Bangladesh recently entered the elite club of countries that have tamed the power of the atom to generated nuclear energy to boost its economic growth. Its incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, also the daughter of the country’s founding father and first Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, has taken the initiative to tap nuclear power to provide electricity to every household in Bangladesh. Buoyed by the beginning of construction of the nuclear power plant at Rooppur, the Bangladesh Government has also began surveys to find location for the second nuclear power plant.
In an exclusive interview, Prime Minister Hasina talks to TASS Russian news agency about the importance of nuclear power for Bangladesh, the scope of collaboration between Moscow and Dhaka; the problems of Rohingya refugees among other things. Here is the complete interview:
Russia and Bangladesh have collaborated for building Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant. What does the project means for Bangladesh?
We want to develop the country and we have a vision as well. When Bangladesh was liberated, my father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had a dream. He wanted to establish Bangladesh as a poverty-free, hunger-free and prosperous country. Unfortunately, the political turmoil continued in Bangladesh. Martial law was imposed illegally, unconstitutionally. Those who came to power did not bother about the people.
But, I know my father’s will. When he was assassinated, my sister and I were not allowed to return to our home. We lived in a foreign country. When the party elected me as President and we received tremendous support from people, I was able to return home. Since then I have traveled a lot across Bangladesh to know the reasons for poverty and how people are suffering. Thereafter, we prepared an economic policy. I found that electricity is very important for the people. Food, shelter are important, but to improve economy you need electricity simultaneously.
In 1966, Bangladesh’s power generation capacity was 1,600 MW and only 3-4 per cent people who were benefited from the power. Since then we have even started private power plants. We passed a law in Parliament and allowed private players as well as foreign investment for private sector to develop in the electricity sector. Within five years the power generated increased to 4,300 MW.
The decision to establish a nuclear power plant in then East Pakistan was taken in 1961. Unfortunately, they (West Pakistan) did not implement it. After liberation my father took the initiative. You know the country had gone through a war and it was not easy. After his assassination the government which came to power did not do anything. So, I took the initiative and thanks to the Russian government, especially Mr. Putin came to our aid. When I visited Russia, I talked to him about my intention to establish a nuclear plant because we have already earmarked the land. He assured me that he will give all support – monetary, technical and other support. You know it (establishing nuclear power plant) is very complex.
During my first tenure I started the process and during the second tenure I received support from the Russian President and now it has become possible. Now we have started this. It is dream come true. It is very important for development because we want to ensure that each and every household gets electricity and they should lead a quality life. The economy has to grow as the government has to give job opportunities to people, for which I need investment. Even though ours is agro-based economy, industries are also important. Power is important to us in this aspect, for our food security, to produce all necessary goods and also we want to increase our exports, fulfil our domestic needs and we want to improve life of our people even in villages.
More and more states which are supplying fossil fuel are also opting for nuclear power. So why is nuclear power so attractive now?
I feel that because of new technology it is very safe, environment friendly and very cheap. We have set up gas and coal-based power plants and hydro power stations. Whatever is available we are tapping it. So at this point we are producing 16000 MW electricity and by 2021 we need 24,000 MW because as the purchasing power of our people is increasing, the demand for power is increasing more. Now nuclear power is very efficient, cheap and environmental friendly and therefore it is getting more attractive for every country.
The construction of Rooppur nuclear power plant has just started. But, Bangladesh is not new to peaceful nuclear technologies. The country has its own research reactor and very successful experience with food irradiation. How do you see peaceful atomic technology in Bangladesh?
We are using it for medical treatment and food security in a very limited and safe way. Food security is important for well-being of human.
Bangladesh is looking for site for its second nuclear power plant. Will you be cooperating with Russia for this as well?
The site at Rooppur has been dedicated for the Nuclear Power Plant long time ago. The southern part of Bangladesh, we could not develop much for long time. It was abandoned by every government. But I know that people of this part will be most affected because of climate change and global warming. So we must ensure that these people must get all the facilities to safeguard themselves from any natural calamity. And, also economically they should develop. That is why it is my idea that we should set up another nuclear plant in the southern part…. Actually I am from the southern part.
So, yes we are looking for a land and who will be the partner will depend on what kind of offer we receive. I cannot give word. You see that there is competition, who will give us better offer we must wait for that. If Russia does it the same way as Rooppur like they provided money and everything. But, if another country gives us better offer, we would consider that as well. Russia is our friend. We remember how Soviet Union helped us in our war of liberation. They stood by our people. We have a very special place for them, and they are our special friend.
What other projects will Bangladesh like to carry out with Russia and which part of economic cooperation between Bangladesh and Russia looks the most promising?
Actually we are collaborating with the Russian people for gas exploration. We are also under discussion with Russia and other countries, they have a group that we want access for export. So we have to explore who has the need and how we can export. It has been longstanding quest. After 1975 those who came to power did not take care of it, so now we are doing it.
Apart from this Russia and Bangladesh are cooperating in defence sector, we are doing a lot. There are many areas. Definitely, how many other areas we can cooperate in.
We are buying wheat from Russia and many other things we are exploring.
Being a South Asian country what does Bangladesh think about safety of Indian Ocean Region and international cooperation on this issue. Experts have been talking about the militarisation of this region. What do you think about it?
Bangladesh’s geographic position makes it important. Our foreign policy is very clear – friendship with all. We are very clear that if there is a problem, it can be resolved bilaterally or multilaterally. We take a position that if two countries have problem they should resolve among themselves. The atmosphere in the region should be very peaceful, so that economic development can take place. South Asia is a very densely populated area. Our main aim is to alleviate poverty. We concentrate on that mostly.
What do you think about the prospect of regional cooperation in South Asia. What do you think about BIMSTEC progress and will SAARC has its future?
Of course the future is good, but sometimes obstacles come and they can be overcome. We are taking steps to overcome them. We established the groups mainly for economic development, for the sake of the people. So, we cannot say the future is very bleak. I say the future is very bright and definitely this will contribute to our development. For development you need connectivity. By this time, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal have established the connectivity. Then the other part, Bangladesh, India, China and Myanmar there also we have agreement. So, we establish the economic corridor. If Asia has Asian rail and roadways, we also want to enter these communication lines. We have started developing our road communication and in future there will be rail communication and this will increase our trade, business and we can go up to Russia.
So you are for China’s One Belt One Road project?
It will be multilateral. Not only China, but everybody will benefit from it. Because communication is very important.
Terrorism is the major problem area in the region. What can Russia and Bangladesh do together to fight this menace and what are the other global problems that both countries can address together?
Human trafficking, drug trafficking and terrorism. Terrorism became a problem not only for Bangladesh but it is global problem. So, if each and every country takes a stand that we will not allow terrorist activities. My proposal was that at international conferences and meetings. I always raise this issue that terrorist are terrorists, they have no religion or boundary. Terrorism is their business actually. How we can stop this? If you can stop the source of money, if you can stop the source of arms then you can definitely combat terrorist activity. In Bangladesh, we take very strong stand – zero tolerance to terrorism and we mean it. And we have taken all the measure that anywhere anything happens we take action. Definitely we need support to collect intelligence. Anyone ready to assist us, we are ready to accept. Also, we need help in training our law enforcement agency and our intelligence agency. Russia can also help. Definitely, other countries are also helping us.
What do you think about other regional problems like Rohingya Muslims?
You know they are Myanmar citizens. Some incident happened and then the atrocities started. They just crossed the border. On humanitarian grounds we allowed them to come and take shelter. But Myanmar should take them back, because they are their citizens. So, I want Russia should also take a stand and pressurise Myanmar to take back their citizens. These people are living in inhuman conditions in refugee camps. These women and children are abandoned. It is very unfortunate. They lost their parents while fleeing. On humanitarian ground it is necessary that Myanmar take back its citizens. Bangladesh already have 160 million people another one million is burden for us. But I told my people that if we have two meals, we will share one and if we have one meal we will share half. But how long can they live like this. All the children need to go to school, they need better life and their own home. They cannot be brought up in refugee camps. Both, my sister and I were refugees at one point of time. We know the sorrow and the pain of being a refugee. That is why, I want Russia to take the stand.
Russia and Bangladesh were good friends during Bangladesh independence and during the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. So what remains the same and what has changed between the two countries?
I do not want to comment on what happened from 1975 to 1996. Everyone knows what the situation was. But since I found the government, definitely I can say, we have friendly relation with Russia and we cooperate with each other in many areas like economy. This period is the best period. We have re-established the friendship we had just before 1975. We hope that our friendship with Russia will continue.
Have you visited Russia? And what did you like about it?
I have visited Moscow and St. Petersburg for Tiger Summit. It was in December 1982… it was very cold. But otherwise it is wonderful and people are really wonderful. Again, I went there in 1987-88 to Czechoslovakia on the way back home. It is beautiful country. We enjoyed it there. For us we did not have an idea how cold it can be.
Since 1991, Russia did not have a woman leader. Is it difficult to be a woman and a leader especially in an Islamic country?
Actually I was very interested in politics since school time. I was also very much active in politics during my college years as well. I was born and brought up in a political family. For me it was not at all difficult. The important thing is whether your people accept you as a leader or not. Before 1981, I was student of Dhaka University and active in student politics. I did not aspire to be anything. Not only me, but my brothers and everybody had the understanding that our father was working for people and we must also assist him in that. So we loved that. Politics was means to serve the people.
When I returned home, I faced problem but a different problem. It was not related to gender. Those who were in power that time they did not support our liberation war. Most of the war criminals were in government at that time. Then came the assassination of my father. I lost my whole family, but I had no right to ask for justice or file a case. And those killers were free to form political parties and to do other activities. So, I faced the obstacles and threat. All the media and dictators were always against me. So at every step I had to face it. But my people accepted me and they never doubted me for being a woman.
Some organisations like Jamaat-e-Islami, they sometimes raise this question that a woman cannot be a leader in this country. But I enjoy people’s support and my party is very strong. I travel a lot to understand our people’s problem and how to develop our country. I am very much accustomed to political activities, I know what kind of problems we face. It was very easy for me because people supported me. I always enjoy their affection. Because I lost my family wherever I go, I get lot of affection and love from people. And that is my biggest strength.
Do you want to say something to the Russian people?
Russian people are our distant friends and this friendship will continue. Bangladesh and Russia will go forward with the friendship.