IT is always enjoyable to chat with the Bangladesh Ambassador to Thailand, Kazi Imtiaz Hossain, at diplomatic receptions, but unfortunately such opportunities are invariably fleeting because so many diplomats and other dignitaries are standing in the queue to talk with the lively ambassador. So it was great to have an uninterrupted conversation with His Excellency shortly before the 20th anniversary in October of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and the Kingdom of Thailand. The interview was held at the Bangladesh Embassy located in a nice house at Ekamai Soi 30, Sukhumvit 63.
During the short wait for Mr. Hossain at the embassy reception area, I looked through some English-language Bangladeshi daily newspapers and was surprised by the variety of news reports (especially local news) and the unbiased content, something expats often miss in Thailand.
Mentioning this to the ambassador after we had sat down in his office, he replied: “We have some very good English dailies and weeklies. The media in Bangladesh, both electronic and print, enjoys complete freedom which has allowed the sector to flourish becoming eyes and ears of the society.”
Speaking about his homeland, the ambassador said: “Bangladesh is a country of rich cultural heritage and a model for social and communal harmony where modernity has blended excellently with traditional values and customs. Demographically, with a population of over 145 million, Bangladesh is one of the populous countries in the world. Eighty-eight per cent of its population is Muslim while Hindus constitute around 11 per cent and Buddhist and Christians make up the rest of the population. Bangladesh has an area about one-third of Thailand and with two and half times more people living there makes it one of the world’s most densely populated countries.
“This year we will be celebrating 40 years of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and Thailand. With the establishment of diplomatic relations on 5 October 1972, the first Bangladesh embassy was set up in Bangkok in April 1975. Thailand opened its embassy in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh in 1974
“Our countries enjoy excellent and very friendly relations and are cooperating and collaborating in various areas of mutual interest, bilaterally and regionally, as well as in the multilateral arena. This includes at the United Nations (UN) and specialized bodies such as the World Trade Organization, ASEAN Regional Forum, BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and Asia Cooperation Dialogue.”
The Ambassador’s background
Mr. Hossain was born in 1962 in Khulna, an important industrial town in the southern region of Bangladesh. The town is only about 20 miles from Sundarbaans, the largest mangrove forest in the world. Growing up near the forest region, he always felt very close to nature and says he still does.
After completing schooling in his home town, he went to Dhaka University for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He then joined the Bangladesh Foreign Service in 1989 and went to the International Institute for Public Administration in Paris to study International Relations and Diplomacy.
“While I was in France I learned a little French,” said Mr. Hossain. “It was a rewarding experience for me as it gave me an opportunity to learn a beautiful and sweet language not commonly spoken in Bangladesh, where English is the most widely spoken and understood language. My sojourn in France has indeed given me an insight into the French society, its values and adoration for culture and tradition.”
Since joining the Bangladeshi Foreign Service in 1989 he has served in different capacities in New York, Kolkata, Geneva, Beijing and now in Bangkok.
“Although I had transited through Bangkok many times before, the first time I came to stay in this beautiful city and country was in April 2010 when I arrived to take up my responsibility as ambassador. This is also my first assignment as ambassador.”
Mr. Hossain presented his credentials to HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn on 23 November 2010.
“My principal responsibility is to promote friendship and deepen bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Thailand in all spheres – economic, social, cultural, and so on. My objective and primary focus has been to strengthen these relations for the wellbeing of our two peoples and countries. My government has assigned me to seek through all means and avail opportunities that I can to further these objectives.” Since January 2011 Mr. Hossain has also served as the Bangladeshi ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia. He is also the Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). “The unique mix of bilateral and multilateral responsibilities of this assignment in Bangkok makes my job challenging, exciting and enjoyable.” he said.
Before taking up his assignment in Thailand he served as Director General in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and BIMSTEC Wing. SAARC is a regional organization comprising eight countries of South Asia – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, while BIMSTEC has seven members, namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The ambassador believes that BIMSTEC provides a unique platform for regional cooperation among countries from the two economically thriving regions of ASEAN and SAARC. Geographically located in the middle of the two regions, Bangladesh occupies a strategic position and has played a constructive role in furthering the objectives of this regional grouping, he added.
The ambassador said that visits between Bangladesh and Thailand at high levels are many and frequent. HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn has graciously visited Bangladesh twice, in February 2010 and in December 2011. Her landmark visits to Bangladesh have added new momentum and generated greater enthusiasm to the existing close relations between the two countries. He felt particularly happy when Her Royal Highness travelled to the Sundarbans during her second visit to Bangladesh, the ambassador fondly recalled .
“Ministerial level visits include the Thai commerce minister’s visits to Dhaka in May this year and last year. Ministers of foreign affairs of both counties have made official visits, in 2009 and 2010, and there have also been visits to Thailand by the Bangladeshi ministers of agriculture, education, land, health, and disaster management in the last two years.
As for bilateral trade, the ambassador said major export items from Bangladesh to Thailand include chemicals, yarn, fish maws, woven garments and frozen and dried fish. “Bilateral trade is increasing and crossed US$ 1 billion mark last year. During the past three years, it has increased between 30 to 35 per cent over the previous period. The trend is a very healthy one.”
Bangladesh is seeking reintroduction of tariff concession accorded to some of its exports to Thailand for a short period in 2007 but later discontinued. This concession is needed for greater access to Thai market, he felt.
Mr. Hossain said his government believes there is big potential to add more export items to the existing list. “One is pharmaceutical products. We are producing about 97 per cent of our pharmaceutical needs locally worth close to US$1 billion. What’s more, we are exporting pharmaceutical products to over 73 countries globally. Of the 20 big pharmaceutical companies in Bangladesh – only six are multinational and the rest are local. In the last 30 years, the growth of the pharmaceutical industry has been remarkable and it can now compete globally.”
“Thai investment in Bangladesh is rather modest compared to investments from other countries in the region such as from the Republic of Korea, Japan and China. “As many as 21 industrial enterprises with 100 per cent Thai investment or in joint ventures with local entrepreneurs are currently operating in Bangladesh. The cumulative investments in these projects is over US$100 million in the areas of poultry and poultry feed, power generation, food processing to name a few.
“Recently, Ital-Thai Company was awarded a concession for construction of a 26-kilometer expressway under a public-private partnership at a cost of over $1.2 billion to ease the traffic congestion in Dhaka,” said the ambassador, adding that Bangladesh has high potential to become a major destination for Thai investors, especially in the energy and power, textile, agro-processing, leather and tourism sectors.
“Thai investors can take advantage of the low infrastructure costs, affordable labor and natural gas of Bangladesh. Some of the potential sectors for investment are power generation, physical infrastructure, tourism and agro-processing. Oil exploration in the Bay of Bengal offers a huge potential for Thai investment as well.
The ambassador said Bangladesh has “a huge reservoir” of affordable, hardworking and easily trainable labour. This coupled with excellent incentives for investment such as tax holidays, repatriation of capital and dividends and duty concessions offer a tremendous advantage for relocating industrial plants in Bangladesh, especially in the export-oriented industries of Bangladesh.
He added that the duty concession extended to Bangladeshi products by the European Union could be an incentive for investment in Bangladesh’s export sector, and with its large population the local consumer market is also significant.
As for tourism, Thailand is an attractive destination for Bangladeshi people, said the ambassador, and Bangkok is popular with Bangladeshis seeking medical treatment in Thai hospitals. On the other hand, far fewer Thais travel to Bangladesh.
Mr. Hossain said confidently: “I must say that we have some fantastic tourist locations. For tourism, one can approach Bangladesh from two perspectives. To go and discover the soul of the country, one has to visit the country during the period of religious holidays and cultural festivals. Our New Year which falls on April 14 is the time to go and discover the richness of Bangladeshi culture when the entire country welcomes the New Year through traditional dances, musical performances and mask processions. The New Year celebrations bring out the vibrancy of Bangla culture. It is all very colourful.
“Another approach for tourists could be the conventional sightseeing of natural beauties and visiting historical places. For example, Cox’s Bazaar, the longest unbroken beach in the world, offers the perfect place to relax and unwind. The scenic beauty of the hill districts of Chittagong Hill Tracts, home to distinct tribal communities of Bangladesh, offers captivating experiences for tourists. The fascinating Buddhist monasteries and archeological sites of Mainamaiti in Comilla and Mahastangarh in Bogra would no doubt enthrall tourists.”
Mr. Hossain said Bangladesh has a tourist-friendly visa regime and tourist visas can be obtained with ease. “We are very flexible in this respect,” he added. Dhaka being only two hours’ flying distance from Bangkok and with three daily flights between the two capitals, there is a wide range of traveling options for tourists.”
An estimated 800 to1000 Bangladeshis live in Thailand, mostly working in UN agencies, international organizations and multi-national companies. ‘‘A significant number of Thai nationals working in Bangladesh are in the construction and manufacturing sectors and in the hospitality industry,” added the ambassador.
The Ambassador, off duty and on
Mr. Hossain said he believes that religion is a very personal matter, adding that he tries to be a good Muslim. As for his favourite pastimes, he likes to play golf, read and listen to music. His wife, Rabab Fatima, is also a career diplomat and a member of the Bangladesh Foreign Service. Currently she is serving as the Regional Coordinator and Advisor for South Asia at the Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific of the International Organization for Migration. They have a 17-year-old daughter who is going to university this year.
“My working day starts before I come to the office. The first thing I do is go through the newspapers over three to four cups of tea, and that means I have to get up fairly early. After arriving at the office, I review my tasks for the day and guide my colleagues on the specific tasks assigned to them. Ours is a mid-size mission in terms of Bangladeshi missions abroad, with six diplomats, and 20 supporting officials, including 10 Thai staff.
“If I am in town, as a matter of principle I will attend every national day reception. I believe that these are very special occasions for every country. Joining them in their celebrations is an act of friendship from my country.”
Mr. Hossain said he sometimes travels outside Bangkok, although not that frequently, and mostly on work related trips. “My travels have taken me to some very interesting places in Thailand. So far I have visited Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Chonburi, Krabi, Nakorn Nayok, Phuket, Saraburi and Udon Thani. I like everything about Thailand and intend to explore more of this country.”
When Mr. Hossain arrived here in 2010 he was very impressed by the free flow of traffic. “We used to compare it with traffic in Dhaka which is also very crowded. Now the traffic in Bangkok has become a bit busier, and let me say a little unpredictable, but in any large city you will have traffic problems,” said the ambassador.
He describes Thai food as “absolutely fabulous” and thinks the most important aspect of Thai food is that it is very healthy. There’s little use of oil and a lot of vegetables. The presentation is also very unique and beautiful. It is soothing to stomach and pleasing to your eye.
“I have had so many memorable experiences in Thailand. What really impresses me is the determination of the people and willingness and sincerity to work. I remember going to one village in the south in Krabi province and seeing people working in the field. It was 3pm and the sun was scorching hot, but even then the people were smiling when we passed by them. Sincerity at work and the pleasant demeanor of the people is most remarkable.
Mr. Hossain said he has had no regrets or disappointments in his time here. “In fact, these come with one’s own lack of effort. At times there is a sense of unfulfiment because I have not yet achieved all I hope to, but not disappointment.
“To be a representative of your country is the highest honour one can have. It is a privilege and a huge responsibility which I intend to carry out whole heartedly. I want to extend my best wishes to the Thai people for their continuing prosperity. My stay in the Kingdom is completely dpunished with imprisonment noedicated to building and forging stronger relationships between our countries and our peoples, because people are what matter most.”
1989: Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
1990-1992 : Assistant Secretary in the South Asia Division of the Ministry of Foreign Af fairs, Dhaka
1992-93: Study at International Institute of Public Administration, Paris, France
1993-1994: Assistant Secretary, South Asia Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dhaka
1994-98: Vice Consul/Consul at the Consulate General of Bangladesh in New York, United States
1998-2000: First Secretary/Counsellor at the Deputy High Commission of Bangladesh in Kolkata, India
2000-2002: Director (South Asia), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dhaka
2002-2005: Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh to the UN Offices in Geneva, Switzerland
2005: Counsellor/Minister at Bangladesh Embassy, Beijing
2005-2007: Consul General, Consulate General of Bangladesh, New York
2007-2010: Director General (SAARC & BIMSTEC), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dhaka
2010 to date: Ambassador of Bangladesh to the Kingdom of Thailand, concurrently accredited to the Kingdom of Cambodia, Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to UNESCAP