Diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh were formally established in 1972 and the Sri Lanka High Commission in Bangladesh was set up in June 1979.
The Protocol signed in April 2003 provides an institutional framework to review the full range of Bangladesh-Sri Lanka bilateral relations at the meetings at foreign secretary level. The first meeting took place in Dhaka in January 2011
At the second foreign secretary level consultation, the Bangladesh delegation led by Foreign Secretary M. Shahidul Haque visited Colombo on April 21 for three days and had a meeting with his counterpart Karunatilaka Amanugama on April 22.
It is reported that many significant decisions were taken at the meeting between the foreign secretaries. Firstly it was decided that two working groups would be set up to examine the potential for enhanced trade and maritime connectivity between the two countries.
Second, both sides agreed to reduce tariffs at a faster rate, remove non-tariff barriers and para-tariff measures, and rationalise sensitive lists under Safta. They also agreed to launch discussions on a trade framework which could form a basis for Free Trade Agreement between the two nations, perhaps starting with a Preferential Trade Agreement.
Third, both sides agreed to accord greater emphasis on enhanced maritime connectivity between the ports of the two countries. Fourth, both sides considered ways and means to enhance cooperation in the areas of culture, vocational training and agriculture.
That Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are politically close to each other is demonstrated by the fact that Foreign Secretary Haque reportedly reaffirmed Bangladesh’s support to Sri Lanka at international fora and that Bangladesh would stand by Sri Lanka on human rights issue.
Although the second US resolution was passed on Sri Lanka’s violation of human rights at the United Nations Human Rights Council in March, the Sri Lankan government was successful in hosting the Commonwealth Summit in November.
At the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group Meeting on April 26, which was chaired by the Bangladesh foreign minister, Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma reportedly said that Sri Lanka had been discussed at a meeting in London, and added: “No member government has indicated remotely that it wishes to change the venue.”
It may be recalled that Bangladesh bilateral relationship was strengthened by bi-lateral visits at the highest political level since late ’70s. In April 2003, former Sri Lankan President, Ms. Chandrika Kumaratunga paid a two- day visit to Bangladesh and held talks with former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia to reinforce bilateral cooperation in various sectors.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s three-day visit to Bangladesh from April 18, 2011 is of immense significance in terms of bilateral relations as both countries share commonality on many issues.
In the recent past, the Sri Lankan foreign minister and industries minister visited Bangladesh and discussed with their Bangladesh counterparts the areas of possible cooperation.
In 2008, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh reactivated the Joint Committee for Economic and Technical Cooperation which was set up in 1985 to extend cooperation in trade, tourism, cottage industries and shipping.
In October 2010, a business delegation from SLBCCI visited Sri Lanka with the objective of increasing investment and trade opportunities. The delegation initiated linkages that would lead to the establishment of joint ventures and technology transfers between the two countries.
It is noted that the regional trade among South Asian countries constitutes only 6.1% compared to Asean’s 40%. During the 2011-12 fiscal year, the total bilateral trade stood at $ 83.19 million, of which $45 million was Bangladesh’s trade with Sri Lanka.. There is huge potential for expansion of trade between the two countries. Bangladesh’s leather, ceramic and jute products, and Sri Lanka’s coconuts and its products, tea, gems and rubber offer good prospects of expansion of trade relations between them.
About 15,000 Sri Lankans are currently employed in Bangladesh. There is growing technical co-operation in the production of garments between the two countries. Mid- management level instructors of Bangladesh Institute of Fashion and Technology receive training related to ready-made garments industry, pattern on garments, marketing and quality control in Sri Lanka’s Clothing Industry Training Institute.
Some Sri Lankan garment exporters have moved to Bangladesh for its cheap labour and duty-free access to developed countries. Sri Lanka invested about $292 million in Bangladesh in various ventures. 45 Sri Lankan companies have been registered with Bangladesh Board of Investment.
Many Bangladeshi companies have identified Sri Lanka as another destination to set up their branches and manufacturing plants. A few Bangladeshi companies are engaged in the construction industry and other infrastructure development projects in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan pharmaceutical sector was identified as another potential investment sector.
Bangladesh also hosts more than 500 Sri Lankan medical students who are studying on a self-pay basis as of 2009.
There has been discussion to increase bilateral relations and cooperation between the two navies and sending of Sri Lankan Naval personnel to study in Bangladesh. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka participate in the joint peace keeping exercises under the UN department of peacekeeping operations. There are goodwill visits at the level of chiefs of armed forces between the two countries.
Both countries are rich in entrepreneurial spirit and there is no reason why they, with their innovative private sectors and democratic governments, cannot cooperate with each other to enter the rank of middle-income countries in the near future.
The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.