His beloved Bangladesh and his nations’s longtime Philippine friendship

https://www.manilatimes.net/ambassador-asad-alam-siam/536373/

Ambassador Asad Alam Siam

APRIL 07, 2019

His beloved Bangladesh and his nation’s longtime Philippine friendship

Nestled in the south of Himalayas amid a majestic interplay of three of the world’s major river basins, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh is a land of natural beauty blessed with lush greenery and many waterways. In possession of the most active deltaic plains, this South Asian country carries billions of tons of alluvial soil a year via a most dynamic, intricate river system in the world.

Moreover, Bangladesh is home to Cox’s Bazar — the longest sea beach in the world — and as an old land dotted with archeological heritage, it represents a diversity of major faiths, with a

 

very hospitable and open people who pride themselves in their artistic heritage in arts, crafts, cuisine and creativity.

Despite the natural and societal riches of Bangladesh, however, there are many around the world who continue to have a negative perception of the country, mainly because only its negative side is often presented in mainstream media.

The most common news that comes from the country for example are how floods are very common there particularly during yearly monsoons and how cyclones and storm surges have caused widespread devastation in recent years.

Some also still remember how Bangladesh was once shattered by poverty for many years since it gained independence in 1971, as well as being the eighth most populous country in the world with a total of 164 million people living within 56,990 square miles.

Ambassador Siam admits Filipinos know little about Bangladesh today, and is wholeheartedly committed to raise awareness about his beloved country through his tenure and beyond.

 

But the reality is, Bangladesh has become one of Asia’s most remarkable and unexpected success stories in recent years. Its economy is on a upsurge what with the country’s annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth far better compared to its neighboring countries.

This in mind, Bangladesh Ambassador to the Philippines Asad Alam Siam knows he has a lot of work to do to change the world’s impression of his beloved Bangladesh in his country of assignment and the rest of the world.

 

Ambassador Siam presents his credentials to President Rodrigo Duterte at Malacañang Palace in 2017.

 

Key player for unity

Since the beginning of his posting on February 28, 2017 when he presented his credentials to President Rodrigo Duterte, Ambassador Siam has been upbeat in nurturing a deeper friendship and stronger ties between the Philippines and Bangladesh as best he can.

Ambassador Siam came to the Philippines with a 23-year experience of representing his country in the international community after joining the Bangladesh Civil Service (Foreign Affairs Cadre) in 1995.

 

The Ambassador receives the ceremonial key of Manila from Mayor Joseph Ejercito Estrada.

 

Before his posting in Manila, Siam was former Chief of Protocol of the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Bangladesh; Director General in charge of the Europe Wing in the ministry; Consul General of Bangladesh in Milan, Italy; Assistant High Commissioner of Bangladesh in Manchester, United Kingdom; as well as serving in missions in Jakarta and Bangkok in different capacities.

Armed with a degree in Architecture from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) and a Master in Business Administration from the Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands, his choice of profession may seem surprising to most, but he is definitely thriving on the world’s diplomatic stage.

 

At the National Day celebration of Bangladesh in 2018.

 

The Sunday Times Magazine had the distinct opportunity to sit down with the seasoned envoy where he talked about the challenge and honor of uniting Bangladesh with many parts of the world.

Asean expert

One can venture to believe that as diplomats go, Ambassador Siam is already an Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] expert. The Philippines is his third Asean posting to date, following Indonesia and Thailand, which he credits for helping him adjust to the weather and culture of Manila.

“Like I said this is my third country [of posting] in the Asean. Besides that, I have been following the Asean region since I was a young diplomat so the knowledge I gathered definitely helped me when I was assigned to this part of the world,” he happily related.

 

The Bangladesh Cultural troupe participated in Philippine International Indigenous People’s Festival in Capiz.

 

“One advantage of being here in the Philippines is that I didn’t have to learn the language — everybody speaks in English!” Siam chuckled.

“But I understand many of the psychological, cultural and social traits that is prevalent in this region. Of course every society and country is different but there is also an underlining similarity among the Asean nations.

“So in many cases, since coming to the Philippines, the kind of understanding of what I had of Bangkok and Jakarta helped me get settled quicker here and understand the society very well.”

 

With Bangladeshi researchers at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Laguna.

 

Filipinos’ friend

Ambassador Siam credits Filipinos for being “foreigner-friendly.”

“That’s what I like most in the Philippines — there are no question marks or frowning on foreigners. You are very foreigner-friendly country and I felt welcome and accepted from the very beginning. In fact in my first encounter with people here, they treated me like a friend so I’m very lucky to be here — with my wife and our six-year-old daughter.”

Working with Filipino members of his staff at the Bangladesh Embassy has also been a breeze for the ambassador for over two years now.

“Filipino people in general are very friendly and it’s never a problem to approach someone. My staff therefore are very accessible and receptive and if they see any cultural differences, they respect them. We have a very friendly environment at work.”

 

Bench chief executive officer Ben Chan and Ambassador Siam at the homegrown fashion giant’s headquarters. Bench outsources a few of its items from Bangladesh.

 

All the same, Siam is delighted to note more similarities between Bangladeshis and Filipinos which he continues to discover as the years go by.

“To begin with, Bangladesh and the Philippines are both tropical countries. We both have lots of friends, we both are fish- and rice-eating people. From the societal part, we are both friendly, and we are both religious though a majority have different religions in my country,” he enumerated.

“Both countries are also centered on families and social values and social cohesion is very strong. In terms of foreign policy, I think both follow the same principle, which for us was outlined by our Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — that is, ‘friends to all, malice towards none.’

 

Ambassador Siam meets Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol at a courtesy call.

 

“We also face similar challenges — from climate change, disaster management and disaster recovery — but we are both very resilient.”

Clearly knowledgeable about his country of posting, the ambassador continued, “We both also have a big younger population in our demographic composition; many citizens working outside our countries, and our state visions are more or less the same.

 

The Bangladesh Dance troupe Shristi’s Manila performance.

 

“Like you, we have a vision by 2041 to become a developed country, wherein the journey will entail lots of investment and improvement of infrastructure projects.”

Strengthening ties

Despite the long list of similarities between the Philippines and his country that he knows off the top of his head, Ambassador Siam admitted that Filipinos hardly have any idea what Bangladesh is like today. To make that known remains to be a challenge he wholeheartedly takes on and vows to fulfill through his tenure and beyond.

“Sometimes Bangladesh appears very negatively as a country of flood, as a country of natural disaster due to international media. But I would say, Bangladesh is one of the fastest rising countries in the world, like the Philippines,” he emphasized to The Sunday Times Magazine.

 

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. (second from right) visits the Bangladesh stall at the International Bazaar organized by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

 

“I’m happy to inform your readers that we have been achieving over six percent growth in our economy for a long time, making us the 41st economy in terms of size. By 2030, we will be the 23rd and Philippines will be 20th or 19th in the list, so we’re both growing country in terms of economy.”

“The more we can project ourselves to you through our rich culture, through people to people engagement, only then will Filipinos come to know that ours is a country that has potential they can engage with. Bangladesh is bordering the Asean region and it’s also between two big economies which are India and China. We are basically the land that bridges Southeast Asia with the rest of Asia.

“Aside from that, it’s a country that is also doing very well on its own despite being between these two economic powerhouses. We are more than 160 million people, so if you go there and do business or invest, you get a big market.”

Bridging the psychological distance

Besides the kind of news that is aired internationally about Bangladesh, the ambassador also relates the lack of information about his country in the Philippines to what he calls “psychological distance.”

“When I arrived here, I found that despite being so similar, there’s a sort of psychological distance between our two countries. And one way to bring awareness to the minds about our similarities is to address them culturally,” Siam shared.

Currently, his embassy is running numerous projects to engage with Filipinos through cultural and people-to-people exchange, which they will further develop throughout his tenure.

“We have sent Filipino journalists to Bangladesh and brought cultural teams over here. So there’s people to people exchanges already. Among these, I would say that the most important [activity] was the visit of our SME [small and medium-sized enterprises] delegation.

“There is a platform in my country, which actually helps poor Bangladeshi rural women to establish their own enterprises and they came here to see the work of Go Lokal by the Department of Trade and Industry and they were able to learn from you and implement their learnings back in Bangladesh.

“Aside from that, we had 400 teachers trained in the Philippines in installing automation and digital technology in the schools. Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has given us a dream to transform Bangladesh into a digital Bangladesh and this training was a part of that journey.”

Further strengthening ties with the Philippines, Bangladesh has also opened an honorary consulate in Davao City with the aim of fostering cooperation between Mindanao’s agriculture and business processing sectors.

According to Ambassador Siam, overall, Bangladesh is particularly interested in learning from the Filipino’s advance farming and deep sea fishing technique, the BPO sector, as well as the export of its medicine and garments.

Moreover, an exchange of different officials at different levels, especially in defense, has taken place between the two countries with Bangladesh receiving Filipino military officials for training in Bangladesh and vice versa.

Executives from Oishi, a leading food company in the Philippines, also went to Bangladesh to establish their factory there which became operational this year.

Foundation of history

In establishing just how far Philippine-Bangladesh relations go, Ambassador Siam went back in history and acknowledged the Philippines as one of the first Asean countries to recognize Bangladesh as republic on February 24, 1972, barely a couple of months after the country gained independence in 1971. Ten years later in 1981, Bangladesh already opened an embassy in the Philippines.

“We are a younger country than the Philippines. We gained independence in a struggle led by our Father of the Nation. We were a part of Pakistan after the British left India and we came to be an independent country through a liberation war where three million people died, many men and women suffered and women were violated. We were completely ruined but despite that, we achieved victory in December 1971,” Ambassador Siam noted.

“From the diplomatic side, our Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had a stopover in Manila when he was flying back from Japan to Bangladesh, and that marked the first presence of leadership from Bangladesh in the Philippines.

“And our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also visited the Philippines twice, first was on an official visit, and the second upon an invitation of late President Corazon Aquino.

“President Fidel Ramos visited Bangladesh too,” he continued.

“We have almost 20-plus documents signed covering cooperation in different areas between our countries — in culture, trade, export, immigration and others.

“We have regular foreign office consultations whose goal is coordinating bilateral cooperation.

“This is basically the historical part of engagements between the two nations,” the envoy related.

There is no better time than now indeed for his embassy and their Philippine counterparts plan to establish more projects over the next few months and years to further strengthen bilateral relations.

“The Philippines is very good in agriculture and aquaculture and food processing, and subsequent value addition in agricultural products. So we are trying to take that skill and technology to Bangladesh because we are not on that level yet. We are going to encourage people to come here and learn,” he said.

“As one of the countries that produces world-class pharmaceuticals, we would like for Filipinos to import our pharmaceuticals because it’s cheaper in Bangladesh.

“Also, we would like to learn and gain investment from you in terms of BPO since Bangladesh has a young population who are good at digital technology. And as a former English colony, we know English, but we are not getting enough business yet. We are just beginning.”

Ambassador Siam is further looking into skills and training in the Philippines particularly when it comes to nursing, medicine and seafaring to name a few.

“Other objective is to go beyond Manila. So far, our engagements have been very Manila-centric when you have a big country. So we are sending our cultural teams to other places for more exposure and for Filipinos to know more about Bangladesh,” he rounded up.

Big celebrations are also in the works across all the countries where they have embassies as Bangladesh will be observing the 100th birth anniversary of their Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 2020.

“Aside from that, in 2021, the age of Bangladesh will be 50. We will celebrate it also in a very big way involving local dignitaries and the Filipino people. We will have year-round celebrations for two years and we hope your people will join us on these occasions.”

Hopes for the future

Finally asked what he hopes from the continued cooperation between the Philippines and Bangladesh, Ambassador Siam replied, “What I would like to see is for Bangladesh and the Philippines to become an ideal role model of South-South Cooperation between two of the fastest growing economies, helping each other in whatever expertise they have.

“We have a huge expertise in development and poverty alleviation. You have experience in the service industry, so we can have an exchange on those factors and enrich each other in terms of experience and economic growth. That’s the dream I would like to see, that Philippines and Bangladesh become an example of cooperation between two growing economies,” Ambassador Siam ended.

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The Ambassador’s take on the Rohingya refugees

Rohingyas are a Muslim minority in Myanmar regarded by many Myanmar Buddhists as illegal migrants. The Rohingyas are from Arakan, Myanmar and have been so for generations but they were denied citizenship and therefore described as the world’s most persecuted minority.

In 2015, a crisis began when a mass migration of Rohingyas occurred. Nearly all who fled to neighboring Asian countries including Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand did so aboard rickety boats via the waters of the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. From this migration came the collective term “boat people” used by international media.

As of December 2017, an estimated 655,000 to 700,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh to avoid ethnic and religious persecution by Myanmar’s security forces.

In this interview with The Sunday Times Magazine, Ambassador Siam shares his thoughts on the issue to call the attention of the world to heed the call of help by the Rohingyas.

“Since the ‘70s, we have been hosting the Rohingya people, and following the latest influx, we are now hosting around a million Rohingyas,” the top diplomat began.

“We are already a crowded country and then we have these additional people, but we are sharing whatever we have with them because their stories are very tragic. If you go and listen to them you would cry: numerous young girls and women were raped, people were killed, you will find children became orphans and they have seen their family members died in front of them. They had no other option but to flee. Their houses were burned, their crops were destroyed, and they were literally not treated as human beings.

“So any sensible responsible country, which Bangladesh is, would have received them. Unfortunately, that is not happening for all. It is only Bangladesh in all the world receiving these people. My take is that Asean and the rest of the world need to be involved with the situation on the ground with Myanmar so that the people in Rakhine can create an amicable environment for the Rohingyas, and let them feel that they can go back.

“Myanmar’s society has not accepted them as equal. Rohingyas do not feel safe to return as they have not been promised Myanmar’s citizenship, or that of a normal life—like [being allowed to] go to hospital, going to school, earning a living. So the world has to engage, and it cannot continue eternally that only Bangladesh will host one million displaced people.

“The nations of the world have a responsibility to address the situation and improve the situation, and ensure that rights that are to be given to Rohingyas like other citizens of Myanmar so they can return to their motherland.”