Foreign policy under Ziaur Rahman

Mohammad Amjad Hossain

Yesterday May 30 was President Ziaur Rahman’s 27th anniversary of death. On the occasion, one feels it worth to recall his foreign policy among other achievements. When Ziaur Rahman took over on April 21, 1977, he not only consolidated his power base but also made foreign policy dynamic.

Initially, he had made efforts in strengthening relations with other Muslim countries, and to foster good relations with countries of the west. Secondly, he planned to foster fraternal and cordial relations with neighbouring countries.

Until August 1975, Bangladesh did not have recognition from Saudi Arabia and China.

President Ziaur Rahman promoted rapid relations with Saudi Arabia and China. Saudi Arabia did not support the liberation movement because of Pakistan’s propaganda against the movement.

The government of Bangabandhu had dispatched two stalwart diplomats: Iqbal Athar, Pakistan’s Ambassador to Italy who defected to Bangladesh, and Ataur Rahman, who had been Pakistan’s Ambassador to Sudan, to remove the misgivings that existed in the minds of some Arab countries about Bangladesh. Many Arab countries came forward to recognise Bangladesh, except the oil-rich countries — Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia. These countries did not go along with the dismemberment of the Muslim country, Pakistan, and the birth of the new nation with the backing of a non-Muslim country, India.

Ziaur Rahman initiated efforts to develop ties with China in January 1977 when he paid a visit to that country as chief martial law administrator. Just as the Zia administration was bent upon developing close relations with China, the Soviet Union thought it appropriate to establish contact with the new regime in Bangladesh and to persuade it not to become too close to China at the cost of an old trusted friend who had accorded all-out support to the cause of Bangladesh during the war of liberation.

On the other hand, the exchange of high level visits contributed to the promotion of understanding, cooperation and friendship between Bangladesh and China. The visit of the Chinese Vice-Premier Li Shien Nien accompanied by the Foreign Minister Huang Hua to Bangladesh in March, 1978 was interpreted as a significant development in the bilateral relations between the two countries. Although Sino-Bangladesh bilateral relations developed reasonably well within the span of three years, the Chinese did not apparently accept the friendly attitude shown by Bangladesh towards Vietnam when its vice-premier was received in Dhaka in December, 1978.

The Vietnamese vice-premier was received at a time when relations between China and Vietnam had become tense following a Chinese retaliatory attack against Vietnam after the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea.

A host of historical, geographical, politico-cultural and socio-economic factors and individual whims have played a significant role in shaping the relations between Bangladesh and India. Ziaur Rahman began his journey to India with a note of apathy in his attitude in view of the growing anti-India sentiments in Bangladesh, but he was cautiously moving on a tightrope to avoid confrontation, keeping in mind the geopolitical compulsion. The relations with India improved when Janata Dal, headed by Morarji Desai, was voted to power in India in March, 1977. The Ziaur Rahman government received full cooperation from the Desai government to contain insurgency against Bangladesh.

On the Farakka Barrage issue, Morarji Desai understood Bangladesh’s problem. Following a series of meetings at expert and ministerial levels a five-year agreement, containing a guarantee clause on the sharing of the Ganges waters at Farakka, was signed in December, 1977. During the state visit of Morarji Desai to Bangladesh from April 16-18, 1979, it was agreed to set up a joint river commission on allocation of irrigation water from the Ganges for Bangladesh.

Viewed in the context of the vast potential that exists in the South Asia region, which is, by and large, a mosaic of multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious patterns, President Ziaur Rahman discussed the idea of regional cooperation in the course of visits to various capitals of the region during the period 1977 to 1979. Encouraged by the initial response Ziaur Rahman proposed that avenues should be explored to establish some institutional framework for regional cooperation. The first meeting of the foreign secretaries, which was held in Colombo from April 21-23, was considered an important milestone in establishing Saarc in 1985. Bangladesh Foreign Secretary SAMS Kibria described the occasion as one of historic significance.

Bangladesh’s commitment to the principles and objectives of the Organisation of Islamic Conference laid a basis for the development of further relations with Muslim countries. Credit, however, goes to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who took the initiative to normalise relations with Muslim countries by attending the second Islamic summit in Islamabad in 1974.

Without recognition by Pakistan, Bangladesh could not attend the conference, and to bring about reconciliation a hectic diplomatic manoeuvre preceded the conference. A seven-member delegation headed by the secretary general of OIC visited Dhaka, and Bangabandhu accepted the invitation.

Although Pakistan’s recognition came because of pressure from Muslim countries, relations did not improve during Bangabandhu’s government. During Zia’s, time relations had improved, but major issues such as apportionment of assets and liabilities and repatriation of stranded Pakistanis (non-Bengalis) have not been resolved till today. Apart from strengthening relations with Muslim countries, Ziaur Rahman’s role in stopping the fratricidal war between Iraq and Iran and bringing about reconciliation between these two countries was deeply appreciated by OIC.

The policy pursued by the Zia government was to foster good relations with western countries. The western countries also showed increasing interest in developing relations with Bangladesh primarily because of Zia’s policy to distance Bangladesh from the pro-Soviet bloc and to introduce multi-party democracy. Bangladesh has had excellent relations with the United States and Great Britain. Zia had established personal rapport with Jimmy Carter, President of the United States. The visit of British Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1978 added another feather to the diplomatic success.
In the international forum, Bangladesh earned prestige and honour. The election of Bangladesh to the Security Council as a non-permanent member in 1978, defeating Japan, was quite a significant achievement in the conduct of foreign relations. Bangladesh Foreign Secretary SAMS Kibria’s appointment as Executive Secretary at ESCAP(Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific) in Bangkok and Arshad Uz-Zaman as Assistant Secretary General in OIC were success stories, too.

I would like to conclude this article by quoting Professor Muhammad Shamsul Haq, foreign minister in Ziaur Rahman’s cabinet: “Bangladesh is a small country and wants to have good relations with all — big or small. We do not believe in any bloc. We do not like it. Bangladesh believes in equal sovereign rights of all nations and non-interference in other’s internal affairs.”

This article was first published in The Daily Star on May 31, 2008. The writer is a former diplomat, who writes from Virginia.


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