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.


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:]

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.”




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: ]

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 ]

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.


Bangladesh needs a visionary ‘Public Diplomacy’ strategy


Bangladesh government has honoured 83 foreigners and foreign organizations recently for their roles in 1971 supporting the independence movement of Bangladesh – a significant step of vibrant public diplomacy. But how far the citizens of the countries of those Award recipients came to know about it? 

On May 16 Wednesday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and this was her first ever visit to the ministry after taking office in January 2009. I would say it’s a belated visit, which should have taken place much ago. And more important point is that what she has said there, she should have spoken about it much earlier so that her instructions would have been implemented by phase. However, it’s better late than never.

During her visit, the Prime Minister exchanged views with the senior officials of the Ministry but the media did not mention anything on that discussion. But during her around five hours visit, Hasina addressed the officials and employees of the Ministry and urged the foreign ministry officials to make their ‘sincere efforts’ to sustain country’s positive image abroad. However, this was not for the first time that she said so, but it’s important because there was a presentation on Public Diplomacy of Bangladesh. An official told me that the presentation did not spell out what should be Bangladesh’s approach. I am yet to get the presentation but will surely share on this blog as soon as I get it. But so far I have seen the media coverage especially by the state-run news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS), the presentation received scant attention for quite obvious reason. Not going to that direction now.

What I understand from Sheikh Hasina’s call is that she asked the Foreign Ministry officials to do Public Diplomacy with ‘sincere efforts’ by the phrase ‘sustain country’s positive image abroad’. But interesting part is that Bangladesh has a number of Public Diplomacy efforts which are implemented by the missions abroad mostly as part of an official duty. And I am sure the Prime Minister is well aware of it. But, what I was expecting is a comprehensive strategic vision of Public Diplomacy Strategy from the Prime Minister and a subsequent work plan for Bangladesh from the Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary so that the officers could work wholeheartedly to implement that.

My argument is: it is possible for our Foreign Ministry officials to work without any strategic direction (to enhance Bangladesh’s image abroad) as they are doing it for the last 40 years. But in the 21st century, when Bangladesh is talking about a Digital Bangladesh, when so many students from Nepal, Bhutan or the South African countries are coming here for higher studies, when Bangladesh is crying loudly to attract foreign direct investment, when Bangladesh is lobbying for duty-free market access for its ready-made garment (RMG) in the US market, when Bangladesh needs more of its blue helmets to be stationed in trouble-torn areas of the world, when Bangladesh desperately needs its – what I call them – ‘Bob the Builders’ spread across the globe and work hard to send remittances to name a few, I find it really sad as to why Bangladesh is yet to have a long-term visionary strategy for enhancing country’s image abroad. The visionary strategy and subsequent work plan I am talking about is free from any political bias and face no interference during its implementation no matter whoever represents the government.

The Prime Minister also said the foreign ministry officials have to act as ‘focal point in this regard in coordination with other relevant ministries’. This is very important aspect which requires more cautious attention. Currently, different ministries are engaged in communicating the foreign publics, which I think, must be mediated and coordinated by the Foreign Ministry. For example, firstly the Ministry of Energy, Power and Mineral Resources had arranged Road Shows (Bangladesh Investment Conference and Road Show) in 2009 in some places including London, and I am not sure what it had yielded after spending millions of taka from the public exchequer. I am not against the Road Show or calling it unnecessary, but I am result-oriented. Secondly, Bangladesh has a number of Ministers (Press) stationed at some missions abroad including Washington, London and New Delhi and they work under the Ministry of Information. Bangladesh’s international broadcasting propagated by the BTV World since February 2004 is also under the Information Ministry. Education Ministry distributes scholarships for foreign students coming to Bangladesh and study here in different educational institutions such as University of Dhaka, Dhaka Medical College Hospital and Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology. There are several other Ministries doing different split parts of public diplomacy separately and here I am naming a few. So my argument is: a tangled web of bureaucracy has been weaved, which should be altered to a strategic One.

There were some rhetorical parts of her speech. Sheikh Hasina said, “Against our success over the last three and half years in brightening the image of the country abroad as a democratic and progressive nation, a vested quarter is out to tarnish the image.” My question is what has been done to thwart that? Sending out reactive rejoinder to reputed international media instead of a proactive engagement with them?

The Prime Minister said Bangladesh is a small country, but in terms of population and geographic location the country has a global importance. If one asks: what Bangladesh has so far done to assert its ‘global importance’ in the minds of the global public on and offline, the idea of Digital Bangladesh remains a far cry.

Lastly, she said: “We want to build Bangladesh as a country of peace in South Asia. There might be problems with our neighbours, but we can resolve those through bilateral talks as we did in the cases of Ganges water sharing treaty and CHT peace accord. We have resolved problems in the past and will settle the remaining issues in future.” But I guess only ‘bilateral talks’ will not be enough; Bangladesh should do more on the information front. Bangladesh needs to think something else today what the rest of the world will think tomorrow.

Photo credit:


Sheikh Hasina’s speech is from the following links:$date=2012-05-16&dateCurrent=2012-05-19


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