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From Independence to ‘Smart Bangladesh’: A Glorious Journey

A middle power in the Indo-Pacific region, Bangladesh is the second largest economy in South Asia and the seventh largest democracy in the world. It is also the third-largest Muslim-majority country in the world. With 170 million population, the riverine Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world. Bangladesh may have existed as an independent state for the last 52 years, but its cultural and linguistic roots go deeper. Situated in an intersection of the southwestern Silk Road and sandwiched between India and China, Bangladesh’s location holds immense geo-strategic importance. Its rich history dates back to the antiquity. Bengali, the official language which belongs to the Indo-European family, was distinct by the 7th century and literature written in it was emerging by the 11th century. Today, Bengali is arguably the 7th most widely spoken language in the world. Merchants from the Middle East brought Islam on the shores of Bengal by the end of the first millennium. At the end of the 16th century, the Mughal Empire founded Dhaka as the provincial capital. At that time, the South Asian region produced one fourth of the world’s total GDP.

The land remained largely autonomous until the onset of the British colonial rule in 1757. In 1947, when the British left India, the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent countries: one is India and the other, Pakistanwith two provinces—West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). From 1947 to 1971, for the next 24 years, East Pakistan suffered economic, cultural, political and civil oppression and injustice from West Pakistan. Political and economic deprivation of the Bengalis prompted Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation, to put forward his historic six-point demands in 1966 which in effect structured the foundation for nation’s future independence. Bangabandhu declared at a historic public meeting on 7 March 1971: “This time, the struggle is the struggle for freedom, the struggle now is the struggle for independence.” It was the de facto declaration of the independence of Bangladesh. On October 30, 2017, UNESCO  recognised the 7th March speech as part of the ‘World’s Documentary Heritage’ and included it in the ‘Memory of the World International Register’.

Then in the dead of night on 25 March 1971, the Pakistan Army unleashed a ruthless military crackdown on the Bengali people and perpetrated what may be termed as one of the worst genocides in human history. Shortly before his arrest, Bangabandhu formally declared the independence of Bangladesh on 26 March 1971. Upon his clarion call, the Bengali nation rushed to the battlefield and waged the War of Liberation. 3 million freedom-loving people were martyred and the honour of 200 thousand women was violated in the 9-month long war. Defeated and humiliated, the Pakistan Army was forced to surrender to the freedom fighters on 16 December 1971: Bangladesh emerged victorious as a sovereign country in the comity of nations. Committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the norms of democracy, Bangladesh stands for the oppressed humanity all over the world, as the nation itself had to suffer human rights violations during the 1971 genocide. Bangladesh solicits support from its friends and partners in its bid to have 25 March recognized as the ‘International Genocide Day’.

Bangabandhu’s worldview emanated from his lifelong struggle for justice and equality and the right to self-determination. His speech at the United Nations on September 25 in 1974 seminally set the tone and tenor of the underlying principles of our foreign policy, when he alludes to the overriding importance of ensuring peace and justice for the entire humanity, asserting: “The Bengali nation is dedicated to building a world order that would reflect the aspirations of all people for peace and justice.” Bangabandhu then reaffirms: “Peace is an imperative for the survival of mankind; Peace to endure must, however, be peace based upon justice.” These words were almost prophetic in nature and we could equally relate this assertion to the global situation now. His famously enunciated dictum, that our foreign policy is based on “friendship towards all, and malice towards none” flows from this conviction. His illustrious daughter, our Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who inherited his mantle, has done well to remain unswerving to this tenet that enables us to form a space where all, even contesting parties, can come together amicably. We are indeed a nation of peace, democracy and liberty!

Bangladesh ranked first in terms of troops contribution to UN peacekeeping operations in 2021 and 2022. A champion of democracy and human rights, Bangladesh has been elected a member of the UN Human Rights Council for 2023-25 (2006, 2009, 2014, 2018 and 2022) for the 5th time, securing a record number of 160 votes in the Asia-Pacific region. Bangladesh actively pursues multilateralism in various international fora. Bangladesh is one of the countries that are most adversely affected by climate change. The country is a global leader in disaster management. Today’s Bangladesh is the fastest growing economy in South Asia. With a sustained GDP growth of 7% on average, the country has outpaced many countries in terms of per capita income.

Bangladesh is a country of endless opportunity and prospects. Now the world’s 30th largest economy in GDP (PPP), Bangladesh is set to become the 25th largest global economy by 2035. The government has prioritized an enabling framework for investment and enforced the ease of doing business in thriving sectors, such as agro-processing, automobile, ICT, blue economy, healthcare and tourism and hospitality. Bangladesh is witnessing a revolution in infrastructure and connectivity. The recently completed 6.15 km long Padma Bridge (built with self-finance without any external donor’s assistance), for instance, would increase Bangladesh’s GDP by 1.3-2%.

Bangladesh is among the world’s top three producers of rice, inland fish, and vegetables. The country ranks 2nd in the global supply of ICT freelancers and readymade garment. Bangladesh is known as “the world’s dressmaker”. It has a labour force of roughly 70 million, which is the world’s 7th largest. Bangladesh has had a vibrant civil society and free press, with numerous labour associations and trade unions, chambers of commerce and industry, and institutions promoting democracy and human rights. Bangladesh is rapidly transitioning to a green economy. Currently, it has the largest off-grid solar power programme in the world. The country has large untapped reserves of natural gas in the Bay of Bengal.

Image Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh

Bangladesh is endowed with huge tourism potential. The country is home to the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, and the world’s longest unbroken beach, Cox’s Bazar. Magnificent natural beauty, rich history and diverse culture, luxuriant vegetation with lush greenery, vast wetlands and a unique ecosystem of subtropical forests and freshwater swamps, abundance of wildlife, archaeological sites and hospitable people have made Bangladesh a unique tourist destination.

Bangladesh and Spain enjoy excellent friendly relations since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972.  Last year, the two countries celebrated the Golden Jubilee of the establishment of their diplomatic relations. Spain was amongst the first few countries to extend recognition to Bangladesh soon after its independence. The cordial relations demonstrate the shared aspirations of the two peoples, and draw further strength from our collective stakes on emerging global issues with mutuality of interests. The bilateral relations are continuously widening and deepening in various fields. Spain has emerged as Bangladesh’s fourth largest export destination in the world. Likewise, Bangladesh is Spain’s fourth largest trade partner in Asia after China, Japan and India. Spain hosts around 60,000 Bangladeshi nationals. They are enterprising, hard-working and law-abiding. They continue to make a very positive contribution to the Spanish economy and infuse an additional element of diversity into the communities they live in.

Bangladesh has been hosting more than 1.2 million forcibly displaced Rohingya people of Myanmar for over five years. These people are fleeing a brutal massacre in their own country, where they have lived for centuries. As the influx of the ‘world’s most persecuted people’ began in 2017, Bangladesh was stunned by the enormity of the crisis that was soon to engulf the country. It was then the Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who showed her unparalleled magnanimity, as she let those helpless people come in and embraced them with profound kindness and warmth, for which the UK-based Channel 4 News termed her as the ‘Mother of Humanity’. Since then, Bangladesh has been providing the Rohingyas with all basic amenities.

Bangladesh is a country of endless opportunity and prospects. Now the world’s 30th largest economy in GDP (PPP), Bangladesh is set to become the 25th largest global economy by 2035. The government has prioritized an enabling framework for investment and enforced the ease of doing business in thriving sectors, such as agro-processing, automobile, ICT, blue economy, healthcare and tourism and hospitality

Rohingya crisis originates in Myanmar and its solution lies there. The crisis can destabilize the entire region, if left unresolved. Bangladesh has always sought a durable solution to the Rohingya problem in a peaceful manner through negotiations with Myanmar and thus primarily relied on bilateral engagements and concluded three instruments on repatriation. Unfortunately, Myanmar has never complied with the provisions of the instruments. Fully aware of this genocide termed as a ‘text book example of ethnic cleansing’ and a man-made humanitarian catastrophe of unimaginable magnitude, the international community has an abiding responsibility to hold Myanmar accountable for the massive human rights violations perpetrated against the Rohingyas. The response of the international community needs to be proportional to Bangladesh’s humane gesture through tangible acts to ensure the sustainable repatriation of the Rohingyas.

Bangladesh has accomplished a great deal in the last 52 years. In December 2022, Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina unveiled her vision to build a “Smart Bangladesh” by 2041. Built on the four pillars of Smart Citizens, Smart Government, Smart Economy and Smart Society, it is about bridging the digital divide by innovating and scaling sustainable digital solutions that all citizens, regardless of their socio-economic background, all businesses, regardless of their size, can benefit from. “Smart Bangladesh” is about being inclusive in the truest sense; it is about more than a futuristic Bangladesh, which is expected to become an upper-middle-income country within this decade and a full-fledged developed nation by 2041. This amazing transformation is progressing fast because of planned efforts, grassroots initiatives, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the resilient people. Prudently designed and coordinated by the government, it is a result of great statesmanship and enterprise. It is the guiding spirit of Bangabandhu that drives us forward, and we dare not rest till we achieve all his dreams.

Mohammad Sarwar Mahmood, Ambassador of Bangladesh to Spain, Andorra and Equatorial Guinea

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