Hasina: We hold on to democracy
Kuwait’s ambassador to Bangladesh Ali Al-Thafieri, Adnan Al-Rashid, Sheikh Hasina, Feryal Hammad and Al-Anbaa managing editor
DHAKA: Sheikh Hasina expressed appreciation for Kuwait and for HH the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah for his outstanding attitudes throughout the history of Bangladesh. ‘Since the days of my father,’ as she put it. “I’m happy with the outstanding bilateral relations between our two countries. We are also proud of the role played by Bangladesh during the Iraqi aggression in 1990 and in liberating Kuwait. We look forward to cementing these relations and through your distinguished newspaper, I renew my invitation to HH the Amir to visit Bangladesh.
We express deep gratitude for Kuwait’s aid to us,” said Hasina. Commenting on the current political crisis that poses a threat to the next parliamentary elections at the beginning of next year and the possibility of the army coming back to power like what happened in 2007 when the opposition insisted that the cabinet resign and a neutral interim one was assigned to supervise the elections, Hasina said that she strongly believes in democracy and enabling people’s rule. “We strongly cling to democratic paths and I do not think what happened in 2007 will recur. We must go on applying and respecting the constitution,” she stressed, noting that her cabinet had run many parliamentary elections transparently and peacefully and that the opposition had won on many occasions. “Meanwhile, we all recall that when the National Party conducted the elections in 2004, over 250 people were killed and polling was scandalously forged and manipulated under the threat of weapons,” she reminded, underlining that no such incidents took place under her cabinet. “We ensured having transparent polling lists after excluding the names of 12.3 million voters registered for the sake of forging the results.
Today, voters come up with their pollingcards and their respective photos on them, which leaves no room for manipulation,” she said, explaining that transparent polling boxes were used in all stations. “In 2007 we had no elections because of the situations and the president at that time, who was a National Party member, imposed a state of emergency. It was he who handed power over to the army, we don’t want to repeat what happened in 2007,” she stressed. Hasina added that she was jailed along with the leaders of her party when they insisted on returning to Bangladesh despite threats.
She said that she insisted on defending herself to refute the false accusations in the court of law. “I was allowed to return, then was arrested and put in solitary confinement. Then what happened? Even National Party members including chairlady Khaleda Zia were imprisoned and she has to learn her lesson from that,” warned Hasina. Furthermore, Hasina wondered why her country cannot follow in the footsteps of the US, Malaysia or Australia and other countries where elections are systematically run. She also stressed that it was the opposition that is pushing to repeat what happened in 2007. “But this will not happen because we hold on to democracy and will protect it. No one will stop the Awami League from defending our principles and constitution,” she vowed, adding that Bangladesh had witnessed 19 military coup attempts over the past 38 years. “Such a state cannot be allowed to continue. We will supervise the elections and will not allow any manipulations.”
Q: Through your recent tours, Bangladesh seeks opening for cooperation with all countries such as China, Pakistan and India. You also took part in the Asian-European Forum. Do you believe that the open-door policy will grant Bangladesh the role it aims at playing amongst Asian countries?
A: Bangladesh’s foreign policy stems from the motto set by the Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who said: ‘Friendship with everybody and grudges for nobody’. It is also the policy of the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that formed the first cabinet when Bangladesh won its independence in 1971. As PM twice, I follow the same foreign policy in building good relations with all countries. And since it is of great importance to boost our relations with neighboring countries, I started boosting our bilateral relations and extended them to Asia and beyond immediately when I took office. Kuwait was one of the first countries I visited to show our good intentions. I also consider the Asia-Europe meeting an excellent opportunity to bridge the gaps between Asia and Europe. I think the meeting will have great benefits for Bangladesh and build more bridges with European and Asian countries which will open wide scopes of opportunities giving Bangladesh a significant role in cementing relations with neighbors, Asian and European countries and the whole world.
Q: What did your country achieve by participating in the 8th Islamic countries’ summit?
A: We believe that taking part in the summit’s meetings gives the opportunity to asses and understand the attitudes taken by participating countries towards the issues on the summit’s agenda. Such occasions also provide opportunities to hold side talks with other leaders to discuss issues of joint inertest. Hence I believe that our participation was highly significant. It is sometimes hard to forget disputes when bloodshed is involved and historically recorded. In 1971, the invading Pakistani troops massively annihilated over three million people and raped 250,000 women, many of whom committed suicide. How can one forget such atrocities?
Q: Your country is one of the largest regional Muslim countries. What have you done, on various levels, for the cause of Myanmar Muslims? What are the diplomatic measures you took to stop racial displacement of Rohingya Muslims?
A: During our independence struggle in 1971, over 10 million people were displaced from Bangladesh. Many of them took refuge in neighboring India. Therefore, we fully understand the sufferings of displaced people through our own experience. We have always agonized for the sufferings of the Myanmar Muslims who have been streaming into Bangladesh since the beginning of the 1990s to escape the violence in Myanmar. Right now, we have around half a million Rohingya refugees all over the country in addition to 29,000 in refugee camps near the borders with Myanmar. To solve this problem, I paid a state visit to Myanmar in 2010 where the government agreed to take back the refugees after verifying their IDs, but when the racial and religious attack on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state took place, many of them started returning to Bangladesh. In the past, we aided them with food, medicine and shelter, but now, when violence is less severe in Myanmar, we are helping them go back home. We feel that the problem lies in Myanmar and has to be solved by its government. It is racial and religious discrimination that if eliminated and Rohingya Muslims are granted citizenship like the other 138 minorities living there, the problem will be solved and displacement will stop. We have explained our attitude to the Myanmar government and asked for other regional countries’ support as well as support from Muslim countries and international organizations like the UN, the Non- Aligned Movement and the Islamic Conference to convince the Myanmar government solve the problem. Our efforts will continue and I am sure the friendly neighbors in Myanmar will achieve justice and peace.
Q: Your country has strong relations with Kuwait and this was confirmed by participation of president Zillur Rahman in the first Asian cooperation conference. What has the summit given to your country?
A: Bangladesh considers the Asian Cooperation Dialogue Conference very important and that is why we asked our president at that time to take part in it. It was a successful participation and I believe the conference reached better understanding of various issued discussed and brought participating countries closer in facing challenges in Asia and worldwide. Bangladesh’s attitudes towards issues like climate change, immigration, labor in foreign countries and the Rohingya migrants were strongly supported at the conference.
Q: Political life in Bangladesh is dominated by two parties – the Awami League you preside and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), who have been politically competing for over 30 years. Is there any resemblance to the Republican and Democratic parties in the US?
A: The difference between the two parties lies in our attitude to the people and governance. Awami League is a political party that was formed 68 years ago by politicians and laborers to act as a platform for unified public struggle to achieve the people’s basic rights. BNP was formed those who were behind assassinating the founding father of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 18 of his family members on August 19, 1975. General Ziaur Rahman, who led a military coup, took over power, became Commander in Chief and then president, was among those. With the absolute powers he took control of, he formed the BNP of leftist and rightist politicians with bad reputations and conducted forged elections and completely controlled the government. Therefore, the huge difference between both parties is that the Awami League appeared as a political party from within the people whereas BNP appeared after violence and bloodshed and accordingly, both parties’ ideologies and governance are too different. I am sure you will never find two parties with so much dissimilarities anywhere in the world.
Q: Your country enjoys great potentials such as touristic attractions and huge human resources that can turn it into one of the greatest countries in Western Asia. What does your country need to make this dream – that you have stressed in your electoral campaigns – come true?
A: Bangladesh has a strategic location that acts like a bridge between south and south east Asia. With its closeness to the gigantic markets of India, China and other Asian countries, Bangladesh can act as a regional economic center. Such geographic channels can also help tourism prosper in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has many touristic attractions such as long golden beaches and the world’s largest mangrove jungle. In addition, we have huge human resources, mainly youth, as 60 percent of our 160 million population is below the age of forty. These people, be them working tirelessly at home or abroad and transferring money home, have been the main driving force of our comprehensive development. Our government’s pragmatic policies ensure utmost utilization of our natural and human resources. Yet we need to achieve faster development and hence comes the significance of our good friends such as Kuwait’s support, especially in building infrastructures, exploring and utilizing our natural resources and making the best use of our youth and skilled or unskilled craftsmen. Our friends’ support will help us achieve our 2021 vision of becoming a country that ensures steady income for middle classes, which was the core of the agenda we adopted in our electoral campaign.
Q: August 15, 1975 is undoubtedly an unforgettable date in your life and in Bangladesh’s modern history. On that day, a group of officers assassinated your father and your family members. Can you overcome that history for the sake of a comprehensive and final national reconciliation in your country?
A: The assassination of my father and the father of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 18 of my family members, including my mother, three brothers and two relatives on August 15, 1975 was absolutely the most horrible crime committed against one family in modern history. Ever since, it has been a dark part of Bangladesh’s history. The assassins, who were misled army officers, were later rewarded with money and high positions by the following tyrant military and semi-military governments till 1996. The majority of our people cannot forget that horrible act and the period of tyranny that followed. Our country has been seeking justice and our supreme courts sentenced all the culprits to death. Some of them were executed while others are still at large and we must arrest them to make them get their due and fair punishment. Achieving this and forgetting the memories of that awful day require time.
Q: How would you describe your country’s relations with the GCC states and with the ‘Arab Spring’ countries?
A: Bangladesh is a democratic, secular and liberal country. In addition, our foreign policy is based on “Having friendship with everybody and grudges with none” that was set by the father of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Bangabandhu). Therefore, we have good relations with all countries. Being a country with a majority of Muslims and being part of the Islamic nation, our relations with the GCC, the Arab world and all other Muslim countries are outstanding because of the common values and traditions we share.
Q: Despite the huge facilities your country provides, Arab investments are still below your aspirations. Do you have a plan to attract more Arab capital?
A: Bangladesh has the best investment systems in south Asia which is one of the best in the world. This is why Bangladesh has been attracting investors from many countries including Arab ones but they are still below potentials. When I became PM, I made visits to many Arab countries during which I invited Arab leaders and businessmen to invest in Bangladesh. Ever since, more Arab businessmen have shown growing interest in Bangladesh and their investments here are also growing. I have met many Arab business delegations on their visits to Bangladesh and I have a feeling that their investments will increase soon.
Q: Many Islamist observers accuse you of putting huge pressure on Islamic party leaders. Are any of these ‘media’ accusations true?
A: Although the majority of our population is Muslim, Bangladesh is a secular state that provides freedom of religion for all. Bangladesh was founded on this philosophy and the sacrifices of 3 million people. During our struggle for independence in 1971, a minority cooperated with the invading Pakistani army and helped them in killing fellow citizens. After independence, those people formed Islamic parties to escape punishment. And after assassinating the father of the nation, the military dictator General Ziaur Rahman licensed those parties in order to get political support for his newly-formed party BNP. Under the patronage of the dictator, many of these religious parties’ leaders who had been involved in crimes against humanity became stronger. In 1996, our Awami party won the election based on promises it made to hold these spies accountable for their crimes. At that time, we could not achieve much success due to the challenges they had imposed that weakened our efforts to establish democracy and take proper measures to prosecute them. After winning the 2008 elections after vowing to prosecute the war criminals, we made progress this time. We formed a criminal court according to international standards and tried a number of the main war criminals and their accomplices who later on became leaders of their religious parties. The government took those measures to meet public demands of people who had lost loved ones because of the direct or indirect involvement of those spies. Islamic parties have many new leaders now who were born after the establishment of Bangladesh 42 years ago and they are now doing their duties and responsibilities like other parties. Therefore, the claim that Islamic parties’ leaders are under pressure is untrue. It is only war criminals and those accused of crimes against humanity who are being tried according to judicial measures so that they could be penalized according to Bangladesh’s justice and laws.
Q: Some people mix up between your war on terrorism and terrorist groups and your political disputes with Islamic parties. Can you explain this point?
A: Bangladesh is a secular country where people from all religions co-live in peace and harmony but, unfortunately, in past years, we had a bad experience with terrorism and extremism. Our government has adopted a policy of ‘intolerance’ with terrorism and extremism but about 17 terrorist organizations including extreme elements from some religious parties appeared spreading destruction with their weapons, explosives and bombs that killed and injured many innocent people in the period of 2001-2006, when BNP ruled and allied with the government. Those organizations disappeared in the past four and a half years and our government’s policy succeeded in limiting their activities. We urge all political parties help us in fighting terrorism and extremism in Bangladesh.
Q: In early January 2012, your government stressed secularism in your country by removing a constitutional article about the Islamic nature of your country and its relations with Islamic countries. But the Supreme Court rejected reactivating secular principles in the constitution. How will this influence the future of your country?
A: Secularism is one of the pillars of Bangladesh’s constitution that was approved on independence in 1971. It has been a main one ever since. In the late 1980s, a religious amendment was made to the constitution but was later on withdrawn in our term. Our current constitution is close to the 1972 original one and has achieved peace and harmony to our society. I believe if we succeed in maintaining peace and harmony in Bangladesh, our future will be prosperous.
Q: Some independent Islamic research center reports suggest that Bangladesh is the world’s third largest Islamic country and the eighth in population with over 170 million, 95 percent of them Muslim while the others include Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. The reports also say that there are wide-scale missionary campaigns. How accurate is this report?
A: Bangladesh is a country with Muslims forming the majority of its 160 million population (88 percent) while the rest comprises of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. And yet Bangladesh maintains a secular policy that stems from religious coherence that had existed for hundreds of years in this part of the South Asian peninsula. It is also a democratic country and its people cherish its heritage and history that are different from those of many other countries worldwide. Bangladesh Muslims are not less devoted to Islam than their peers in other Muslim countries. They share the same faith and I do not think a Muslim can convert to other religions and if this happens, these are very rare exceptions.
Q: Do you think that your country can witness a ‘spring’ similar to the Arab Spring?
A: Each people worldwide has its own characteristics that determine both the formation of its society and its future. That includes Islamic countries’ peoples, who despite the strength of their belief, have special characteristics to determine their aspirations. I think this applies to the people of Bangladesh which are moderate and willing to give up some wishes for the sake of peace and harmony. It is a people that despise all forms of violence that might bring instability to its quotidian life.
Sheikh Hasina’s bio
• She was born in 1947 in Tongibari. She is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first post-independence president.
• In the 1960s, she was a student and political activist
• Was imprisoned along with some of her family members by the Pakistani army
• In 1975, her father, mother and brothers were killed in a military coup
• She returned from exile in 1981 to lead the Awami League
• In 1990, she joined the BNP leader in deposing the dictator Hussein Mohammed Ershad
• She lost elections against Khaleda Zia in 1991
• In 1996, she won the elections and became PM till 2001
• She won the first legislative elections since 2001
• She survived an assassination attempt in 2004
• She was imprisoned in 2007 after the army-backed government accused her of corruption
• She was released in June, 2008 and left to self-imposed exile in the US
• She returned to Bangladesh in November 2008 to take part in the elections
• On December 30, 2008, she won a landslide victory in the elections against Khaleda Zia