Bangladeshi ambassador: Army cannot do the job of politicians
Interview taken by KERİM BALCI
Source: Today's Zaman
August 08, 2008
Bangladeshi Ambassador to Turkey Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ishtiaq is a career general in the army. He is not unique among Ankara diplomats in that regard, but his smiling face is certainly a unique feature for either a diplomat or an army general. He is a happy person who is at peace with himself and who understands the changing modus operandi of military and civilian politics. As an army general he makes it very clear that the Bangladeshi army has taken its lesson from the two military interventions in politics -- namely, politicians cannot do the job of soldiers, just as soldiers cannot do the job of politicians. Today’s Zaman interviewed Ambassador Ishtiaq in his new office.
Mr. Ambassador, how well do Bangladeshis know Turkey and how well do the Turks know Bangladesh?
This is a very interesting issue. Though Turkey is a very important country to us, the people of Bangladesh are ignorant about Turkey. They have knowledge about the Turkish people, of course. In our education curriculum we have Turkish history, also. We study about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s life. So basically we know about Turkey, but not about the developed, modern Turkey. The strategic importance of Turkey has not been taken into consideration by the general masses because nobody has told them about the importance of Turkey.
When I was assigned as the ambassador of Bangladesh to Turkey I was told that I should present a picture of Bangladesh as it really is. The same ignorance exists among the Turkish people, too. I was surprised to see that the people knew almost nothing about Bangladesh. But they had impressions about Bangladesh. They knew about the history, that in the past, when the entirety of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India were the Indian subcontinent, the Muslim ladies of India had donated their ornaments as their contribution to the War of Independence of Turkey. This sense is there, both in Turkey and in Bangladesh. This is surprising.
So our knowledge of each other ends with the beginning of the 20th century?
Yes, it stops there.
Why is this so?
Well, I blame myself and my people. We could not convey an image of ourselves and our country to Turkey. I cannot blame the Turkish people if they failed to introduce modern Turkey to Bangladesh. But in the end the mutual ignorance is a fact. I consider myself more responsible for this ignorance. So now, I am going everywhere, irrespective of my protocol, and I speak to the people. Whenever people come to obtain visas downstairs, I go and meet them just in order to introduce the new, modern Bangladesh, making them ready to see a hospitable country.
We respect foreigners, but when the foreigner is Turkish, then the respect is doubled. Turkish people are going to Bangladesh in increasing numbers. They are investing there. The Turkish textile industry is shifting to Bangladesh. Bangladesh has historic ties to Turkey, and we have lots of opportunities. I am speaking to the people of Turkey in order to inform them that Bangladesh is not a land of disaster, not only a land of floods and cyclones; it is also a land of opportunity. Bangladesh has intelligent manpower, which you can make use of for aiding your economy. Bangladesh has a positive view of Turkey. If others are investing in Bangladesh and benefiting from that, why shouldn’t Turks do the same?
When you say manpower, you are referring not only to the quality but also to the quantity…
Bangladesh has double Turkey’s population, 155 million, in one-fifth of the area of Turkey. Despite the high population density, the Bangladeshis are the happiest people in the world.
Why is that?
That is the dichotomy! Bangladeshi people are simple people; they believe in a simple lifestyle. Also, they are intelligent. They don’t get bogged down with things. They carry out their plans; they execute them. If at one stage they meet obstacles, then they are capable of thinking of alternatives and using those alternatives to reach that aim. The people of that region had to fight for their survival. This is how they learned to use their brains. They became more and more intelligent. This is proved by our people who are going abroad and looking for opportunities. In the US, Europe and the Middle East, they have been able to prove how intelligent they are.
We are surrounded by two major economies of the world. I always say to my Turkish brothers that we are like a 100 watt lamp beside two 2,000 watt lamps. People do not realize that we are also emitting light because of the Indian and Chinese economies next to us. But we also have our opportunities to offer to the world.
We have this perception that China is swallowing all the economies rivaling it. As a neighbor of China, don’t you have a similar worry?
Look, the Chinese economy is also growing, so they will need cheap labor. In labor-oriented industries you cannot afford to not form links abroad. Some Chinese companies are already shifting to Bangladesh, especially in the ready-made garments sector.
Let me tell you something. In the past we had these Generalized System of Preference (GSP) programs with the US. These GSP programs were established in 2004-2005, and we were afraid that after the GSP programs were lifted we wouldn’t be able to sell to the Americans. But after the GSP, we increased sales threefold.
What kind of opportunities were you referring to in the question before last?
Many foreign companies are already in Bangladesh. All the major European companies are there. We have two exclusive EPZs (export processing zone): Korean and Japanese EPZs. Japanese and Korean companies are producing in Bangladesh and exporting to their consumers. Now I am speaking to Turkish businessmen as well, telling them that they should benefit from these opportunities also. Once you go there you will invest. The Turkish economy is getting stronger day by day. Turkey has to pay more wages for labor. Unless it has another foot somewhere else, it really cannot hold its market because of the high labor costs.
In our business assessments at times we go wrong. I am telling Turkish businessmen: You always look to Europe. The total population of Europe is no more than the combined population of Indonesia and Bangladesh. And it is diminishing, decreasing day by day. What does Europe have? What mineral resources do they have? Nothing! Historically they usurped the resources of others. It is through their technology that they are surviving. But you see, almost two-thirds of the population of the world lives in South and Southeast Asia. This whole belt from Pakistan to Japan has a huge population. More importantly, their purchasing power is increasing. They are almost reaching double digits in their economic growth. That is a huge market. And if you consider that part of the world, Bangladesh is at the center of that world geographically. From Bangladesh you can reach any market in any location. Turkish businessmen should have one foot there. Not that they should place both feet in Bangladesh, but they have to have at least one of their feet there.
Another opportunity is the existence of Turkish schools in Bangladesh run by private businessmen. They are teaching the students Turkish. So when a Turkish businessman goes to Bangladesh he finds somebody that speaks his language. This is a totally voluntary system of schooling, and they are sending their graduates to Turkish universities. This is not something between the governments. Between governments we have another deal which allowed 36 Bangladeshis to go to Turkey to study. Now, the number has increased to 100. So 100 openings will be given to the Bangladeshis and 100 will be spared for Turkish students in Bangladesh.
I also have an initiative to start direct flights to Bangladesh. This will be a very good market for Turkish Airlines (THY). From Istanbul you have excellent connections to anywhere in the world. Last year only about 113 Turkish businessmen visited Bangladesh. In this first half of the year 2008 we sent more than 800 businessmen to Turkey. This does not include tourists and others. This is only businessmen. With this increase in numbers, I would suggest that a direct flight would not be left empty.
What is the status of export-import relations between Turkey and Bangladesh?
As of today in 2008 mutual trade is $352 million. It was to the advantage of Bangladesh in the past, but now we are balancing it. This year is definitely better than last year. Last year the mutual trade was $125 million. Based on last year’s numbers I was given a target of $250 million for all of 2008. But I achieved that figure within the first five months. I am still looking to reach $1 billion. We can do this. We are capable of satisfying the Turkish market. We have a very strong ready-made garment market. We have a very strong pharmaceutical sector, also.
I visited Minister of Health Recep Akdağ. I told him that the price of medicine in Turkey is too high. We can give Turkey the same medicine at a one-sixth of those prices. We are selling to 60 countries. You know, it is very hard to sell medicine to the United Kingdom and we do that. We will bring a pharmaceutical delegation in the near future and they will give the minister a presentation and will meet the businessmen in the market. Then, we will arrange for a Turkish delegation to come to our country. This will be a win-win situation for our countries.
You know, businesses thrive in an environment of stability and peace. Does Bangladesh have any territorial problems with any of its neighbors?
There are some enclaves within Bangladesh which belong to our neighbor India and we also have similar enclaves inside India. So with these we have some hiccups at the moment. We have to give them passage and India has to give us passage to go to our enclaves within their territory. It is similar to Lesotho in South Africa. There are some issues there but this cannot be termed a permanent problem.
We have excellent relations with all of our neighbors. We have a small border with Myanmar and even with that military government we have good relations. The only problem between us and India is the illegal trade that goes on between India and Myanmar. This really does not contribute to economic development. Both the countries are affected by that.
What is the system of administration in Bangladesh?
It is a democratic system, but we have a peculiar system. I thing this is the only example in the world. We have a system that allows a caretaker government in between two governments. This is permitted by our constitution so as to ensure free and fair elections. The elections take place under the caretaker government. We are going to have our elections in December, and by January 2009 we will have a new government.
What is the position of the army in politics?
In the past, in the initial days after independence, the army was involved in politics. Also there had been occasions when politicians crossed their limits, which allowed the army to intervene. So the people were fed up, the politicians were distant from the people. It was in 1975 that Gen. Ziya came to power through a military coup. But he soon went to elections and was elected. His government lasted up until 1981. Gen. Ziya was the first person to open diplomatic relations with Turkey in 1976. Our embassy was opened in 1977.
After 1981 there was another military government. This one continued about nine years, and in 1991 there was a political movement for civilian politics, and from then on we have been practicing full democracy. In those days we were very young. We have seen what happens when the military interferes with politics. We started to learn from the mistakes; we saw the problems the army in politics creates. Now we are generals in the army, and we do not want any interference in politics. Politics is a separate domain and that should be taken care of accordingly. As the politicians cannot do the armed forces’ job, the armed forces also cannot do the job of political leaders.
It is interesting to see a general in diplomacy. Is this a tradition?
No, no! We have a system in the Foreign Ministry that requires 70 percent of the ambassadors to be appointed from within diplomatic ranks. The remaining 30 percent comes from other parts of the administration, and the army has 5 percent. If you add it up, there are only four soldier ambassadors. Out of 54, we have only four from the army. These are also selected by the civilian government, and we serve for only three years. I will return to my country and wear my uniform and serve as a general.
It is surprising to see an army general smile so much…
I love to mix with the people. I love my under-command in the army. You see, the system has changed. The concept of armed forces has changed. The teachings, the modus operandi of the armed forces have changed with the development of science and politics. So you have to adapt to the changing situation. The sooner you do it, the better.