50th Birth Anniversary of Bangladesh: How the history and destiny of Bhutan and Bangladesh is intertwined

Bangladesh – among Bhutan’s closest and friendliest neighbors has every reason to celebrate not one but two landmark events: the Golden Jubilee of Independence and Centenary Birth Anniversary 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, Her Excellency Sheikh Hasina.

 The country has indeed come a long way since its birth amidst war, famine and natural disasters. Once called a “basket case” by a senior official from the West is now being cited as a model for its outstanding achievements in combating poverty, including in his own country. I am not surprised. Besides Sheikh Hasina’s pro-women and child policies and NGOs like BRAC, I have witnessed first-hand Corporations like Square Pharmaceuticals, Mohammadi Group, Ayat Foundation, Paramount and others dedicating their time and personal resources to help children through educational programs. Square has even built a school and University, fully equipped state of the art concert hall, library and computers and free internet facilities for underprivileged children.  The World Bank has commended for Bangladesh for lifting 25 million Bangladeshis from poverty over 15 years.

 The government and people of Bangladesh were poised to welcome selected SAARC Leaders to the Anniversary Celebrations and among the top on that invitation list was His Majesty The King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan, whose Grandfather was the first world leader to recognize Bangladesh.  Unfortunately, the grand celebrations had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 The program has now been set in motion, albeit on a smaller scale and staggered manner. Leaders of Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka have already participated in the celebrations. The Prime Minister of Bhutan visited Dhaka on 24th March 2021 and Prime Minister Modi followed a few days later.

 Bangladesh and Bhutan have enjoyed the best of neighborly ties and increasing bilateral cooperation and it was my pleasure and privilege to have played a modest role during my tenure as Ambassador in Dhaka for three years from 2016-2019. 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 His Majesty 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 Holy Artisan Cafe in Dhaka. The incident naturally caste 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 didn’t take long for the situation to normalize and for everyone to move on with their lives. I was truly impressed by the resilient spirit and determination of the leaders and people of Bangladesh. I realized that is what drives the country. 

 During my first call on the Sheikh Hasina in 2016 the Prime Minister said when the news of Bhutan recognizing Bangladesh came over the radio, she and everyone around her were deeply touched and estatic. And that she and the people of Bangladesh will never forget Bhutan’s support on that day. 

 On this occasion it’s important to reflect on the circumstances that led Bhutan to recognize Bangladesh when it was still not a Republic and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was in prison. Why was His Majesty The Third King the first world leader to support Bangladesh? By all accounts it was a very personal one because His Majesty was deeply moved by what he saw when he toured the refugee camps around Calcutta. In my view, it also reflects the compassionate nature of our Monarchs, which has been demonstrated time and again in other countries and in different circumstances. 

Once such goodwill is generated it is up to diplomats and bureaucrats to nurture the relationship and strengthen cooperation and ties. Towards the end of my term, the Prime Minister noted that in the last couple of years relations between Bhutan and Bangladesh reached “unprecedented heights” and was gracious 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 His Majesty The Third King for laying a solid foundation. As I said, it is in this spirit that I have the temerity to share a few highlights of what transpired during my tenure. (In this regard I should add that I was encouraged to write this paper by the current Ambassador of  Bangladesh to Bhutan, HE. Shahidul Karim). 

– Visit by PM Sheikh Hasina to Thimphu in April 2017 at the invitation of His Majesty The King.

– Visit by the PM Dr Lotay Tshering to Dhaka in April 2019 at the invitation of the PM of Bangladesh. These two visits led to the signing of several MOUs and Agreements to promote trade, agriculture, education, culture and tourism. 

– Bhutan hosted the International Conference on Neuro-Developmental Disorder under the leadership of Saima Husain a leading expert and voice on Autism.

– Successful trial -run of transporting 1000 metric tons of stone aggregates from Dhubri Assam to Narayanganj Dhaka using inland waterways. 

– Increase in MBBS and Dental slots for Bhutan from 7 to 17.  

– Increase in the volume and value of exports from Bhutan to Bangladesh from US $32 million to US$ 100 million. 

– Assistance to Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines.

– Donations of Essential Medicines.

– Duty free access to 16 products from Bhutan under a Preferential Trade Agreement which was signed recently.

– Specialists and Sub specialists from Bangladesh to work in Bhutan.

– Signing of the Deed of Lease with RAJUK to formalize registration of Royal Bhutanese Embassy plot gifted to Bhutan.

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 in the last couple of years. However it is just a tip of the iceberg. Once Bangladesh, under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership achieves its goal to become a developed country and with the goodwill that exists, we in Bhutan must use the opportunity to further increase trade and other areas of cooperation including cultural between our two countries. 

By Sonam Tobden Rabgye

The writer is the former Bhutanese Ambassador to Bangladesh.

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