Summer denials, wintry outcomes

Imtiaz A. Hussain   | Published: October 11, 2018 21:40:51 | Updated: October 11, 2018 21:58:12


Denial, Brigadier General Shahedul Anam Khan has argued in a local daily newspaper, is "not the end of responsibility between policing and serving". It is also not one in policy making: denying one realistic outcome or another almost on a daily basis has been the norm, leaving concerned parties less well off, even with more insights. Four cases from this summer show how consequential these may be - two bearing directly upon Bangladesh (Myanmar denying genocide and Assam denying residents' citizenship), and two others Bangladeshi policy-makers may learn from (denying Palestinians relief assistant and Pakistan military aid).

It took a long time coming, but in August both the United Nations and United States attributed the year-long Rohingya exodus to genocide. Sanctions were imposed upon a number of generals (Maung Maung Soe from December 2017 by the United States, and Kyaw Zaw, Thant Zin Oo, and five others by Canada, the European Union, and the United States from June this year), while the country's democracy banner-person since 1988, the 1991 Nobel Peace winning Aung San Suu Kyi, was reprimanded. Attributing the exodus variously to Islamic extremism or illegal entry from Bangladesh, the Myanmar denials open a can of worms, since at least China, but also the developing world's most institutionally democratised country, India, support Myanmar. With Suu Kyi now blaming Bangladesh for the exodus, the two countries confront more tension in bilateral relations when so many opportunities abound.

She is not the only neighbour finger-pointing at Bangladesh. Earlier this year, the Assamese government decided to review its citizenship rules against the massive influx of outsiders into this particular Indian province, allegedly a bulk of them from Bangladesh. Whether they live there as residents or are simply illegally present is the big question, but denying them citizenship also raises ire across Bangladesh. Whether they support the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, or not, may become a big issue, since that party has been incensed by Bangladeshis for quite some time, even during his 2014 election campaign. How this issue discolours bilateral relations and the future opens another can of worms for Bangladesh, whose consequences might again leave Bangladesh isolated: there may be lots of sympathies, as for the Rohingyas, but the 'dirty-work' of adapting them, picking up the tab, and maintaining cordial Indian-relations will increasingly resemble the balloon being pumped over and over again until the bursting point arrives.

Denials, in theory, represent defection by the other side in a relationship dependent upon bilateral or plurilateral cooperation. The 'sucker' country (that is, the one not defecting), resembles mother's favourite little child others take full advantage of, or tease out of his or her comfort zone. Such behaviour cannot be willed away, but paying the costs has been the global experience.

If the world is so hapless, we would all be up in the air all the time. Fortunately, similar actions independent of any specific actor can also expose lessons to learn from, if anyone, or any country, is interested. Two such events show why this may be crucial.

The first is the US decision to deny Palestinians any more financial aid. Once denied in January 2018 pending a review, Donald J. Trump went for the jugular in August by denying any. It was retaliation for Palestinians not agreeing to talk peace. That peace was most recently shattered in 2017 when the United States decided to shift its embassy to Jerusalem, thus validating Israel's decision to establish its capital there. Palestinians, hoping to use eastern Jerusalem for their own capital, feel betrayed.

Typically the United States provided up to a quarter of Palestine Authority expenses, channelled through three sources: humanitarian works (of about $ 320 million), through US Agency of International Development; then $368 million through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRW), mostly for Palestinian refugees; and $36 million to the Palestine Authority for security. USAID was cut steadily over the year, as too UNRWA payments (the United States paying only $60 million out of a pledge to pay $124 million as the first 2018 installment), forcing the global agency to cut over 200 jobs.

Though this denial was costly, fortunately, it was not dittoed by other major donors. Nevertheless, it worsens not just economic but also security conditions, whose consequences would severely cripple Palestinians. It is not that Bangladesh should step up to offset that gap, though that is not a bad idea if replicated by other, particularly, Muslim countries. What may be learned would be more beneficial for Bangladesh: not to fall in a strap like this. We learn how friendship is fickle, a good reason to not put all eggs in one basket. That basket does not have to be only the United States. For Bangladesh, it could be, and increasingly is, China and India; or with our ready-made garment (RMG) exports, the European Union. We need to build a Plan B for every circumstance, especially now as we transit from a less developed country to a middle-income country: many previous privileges will slowly vanish, including those RMG markets themselves. Instead of sending diplomats to verbally battle to sustain them, it might be better to plan those Plan B solutions.

That observation is pushed to the limit by the US decision to deny military aid to one of the first countries to join a US military security belt after the North American Treaty Organisation (NATO): Pakistan. First through the Baghdad Pact (later known as the Central Treaty Organisation, CENTO), and the South-east Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO), both from 1955, then to corral jihadis in Afghanistan when Osama bin-Laden required Pakistan cooperation, a task begun in 2001, but still underway in full swing. Yet, Pakistan was punished in September: $300 million was cut in September as a follow-up to the $500 million cut earlier in the year. In this century alone, Pakistan has received over $35 billion worth of US support, $14 billion of which went to support coalition forces (actually, to reward Pakistan for standing against terrorism).

This denial will be plausibly most expensive to the United States if Pakistan eases its control over Taliban terrorists: the United States would raise costs of fighting terrorism, weaken bilateral relations, pushing Pakistan more into US adversary camps, like China, and most crucially, it would expose the United States as an unreliable partner.

This third strand may be the most relevant for Bangladesh, not just against the United States, but against any country. It synchronises with the Palestinian denial in alerting us to be more cautious in our foreign policy, a lesson learned without having to pay.

Ultimately the net balance from all the costs and perceived benefits should show enhanced knowledge, greater experiences, and some policy-making wisdom. Whether we need them or not depends on what our national character is like (do we really learn from others, or treat diplomacy as a routine exercise), what our deeper interests may be (is it more about exploring opportunities, that is, finding new RMG markets, or staving costs, such as protecting the land against refugees, or both), and how we pursue both (what instruments we use, and friends we make). Having a larger string of friendly countries gives us more options when the tide is high, and helps us take a breather when it is low.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd

 

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