Back to the future

London feels like a second home for Nazmul Quaunine, the newly-arrived High Commissioner for Bangladesh who served as Deputy High Commissioner in the UK back in 2005-6.

It’s hardly surprising when Britain is home to a thriving 600,000-strong British-Bangladeshi diaspora – the largest settled community outside Bangladesh, many of whom are concentrated in the capital. Most of the famous curry houses in Brick Lane are owned by Londonis (the affectionate name given to British Bangladeshis), smiles the High Commissioner. From television star and British Bake-Off winner Nadiya Hussain, to parliamentarians in both Houses and mayors up and down the land, the British Bangladeshi community is “integral” to British society, he adds. “They have assimilated in the UK culture and history.”

Now the Londinis have started seeking out business opportunities in their motherland. “This helps with trade and investment,” says the High Commissioner, adding that Britain’s Trade Envoy who recently visited Bangladesh, Rushanara Ali MP, is a British-Bangladeshi. Britain is a major trading partner, with Bangladesh enjoying a trade surplus of over $4bn.

“Walk down Oxford Street and pick up anything in the fashion stores, the label will most probably say ‘Made in Bangladesh’. That’s good for British consumers and the tourists,” says Quaunine. “So we are adding to the British quality of life – whatever you wear, whatever you eat, we supply it. Britain gains, we gain, it’s a win-win situation.”

Bengal Tiger
With growth rates overtaking China, the economy has earned the status of ‘Bengal Tiger’ by economists. “We are all set to become a middle income country by 2021 – that was the vision of [Prime Minister] Sheikh Hasina in 2009 when she came to power,” confirms the High Commissioner.

While Bangladesh is courting big investors from China and Russia, historically Britain remains the largest investor and there are plenty of new opportunities, says the High Commissioner, from big infrastructure projects, to SMEs and services such as finance and education. Britain used to be the top choice for Bangladeshi students, but now they are opting to study elsewhere due to high costs and “immigration bottlenecks”.

But with a weaker pound and an anticipated overhaul of the immigration system post-Brexit, perhaps things could change, he muses. “We would be in favour of a non-discriminatory immigration system where everybody, EU and non-EU, comes through the same channels.” A number of those in the Bangladeshi community voted for Brexit, he points out, because of the impact free movement has had on Bangladeshi migration and jobs in the UK.

While Brexit may offer some benefits, the High Commissioner is also alert to potential threats. “At present Bangladesh enjoys duty free, quota free status inside the UK via the EU’s ‘Anything But Arms’ policy for the least developed countries (LDCs). So we want a continuation of this policy,” says Quaunine, who served as Director General of the Europe and EU wing and hopes Bangladesh may be able to secure an improved trade deal after Britain leaves the EU.

When it comes to development, Bangladesh has made impressive gains, especially in areas such as health, education and female empowerment. “The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has said that some of our indicators are even better than his native India!” grins the High Commissioner. Britain has always been Bangladesh’s key development partner, both bilaterally and through the EU. “Britain is one of the few countries fulfilling its commitment of spending 0.7% of its GDP on Official Development Assistance and it is our expectation that it will not renege from this commitment after it leaves the EU.”

Another area of close cooperation between Britain and Bangladesh is security and counter-terrorism, an issue that has raised concerns due to an escalation in extremism and IS and Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist attacks in the country. “Our Prime Minister has zero tolerance towards terrorism,” stresses Quaunine, who adds that the security situation is improving. Nevertheless the Prime Minister’s tough line has been criticised by opposition groups within Bangladesh, who claim her campaign against extremism and her determination to bring to justice those who committed crimes against humanity during Bangladesh’s war of independence are politically motivated.

In response, the High Commissioner offers some historical context, explaining that following the assassination of the Prime Minister’s father and Bangladesh’s Founding Father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, those who had committed crimes during the war were not pursued and Islamic extremism began to infiltrate politics.

 Spirit of independence
“So our Prime Minister’s aim is to bring back that original spirit of our independence for an open, liberal, tolerant society, with a culture of justice and rule of law, which was the dream of our Founding Father.”

Britain was a strong supporter of Bangladesh’s independence and those ideals. “That was why the UK was the first place he visited after the war, immediately after his release from jail in Pakistan,” says the High Commissioner.

It’s clear that by sending one of her finest envoys – a former Foreign Ministry spokesman who has served as Ambassador to Indonesia and the UAE, and in India, Geneva and Washington – the Prime Minister wants Britain to continue to work with Bangladesh to make her father’s independence dream a reality.

Embassy Editor Elizabeth Stewart interviewed the High Commissioner for Bangladesh on 10 January