Linking two nations with remarkable similarities
Words MAXMILIAN WECHSLER
HER Excellency Saida Muna Tasneem, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh to the Kingdom of Thailand, says a big part of her mission here is to revive ancient linkages and cultural fraternity between the two nations.
In a recent interview with The BigChilli at the embassy on Ekkamai Road Soi 30, she pointed out that while Bangladesh is proud to be a majority Muslim country, the territory it occupies was part of the cradle of an ancient Buddhist civilization, and Sanskrit and Pali form the basis for both national languages. “This is what I am focusing on; I am trying to stimulate greater cultural and economic connectivity,” said Ambassador Tasneem.
“We are proud to be a Muslim majority country, but we are first a people’s republic where democratic practices, secularism, tolerance and progressive values and aspirations are all very important. The younger generation especially wants to see a progressive Bangladesh take its place in the international community. About 65 percent of young Bangladeshis speak English, and like everywhere else, they are connected to the world through the internet,” Ms Tasneem said.
“I am very pleased that nearly seven hundred people came to Bangladesh’s 45th anniversary Independence and National Day reception held in Bangkok on March 28. There were many distinguished Thais and foreigners in attendance.”
Born to serve
Ms Tasneem was born into a family with a tradition of civil servants in Dhaka when Bangladesh was still East Pakistan. “My grandad was a senior civil servant of erstwhile East Pakistan and my father was Permanent Secretary of the Government of Bangladesh. Growing up in a humble civil service background, I spent some years outside what is now Bangladesh.
“In 1971, Bangladesh declared independence under Bangabondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whom we are proud to call the ‘Father of the Nation.’ Immediately my father who was serving in the central government in West Pakistan, declared his allegiance to an independent Bangladesh and was punished for it but managed to escape persecution to return to independent Bangladesh Government.
“Later, in 1975 we moved to Lebanon, where my father completed his Masters and started his PhD degree at the American University of Beirut. I enjoyed attending a British Primary school on the university campus. We returned to Dhaka in 1979, when Beirut city was no longer safe for foreigners.
“I graduated high school in Dhaka from a wonderful missionary college called Holy Cross School and College. Our teachers were mostly American Christian missionaries. It was very progressive as far as its curricula are concerned, but discipline was very strict and that molded my character to a great extent. Later, I graduated in Chemical Engineering from the prestigious Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology in Dhaka.
“At that time I didn’t have any intention of becoming a civil servant, but pursued a career as an industrial planning engineer at the Bangladesh Chemical Industry Corporation in 1990. It was my father who inspired me to take the civil service exam and also guided me to join the Foreign Service given my merit position. So that’s what I did in 1993.” Since then it has been a great experience representing my country in foreign countries, including in England (London) and in the US (New York).
Described as a workaholic by a colleague in the Bangkok diplomatic corps, Ambassador Tasneem is also ambassador to Cambodia and Bangladesh’s Permanent Representative to the UN ESCAP. Before taking up her current post on December 2, 2014 she held high-level positions representing her country in United Nations forums in Europe and New York. When the opportunity arose to head her country’s diplomatic mission to Thailand she gladly seized the opportunity giving up on European choices.
“I had visited Thailand often over the years and very much wanted to come here as ambassador. I had the option of serving in Europe again, but I preferred to be close to home, and in a tropical country. I didn’t want to go back to a cold climate. Moreover, I wanted a multilateral station that I found in ESCAP. It was an excellent choice. I am very happy here.
“It has now been 18 months since I took up my post, and I can say that to visit here and to work here are totally different. When I came I didn’t have any idea about certain things, especially the cultural similarities between our two countries. I learned that the Thai and Bengali languages are both based on Sanskrit and Pali. Actually Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirinthorn has always taken keen interest in Sanskrit. She studied the language at Chulalongkorn University and she still studies.
“It is amazing how around 70 percent of Thai words originated from Sanskrit, which is the vernacular of Bengali language. For example, the name of the airport, ‘Suvarnabhumi,’ is 200 percent Bengali. ‘Suvarna’ means ‘gold’ or ‘golden’ and ‘bhumi’ means ‘land’ so together it is the ‘golden land’. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy for me to pick up Thai, however, as Thai pronunciation of the same Sanskrit word is colloquially intonated.
“I also realized that April 13/14, which marks the New Year in Thailand, is the same for Bengali New Year. There are similarities in national dress as well. Our women traditionally wear the sari, which I am wearing now. Thai women may have worn it in ancient times but which is now a modified and shorter version of a sari. But maybe the biggest cultural tie we have is the Buddhist religion.
“Ancient Bangladesh was the first Buddhist nation state in 3rd century BC and Bengali Buddhists may have migrated towards Thailand bringing along all these common cultures. The embassy organized a prayer chanting by about 500 Buddhist Bhikkus from Bangladesh who are studying in Thailand, on 9 December 2015 for His Majesty King Bhumibol’s health on the occasion of his 88th birthday. They did so under the leadership of chief monks from both our countries.
“This program was widely publicized on Thai national TV reminding the two nations of our common Buddhist heritage. I am working with Mahachula and Mahmankut universities to increase more academic exchanges with Buddhist studies in Bangladesh and seats for Bangladesh Buddhist Bhikkus to enhance Buddhist connectivity,” Ms Tasneem said.
he also pointed out that the similarities between Thailand and Bangladesh can largely be explained by shared Asian values. “Thais are very courteous. They honour their parents and have strong family values. This certainly applies to the people of Bangladesh also. Thailand has always been a proud nation and so is Bangladesh. We didn’t want to be dominated, and that’s why we waged a war for independence.”
Origin of Bangladesh
“When the British left India in 1947 the subcontinent was divided into India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, of which Bangladesh became a part because of its Muslim majority,” said Ms Tasneem. “But Bangladesh is far away both geographically and culturally from Pakistan; we the Bengalis have always been part of the Indian civilization and are ethnically identical to the Indian state of West Bengal, with its capital in Kolkata. We speak the same language.
“Actually we have more in common with Thailand, at least culturally, than with Pakistan in terms of language, new year and food. The majority in both countries were Muslims but Bangladesh had more non-Muslims. What’s more, after becoming a part of Pakistan we were culturally, economically and socially oppressed. We felt like second-class citizens.
“Under the charismatic leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh declared independence on 26 March 1971, and for nine months the common people of Bangladesh fought a war of liberation against the occupation forces of Pakistan until we liberated our nation on 16 December 1971.
“When Bangladesh was born, we were deeply motivated by Bengali nationalism and secular values, both being repressed during 1947-1971. We didn’t want to be an Islamic republic; we wanted to be a secular people’s republic. We didn’t want a military autocracy; we wanted democracy. The four pillars of our constitution are: Democracy, secularism, nationalism and social equality. It’s unfortunate for our nation that in 1975 Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was brutally assassinated and the country underwent challenging times, including military rules until democracy was restored in the 1990s. ”
“Even though the annual per capita income of our nation of 160 million people today is around US$1,300, we are the 44th largest economy of the world in terms of GDP. With a phenomenal sustained 6.5% GDP growth over the last decade (which in this year is projected at 7.1), Bangladesh is making transformative progress in growth and development. In 2015 the World Bank declared Bangladesh a lower middle income country. The country is led by visionary Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, bracketed in Forbes top 12 influential women in 2015, and every citizen is reaping the benefit of her ‘Vision 2021’ to transform Bangladesh into a middle income country on our 50th anniversary. It can be challenging to achieve a higher status of development when you have a population of 160 million.
“But Bangladeshi people are extremely hard-working. Almost 10 million Bangladeshis are working abroad with excellent reputations, mostly in the Arabian Gulf countries and in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Japan and South Korea. They are mostly working in the industrial, agricultural, construction and service sectors.
“Women have long taken leadership roles in Bangladesh. I am the first female ambassador to Thailand, but for the past 26 years our prime ministers have been women. We are a secular nation and we respect all religions. At different times of the year we celebrate magnificent Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian festivals. In the words of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina: ‘Religion belongs to each individual; but their festivities are for all.’
“One of the greatest strengths of our nation is freedom of speech and opinion, pluralism and diversity. Our prime minister is a strong believer in the freedom of media and she has privatized and given licenses to more than 30 TV channels. We have about 400 newspapers, many in English.”
She embassy employs more than 20 staff,” said Ms Tasneem, “and eight or nine are locals. My secretary has been with the embassy for 17 years. I am hopeful we will have a new permanent embassy building in the future. The location on Ekkamai is fine. Because of high congestions I have no appetite to move over to the area around Wireless Road and lower Sukhumvit where most embassies are located, but we do need a bigger embassy. The government is considering buying a new building and I have recommended two locations.
“The job of an ambassador is very challenging, and on top of this I am a woman, and a mother. I have three sons raised in multicultural environments. The oldest is in Bangladesh doing business with his dad and the second is studying in the US. My youngest son is 14 years old and lives with me. He goes to Bangkok Patana School. He started his education when I was posted in London and he not only prefers the British system, but believes he is a Brit!
“My daily routine is to wake up very early in the morning. I am Muslim, so my day begins with early morning prayers, and then I prepare my son for school and love seeing him off to school. Afterwards I check my emails, read the news, and most days spend some time in the garden and then get ready for work. I would go to my office at the embassy, but normally there are so many engagements to attend in Bangkok that I find it difficult to finish paperwork during working hours and work late to catchup to a diplomatic reception in the evening.
“The Thai government is very vibrant and proactive and every ministry organizes events designed to engage foreign diplomats. We get invited to a lot of opening ceremonies and I have appointments at many ministries to discuss commerce, trade, culture, tourism and so forth. I also get many invitations from other diplomatic missions, private dinners, ambassadors and also local community events. There’s a very large diplomatic community in Bangkok and I have made many good friends. It is really wonderful. We are very close and we meet often.
“I am very grateful that so many ambassadors and diplomats came to our National Day reception. Many distinguished Thai people also came to the reception. In my first year here I was mainly occupied with getting to know colleagues in the diplomatic community, but in my second year my focus is much more on the Thai locals. I am reaching out to promote Bangladesh to the Thai people, the elite as well as common people, academics and media.”
“The relationship between our two countries is deep-rooted and very warm. We support Thailand and Thailand supports us in many international forums where such support matters. It is our policy not to interfere in the internal affairs of another country. What is happening in Thailand is an internal matter and Thais have to sort it out. As a friendly country from the region, Bangladesh wants to see Thailand prosper sustainably as His Majesty has always aspired.
“We have had diplomatic relations with Thailand for 44 years. Thailand was one of the first countries from the ASEAN to recognize Bangladesh after we won independence and the relationship has grown from strength to strength over the years. Thailand opened its embassy in Bangladesh in 1974 and we opened our embassy in Bangkok a year later.
“I am here to represent the people of Bangladesh and I do everything I can to reflect the best of Bangladesh to the Thais and enhance and deepen relations with the Kingdom of Thailand. We always have the best wishes for His Majesty and the people of Thailand. Last year was the 40th anniversary of our embassy in Thailand and I organized a prayer chanting for His Majesty the King by Bangladesh Buddhist Bhikkhus in Thailand.
“His Majesty visited Dhaka with Her Majesty Queen Sirikit in1962. His Royal Highness Prince Maha Chakri Vajiralongkorn visited Bangladesh in 1992 and in 2002. Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirinthorn went to Bangladesh in 2010 and 2011. The Thai royal family, which is highly regarded in Bangladesh has really been instrumental in promoting Bangladesh-Thai relations, which is something many people here don’t know.
“There has always been friendship and mutual cultural appreciation between the peoples of Thailand and Bangladesh. This is manifest in the 115,000 visas issued at the Thai embassy in Dhaka last year. You can imagine how hard they are working during the peak seasons that include any long holiday in Bangladesh. This is the most popular tourist destination for Bangladeshis after India. Many come for the excellent medical services and others for the beautiful beaches and spa resorts. Some come just to shop or for meetings and conventions.
“Unfortunately, only about 4,000 Thais visited Bangladesh in 2015, which is not too many. Most go to work at growing five-star hotels, resorts and spas in Bangladesh, while others go in connection with business investments by Thai companies. One of my major tasks is to encourage more Thais to come to Bangladesh, for example to see our ancient Buddhist shrines and temples, especially the ancient one from our Buddhist era.
“There is already a direct air link between Bangkok and Dhaka, and I am also trying to get flights to and from Cox’s Bazar in southeast of Bangladesh bordering Myanmar and Chittagong. This is the area where most Buddhists live and there are many temples. There are also many ancient Buddhist temples in Chittagong and the Hill Tracts.”
Trade and culture
Ms Tasneem organized the first Bangladesh Trade and Investment Expo, held at Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre from May 30 until June 1. Fifty Bangladeshi companies participated and the commerce ministers of Bangladesh and Thailand jointly inaugurated. It was an opportunity to show Thailand that Bangladesh is making big strides in manufacturing and exports. “We now manufacture world-class ready-made garments, pharmaceuticals, leather products, glassware, bone china and ceramic ware and other high-value products.
“However, there exists a huge trade imbalance between our countries in favour of Thailand. Our exports to Thailand make up only about 10 percent of the approximately US$1 billion in bilateral trade. We import from Thailand mostly consumer goods like food items, clothes, cosmetics, toiletries, shoes and machinery. We have a thriving ship-building industry and build ships for Germany, Denmark and other countries. Some of the parts used to build our ships are imported from Thailand while Bangladesh also imports fishing trawlers from Thailand.
“Our main exports to Thailand have traditionally been jute and jute bags, which Thailand uses for rice storage. But since 2014 there has been a change in policy and there is also duty imposed on the bags. I am in discussions with the Thai Ministry of Commerce to have it removed. I am also trying to promote our ready-made garments and pharmaceuticals in Thai markets.
“Bangladesh exports medicines to 120 countries; they are US FDA approved, very high quality and affordably priced. I am trying to convince the Government Pharmaceutical Organization to purchase medicines from us. As for ready-made garments, Bangladesh produces more for the lower-end of the market, while Thailand produces for the higher-end. Bangladesh is the second biggest exporter of ready-made garments in the world after China.
“I am also working to implement a direct shipping connection between Chittagong port in Bangladesh and Ranong port. This should definitely enhance bilateral trade and investment. Why should trade between our two countries have to go through Singapore or Sri Lanka?”
The embassy organized a joint exposition of Thai and Bangladeshi artists at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre in March. Ms Tasneem also brought in a 24-member cultural delegation from Bangladesh to sing and dance.
“I am proud and conscious of my Bengali roots. I always wear a sari to official functions and whenever I go out. I don’t do it to be noticed, but because I love my national dress,” said the ambassador. “Cultural identity is extremely important to me and to all Bangladeshis. I do wear western clothes, but only around the house and while out shopping.”
Ms Tasneem can speak French, Arabic and English and is currently trying to learn Thai. She has a youthful look and in fact people sometimes comment that she seems young to be an ambassador. “I am not that young; I have been in the foreign service for 23 years,” she said with a laugh. Her husband is a businessman living in Dhaka who travels to Thailand once a month. She has three sons and her youngest lives with her.
“I like running for fitness, but now I can’t really do it as often as I would like. Reading is main my pastime, and I love historical books and biographies as they inspire me. I am addicted to them. I am a history buff. Whenever I visit any place, I check out the areas where battles took place. If you want to understand Thai politics and the Thai people, you must know their history, as historical influences define nations.
“I read books on Khmer history too, as Cambodia is also under my jurisdiction. I also like to read books about health and well-being. I love following European football and latest music and movie releases with my son.
“I am a food buff too. One of my hobbies is to eat out every weekend to try out new restaurants, and I particularly like French, Japanese and Thai food. I am always looking for creative restaurants that locals appreciate, and I always read The BigChilli for recommendations. I have been to almost all the top French restaurants in Bangkok and I have been to about 25 Japanese restaurants.
“To find good, authentic Thai restaurants I always talk to my Thai friends. I don’t like to entertain guests at my residence. I prefer mainly Thai five-star hotel chains, because you get really great service and Thai hospitality. Dusit Thani and Anantara are among my favourites.”
H.E. Saida Muna Tasneem in focus
• Before taking up her post as Ambassador to Thailand on December 2, 2014, Ms Tasneem was Head/Director General of the United Nations Wing of the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She also served as Director General of the External Publicity Wing of the Ministry.
• Prior to 2009, Ms Tasneem served as Minister (Political and Press) at the Bangladesh High Commission in London and also as Deputy Head of Mission and Counselor for the Bangladesh Permanent Mission to the UN in New York.
• Ms Tasneem joined the Bangladesh Foreign Service in 1993. Previously she worked as an Industrial Planning Engineer at the Bangladesh Chemical Industries Corporation Head Office in Dhaka.
• Master of Science Degree in Public Policy and Planning from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
• Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering from the Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology, Dhaka.