Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Dipu Moni speaks with World Report about her country’s history, resilience in the face of adversity, its remarkable achievements in food security and women’s empowerment, and its strong lasting ties to the UK and the region
What is your vision on the role that Bangladesh can play in South Asia or maybe the whole of the Asian continent?
Bangladesh, because of its geographic location has so much potential to play the role; it can be a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia. Both are very fast-growing regions in the world and in the context of Asia definitely we have a role to play and now in the context of connectivity within Asia. Bangladesh is being seen as an important piece in that whole scheme of connectivity. Being a South Asian country also has its benefits. If you look at our history, you see it is not just geography but also history binds us with Southeast Asia, with China and also with South Asia. Buddhism spread through Bangladesh to Southeast Asia. If you look at the Buddhist trail, Bangladesh would be an important piece in that trail. I think in the Middle Ages we had some 32 universities or something. Now it is very difficult to even imagine.
These connections are very important. We were part of the silk route as well, at one time. If you look at all of these old connections we were already connected to the Far East and also with the Middle East and beyond. Bangladesh even in those very old days did play a role. We get from all the travel logs or old books written by the famous historians or travellers, the account that we get of Bangladesh is a very prosperous kind of country where people are very hospitable. We had exchanges with the rest of the world. The Portuguese arrived at our shores 500 years ago, so we also had this connection with Europe.
Taking that all into account, I believe and we all believe that given the kind of melting pot that we are, because not just in terms of having people from all religions in this country, but also because it is a delta-plane and we have mostly homogeneous population it has still been a melting pot of all kinds of religions and cultures. We have been very receptive and we have engaged with the world around us with lots of enthusiasm, always. Even 2,000 years ago. When you think about all these things: history, geography, our culture, the kind of people that we have been, I think all of these give us huge potential, to do that again, And continue to do that.
Economically now, financially, we are engaging with the whole world, Europe and America and Southeast Asia, South Asia, Far East and there is continuous engagement with the world, so I think we can do a lot. We are doing a lot, but we can do much more. The potential is huge.
You were mentioning about the refugees. Bangladesh is so open to different religions, such a secular country and at the same time has so much respect for religions. What role would you play with such strong fundamentalist occurrence going on in the world? What example can Bangladesh be?
When we talk about secularism, we were born as a secular country. At our birth in 1971 we declared ourselves to be secular though the majority of the population was Muslim. Why do I think we did that? Because to us culturally we are Bangladeshi first and then we are Muslims, Christians and Buddhists. But we are a very religious people in Bangladesh. Wherever you go you will see that people take their religion seriously. They practice it with the utmost sincerity and seriousness.
But, we have lived in harmony for thousands of years because as I mentioned before, Buddhism actually flourished here and then travelled to Southeast Asia. Then we had Muslims come in. Muslims ruled this part for about 800 years and then in the middle Christianity arrived here. Hinduism was here before that. As I said it was a melting pot. We were living in harmony.
But in 1947 when the India partition took place and Pakistan was born the only thing that was common was religion. Everything else was very different. Our culture, our language, our food. But even that religion, the way we travelled, and practiced was different. In Bangladesh it is more of Sufi Islam we have been heavily influenced by Sufi Islam, it is much more tolerant. Islam is a religion of peace but even within that, in Sufi Islam it is much more. It is living in harmony with everyone else. It’s much more tolerant. Islam itself is a religion that talks about tolerance but Sufi Islam probably practices it much more effectively.
Within a very short period after the formation of Pakistan, people in Bangladesh, the present Bangladesh people here in East Pakistan realised that independence was not going to give us anything. We were the majority, but even our language, the right to our mother tongue was being taken away. So we started our movement very early on. We struggled for 24 years within the Pakistan framework for our rights. Rights to our own language, rights to our own way of life, our culture. We struggled and our leadership, our father of the nation at one point in 1966 gave the six points programme because there was so much discrimination, especially economically. We were producing everything. We were the main foreign currency earner but everything was going to West Pakistan and with our money, money generated and earned by things we made in East Pakistan, things were being built in West Pakistan and we were deprived.
In 1965 when there was the India-Pakistan War, we were left totally unprotected. Then people felt it much more strongly within the Pakistan framework that Bangladesh did not have a place. East Pakistan did not have a place. Also in 1970 when the huge cyclone hit us, there was nothing. The government did not stand by us. So in the 1970 elections Bangladesh Awami League won a landslide victory. They got everything except for a few seats. We had a feeling. We were given it as well by the West Pakistanis that we were being oppressed in the name of religion. Everything, whenever we asked for any rights, the West Pakistanis were like: ‘Oh Islam was in danger.’ They were using Islam to oppress us.
They were using Islam as an excuse.
Exactly. In the 1954 elections when Awami League won the election. Before that election in the campaigns there was this huge thing that if you voted for Awami League Islam will vanish, be totally destroyed. Islam was always used as a pretext to oppress us so when we were born we said: ‘We are Bangladeshi first.’ However religious we are, we as a people are Bangladeshi first and from whatever religion we are. People from all religions will have equal rights under this new disposition. In Bangladesh people from all religions will enjoy equal rights. When we talked about secularism it did not mean not having any religion, it meant every religion would have equal rights.
As such we have kept our relationship with everyone. Also our foreign policy motto by the Father of the Nation is: friendship to all and malice towards none. That meant we were working with everyone and we are prepared to work with everyone. Rich countries, poor countries, Christian countries, Muslim countries, Hindu countries, everyone it does not matter. Having respect for other people, other cultures, other religions.
Something that I find remarkable about this foreign policy motto is that in many spheres, Bangladesh seems like a poverty stricken nation. Of course there is poverty in this country, but there are so many things that Bangladesh has given to the world as a legacy, lessons to the world, like disaster management and women’s empowerment. What would you say are the main lessons of this legacy that Bangladesh can give to the world that the world should acknowledge?
There are so many things that this country has done and has shown to the world. The indomitable spirit and the resilience of the people, it is just unbelievable. The people can be happy with so little and can build life with so little. This country has a very rich culture and a long heritage.
Even in terms of innovation we have done so well. Just think about porcelain, something very small but having profound impact on humanity all over the world, saving millions of lives every year and that was done here in Dhaka.
When we all talk about Gandhi and his nonviolence. In 1971 for the first 25 days of the March at the call of our Father of the Nation what our people did was a nonviolent movement to establish our rights. That is still one of the finest examples of Gandhi’s nonviolence. From 26 a genocidal war was thrust upon us. In that we fought with very little against one of the most well-trained, well-armed and well-equipped army in the world and we defeated them within nine months. That is because of the unity, the resilience, and as I said, the indomitable spirit of the people that we could do that.
What we have achieved in the past 40 years, we have had to go through many difficult phases of military dictatorships, but still what we have achieved, like women’s empowerment, where we have gone, it has not just come from nowhere. In this country we have a long tradition of women participating in politics. Even during the British period, there were women who led anti-British movements and were martyred in that movement.
Then in our language movement, women participated in a big way. In our Liberation War women from all walks of life participated. Not just as helpers but also as freedom fighters, they fought in the war. In the past 20 years our women have not just contributed a lot, but also have taken responsibility for doing so much. A lot of it has been consolidated and given an expression in the past 15 years because in 1996 when our government came for the first time after 29 years Sheik Hasina for the first time broke the glass ceiling for women. For years there were no women in the highest judiciary. We did not have a high court woman judge. That was the first time that a woman was appointed in the high court division. We never had a woman ambassador. That was the first time we had a woman ambassador. We never had a female secretary to the government. That was the first time a woman was made a secretary.
Women were taken into the armed forces. We had women in the police but we never had women in the armed forced, and now you see them as lieutenants and colonels in the Navy, Army and Air Force. It has changed so much. Including women at every sector at the top, but also at the same time the local government 30% of the seats were reserved where direct elections were held and over night we had more than 12,000 elected women in the local government all over the country. That has changed the face of politics in this country. Then in the last election it was the first time that any party nominated so many women in the direct seats. Eighteen us were nominated, 16 of us got elected. In our parliament now we have 20% women representation, which we never had in the past. A chunk of it is through reserved seats but still we never had so many and we never had so many elected women in the parliament.
Sheik Hasina has done a lot in terms of women empowerment and having the right policies in place, putting the right policies in place, giving them their rights, creating opportunities for them.
Also social safety net programmes – giving cash allowances to widows, old women, abandoned women, street children, freedom fighters, all sorts of people. A huge number of people are included under these safety net programmes and the cash transfers, maybe they are small, but they help in a big way.
Also investing in education, especially girls’ education. You can see that it has a sort of chain effect. When you invest in a girl’s education violence diminishes. The girl gets married at a later age, rather than at an early age. Child mortality and maternal mortality goes down. There is more of a chance of the next generation getting more of an education. It is a chain of events that happens through investment in girls. Investment in education as a whole.
There are many of these things that Bangladesh has done and has done so well. Maybe some other countries have also done it, but Bangladesh has done it so well, especially in these sectors despite the poverty and the challenges. This country is so densely populated. One of the most densely populated countries in the world. I do not know whether I have mentioned this to you before, but to have our kind of density you would have to put 7 billion people of the earth inside US territories. Only then would they have our kind of population density. Managing that is a huge thing.
They say that Bangladesh is sort of a question mark to the world, how does it survive with so many natural disasters and so many people?
Our disaster management. In 1970 when the big one hit we lost about a million people. In 1991 we lost around 100,000 people. In 2008, I think about 3,000. All these three were of similar intensity. How did that happen? That happened because of our intention, because of our experience in 1970. Very early on we started working on this area and then in 1998 when there was a huge flood. For three months 70% of the country was underwater. The BBC predicted that 20 million people would die. No one died.
No one died?
Well there were natural deaths, and a few here and there by snakebites and whatnot, but not a single one because they starved to death. A few cases of drowning but that happens during every flood, especially with children, any where in the world. No one died because of starvation. That is when even the World Bank and other people said: ‘well the government works.’ Even in a country like Bangladesh government works.
Then the agricultural rehabilitation that took place, it was unbelievable. We developed a standard operating procedure at that time in 1998 that we have now formalised. It works so well, and so smoothly. Any time that there is a disaster everyone knows what to do. The warning system works so well and it is community based. People listen to the radios, people go on bicycles, raise flags, do all kinds of things. Now especially with the Internet and mobile phones it is much better. In the old days it was not as easy, but still people did it. Just think we are a very small country in terms of geography.
It is only twice the size of Ireland and there are only four million of us.
And we are 160 million yet we are still able to feed ourselves. That is an amazing achievement. We doubled the population in 40 years. In 1971 we were 75 million and we could produce only about 60% of our food requirement.
So when the population doubled land became less but we still grew more food, and more and more. We first became self-sufficient in food between 1996 and 2001 when Sheik Hasina was Prime Minister. She said, unless we are self-sufficient in food we are not going to be able to do anything. If we have to depend on others for food, then we will be exploited. We will not do that. We increased our production many folds. How did we do that? We gave farmers all kinds of incentives. We gave them all the inputs at a normal cost and gave them enough incentives so that they also felt encouraged.
After 2001, like it almost always is, we stood back and we were no longer self-sufficient in food because the government at that time, the Finance Minster during that period said: ‘well if you are self sufficient in food then you do not get foreign aid.’ So that was funny.
Now for the past four years we are trying that again and we are nearly self-sufficient again. Also in terms of adapting to climate change we are doing quite well. We are one of the most vulnerable countries, not just in terms of numbers of population that is going to be affected, but also in the total area that is going to be affected. We did not wait for foreign aid, foreign funding or foreigners to come and do our programmes and whatnot. With our very meagre resources we formulated our plans and chucked out elaborate programmes. We have already started working on them.
Our government has always put a lot of emphasis on research, science and technology. In agriculture also we have put in a lot of effort in research. Through that we have come up with the salient resistant varieties of crops, drought resistant varieties and also submergence tolerant varieties of crops. These are essential for those areas that are affected.
There are many kinds of adaptation strategies that we are following. We have undertaken this huge task of dredging our rivers. We have 700 rivers, but the rivers in the southern areas are mostly in need of dredging and we are doing that. It is a multipronged approach, dredging the rivers, raising the embankments, reclaiming land. We have created green belts across the coastal areas. Coming up with all these kinds of new varieties of crops. Creating alternative employment generation for people because they would mostly likely lose their traditional livelihood.
It is a multipronged approach and we are doing quite well, even with our very limited resources. We have not received much funding. Whatever we could afford to do we have already started, but definitely we will need support.
Our publication is going to be in the UK, what would you say about them?
The UK is one country that has kept its word. It has been a great partner in climate change, adaptation, mitigation work, addressing climate change. The UK has been working relentlessly with countries like Bangladesh and they are cooperating and they are the ones who also put out funds, others have not. Very few have given money and also not the kind of amounts they should have. The UK has done quite well.
Bangladesh with its colonial past, this is a complex relationship I think all across the Commonwealth these are things that are quite common. In our system, whatever is bad we blame the UK for. We love the Queen. We all have the same kind of those old buildings, the architecture. We share the same language, other than our mother tongue. English is common to all the countries. The legal system is a common law system, and it is very similar. It is a very strong system. In Bangladesh we have had a very strong heritage there in the judiciary. With the UK it is a very complex relationship, but when we look at UK-Bangladesh relationship, that relationship is solid. It is very strong, very close. I would say it is a great partnership whether in development, whether in trade and investment, whether in arts and culture, it is a great, great partnership.
I think some of the Bangladeshi diaspora living in the UK are also a big factor in this relationship. One great institution in this relationship is the British Council. DFID plays a big role. DFID works through our NGOs and they also work in collaboration with the government. British companies have invested in Bangladesh in a big way and we have a very good trading relationship. It is a comprehensive relationship with the UK on all levels. People-to-people, government-to-government, business-to-business, party-to-party, even political parties. It is a fantastic relationship going back a long way. It is a comprehensive relationship and for many people outside of Bangladesh, outside Dhaka – London would probably be the first step outside – it is that kind of a relationship. It is very close and people in Bangladesh appreciate it very much, the closeness and the support that we receive.
At the same time our people that are in the UK are contributing tremendously to the UK economy. Our culture has also become part of the UK culture. Whether it is curry. Most of the Indian restaurants in the UK are actually Bangladeshi restaurants. Now more and more are writing on the outside: ‘Indian and Bangladeshi Cuisine.’ Previously they only put Indian Cuisine, now they feel much more comfortable saying Indian and Bangladeshi cuisine. People are getting more used to Bangladeshi cuisine and Bangladeshi culture. I think there is a lot of attraction in the UK also for our art, culture, cuisine and our way of life.
We already have a Bangladeshi-British MP in the House of Commons, Rushanara Ali. We are proud of her. She is another bond amongst us. We also have another member in the House of Lords. We have many bonds. It is a comprehensive relationship and a great partnership.
Going through your family history your father was the founding member of Awami League and a close associate with the Father of the Nation. He was in prison for several years and several times in his life. Did you feel the call to devote yourself to your country, or did you consciously decide to do it years after?
I was born into politics and always wanted to be a politician because that is all I saw around me. I saw my father, his friends and colleagues. I was 3 or 4 at the time of the big movement, before our War of Independence in ‘69. That is when I saw everything happen and the first consciousness. I always wanted to be in politics. When I finished school in the twelfth grade I always knew I would be in politics but I wanted to study. I thought I would study either literature or physics. It sounds contradictory, but those are the things that I really loved.
My mother was very insistent and wanted to me to become a professional, which meant to be a doctor, lawyer or architect. She herself was a daughter of a lawyer. I said OK: ‘Maybe I will be an architect’. I was thinking about creativity. My father said: ‘it is your life and your decision, but as a father because I know you will be in politics. You should become a doctor. It will be easier to be independent and be of service to people’. I said: ‘OK’ – it sounded very reasonable.
I got into medical school and immediately after that my father passed away. I became a doctor. I knew I would not be able to give time to clinical medicine, so I decided to do public health and understand policy dimensions. I studied for my masters in public health and came back to the country. I wanted to study law because I wanted to understand the constitution and state structure, functioning and the relationship between state organs and how they functioned. I did that. Then I decided to top that up, not because I wanted another degree in law, but I was doing research in health legislation and decided because of my masters in public health from Hopkins maybe people will not say anything, if I comment on health dimension, but with my first degree in law, if I made serious comments about the legal aspects, they might question my understanding. But mainly because I wanted a better understanding, so I studied for my masters in Law.
By that time I was already too involved. I was in the process of building my constituency. Just after I did my first degree in Law I had sought nomination from my constituency and at the last moment the party decided to give it to somebody else. I participated in the election campaign. That meant I had to wait another five years.
I continued to work in the constituency within the party and became a member of the subcommittee on international affairs of the party and then became the women’s affairs secretary of the party. I was then nominated for the elections, which were supposed to be held in January 2007, but did not happen until December 2008. The first time I did the elections I got elected. Six days later I was given this responsibility and I am working here and enjoying it tremendously. It is a great opportunity to serve my people and country. I am very grateful not only to my party, party leader and parliamentary board for giving me this opportunity, but also I am grateful to all the people that I have come across in my life. Those who have supported me have given me so much. Even those that tried to stop me or raised obstacles in my path, it is because of them that I have learnt to overcome those obstacles. I am grateful to all of them.
It is great to know you. Whenever I see journalists I feel good because my father managed one of the major newspapers in the country. He groomed many celebrated journalists of this country. Maybe with the exception of one or two, all of the editors and journalists that I see I get a lot of affection from. That is nothing to do with me. It is all to do with my father and what he left behind, his legacy. That is the best thing that any parent can leave behind for their children. The goodwill that he left behind, not just in the world of politics, but also in journalism and literature – he had friends from all those worlds. He was a great man. He left that behind for his children to enjoy and benefit from. It is wonderful. I Just hope that I can leave something like that behind for my children.
What can you tell us about the Shahbag protest following the trial of Abdul Quader Mollah at the International Crimes Tribunal?
This is something that is totally spontaneous. People in this country have been waiting for justice for 40 years, and the tribunals have started their work and the verdicts are coming out. The first one came out and it was a death sentence. The second one came out and it was life imprisonment. The movement started within a few hours. It has spread throughout the country now.
They are there 24/7 and they are not going anywhere. They are so clear in their minds about what they want. They have said we waited for so many years and these are criminals who have committed genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Unless we give them appropriate punishment there will be no right. No one can punish other people for other crimes, if this crime is not addressed properly.
They have gone back to our slogan during wartime: Joy Bangla. Everybody around the world knew us through that slogan. Victory to Bangladesh. Everybody said Joy Bangla during the revolution. The Awami League and the Father of the Nation before the War of Liberation brought this slogan forward. It became the only slogan for the War of Liberation. After the assassination of the Father of the Nation and the four leaders, when President Ziaur Rahman took over he changed the slogan. Everybody had to say Bangladesh Zindabad like it was before in the Pakistani days. Everybody had to say Pakistan Zindabad. He said we would have to say Bangladesh Zindabad. Anybody who said Joy Bangla would get into trouble. For saying it people would even lose their jobs and be sent to jail.
It was only the Awami League who struggled and kept on saying this and kept on suffering. Then within time it became a slogan only for Awami League, not the whole nation. Not because other people did not want to say it, but because it was seen as something that you must to do by the government and the military leaders. Awami League said it not because they thought it was their property, but because they were the only ones that kept on saying it despite all the challenges. Now these children who do not belong to any party have gone back to Joy Bangla. Everybody is saying it now. Now the opposition are saying that because the children are saying it they must be Awami League. They say they are not. They say: ‘We are people of Bangladesh’.
This was our slogan in ‘71 and we have gone back to that spirit. It is beautiful. People said that these are the Internet children and they are the lost generation and will not concentrate on the issues in the country. They have proved all of us wrong.