By Maleka Parveen
Dhaka, March 19 (Ittefaq): Four top leaders of South Asia will be in Dhaka as guests of the Bangladesh government to participate in the birth centenary celebrations of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence.
Among them are Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari and the Maldives’ President Ibrahim Mohamed Salih, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Each of the top leaders will give speeches on Independence, Bangabandhu or other issues. The program will be organized on a large scale for 10 days from 18 to 26 March. Besides, bilateral meetings will be held at the level of Head of State and Head of Government, official sources said.
The schedule is Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Salih will be in Dhaka from March 16 to17, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa from March 19 to 20m the President of Nepal from March 22 to 23 and the Prime Minister of India from March 26 to 28. All the top leaders will deliver ‘Bangabandhu Smriti’ speeches at the Tejgaon Parade Ground.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to Bangladesh as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka is important for several reasons. Earlier, as the President of Sri Lanka, he had visited Bangladesh in April 2011. Later, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina led a 50-member high-level delegation from Bangladesh to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo in November 2013. During the visit, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh paid a courtesy call on the President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa. Diplomatic analysts are of the opinion that the mutual understanding between the two leaders on various issues is excellent.
In July 2016, the then President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena arrived in Dhaka on a three-day state visit. During the visit, 14 agreements and memoranda of understanding were signed between the two countries on various issues.
It is to be noted that the coalition government collapsed in the wake of the horrific bomb attack in Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019 Easter Sunday. Mahinda’s younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the Sri Lankan Presidential election by a wide margin in November of the same year. As soon as he became the President, he appointed his elder brother Mahinda as the Prime Minister. Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections were held in the first week of August 2000. In this election, the Rajapaksa family-controlled political party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), snatched 145 of the 225 seats in parliament. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party now controls a two-thirds majority in parliament, with the SLPP adding five more seats won by allied parties.
Needless to say, now, with the change of the constitution, the Rajapaksa family has absolute power in the country. Sri Lanka is now ruled by two brothers, an unprecedented situation in the history of the country. Earlier, Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President of Sri Lanka from 2005 to 2015. Mahinda is credited with restoring peace in the country by ending the civil war in 2009 by suppressing the Tamil separatists.
However, during his rule, allegations of corruption, including widespread repression of minorities and opponents, continued to rise, and in 2015, his opponents united and went to the polls. The Mahinda regime fell. Then came the political alliance led by Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party. But in the wake of the horrific Easter Sunday bombings in 2019, Sri Lanka’s politics was on the verge of a new reckoning. In just four years, the Rajapaksas came back to power.
The relationship between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka is based on deep and strong historical ties. At the heart of this social, cultural and linguistic connection between the two countries is the history of about 2500 years ago when King Vijaya and his followers came from Bengal to Sri Lanka and established the Sinhala nation.
After the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in 1972, the Bangladesh High Commission in Colombo commenced its activities on 21 April 1978. Bangladesh also has an honorary consulate in Chittagong along with the Sri Lankan High Commission in Dhaka. Both countries, as members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), want to see South Asian unity established through this organization.
Considering all these realities, it is hoped that the visit of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to take part in the grand celebration of Bangabandhu’s birth centenary and the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence will play an effective role in strengthening bilateral political, economic and overall ties.
Of course, it will depend on the closeness and mutual goodwill between the political leaderships of the two countries. Concerned businessmen, investors and entrepreneurs at the public and private levels must be sincere in realizing the immense opportunities through cooperation between the two countries.
The State visit of Mahinda Rajapaksa is also very important in strengthening regional cooperation between the two countries in the evolving geopolitical reality. Bangladesh-Sri Lanka relations are a clear example of South-South cooperation, which can be seen as necessary for the developing world. As South Asian countries rise to the status of middle-income countries, the issue of foreign aid is likely to face uncertainty. That is why, the issue of mutual cooperation has emerged as a blessing for the developing countries of South Asia. In this case, South Asian countries have no choice but to increase trade and other cooperative ventures with each other instead of relying on aid from foreign donors.
The visit is expected to open new horizons in bilateral relations between the two countries. It is hoped that a bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will give a clear direction in this regard to move forward the long lasting friendly relations between the two countries.
Bangladesh and Sri Lanka can contribute to each other’s development in different ways. Bangladesh is building 100 special economic zones across the country, where Sri Lankan entrepreneurs can invest by taking advantage of favorable business opportunities offered to foreigners. Sri Lanka can benefit from Bangladesh’s unprecedented socio-economic development over the past decade and Bangladesh’s success in corona virus management.
Areas of cooperation are: agriculture and agro-based products, regional tourism, trade-investment growth, ICT, cooperation in high-tech industries and education, bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs), shipping links, and pharmaceutical industries. Effective decisions must be implemented within a set timeframe. The two countries must come forward with a mentality of working together to deal with the pandemic.
Sri Lanka can invest and work in Bangladesh’s aviation sector and training of nurses, as well as in shipping, medicare, tourism, education and culture. Air fares must be reduced. At the same time, Sri Lanka can build the necessary tourism infrastructure in the coastal areas of Bangladesh and develop cultural tourism between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka besides launching sea voyages. Although separated by geographical boundaries, history and tradition, culture, language, democracy, values and regional alliances, and the overall consideration of mutual cooperation in the international arena have laid the foundation for a strong relationship between the two South Asian countries.
The presence of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on the occasion of the birth centenary of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence is a significant sign of lasting friendship between the two countries. We hope that through this visit and the fruitful discussions between the two Heads of Government, an effective and clear reflection on the development of the overall relationship between the two countries will soon be visible.
(Author is Director General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a former Counselor in the Bangladesh High Commission in Colombo)