Bangladesh’s Defence Spending: Puzzle of Reality

Bangladesh last week inked a whopping USD 1 billion arms contract with Russia, which believed to be country’s biggest contract since independence. Under the deal, Bangladesh would procure military equipment and arms from Russia. The arms deal, one of some other agreements that include nuclear power, was announced after Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Russian President Vladmir Putin met for talks.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Russian President Vladmir Putin.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Russian President Vladmir Putin.

“Our countries intend to expand military and technological cooperation… Russia will issue a loan to Bangladesh worth one billion US dollars that will be used to buy Russian weapons and military hardware,” Putin told journalists after the talks while Sheikh Hasina during the Kremlin ceremony said, “Cooperation in defence was another area for collaboration between Dhaka and Moscow.”

The arms purchase agreement includes orders for armoured vehicles and infantry weapons, air defence systems and Mi-17 transport helicopters, a source close to Russia’s state arms export agency told the Vedomosti business daily. Bangladeshi Daily Star newspaper said “the purchase did not include any tank orders because Bangladesh had earlier obtained those from China.” Bangladesh has recently been expanding its defence capabilities, building a new air base close to neighbouring Myanmar and adding frigates to its navy, according to AFP reports.

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Russian-made helicopter for Bangladesh.

Later, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told the Voice of Russia that modern Russian weapons are the most appropriate armaments for Bangladesh. “The decision to receive a loan of one billion dollars from Russia for the purchase of new Russian military equipment is important for us”, Dipu Moni noted. “Russian military equipment has long been known in Bangladesh during the Soviet period we bought the Mikoyan MiG-21 aircraft. Later we purchased the Mikoyan MiG-29 aircraft. We have Russian transport airplanes and helicopters.”

The Bangladeshi Foreign Minister made an explanation of the purchase. “In accordance with the strategic plan of the re-equipment of our army, we intend to carry out new purchases of the Russian military equipment. The Bangladeshi military contingent participates in virtually all the operations aimed at restoring peace and order carried out by the United Nations forces. Its equipment should meet modern requirements. And the weapons, which we intend to buy from Russia, will also be used for this mission”. [Link: http://english.ruvr.ru/2013_01_17/Russian-weapons-are-most-appropriate-for-Bangladesh/]

Soon after the news came on the media, it made hue and cry among some section of people and it was more evident in the social networking sites and blogs. Too little has been seen on the print media so far but many questions the reason as to why Bangladesh, being a poor country, needs arms worth that amount! russia-7

The aim of this piece is to question those questions.

When the Awmi League party announced it election manifesto before the 2008 election, it kept a section on its plan over the defence. Here is what they have said:

“20. Defence
20.1 Bangladesh Awami League will keep the armed forces above all controversies with a view to building it up as a patriotic, brave, efficient and invincible force. The defence system will be improved for the security of the people and the country. A National Defence Policy will be formulated.
20.2 The principle of competence, merit, fitness and seniority will be strictly followed for recruitment, appointment and promotion. Autonomy, as consistent with the Constitution, will be granted in matters of internal discipline, administration and management. Welfare oriented projects will be undertaken for the members of the defence forces.
20.3 Steps will be taken so that our defence and the police forces can participate more widely in the U. N. Peace-keeping Force and make further contribution to international peace.”

 

[Link: http://www.albd.org/english/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=177&Itemid=113]

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Question is how that efficient force will be created without equipping them? Or how come a country would expect greater participation in UN peacekeeping if the soldiers are not well-equipped and well-trained with modern weapons? However, no one raised question at that time.

Let’s take Finance Minister’s budget speech for 2012-2013 fiscal year. In its Page 123 and 124, the Minister said,

“There is no alternative to augment the defence capacity of the country through modernisation of the armed forces. As part of our initiative to modernize the defence system, we have taken steps to provide training to three forces to enhance their operational capacity and efficiency. Side by side, we have been trying to procure modern equipment and modern technology-based military hardware and to enhance other benefits for the defence forces. At present, approximately a total of 9,000 members of three forces are working in peace keeping missions of the United Nations. We cannot but admit that by occupying the top position in the list of the countries which send soldiers to the UN Peace Keeping Mission, our armed forces have not only glorified the image of Bangladesh but also made significant contribution to the economy. We believe that they will continue to leave their mark in the international arena in the similar fashion as they are doing now”.

When the Minister proposed money for such augmentation and bid to procurement, there was criticism by some people, but no vehement opposition in Parliament. russia-5

Lastly, let’s take the Prime Minister’s speech to the nation at the end of four-year in the office. She said:

“In the light of Defence Policy framed in 1974 under the directives of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, modernization and restructuring work of the Armed Forces under “Forces Goal-2030” has been implementing.  

Fourth generation tank, self propelled gun, weapon locating rudder, modern helicopter and armed recovery vehicles have been purchased.

         We’ve purchased Maritime petrol  aircrafts, helicopters, frigates, corvette large petrol crafts and hydrographic survey ships. Special force has been formed.

          Missile (from land to sky) has been added to the Air Force and new Biman base has been set up in Cox’s Bazar. Works on Bangabandhu Aeronautical Centre at Kurmitola are progressing fast.”

[Link: http://www.pmo.gov.bd/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=922&Itemid=353 ]

She had given a vivid detail of purchase and initiatives in another speech on the 2012 Armed Forces Day which is available on this link [Link http://www.pmo.gov.bd/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=886&Itemid=353 ]

One may ask that the National Defence Policy is yet to be formulated and that is why the purchase may be different in contrast to a Policy if it would have been there. The Government has not made it clear if the purchase was made in accordance with ‘Forces Goal-2030’. There should be clear explanation from the Minister of Defence (The Prime Minister herself!).

We have heard the Prime Ministers (Both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia) in the last 20 years saying that the Army will be three-dimensional force. How come a force will be 3D if they are not equipped with whatever is required for making it such? russia-6

One thing should be very clear that Army is not there to control traffic of Dhaka or Chittagong. And they should not and must not be brought in to deal with it. They are to defend Bangladesh and defend Bangladesh’s interest on the defence plane. Some people questions who are Bangladesh’s enemy? India? Myanmar? Why they will be Bangladesh’s enemy? In the 21st century, who are the real enemy?

The nature of conflict has been changed globally. And the military has to change its role as well. Bangladesh Army, being a hard power of Bangladesh, has produced soft power for the country through its participation in the UN peacekeeping missions abroad. They have opened window of opportunities at many places. Since the country is trying to continue its leading role with the blue helmet, it may need more than those arms and equipments which will be coming through Russian support. A more enlarged conventional army may also solve other challenges Bangladesh faces today. But more importantly, fighting the new enemies will be greater challenge. Over the last few years, Bangladesh has faced enormous challenges from different sources other than any military. Bangladesh should not waste any further time to identify those threats, frame the defence policy as soon as possible and equip itself to thwart those threats. This means the military investment should be cautious and considering the existing and forthcoming challenges. Or else, questions will continue to arise and a democratically elected government cannot ignore those. In December, the United States National Intelligence Council (NIC) published its guess: Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. The NIC foresees a transformed world, in which individual empowerment and the growth of a global middle class; diffusion of power from states to informal networks and coalitions; demographic changes, owing to urbanization, migration, and increased demand for food, water, and energy will be greater challenge. But Bangladesh faces more than that. That puzzle of reality must be cracked.

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Turkey & Bangladesh: A détente is the option?

The word ‘hammam khana’ raised my curiosity when I first read it as a student of Class V. Don’t remember now which book actually, but ever since I have been looking for opportunities to visit the place where a perfect hamam or Turkish bath is available. I can still remember what I read about hamam, which has been popular as a method of cleansing and relaxation since the Victorian era. The process of Turkish bath is like a sauna experience but one may find it more interesting to be scrubbed. Thanks to youtube and wikipedia for more of my theoretical and visual understanding on Turkish bath, first you have to relax in a room (the warm room). This room is heated by a continuous flow of hot and dry air and it will allow you to perspire freely. You may then get into an even hotter room (the hot room) before splashing yourself with cold water. After a full body wash and receiving a massage, you finally retire to the cooling-room for a period of relaxation. Such a nice experience I am yet to have but I can suggest it for those who need it most now.

On the 28th of December, 2012, Dhaka’s leading English language daily wrote its headline: “Tension with Turkey: Dhaka surprised as Gul calls upon Zillur to pardon war crimes accused” (Link at the bottom). Two days later, Hurriyet Daily News in Istanbul made its headline: “Bangladesh ties strained”. A detail of what had happened between the two should be summed up first.

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Turkish President Abdullah Gul wrote a letter to Bangladeshi President Zillur Rahman calling for “clemency” to the accused under trial in the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) for the “sake of peace in the society”, according to the Daily Star (DS) newspaper. He demanded that the accused belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami party be pardoned as they are too old to stand trial. Mr. Gul apprehended that the trial might cause a civil war in Bangladesh, the DS report said. The letter irked the Bangladesh government and it took the letter from the Turkish president very seriously. The letter was “not acceptable at all” and the government viewed it as “a clear interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh.” Moreover, Bangladesh asked the international community not to make any requests in favor of those facing trial in the ICT. “Bangladesh does not want anyone to make any request or recommendation for the persons accused of war crimes,” Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said, according to the newspaper reports.

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This was not alone. A visit of a 14-member delegation of Turkish NGO Cansuyu Aid and Solidarity Association from December 20 to 24 actually made the initial trouble. The DS report said the delegation member came “hiding their identity and misusing ‘on arrival visa’ facilities and its inappropriate activities have made Dhaka too unhappy.” This incident prompted the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry (MOFA) to “summon” the Turkish envoy Mehmet Vakur Erkul and the MOFA asked him to explain the NGO team’s visit ‘without informing the government’. The DS report used the word “summon” but Turkish Hurriyet newspaper did not do the same in its report on the 31st (http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/planet/22265928.asp). They used the word “invited” when the Bangladeshi Ambassador Md Zulfiqur Rahman was ‘summoned’ at the Turkish Foreign Ministry (Its my guess that the official at the Turkish Foreign Ministry while briefing the reporter on the news deliberately used the word “invite” instead of the word “summon”. This does not mean that Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry source of the DS newspaper did the mistake by using the word “summon”. It may be an example of sexing up the story by using hard-hitting words. Or the word may be used by the MOFA official deliberately.)

The DS report said that the Bangladeshi acting Foreign Secretary Mustafa Kamal had handed over an aide memoir (diplomatic letter) to the Turkish Ambassador in which Dhaka strongly protested Gul’s letter and said it was an interference in the internal affairs of the country. The aide memoir categorically mentioned that Bangladesh government is determined to conduct the war crimes trial as there is overwhelming support from the people. It said the trial is taking place in the most transparent way by maintaining international standard, and categorically stated that the government will not compromise on this specific issue. “Bangladesh believes that it is not the job of a friendly country to create any problem or confusion about an issue and hopes that this type of incident will not happen again,” the letter stated. Dhaka considered Gul’s letter as the first ever interference since the ICT was formed in 2010.

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I am not sure if the Turkish President had written anything on the two other accused from the BNP party or not. Most probably not and I will be surprised if he had written anything. One of those two is Salauddin Qader Chowdhury who wanted to become OIC Secretary General, but was defeated to Turkey’s Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. There was indirect pressure on Dhaka to support the Turkish candidate, which it did not at that time.

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Anyway, it is clear now that Dhaka did not like the way Ankara approached on the issue. On the non-government side, the Armenian-button was pushed. Different political, social and cultural organisations strongly condemned the Turkish president for his request. Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee, a civic group which has been demanding trial and punishment of war crimes issued a statement and said Turkish president’s request is not only against the diplomatic norms and interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh, but also a blow to its independence and sovereignty. “The Turkish president should remember that Turkey had committed the first genocide in the world in the last century,” they said, adding that Turkey had killed 1.5 million Armenians from 1919 to 1921, but no trial was held for the killings. Turkey is still killing Kurdish people without any trial, the DS newspaper quoted the statement as saying. Moreover, Bangladesh Udichi Shilpigosthi in a separate statement said that conspiracies to foil the ongoing trial of the 1971 crimes against humanity were going on at home and abroad. The Turkish president’s request is a ‘shameless expression of that conspiracy’. The Udichi leaders strongly condemned and protested the Turkish president and demanded Bangladesh government take appropriate and hard diplomatic steps to this end.

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It will be a good lesson for Turkey as well because it has been aiming high (a detail is available here http://www.mfa.gov.tr/synopsis-of-the-turkish-foreign-policy.en.mfa). But Bangladesh should keep the internal dynamics of Turkey in mind. In 2002, Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) clinched a landslide election victory. And according to BBC analyses, such victory of AKP resurfaced ‘concerns over the potential for conflict between a secular establishment backed by the military and a traditional society deeply rooted in Islam’.  According to the BBC (link at the bottom), “The secularist opposition has on several occasions since then challenged the constitutional right of the AKP to be the party of government. In March 2008 the Constitutional Court narrowly rejected a petition by the chief prosecutor to ban the AKP and 71 of its officials, including President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for allegedly seeking to establish an Islamic state. The government has accused military officers of plotting to overthrow it through an alleged secret organisation called Ergenekon (Sledgehammer), which led to the jailing of three generals for 20 years and lesser sentences against more than 300 other officers in 2012, as well as dividing public opinion. The officers involved accuse the government of a show trial to neutralise the anti-Islamist influence of the armed forces in politics. The chiefs of staff resigned in the summer of 2011 in protests at the arrests of officers, and the government rather than the military appointed their successors for the first time.” According to the party website, the AKP has a Target 2023 for the country by which they want the GDP per capita to exceed $25,000 and place Turkey in the rank among world’s top 10 economies. Quite ambitious indeed and definitely possible!

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On the other hand, Bangladesh is now governed by Awami League-led 14 party alliance which is known to be secular. But this was not a problem and everything was fine until this NGO visit and Gul’s letter. There has been strong bilateral relations with strong historical and cultural roots. Turkey acknowledges the support of Bangladeshi people during Turkish War of Independence. There has been official visits of President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in February 2010 and November 2010, respectively while Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina paid a visit to Turkey to attend the UN Least Developed Countries Conference in İstanbul, in May 2011. The bilateral trade volume has extensively increased in recent years. Military level contacts are also notable. The respect and admiration of the people of Bangladesh to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk has its reflections in “Kamal Pasha”, the epic poem written by Kazi Nazrul Islam, National Poet of Bangladesh in 1921. Since then the poem has been on the curriculum in Bangladeshi schools. Besides, one major avenue in Dhaka and another one in Chittagong were named “Mustafa Kemal Atatürk Avenue” as well as a high school in Dagan Bhuiyan, in Feni named “Atatürk Model High School” as a manifest of respect to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk by Bangladeshi people. And this list is longer than this.

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Now my question is whether Dhaka or Ankara over reacted given the level of relationship. I would say both the action and the reaction was strong. Dhaka has a sensitivity on the issue as trial is a major election pledge of the ruling party in Bangladesh and according to many analysts, this will be a key issue in the next election again. The ruling Awami League party has been smelling, what it says, “deep conspiracy nationally and internationally” to foil the trial. There has been media campaign, lobbying and so on over the issue! The Turkish letter was exactly what the Bangladesh government was looking for to prove its claim. But, what’s next? Let me give some clue. Turkish Hurriyet newspaper reports (http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/planet/22265928.asp) that Golam Azam, one of the accused in the ICT and a kingpin will be executed and the execution will take place on March 26, 2013. I did not see that information in any Bangladeshi newspaper so far. This story on Hurriyet attracted many interesting comments. The story was shared by many on facebook, twitter and google. For Bangladesh government, the challenge is communicating the foreign publics and make them understand its policy over the trial and why it is so important. Although, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister made it clear that Dhaka does not want any request for the persons accused of war crimes, but Turkey may not be the last country and that NGO may not be the last organisation. For Turkish government, however, the challenge is to digesting the response from Bangladesh and try a détente diplomacy if not something else.

Let’s go to hamam and get ready for a Turkish bath!

Links:

http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/bangladesh-ties-strained.aspx?pageID=238&nID=38015&NewsCatID=338

http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/planet/22265928.asp

http://newagebd.com/detail.php?date=2012-04-13&nid=7062#.UOrUAxz2Xw4

http://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkey–bangladesh-relations.en.mfa

http://www.todayszaman.com/newsDetail_getNewsById.action?newsId=277907

http://nazrulinstitute.org.bd/en_index.php?pg=enbook

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tu.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17988453

http://www.akparti.org.tr/english

http://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkey–bangladesh-relations.en.mfa

http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/latest_news.php?nid=43528

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