home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

Bangladesh's 50th Anniversary

Remarks to Commemorative Event, Whitlam Institute, Western Sydney University, 8 December 2021

It is many years now since I had the honour of being Australia’s Foreign Minister, and the privilege in that capacity of visiting Bangladesh, but I am very pleased to have been given this opportunity to join with you in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the independence of this country whose culture, and people, and strength and resilience in the face of adversity, I have always deeply respected and admired.

It is particularly appropriate that this commemorative event, should be hosted by Western Sydney University’s Whitlam Institute, in association with the Bangladesh High Commission and Sydney Consulate-General.

Not only does Gough Whitlam remain the only Australian Prime Minister to have visited Bangladesh, he was clearly the driving force, as Opposition Leader and then Prime Minister, behind Australia’s very early recognition of the new state in January 1972 – the fourth in the world and the very first Western country to do so – and Bangladesh’s very early accession to membership of the Commonwealth, the United Nations and other international organizations.

Being as well travelled as he was, as well-read as he was, and as deeply interested in the currents of global and regional history as he was, Gough Whitlam was acutely aware of all the factors that drove the independence movement, and which made Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose legacy this event is particularly commemorating, the figure of towering importance that he was:

  • Whitlam understood the richness and depth of Bengali culture, particularly, but not only exemplified in the writings of Rabindranath Tagore;
  • He understood the deep attachment Bengalis had to the Bangla language, and the hurt caused by the West Pakistan elite’s failure to recognise it;
  • He understood the extent of the discrimination and exclusion that those living in the East had in so many other ways suffered since the creation of Pakistan in 1947;
  • He understood the suffering caused by the Yahya Khan government’s totally inadequate response to the catastrophic 1970 cyclone; and the rage provoked by the failure to convene the National Assembly when Sheikh Mujibr Rahman’s Awami League won enough seats in the December 1970 election to entitle it to govern;
  • And above all he understood, was appalled by, and spoke out strongly against –notwithstanding the reflex support by the US at the time for Pakistan against India – the horrific scale of the atrocities that were perpetrated by the Pakistan military when it initiated Operation Searchlight in March 1971: the mass murder of intellectuals and supporters, or assumed supporters, of independence; the mass rape of Bengali women; and all the unconscionable violence and repression which caused nearly 10 million Bengalis to flee to India, all of which triggered the war between India and Pakistan, the crushing defeat of the occupying forces by India and the national liberation army, and the achievement of independence in December 1971 we are celebrating today.

The links of understanding and support forged between Gough Whitlam and Bangabandhu, consolidated by our early establishment of a resident mission in Dhaka headed by a Bangla-speaking High Commissioner, ensured that bilateral relations between Australia and Bangladesh were off to a flying start, and they have continued to be strong and mutually respectful since, mainly focused on development and trade, but with a growing interest in security issues as the regional geopolitical environment becomes more volatile and uncertain.

The relationship has had to weather some severe internal stresses– not least those following the terrible assassination of Bangabandhu in 1975 -- but Bangladesh’s consolidation of its secular, generally religiously tolerant, parliamentary democracy has ensured a firm foundation for our present and future relationship.

I am not sure that Australia, on our side, has done as much as we could and should have in recent years to support Bangladesh in some of the extraordinary challenges it has had to face – including housing and feeding and keeping secure and trying to resettle the huge influx of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar military oppression, and coping with the huge ongoing vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather events posed by its low-lying geography.

My hope is that this anniversary event, reminding us of our shared experience and commitment in the past, will trigger a more intense engagement in the future, and one based particularly on people to people links of the kind being forged here at WSU, with its strong cohort of Bangladeshi students, and the judicial training program of the Law School.

My own decades of experience in international affairs have taught me that what matters most in making our region and the wider world safer, saner, more prosperous and more just is recognising, through close personal interaction, the reality of our common humanity – that for all our differences of ethnicity and culture and life experience, what we have in common is our status as living, breathing, feeling human beings.

In that context, I think my most memorable experience during my own visit to Dhaka as Foreign Minister back in 1990 – during that period under President Ershad, just before parliamentary democracy reasserted itself – had nothing to do with all the high-level discussions at my high-level official meetings, but rather a visit I paid to a hospital being supported by an Australian aid program and focusing particularly on life-threatening gastro-intestinal diseases. Seeing a ward full of suffering babies and young children, the heart-rending anxiety of their parents, and the care and compassion so evident in the doctors and nurses trying to save them, was a deeply moving experience, and one that I’ve never forgotten. It’s the human dimension that matters.

It was that human dimension, not the often cynical demands of geopolitics, that led Gough Whitlam to respond as he did to the plight of the Bengali people, and the inspired leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, during that tumultuous pre-independence period. And it is the human dimension, encouraged by events like this, that will ensure that the relations between our two countries will grow in the future ever stronger.