Bangladeshi UN peacekeepers earn respect, abroad and at home

Service across the globe brings a sense of pride and helps build professionalism among the country’s armed forces.

Squadron Leader Sadrul Ahmed Khan is ‘proud’ to serve as a UN peacekeeper in war-torn Ivory Coast, where common people call the Bangladeshi peacekeepers munami, meaning “my friend”.

  • Bangladeshi UN soldiers sit on top of armoured vehicles during a patrol in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in January 2011. Starting in the early 1990s, Bangladesh has become the largest contributor of UN peacekeepers. [Luc Gnago/Reuters]

Like his fellow Bangladeshi armed forces members stationed as peacekeepers, Khan said, he has tried his best to serve the people suffering in the former French colony, which has been destabilised by ethnic conflicts for decades.

“The people, irrespective of sex and age, ran after our vehicles as we roamed around the demilitarised zone. They called us munami and sought food, medicine and other assistance,” Khan told Khabar while narrating his experience of serving as military police in 2007.

“And our members helped them to the extent it was possible.”

Peacekeepers help build professionalism, democracy at home

Since the early 1990s, Bangladesh has become the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, overtaking Pakistan and India. In addition to their economic contributions, the peacekeeping efforts have made the powerful army more committed to stability at home, strategists and retired army officers say.

“Of course, the peacekeeping operation has made the army more professional. Since its birth, there were attempts to make the army involved in coups and anarchy,” Lieutenant General Mahbubur Rahman, a former army chief, told Khabar.

“Mixing with armies of different countries and working under the UN system, the members of the armed forces are no longer interested in coups and counter-coups,” he said. “The peacekeeping operation helps both Bangladesh and its army.”

Imtiaz Ahmed, an international relations professor at Dhaka University, concurs.

“Working under the UN bureaucracy, the military may be oriented to protect democracy and build democratic institutions. This orientation has huge impact on the country,” he said.

Abdul Momen, Bangladesh‘s Permanent Representative to the UN, said last month that peacekeepers have brought in Tk 75 billion ($917m) for the country during the last three years.

Khan joined the UN peacekeeping operation to protect civilians in the Ivory Coast, a failed state that is now divided in two — the rebel-controlled north and the government-run south.

The peacekeepers, he said, were posted at the buffer zone between north and south, keeping watch on the implementation of the UN-brokered accord with the rebels and the government backed forces.

“The Bangladeshi peacekeepers are always friendly to the people coming to us in their needs. I am really proud. Many nations come to know about Bangladesh due to our dedicated peacekeeping operations,” said the air force officer turned blue-helmet solider in Abidjan.

“We, the peacekeepers, used to work to stop infiltration of the rebel forces into the south and vice versa. Very often they entered each-others’ territories and killed people,” Squadron Leader Ashek Ahmed Shahriar, who served as a peacekeeper between 2009 and 2010, told Khabar.

“The peacekeeping operations helped save the lives of many innocent civilians from the armed conflict,” he said adding that they also worked with the local people for disarmament.

In all, over 10,000 Bangladeshi peacekeepers who serve in 45 operations around the world. Bangladesh known to the world as a peaceful nation

Shahriar said the peacekeepers receive $1,300 monthly, in addition to their salary and food rations from the Bangladesh government. Money earned from the peacekeeping operation provides a sense of security in a country with no practical social security programme for its 160 million people.

Jamil D Ahsan, a retired major general and former Bangladesh ambassador to Libya, agrees that the peacekeeping operation has made Bangladesh known to the world as a peaceful nation.

“At the beginning, we were little bit hesitant about sending our troops for peacekeeping operations, fearing that they may be involved in business instead of joining the forces after return. But they really adhered to professionalism,” Ahsan said.

“The remuneration made them socially secure,” he added.

Saida Muna Tasneem, a foreign ministry director general in charge of the UN desk, told Khabar that Dhaka doesn’t contribute troops only for the money.

“Due to our constitutional obligation and peace-centric foreign policy, we contribute our troops for peacekeeping and peace building,” said Tasneem.