Fostering ties between Turkey and Bangladesh

ISTANBUL (CIHAN)- DHAKA – Looking beyond the loud noise generated by domestic political debates and never-ending wrangling between the dominant ruling parties and beleaguered oppositions amid allegations of corruption and rights violations in two predominantly Muslim countries, Turkey and Bangladesh, one cannot help but wonder what would happen if these two secular democracies could actually exploit fully what seems to be a very promising and highly profitable partnership to be built upon an already friendly connection.
Perhaps the leadership of the two countries has long been preoccupied with immediate concerns in their neighborhoods, neglecting relations with each other, being 6,000 kilometers apart. Perhaps they have been distracted by pressing domestic challenges for too long that did not even allow for the exchange of high-level visits between Turkey and Bangladesh for decades. While conversing with friends at a dinner hosted by the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry on Sunday night at the Ruposhi Bangla Hotel near Dhaka’s most famous Ramna Park and bustling business district, Bangladeshi colleagues and I have come to an understanding that more interaction and closer engagement are long overdue.

Even a quick glance over historical connections shows that enough catalysts such as trust, warmth and strong friendship exist to bolster ties between the countries. For one, both countries are developing economically and playing an increased role politically in regional and global affairs. They mirror each other in many respects from a Sufi-oriented moderate Muslim culture with strong secular characteristics to much more balanced civilian-military ties in a functioning democracy, albeit with shortcomings. They both face challenges on the domestic front including weak and fractured oppositions as well as religious encroachment into politics. If it was any indication of a test of strength, both Turkey and Bangladesh weathered the global economic slowdown in 2008 and escaped the worst effects of the crisis. They continue to grow, even though the pace has tapered off and they remain positioned for relatively stable growth levels in coming years.

There are many areas where Turkish companies can invest in Bangladesh such as power generation, infrastructure projects, housing, healthcare, defense and food security. In exchange, Bangladeshi companies can expand in the Turkish market in the garment and pharmaceutical industries. No doubt the increased frequency of direct flights by Turkish Airlines (THY) between Istanbul and Dhaka has helped trade grow in recent years. The numbers speak for themselves. The trade volume between the countries was only $82 million in 2003 but reached $1.2 billion in 2013, an increase of 1,363 percent in a decade. In the January to February 2014 period, according to the latest available data from the Turkish government, the trade volume jumped to $211 million, an increase of 41 percent over the same period last year, heavily favoring Bangladesh. Still, this number does not reflect the true potential between Turkey and Bangladesh, which have a combined population of 230 million, prompting the political leadership of both countries to set $3 billion in bilateral trade as a goal for 2015.

Turkey can tap into the Bangladeshi pharmaceutical industry to benefit from competitive pricing and slash the huge social security bill in half by replacing Western suppliers with Bangladeshi ones on generic drugs. Ankara can also benefit from the quick disaster response Bangladesh has honed over years against natural disasters such as floods and cyclones. Similarly, the Turkish military, which has started to commit more troops to international missions, can learn a lot from its Bangladeshi counterparts on how to manage peacekeeping operations where Dhaka is the leading contributor around the world in all peacekeeping missions. Turkey and Bangladesh already work together well in defense, with cooperation dating back to 1978, when the two countries signed their first defense cooperation agreement. A bilateral military training agreement in 2004 carried defense cooperation to a higher level.

Education is another area in which Turkey and Bangladesh can cooperate further. The Dhaka government is keen to reform education, especially religious schools called madrassa, with more emphasis on science, technology and foreign language skills in order to provide better employment opportunities and to prevent radical ideologies from taking a foothold among the youth. The government’s focus on combating religious extremism in the nation with the fourth largest Muslim population in the world is understandable, given its historical background and regional framework.

The International Turkish Hope High School, which was established in 1996 by Turkish businesspeople in Dhaka and inaugurated by then-Turkish President Suleyman Demirel a year later, represents a successful experiment in what Turkey can offer to Bangladesh. This success story also serves as strong evidence for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s expectations that Bangladeshi students who are receiving an education in Turkish schools will be able to play a serious role in bilateral relations in the future. Not only private entrepreneurs, but also the Turkish government provides Bangladeshi students with scholarships for undergraduate and graduate studies as well as opportunities for military education that has provided thousands of Bangladeshi cadets with training in Turkey.

It is important to note that both Turkey and Bangladesh share similar traits in religion, with a strong national identity and secular characteristics. The Sufi version of Islam, which is practiced in Bangladesh and came from the Turkish province of Konya, has in fact secured both countries against the expansion of extremist religious ideologies taking root in their respective societies. It created successful Turkish and Bengali models that stand in sharp contrast to the politically active Shiite expansionist ideology represented by Iranian mullahs and the ultra-orthodox WahhabiSalafis ideology led by the Saudi clerical establishment.

Another success story can be found with civilian-military ties as both countries were able to curb the military’s enthusiasm for interfering in politics in recent years. Bangladesh’s Awami League government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, reined in military powers and overcame the February 2009 Bangladesh Rifles Mutiny incident during which a paramilitary force mainly associated with guarding the borders revolted against the government. The government paved the way for the military to be interested more in overseas UN missions where members of military earn income and send remittances back to their relatives. Similarly, the Turkish government was able to push the military back into its barracks thanks to landmark court cases such as Ergenekon and Sledgehammer that put interfering generals behind bars for plotting to topple the civilian-elected government. Hence the political experiences of Bangladesh and Turkey in terms of sidelining the military from politics can very well guide other predominantly Muslim nations to follow roughly the same democratic path.

Bangladesh can also act as a gateway to a larger market in South Asia and serve as an important partner for Turkey in aancing Turkish interests in that part of the world. Dhaka is an important player in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), an economic and geopolitical cooperation among eight South Asian countries. Unfortunately, the lackluster performance of the Developing-8 (D-8) — an arrangement for development cooperation among Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey that was set up by a summit of heads of state and government in Istanbul in June 1997– did not benefit the trade and economic cooperation between the two countries to a great degree because of systematic Iranian blocking of aancing common projects.

Although Turkey and Bangladesh see eye to eye on many global issues, they still do differ on some, which is natural and not unexpected given the differences in their policy priorities. For example, in a recent UN General Assembly resolution on the crisis in Crimea, Dhaka abstained from reaffirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, while Ankara endorsed the resolution. Perhaps Dhaka’s inaction may be attributed to Bangladesh’s long-held foreign policy motto of “Friendship to all, malice to none,” as well as specially cultivated ties with Russia. On the other hand Turkey, as a NATO member, needed to act in conformity with the transatlantic alliance members. The same disagreement between Turkey and Bangladesh could also be seen in Kosovo, Georgia and Bosnia. That means both countries can respectfully agree to disagree without poisoning their valuable relations.

In a nutshell, both Turkey and Bangladesh should not let themselves get distracted by irritants that may harm ties as they are looking for a very promising and lucrative partnership that will reward each side politically, economically and culturally.

ABDULLAH BOZKURT (CihanToday’s Zaman) C