On July 23, 2018, Bhutan received a package of medicines in Dhaka from the Government of Bangladesh, symbolising the handing-over of 258 essential medicines to Bhutan, which will be delivered to the Ministry of Health this year in three phases at Burimari Land Port in Bangladesh.
While the news of this event grabbed headlines and was received by Bhutan with immense gratitude, the support provided by Bangladesh in the form of medicines stands as a testament of our time-tested bond of close friendship and the degree of importance the two countries attach to one another. Against this backdrop, this article attempts to highlight key political narratives, which define the bilateral landscape, progress achieved by the two countries over the years and the opportunities Bangladesh offers to Bhutan and vice-versa.
Bhutan’s relations with Bangladesh date back to the latter’s emergence as an independent country in 1971 where Bhutan – under the sagacious leadership of His Majesty the Third King – became the first country to recognise independent Bangladesh on December 6 the same year. The Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told me that she heard of Bhutan’s support on the radio. Former freedom fighters and many Bangladeshis recall with deep appreciation Bhutan’s unwavering support. As a gesture of gratitude and goodwill, in 2012 His Majesty the Third Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was posthumously awarded the “Bangladesh Liberation War Honor”by Bangladesh.
The true depth of relations between countries can be gauged by the tradition of High-Level visits by its leaders. His Majesty Fourth Druk Gyalpo paid State Visits to Bangladesh in 1974 and 1984. His Majesty The King visited Dhaka in 2011 and 2013, which was followed, by Prime Minister Dasho Tshering Tobgay’s official visit in 2014. Most recently Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s State visit to Thimphu in April 2017 during the International Conference on Autism raised Bhutan-Bangladesh partnership to new heights with the signing of eight MoUs and Agreements covering trade, finance, connectivity, agriculture and standards.
The most visible aspect of the two countries’ relationship has been headway advanced towards collective prosperity through trade expansion. Bhutan and Bangladesh entered into a Trade Agreement in 1980 under which Bangladesh granted duty-free access to 18 products from Bhutan. Total trade between the two countries has been on the rise over the decade and, with a value of more than US $ 50 million, Bhutan’s exports to Bangladesh have been recorded the highest in 2017 – making Bangladesh the only country with whom Bhutan enjoys a massive trade surplus.
Notwithstanding, bilateral trade liberalisation has presented as a win-win even from the vantage point of Bangladesh, with Bangladesh’s exports to Bhutan rising by the year. As per the country-wise import ranking of 2017, Bangladesh’s positioning has massively improved relative to a year ago. With a demographic base of 160 million souls coupled with its average GDP growth rate of over 6 percent in the past decade, the opportunity Bangladesh offers in the economic front is all the more palpable, so much so that it is foreseen as an upcoming Asian Tiger. Such massive growth is, in part, attributed to the trickle-down effect generated by a burgeoning group of domestic companies such as SQUARE, PRAN-RFL GroupandACI Group.There is also immense potential to import ready-made garments and pharmaceuticals from Bangladesh down the line.
Human resource development is another facet which shapes the two countries’ bilateral partnership and the level of impact it has on the socio-economic development of the country cannot be understated. Bangladesh has presented itself as one of the favorite destinations for higher studies for Bhutanese students, especially for those pursuing courses in health and medical sciences. Today there are around 133 students studying in various universities across the country.
People-to-people contacts have also strengthened between the two countries, with the number of visitors in different capacities to both the destinations surging by the year. Bhutan’s tourism and hospitality sector has particularly benefited from the exponential rise in tourists from Bangladesh. As per visitor arrival statistics, 10,536 tourists from Bangladesh visited the country in 2017 alone – a 30.89 percent increase from 2016, making it the 2nd most source market after India.
Regionally, Bangladesh engage and cooperate through a plethora of forums and mechanisms – such as BIMSTEC, Colombo Plan, SAARC and UNESCAP – where significant progress has been achieved and several initiatives and projects in key areas of cooperation are in the pipeline.
Neighbours by geography, the foundations of the two countries’ age-old friendship have been laid down by the visionary leaders of the two countries on the common aspirations for peace, mutual respect, collective prosperity and deeper integration. The two countries have walked a similar path of socio-economic progress and are on track towards LDC graduation within the next decade. As much as the two countries take pride in their collective history of partnership and headway advanced in multi-faceted fronts, the strong political leadership they inherit and the complementarities, opportunities and untapped potential the two countries offer make the future equally appealing and their bilateral ties all the more promising.
Sonam Tobden Rabgye
Ambassador of Bhutan to Bangladesh