You are here

Sheikh Hasina’s Visit to Maldives Boosts Bilateral Relationship

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • January 13, 2022

    The Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina went on a six-day visit to the Maldives from 22 to 27 December 2021. This was her first visit to the archipelagic nation, which took place soon after Bangladesh celebrated the 50th year of its liberation from Pakistan. Though this visit was meant for boosting the bilateral relationship, it also signified that Bangladesh, previously seen as a poor country, has made considerable progress.

    On the eve of Hasina’s visit, the Central Bank of Bangladesh announced a loan of US$ 200 million (MVR 3.08 billion) to the Maldives.1 This loan was sought by the Maldivian president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih during his visit to Dhaka in March 2021. Bangladesh saw it as a moment of pride and agreed to give the loan after a meeting took place between the officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh and the Central Bank of Bangladesh.2

    During the visit, both countries signed three documents and renewed one. The first Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed on the Recruitment of Health Professionals, while another MoU was on Cooperation in the Areas of Youth and Sports Development. Both sides also signed an Agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation. The MoU on the Areas of Healthcare and Medical Sciences was renewed.

    Bangladesh gifted 13 military vehicles to the Maldives as a token of friendship. On behalf of Bangladesh, the Chief of Army Staff General SM Shafiuddin Ahmed in a symbolic way handed over the keys of the military vehicles to the Maldives’ Chief of Defence Force Major General Abdullah Shamaal.

    While the countries assessed the whole gamut of their bilateral relationship, the main objective of the visit was to address the issue of legal and illegal Bangladeshi migrants in the Maldives.3 Maldives has nearly 1,00,000 Bangladeshis living and working there. It is estimated that half of this population are illegal migrants.4 For Maldives, a small archipelago nation of 4,00,000 people, this large number of Bangladeshi population has become a matter of security concern. In 1988, Maldives saw a coup attempt by a Sri Lankan militant organistion, People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) in league with some Maldivians when Abdul Gayoom was the president.5 Though at that time, the coup was averted with the help of India, a section in Maldives is still apprehensive of growing Bangladeshi population in the country, especially since majority are illegal migrants.  

    Moreover, both Bangladesh and Maldives have been facing the problem of religious radicalisation. Maldives fears that illegal migration would worsen this problem further. Maldives’ economy is largely based on tourism and any increase in cases of terrorism could adversely affect it. Bangladesh tried to reassure Maldives that it does not allow terror activities on its soil.  Similar sentiments were expressed by the Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih who also vowed to fight terrorism and extremism together to ensure regional and global peace and prosperity.6        

    For Bangladesh, sending people abroad to work is an important part of its foreign policy. Bangladesh is the eighth largest foreign remittance receiving country, with  its expatriates working in various countries across the world. It received about US$ 21.75 billion remittance in 2020.7 The remittance received from expatriates is an important part of Bangladesh’s GDP, and has also played a significant role in the development of the country which was seen as very backward at the time of its liberation. The crucial role played by the immigrants in bringing prosperity to both the countries was highlighted by Sheikh Hasina during her visit.

    Bangladesh actually urged Maldives to accept more migrants from the country, especially doctors. After the pandemic, Maldives wants to improve its healthcare system and needs specialist doctors and nurses. Besides, Maldives is also planning more resorts which could create job opportunities for Bangladeshis. Understandably, Bangladesh wants to seize these opportunities.

    During her visit, Hasina tried to address the problems faced by the Bangladeshi population living in Maldives. In a meeting with the Bangladeshi expatriates, Hasina said that the government would make arrangements for the exchange of currencies between Bangladesh and the Maldives, so that the expatriates do not face any problems in sending money back to Bangladesh. She also acknowledged that expatriates are suffering losses as they have to first buy dollars and then send their money to Bangladesh which again is converted in taka. She mentioned that the Probashi Kallyan Bank of Bangladesh has been asked to take appropriate steps in this regard.

    To fulfil a long-pending demand of Bangladeshi expatriates in Maldives, US-Bangla Airlines started operating flights to Male, the capital of Maldives from November 2021.8 Hasina also informed the expatriates that Bangladesh Biman Airlines is set to introduce air connectivity with the Maldives via Chennai in India.9

    Both the countries have shown interest in enhancing connectivity, trade and commerce. In February 2021, Dhaka and Maldives signed two MoUs— one on the training of Foreign Service officials and another on human resources’ recruitment. Subsequently in March 2021, four more MoUs were signed on trade, tourism, fisheries and health. When the Vice President of the Maldives visited Dhaka in November 2021, he had talked about establishing a direct link between Maldives and Chittagong, an important port of Bangladesh.

    The establishment of a direct shipping line between the two countries could help in reducing the transportation cost, since at present  the Bangladeshi products need to be exported via Singapore or Colombo. The volume of the present trade between Maldives and Bangladesh is about US$ 7 million.  Bangladesh’s imports from Maldives are worth US$ 3 million and its export to the country is worth about US$ 4 million.10 The present exports of Bangladesh to Maldives target its Bangladeshi population living there. However, Maldives too imports its food and other essential items. Bangladesh now also wants to target Maldivians and intends to export vegetables, processed food, ceramics, leather goods, readymade garments, jute products and pharmaceutical products.

    President Solih and Sheikh Hasina also expressed their intention to address and counter the threats posed by organised crime, piracy, narcotic and human trafficking, through multilateral and regional forums including Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). In this regard, Bangladesh pointed out that it has assumed the Chairmanship of IORA for the first time, since October 2021. It sought the support of Maldives so that both sides could work together towards greater maritime safety and security in the Indian Ocean Region. Solih assured his cooperation to Bangladesh in this regard.11

    Bangladesh was also successful in enlisting the support of Maldives on the issue of the forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals. Maldives has criticised Myanmar for the atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslim community and commended Bangladesh for graciously hosting them. President Solih appreciated Bangladesh’s efforts to offer shelter and protection to the Rohingyas and to facilitate their repatriation to Myanmar.

    Bangladesh is graduating from the Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2026, which means that certain privileges enjoyed by the country as an LDC state would be taken away. To deal with this, Bangladesh aspires to build stronger relations with the regional countries for boosting trade and connectivity. It also wants to ensure that the Bangladeshi migrants working in foreign countries continue to be an important source of its GDP. At the same time, Bangladesh is also trying to show its growing importance in international politics which it has achieved due to the strength of its economy. Hasina’s visit to the Maldives was successful in achieving all these objectives.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.