Exclusive interview of the Ambassador Devrim Öztürk to the Daily Observer
Daily Observer: The cultural and historical tie between Turkey and Bangladesh is age old. What are you currently doing to give it a boost? What programmes are you arranging for the year 2018 in this regard?
Turkish Ambassador: As you have stated clearly, the brotherly bonds between our peoples date prior to the independence of Bangladesh. Geographically speaking, we have a huge distance between our countries but the mutual affection between Turkish and Bengali people has remained eternal and unhindered. The Turkish people still remembers the support of Bengali Muslims during our Liberation War, with gratitude. The heroic victory of the Turkish nation for liberation with the leadership of our Great Leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was also celebrated on this soil. The respect and admiration for Ataturk in Bangladesh is reflected in the epic poem "Kamal Pasha", written by Kazi Nazrul Islam, National Poet of Bangladesh. Besides, as you already know one major avenue in Dhaka and another one in Chittagong have been named as "Kamal Ataturk Avenue". We also have two boulevards named after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Ankara and Izmir.
This spirit of brotherhood will never fade away. When treacherous terrorist infiltrated in our armed forces tried to perpetrate a coup against our democratically elected government on 15 July 2016, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sent a very meaningful solidarity message to our President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. We are grateful for this timely support.
Of course, the common cultural and religious values, as well as the social bonds between our peoples constitute the main basis of our brotherly relations.We are committed to keep and further develop this relationship in many aspects. In this manner, we attach great importance to sustain regular cultural activities between our relevant institutions with full pace. Last year we have hosted many students from the Bangladesh Children's Academy in Turkey, on the occasion of the April 23 Children's Festival held by our national broadcasting institute, TRT.
We also do our best to create opportunities for Bengali people to learn more about Turkish culture because we know that culture and art have always been an integral part of diplomacy. Considering the global interest in the Turkish cuisine, we have co-hosted a "Turkish Culinary Week" in Dhaka in November 2017. As you know, another historical cultural bond between our peoples is Sufism. Hazrat Shahjalal, one of the students of Mawlana Jalaladdin Rumi in the thirteenth century, was the prominent religious figure during the spread of Islam in Bangladesh through Sufism, which has been a spiritual bond between Anatolia and Bengal. Recently, we have participated in the second "International Sufi Fest" with an enchanting group of whirling dervishes. This festival was a great opportunity both in terms of presenting our own Sufi legacy toa very passionate Bengali audience and learning more about the cultural dimension of Bengali Sufism. We will continue to organise and take part in similar events in the upcoming period.
D O: Despite a glitch in diplomatic relations in 2016, Bangladesh and Turkey's relations have remained stable since Turkey's recognition of independent Bangladesh in 1974. Do you believe it's getting better? If yes, why do you think so?
T A: Our relationship with Bangladesh has always been special and close, I am confident that it will continue to get better. First of all, high level contacts and mutual visits have reached its peak in the last six months. President Erdogan has met with President Abdul Hamid on many occasions. One was in Istanbul, on the sidelines of the OIC Extraordinary Summit. He also met with Prime Minister Hasina in New York.
First Lady Emine Erdoğan, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Family & Social Policies Minister Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya visited Bangladesh on 7 September 2017. This was truly a historic day, as it was one of the first high level visits to Cox's Bazar in the first days of the recent Rohingya influx after 25 August 2017. Our Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has also paid an official visit to Bangladesh on 18-20 December 2017. Along with fruitful bilateral meetings with President Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Hasina, he also met with Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar and examined our humanitarian efforts on the field. Additionally, Deputy Prime Minister Recep Akdağ and Minister of Culture & Tourism Numan Kurtulmuş also visited Bangladesh. Likewise, we hosted the Disaster Management & Relief Minister Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury Maya and Minister of Planning Mustafa Kamal in Turkey. As you can see clearly, even the name of the Honourable Minister is a sign of our social interaction, as it is homage to our Great Leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Discussions in these high level contacts have mostly revolved around the Rohingya crisis. But we believe that this new impetus will help us to further develop our bilateral relations in all fields. We immensely appreciate the commitment of Bangladesh to democracy, human rights, rule of law, social rights, gender equality, free market economy and cultural diversity. And we wholeheartedly welcome the recent steady economic growth and development trend in this country.
Bangladesh has triumphed as the fastest growing economy of the Asia-Pacific region in 2017, and I am confident that it will be even stronger with less negative effects of regional crises. Both our countries face similar challenges and problems: You have the Rohingya crisis and you host more than 1 million refugees in an overcrowded population, we also have a refugee crisis; you have been actively fighting against terrorism, we are also facing many terrorist threats to the well-being of our people from our borders.
As you know, we have been fighting a number of terrorist organisations that present risks and threats to our national security for a long time. Successfully concluding the "Operation Euphrates Shield" last year, we cleared our borders with Syria from DEASH, liberated an area of 2.015 km2 and established a safe haven free of terror, enabling the displaced Syrians to return. However, the terrorist threat from Syria targeting our borders has not yet ended.
The threat posed by the PKK/KCK/PYD-YPG terrorist elements deployed in the Afrin region of Syria is heightened due to the recent increase in the number of harassment fires and attacks to our people's safety and security. These terrorists have organized numerous attacks to our border provinces, killing and injuring many of our citizens. They even targeted a mosque, in which people were praying at the time. Therefore, we have launched the "Operation Olive Branch" on 20 January 2018 to ensure our border security and neutralize terrorists in Afrin.
The operation is carried out on the basis of international law in accordance with our right to self-defence, as outlined in Article 51 of the UN Charter and relevant Security Council resolutions, and in full respect of Syria's territorial integrity. The Turkish Armed Forces has taken all necessary precautions to avoid collateral damage to the civilian population. In doing so, we will save the brotherly people of Syria from the oppression and cruelty of these terrorists. In addition to that, we will enable the Syrian refugees in Turkey, who were forced to flee their homes in Afrin by terrorists, to voluntarily return to their towns liberated by Turkey. We will continue this operation until terrorists are wiped out of the region. And the world will witness that our efforts will also contribute to the territorial integrity and unity of Syria.
The black propaganda run by the terrorist elements in the field has been proven to be based on fake news and predated irrelevant photos. Having said that, some global media outlets continue to play into the hands of terrorist by spreading fake news. On this occasion, I kindly request all Bangladeshi journalists to be more vigilant about this disinformation campaign with visual material shot in different times and locations, claiming that civilians are killed.
D O: The Turkish government has taken a clear stance by standing beside Bangladesh on the Rohingya crisis. Following the delay of refugee repatriation and amid a number of unsettled issues - does the Turkish government intend to engage in ensuring safe and sustainable return of the Rohingyas to Myanmar?
T A: As you put it clearly, Turkey has been the staunchest supporter of Bangladesh regarding the Rohingya crisis. Prime Minister Hasina and her government, as well as the people of Bangladesh, are displaying an indispensable humanitarian virtue and resolve for helping these stateless poor people. Our leaders have repeatedly emphasized that the suffering of the Rohingya people should not be important only for Bangladesh or Muslim countries.
It is a humanitarian tragedy and should be a concern for the international community, as a whole. In our own capacity, we are deeply engaged with this issue, both in terms of lasting political solution and humanitarian assistance to the refugees. We have been tremendously active on the field with the invaluable efforts of our humanitarian officials and volunteers, both from public institutions and NGO's. Our state development agency TİKA, our national disaster management authority AFAD, the Turkish Red Crescent, the Turkish Diyanet Foundation and countless NGO's from Turkey have been involved in many humanitarian activities, from nutrition to health and education, in cooperation with the government of Bangladesh and the relevant UN agencies. Additionally, we have set up a field hospital in Cox's Bazar, which is operated by Turkish doctors and nurses. And we are planning to open a second field hospital, as well as health centres around the camps. We are also working on a housing project for the Rohingyas.
Because of the chaos and turmoil during the influx, many refugees had to settle in inconvenient shacks and sheds. To this end, we welcome the initiative of the Bangladeshi government to renew the existing sheds with durable shelters and modular houses, in order to provide better living conditions for the refugees. Our disaster management authority AFAD has proposed a project to the Bangladeshi authorities. At the moment, we are trying to finalise a common project for all parties, including the relevant UN agencies. Whilst this project is determined, we will start building new houses for the refugees.
As I said earlier, a lasting solution to the Rohingya crisis is a priority, both for us and the international community. And clearly, this is only possible with safe and dignified return of Rohingyas to Myanmar. There is no other solution to this tragedy. In this vein, we welcome the agreement reached between Bangladesh and Myanmar on repatriation. Having said that, as many rational people point out, this Arrangement encompasses seriousgaps in terms of the rights and freedoms of the Rohingyas.
I believe that the international community must put more pressure on Myanmar for the civic and human rights of these people. On the other hand, the repatriation process, alas, is moving far slower than what was planned in November 2017.We are closely following the developments in this realm.
I can assure your readers that Turkey is ready to play a part in this process. If we are expected to be part of this whole repatriation deal, we are ready to share our humanitarian and technical capacity both with Bangladesh and Myanmar.
D O: In terms of cooperation in the education sector, how many scholarships is Turkey giving to Bangladeshi students? Do you plan to increase the number of scholarships, exchange programmes etc in this regard?
T A: We are glad to see that many Bangladeshi students are keen to study in Turkish universities. Here in Dhaka; we have a vibrant community of former Turkish government scholarship fellows, who are very successful in their respective fields. We remain in close contact with them, and we help them to find business opportunities with Turkish companies. These fellows are about to finalise the establishment of the "Society for Turkish Universities Alumni in Bangladesh (STUAB)". I believe this association will play a significant role to attract new students and to keep our alumni in Bangladesh together.
We had provided scholarship opportunities to students from Bangladesh for a longer time, I have actually met some people here who studied in Turkey in the 1970s and 1980s.But we have the exact statistical data only from 1992. According to this data, we have provided state scholarships to 379 students from Bangladesh between 1992 and 2018. Our main scholarship programme is called "Türkiye Scholarships".68 students from Bangladesh have been awarded with "Türkiye Scholarships" for the 2017-2018 terms.
We are planning to increase this number gradually, in the upcoming period. Students can only apply to this programme online, from the official website of it: "www.turkiyeburslari.gov.tr". Scholarship applications for bachelor's degree programmes in the 2018-2019 terms can be made between 16 April and 27 May 2018 from this website. The postgraduate applications were finalised on 5 March. People can find more details on our official Twitter (@TCDakkaBE) and Facebook (/TCDakkaBE) accounts, as well as the aforementioned website.
Our government also provides other scholarship opportunities for Bangladeshi students. The Council of Higher Education of Turkey (CoHE) and the University Grants Commission of Bangladesh (UGC) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in July 2017, during CoHE President's visit to Dhaka. According to this MoU, we provided scholarships to 12 PhD. students from Bangladesh University of Textiles (BUTEX) for their studies in Turkish universities. This MoU also allows the parties to increase the number of students and fields of study.
I advise aspiring Bangladeshi students to follow our social media announcements closely.
D O: Relations between the two countries' media sector have not been so vibrant in recent years? What could be done to make the two countries sharing and exchanging media programmes more frequently?
T A: As I said earlier, the people-to-people affection between Turkey and Bangladesh is the fuel of our initiatives. As a recent example of this affection, I have met the publisher of a Bengali book about our President titled "Erdogan: The Change maker". He told me that this book has been hugely popular amongst Bengali people, selling more than 2.000 copies just in 10 days. This natural interest and love of Bengali people to our leaders, culture and history makes me proud to be Turkey's Ambassador in Dhaka.
Considering the un-debatable power of the mass media today, I also believe that we should encourage our media outlets to be involved in common projects. In this manner, we have proposed the government of Bangladesh to sign a MoU between our state broadcasting agency TRT and its Bangladeshi counterpart.
We have become the second highest exporter of TV series in the world after the US. Currently, Turkish TV serials are broadcasted in more than 140 countries. I also know that some of these shows are very popular in Bangladesh. These are mostly historical dramas depicting the time of the mighty Ottoman Empire. This is also a result of our mutual historical values. I believe we can encourage our producers to work on some projects in this realm.
D O: Currently the bilateral trade between the two countries is more than a billion dollars. What are the other potential trade opportunities to take it further to double the amount?
T A: Bangladeshi economy has performed tremendously well in the recent years and this trend has been reflected in our bilateral trade statistics, as you mentioned. Actually, our leaders had set a goal to make our annual bilateral trade volume 5 billion US Dollars. We would be more than happy if our economic engagement can help Bangladesh to reach its 2021 target to become a middle-income country.
I believe that there are many opportunities for our businessmen to increase our trade with Bangladesh. Currently, the Turkish companies in Bangladesh are mostly focused on particular sectors and materials, like garments, machineries, chemicals and jute. In order to maintain a more balanced and evenly distributed foreign trade with Bangladesh, we must benefit from other sectors like tourism, construction, defence etc. We will discuss these issues in the next Joint Economic Commission (JEC) Meeting on 11-12 April 2018 in Ankara.
We have talked about the affection of Bengali people towards Turkish culture, but when you check the figures on our bilateral tourism, it is far from our potential. Turkey is one of the top tourist destinations in the world with its beautiful coasts, natural wonders and cultural heritage. Besides, Turkey is also an important destination for medical tourism with high quality services and competitive prices. We would be happy to host more Bangladeshi tourists in Turkey. The direct daily Turkish Airlines flights between Istanbul and Dhaka is a great asset for this goal.
Another potential field for Turkish entrepreneurs in Bangladesh is big infrastructural projects. In line with our economic development in the last decades, Turkish investors have been increasingly searching for investment opportunities abroad. We certainly encourage our companies to explore the vibrant and booming economy of Bangladesh. Construction sector is one of the strongest pillars of Turkish economy; we have countless famous companies worldwide. We wish them to take part in infrastructural projects of Bangladesh.
D O: What are the ongoing military and defence cooperation programmes between the two countries?
T A: Both Turkey and Bangladesh have strong and disciplined armed forces, and their relations have always been a leading field of cooperation between two brotherly nations. We are glad to keep this momentum with high-level visits, and cooperation in the fields of military training and defence industry. We attach utmost importance to the Military Financial Cooperation Agreements and Implementation Protocols, which are renewed with Bangladesh every year.
Defence industry is also an important platform for our cooperation. As you know, we are a NATO member and our defence products are in line with the NATO standards, with more competitive prices. Our cooperation in smaller scale military equipment continues as usual, but we can find new opportunities for larger scale cooperation, such as the Turkish ATAK Helicopters (T-129).Turkish defence companies like ASELSAN, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) and ROKETSAN are amongst the world's top brands. We will be glad to play an active role in modernization process of the Bangladeshi armed forces. In fact, representatives from our national defence industry authority and Turkish companies have recently visited Bangladesh.
D O: Is there a labour market for Bangladesh in Turkey for exporting skilled and semi-skilled workforce? Is the Turkish government enthusiastic for importing manpower from Bangladesh?
T A: The young and dynamic labour force of your country is a very important aspect of your economy, which makes Bangladesh a significant production hub in its region. On the other hand, Turkish economy is among the top 20 largest economies in the world, but we still have a relatively young population compared to Western countries. The Turkish labour force is composed of approximately 30 million people, which is competent enough for our current economic balance. Having said that, our unemployment rate is around 10 % and this figure shows us that we do not need more workers but we need more jobs at the moment. I believe this picture will change in a very near future, and there is no doubt that Turkish employers would choose the brotherly, hardworking, smart, decent and kind workers from Bangladesh, over any other country in the world.
D O: Is there a possibility of any high-level state visit from Turkey any time soon?
T A: Yes, our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu will visit Bangladesh on 5-6 May 2018, on the occasion of the 45th Session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the OIC. This will be his second visit to Bangladesh in less than a year. Additionally, our President and Prime Minister have invited their counterparts to Turkey at their earliest convenience. I know Bangladeshi politics will be quite busy for the next few months until the general elections. We will be honoured to host both President Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Turkey.
D O: How would you sum up your Bangladesh experience as of now?
T A: When I assumed my post here as the Turkish Ambassador in Dhaka in August 2015, I have personally witnessed the affection of the Bengali people to Turkey on every occasion. Dhaka is amongst the world's most densely populated cities, it can be challenging from time to time. But the peaceful culture of Bengali people, which is a unique combination of Sufi philosophy and traditional Bengali values, has been a great experience for me and my family. Besides, as I mentioned many times, being a Turk in Bangladesh is also flattering and delightful. I am proud to drive through Kamal Ataturk Avenue when I am around the city. Wherever I go, people tell me how much they love Turkey and our President. And, when I leave this country for another post, I will leave with an undying positive sentiment and I will always tell my friends and colleagues that our brotherhood with Bangladesh will never fade away.
Thank you for these inspiring questions.
The interview was published on Daily Observer on 9-10 March 2018.
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