Bangladesh and Pakistan must build on current goodwill: It is time to move on from past bitterness
Current geopolitical realities imply that Pakistan must not interfere in Bangladesh’s internal affairs, nor question Bangladesh’s close ties with India, a country that has actively helped Bangladesh in its liberation, a relation that has passed the test of time and is historic.
Pakistan's Deputy Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen of Bangladesh discussed “mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation” in several areas, especially economy and trade, when the two met recently in Colombo on the sidelines of the Independence Day celebrations in Sri Lanka.
According to Radio Pakistan, Khar expressed her satisfaction with the growing commercial relations between the two countries. She emphasised the importance of enhancing economic, trade, and investment ties, as well as increasing tourism and people-to-people interactions.
The minister also highlighted the shared perspectives of Pakistan and Bangladesh on various international issues, particularly those related to the Muslim world.
Her comments reflect the growing cooperation and positive momentum between the two countries, analysts said. Pakistan and Bangladesh have made significant progress in strengthening their relationship over the years. The relationship took a positive turn in March 2021 when then Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan wrote a letter of congratulations to his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina on the occasion of Bangladesh’s 50th independence anniversary.
Bangladesh’s response was positive, with PM Hasina stating that her country was committed to maintaining peaceful and cooperative relationships with its neighbouring countries, “including Pakistan”.
Younger generation seeks stronger ties
Despite both being South Asian countries, sharing the same religion, culture, and history, the relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh aren’t warm at the moment. The reason for the lukewarm relations even after five decades of separation and the independence of Bangladesh through a particularly violent liberation war are mainly two – namely, the hurt of the 1971 Liberation War is still quite raw and, more importantly, Pakistan has not officially apologized so far for the war crimes they committed prior to the 'liberation' in 1971.
However, as they say, quite a bit of water has since gone down the Buriganga and the Indus rivers. There are now new realities that call for both sides to appreciate and mutually accept the evolving dynamics. Both Bangladesh and Pakistan need to resolve their problems and move forward. Indeed, for the sake of the prosperity and security of both nations, relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan must be improved.
It is evident that for the last two years, Pakistan has been trying to strengthen relations with Bangladesh, and given that both Bangladesh and Pakistan share the same political history and similar cultural and social norms and, more importantly, both tend to gain economically through improved trade and investment relations, it is important relations between these two countries are cemented as soon as possible.
The younger generation of both countries is very keen to forge stronger ties between these two Muslim-majority countries in the region.
Painful past barrier to closer economic and trade ties
There is huge potential for bilateral economic and trade cooperation. Among other things, the trade imbalance between the two countries must be addressed. According to the State Bank of Pakistan, Pakistan’s exports to Bangladesh in 2019 stood at USD 736 million, while Bangladesh’s exports to Pakistan were only USD 44 million.
Despite some challenges, the good news is that bilateral trade between Pakistan and Bangladesh is growing, albeit, gradually. According to media reports and statements of the State Bank of Pakistan, Pakistan’s trade with Bangladesh witnessed an increase of 46.65 percent during the first six months of the financial year (2021-22) as compared to the corresponding period of last year. The overall exports to Bangladesh from Pakistan were recorded at $399.408 million during July-December against exports of $274.246 million during the same period last year, showing a growth of 45.63 percent, On a year-on-year basis, during December 2021, exports to Bangladesh from Pakistan increased 52.01 percent, from $54.433 million to $82.746 million. Similarly, on a month-on-month basis, imports rose by 14.38 percent during December 2021 in comparison with exports of $72.339 million in November 2021. Pakistan and Bangladesh should ink a free trade agreement to boost their trade volume.
In today’s globalized world of free trade, every country is leaving, to the extent possible, the politics behind and focusing on closer economic and trade ties for mutual benefit. There are also moves to establish compatible economic zones and alliances.
However, given the history and recent horrific memories of war violence that Bangladesh suffered at the hands of the Pakistan military in 1971, forging closer ties between Bangladesh and Pakistan is anything but easy. Relations between these countries have been mostly sour or bumpy at best. Relations nosedived in 2016 when in a war crime trial, Bangladesh executed several leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islam for their participation in the 1971 war crimes. Pakistan, where the Jamaat Islam Party has a strong following and many of the Bangladeshi Jamaat leaders who were executed used to be former colleagues of the Pakistan Jamaat, condemned the executions and labelled them politically motivated actions. Bangladesh saw this as Pakistan’s “interference” in the internal matters of Bangladesh and relations between the two countries deteriorated to the extent that diplomats were expelled from respective sides.
Closing the gap, increasing the gains
Since Imran Khan became the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2018, things started to improve significantly. His phone call to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in December 2020 was proof that Pakistan was ready for a change. During the phone call, Imran Khan invited PM Hasina to visit Islamabad.
In August 2021, the Imran phone call was followed up with what has come to be known in diplomatic circles as “mango diplomacy” – Bangladesh Prime Minister’s gift of a basket of delicious mangoes to the PM of Pakistan. After this, the Pakistani envoy to Bangladesh met with PM Hasina in October 2021. In the meeting, PM Hasina reportedly expressed her desire to strengthen bilateral trade ties with Pakistan. Indeed, there were indications of ice melting the ice between the two.
Current geopolitical realities imply that Pakistan must not interfere in Bangladesh’s internal affairs, nor question Bangladesh’s close ties with India, a country that has actively helped Bangladesh in its liberation, a relation that has passed the test of time and is historic. Pakistan must respect and appreciate these realities and work its way through issues more pragmatically and maturely.
In other words, Bangladesh and Pakistan must capitalize on the recent goodwill promoted by Imran Khan and follow up with measures that translate into tangible outcomes. A more viable and less painful way is indeed through stronger economic ties. Therefore, it is important that both countries take steps to reduce tensions and work together to promote the well-being of both nations at multiple levels.
Bangladesh and Pakistan together make up five percent of the world’s population. The people-to-people contact, religious tourism, scholarship exchange etc. can be the potential sectors to promote better understanding and mutual empathy between the two people. At the economic level, reconnecting ports (air, sea) between the two states is very necessary to bolster the ties. Bangladesh should explore the usage of Pakistan’s seaports (Karachi, Gwadar, Keti Bandar, Qassim, CPEC). Pakistan can take advantage of Bangladesh’s emerging and buoyant consumer market and, more importantly, through Bangladesh’s port facilities, access the landlocked markets of Nepal, Bhutan, and Southeast Asia.
Closer economic, diplomatic, and cultural ties between Bangladesh and Pakistan are key to the mutual benefit of both these countries and essential to the broader prosperity of the region.
(The author is a researcher-writer and teacher in Rajshahi, Bangladesh. Views are personal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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