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Monday, May 29, 2023

Why Rohingya repartition plan to Myanmar has hit a roadblock


The million Rohingya refugees living in squalid camps in southeast Bangladesh refused to be resettled into another encampment in Myanmar.

The refusal of the refugees to return to Myanmar has not come as a surprise. They argue that unless Myanmar guarantees their citizenship rights, freedom of movement, access to livelihood, healthcare and education, a sustainable repartition will be half-hearted.

The response by the Rohingya refugees follows Myanmar government’s sudden offer to repatriate by the end of the year 6,000 Rohingya who were regarded as “illegal migrants” in Myanmar.

In persuasion of the repartition offer, a delegation of Rohingya refugees along with Bangladesh government officials recently visited Maungdaw Township and adjoining villages in the Rakhine State resettlement plan.

The settlements were built with support from China, India and Japan. Altogether 3,500 Rohingya will be accommodated in 15 villages, says Rahman.

Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) in Cox’s Bazar, Mohammed Mizanur Rahman who led the delegation observed that “repatriation was the only solution to end the refugee crisis”.

However, on their return, they expressed dissatisfaction over the arrangements and facilities made by the Myanmar authority.

Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw conspicuously remain silent over the returnees citizenship rights, but assured that the Rohingya will be given a c, which the Rohingya refugees regard as too little and too less.

The controversial Citizenship Law of 1982 requires individuals to prove that their ancestors lived in Myanmar before 1823, and refuse to recognise Rohingya Muslims as one of the nation’s ethnic groups or list their language as a national language.

“We don’t want to be confined in resettlement camps,” remarked Oli Hossain, a refugee delegate. He explained that they will never accept NVC, which apparently identifies the Rohingya as ‘aliens’.

Bangladesh authorities also told the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) or UN Refugee Agency, which advocates for the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable repatriation of 1.2 million Rohingya refugees who fled the ethno-religious strife in 2017 amid a military crackdown.

The crackdown was sparked after the Islamic jihadist Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) overran a couple of Myanmar Border Guards Forces outposts in August 2017.

Naypyidaw for several years refused to hold dialogue regarding the return of Rohingya, stating that they are not citizens of Myanmar.

Bangladesh has raised the refugee crisis at several international platforms and other global summits. The world leaders lauded Bangladesh leader Sheikh Hasina for providing food and shelter to a million ‘stateless’ Rohingya.

Unfortunately, several attempts to repatriate the refugees fell flat in 2018 and 2019. Instead, Bangladesh blames the intransigent policy of the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who was placed under house arrest in February 2021, in the wake of her government’s ouster by military leaders.

Finally, Myanmar’s ‘all-weather friend’ China could pursue Naypyidaw to renew the negotiation on repartition.

Recently, at a critical tripartite meeting of the Foreign Ministry officials between Bangladesh, China and Myanmar in Kunming, despite reservation from the UN Human Rights Office and UN Refugee Agency that Rakhine State is unsafe for repatriation.

Beijing has a crucial regional agenda and several mega Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects are in progress with Naypyidaw.

Some hiccups have emerged in ties between Bangladesh and China especially after Dhaka gave a thumbs-up to join the Indo-Pacific security axis.

Furthermore, Bangladesh has cancelled the deep-sea port in the Bay of Bengal, a multi-purpose barrage over the Teesta River and a couple of other projects after India raised objections.

Researchers on forced migration said they do not see any light at the end of the tunnel for the refugees to return to their homes by the end of this year.

First published in the India Narrative, 29 May 2023

(Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh. Views expressed are personal. Twitter: @saleemsamad)

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Imran Khan’s ‘Vandana’ For Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib



For more than a decade there was a simmering debate spearheaded by the netizens, academicians, journalists, researchers, social justice activists and civil society in Pakistan on war crimes, genocide and rape as a weapon of war by marauding Pakistan military during the brutal birth of Bangladesh in 1971.
Long before the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan became Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan at a talk show in Urdu anchored by celebrated anti-establishment journalist Hamid Mir, admitted that “some” atrocities had been committed in Bangladesh in 1971.
He also said that it was time to reconcile with Bangladesh what happened in 1971, and Pakistan should seek an apology for the war crimes.
Obviously, this news appeared in major dailies and argued on private TV channels during prime time talk-shows in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s relationship with Pakistan during Nawaz Sharif was all-time low after Sheikh Hasina in 2010 when she decided to put the war crimes suspects to face the music of justice.
Islamabad scolded Bangladesh envoy in Pakistan each time when the war crimes tribunal in Dhaka handed down maximum punishment for the Islamist leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI).
The key henchmen of the Pakistan military were indicted for crimes against humanity, especially kidnapping, torture and deaths of hundreds of intellectuals by a dreaded death squad, Al-Badr recruited by JeI.
Hasina was angry with Islamabad’s statement condemning the so-called “sham” trial targeting Muslim leaders.
Well, Turkey joined Pakistan in the vilification campaign against the trial of the accused for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
She decided to withdraw the diplomats from Islamabad and shut down the Bangladesh mission in Pakistan. Her government for several years refused to give accreditation to Pakistan’s nominated High Commissioner to Dhaka.
However, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Saudi Arabia and the United States in a similar diplomatic tone advised Hasina to not a harsh diplomatic decision.
Hasina backed out, understanding that the move would jeopardize South Asian regional cooperation and the war against terror campaign.
Her government continued to deny visas to Pakistan nationals from the Bangladesh missions in Islamabad and Karachi.
Well, during Khan’s tenure as head of government, he did not take any effort to thaw relations with Bangladesh, not to speak of seeking an apology for war crimes.
Hours after the much-dramatized arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan allegedly for corruption, the country rocked with violent street protests on May 9.
Angry protesters of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) seem to have a grudge against the military establishment.
Many are beginning to wonder if the military hawks can remain the hegemon that guides the nation, while the COAS General Asim Munir warns Khan and his cohorts from fresh attacks on military facilities.
Exasperated by the violent protests, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif at a civil-military huddle a few days ago decided to observe May 9 as a ‘black day’ and remarked that “Such scenes were not witnessed since the fall of Dhaka during 1971.”
Sharif was referring to the surrender of Pakistan’s 96,000 troops and civilians in Dhaka under the joint command of the Indian army and Bangladesh Mukti Bahini on December 16, 1971 – labelled as the “darkest day” in the history of Pakistan.
Veteran political historian Mohiuddin Ahmad says if Pakistan believes that December 16 is the “darkest day” then they should also consider seeking a public apology for war crimes committed during the liberation war of Bangladesh.
Thousands of netizens in Pakistan and PTI cohorts poured onto social media and began to compare the 70-year-old Imran Khan ‘Vandana’ with Bangabandhu [Friend of Bangladesh] Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, an architect of independent Bangladesh.
Once a blue-eyed boy of the Pakistan military establishment, Khan blamed the top military hawks in Rawalpindi GHQ for orchestrating against him to eliminate him from politics in axis with the United States, and dubbed himself as ‘Mujibur 2.0’.
The Bangladesh media and social media did not feel comfortable comparing Imran Khan with founding father Sheikh Mujib. The media with scornful eyes rebuked the Pakistani netizens for comparing a man mountain with a Lilliput.
Dr Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor at Dhaka University is a leading political scientist who reacted to Khan’s comparison with the Father of Nation. He has demeaned Sheikh Mujib, who is adored by millions of people. Bangabandhu has never been smeared by allegations of corruption and hobnobbing with the military establishment to scale the ladder to power.

An Indian micro-blogger @Pavan_JaiHind reverberates with other netizens: History is repeating itself. Victims are [the] same, Pakistani people. [The] perpetrator is [the] same, Pakistan Army. Crimes are [the] same, Rape & Murders. [The] only leader of 1971 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is replaced by Imran Khan in 2023.

Mehedi Hasan Shuvo @MHShuvo12053 on May 9 satires from Bangladesh: Remember these two things: 1. Every country has its own military; 2. Pakistan’s military has its own country.

The netizen in another tweet: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman whom you [have] known as a traitor, now see what your [Pakistan] army does to your own men.

“Everyone knows Mujibur Rahman and his party won the general elections in 1970. Instead of handing over power, a clever politician set Awami League and the army on a collision course,” said Khan.

A Pakistani micro-blogger Sohail @mosohail03 on May 10 tweets: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman told the military, “You can kill me, but you can’t suppress the people of Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the whole nation apologizes to you.”

In 1971, when Pakistan’s army battalion arrested Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the “Father of the Nation” of Bangladesh, he was treated very badly. At that time, the Pakistan Army Chief (dictator) Yahya Khan was backed by a political puppet named Zulfikar Ali Bhutto #ImranKhanArrest

@OsintTV on May 11 tweets from Pakistan: History repeating itself…It was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman then now Imran Khani. Pakistan Army is [the] same.

“A shrewd politician (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto), in his greed for power, set the armed forces against the then largest party (Bangladesh’s Awami League), which had won elections, causing the dismemberment of the country,” lamented PTI chief during a road march in Gujranwala in last November, reports Dawn.
Khan was ousted as prime minister in April 2022 in a parliamentary no-confidence vote, reminded that Pakistan had split into two after Awami League with a legitimate political mandate was denied its right to rule. “Those who are behind all this don’t know what happened in East Pakistan.”
Despite all the deadly political drama, Imran is Pakistan’s most popular leader according to opinion polls.
The comparison of Imran Khan with Bangabandhu and the May 9 violent protests with the 1971 liberation, demonstrates appalling knowledge of the political history of the 1970 post-elections, the bloody liberation war in 1971 and culminating in the humiliating defeat of occupation troops of Pakistan.

First published in The News Times, 28 May 2023

Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at <>; Twitter @saleemsamad

Monday, May 08, 2023

How India and Bangladesh are set to transform regional connectivity, bolster Act East policy


India and Bangladesh are thinking big on multimodal connectivity- a move that not only be important for the two countries but would be key to sub-regional economic integration.

In fact, multimodal connectivity is no more a dream, as the two nations have stepped into heightened economic cooperation, which is gradually turning a vision into reality.

Once it takes-off, it will hugely benefit India’s landlocked northeast as it would open the pathway of rapid development.

Better connectivity will increase the value, resilience and dependability of the supply chains in the region.

To make the cooperation more energetic, the two countries have zeroed in on roads, water and railway connectivity. Several initiatives have been taken in the last few years, which are near completion.

Both Dhaka and Delhi underscore the enhancement of connectivity through air, water, rail, road will be mutually beneficial.

Last week, the High Commissioner of India to Bangladesh Pranay Verma at a seminar in Dhaka said that multimodal connectivity is the future of a new level of cooperation between the two countries.

The scope and quality of connectivity is a common aspiration, which reflects India’s growing partnership with Bangladesh, he remarked.

The envoy pointed out that the future links between the two countries would be shaped by multimodal connectivity, including through road and rail, inland waterways, coastal shipping, as well as energy and digital connectivity.

The High Commissioner said in the last five years, bilateral trade has more than doubled, and Bangladesh’s exports to India have now touched nearly USD 2 billion, with India emerging as the largest export market for Bangladesh in Asia.

Delhi has granted Duty-Free Quota Free access to all Bangladeshi goods except a few for a decade. Despite the trade balance being in India’s favour, many imported items help in adding value to Bangladeshi exports.

Already, the opening of the Mongla and Chattogram ports for the transhipment of goods to and from Indian north-eastern states to the rest of India was an important step.

Earlier the two countries had signed an agreement on coastal shipping in 2015 and an agreement in October 2018 on the use of Chattogram and Mongla Ports for trans-shipment of goods to and from India.

Bangladesh’s trade with its neighbours India, Nepal, and Bhutan has been on a positive trend over the last decade, writes Robart Shuvro Guda, Lead Economist of research think-tank Unnayan Shamannay.

The transportation connectivity will also connect Bhutan and Nepal with Bangladesh, according to a deal of BBIN MVA (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement) which will optimise trade and commerce with the two landlocked countries.

Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal agreed on the free movement of cargo and passenger vehicles in the sub-region. Unfortunately, Bhutan did not ratify the BBIN MVA citing environmental concerns, writes Robart Shuvro Guda.

Bhutan has raised the potential contribution to carbon footprint for which the picturesque country is known as the most environmental-friendly place in the world.

The threat to the environment from the vehicular movement of cargo would also cause damage to the road infrastructure, and likely to increase air pollution from the smoke from vehicles and non-recyclable waste generated from vehicular movements were the primary reasons for the pull-out of the agreement.

Once the connectivity is in full swing, the distance between Kolkata to Agartala via Dhaka in Bangladesh will be reduced by 1100 km compared to the typical route via Chicken’s Neck. Currently, only bus passengers are allowed to operate on the transit route.

With the opening of Hasina’s dream project, the Padma Bridge, the transports from Agartala and beyond will benefit from seamless connectivity. Similarly, the railroads over Padma Bridge and under construction Jamuna railway bridge will also make transportation hassle-free.

These two mix-modal routes are now available for connecting the rest of India with the northeast via Bangladesh. The Chattogram to Agartala land route will be connected via the Ramgarh-Subroom border crossing which will reduce the distance by 135 km.

The High Commissioner noted that as Bangladesh moves forward to make an important economic graduation to become a developing country in 2026, the negotiations for a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between India and Bangladesh would create a new institutional framework for leveraging the economic opportunities emanating from the transforming economies of both the countries.

Given the opportunity provided by the transition of Bangladesh into a developing country in 2026, India has decided to soon start negotiating on CEPA through which both countries can harness each other’s growing potential, said the Indian envoy.

It is well understood that the BIN MVA initiative will help to remove the hassle of transhipment at the India and Bangladesh border crossing points and trade time will be reduced significantly.

The envoy emphasised the long-term significance of connectivity in facilitating closer economic, cultural, and people-to-people ties between the two countries.

Verma remarked that Bangladesh sits on the cusp of India’s Act East Policy and Neighbourhood First policy for both of which connectivity is the core element.

First published in India Narrative, Delhi, India on 8 May 2023

(Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh. Views expressed are personal. Twitter: @saleemsamad)

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

How Hasina, with India’s support, broke the back of Pak-sponsored terror in Bangladesh


Bangladesh is presently at low ebb on militancy by Muslim extremists with or without links to the international terror network.

But top terrorism researchers and anti-terrorism police officials do not rule out any possibility of visitation of terrorism in the country, especially by the home-grown Islamic jihad.

Two secretive groups, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarul Islam, presently dominate Bangladesh’s jihadist landscape, a top Counter Terrorism & Transnational Crime (CTTC) official confirmed who declined to be identified for security reasons.

Since 2015, two jihadist groups have targeted foreigners, secularists, intellectuals, religious, and sectarian minorities, and other perceived opponents, writes International Crisis Group.

In the last decade, despite widespread acts of violence by Islamic extremists, officially Bangladesh had always denied the presence of international jihadist forces inside its borders.

“There’s no Islamic State [ISIS] in Bangladesh,” declared Bangladesh Prime Minister and Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina in February 2016.

This does not imply that Bangladesh can lower its guard on terrorism and no country can afford to do so, says Prof Imtiaz Ahmed, a high-profile researcher on terrorism and violent extremism.

Sheikh Hasina’s government adopted zero-tolerance for terrorism, with several institutions dedicated to countering and preventing terrorism and violent extremism in Bangladesh, says Prof Ahmed of Dhaka University.

Nearly two decades ago, security and intelligence specialists at a conference of Intelligence Summit at Pentagon City, Washington DC predicted that Bangladesh will become the next epicentre for terrorism and jihad unless Bangladesh authority takes steps to contain the imminent crisis. During the same period, similar warnings were given by the New York Times and Washington Post.

Bangladesh nationals have joined terror hotspots in 36 countries. Hundreds of the recruits in different periods boarded flights from Dhaka international airport, with full knowledge of security agencies.

Since the 1980s, for three decades, nondescript militants from Bangladesh or trained in Bangladesh entered Afghanistan, Chechnya, Egypt, Aceh province in Indonesia, Jammu & Kashmir, Malaysia, Myanmar, Mindanao in the Philippines and other Muslim countries where jihadists were active.

Earlier concerned people and national media often interpreted that the radicalised militants are recruited from among the illiterate rural population, pointing their fingers at students who studied in tens of thousands of Madrassa (Islamic schools) spread all over Bangladesh.

Exiled Bangladesh-origin feminist author Taslima Nasreen, rubbished the arguments that poverty makes somebody a terrorist.

Well, political scientist Prof Ahmed has conducted an in-depth study ‘Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Violent Extremist Offenders in Bangladesh’ and interviewed scores of captive militants both faith-based and left extremism in prisons.

People with relatively poor financial backgrounds are more susceptible to faith-based extremism, he added.

Ahmed said the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, had created a major impact in Bangladesh, with hundreds of militants who joined the Mujahideen during the anti-Soviet campaign against the invasion of Afghanistan following the calls from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States to resist communism in Afghanistan.

After the collapse of the Mujahideen-led regime in Kabul, most of the militants from Bangladesh returned home and started a violent campaign under HuJI-B (Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Bangladesh) under the complicity of the government.

Fazlul Rahman, a Bangladeshi-born jihadist and founder of HuJI-B, joined by dreaded jihadist leaders from Pakistan, Egypt and the Middle East, were the five associates who signed Osama bin Laden’s first-international 1988 ‘fatwa’ purportedly was a call for jihad against the United States and its ‘infidel’ allies.

Ahmed explains the figure of the exact number of Bangladesh nationals who fought alongside the Mujahideen is unknown, but others put the figures at 3,000-foot soldiers.

Interestingly there is no information on whether militants from Bangladesh joined the Taliban during the two decades of America’s presence in Afghanistan, and the reason was absence of sponsors and recruitment.

The departure of flights to jihad’s hot spot destination and subsequently the return of hundreds of militants under the nose of the security agencies only happen with the state’s complicity of the Islamic-nationalist regime of Khaleda Zia, several counter-terrorism analysts described.

The recruitment, investment and radicalisation by outlawed Al Qaeda, Al-Qaeda in Indian Sub-continent (AQIS), Ansar al-Islam, Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), Hizb ut-Tahrir (Bangladesh), HuJI-B, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or Daesh), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen (JMB), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and so on so forth are stringently monitored and data thoroughly analysed by CTTC expert team with inputs from other anti-terror units and friendly intel agencies, including the United Nations Office of Counter Terrorism (UNOCT).

The fresh recruitments in recent times are through end-to-end encrypted messaging apps organised by mostly “elite urban young men” who were reported missing by their families and are accommodated discretely in temporary sleeper cells operated by the jihadist network.

Often the sleeper cells are busted and the missing persons reported to the police are found. Instead of returning them to their families, they land in high-security prison cells.

At least 615 extremists within the age bracket of 25-40 are currently held in prisons, among whom 371 are on trial and 244 were convicted, according to a study on ‘Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Violent Extremist Offenders in Bangladesh’ published in September 2022 by Centre for Genocide Studies (CGS) of Dhaka in collaboration with CTTC.

The rehabilitation of violent extremist offenders VEO is a critical task for a nation-state, recommends Ahmed. The government has employed several hard and soft approaches to deal with the threat of violent extremism.

The police and other anti-crime forces have a deradicalization programme, as well as rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The authorities have plans to enlarge a proactive programme for the rehabilitation and reintegration of faith-based VEOs are on the table.

The recent sleeper cells of the terror network are reportedly low in budget and ordinance, unlike the high-profile ISIS jihadists responsible for the carnage at Holey Artisan restaurant in an upscale residential area in Dhaka in July 2016. The jihadists were armed to the teeth with automatic rifles, grenades and knives.

Possibly an hour before the fire-fight with the heavily armed military commandos, the Islamic State’s Amir for the Bengal [Bangladesh] region Shaykh Abu Ibrahim Al Hanif [aka Tamim Chowdhury], spoke to their clandestine news agency Amaq. He dubbed the dead militants as fallen martyrs – all young men in their 20s – posing with a terror black flag of the dreaded Islamic State.

In fact, two months before the brutal assault, Canadian-Bangladeshi-born Chowdhury, the mastermind of the ‘Dhaka Attack’ dared to bully Bangladesh and India in the 14th edition of the defunct Dabiq — the Islamic State’s online magazine.

“Bengal is an important region for the caliphate [Islamic Empire] and the global jihad due to its strategic geographic position,” Chowdhury ranted.

In typical terror rhetoric, “Bengal is located on the eastern side of India, whereas Wilāyat Khurāsān [the Afghanistan-Pakistan region] is located on its western side. Thus, having a strong jihad base in Bengal will facilitate performing guerrilla attacks inside India simultaneously from both sides and facilitate creating a condition of tawahhush [fear and chaos] in India along with the help of the existing local mujahideen there.”

The rogue Islamic State in 2015’s dared to declare Jihad (holy war) against “the [so-called] secular murtaddin [infidels] of the present Awami League government” and threatened that “the soldiers of the Khilafah will continue to rise and expand in Bengal and their actions will continue.”

Not to anybody’s surprise the official Dabiq magazine attributed the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) as ‘nationalist murtaddin’ and the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) as “parliamentary murtaddin”, the online magazine wrote that they [BNP and JeI] are an alliance of ‘grave-worshippers’ who falsely claim to be “lovers of the Prophet”.

On a note, ISIS laments that various “jihadi” groups in Bangladesh became fragmented through disputes over issues of creed, methodology, leadership, strategy, and tactics.

Fortunately, most of the sleeper cells of ISIS in Bangladesh and India have been bulldozed by anti-terror forces with credible two-way intel shared with Dhaka and New Delhi.

The intel immensely helped to accurately analyse various info and could zero in on the locations of ISIS militants. The targets were successfully raided by the CTTC, highly trained anti-terror units of Dhaka Metropolitan Police and smashed the jihadist outfit in Bangladesh.

Like the global terror outfit Al-Qaeda, ISIS’s covert activities have been severely dented in Bangladesh.

Simultaneously the jihadist’s sleeper cells in adjoining Indian states across Bangladesh territory were also smashed by Indian Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS).

Since the assassination of Islamic State supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other leaders by US drone attacks in Syria and Iraq, ISIS terrorism has significantly scaled down threats in South Asia.

The in-road of terror footprint was globally established after the US-allied-led ‘War Against Terrorism’ and Afghanistan was invaded to punish Al-Qaeda and Taliban’s high command and crush the global terror network.

When they (Al-Qaeda) were on the run, Al-Qaeda’s communications and finance surreptitiously moved to Bangladesh in collaboration with the notorious Pakistan spy agency Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI).

The ISI hawks of Rawalpindi GHQ negotiated with rogue officers within the Bangladesh security agency of Director-General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) to provide logistics and security to Al-Qaeda to setup their clandestine operations from upscale Gulshan in Dhaka, according to researcher/writer Mohiuddin Ahmed in his book ‘Hunt for Al-Qaeda (Al Qaeda’r Khoje)’.

For example, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia knew about the covert operations and was vetted by his delinquent son Tarique Rahman who established ‘Hawa Bhaban’, a powerhouse parallel to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Several sources suggest the former security agencies officials who are privy to the process of creating a safe house for the most-wanted jihadists in the posh Gulshan area.

The terrorist hub was uncovered by an elite investigation team of British TV Channel-4 in November 2002. The investigative journalists unveil the ISI nexus with DGFI in providing a safehouse for Al-Qaeda on the campus of a mosque.

The revelation came with a heavy price. The Channel-4 journalists and local fixers (including this journalist) were arrested and sued under sedition laws. They were interrogated, tortured and intimidated by three DGFI officials.

The presence of Al-Qaeda in Bangladesh was exposed in a Time magazine October 2002 cover story “Deadly Cargo” after a painstaking investigation found clandestine military training camps bordering Bangladesh-Myanmar inaccessible hill forests of Ukhiya, in Cox’s Bazar and were operated by Al-Qaeda and coordinated by HuJI.

The camps accommodated nearly 2,500 jihadists. It is difficult to ascertain how many batches and what number of combatants were trained in Ukhiya.

The separatist outfits: United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), Bodo Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF) and Kamtapur Liberation Organization (KLO), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and the list grows on and on were provided shelter and logistics in Bangladesh territory.

Taking advantage of India’s pitch against illegal migration in the northeast from Bangladesh, the authorities furtively provided shelter to their leaders and allowed their combatants to set up camps inside Bangladesh territory.

Their finance, logistics and ordinance were exclusively provided by ISI. In one such, gunrunning operation destined for Assam, a huge stash (10 truckloads) of weapons, ammunition, rocket launchers and hand grenades were accidentally seized by police when it was unloaded under the cover of darkness at a jetty in Chittagong (now Chattagram) in April 2004.

The ordinance originated from Cambodia was shipped by ace gunrunners and unloaded at Chattagram. The ULFA military wing chief Paresh Baruah was physically present, while mid-level officers of DGFI and National Security Intelligence (NSI) were supervising the unloading of the illegal consignment from a large fishing vessel, as reported in the Bangladesh Observer.

After 2009, with Hasina in power, Dhaka and Delhi agreed to seize cross-border terrorism. Hasina’s crackdown detained most of the separatist leaders and deported them to India, where the belligerents are held as prisoners of war (POW). Scores of militant camps were dismantled.

Simultaneously, on the orders of Bangladesh [Central] Bank, all the bank accounts of the separatist outfits and their allied business conglomerates were shut down.

The sudden move by the authorities severely fractured the backbone of the separatist movement in northeast India, also known as Seven Sisters.

The nexus between Pakistan and Khaleda Zia was established after the former ISI chief General Asad Durrani admitted to meddling in northeast Indian states and funding the right-wing BNP during the 1991 general elections in that country.

The confession was made at Pakistan’s Supreme Court’s hearing on the spy agency that had allegedly disbursed Rs 50 crore to BNP chairperson and former prime minister Khaleda Zia ahead of the 1991 elections in which the BNP won and formed the government.

It is presumed that the ISI was active in Bangladesh whenever the BNP has been in power (1991-96) and later during 2001-2006.

Similarly, Khaleda’s assassinated husband General Ziaur Rahman provided umbrellas for Nagaland and Mizoram secessionist leaders and allowed guerrilla camps to be set up in Chattagram Hill Tracts (CHT) in the last quarter of the 1970s.

The shakeup in DGFI and other state intelligence agencies was initiated by Hasina after she became Prime Minister 14 years ago. She broke the nexus with foreign intelligence, especially ISI’s local patrons which have vanished in quicksand.

On the other hand, Bangladesh counter-terrorism officials dug into the covert activities of diplomats from Pakistan. The furore over expelling diplomats from Dhaka and Islamabad caused fresh diplomatic rows between the two countries.

Bangladesh expelled two diplomats, one woman envoy for alleged “terror financing” and another for “spying”, while Pakistan expelled a woman diplomat from Islamabad for an unknown reason.

A ‘new chapter’ for terror in Bangladesh seems to have surfaced in the Rohingya refugee camps teeming with dispossessed youths. The camps are another fertile ground for potential recruitments for extremism – some recruitments were voluntary, others were coercion and intimidation to join the banned Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA, also called Harakah al-Yaqin) to separate north Arakan for the homeland of the Rohingyas.

ARSA’s supremo and key leaders were born in Karachi, Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia – some Bangladesh security experts believe the shadows of the terror network were nurtured by ISI, which rang alarm bells in both Dhaka and New Delhi.

Pakistan-based terror outfits were looking for fresh ground for jihad. Immediately, the Pathankot attack mastermind Mohammad Masood Azhar, founder of Pakistan-based terrorist organisation JeM in September 2017 called on the world’s Muslims to unite for this cause of the persecuted Rohingya. “We have to do something and do it urgently. Myanmar’s soil is earnestly waiting for the thumping sound of the footsteps of the conquerors”.

“The dream [of Al-Qaeda] is to create a larger Islamic beyond the territorial limits of Bangladesh to include Muslim areas of Assam, north Bengal and Burma’s [Myanmar] Arakan province.” That dream, Alex Perry writes in Time magazine that if Islamic terrorists were allowed to continue their operations in Bangladesh, could be a nightmare for the region.

The HuJI-B, JeM, LeT and AQIS envisaged engaging the Myanmar troops and anti-Rohingya Buddhist monks through Islamic jihad to create a haven, which Bangladesh security forces are hell-bent on not happening in the region.

First published in the India Narrative, New Delhi, India on April 25, 2023

(Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh. Views expressed are personal. Twitter: @saleemsamad)

Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Japan-Bangladesh partnership yielding new Indo-Pacific doctrine to counter China

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister met her Japanese counterpart Kishida Fumio in Tokyo


Last week Bangladesh’s Prime Minister met her Japanese counterpart Kishida Fumio in Tokyo, which political observers described as a much-awaited crucial strategic partnership.

Before embarking upon a three-nation tour of Japan, the United States and Britain, Hasina buried months of speculation on the strategic alliance on 26 April.

Bangladesh unveiled its “Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO)”, and these three nations have crucial roles in pursuing the policy of an open and free Indo-Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific Outlook is based on the dictum “Friendship towards all, malice towards none.” Whether this dictum would be enough to address the Chinese concern about committing to the objectives of rules-based order and a free and open Indo-Pacific has to be seen in the coming days, remarks veteran columnist Kamal Ahmed.

Bangladesh took a deep breath to develop a strategic partnership with Japan against Chinese hegemony through the implementation of an ambitious Road and Belt Initiative (BRI) in the region.

In fact, the two countries have achieved significant progress in bilateral relations based on the “Comprehensive Partnership” established in 2014, the joint Bangladesh-Japan statement said.

The Japanese initiative envisages replacing BRI with the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B).

Japan was one of the very few countries that extended foreign aid for reconstructing war-torn Bangladesh during the post-independence era. Since then, Japan has become Bangladesh’s single largest bilateral donor.

The ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ has been an all-weather economic and development partner of Bangladesh before China’s inroads into the country.

In the fiscal year 2020-2021, Japan provided more aid to Bangladesh than any other country, amounting to $2.63 billion. Since Bangladesh’s independence, Japan has provided a total of $24.72 billion, almost evenly split between grants and loans, writes Hussain Shazzad in The Diplomat.

Japan’s financial assistance to Bangladesh has been proven mutually beneficial for both countries rather than being exploitative, unlike a few development partners that have been blamed for encouraging corruption in getting approval for mega projects.

Columnist Ahmed writes in The Daily Star: The United States, which originally conceived and floated the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), has been urging Bangladesh for the last few years to join them in implementing the IPS. Though Bangladesh doesn’t use the term strategy or IPS, the vision it lays out is remarkably similar to the IPS.

Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida also outlined a newly released plan for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP),” which will strengthen Japan’s efforts to further promote the FOIP vision, with the four pillars of cooperation: “Principles for Peace and Rules for Prosperity”; “Addressing Challenges in an Indo-Pacific Way”; “Multi-layered Connectivity” and “Extending Efforts for Security and Safe Use of the Sea to the Air” and hopes that Bangladesh will also agree with the strategy.

Hasina reiterated Bangladesh’s principled position on a “free, open, inclusive, peaceful and secure Indo-Pacific based on international law and shared prosperity for all” and she believes the international community and global commons will contribute to the development of (the) blue economy in the exploitation of the use of the sea.

The joint statement gave a green signal, which was a blessing for India and G-7 members including the United States, who are partners of the much-talked-about QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue).

Quad was first mooted by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 and aims to ensure and support a “free, open and prosperous” Indo-Pacific region is a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States with a shared but unstated goal of countering China’s growing political, economic and military power in the region.

Hasina could finally, shrug off her ‘Tom and Jerry’ policy with China and lend her diplomatic support to Indo-Pacific countries, despite China’s warning of “substantial damage” to ties if Bangladesh joined the US-led Quad alliance.

Beijing described joining the QUAD, a military alliance against China’s adversaries (India, Japan and the USA) and its relationship with neighbours.

The former Chinese ambassador Li Jiming on 10 May 2021, breaking diplomatic norms in Dhaka, told Bangladesh authorities that relations with Beijing would “substantially get damaged.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s surprise “technical stopover” at Dhaka in early January, en route to African nations was in fact not for late midnight tête-à-têtes over coffee between the two leaders.

For Qin, it was his first meeting with his counterpart, Dr Abul Kalam Abdul Momen in Dhaka since assuming office last year. He did not hesitate to vent his frustration over unfulfilled promises from China.

Bangladesh’s lopsided export to China was over $12 billion deficit, which was a special concern to Dhaka in the backdrop of the shaky foreign exchange reserves amid the global economic turmoil sparked by the war in Ukraine.

Momen reminded his counterpart that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2016 visit to Bangladesh had promised many investment pledges that have not materialised even after over six years. The complaint includes that an agreement to remove duties and quotas on 98 per cent of Bangladeshi goods has yet to see the light of day.

Whereas, Japan is Bangladesh’s largest export destination in Asia, in the last decade, Bangladesh’s exports (mostly apparel and leather products) to Tokyo have almost doubled. Nevertheless, there is still huge untapped trade potential for Bangladesh, which are “pharmaceuticals, agricultural and fishery products”, according to a Japanese diplomat.

The makeover of marginal trade imbalance will be reorganised after the signing of the free trade agreement (FTA).

A fresh impetus for strengthening trusted relations between the two countries could materialise, as Bangladesh is one of the most Japanese-friendly countries in Asia, with 71 per cent of Bangladeshis holding a favourable view of Japan, according to a 2014 Pew Research survey.

Japan’s BIG-B, an initiative for changing South Asia’s economic outlook, can play a key role in transforming Bangladesh into the heart of the regional economy by creating a gateway between South Asia and Southeast Asia, ensuring closer interregional cooperation, and incorporating Bangladesh into regional and global value chains, experts said.

Recently in New Delhi, when Kishida proposed developing an industrial hub in Bangladesh with “supply chains” to the landlocked north-eastern states of India, and to Nepal and Bhutan beyond by developing a port and transport in the region, “to foster the growth of the entire region,” hardly anybody understood the depth of his vision.

He was indicating to a mega deep-sea port under construction in southern Bangladesh would be a key economic hub for Japan and India as the QUAD partners aim to counter Chinese influence.

Development of the port of Matarbari will put a Japan-backed facility just north of Sonadia, another prime location on the Bay of Bengal where China has been eyeing development of  a deep-water port.

In fact, that facility never materialised, and Dhaka reportedly dropped the idea a few years ago on the behest of multi-pronged diplomacy by Delhi, reported Nikkei Asia.

“Geostrategy, much like real estate, is about location, location, location, and with Matarbari one can certainly check off that box,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Centre in Washington.

Japan, Bangladesh’s biggest development partner for decades, has long been aware of its strategic significance, which is why it committed to developing a port there about five years ago, said Kugelman.

The feel-good project to serve as a key port for the landlocked northeast Indian states (also known as Seven Sisters) is expected in 2027. The economic development will immensely contribute to the rich cultural heritage of the millions of vibrant communities living in the region, bordering China on the side and restive Myanmar in the south.

Meanwhile, projects for road and railway connectivity projects to the desired port from the Seven Sisters are almost completed by India and Bangladesh.

First published in India Narrative, New Delhi, India on  2 May 2023

(Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh. Views expressed are personal. Twitter: @saleemsamad)

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Sheikh Hasina’s Bangladesh looks ahead, begins free trade negotiations with 11 countries


Bangladesh is poised for exiting least developed status and seeks new avenues with major partners in the region and beyond.

In an exclusive interview with Nikkei Asia, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declared that her country  is discussing Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with 11 south-east Asian countries to boost trade and commerce, as the country seeks new means to promote exports once preferential tariff exemptions expire in three years.

Bangladesh has to go for a bilateral FTA for trade benefits once it becomes a middle-income country. Without FTAs, Bangladesh will lose competitive advantages over other countries – such as India, Pakistan and Vietnam, which have FTAs with a number of their trading partners.

Hasina will hold parleys with her Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida in the last week of April. The two countries are expected to agree to upgrade bilateral ties to a strategic comprehensive partnership.

This proactive strategic diplomacy comes, when Japan ramps up infrastructure investment in the strategically situated country on the shores of the Indian Ocean, countering China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Source said Bangladesh has begun trade and economic negotiations with Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam with an expectation to ink free trade agreements.

Presently, as a least developed country, Bangladesh gets duty-free market access to European Union, Canada, Australia, Japan and some other countries, reported the Financial Express published from Dhaka.

The United Nations (UN) has strongly recommended that Bangladesh sign FTAs with major trading partners like China to counter a regime without duty-free access facilities following the graduation to developing country status.

The government is now looking for ways and means to sign preferential trade agreements (PTA) with major trading partners. The preferential agreements are vital for Bangladesh to remain competitive in the international market.

Among the other countries, it has made FTA/PTA overtures to are Vietnam, Thailand, Morocco, Malaysia, the USA, Japan, Canada, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, South Korea, India, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Mexico, Egypt and three regional blocs – the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Eurasian Economic Commission and MERCOSUR (South American trade bloc).

The country also gets duty-free access to a range of products in the Indian and Sri Lankan markets under the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA).

As key regional partners, the governments of Bangladesh and India have heightened their trade and economic cooperation at a proactive trajectory. Bangladesh has become India’s leading South Asian trading partner and the world’s fourth-largest market for Indian exports in the years 2021–2022, said economist Dr Atiur Rahman, former governor of Bangladesh Bank.

The two neighbouring countries agreed to make mutually beneficial arrangements for the use of their waterways, roadways and railways for trade and commerce between the two countries and for the passage of goods between two places in one country and to third countries through the territory of the other under the terms mutually agreed upon.

Such deals will also help Bangladesh to continue getting the duty benefits after it graduates from the league of least developed countries (LDCs). The deadline was set on September 31 this year to ink an FTA with Sri Lanka.

But unfortunately, Sri Lanka is moving very slowly. Bilateral FTAs are becoming instrumental in global trading as the prospects of multilateral trading systems under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) are gradually losing their efficacy. There are more than 200 such deals worldwide. Neighbouring India has signed many FTAs including with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and is trying to sign another with the European Union (EU).

Bangladesh will have to be ready and continue lobbying with the major trading partners for PTAs and FTAs as erosion of preferences will affect trade significantly at the post-graduation stage.

The country should not only try to sign FTAs but also lobby with major countries and trade blocs for signing Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreements which include trade, tourism and investment, writes Shahid uz zaman Khan in the Financial Express.

There is no denying that the country’s future trade benefits will largely depend on bilateral free trade agreements as the country will lose duty-free facilities and a host of trade preferences once it graduates to a middle-income nation in some years.

First published in the India Narrative, New Delhi on April 22, 2023

(Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh. Twitter: @saleemsamad)

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Is Bangladesh slowly embracing an Indo-Pacific strategy?


Bangladesh is visibly and invisibly leaning towards the superpowers including the United States, China and Russia. But it also has friends and allies in the Middle East. India has been a proven friend, which has partnered Bangladesh’s development.

Bangladesh is now inching closer to embracing the Indo-Pacific Strategy, despite the country’s professed non aligned foreign policy.

However, Bangladesh has never strayed from its founding principle of nonalignment and wisdom drawn from its independence hero Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman which can be summed up as Friendship to all and malice toward none.

Bangladesh essentially aims to balance relations with rival states. Many explain that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina does not keep eggs in one basket. Thus, she wants to maintain diplomatic, economic and strategic partnerships albeit “unequally” with the United States, Russia, China, European Union, Arabs and of course India.

A month ago, the private news agency United News of Bangladesh (UNB)wrote that Dhaka has finalised a draft of its Indo-Pacific Outlook focused on objectives that mirror those of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. The draft plan dwells upon the need for a free, secure, and peaceful region, according to Foreign Policy’s South Asia brief prepared by Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Programme and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Centre, a nonpartisan research enterprise based in Washington DC.

Bangladesh It appears is moving closer to a full embrace of the Indo-Pacific Strategy pursued by the Americans and its partners in the region, which revolves around countering China. This move comes as the US and a few key allies have signalled that Bangladesh should be a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, according to the brief.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in New Delhi recently unveiled a new plan for the region, calling for strategic collaborations with Bangladesh, including a new economic partnership agreement.

A deep-sea port under construction in southern Bangladesh is shaping up to be a strategic linchpin for Japan and India as the Quad partners aim to counter Chinese influence, writes Nikkei Asia, an influential Japanese economic and finance media outlet.

Dhaka has friendly ties with the USA, and other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) including India, and Europe.

Development of the deep-sea port of Matarbari – a natural gateway to both South and Southeast Asia will put a Japan-backed facility just north of Sonadia, another prime location on the Bay of Bengal where China was expected to develop a port. But the Chinese facility did not materialise. Dhaka silently dropped the idea a few years ago, which caused diplomatic hullabaloo with Beijing.

Some leading pundits tend to declare a strategic victory for India in a South Asian great game between big powers. Anu Anwar, a research associate at the Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, told Nikkei Asia the Sonadia port deal with China did not succeed because of India’s opposition, which the [government] in Dhaka could not simply override due to its overreliance on Delhi.  Also, India’s tag-team partner, Japan is also considered a winner in this scenario, though some observers see no game at all, says Faisal Mahmud and Ryohtaroh Satoh in a joint article in Nikkei Asia.

In New Delhi, Kishida said the industrial value chain from the deep-sea port in the Bay of Bengal and the hinterland of landlocked northeast states [so-called Seven Sisters] of India which neighbours China, Myanmar and Bangladesh, will be immensely beneficial from “the growth of the entire region. Japanese, Indian and Bangladeshi officials also discussed the plans with G. Kishan Reddy, India’s federal minister for the northeast, welcoming Japan’s initiative, Reuters reported.

An Independence Day message from US chief executive Joseph R. Biden to Sheikh Hasina has caught the attention of many political observers. Bangladesh is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in January next year, Biden “reminded of the deep value both of our nations’ people place on democracy, equality, respect for human rights, and free and fair elections.” The message ended with the slogan ‘Joy Bangla’ (Victory for Bangladesh), which enthralled masses in Bangladesh.

A series of statements from the chief executive of the United States and other bigwigs of the country demonstrates that the stars are shining brightly over Bangladesh’s sky. In fact, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken flattered Bangladesh and said the country is “quickly becoming a regional leader.”

On the occasion of the 52nd anniversary of the Independence of Bangladesh, the United States Congress introduced a resolution on 29 March recognising and commending Bangladesh and its remarkable socioeconomic progress under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, official news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS) reported. The resolution said Bangladesh has successfully maintained a moderate Muslim society and curbed extremism in the country, but falls short of describing Bangladesh as a secular and pluralistic nation.

Despite the heart-warming tete-a-tete messages, Sheikh Hasina last week in the parliament in Dhaka did not hesitate to lambast America: “They are lecturing us on democracy and human rights. What’s the situation in their country?”

Amid the dilemma to decide or not to decide on a strategic partnership, China has stepped up its influence in Bangladesh through mega-infrastructure loans, which US officials have privately described as “bad deals” for the country.

It’s indeed an intriguing question as to why Bangladesh wishes to be associated with the Indo-Pacific Strategy and its goal of countering China. No doubt, participation in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy would bring Bangladesh closer to key trade and investment partners.

China is also a major supplier of arms to Bangladesh. So, getting Dhaka’s buy-in to the US-sponsored Indo-Pacific vision would be a strategic victory.

The current governments in Bangladesh and India are very close, and New Delhi is likely to have encouraged Dhaka to embrace the strategy, according to the brief by Wilson Centre.

Even as Bangladesh embraces the Indo-Pacific Strategy, it is still trying to placate China. Dhaka’s draft Indo-Pacific Outlook stipulates that it seeks to avoid rivalries and has no security goals, read the brief.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – includes many states that have cordial relations with China – opted for the same term in its Indo-Pacific coalition. Dhaka has also not indicated that it would join the Quad. Several visits of high-profile dignitaries in recent times from the United States, United Kingdom and European Union enforce that “these countries would want Bangladesh to take part in the Indo-Pacific Strategy read the brief.

Kugelman said Bangladesh has become a battleground for great power competition. It is strategically located, bordering India and serving as a gateway to both South and Southeast Asia. China is definitely concerned about the development of a regional strategic alliance. A few weeks ago, the Chinese Ambassador Yao Wen to Bangladesh squarely blamed Washington for pushing Dhaka into the US-backed Quad against China.

To deepen relations with China, Bangladesh could certainly back off from the US Indo-Pacific Strategy. Bangladesh appears to believe its interests aren’t compromised by stretching the limits of nonalignment, according to the brief.

In the coming years, when the dozens of mega-projects funded by Japan, China, Russia and India are finally implemented, it could be understood which superpower and regional powers wins the heart and minds of Bangladesh.

First published in the India Narrative on April 18, 2023

Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh. Views expressed are personal.  Twitter: @saleemsamad

Thursday, April 13, 2023

“Doctor Of The Poor” Gave New Hope To Bangladesh


My mindset was first awakened after reading the cover story Dr Zafarullah Chowdhury (popularly known as Zafar Bhai) and his dream hospital Gonoshastya Kendra in a defunct weekly Bichitra on 25 January 1974.

Later, on the first-page news photo in a defunct Dainik Bangla newspaper, dozens of women health workers of Gonoshastya Kendra (People’s Health Centre) from the outskirts of Dhaka, riding bicycles arrived at Central Martyrs Memorial in Dhaka to pay homage to the language martyrs on 21 February 1974.

I along with Nadira Majumder, correspondent of weekly Robbar and myself (The New Nation) regularly visited Gonoshastya Kendra in 1981 to understand Dr Zafarullah Chowdhury’s concept of his war against “drug imperialism” of the multinational companies in Bangladesh and health for all campaign.

The international drug producers were profiteering from third-world countries, like Bangladesh in over-invoicing imports of raw materials, over-pricing packaging materials and producing unnecessary medicaments.

We were doing serious research and interviews of the national committee headed by Dr Nurul Islam, Zafarullah and others when they were drafting the crucial National Drug Policy and a voluminous document reasoning for banning thousands of drugs and listing a hundred or so essential drugs which have to be produced under the generic name.

The drug policy completely knocked down the business of the multinational companies in Bangladesh. The drug policy for the first time was pinned on the world map for a pro-people initiative.

Despite the drug policy being severely criticised by drug producers and hundreds of doctors, the military dictator General HM Ershad went ahead with full steam to implement the policy.

Several ambassadors spoke to the government to delay the implementation, citing unemployment of hundreds and thousands of employees and the shortage of drugs in the market which will jeopardise the healthcare system in the country.

Zafarullah was confident and so was the Health Ministry admitting that there will be a shortage of drugs in the market and could be replenished from the competitive world market.

Gonoshastya Kendra believed in alternative healthcare which needs to reach the rural areas, where people cannot afford it and most importantly where rural people have never seen a doctor in their life.

The centre produced thousands of barefoot doctors mostly women, recruited from rural areas. They went to remote inaccessible regions to provide healthcare to pregnant women, children and treatment of elderly people.

The concept of barefoot healthcare medics encouraged the government to launch a nationwide primary healthcare programme. The best example is the nationwide child immunisation drive by the government by trained paramedics. Child immunisation was much higher than the World Health Organisation (WHO) target of 75% and Bangladesh attained between 93% and 98% every year since 2005.

Well, fearing the doctors and physicians will be posted in rural areas, away from the luxuries of city hospitals, the Bangladesh Medical Association vehemently opposed the national primary healthcare programme.

The medical doctors’ apex body criticising the programme said it takes several years to train a doctor and a couple of years for nurses (including internship), therefore the mobilisation of medics will be a major challenge.

Zafarullah scoffed at their criticism and said it is possible to train barefoot medics within six months, who can perform delivery of infants including obstructive births.

The world’s largest NGO, BRAC partnered with Gonoshastya Kendra to train thousands of medics to cover millions of the population in villages.

The drug policy buoyed the massive growth of home-grown medicament entrepreneurs who are presently producing drugs in Bangladesh and exporting to more than 150 countries worth US$163.83 million (2021-22).

No other medical colleges or para-medic training institutions in Bangladesh have compulsory field (rural) training experience, except for those under Gonoshastya Trust.

The 82-year-old doctor of the poor had the vision to reach the rural poor to ensure that the global ‘Health For All’ campaign was meaningful.

When the health message of smoking-related diseases was not known to many, his institution was a pioneer to announce job opportunities and even for students in medical college and para-medics, with a strict note in red letters that only non-smokers should apply.

The patient’s suffering, agony and pain caused by smoking-related disease is widespread. The government’s ban on smoking in public has not been able to deter people from smoking, ignoring the harms of nicotine and second-hand smoke.

Well, besides a series of successes, he has had a few failures in his life. He attempted to bring about a change in politicking and government, which he miserably failed. In 1981, he wanted to form a coalition of the left-leaning, muktijuddhas (liberation war veterans) and mainstream Awami League to support his candidate, a liberation war hero General MAG Osmany for the president.

The plan was scuttled and a major setback in the presidential campaign when Awami League nominated constitutional author Dr Kamal Hossain as their candidate for the election against Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) candidate Justice Abdus Sattar who obviously won with a wide margin.

Zafarullah did not have any properties or business in his or his family’s name anywhere. All the institutions and establishments are under Gonoshastya Trust. He left behind the entire country to mourn his death but left behind his legacy of pro-people healthcare institutions.

First published in The News Times on April 13, 2023

Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at <>; Twitter @saleemsamad

Friday, April 07, 2023

Pakistan’s fingerprints in formation of Rohingya militant group ARSA are unmistakable


Initially Bangladesh, Myanmar and India failed to accept Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) a jihadist outfit. The militant group was described as ‘Rohingya Muslim vigilantes’ with a limited ordinance, disorganised, therefore nothing to be worried about.
The name ARSA first surfaced in August 2017, when the outfit claimed responsibility for attacks on several border police and army posts of Myanmar at the international borders with Bangladesh.
The attacks sparked Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar military) brutal genocidal campaign against Rohingya Muslims. The troops torched hundreds of villages and went on a killing rampage.
The ethnic community was forced to flee from the volatile Rakhine State of Myanmar and later sheltered in Bangladesh. The country hosts nearly 1.2 million Rohingyas.
The panicked Rohingyas poured into Bangladesh, through porous international borders, fuelling a historic migration crisis in Asia.
India is now worried that the jihadist outfit’s presence at the border of Bangladesh-Myanmar-India. ARSA’s recent skirmish with Myanmar troops has raised their eyebrows, while Bangladesh is alarmed by the visible presence of ARSA in the territory.
The ARSA militants are mostly recruited from the Rohingya refugees. It was not to anybody’s surprise that the leadership are Pakistan-born Saudi émigrés. They raise funds mostly from Rohingya living in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Meanwhile, news surfaced that an undisclosed partnership between Bangladesh and Myanmar military led to a joint operation to address the ARSA insurgency.
The documents from a December 23 meeting of the Central Committee for Counter-Terrorism of the Myanmar Home Affairs Ministry, published by a private ‘Khit Thit Media’ on last January 10 have been verified by security experts.
The document stated that “During 2022, there have been only 4 skirmishes between our [Myanmar] forces and ARSA. We were able to meet, discuss and coordinate with the Bangladesh Border Guard Force over ARSA.
“The result was that Bangladesh special forces launched a military operation in the refugee camp where ARSA took shelter, killing the ARSA’s 2nd in Command and 2 terrorists. From one intelligence exchange with Bangladesh, we learned that the ARSA leader Ataullah and 60 of his followers are facing legal actions in Bangladesh.”
The Naypyidaw (capital of Myanmar) labelled ARSA as an “extremist Bengali [Bangalee] terrorists, also Rohingya Muslim terrorists,” warning that its goal is to establish an Islamic state in the region [South-East Asia].
In a rare interview with an international media, Ataullah Abu Ammar Jununi, commonly known simply as Ataullah, the supremo of ARSA said that their objective would be “open war” and “continued [armed] resistance” until “citizenship rights were reinstated” of Rohingyas in Myanmar.
Despite the denial of Ataullah, who was born in Karachi and moved to Saudi Arabia, of having links to the Islamic State or ISIS in a video and said he turned his back on support from Pakistani-based jihadists, security agencies of Bangladesh and India are sceptic of his claim.
A security expert in Bangladesh explains that ARSA has ideological differences from other terror outfits and has reason to distance itself from the transnational jihadist network.
The global terror network’s footprint is absent in the region. The territory is too hot to handle, as some experts explained, especially when India remains a deterrent to the physical presence of jihadists and terror networks.
The exodus of more than one million Rohingyas from restive Rakhine State has also brought the ARSA operatives and sympathisers into Bangladesh.
The security agency in Bangladesh has trained their eyes and ears on their activities. The agency explains ARSA is also known as ‘Al Yakin’ in the refugee camps – the militants prey on the refugees.
ARSA operatives are responsible for widespread kidnaps, extortions, tortures and executions of suspects. The crimes are committed to collect funds for local operations in the world’s largest squalid Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, in southern Bangladesh.
Cash-starved Al Yakin, the volunteer group of ARSA is mostly responsible for gang war in the refugee camps to establish dominance over other non-militant groups in the camps.
The recruiters from sleepers-cell disseminate a message that joining ARSA or ‘Al Yakin’ was a Farj (a religious obligation).
However, ARSA remains focused on recruitment and indoctrination, followed by establishing small units and engaging in rudimentary military training.
Often breaking news from Rohingya refugee camps of robbers, dacoits, and armed gangs killed in encounters by anti-crime forces – the slain victims are radicalised Rohingya militants.
Despite ARSA’s name still commands a mix of cautious respect and fear among some in the Rohingya camps. The members remain low profile to avoid confrontation with Bangladesh security forces.
For funding the militant’s network, the foot soldiers are also engaged in providing armed escorts to cross-border smugglers and drug traders.
The intels still believe ARSA have a low ordinance and the militants were unable to launch any large-scale armed clash with Myanmar troops after August 2017.
However, Myanmar security forces do not agree and said that last year in mid-September, “the Arakan Army launched attacks in cooperating with ARSA from a certain distance on the Taungpyo Latwal police outpost near BP-31 between Myanmar and Bangladesh using small and heavy arms and three shells fell into the Bangladesh side and three exploded.
“On the other hand, their hit-and-run tactics were significantly neutralised after Myanmar troop’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims [ARSA],” said Myanmar’s official website Info Sheet.
Myanmar blames Pakistan’s dreaded spy agency ISI for its share in mentoring the jihadist outfit. Their theory that ARSA has been raised, funded, provides logistics and indoctrination was masterminded by ISI and is also believed by both Bangladesh and India.
Consequently, the encampment at No-Man’s-Land or Zero-Point was attacked once again on January 18, 2023, resulting in the camp’s destruction, and the forced displacement of all Rohingya refugees living there, writes Saifur Rahman, a Rohingya journalist who is living in exile in a third country.

ARSA’s militancy capability remains poor due to strict surveillance by security agencies of India and Bangladesh and sharing mechanism of intels – reducing ARSA into a toothless tiger.

First published in the India Narrative on 7April 2023

Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh