Bangladesh is faced with a multi-pronged crisis. The ongoing influx of Rohingya refugees in the hundreds of thousands has tested the country, while the situation and its implications will define geopolitics in the region in the coming days.
WION’s Bangladesh Bureau Chief Saad Hammadi spoke to Hossain Toufique Imam, the political affairs adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Saad Hammadi: Advisor Imam, thank you for joining us.
To begin with, we have come across a recent report of a failed assassination attempt on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on August 24. The Prime Minister’s Office in Bangladesh has dismissed the report saying that it is false and irresponsible journalism. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has survived several assassination attempts in the past. For the record for our audience, please share with us when was the last time Prime Minister Hasina has survived such an assassination attempt.
Hossain Toufique Imam: The most serious attempt was on the 21st of August, 2004. That was the grenade attack not only our honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, she was the leader of the opposition at the time, but also the entire top leadership of Awami League. That was the plan of the then ruling party. It was essentially state managed., state organised, state-orchestrated. The then state minister for home and prime minister’s son were directly involved. There have been multiple cases on this. The main murder case revolving the 21st August is nearing an end. The evidences, witnesses and the documents revealed that the totality of the plan was very well executed. They were able to kill at least 22 leaders of the party including Ivy Rahman, who was a very respected leader and wife of the last president of Bangladesh Zillur Rahman. Almost 500 were injured. There are still many people who are bearing the scars of that attack. Thirteen arges grenades exploded, which are used in war only. They were manufactured in Pakistan. The grenades that were recovered later, they were all arges grenades with the seal of Pakistan Ordnance Factory.
SH: As we look into the present crisis that Bangladesh is facing with, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has waged an armed struggle in Myanmar and some of them may have joined with the Rohingyas who have fled into Bangladesh. We have come across reports suggesting that this terrorist outfit has nexus with the opposition party and the Pakistan intelligence. They may be orchestrating attacks in the future. What are your thoughts on this?
HTI: You see this is a very old problem. The relationship between the Rohingyas and our people here, between the militants, goes back to many years. It was during Pakistan time that the Rohingya Liberation Front was organised. The Rohingya Liberation Army was created. With both of them, the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan was deeply involved with funding from abroad. That had continued for many years. Only during the period of Bangabandhu between the early 1972 and mid-1975, they were expelled. There was trace of Rohingya militant camps in Bangladesh. Then, after Bangabandhu’s death, the external operatives came back. The militants also came back and from 1975 to 1996, almost continuously throughout this period, there was nexus between the government in power, first Ziaur Rahman, then General Ershad, then again Begum Khaleda Zia, during all that time they received assistance. The government turned the eyes away when it came to their knowledge. The result was the militants with other groups here started movement easily. The late Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, who was hanged last year, who was a top leader of BNP and earlier at the Muslim League, was reportedly the major connection for not only giving the militants assistance but also in gun running. Arms and ammunition used to flow in that corridor. Many of these were sent to India for the northeastern states, the seven sisters. It was a safe haven for movement of arms and ammunition, drugs and now you can see Yaba, and also human trafficking. These usually go together. That’s why I say that it’s a long history. Only during the first term of Sheikh Hasina between 1996 and 2000, she was able to drive them out again. That was the period of lull. During that period the Prime Minister was able to solve the crisis in Chittagong Hill Tracts. She signed the Chittagong Hill Tracts peace accord. That was held throughout the world. Peace came back to Chittagong Hill Tracts. The accord has been more or less implemented by them. At the time of signing this agreement, there was so much of opposition from Pakistan, from BNP, from Jamaat. It is on record that Begum Zia said that if the peace accord is signed, the next day Indian, the Indian flags will fly in Chittagong Hill Tracts. Feni will become part of India. There was a massive propaganda against the peace accord. That itself suggests that BNP did not like and want that there is any peace there. That would ensure the free flow of arms, ammunition, drugs, human trafficking and control by the ISI. The period between 2001-2006 was the worst. Not only for the local people but all the militants, the rise of Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh and most recently we hear about other militant groups’ names, they were involved in the racket.
SH: We have recently come across reports that the Rohingya insurgent groups may be conspiring with the opposition in Bangladesh and the intelligence of Pakistan to hatch attacks in Bangladesh. How credible are these threats?
HTI: Given the background and what they did in the past, the nexus that was seen in August 2004, you can presume that they are not sitting idle. Only a few days back one of the staunch supporters of BNP, a retired major general Fazlur Rahman came out with a suggestion that we should not only give shelter to the Rohingyas but we should create a Rohingya army and that will go and that will create their own land in Rakhine province and that will be an independent Rakhine. But this is an atrocious idea. Some of the BNP leaders say that Bangladesh should have done more. What else can be done? The ovation that was given to Bangladesh Prime Minister at the UN, even the United States along with United Kingdom, France and several members of the security council convened the meeting to discuss Rohingya issues for a third time. They are all coming to support in a very large manner which they didn’t do before. This time around I think we have been able to really make it an international issue. The BNP and Jamaat are for more aggressive stance. Where would it lead us to? Do you want a war with Myanmar? That is what they are suggesting because sending trained guerrillas from Bangladesh, let us say Rohingya Liberation Army or the ARSA with arms and training in Bangladesh into Myanmar would immediately bring in Myanmar reaction and our armed forces would be face to face with them. That is what they want.
SH: The Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has had an informal meeting with the foreign ministers in New York and she has said that the regional cooperation among the SAARC member states are facing an impediment due to the peace and security crisis in the region. Bangladesh is, of course, a key member in the regional and economic cooperation and corridors such as the BCIM and BBIN. With the violence erupting in Myanmar and the impact on Bangladesh, how do you see these regional pacts being impacted?
HTI: Naturally, I think Sushma Swaraj is right that our regional cooperation is not working the way it should. In fact, it has never taken off the way it should have.
What is very important (to notice) is that within six hours of the publication of the Kofi Annan report, the ARSA militants attacked more than 25 Burmese border police outposts and even an army camp. It was very well orchestrated. We have heard, I don’t have any confirmation, that the timing had something to do with meetings that were held in London, also in Karachi and the attacks.
The other thing that poses a big question is why now? Bangladesh is on a very rapid stride on development, we have achieved a very remarkable 7.2 growth rate, all the major projects, mega projects and other projects that this government has taken up, the seventh five-year plan is nearing completion. We have completed all the MDG goals. We have now launched in a very large manner the SDG goals. We are poised to become a middle-income country by 2021. This is on the development scenario. On the other side, the elections are around. Bangladesh national elections will be held in a year’s time. This is the time when they have chosen, in my own analysis, to start this. Last October there was a similar crisis but on a much lower scale. That time also the Rohingya exodus was sparked off by the militants. At that time almost 200,000 came in. First, we stopped them and later on they were allowed to come in. This time the Myanmar government has also responded that we should work out a joint strategy for meting (out) this common enemy, the ARSA. They are threatening the security of not only of Myanmar, security of Bangladesh and also security of India. India has a common border with Myanmar very near that point.
SH: You have referred about meetings in Karachi and London. Could you be more specific about who you are referring to or what these meetings were about? Is there any information that Bangladesh or its intelligence agencies have acquired that you can share with us?
HTI: I am afraid I cannot share it with you because it is not our own intelligence agencies. I have read reports from outside. Some of them from India. There are people, think tanks, organisations which are keeping tabs on all of these developments. From them, I have learnt this. During my recent visit to Calcutta, I heard the grapevines. There are lot of rumours about these meetings. I can neither confirm nor deny these meetings.
SH: But who are these people who may have been part of hatching this conspiracy?
HTI: Most likely it would be the people who would benefit. I would leave it to you to conjecture about who are the people or the organisations or the agencies who would benefit from such an attack.
SH: If we look into the geopolitical aspect on the note that we started that the Rohingya crisis has given Bangladesh a clear sign or an indication of who the real friends of Bangladesh are. Tell us what you have learnt about your friends and allies given that beyond the humanitarian assistance there has not been much pressure put into Myanmar to stop the violence.
HTI: In the last two to three days there has been increasing pressure being put on Myanmar. The heat is on. That has prompted the Myanmar leader, Ms Aung Suu Kyi, to come out with some suggestions, some proposals even.
If we say that this has given the opportunity for us to select our friend or our enemies, that would be too simplistic an approach. You can’t identify friends or enemies like that. In times of crisis, those who side by you solidly are of course your friends. Now, for example, Russia is our very good friend. In spite of that Russia has not played the role it could have played. They have their own national interests to safeguard. That’s one thing. We know that China has been a very old friend of Pakistan and China has for many years been in Myanmar. They have invested heavily in Myanmar. They have trained and armed the Myanmar army and all of those. China has a much longer border with Myanmar. Also, China has its own share of the problem. They have given shelter to a large part of the Shan rebels. They have their own interests. National interests [come] first and then friendship. For India, initially there was some misgivings here but India has come out very strongly for us. The one problem that India has is common to us again, the militancy. Regarding militancy, we have zero tolerance against militancy in Bangladesh. It has two aspects: one, we will not allow any militant to grow in Bangladesh, far from being able to operate, secondly, since the Holey Artisan incident we have not allowed any militant to concentrate or gather strength here in Bangladesh. Most recently, the Rapid Action Battalion and our intelligence agencies have been able to bust a huge group which has been responsible for money laundering and funding the militant activities in Bangladesh. Eleven of them were caught here and their mastermind was caught simultaneously in Spain. That was a real successful operation. We have success stories of operations against militancy in Bangladesh. Bangladesh will not allow any group to use the soil of Bangladesh against the integrity or sovereignty of any of our neighbours, that is most importantly India and then Myanmar and even Bhutan. These are the pillars of our policies.
SH: Bangladesh government has signed a defence pact with India during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India this year. We have learnt that this defence pact paves the way for a security cooperation between the two countries. What does this security cooperation between India and Bangladesh entail?
HTI: The document was made public. There is no secret defence pact between India and Bangladesh. We will collaborate in all areas of security, which we have been doing. India also offered us facilities for training and line of credit for purchase of defence equipment from India. All of these are usual aspects of mutual pacts against any aggression from outside. In times of crisis, we will stand by each other.
SH: How about some of the report suggesting that there would be joint military exercise on both sides if need be?
HTI: Not that I am aware of. If you had alerted me I would have gotten a copy of the defence treaty and tell you what is there.
SH: But some critiques of the treaty have been laying concerns on those areas.
HTI: You might recall that the Bangladesh-India mutual friendship treaty, which was signed in 1972, came under constant attack from BNP, Jamaat and other critiques from even General Ershad’s party. On completion of the 25 years period, when the treaty was made public, you will see what is there. There is no secret agreement for any military assistance from India or from Bangladesh. All these are wild guesswork and an attempt to sabotage the relationship. There are many in Bangladesh or for that matter in India, who do not like closer cooperation between Bangladesh and India.
SH: India and Russia are collaborating on the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant as we get to hear from some of the reports. Please clarify to us what kind of assistance is Bangladesh seeking in the Nuclear power project that India would be assisting Russia as well.
HTI: I am not aware of any Russian-Indian agreement. We have signed an agreement with Russia. That is a long-term credit and also for the establishment of the Rooppur power plant. It is done entirely by Russian companies under Russian supervision. All these are being done in accordance with International Atomic Energy Commission’s supervision and mandates. They have constant supervision here as well.
SH: My last question to you as we conclude, the 2014 elections in Bangladesh was deemed controversial by some of the international community for the lack of participation of the majority opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The next election is coming ahead. What is the government’s effort in making the elections conducive and so that the opposition BNP also participates to make this election credible?
HTI: Again there are two aspects here. The elections are conducted according to our constitution by the Election Commission. The Bangladesh Election Commission today is totally an independent entity and under the constitution, the election commission has been strengthened over the years. We have initiated the steps for the strengthening of election commission itself, making it independent financially and also for setting the timing and all that. Most importantly, as soon as the Election Commission declares the schedule for the elections, the government in power resigns and then the president forms an interim government. The interim government under the constitution has very limited powers. It will only perform routine works, nothing beyond, no new expenditure, no new projects, and it is mandated to provide all the support that is requisitioned by the election commission.
The election commission is holding series of dialogues with different groups of people, with political parties, media, intelligentsia. All of these are being held. It is almost at the end. BNP will also go soon. Bangladesh Awami League will have its dialogue with the Election Commission on the 18th of October. All the parties have submitted various proposals for holding free, fair, transparent and credible elections. That’s what we want. That is what we have been saying.
In 2014 BNP not only refrained from participating in the election, you know the havoc they created with the firebombing of buses, trucks and even steamers and launches and railways. If BNP had just boycotted the elections and remained peaceful, the international community would have seen it differently. Initially, I must admit, a part of the international community were hesitant to accept the results, but later on when they found that it was BNP which tried to foil the elections, gradually the international community accepted the results. There was no denial of the facts.