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EDITORIAL: In a pleasantly surprising move on Wednesday, Prime Minister Imran Khan reached out to his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina Wajed by telephone as part of his government's policy to mend fences with regional countries. Pakistan, he said, is committed to deepen THE "fraternal relations with Bangladesh on the basis of mutual trust, mutual respect, and sovereign equality." He also emphasized the need for regular bilateral contacts and people-to-people exchanges. Relations between the two counties have remained strained since Hasina came to power, hitting a low point during her second term when her government set up the so-called International Crimes Tribunal, and tried several leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami's Bangladesh chapter on charges of war crimes during the 1971 conflict sentencing them to death. Islamabad saw that as a violation of the 1974 agreement under which the PM's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, had agreed not to pursue cases against people involved in the unfortunate events of 1971. The National Assembly of Pakistan passed a unanimous resolution condemning the conviction and execution of JI leaders.

Although tensions persisted over some issue such as repatriation of Beharis- whom Dhaka had declared as Pakistanis herding them into special camps- and a demand for an apology for '71, the two sides remained engaged. From Zulifqar Ali Bhutto, Gen Ziaul Haq, Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto to Gen Pervez Musharraf all went on state visits to that country. Musharraf also expressed 'regret' though not an apology for what had been an equally painful chapter in this country's history. Former Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia also paid a visit to Islamabad. So did Sheikh Hasina though for an Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting. She remained unwilling to move on, an important factor being her party Awami League's old connection with India; her attitude further stiffened after she found an eager partner in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Notably, for 20 long months the post of Pakistan's high commissioner to Bangladesh remained vacant due to that state's refusal to approve his appointment. It was only last November after Islamabad made a fresh nomination that Dhaka agreed to receive Imran Ahmad Siddiqui as the new emissary of Pakistan. Pursuing quiet diplomacy, he is believed to have brought about a thaw in the two countries relations. What also contributed to his efforts is the discriminatory anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act, passed by the Modi government last year, a major affectee of which have been Bangladeshi immigrants. That controversial law had triggered massive protests not only all over India but also in Bangladesh, forcing Modi to cancel a scheduled visit to Dhaka.

No less important has been the role of China asserting its economic heft via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It has aligned several development projects in Bangladesh with the BRI, also allowing zero tariffs on exports to China. Beijing surely wants Dhaka to improve its ties with Pakistan for the furtherance of its own geo-strategic interests.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020