The much awaited state visit to Bangladesh by President Maithripala Sirisena will take place this week at a time when the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), needs a solid push from these two founder-members for a speedy rejuvenation.
Bangladesh-Sri Lanka friendship and cooperation does not need any reassurance as it is well established and growing from strength to strength. However, President Sirisena, realizing the paramount importance of close interaction with fellow leaders in the region, accepted the invitation extended by Premier Sheikh Hasina, two years ago. Earlier, the President was invited to be the chief guest at the Bangladesh National Day on March 26, but he could not undertake the journey as he had to return home from Moscow after a state visit to Russia on March 25, due to pressing issues in the country.
Sri Lanka’s close political, social and religious ties go back to several centuries. The Theravada Buddhist community in Chittagong, has regarded Sri Lanka as a centre for Theravada Buddhist studies for centuries, while several leading Buddhist intellectuals in Bangladesh received their education in Pirivenas in this country. The highly respected Ven L Ariyawansho of Chittagong studied at the Molligoda Pirivena and became Chief Incumbent of the Mahabodhi Temple in New Delhi built by Indian philanthropist G K Birla, in the last century.
When British rulers divided India and set up West Pakistan and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) in 1947, it was a foregone conclusion that the two Pakistans – divided by thousands of miles of Indian landmass – could not survive as a single nation. After the Awami League lead by charismatic leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, swept elections and became the largest single party in Pakistan, West Pakistan not only refused him Premiership, but imprisoned him and made Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of the People’s Party, the Prime Minister. It resulted in a long-drawn rebellion by Mukthi Bahini against Pakistani forces in East Pakistan. Although Sri Lanka allowed Pakistani Air Force to land in Colombo for refueling, since we maintained extremely cordial relations with South Asian countries including Pakistan, there was vast support for the Bangladeshi uprising, among the people in Sri Lanka.
A high level independent intellectual team attended the international solidarity conference for Bangladesh held in New Delhi in 1970. Its leader, Sir Senarath (R S S) Gunawardane flayed the government decision to allow Pakistani planes to land in Colombo as ‘political hypocrisy’. However, when India and Pakistan declared war in December 1970, Sri Lanka stopped providing landing rights to Pakistani planes.
Although in the Western Sector Pakistan could offer resistance, in the Eastern Sector (Bangladesh) Pakistani forces were easily defeated by the Indian forces with the support of the Mukthi Bahini rebels and 90,000 Pakistani forces had to surrender to save their lives. Pakistan released Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from Lahore prison in March 1971, and he flew first to New Delhi to attend a massive rally at the Ramleeela Grounds in Delhi together with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, before going to Dhaka to assume duties as first Prime Minister of the new nation, Bangladesh.
The following year, Sri Lanka established diplomatic relations with Bangladesh and the relations between the two countries grew steadily. It was Bangladesh that proposed the setting up of the South Asian Regional Organization, and the first South Asian Summit that gave birth to SAARC was held in Dhaka in 1985. After 32 years, SAARC is faced with a crisis due to Indo-Pakistan issues. The Dhaka visit will be a good opportunity for a joint call by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Hasina for South Asian cooperation.
Sri Lanka and Bangladesh established institutional frameworks to advance bilateral relations on the right track, holding consultations between the two foreign ministries. Subsequently, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have established a Joint Economic Commission (JEC). The presence of a sizable number of Sri Lankan expatriates and students in Bangladesh has built a bridge between the two countries. As President Sirisena told Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during their meeting on the sideline of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in Jakarta recently, the two countries are cooperating and supporting each other at various regional and international organizations such as United Nations, Commonwealth, SAARC, BIMSTEC, Indian Ocean Rim Association and Asia Cooperation Dialogue.
The volume of trade between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka increased to over USD 115 million in 2014-15 from USD 24 million ten years ago. The balance of trade is in favour of Sri Lanka; with an import to the tune of USD 92.81 million in 2015. Although the growth of bilateral trade in the last few years is significant, the volume of trade is not commensurate with its potentials. The two countries have been deliberating on the possibility of entering into a Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) or a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with a view to enhancing bilateral trade. According to recent statistics, there are about 45 Lankan companies operating in Bangladesh with investment close to USD 300 m, mainly in the sectors of apparel, banking, paper, consumer goods, etc. The government of Bangladesh facilitates local and foreign investment through two main state agencies, namely, Board of Investment (BOI) and Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA).
The two countries already have an Agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation and Fiscal Evasion, and are currently negotiating a number of agreements that would facilitate trade and investment. Sri Lanka’s main imports from Bangladesh include, Pharmaceutical Products; Electrical Machinery & Equipment; Edible Vegetables & Roots; Apparel & Clothing Accessories; Iron & Steel; Textile Fibres; Chemicals; Sacks & Bags; Toilet & Facial Tissues; Cellular Phones and Bicycle Parts. Major exports to Bangladesh include, Textiles and Textile Articles; Enzymes; Chemicals; Minerals; Plastics; Rubber Products; Paper Products and Tea.
The total bilateral trade between the two countries has grown more than twofold from US$ 48 million in 2010 to US$ 131 million in 2015. Sri Lanka’s exports to Bangladesh too saw a steady increase in the past five years. In 2013 it recorded the highest increase of 45% (compared to 2012). Lankan exports are mainly, cotton (26.1%) followed by man-made staple fibers (13.1%), plastic articles (12.1%) and knitted/crocheted fabrics (10.9%). Among Sri Lanka’s imports from Bangladesh are Pharmaceuticals (31%) followed by Rice (29.3%), Electric accumulators (6.3%) and apparel and garments (6%). In 2015, import of Pharmaceuticals have surged by 61% over 2014. While discussing the forthcoming visit with Bangladesh High Commissioner, Riaz Hamidullah, President Maithripala Sirisena expressed the view that Sri Lanka would like to learn from Bangladesh about its disaster management preparedness programs. As a country facing periodic natural calamities, Bangladesh has established a sound rapid preparedness program for disaster management.
The President expressed interest in the new agricultural seeds with drought resistance qualities developed by Bangladesh. President Sirisena told the Ambassador that the historical bond of friendship has become stronger through deepening engagements at bilateral, regional and international levels. This week’s state visit would be another major step in this path.
by Sugeeswara Senadhira
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