Monthly Archives: November 2012

India-Bangladesh to sign MoU to connect Agartala, Akhaura

India and Bangladesh are all set to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to lay railway tracks for connecting Agartala and the southeastern city of Akhaura in the neighbouring country.
Officials here on Friday said that the Centre has been pursuing the connectivity of the two places via a 15-km railway link for the past two years since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh in 2010.
The Union ministry of external affairs (MEA) and the Union ministry for Development of Northeast Region (DoNER) would finance the entire project, estimated at Rs 271 crore. India is in need of rail connectivity with Akhaura to connect with Chittagong international port, Sylhet and Dhaka.
A seven-member inter-ministerial team led by Radhika L Lokesh, joint secretary in the MEA, is currently conducting an on-the-spot finalisation study at the Indian site in Agartala, officials here said, adding that the delegation would submit a report on the study so that both the countries can sign the MoU.
The delegation comprises representatives of the MEA, the Union ministry of railways and DoNER ministry who had already visited the sites and held meetings with the state government, besides the first secretary of the High Commission of India in Dhaka.
The Indian Railway Construction Company has been assigned the job of laying the railway tracks on both sides of the border.

Bangladesh dismisses Suu Kyi comments on Rohingya

The Bangladesh government on Sunday rejected comments by Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi suggesting that stateless Muslim Rohingyas may be illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
Myanmar has been rocked by two outbreaks of fighting between Buddhists and Rohingyas since June that have left 180 people dead and more than 110,000 crammed into makeshift camps.
Suu Kyi said last week that illegal crossing of the shared border with Bangladesh had to be stopped “otherwise there will never be an end to the problem”.
The foreign ministry in Dhaka said the Rohingya Muslims have been living in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine for centuries and they could not be Bangladeshi as the country was only founded in 1971.
“The Ministry wishes to express surprise at such comments since these are clearly at variance from the position of the Myanmar Government,” it said in a statement.
“There is… no reason to ascribe Bangladesh nationality to these people,” it said, adding that since 1971 there had been influxes of Rohingya into Bangladesh from Myanmar due to “internal situations in their homeland”.
Suu Kyi has faced criticism for her muted response to the ethnic violence in Myanmar and the displacement of many Rohingyas, who are described by the United Nations as among the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Barack Obama will on Monday become the first US president to visit formerly isolated Myanmar, which has recently introduced major political reforms.

D8 summit: Bangladesh, Malaysia PMs bow out

Sources : Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Haseena Wajid has informed the government of her non-participation in a key summit on developing countries to be held in Pakistan later this month, sources said.
Earlier reports suggested that the Bangladesh would be represented at the conference by Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, however, sources said her attendance also seems unlikely now. According to foreign ministry officials, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Mohamed Mijarul Quayes, or one of the advisers to the Bangladeshi premier, will now represent Bangladesh in the summit.
Sources told The Express Tribune that the Bangladesh premier and foreign minister handed over a list of demands to Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar during her visit. The demands included putting on trial former military and political personalities allegedly involved in the fall of Dhaka. Furthermore, Bangladesh sought an official apology from Pakistan for war crimes allegedly committed during the 1971 war.
Pakistan has said it has regretted the war crimes in different forms in the past and that “it was time to move forward.”
Meanwhile, the Malaysian prime minister also excused himself from attending the conference due to prior engagements. However, the reason for his absence could not be confirmed. According to reports, the Malaysian deputy prime minister would lead his delegation in Islamabad.
The D-8 Summit is scheduled to be held on November 22 in Islamabad.

What lies beyond this U-turn? INDIA – BANGLADESH POLITICS.

Sources Khaleda Zia, Bangladesh’s leader of the opposition in Parliament, made some significant statements during her October 28-November 3 visit to India that deserve scrutiny.

As far as her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is concerned, the visit had a dual purpose: one, to establish a stronger relationship between the two countries, and two, to remove the mistrust that India perceivably has towards the BNP.

One of Ms Khaleda Zia’s close aides who accompanied her to New Delhi, said the high-profile visit, roughly a year ahead of the next general election, dispelled the perception that “India favours one political party” in Bangladesh.

During the visit, which was closely watched in both the countries, Ms. Khaleda Zia met key Indian leaders including President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, senior BJP leader L.K. Advani, BJP president Nitin Gadkari, National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai.

In her meetings, Ms Khaleda Zia, for the first time, appreciated India’s security concerns and gave an assurance that terrorists and anti-India insurgents would not be allowed on Bangladeshi soil if she comes to power again.

The former Prime Minister, who was a staunch critic of the present Sheikh Hasina government’s improved relations with India, also reportedly supported India’s transit and transshipment through Bangladesh, and also India’s participation in a consortium with China to build a deep-sea port at Bangladesh’s Sonadia.

Like Ms Khaleda Zia, Jatiya Party chairman General H.M. Ershad and Awami League’s general secretary Syed Ashraful Islam had also visited India in recent times on New Delhi’s invitations. Reportedly, the main thrust of Indian interactions with Ms Khaleda Zia was sustaining the relations the two countries had built in the last four years.

This visit was certainly more important than her tour of India in 2006 as the Prime Minister; and is reminiscent of a similar high-profile visit to New Delhi by the then opposition leader, Sheikh Hasina, in 2006.

Happy host

The Indian External Affairs Ministry was also happy with the outcome as its spokesman quoted Ms Khaleda Zia as saying that the visit marked a “new beginning” and “let’s look forward and not look in the rear view mirror”.

There are varying interpretations of the visit. Some say it is in the interest of both India and BNP to build ties ahead of the next general elections in which the ruling Awami League may face a debacle due to anti-incumbency factors. According to pro-Khaleda analysts, the “positive changes” in the BNP were being closely watched by India, and these were first underlined when the then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee visited Dhaka in May this year. After a meeting with Ms Khaleda Zia, he said India was interested in building relations with Bangladesh and not just with one party.

Also, the visit took place at a time when international politics has changed. Myanmar’s willingness to come out of the cold and the United States’ overtures towards it have made Bangladesh’s geopolitical location of immense importance.

Watch the curve

A secular-democratic Bangladesh has no reason to be perturbed with Ms Khaleda Zia’s radical postures towards India. But it must keep a watch on the U-turn that she is making on her long-held policies.

It is possible that, in the run-up to the 2001 election, Ms Khaleda Zia is trying to sell the line that a government led by her, despite its Islamist orientation and pronounced anti-India bias, is better suited to deliver on promises made to India than Sheikh Hasina’s secular Awami League. Arch rivals can turn friends, and true changes of heart are welcome. However, those on the vanguard of a secular-democratic Bangladesh doubt Ms. Khaleda Zia can follow through on her assurances while keeping parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamists in the fold. Therefore, the question remains: Is this a genuine change of heart or posturing ahead of the next general election?

Bangladeshis would recall her repeated statements when she was Prime Minister, calling India’s north-east insurgents “freedom fighters”. It was during the BNP-Jamaat alliance’s rule that a massive arms haul was made in Chittagong in April, 2004. The then Prime Minister reportedly had full knowledge of these arms, which were unmistakably meant for insurgent outfits like ULFA.

Bangladesh, which had enjoyed a liberal polity, also turned a happy hunting ground for religious extremists during her regime. Therefore, secular democrats would like to see verification of such pronouncements in action.

One would remember that on return to power in 2001, BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami went about implementing with full vigour their communal agenda, resorting to ‘minority cleansing’ on a scale that Bangladesh had never witnessed except for 1971 and turned the country into a sanctuary for international Islamist terrorist groups.

The present dispensation

When Awami League swept into power in the 2008 general elections, one of the priorities of Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina was to visit New Delhi to extend a warm hand of friendship. Despite stumbling blocks, it was Ms Hasina who boldly initiated a new beginning in India-Bangladesh ties — a first since the two joined hands in the 1971 war for independence of East Pakistan.

Indeed, the Hasina government has initiated a new era of regional connectivity and has also removed a vital security concern of India by bringing north-east insurgents to task.

All these actions, until her recent visit to New Delhi, were persistently challenged by Ms. Khaleda Zia and her Islamist allies, who termed the Hasina government, as usual, “an Indian stooge”.

Given the anti-incumbency factor, the government led by Sheikh Hasina may not be in a commanding position in the coming general election, especially in urban areas. But there is no credible sign that the ratings of the BNP and its Islamist allies have had a substantive rise. Therefore, the perceived defeat of the Awami League may be too hasty a conclusion.

Bangladesh’s politics is fundamentally linked to its Liberation War, and the ongoing trial of “war criminals” initiated by the Hasina government represents an effort to come to terms with the past. It is in the interest of a strong, secular Bangladesh that justice be done. But the BNP, a staunch ally of the Jamaat-e-Islami which has many of its leaders among the top accused, has demanded the trial be suspended and the accused freed.

Ms. Khaleda Zia’s high-profile visit to India has also sent confusing signals to the secular parties and grouping. Rhetoric apart, the confusion can be judged from a recent remark by Awami League’s spokesman Mahbub-ul Alam Hanif, who said that having failed to get support at home, the BNP was trying to get back to power with Indian support.

Despite all the debates, the fact is that Ms. Khaleda Zia has announced a considerable shift from what she and her party have stood for ever since she took over the reins of BNP in the early 1980s. If this change of heart is real and durable, it is welcome in the interest of restoring a healthy regional environment based on understanding and cooperation.

Bangladesh, Belarus sign 12 deals, MoUs

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Belarusian counterpart Mikhail MyasnikovichBangladesh and Belarus inked seven agreements and five memorandums of understanding (MoU) on Monday to strengthen bilateral relationship.

The agreement and MoUs were signed for expansion of trade and investment; legal support in agriculture, science and technology and military; and cooperation in education and exporting frozen food.

Officials concerned on behalf of Bangladesh and Belarus penned the agreements and the MoUs at the Prime Minister’s Office in presence of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and visiting Belarus Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich.

Belarus PM arrived in Dhaka on a three-day official visit on Sunday.

This is the first official visit of a Belarus premier since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1991.

The Rohingyas and Bangladesh: urgent steps need to be taken

The bouts of ethnic violence in the Rakhine region of Myanmar since the middle of this year have once again triggered the attempted exodus of Rohingyas into Bangladesh. The purpose of this commentary is to explore key dimensions of the Rohingya tragedy and potential courses of action from the Bangladesh perspective.

First, the conflicting and growing strategic interests of the global power players in the land and sea area surrounding Myanmar (and Bangladesh) continue to prevent any strong independent action on the part of these players to bring about and enforce a mutually fair redress for the Rohingya. Such a redress would perhaps involve creating an autonomous Rohingya-majority territory in Myanmar carved out of northwestern Rakhine, with its political and governance structure similar to the territories of Canada and USA, for instance.

Second, the Myanmar government continues to deny citizenship to the Rohingyas, claiming that their ancestors, originating from areas now part of Bangladesh, unlawfully trespassed into and settled in the Rakhine region. The government of Bangladesh, on its part, argues that it is an internal problem of Myanmar, and a more accommodative Bangladeshi policy regarding the Rohingyas would simply encourage continued governance failure in Myanmar.

Meantime, the tragedy continues to deepen, with all of its implications for Bangladesh, such as economic rehabilitation, cultural assimilation, risk of anti-secular extremism, risk of counter violence against Buddhists in Bangladesh, risk of infiltration of illegal arms and weapons, risk of border tension in case of a Rakhine insurgency (of ethnic alliances of separatists) operating from within Bangladesh, risk of strengthening of separatist forces in the southeastern areas of Bangladesh, etc. The blame game (as much as the blame may be true) and the associated lack of commitment to the humanity of the Rohingyas do not seem like productive courses of action for Bangladesh.

Third, there is no legislation in Bangladesh specifically targeted at handling refugees or asylum-seekers. Instead, Bangladesh relies on the 1946 Foreigners Act that grants sweeping power. Further, Bangladesh is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. This legal void has provided utmost discretion to the government in dealing with Rohingya refugees. For example, Bangladesh is yet to document/register the vast majority (221,000 out of the reported 250,000) of the Rohingyas already in Bangladesh, most of them since 1991-92.

Without any legal status, these Rohingyas do not qualify for any official humanitarian assistance and have been living in sub-human conditions. While respecting the international law of non-refoulement, Bangladesh did not expel the undocumented Rohingyas, but the 2012 actions of repelling the asylum-seekers indicate a reluctance to respect this law. Further, in November 2010, Bangladesh suspended the UNHCR programme for resettlement of Rohingyas abroad, and has since rebuffed strong appeals from the UNHCR to revoke the suspension.

Granted that the internal security concerns of Bangladesh may be well-taken, the question is why 20 years (since 1992) is not a long enough period of sub-human living for the undocumented Rohingyas, without access to lawful employment, education, healthcare, freedom of movement, justice and international assistance.

Fourth, the 250,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh represent a tiny 0.17 per cent of the country’s population of 150 million. Further, if the documented Rohingyas are rehabilitated in low-density areas, additional amenities and infrastructure needs will be minimal. With legal status, it is also expected that the economic productivity and consumption of the Rohingyas and the inflow of international assistance for them will rise. Thus, their registration is not likely to result in either a population burden or economic baggage. Without documentation, however, not only are the economic benefits foregone, the Rohingyas may in fact become increasingly desperate and vulnerable to recruitment by criminals, extremists and political opportunists.

Fifth, there is a risk of ethnic clashes and separatist turmoil if the Rohingyas are all rehabilitated in southeastern Bangladesh. For example, if all 250,000 Rohingyas are relocated to the Bandarban district, they will become a dominant ethnic majority there. Therefore security concerns warrant a spatially diversified rehabilitation, possibly dispersing a significant number of Rohingyas to the northern and western districts and perhaps the offshore islands of Bangladesh.

Lastly, it is in the long-term interests of Bangladesh to be seen as a nation that genuinely cares about the suffering of fellow human beings. Unbalanced concerns about internal security and geopolitics should not cloud the recollection of traumatic ethnic and political persecution of Bangladeshis themselves in the not-so-distant past, nor should it be lost that a sufficiently large segment of the world was always there for Bangladesh whenever it needed economic and humanitarian assistance, especially in times of severe natural calamity. The care and assistance needed by the Rohingyas surely pales in contrast.

While mindless compassion can be reckless, so can be heartless pragmatism. Hence, it is a reasonable balance between the two that Bangladesh needs regarding the Rohingyas. Clearly the transition from defending minorities within borders to accommodating minorities across borders is fraught with unpleasant challenges, but continued deferral of taking up the challenges is not a sustainable choice either.

Such a recognition could perhaps start with: a) unequivocal condemnation of the acts of violence in Rakhine as unacceptable by Bangladesh, civil society and other collective forums; b) registration of the undocumented Rohingyas in Bangladesh; c) cooperation with relief organisations to channel humanitarian aid to the Rohingyas in Bangladesh; d) articulation and enactment of a comprehensive refugee policy; and e) leadership by Bangladesh in orchestrating a multilateral alliance to address the Rohingya tragedy. In other words, a combination of unequivocal moral support, refuge and relief efforts within an internationally accepted legal framework, and mobilisation of interested powerful partners are called for.

Google opens Bangladesh operations

Search engine giant Google Inc. on Monday appointed first-ever Country Consultant for Bangladesh.

One of the global leaders in internet-related products and services, Google has assigned Kazi Monirul Kabir, a seasoned professional in trade and brand marketing, to kick-start its operations in Bangladesh.

Kabir was the Chief Communications Officer at Grameenphone and sat on the seven-strong management committee. He also left his seat on the board of GPIT, a GP subsidiary.

He did MBA from Berlin School of Creative Leadership and has worked in game-changing positions with British American Tobacco Bangladesh Co. Ltd, Banglalink GSM, Rahimafrooz Limited, to name a few.

The appointment, however, does not imply full-fledged operations of the web giant, which is already providing locally specified services in 49 countries. The time the company takes in market feasibility studies and acclimatisation varies country to country.

Kabir, who is counted among the best professionals in public relations in Bangladesh, is about to represent a company which is known to be conservative in media correspondence.

When asked for his reaction to his new job, he was succinct. “Yes I am leaving Grameenphone. I’ll be serving as Country Consultant in Bangladesh for Google this month.”

“I am really excited and looking forward to it,” Kabir in a short message toldbdnews24.com.

Kabir has managed sales, corporate and public affairs of big organisations and is expected to face new challenges in this latest mission. Insiders say the sales of Google enterprise solutions rely largely on the e-commerce infrastructure of the country.
Google may also receive and respond to frequent calls from state bodies like BTRC in matters similar to those that arose in the wake of ‘anti-Islam’ video row. The controversial video is hosted, along with other similar platforms, by Youtube, the most popular video-sharing website Google has owned since 2006.

Apart from its free productivity tools – which includes popular limited storage web mail gmail.com – Google sells corporate solutions at a competitive price, which, insiders say, may influence the way independent and small enterprises are managed.

Part of the revenue Google generates is derived from offering companies search technologies. A Google establishment in Bangladesh is also expected to promote the apps market.

In recent years, Google has taken a vertical integration strategy*, for example in mobile computing, that motivated it to own the operating system and the device along with its popular Android applications.

While experts say the world may take up to 2015 to see more mobiles log on to the net than PCs, it is already the case in Bangladesh.

*Investorwords says vertical integration is the process in which several steps in the production and/or distribution of a product or service are controlled by a single company or entity, in order to increase that company’s or entity’s power in the marketplace.

Investment destination Bangladesh: Possibilities and constraints

The prime minister recently called upon Vietnamese entrepreneurs to invest in the country promising conducive facilities. We laud her for her efforts to woo much-needed foreign investment. Yes, Bangladesh has the potential to become the investors’ choice destination. We have a number of things going for us at the moment. At the same time there are major bottlenecks that will have to be addressed so that Bangladesh can cash in on the increased interest Asian and European interests have been showing lately.

The good news first: South Asian wages are no longer cheap. In fact, wages have been on the rise across the Asian board. According to a study by Japanese External Trade Organisation (JETRO) conducted in 2011, Asian workers’ wages have increased significantly. “Among the major countries in Asean, a rise in the basic wage rate was observed, in descending order, in Vietnam (16.8%), Indonesia (9.6%), the Philippines (5.6%), Thailand (5.3%), and Malaysia (4.7%). But even after such a rapid rise in pay, the monthly wage of workers in Hanoi was a mere $123, less than half that in Bangkok ($286). In Jakarta, the monthly wage of workers was $209, roughly 70% of the wage in Bangkok. The questionnaire survey mentioned above also revealed that the average monthly salary for workers employed by Japanese companies in Bangladesh was $78, significantly higher than the minimum wage of $39.” Hence, even with $78 as average wage, Bangladesh offers a far more competitive advantage than, say, Vietnam.

Besides the wage advantage, certain industries are very much viable in Bangladesh. Besides garments, textiles and the shoe industry show a lot of promise. Indeed several joint-venture shoe companies have already opened up shop in Bangladesh. More investment is in the pipeline. This has been possible because these factories by nature are less energy-intensive. The second reason for Bangladesh to be the choice destination for shoe industry is that our good quality leather is cheap. Leather available in Bangladesh, available at competitive prices, is ideal for outer-shoe application.

Another resource in abundant supply is Bangladesh’s young labour force. Compared to Asean our labour force has two distinct advantages. First, and here it gets interesting, Bangladeshi workers are disciplined and second their eagerness to learn is translated into higher productivity. If one looks at Kuwait, more than half the population (est. 2.6million) is made up of expatriate workers — where Bangladesh has 250,000 workers, or about 9% of the total population. Yet the presence of such a large number of people of a foreign nationality working in Kuwait has not presented any major hiccups. Given proper conditions, there is no reason why Bangladeshi workers cannot excel as a productive force in this country too.

The not so good news: According to a recent interview of the present president of Foreign International Chamber of Commerce and Industry Syed Ershad Ahmed, new investment shows a decline. Yet at the same time re-investment and modernisation of existing industry is on the rise. From what has been published in the latest edition “ease of doing business index” brought out by the World Bank and IFC, access to electricity has been touted as a major hurdle. Next in line comes the poor communication infrastructure that includes roads. The lack of progress in expanding the major commercial artery, i.e., Dhaka — Chittagong highway to 4-lane from present 2-lane causes terribly long tail-back. The chronic and traffic jam on highways has been singled out as the biggest problem for doing business in the country, considered a more acute problem than political unrest.

The problems were highlighted in an interview by BBC’s Kadir Kollol of a Pakistani entrepreneur who set up a garments unit in Ashulia industrial belt. He was attracted by availability of cheap, disciplined labour force and duty-free access to the European market. What sets apart this factory from the hundreds of others is that workers get payment on time. The friendly environment for workers coupled with timely payment of wages that are a notch above the common local industry standard. The entrepreneur is happy since his investment has not suffered any incidence of labour unrest. Interestingly, trade unions in the area, traditionally left-leaning and generally anti-foreign investment are not averse to a Pakistani-owned garments industry operating there, since basic workers’ rights are looked after. Mr. Moghul’s greatest concerns are neither political instability nor agitating workers. Rather they revolve around poor communication which, result in lost time, and the dire straits of energy for industry, i.e. supply of gas and electricity (load shedding and low voltage). The erratic supply of these two essential prerequisites of production automatically translates into loss of productivity on the one hand and a higher cost of production on the other (since diesel-run generators come into play to keep production lines running).

Never before has Bangladesh been at the centre of so much interest. The advantages the country enjoys could propel it to a very positive future in the near term provided our policymakers have the vision to take steps necessary to remove the obstacles to growth. Governments need to move away from archaic notions that any infrastructure project that cannot be concluded in one term of government should not be taken up. Projects adopted by one government are carried out and completed by successive governments in neighbouring countries like India, they are never shelved. Unless a fundamental rethinking along these lines is adopted, there exists every danger that Bangladesh will get left behind while neighbours like Myanmar clinch opportunities that ought to have been ours.

Bangladesh becomes ASEM member

Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi, left, Ireland’s Minister of Training and Skills Ciaran Cannon, centre, and Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina after a group photo session at the 9th Asia-Europe (ASEM) Summit in the Laos capital of Vientiane yesterda
Bangladesh yesterday formally joined the 52-nation Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) devoted to building co-operation between Asia and Europe, the foreign ministry announced in Dhaka.
The induction of Bangladesh happened with two other countries — Norway and Switzerland in a ceremony prior to launching of the ninth summit of ASEM in Vientaine, the capital Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR).
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed her profound delight to be a new member of ASEM and thanked all members of the forum for their co-operation and support in making this possible for Bangladesh. “You have welcomed us in your midst as a partner and we promise to contribute fully to the ASEM process,” she said, adding, “Bangladesh recognises the vitality inherent in the ASEM process”.
Founded 17 years ago, the forum aims at providing a platform for policymakers and officials of the two neighbouring continents for co-operation beyond aid-based relationship rather in more general process of dialogue based on mutual respect and benefit.
The summit, being held under the theme — “Friends for Peace, Partners for Prosperity” — this year, became a large gathering of Asian and European leaders with the presence of the heads of state and government as well as high-level delegations of 52 countries.
“When ASEM took off 17 years ago, I was heading the government in Bangladesh. I was enthused at this institutional engagement between the two continents covering a wide-ranging agenda, designed to appreciate each other’s values approaches and requirements,” Hasina said.
The prime minister said Asia and Europe have diversity and differences as well as mutuality of interests. In the contemporary world, she said, economic inter-dependence between our two continents remains substantial, and it continues to grow.
“We should strengthen our resolve to act collectively. ASEM has embodied our faith in the intensified dialogue and in the innovative and practical initiatives based on the best practices across our two continents,” she said
With the broader engagement within the ASEM process, she hoped, the Asian neighbourhood would be able to work with the European friends in seeking convergence on various global as well as regional challenges and opportunities.

Bangladesh-Turkey start joint medical drill

Bangladesh and Turkey jointly opened a weeklong medical exercise on Sunday from which Bangladeshi physicians are expected to learn about various procedures.

Bangladeshi officials hope this ‘joint health week’ will open the door for better bilateral relations between the two countries.

Health Minister A F M Ruhal Haque inaugurated the first-ever health week in which 25 Turkish specialists of different disciplines will train up Bangladeshi doctors at different hospitals.

“The benefit can be mutual,” the minister said. “It’s (the relationship) in the peak now because of the persistent effort of our Prime Minister,” he said.

Turkey, which is lobbying hard for European Union membership, has been seeking stronger bonding with the Muslim-majority countries including Bangladesh.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul visited Bangladesh in 2010 in reciprocate of his counterpart President Mohammad Zillur Rahman’s visit.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has visited Turkey twice during her nearly four years in office and signed seven agreements to enhance cooperation and trade as the two countries eyed $3 billion bilateral trade by 2015 from the $1 billion in 2010.

A 15-member Turkish business delegation will also come to Dhaka this month.

“It’s the beginning of cooperation in the health sector,” Dr Oner Guner, General Director for European Union and Foreign Relations, Ministry of Health, Turkey, said at the opening of the health week.

The specialists will train up doctors of neuro-surgery and general surgery at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, paediatric surgery at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, orthopaedics at the National Institute of Traumatology and Orthopaedic Rehabilitation, eye at the National Institute of Ophthalmology and heart surgery at Chittagong Medical College Hospital.

“It will … open the door of mutual understanding and cooperation,” said Adviser to the Health Minister of Turkey Kamuran Ozden.

Senior Secretary for Health Md Humayun Kabir said the training programme came as part of their bilateral agreement of cooperation in health and medical science signed on Nov 14, 2010.

He said they had finalised the action plans in December last year under the agreement.

“It’s (doctors’ training) yet another part of our cooperation,” Turkish Ambassador in Dhaka Vakur Erkul said.

The Ambassador said they would support building community clinics in Bangladesh.

“We will start on a pilot basis by building 10 community health clinics,” he said. “If we can do it, it will give the way of building more.”

The Ambassador also recalled the friendship of the two countries that he said was lasting since over eight centuries when Hazrat Shah Jalal, who was born in Konya, Turkey, came to Syhlet from where he spread Sufism in the region.

“We have good relations in the fields of economics and politics,” he said.

There are opportunities to further strengthen the relations, he said.

Internet rolls into Bangladesh villages on a bike

Amina Begum had never seen a computer until a few years ago, but now she’s on Skype regularly with her husband. A woman on a bicycle brings the Internet to her.

Dozens of ‘‘Info Ladies’’ bike into remote Bangladeshi villages with laptops and Internet connections, helping tens of thousands of people — especially women — get everything from government services to chats with distant loved ones. It’s a vital service in a country where only 5 million of 152 million people have Internet access.

The Info Ladies project, created in 2008 by local development group D.Net and other community organizations, is modeled after a program that helped make cellphones widespread in Bangladesh. It intends to enlist thousands more workers in the next few years with startup funds from the South Asian country’s central bank and expatriates working around the world.

D.Net recruits the women and trains them for three months to use a computer, the Internet, a printer and a camera. It arranges bank loans for the women to buy bicycles and equipment.

‘‘This way we are providing jobs to jobless women and at the same time empowering villagers with critical information,’’ said Ananya Raihan, D.Net’s executive director.

The women — usually undergraduates from middle-class rural families — aren’t doling out charity. Begum pays 200 takas ($2.40) for an hour of Skype time with her husband, who works in Saudi Arabia.

Begum smiles shyly when her husband’s cheerful face pops up. With earphones in place, she excitedly tells him she received the money he sent last month. He asks her to buy farm land.

Even Begum’s elderly mother-in-law now uses Skype to talk with her son.

‘‘We prefer using Skype to mobile phones because this way we can see him on the screen,’’ Begum said, beaming happily from her tiny farming village in Gaibandha district, 120 miles (192 kilometers) north of the capital, Dhaka.

In the neighboring village of Saghata, an Info Lady is 16-year-old Tamanna Islam Dipa’s connection to social media.

‘‘I don’t have any computer, but when the Info Lady comes I use her laptop to chat with my Facebook friends,’’ she said. ‘‘We exchange our class notes and sometimes discuss social issues, such as bad effects of child marriage, dowry and sexual abuse of girls.’’

The Info Ladies also provide a slew of social services — some for a fee and others for free.

They sit with teenage girls where they talk about primary health care and taboo subjects like menstrual hygiene, contraception and HIV. They help villagers seeking government services write complaints to authorities under the country’s newly-enacted Right to Information Act.

They talk to farmers about the correct use of fertilizer and insecticides. For 10 takas (12 cents) they help students fill college application forms online. They’re even trained to test blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

‘‘The Info Ladies are both entrepreneurs and public service providers,’’ Raihan said.

Raihan borrowed the idea from Bangladeshi Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, who in 2004 introduced mobile phones to rural women who had no access to telephones of any kind, by training and sending out scores of ‘‘Mobile Ladies’’ into the countryside.

That hugely successful experiment drew in commercial mobile phone operators. Now more than 92 million people in Bangladesh have cellphone access.

Nearly 60 Info Ladies are working in 19 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts. By 2016, Raihan hopes to train 15,000 women.

In July, Bangladesh’s central bank agreed to offer interest-free loans to Info Ladies. Distribution of the first phase of loans, totaling 100 million takas ($1.23 million), will begin in December. Raihan said D.Net is also encouraging the large population of Bangladeshi expatriates to send money home to help Info Ladies get started.

‘‘It’s very innovative,’’ says Jamilur Reza Chaudhury, a pioneer of information technology education in Bangladesh. ‘‘The project is really having an impact on the people at grass-root level.’’

Info Lady Sathi Akhtar, who works in Begum’s and Dipa’s villages, said she makes more at the job than she would as a school teacher. She said that after making payments on her 120,000 taka ($1,480) loan and covering other costs, she takes home an average of 10,000 takas ($123) a month.

‘‘We are not only earning money, we are also contributing in empowering our women with information.’’ ‘’That makes us happy.’’

Bangladesh ruling elites unhappy on Indian leaders

Former Prime Minister and currently leader of the opposition in Bangladesh, Khaleda Zia and her entire team surely looks to be totally satisfied and delighted over the outcome of their ongoing India tour, where the chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) met important political figures, including Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and opposition leader Sushma Swaraj, while large number of bilateral issues were discussed. The BNP chief assured India that her party won’t allow any anti-India separatist groups in using the Bangladeshi soil, once her party goes into power. There is clear sign of Indian leader’s willingness in improving their relations, with the goal of minimizing the gap, which had been prevailing between India and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. It may be mentioned here that, even in the recent past, BNP was considered to be a party much inclined towards Pakistan and it had been maintaining a strong anti-Indian posture, which had led people believing, Bangladesh Awami League (the current ruling party in Bangladesh) is the only choice of India, with which New Delhi has built a relations based on trust since the war of independence of Bangladesh. But the current trip of the Bangladeshi opposition leader at the invitation of the Indian government has definitely cleared New Delhi’s position, where the political pundits in both sides of the border are now convinced believing that India is more interested in relations with Bangladesh and all the political players in that country instead of depending on a single political force.

Bangladesh Nationalist Party certainly got positive response from the political elites in India, including the ruling party during Khaleda Zia’s meetings with Dr. Manmohan Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Salman Khurshid and senior BJP leaders like Lal Krishna Advani. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh repeatedly assured the BNP leader that India does not want to build its relations with a certain party in Bangladesh. Surely Dr. Singh clearly pointed to Bangladesh Awami League, which had been possibly thinking of the “exclusive friend” of Indian policymakers even in the recent past.

During his meeting with the Bangladeshi leader of the opposition, the newly appointed minister for External Affairs (Foreign Ministry) Salman Khurshid said, Bangladesh is vital for India.

But, Bangladeshi opposition leader was particularly touched at the warmest gesture of the Indian opposition leader Sushma Swaraj, when her daughter Bansuri Swaraj personally served food to Khaleda Zia and members of her entourage. Such gesture of Oxford educated Bansuri Swaraj who also is a barrister has won the hearts of the entire team of the Bangladeshi opposition leader.

While the visit of the Bangladeshi opposition leader has opened the prospect of new vista of cooperation between the two neighboring nations, the elites of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League are clearly uncomfortable if not unhappy at India’s warm gesture showed to Khaleda Zia. They also are silently furious seeing Indian policymakers are already considering the BNP as the next party in power in Bangladesh. The first-ever critical statement centering the India tour of the Bangladeshi opposition leader came from the foreign minister Dipu Moni, who termed the visit as “non-significant”.

Criticizing Khaleda Zia’s meetings with Sushma Swaraj, LK Advani and other leaders of the opposition, Bangladeshi minister Hasan Mahmud, who also is one of the top policymakers of the ruling party said, the Bangladeshi opposition leader met extremists in Indian politics with the ulterior motive of riding in power through unconstitutional ways. Such defamatory statement by the Bangladeshi sitting minister on the Indian politicians and opposition leaders has already drawn criticism both in Dhaka and New Delhi.

President of the youth front of the ruling party in Bangladesh, Omar Faruq Chowdhury has also criticized the visit of Bangladeshi opposition leader to India stating, India will not accept Khaleda Zia and her party as a good partner. Similarly, senior leader of Bangladesh Awami League Amir Hossain Amu made negative remarks on this visit.

From the statements of the leaders of the ruling party in Bangladesh, it is easily assumed that they already are feeling nervous seeing the fruitful meetings of Khaleda Zia with Indian policymakers and senior leadership, although it is rumored in New Delhi that Indian President Pranab Mukherjee called off his October 28 pre-set meeting with the Bangladeshi opposition leader at the request of the ruling party leadership in Bangladesh. Similarly, Indian National Congress leader Sonia Gandhi is hesitant in finalizing any meeting with Khaleda Zia. But, political circle in New Delhi are not pessimistic even if Pranab Mukherjee or Sonia Gandhi won’t finally see the Bangladeshi opposition leader, as the tenure of the current government has already come to the end and Khaleda Zia certainly has already met the leaders of those parties, which would form government in India within less than a year.