Sat, 21 Jun 2003

A new partnership takes shape

The Daily Star, Asia News Network, Dhaka

The meeting between Megawati Soekarnoputri and Khaleda Zia is special in the sense that this meeting was between two woman governmental heads representing two Muslim majority countries. Here we point out this fact as a contrast to what the West is in the habit of saying about the place of women in Muslim societies.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had but a few hours for us while President Megawati is honoring us with three days of her presence. The contrast aside, we are proud to host such important guests simultaneously.

We consider Megawati's visit to be another significant development in our "Look East" policy. One of the major foreign policy initiatives of this government has been to reinforce our already excellent relations with the Southeast Asian countries and add a new dynamism in it. The first major demonstration of it was the exchange of visits by the Thai and Bangladeshi Prime Ministers and the extension of some special trade privileges to us by the former. The strengthening of our relations with Indonesia follows naturally from the initial steps we took.

Bangladesh has expressed its desire to be a member of ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in attaining which Indonesia has committed to lend us a helping hand, and our membership of ARF should now only be a matter of time. Southeast and East Asia have been and continues to be major growth centers. Together with China, this region holds out the prospect of being among the fastest growth areas in the world. Thus it is the natural place to link up with if we want to be a part of that growth process.

As moderate and liberal Muslim majority countries we have lots of things in common just as we have many similar challenges to face -- mainly global terrorism. The recent bomb attack in Bali has come as a rude wakeup call to the governments of both countries. We must face the fact that an extreme fringe has developed within our society that espouse hatred and violence as a means of achieving their ends. The Indonesian experience is a clear signal that it can happen in a highly tolerant society. Therefore collaboration between our two countries in fighting terrorism, as committed by our PM during her banquet speech on Wednesday, is most crucial.

We welcome the four-point trade and business related agreements that have been signed between the two sides. Avoidance of double taxation, counter trade agreement, exchange of lists between the two commerce ministries, and the cooperation between our two apex trade bodies are all significant steps. As possible trading partners both countries will now have to follow these developments with a strong political commitment.

Trade can only proceed on clear policy decisions followed by incentive packages that will make business sense among the private sector on both sides. The formation of joint Business Council is a welcome step and the planned trip to Indonesia by our trade bodies a natural follow-up. The big business delegation accompanying President Megawati is a clear indication of the interest of Indonesia to build strong business ties with us.

A far more active cultural relationship between our two countries is also something we should work for. Both of us have significant minorities whose distinct cultural and ethnic diversity has made our culture far more rich and varied. We hope that this visit by the Indonesian President will be followed by cultural exchange between our two countries, to enable greater understanding and appreciation of the cultural diversity that makes us, along with Malaysia, so unique among Muslim majority countries.