Bangladesh is a nation that has traversed sorrow and joy as it moves towards a reconciliation with its past and seeks a brighter future.
The war leading to Bangladesh’s liberty is vivid in the minds of the nation’s older generation. Though Mr Mohammad Sarwar Mahmood was still a toddler when the war ended in 1971, he shares the sorrows and joy of his countrymen. The war resulted in the premature death of 3 million people. Decades later, attempts at reconciliation with the past continue.
Mr Mohammad Sarwar Mahmood Consul General Bangladesh to Hong Kong, Interview
Last December, Abdul Quader Mollah, the “Butcher of Mirpur”, was in the dock. He was the first war criminal to receive capital punishment for atrocities performed during the liberation war. Though some denounced the trial as unfair, a poll suggested that 86% of people supported the verdict.
The healing process continues, and Mr Mahmood believes his people have the fortitude to move forward, and he is playing his part in the service of the nation.
In the late 90s, a young Mr Mahmood became a civil servant and secured his first job in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He later on trained in the Foreign Service and Academy of Bangladesh on diplomacy and foreign policy. His path led to the highest level of diplomacy – the United Nations in New York.
His mandate: lobby global representatives to add Bangla (Bengali) as the UN’s seventh official language.
Serving in the UN
Before taking the post of Consul General in Hong Kong, Mr Mahmood served the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh to the UN in New York as Counsellor from 2010 to 2013. Working at the UN was a “completely different work environment” concerned with multilateral diplomacy. His duties included improving the relationship with different nations and strengthening Bangladeshi ties with the UN.
Mr Mahmood participated in four major UN committees which dealt with disarmament, cultural and social issues, Middle East issues and international law issues. In addition to representing Bangladesh’s interests in the hallways of international power, he had an unusual mandate from his government: to lobby global representatives to support a proposal to add Bangla (Bengali) as the UN’s seventh official language. The Prime Minister addressed the United Nations in 2009 to make just that request. Mr Mahmood says there are around 250m people in the world speaking Bangla but getting his proposal approved was a monumental challenge.
He recalls the lobbying experience as “tricky” and “a gigantic task.” While the task may have ultimately proved beyond Bangladesh, the campaign served to highlight Bangaldesh’s numbers at home and the widespread diaspora.
While diplomats at the UN have some discretion, controversial and sensitive issues will require diplomats to consult their Governments. The refugee issue with Myanmar for one, required Mr Mahmood to be in constant contact with his country’s Foreign Minister and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “They [Myanmese] are not our people but, because of humanity concerns, we have to try to cater to their needs.” The financial and logistics support to the refugees are issues concerning Bangladesh, Myanmar and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Mr Mahmood was a key player at the UN for his nation to resolve this issue.
New man, new tasks
At his post in Hong Kong for a year now, Mr Mahmood will serve for another two to three years. Citing an improving bilateral relationship between Hong Kong and Bangladesh. Mr Mahmood highlights the soaring trade volume. Last year the value of Bangladesh’s exports to Hong Kong accounted to US$345m and US$626m for imports from Hong Kong.
Trade is an important priority of Mr Mahmood, but he sees cultural development as equally vital. “My goal actually constitutes the overall development of relationship. It includes trade, culture and interaction between people and the city.” He initiated the first grand reception to celebrate the National Day of Bangladesh which is formerly celebrated within the Bangladeshi community. He is also planning to introduce Bangladesh’s art and culture to Hong Kong, especially the paintings. And asked what his favourite culture in Bangladesh, Mr Mahmood says he enjoys watching his country’s opera most. Theatre in Bangladesh has a long history which dates back as early as 4th century and was influenced by European theatre culture in the 19th century.
The new national passion: breaking Guinness World Records
Guinness Record breakers!
Mr Mahmood is leading his country’s recent passion for breaking Guinness Records. Last September in Bangladesh, 27,000 people gathered in an open area and created the largest human flag in the world. Last week, the country broke the world record of having the largest number of people singing the anthem at the same time across the world. In Hong Kong, the CG organised approximately 100 people in Kowloon Park. Diplomat’s photojournalist on the scene had to explain to the police what was happening and the concept of what a Guinness Book of World Records was. Fortunately, the CG’s office had thought ahead to secure the necessary permits and “Amar Sonar Bangla” rang out in Kowloon Park and around the world.
The Bangladeshi community is smaller than other South Asian communities in Hong Kong. Mr Mahmood reveals that there are only around 1,500 Bangladeshis here. Around 1,000 of them are businessmen, 200 are postgraduates or doctoral students and most of the rest are professionals working in different sectors. Some new arrivals hope to be at the front of a new economic vanguard: domestic helpers.
The trade volume is booming and the number of exchange visits is rising. Formal exchange visits between the two jurisdictions are held six to seven times a year. Two of the seven visits this year will include official delegations led by the Bangladesh Government and businessmen to attend the fashion and houseware exhibitions held in the coming weeks in Hong Kong. Mr Mahmood is mandated to focus on facilitating trade and acting as a match-maker in business opportunities.
One new line of economic ties was established in 2013 when Hong Kong welcomed its first delegation of domestic helpers from Bangladesh. While contributing to Hong Kong’s economic development, they will also remit funds that can be reinvested in Bangladesh’s development.
Globally, Bangladesh’s garment industry is “only second to China”. Indeed, many Hong Kong manufacturers have relocated China factories to Bangladesh as costs in Southern China rise. Bangladesh was the biggest manufacturer of jute items (a durable, environmentally friendly product) pre-1980s. They decided to diversify their exports and develop the garment industry. “Over the years, we grew in experience.”
Competitive labour costs is a strong motivation for foreign investment and businesses to start up in the country but that motivation might fade with the 77% increase of the statutory minimum wage last year. The rise in the minimum wage was part of the country’s reform package to uplift labour livelihoods: “Government is sincere to give a better compensation package to the labourers. The Government is trying to protect the interest of the labourers.”
There is no doubt pressure on the government and major manufacturers that have invested in, or source from, the country.
Labour rights, conditions and wages are improving in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster
While the recent National Day was a global celebration for the Bangladeshi people, April 24 will mark a less joyful occasion – the one year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse that killed over 1,100 people. While the government moved quickly to arrest negligent owners, the incident led to unrest. The government has since enacted legislation to allow workers to form unions. The rise in minimum wage laws is another effort to improve the conditions of workers.
The government recently negotiated a total $US2M payment for families from Primark, a major clothing firm that had audited the building in the past, albeit not for structural weakness. This will put pressure on other firms to up their compensation to those families affected by the tragedy.
The country of Bangladesh is no stranger to sorrow. With the efforts of civic minded public servants like Mr Mahmood, they can come to terms with their past and find joy in the present. The recent National Day was a chance for the nation to come together, wherever its citizens were, and sing – and add another Bangladeshi entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.