Bangladesh, Indonesia and the ASEAN: Interactive engagement

Published : 19 Sep 2023 09:39 PM

Bangladesh President Moha­mmed Shahabuddin in addition to having a meeting with Indonesian President Widodo and attending some important discussions in the recently convened ASEAN meeting in Indonesia also referred to some bilateral dimensions that may be focused upon between the two countries.

He also recalled that since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972 under the charismatic leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh and Indonesia have been maintaining excellent bilateral ties. He also underlined that Bangladesh admires the remarkable stability and socio-economic development achieved by Indonesia and also paid rich tribute to President Sukarno for his vision that won the independence and socio-economic emancipation of Indonesia.

As he spoke at a presentation ceremony of Indonesian three state-owned Strategic Manufacturing Companies, he pointed out that business and trade can play a vital role in promoting peace and stability in the South East Asia region. In this context the President also told three state-owned companies - PT Pindad, PT Dirgantara Indonesia and PT PAL at Jakarta that “let us continue to explore new avenues of collaboration and partnership and build a stronger, more vibrant relationship between our two great nations." Such an approach was welcomed after the three companies' representatives presented plans through a power-point presentation for integrated defense industry development in accordance with the focus of the Indonesian government. They delivered a presentation and study regarding plans for developing the defense industry particularly in disaster-prone areas.

Noting that Indonesia is an important trade partner of Bangladesh in the ASEAN region, the President also drew Indonesia’s attention towards both countries' need to find the necessary denominators for more upward focus in this regard.  It may be noted here that bilateral trade has been increasing over the years but there is scope for further enhancement through investment, given our complementary strengths and resources. Bangladeshi economists have been emphasizing this given the present scenario. It may be noted that during FY 2022-23, Bangladesh has apparently imported Indonesian goods worth approximately US Dollar 3360.50 million against an export volume of a mere US Dollar 63.70 million. In this context it was emphasized by That was looking forward to concluding the Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) as soon as possible to further enhance and diversify our strategic economic relations. It was underlined that Bangladesh today is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and is continuously working to create a business-friendly environment for foreign investors. The President in this regard also referred to Bangladesh being part of a strategic paradigm by being at the crossroads of South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Such a constructive approach was taken forward by Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen who used the opportunity to seek Indonesia's assistance in capacity building regarding extraction of maritime resources that has remained mostly untapped in Bangladesh despite its enormous potential. He underlined this during his meeting with Indonesian Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Sakti Wahyu Trenggono in Jakarta. At the meeting, Minister Trenggono expressed Indonesia's commitment to provide all out support and cooperation to Bangladesh in reaping maximum mutual benefit from the blue economy including through joint cooperation in the field of marine science and marine biotechnology. Both ministers also emphasized on sharing technology and technical know-how on marine culture, deep-sea fishing, long-line fishing and seaweed culture. They also agreed to initiate exchange programs to share expertise and best practices in cultivating Sea Bass and fishing Tuna. Indonesia has also offered assistance in combating traditional and non-traditional security challenges in Bangladesh's territorial water such as unlawful exploitation of marine resources, piracy and polluting the marine environment.

This discussion was on the sideline of ASEAN but significant in terms of results obtained. Both Ministers recognized that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) was one of the several factors that has serious consequences, not only on a country's economy, but also on the marine ecosystems of a region. It also enabled Bangladesh to highlight the socioeconomic progress across the board- particularly food security that has gradually emerged in Bangladesh. This enabled both sides to emphasize the importance of collaborative efforts to improve disaster response using modern technology. 

In this context Bangladesh also sought Indonesia's assistance in acquiring advanced technological features, including a real-time vessel tracking system via satellite.

The presence of the Bangladesh delegation during the ASEAN Summit also enabled them on the Summit’s sidelines to focus on certain other important areas. This included their expressing appreciation to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) for promoting sustained growth and balanced development in the Indian Ocean region. This view was conveyed to IORA Secretary General Dr Salman Al Farisi.

It needs to be noted that Bangladesh has played a significant role in resolving some long pending administrative issues and in finalizing IORA's Indo-Pacific Outlook, completing the process to make Saudi Arabia a dialogue partner of IORA and also pushing forward the EU's dialogue partnership issue. The Bangladesh President also expressed his appreciation for the recent signing of the MoU between ASEAN Secretariat and IORA Secretariat and expressed the hope that it would facilitate expanding collaboration in a number of areas and capacity building among the 23 member states. Bangladesh attaches high importance to IORA's objectives and activities and will continue its efforts in enhancing cooperation in IORA's six priority areas and two cross-cutting areas.

The presence of the Bangladesh delegation during the ASEAN Summit also enabled them to participate in the 18th East Asia Summit.

The East Asia Summit (EAS) , it may be underlined, is the foremost of the ASEAN-centered mechanisms in the Indo-Pacific. Since its inception through the first East Asia Summit held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on December 14, 2005 it has played a key role in providing the platform for dialogue and discussions on matters of strategic significance and importance in the region. The EAS is held annually by the leaders of the 18 countries of the Asia-Pacific Region formed to further the objectives of regional peace, security and prosperity. The membership of the EAS consists of the ten ASEAN member states which are Vietnam, Brunei, Philippines, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand, along with Australia, China, India, Japan, ROK (South Korea), Russia and the USA.

The Bangladesh President in this address at the inauguration ceremony of the 18th East Asia Summit at the Jakarta Convention Centre drew attention to the need for urgent action from the international community to find a durable solution to the Rohingya crisis, stating that this phenomenon had pushed Bangladesh to its extreme limits.

ASEAN attention was drawn to the fact that the Rohingyas are a Muslim ethnic minority group that has lived for centuries in Myanmar. Most of them come from the Rakhine State in Myanmar and are not counted as official or recognized citizens of the Buddhist-dominated country. Their largest exodus occurred in August 2017 after massive violence occurred in the Rakhine State and forced most of them to flee the country and settle in nearby countries and regions such as India and Bangladesh as many villages and residences were destroyed by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military). Now, more than 960,000 Rohingya refugees are living in Bangladesh in areas such as Cox Bazaar, Kutupalong and Nayapara. It was also pointed out that the Bangladesh government has moved 33,000 Rohingya refugees to the Bhasan Char Islands near the country in an attempt to decongest camps in Cox Bazar.

It was underlined that it is not only the collective responsibility of the international community to find a durable solution to this crisis in its place of origin, which is Myanmar but also that further delay in commencing safe, voluntary and sustainable repatriation and shortage of humanitarian support may put the entire region at risk.

It was also pointed out that six years had elapsed since the Rohingyas had sought sanctuary in Bangladesh to escape from arson and death. However, this was not the first time that this had happened. This time Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina had provided shelter to these forcibly displaced people from Myanmar on humanitarian grounds. It was also observed that even in the seventh year of this current crisis, there is no solution in sight while Bangladesh is being pushed to the limits.

Attention was also drawn to the fact that Bangladesh is a region that is subjected to high humidity and torrential rainfall during the monsoon season. During this season, a large number of crude residences and huts of Rohingya refugees were destroyed. Recently, in May 2023, Cyclone Mocha struck Bangladesh and devastated many refugee camps. Consequently, many of the refugees along with their infants, had become victims of waterborne diseases like jaundice, hepatitis, malaria and chikungunya. This has been happening at a time when external humanitarian assistance to keep them healthy has dropped significantly because of conflict situations in different parts of the world.

These observations were carefully noted by the ASEAN participants.

Malaysia has called for “strong” measures against Myanmar’s generals, saying “obstacles” they created have blocked the implementation of a plan to restore peace more than two years since the military seized power in a coup. Strategic experts have also underlined that this week’s summit was a “last chance” for ASEAN to show it was capable of taking meaningful action on Myanmar. “At this time, the illegal junta is playing a divide and rule game with ASEAN and the rest of the international community,” said Debbie Stothard, founder and coordinator of ALTSEAN-Burma, a civil society network supporting human rights in Myanmar.

This course of thought in all likelihood persuaded Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi while addressing ASEAN foreign ministers to acknowledge that there were “many difficult circumstances in the region”, including Myanmar. 

“The eyes of our peoples are on us to prove ASEAN still matters,” Marsudi said. It would also be fitting to conclude by observing that ASEAN also faces continuing challenges over the disputed South China Sea where there has been scant progress on a much-talked-about code of conduct.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance