Improving Bangladesh-Pakistan Ties: Apology is a must to heal wounds

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan called his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina on Wednesday

Jul 25, 2020

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan called his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina on Wednesday. In not so common a conversation, they exchanged greetings and discussed the flood and coronavirus situations in both countries.

Imran Khan spoke about strengthening regional cooperation through Saarc and stressed on bilateral relations between the two countries. He also described Pakistan's position on the Jammu and Kashmir issue and sought a peaceful resolution.

Both prime ministers' offices issued statements, but none of those spoke about the issues Hasina raised with Imran Khan.

On July 1, Pakistan's newly-appointed High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Imran Ahmad Siddiqui, met Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen in Dhaka. The details of the discussion were not known, but on both occasions, the Pakistan side appeared to be eager to improve relations with Bangladesh.

Against this backdrop, questions have been raised about whether Bangladesh is in fact improving its relationship with Pakistan. If the answer is yes, the question becomes how that will unfold, given the brutal legacy of Pakistan's gruesome killing of some 30 lakh Bangladeshis and rape of hundreds of thousands of women during the Liberation War in 1971, memories of which are still fresh in the popular mind.

Some Indian media outlets have looked on the meeting between Momen and Imran Siddiqui suspiciously, especially as it took place at a time when India-China relations are at their worst after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a clash between Indian and Chinese forces at Galwan Valley in mid-June.

India's Telegraph newspaper in an article titled "Delhi Distracted, Pakistan at Play" on July 12 wrote that the meeting comes at a time when India is fire-fighting on multiple fronts with China, and smaller neighbours like Nepal and Sri Lanka. Over the past few months, Delhi has been watching Dhaka and Beijing warm up to each other, the article said.

Quoting a source in Delhi, it added: "And now, Pakistan is trying to be diplomatically more active in Bangladesh… Things seem to be changing very fast."

The article went on to say that a pro-Pakistani lobby remains active in Bangladesh and tries to influence Bangladesh's foreign policy, prioritising Pakistan and not India, which stood by Bangladesh during the Liberation War.

Asked about this, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said the media can write a lot of things, but questioned whether they were based on facts.

On the content of his meeting with the Pakistani envoy on July 1, he told The Daily Star that for nearly two years Pakistan did not have a high commissioner in Dhaka, and the new envoy, after presenting credentials in February, was just making a courtesy call.

"During the meeting, I told the Pakistani envoy that you have not yet formally apologised for the genocide in 1971," the foreign minister said. Asked about Siddiqui's reply, Momen said, "He did not reply, but said he would relay this to his government."

Asked if Bangladesh wants to improve relations with Pakistan, he said Bangladesh believes in friendship with all. There are some levels of trade between Bangladesh and Pakistan, but some recent behaviour seriously irritated Bangladesh. For example, Pakistan parliament adopted resolutions against the war crimes trial of Bangladesh, which hanged some major criminals who committed crimes against humanity in 1971. That actually further soured Bangladesh-Pakistan relations. That could be the factor why Pakistan's application for appointing its envoy was not accepted for nearly two years until November last year.

Now a new Pakistan high commissioner has been appointed, the country is eager to heal wounded relations with Bangladesh. The question is if it is possible and how far.

Prof Imtiaz Ahmed of international relations at Dhaka University said if Pakistan really wants to improve relations with Bangladesh, the first and foremost thing that it has to do is to formally apologise to Bangladesh for the genocide committed by the Pakistani military in the 1971 Liberation War. Pakistan also has to commit that it will not repeat the mistakes it made by opposing the war crimes trial.

"The relationship with Pakistan cannot go forward without that," he told The Daily Star.

The general relationship, which includes cooperation in Saarc, can surely go on, Prof Imtiaz said. In recent times there seems to be a realisation within Pakistani society that Bangladesh is doing better on socio-economic fronts and Imran Khan himself appreciates that. Imran Khan is not a typical Muslim League type of leader and if his regime has a change in mindset, the bilateral relations between the two countries can also eventually see change, he added.

Asked if it is possible when India-Pakistan relations is at one of its lowest ebbs, especially in relation to the Jammu & Kashmir issue and Pakistan's strong bond with China, Prof Imtiaz said that depends on India and Pakistan. India has problems with many of its neighbours -- Sri Lanka, Nepal. Even, people in Bangladesh are not happy over India's role in regard to Rohingya refugees' repatriation and the National Registrar of Citizenship. Therefore, India's relationship with other countries should not affect Bangladesh's relations with those countries, he added.

"India has strong ties with the US… does not mean it has no relations with Russia and China," Imtiaz Ahmed said.

Munshi Faiz Ahmad, former chairperson of Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies, also agreed. He said there is no hurry for Bangladesh to improve relations with Pakistan unless Pakistan apologises for what its military did in 1971.

However, Pakistan's eagerness for cooperation among Saarc countries is positive. This is something initiated by Bangladesh and it can help address many of the region's problems. But enmity between India and Pakistan has made it almost non-functional, he said.

Munshi Faiz said the pandemic is once again showing how regional cooperation is important. India is a rising global power and if it really wants to lead at the global stage, it needs to overcome narrow national interests and be a regional leader first.

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