being achieved under the dynamic leadership of his beloved daughter, Sheikh Hasina.
The country has indeed come a long way since its birth amidst war, famine and natural disasters. It was once derorgatively called a ‘basket case’ a few decades ago by a senior official from the west, and is now being cited as a model for its outstanding achievements in combating child poverty, including in his own country! I am not surprised. I have also witnessed first-hand, corporations like Square Pharmaceuticals, the Mohammadi Group, Ayat Foundation, Durjoy Foundation, Paramount and others dedicating their time and personal resources to help children and women through educational programmes and even setting up schools and universities for the underprivileged children in their community. The World Bank has commended Bangladesh for lifting 25 million Bangladeshis from poverty in the past 15 years.
The government and the people of Bangladesh were poised to welcome SAARC leaders to the anniversary celebrations whose predecessors 50 years ago lent unequivocal support during the country’s darkest and most difficult period in their history. Among the top on that list was the king of Bhutan whose grandfather king Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was the first leader to recognise Bangladesh. Unfortunately the grand celebrations had to be cancelled due to the COVID -19 pandemic.
The programme has now been set in motion, albeit on a smaller scale and staggered manner. The president of Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka have already participated in the celebrations and held meetings with Sheikh Hasina. The prime minister of Bhutan will be arriving Dhaka today, followed by prime minister Modi of India a few days later.
Bangladesh and Bhutan have enjoyed the best of neighbourly ties and increasing bilateral cooperation. It was my pleasure and privilege to have played a modest role during my tenure as ambassador in Dhaka. What follows, in the spirit of the historic moment, is a personal reflection and a snapshot of the highlights of the excellent bilateral relations between our two countries.
After receiving the king’s audience and blessings, I arrived in Dhaka in August 2016 right after the brutal killing of several innocent people, mostly foreigners, by armed men at the Holey Artisan Cafe in Dhaka. The incident naturally cast a dark shadow in the city and everyone, especially the diplomatic community, was tense and concerned for their personal safety despite additional security measures put in place by the host government. It did not take long for the situation to normalise and for everyone to move on with their lives. I was deeply impressed by the resilience and determination of the leaders and the people of Bangladesh. I felt confident I would have a successful and enjoyable tenure.
During my first call on the prime minister Sheikh Hasina in 2016 the prime minister said when the news of Bhutan recognising Bangladesh came over the radio, she and everyone around her were deeply touched and ecstatic. And that she and the people of Bangladesh will never forget Bhutan’s support on that day.
On this occasion, it is important to reflect on the circumstances that led to Bhutan recognising Bangladesh via a telegram on December 6, 1971 from the third king when it was still not a republic and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was in prison! The king’s decision was a very personal one because he was deeply moved by what he saw when he toured the refugee camps around Kolkata. In my view, it also reflects the compassionate nature of our monarchs that has been demonstrated on numerous occasions over the years.
Once such immense goodwill generated, it is up to diplomats and bureaucrats to nurture the relationship and strengthen cooperation and ties. The prime noted that in the last couple of years, relations between Bhutan and Bangladesh reached ‘unprecedented heights’ and was kind to give credit to the ambassador and his team for it. Needless to say, without her personal support and the abiding affection of successive Bhutanese kings for the people of Bangladesh, none of these would have been possible. It is also a tribute to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the third king for laying a solid foundation. As I said, it is in this spirit that I wish to most humbly share a few highlights of what transpired during my tenure in 2016–2019:
— Visit by prime minister Sheikh Hasina to Thimphu in April 2017 at the invitation of the king.
— Visit by the prime minister Dr Lotay Tshering to Dhaka in April 2019 at the invitation of the prime minister of Bangladesh.
— The two visits led to the signing of several MOUs to promote trade, agriculture, education, culture, tourism and cooperation in hydropower energy etc.
— Bhutan hosted the International Conference on Neuro-Developmental Disorder under the leadership of Saima Husain, a leading expert and voice on neuro-developmental disorders.
— Successful trial-run of transporting 1000 metric tonnes of stones from Dhubri, Assam to Narayanganj, Dhaka using inland waterways.
— Increase in MBBS and Dental slots for Bhutan from 7 in 2016 to 17 by 2019.
— Increase in the volume and value of exports from Bhutan to Bangladesh from $32 million in 2016 to $47 million in 2018, to $83 million in 2018 and $100 million in 2019.
— Special concessions granted to Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines.
— Essential medicines donated to Bhutan to sustain distribution of free medicines in the country.
— Granting of duty-free access to 16 products from Bhutan under Preferential Trade Agreement which was signed recently.
— 19 specialists and sub-specialists from Bangladesh to work in Bhutan to meet the acute shortage of such doctors in Bhutan.
— Signing of the Deed of Lease with RAJUK thus formalising the registration of Royal Bhutanese Embassy plot in Baridhara gifted in 2014.
— Delegations from Bhutan including technical teams to Cox’s Bazar to import internet bandwidth from Bangladesh.
I hope that the above summary gives an indication of the depth and width of cooperative efforts of our two countries and the modest achievements to which my team was able to contribute. Relations between Bangladesh and Bhutan at the highest levels have never been better and stronger.
And with Bangladesh poised to become a developed nation, we, in Bhutan, must use the opportunity to ride on the success of Bangladesh.
Sonam Tobden Rabgye is a former ambassador of Bhutan to Bangladesh.