Ahead of President Maithripala Sirisena’s visit to Bangladesh, Bangladeshi High Commissioner M. Riyaz Hamidullah, in an interview with Daily Mirror said his country was a land of opportunities for Sri Lankan businessmen. He said some companies had made headway in Bangladesh in the manufacturing sector. Excerpts:
A land of opportunities for Lankan entrepreneur
Some local companies have already made headway
A gas company here accounts for 30% domestic LPG business
A Lankan hair oil is very popular
Two SL biscuit brand giants are highly popular
Some SL investors look to manufacture pharmaceuticals
President’s visit will focus on economic cooperation
Has a rich Buddhist heritage
Mahela to coach a premier cricket league team
Sinhala, Bengali languages have similarities in character, dialect etc.,
Q: How do you look forward to the visit of President Maithripala Sirisena to your country?
As for this visit, the focus will be essentially economic and development. Without any design, plan or conscious effort, Sri Lankan people have been going to Bangladesh as early as the 1980s. The first investment was from SL to Bangladesh between 1980 and 1983, I would say. I met someone who built a factory there. He employs 6000 workers there. Can you imagine such a huge factory being there since 1983 without any issues?
Now, SL businessmen said they would like to go to Bangladesh because they understood economics. Those who are going there do not confine themselves to Bangladesh only. It is not the merely 160 million people; including 30-40 million people who belong to the middle and affluent classes. They realize and take a position in Bangladesh. Afterwards, they look to India as mainland on one side and Myanmar on the other. It is a continual expansion of landmass. Once the economies are opened, there would be new kinds of synergies and supply chains for them. Bangladesh’s exports to China are bound to touch the US $ 1 billion mark. Our exports to Japan too touch the same point. It is just the beginning. Anyone taking position in Bangladesh would eventually tap other markets.
If you look at the nature of the President’s programme, it will be primarily economic. Obviously, political relations are always there. People to people contacts are always there. In 2007, former SL President Mahinda Rajapaksa went with four or five ministers to receive the Buddha’s hair relics. These are enshrined in the Gangarama Temple today. The Buddhist heritage in Bangladesh is not known to many. It is hardly known that 30,000-40,000 Sri Lankans are working there. They have been there without any kind of hostilities for decades. Bangladesh hosts the largest presence of SL professionals in the Asia Pacific. They hold lucrative positions as CEOs, Managers and Quality Controllers etc. Sri Lanka gets remittance amounting US $ 2 billion, as per the last count.
Q: What is the current strength of bilateral trade relations?
It is around US $ 100-110 million. There are different and variable accounts. That is not the story here. In Sri Lanka, you have a population of 20 million. The market has already saturated. The space is limited for companies here. They need space where they can grow. The cost of production is much less in Bangladesh. They also get the right kind of skilled/unskilled labour. They get all these. Apart from business and industries, there are many other areas where we can engage for mutual benefit such as education, healthcare, hospitality, agriculture etc.,
A reputed SL based manufacturing company in Bangladesh, brings it here for value addition, to be exported to Japan. This is a new trend. I met a number of leading companies here. They would like to manufacture in Bangladesh and enter supply chains. There are enormous kinds of labour, right kind of openness, connectivity and the low cost of production. Bangladesh offers the best for Sri Lanka. That is also in proximity.
Q: What are the plans for further expansion of trade with the reduction of trade balance?
We are in talks for a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA). We will see whether it should be a classical FTA or an economic cooperation agreement. Secondly, there are a number of items in Bangladesh with great quality and affordable prices. Why are they not coming to SL? We realize that tariff is high on these items from Bangladesh. Even under South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), that is something worrying. We will take it up with SL. The same level of treatment should be offered to Bangladeshi products in the SL market, such as steel barks, cement, potatoes etc.
Q: In Bangladesh, there is an advanced pharmaceutical industry. Earlier, there were talks for the import of such pharmaceuticals. What is the current status?
The President himself knows the quality of pharmaceuticals from Bangladesh. He has been there three times before when he was the Health Minister. When we release them to the markets, we find they do not enter the SL market despite their better quality and price. That is a worrying issue. At the same time, there are some invisible factors that hinder the products from being recognised.
What is now happening is very interesting. Some of the SL entrepreneurs who went to Bangladesh in 1980s or 1990s to invest in apparel trade, are now moving away from the sector. They know the ground situation and the system. They now find opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry. They are looking to invest in this sector now with buy-back guarantee from SL. They are looking forward to manufacture and export to SL.
At least, two SL investors are working on it at the moment. They are actively looking for partners. Some approached me and asked for help to find partners. The trend is changing. It is not the conventional trend that is existent.
A popular Sri Lankan company that manufactures pharmaceuticals, cosmetics etc., was initially into trading. The same company’s production, a popular brand of hair oil is the largest selling hair oil in Bangladesh. Another domestic (LP) gas company caters to 30% of Bangladesh’s cooking needs. The two SL based biscuit manufacturing giants have gained fame in Bangladesh. These are the nature of partnerships we have. Some companies form joint ventures there. Some of them go with 100% SL equity. Bangladesh is an open country. The system is transparent and welcoming. So, people find it quite comfortable.
Q: What are the plans in store to foster cultural relations between the two countries?
There are considerable similarities between Sinhala and Bengali languages in terms of drama, vocabulary, diction, sounds, music and alphabets. The common (women’s) attire is Saree. We are trying to bring Bangladeshi films, literature, Saree and the contemporary Bangladeshi band songs. Vocabulary sounds and lyrics have similarities. That is the whole thing. We are also trying to get Bangladeshi poets here.
Q: What do you think about the role assigned for SL and Bangladesh for regional integration?
I have worked at SAARC Secretariat as a Director. The two countries share the same approach to economic cooperation in South Asia. Both the countries feel that there should be a peaceful, stable, tolerant and pluralistic South Asia for our individual and collective prosperity.
Q: From your perspective, what are the barriers for regional integration?
I put it as regional economic integration. We need to understand that we need to open up in terms of our thinking. We should also think how we should approach and understand each other’s gaps, limitations and constraints. It should be based on actual and mutual trust and respect. Once we achieve it, we could bring in economic actors, academia etc. We need to try our hands with small projects. Why are our schoolchildren unable to cross borders in hundreds if not thousands? It is so common in Europe. If we start today, we would get the results in 10 years down the line. These schoolchildren would become CEOs, Managers and decision makers one day. Then, business would not be an issue.
Q: How rich is the Buddhist heritage in Bangladesh?
There is a huge volume complied outlining the Buddhist heritage in Bangladesh. The largest Buddhist monastery, south of Himalayas is in Bangladesh. People may not know the story of sacred Hair Relics received by four Cabinet Ministers, which are at the Gangaramaya Temple.
Q: Once there was an attack on Buddhist places of worship. How did you deal with those?
That incident of vandalism took place because a local individual wanted to grab land. It was petty local politics. Immediately after the incident, Prime Minister Sheik Hasina paid a visit to the site with all the ambassadors and the Buddhist clergy. The government restored it and nothing has happened since then. Some alleged involvement by Islamic radical elements had been behind this. It was a concocted occurrence. It was more of a local issue.
Q: What do you think of cricketing ties between the two nations at the moment?
Former Sri Lankan skipper and master batsman Mahela Jayawardane has signed a contract with a Bangladeshi premier cricket league as a coach for one year. That is the kind of ties we have established in the sports scene.