Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sri Lanka: Time for reconciliation and reconstruction

Published in The Daily Independent, June 1, 2009

The quarter century old Sri Lankan civil war has ended albeit at huge cost. Nearly 90,000 people have been killed as Sri Lanka went through one of history's most cruel and devastating ethnic conflicts. The end came when the top LTTE terrorists, including the legendary Velupillai Prabhakaran, were killed by the Sri Lankan forces on a narrow strip of the northern coast after being driven out of their stronghold in northern Sri Lanka.

Nearly 250,000 Tamils have now become refugees. Resettling them will be the beginning of a long process that will involve reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese community and the minority Tamil together with reconstruction of a war ravaged Sri Lanka where destruction of the Tamil majority areas have been almost total. These efforts will require statesmanship from President Mahendra Rajapakasa before final curtains can really be drawn on the Tamil conflict.

It was India that had a big role in both helping start the long drawn civil war and ending it. In the 1980s, it was India's involvement in the ethnic conflict on behalf of the minority Tamil that encouraged the civil war. In the end, it was India's hands-off policy that allowed the Sri Lankan defence forces to push the LTTE against the wall and then to eventually annihilate them. It is also India that now can help in a major way in transforming the end of the Sri Lankan civil war into sustainable peace.

The beginning of the end for the LTTE came with the emergence of Mahendra Rajapakasa as the President of Sri Lanka in November 2005 and his single-minded devotion to end the civil war militarily. It was indeed an irony that it was LTTE's boycott of the 2005 elections that helped bring Rajapakasa to office in a very narrow victory. Upon becoming the President, Mahindra Rajapakasa made his brother Gotabaya Rajapakasa the Defence Secretary and another brother his Adviser and the brothers together put up the blueprint for the final push going against a negotiated settlement to the civil war in which the Norwegians played a major but unsuccessful role. Gotabaya Rajapakasa substantially increased the country's defence forces. New Delhi was kept on board about the final offensive. India looked the other way as the Sri Lankan government bought arms and ammunitions from China. India also cut off the LTTE's supply line of arms and ammunitions by effectively guarding the sea route.

The plan to strengthen her armed forces substantially and diplomatic initiatives with India meant it was just a matter of time for the complete annihilation of the LTTE. A few other factors also pushed the LTTE on the back foot such as the global war on terror that resulted in declaring the LTTE a terrorist organisation in 35 countries, including the USA and Canada, that in turn made it difficult for the Tamil Diaspora to contribute funds to the LTTE. Internal dissensions also had weakened the LTTE considerably. The Sri Lankan government started its final drive against the LTTE in January this year. LTTE's use of Tamil civilians as human shield merely delayed the inevitable but it came nevertheless when the body of Prabhakaran was finally shown to Sri Lankans and the world.

Prabhakaran's death with top associates should bring the terrorist phase of the Sri Lankan civil war to an end for a number of reasons. First, Prabhakaran was for the LTTE, "their brain ...their heart …their God …their soul "… who inspired them to do anything; even commit suicide bombings that was LTTE's contribution to the world of terrorism. Leaders like him for whatever they are worth emerge once in many generations. Second, Prabhakaran did not groom any successor and without one like him, it is impossible that LTTE can revive again in any time in the foreseeable future. Third, India's tacit support for annihilating the LTTE will also go a long way against the possibility of the terror group re-emerging in the near future.
The Indian Prime Minister hastily dispatched two of the country's top diplomats to Colombo immediately after the Sri Lankan government announced the end of the civil war. In sending National Security Adviser RK Naryanan and Foreign Secretary Shivsankar Menon, the Indian government wanted to ensure that the events in Sri Lanka, particularly the fate of the Tamil civilians, were handled to contain any negative fallout upon India's own Tamils. In his meeting with the Sri Lankan President, Narayanan sought a political solution to the Tamil problem while offering help in the reconstruction efforts following the elimination of LTTE. In Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha had urged the Indian government during the just concluded elections to send forces to Sri Lanka to create a separate homeland for Tamils the way Indira Gandhi had intervened in Bangladesh in 1971 that underscores the point that the fate of Tamils in Sri Lanka is a politically sensitive issue in Tamil Nadu. Although Jayalalitha's AIADMK lost the elections, her support for Sri Lankan Tamils is significant in the context of Indian politics. New Delhi cannot afford to be apathetic towards Sri Lankan Tamils for her own sake.

Whether the Sri Lankan government is able to take care of the Indian concerns for a political solution will be an important equation in the ultimate success of the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. India has been offered a historic opportunity to use the end of the terrorist phase of the Tamil movement to emerge as a regional leader with the clout and respect to enhance its standing as a world leader. With a new and strong Congress government in New Delhi, India should now not only engage with the Sri Lankan government for sustainable peace there; India must do a little bit more and show the political will to treat all her neighbours with respect and dignity and as the much larger and stronger power, also show the heart to make concessions without holding her smaller neighbours to make reciprocal ones. Going by past experiences, India has sought more concessions from her smaller neighbours than what she has been willing to concede. The ball for a better South Asia is now in the Indian court where her neighbours, with the exception of Pakistan, have shown their willingness for friendly and sustainable relations with India.

The long-term prospect of ending the Tamil separatist movement will of course depend on President Mahendra Rajapakasa's initiatives and abilities to rise to the status of a statesman. There are signs that he is moving in the right direction. For one, he made it clear that the Sri Lankan government's fight has been against the LTTE and not the Tamils. For another, he has pledged to investigate claims of human rights violations committed during conflict with LTTE during the visit of the UN Secretary General to Sri Lanka. But there is a lot more he would need to do; he must remember that while there is ecstasy among the majority Sinhalese; the Tamils are in agony. He must transform himself for his country's sake from a "rebel with a cause" as he is described on his website to a "reformer with a vision."
The peace dividends in Sri Lanka are enormous but to achieve the potentials, the majority Sinhalese must also be ready to make significant concessions for the minority Tamils whose cause for fighting the civil war are embedded in their psyche for good reasons of discrimination and deprivation. If the Sri Lankan government shows the political will for reconciliation, there would be significant international support for the country's reconstruction although in the final days of the conflict, Western powers were very unhappy about the human rights issue, even threatening the Sri Lankan defence forces with trial for war crimes.

Before the civil war started, Sri Lanka was knocking at the door of becoming a middle income country; something that it can now realistically achieve but only through a joint effort of all Sri Lankans, Sinhalese as well as Tamils. In such a situation, how one fervently wishes there would be a few more men like Nelson Mandela in countries desperately needing one. In this case, it is Sri Lanka.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Diplomats and Diplomatic Norms

Dhaka Courier, issue no 45, 29th May, 2009
M Serajul Islam

The Dhaka Reporters Unity (DRU) in their Meet the Reporters programme recently hosted the US Ambassador who used the opportunity to discuss about our internal affairs. I am not sure whether our friends in the DRU are aware of it or not; there is a small matter of diplomatic norms and another a little bit more important, an international Convention at stake here.

Let me touch upon the Convention first. The Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations (VCDR), to which both Bangladesh and the United States are signatories, sets the guidelines on how diplomats should conduct their relations in the host countries together with other provisions. One of the important provisions of this Convention is on diplomatic immunity. Diplomats are exempted from persecution in the courts of the host countries and other legal obligations that the citizens of that country are subjected to. This immunity is however balanced by responsibilities. Article 41 (1) of VCDR reads: "Without prejudice to the privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving states. They have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that country". The following sub-para (2) of Article 41 is equally interesting as it states that diplomatic missions must conduct their relations with the host country either with the Foreign Ministry or through the Foreign Ministry of the receiving state.

The US Ambassador, while speaking at the DRU, was addressing a media group. He therefore knew that whatever he said would be covered in the media. He spoke freely and fairly but almost entirely on our internal affairs. He spoke on our elections; on agenda for the government and parliament and gave us ample advice on what the parliament and the government should do. He also warned us that Bangladesh is still facing the threat of religious militancy. What the Ambassador said may have been said with good intentions but what he said were also clearly our internal affairs and hence not his subject to discuss in the media. We cannot also overlook the fact that what he said also affects Bangladesh's image negatively. His intentions would have served better purpose if his views and perceptions were communicated to our Government directly.

In recent times, Ambassadors/High Commissioners are discussing our internal affairs much less frequently in public than was the case before 1/11 and also during the emergency. A lot has been written in the media about the role certain Ambassadors/diplomats played in our internal politics at that time. The BNP has openly accused at least one diplomat serving in a multilateral organization in Bangladesh about complicity to bring the emergency in January 2007. One High Commissioner, a son of the soil till his parents decided to settle abroad, behaved more like a local politician, and a partisan one, than a High Commissioner. During the imposition of emergency, he went around "interviewing" for Bangladesh our Chief Adviser. In his successor, a career diplomat, we are already seeing as clear as daylight the stark difference between the two in the way professional diplomats conduct their responsibilities in the country of their accreditation.

My purpose in writing this article is not to be critical about the Ambassadors. My focus is elsewhere; to examine and pinpoint what we should be doing. But we are not doing that to counteract the undue interference of Ambassadors and High Commissioners in our internal affairs. In my own experience as a diplomat, I have never witnessed such involvement of resident Ambassadors in the internal affairs of a host country in any of the capitals I have been posted, the way we see in Bangladesh. The reasons why this does not happen in other capitals are simple. Other capitals ensure that diplomats follow diplomatic norms and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The host government through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs ensures this. In other capitals, political parties do not reach out to the diplomats the way it happens in Bangladesh. In our country, diplomats have been brought into our politics by political parties. During Ershad's tenure, there was an Ambassador from Iraq who used to openly tout in parties that he could get anyone into the Cabinet and anyone out. During the 15 years of elected government before the present one came to office, the mainstream political parties have interacted with Ambassadors/High Commissioners for support in their politics of conflict fight who in turn have obliged although some of them have argued that they have done so in order to ensure that their contributions to our economic development in the form of aid and grants did not go down the drain. Also, there is no reason to doubt that in talking on our politics, the Ambassadors/High Commissioners had the welfare of Bangladesh in their hearts. One still remembers US Ambassador Harry Thomas' very sincere efforts to wake up a BNP government for a self-induced slumber to acknowledge religious militancy that eventually harmed Bangladesh as well as the BNP's chances of re-election.

There is a discernible positive change in the context of this article among those in charge at MFA at present. In the past, we have seen Ambassadors/High Commissioners openly criticizing our government in the company of those in charge of MFA during media briefings. The present Foreign Minister has shunned this practice for good measure. The MFA needs to be a little more proactive and engage with the diplomatic missions in a manner so that their concerns about Bangladesh are addressed out of the glare of the media and in the way diplomatic relations are conducted between the diplomatic mission and the host government in rest of the world's capitals.
The role of the media in the context of what we are discussing is very important, particularly the visual media. In their search for a scoop or "breaking news", these journalists often lose perspective of what their job expects from them as professionals. In this instance, the DRU's Meet the Reporters Programme's invitation to the US Ambassador should have ensured a number of things. First, there should have been a reference or at least consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find out whether they can invite the Ambassador. There was a time when the MFA's permission was necessary for such an invitation. Article 42 (2) of the VCDR also requires such a reference. Second, the DRU should have set the topic for the Ambassador so that a foreign diplomat was not given a public platform to talk about our politics and embarrass us. At a time when President Obama has become an iconic figure in international politics, why the DRU did not request the US Ambassador to talk about the US President's initiatives in international politics beats me.

Our journalists often go after the Ambassadors and High Commissioners, chasing them at the corridors of power and then asking them questions about our domestic politics. There is a matter called reciprocity in conduct of diplomatic relations between two countries; reciprocity that does not seem to work in our case. Our journalists must bear in mind that the indulgence we give to resident Ambassadors/High Commissioners to interfere in our internal affairs is a one-way traffic, in addition to being a violation of VCDR. It is ridiculous even to think that our Ambassador in Washington would be able to talk to the media on US politics in the manner the US Ambassador has on our politics and does on a regular basis. Our journalists need to consider that their focus on Ambassadors/High Commissioners achieves no good purpose except embarrassing Bangladesh.

The most difficult part of establishing a professional conduct of relations with regards to the foreign diplomats is getting our politicians to do the right thing. They are the ones who are responsible for bringing the diplomats into our politics in the first place. They should know better than others that bringing them into our politics has not helped their cause in any way except give a poor impression about the quality of our politics. It does not serve their purpose; it never has. One hopes that they would see the futility of involving Ambassadors/High Commissioners in their hate politics and limit their talks to these diplomats on bilateral matters for which they have been sent to Bangladesh by their respective countries.

(The writer is a former Ambassador of Bangladesh to Japan and can be reached on his blog

Friday, May 22, 2009

Indian elections and the Bangladesh perspective

Published in The Daily Star, May 23, 2009

THERE is a similarity in the just announced results of the Indian elections with Bangladesh's on December 29th. The winners in both cases were expected to win but the ultimate results were beyond their most optimistic expectations. In India's case, the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) overcame the anti-incumbency bug to return to power. Manmohon Singh, already named to become Prime Minister for another term, will thus become the first PM after Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961 to return to office in successive elections. It was the Congress' best show in many decades. The party won 203 seats; a number they passed in 1984 and 1991, both held after assassinations (1984, Indira Gandhi; 1991, Rajiv Gandhi) that brought the party sympathy votes.

In the final tally, the Congress led UPA won 260 seats, just teasingly short of the magical figure of 272. Its main opponent the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) secured 158 seats. In the last elections, the Congress had won only 145 seats and was at the mercy of its alliance partners, an amalgam of left and regional parties, to govern India and carry out the economic reforms crucial to India's future. This time, the party is much better poised to stamp its authority on alliance partners and thus it will be better placed to carry its agenda of economic reform. It can get the remaining number short of 272 without any horse trading. The elections will thus bring a stable government in New Delhi.

The results have given a national party the mandate to govern the country after many decades when politics in New Delhi was subjected to the regional agenda with region based parties sharing power with a national party like the Congress or the BJP in a manner where they could dictate many of the decisions. In fact, one of the most decisive verdicts of the Indian elections has been the choice of the voters against regionalism, although before the elections regional leaders such as Mayawati, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, Narendra Modi and a few others were being touted as possible Prime Ministers. The elections have thus rejected regionalism in national politics.

Among the other clear choices that the voters have made, one is undoubtedly for a secular India. BJP leaders themselves have put blame on Varun Gandhi's anti-Muslim hate speech during the campaign and Gujarat Chief Minister Mr. Narendra Modi's name coming up as a possible Prime Minister of India as two of the main reasons for NDA's resounding defeat. Mr. Modi earned notoriety both in India and abroad for his role in instigating anti-Muslim riots in his province in 2002 for which he has been black listed for US visa by the US authorities. The Indian voters have thus cast their votes for secularism and against communalism.

The UPA, however, did not win the elections on just these negative factors. The voters have taken note of the positive changes that India has achieved in the last five years and concluded that they needed the Congress for another term with a clear mandate to transform India into one of the top economies of the world. They have also voted with the clear perception that in the turbulent times through which India is passing with the rest of the world, she needed at the centre a national party that would look to the outside world rather than get bogged down with conflicts and politics in the regions of India. The results indicate a faith in the Congress for its policies and outlook.

The routing of the left front that had been a major obstacle for the Congress-led government is another major outcome of the elections. The left led a third front and lost even in its traditional strongholds of Kerala and West Bengal. It came out of the UPA government and opposed many of the economic reforms and the civil nuclear deal with the USA. Mamata Banarjee's Trinomul bagged 19 seats and with Congress winning 25 of the 42 seats in West Bengal, leaving the left with 15, it gave rise to speculation that the left's decades-old stranglehold in WB may be fading. The voters have also unequivocally rejected the left in national politics as a third force.

The voters' choice for UPA will have a positive impact on how India builds its strategic partnership with the United States. When Manmohon Singh signed the civil nuclear deal, President Bush was in office. As Prime Minister of a stronger Indian government, Manmohon Singh can now build upon that partnership with President Obama. He will now be in a more comfortable situation dealing with President Obama on other issues extending from economic reforms to climate change. President Obama will also find himself dealing with a new and strong Indian government at a time when the US is deeply involved with security of the region, with situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan sliding and in need of a dependable regional ally. A strong government in New Delhi will also send equally strong signals abroad to dispel fears of foreign investors.

Indian voters have always been fascinated with charismatic national leaders and for good reasons. In the British days, they were fascinated with Gandhi, Patel and a host of other national leaders. In free India, they were fascinated with Nehru and then Indira Gandhi. Then as regional politics took hold in New Delhi, charismatic national leaders became history. This year's elections witnessed the re-emergence of charisma in Indian politics manifested with all the charm and aura in the person of Rahul Gandhi, whose mother Congress Chief and wife of late Rajiv Gandhi matched her son as another charismatic leader in Indian politics. The son and mother duo had a significant impact on voters in favour of the Congress led UPA. Rahul, the anti-thesis of his cousin Varun, is now seen as a Prime Minister waiting in the wings and will surely be inducted in the new government.

For Bangladesh, the results have opened opportunities on a number of fronts. It will allow our government to interact with a stable government in New Delhi led by a resurgent Congress with which the Awami League has traditional and historical affinity. As a Prime Minister Dr. Manmohon Singh is wise and positive and we can expect that in his second term he will focus more on improvement of relations with neighbours including Bangladesh. The elections will bring into Indian politics a new generation of leaders led by Rahul Gandhi who can be expected to look forward to for a better South Asia than has hitherto been the case. We were disappointed at the way relations have been handled since the AL came to office in January, particularly surprised that the Indian Foreign Minister visited Dhaka and had failed to meet the leader of the opposition while meeting the Army Chief. We hope the new government will be more sensitive towards Bangladesh.

The Indian elections have many lessons for us if we are willing to take. The grace with which LK Advani accepted defeat is a lesson that, if taken by our leading politicians, could really open a world of opportunity for us. His offer to resign to take responsibility for his front and party's defeat is a democratic tradition that we could emulate in Bangladesh. On his part, Manmohon Singh sought Advani's support and constructive criticism to run the new government, saying: “we must open a new chapter in the working relations between the government and the principal opposition.” Sonia Gandhi's leadership style where she has put the nation before self is one our political leaders could follow.

The new governments in India and Bangladesh are expected to run parallel over the next five years. These are momentous times when opportunities are knocking at our doors. In Bangladesh, there has been a perceptible change in mindset for better relations with India based on mutuality. A strong government under Manmohon Singh can ensure a similar change in the Indian mindset. The two Prime Ministers must meet without losing time to cash upon the wind of change in our respective countries. They should send the message to the respective administrations that they have the political will for the change in the mindset that has kept Bangladesh-India relations from achieving their potentials. We should also make diplomatic efforts to reach Sonia Gandhi for her support in building Bangladesh-India relations and not get bogged down at the level of the Indian External Affairs Ministry where we seem to be stuck at the moment. The new Indian Government will take office after the parliament meets on June 2nd.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Rising Deaths of our Expatriates

The rising deaths of our expatriates
M Serajul Islam

Published in Dhaka Courier, May 22, 2009.
In recent days, a depressing news item has made its round in the newspapers on the number of our expatriates dying abroad, particularly in the Middle East. Leading English daily has mentioned 1,402 deaths in 2006; 1,673 in 2007 and 2,098 in 2008. In the first 4 months this year, the figure is 834 and if the current trend continues, the 2009 figure might be around 2,400. It means the death figure is rising disconcertingly.

A country-wise breakdown of dying Bangladesh expatriates is not available outside the Government. In most cases, families of the victims are informed that the dead suffered heart attacks or died of accidents. On first hand analysis, one can reach a number of sad conclusions. First, the victims are overwhelmingly from the ME and Southeast Asia, regions from where Bangladesh also receives the major portion of its much needed remittance. Second, the working conditions in these regions are harsh where our workers live in intolerable conditions. Third, although comprehensive comparative figures of deaths of expatriates from other countries working in ME are not readily available; one figure available from Indians in Qatar could provide some idea on where we stand. Last year, 208 Indians died in Qatar; 113 from heart attacks; 32 from road accidents and 17 committed suicides. The statistics suggest that deaths in ME among Indian expatriates is also high and that most of them also die of heart attacks as is the case with our expatriates pointing no doubt to the fact that working conditions in ME are inhospitable.

A report based on an ILO survey aired on CNN recently revealed a few facts on migrant labour in ME that are relevant in explaining the large number of untimely deaths. The facts are: first, forced labour is part of life among the expatriate labour force in the ME who comprises 2/3rd of the region's entire labour market. Second, as a consequence of forced labour, US $ 20 billion of their income annually is lost to the violators. Third, middle men in the sending countries takes away a large part of the earnings of these unfortunate expatriates, often up to one year of their earnings; in specific area of trade as construction and domestic work, up to 2 years' income. The CNN Report identifies the middle men as the "black area" in the international labour market. Added to these misfortunes, expatriates have their passports impounded and subjected to other forms of cruelty. The only bright spot in this otherwise bleak scenario is the awareness among some of the receiving countries to legislate to counter the abuses. Bahrain has taken the lead by the creating a Labour Market Regulatory Force recently.

The public awareness surrounding the deaths should motivate our Government to look into the issue of our manpower export seriously. There are encouraging signs. The Minister of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment (MEWOE) and the Minister of Foreign Affairs (MFA) have shown that they are proactive in addressing the twin issues of manpower export and welfare of our expatriates. The Prime Minister visited Saudi Arabia on her first overseas trip after assuming office that helped resolve the problem of 200,000 Bangladeshi expatriates there who feared deportation.
These efforts notwithstanding, much more must be done. Our expatriates toil under inhuman circumstances to send home foreign remittance that is now a major resource in our economic development. Last year, they remitted US$ 9 billion in foreign exchange although a similar amount was lost to the illegal Hundi trade. Despite the fear of a temporary slowdown in the remittance business due to the world economic meltdown, its potentials of future growth are unlimited. Although Bangladesh is unique among the manpower exporting countries as it is has a separate Ministry to deal with the expatriates, Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare & Overseas Employment (MEWOE) is not adequately staffed to deal with the affairs of nearly 6.5 million Bangladeshis who live abroad. In the context of fair treatment of our expatriates, our major problem is in the "black area" that the CNN Report has identified. We have 700 manpower agents in Bangladesh. Going by newspapers reports, our expatriates do not get a fair deal from majority of them. As part of the agreement, all expatriates are required to undergo some training at home that is usually paid for by the recruiting agencies/receiving countries. Our workers however are sent abroad with little or no training at all. We have all seen how new recruits behave at the ZIA. They also go abroad with little or no knowledge of the legal framework or the contract of their employment. Many find that they have been promised a pay package and get an inferior one. They leave the country with dreams for which many sell almost everything and on arrival, they find that they have been cheated and condemned to a nightmare.

On arrival at their work places, they are subjected to harsh conditions that are well known. In the ME, they work under a sponsorship system that compromises many of their fundamental rights. These sponsors impound their passports and prohibit them to change their jobs. (The Saudis have recently enacted a new law that permits expatriates to change jobs). The expatriates have little or no legal recourse when they are cheated on their pay and other privileges. They also find that workers from other countries are paid higher for the type of work they do; they are discriminated against.

Bangladeshi expatriates thus suffer at the hands of all the stakeholders. Given the fact that they dedicate their heart and soul for the country, it is both a legal and moral obligation of the Government to look after their welfare. To do this, a major focus should be to strengthen the Government's mechanism of supervision and control of the manpower business. The way we see our workers cheated by the manpower agents regularly, it may not be unfair to assume that there is a nexus of corruption in the system involving the government officials and the manpower agents. One way to deal with it could be to make a few things mandatory. First, the MEWOE must have a legal division strong and adequately staffed enough to scrutinize contracts of the expatriates to determine that they are genuine. Second, the Ministry must bear the responsibility to hold the concerned manpower agents responsible when expatriates find they have been cheated on landing in the destination country. Third, the Ministry should ensure that the expatriates are not sent abroad without undergoing training to learn about the country they would go to, together with other basic facts that would help them adjust better in their workplace. Fourth, as MOWOE is over-burdened and susceptible to corruption, the government could think of creating a powerful independent commission for monitoring and bringing to justice those who cheat the system and the expatriates. Finally, MOWOE should re-evaluate its work and find out whether the public perception of corruption in the Ministry is correct. In this context, it could be useful to inquire into the fate of an agreement between Bangladesh and Japan named the Japan International Training and Cooperation Agreement (JITCO) signed in 2005. Under the agreement, an unlimited number of people can go to Japan for 3 years to 60 small and medium scale industries for training and apprenticeship without paying anything at all and come back with Taka 15-20 lakhs in the bargain! To date, we have sent less than 2 scores of workers under the JITCO agreement because there is no money for the MOWOE officials or middlemen in it.

Our Government must focus at the destination countries equally seriously. In this context, we must do the following. First, through the diplomatic channels, we must follow up on the wind of change in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia so that we can achieve similar changes in other ME countries. Second, the MEWOE and MFA must coordinate their work intensely for the welfare of the expatriates. Third, the Embassies must be strengthened for consular related work. The present system of posting uninitiated officers from services other than BCS (FA) must be discontinued keeping in mind that such an officer in our High Commisison in Malaysia had almost ended our manpower export there. Officers posted in the Consular and Labour Wings of the Embassies must have diplomatic training and in case of postings in the ME, must speak Arabic fluently.

International concern for the inhuman conditions among expatriate workers will no doubt bring positive changes in the destination countries where our role is limited to diplomatic initiatives and strengthening our Embassies. Our main effort therefore must be at our end where we would need to work much harder than we have done. The Prime Minister's call for a Bank for Expatriates is a positive idea that must be implemented for this will allow the expatriates to get loans without falling into the hands of loan sharks to whom they lose most of their possessions for going abroad. One just hopes this is not rhetoric and implemented on a priority basis for such a bank will help both the expatriates and the country in other ways as well. The main task, however, will be regulating and controlling the 700 manpower agents where there is a very bad mix of few responsible ones with just too many irresponsible ones. Only a combination of the above-mentioned initiatives can ensure that our expatriates will not die pre-mature and in conditions that are just too cruel and unacceptable.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and can be reached on

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Editorial View: Indian Elections and Bangladesh

The Indian voters have clearly cast their verdict in favour of secularism, against regional parties in national politics and stability. They have voted for India and not the regions. They have also rejected the left force as a third force in Indian politics where the left has been routed even in their traditional strong bases in West Bengal and Kerala.

The Congress led UPA has been pleasantly surprised at the outcome. Wise and scholarly Dr Manmohon Singh, who has already been named as Prime Minister for another term, will thus be the first Prime Minister to return to the office in successive elections since Jahwarlal Nehru in 1961. The Congress that secured 203 seats and the UPA 260 will now just need a dozen more to reach the magic figure of 272 that will not require any horse trading. Indian politics is thus set on a stable course over the next five years at a time when stability is crucial to India’s future.

BJP led NDA did not expect to lose so badly. In fact, they have been trounced, getting 158 seats. In some bit of soul searching, the alliance leaders are blaming themselves for their defeat, particularly for playing the communal card with Varun Gandhi anti-Muslim hate speech and Narendra Modi’s emergence in the front as a possible Prime Minister of India. Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat, a position that he is still holding, directly used the state machinery against the Muslims in the Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 in the province. His complicity in the riots has been condemned in India and well as abroad and the United States has a ban on him from entering the country for his role in the Gujarat riots.

The elections will bring to office in New Delhi a strong and stable government that is necessary for India to deal with the current economic crisis in the country; a crisis that has resulted from the world economic meltdown. The strong and stable government will also allow India to carry forward its strategic partnership with the US that was put into place when President Bush was in office. There are a host of other issues that the two countries need to closely interact with and the election result will allow India to do that with President Obama who is deeply concerned with security in the region with situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan sliding. The results will also give a strong signal to foreign investors who had been uncomfortable under the last UPA Government that was threatened into inertia and inaction by the left parties that was a part of the UPA alliance before it came out to make life difficult for the government on economic issues and issues of economic reform.

For Bangladesh, the results mean Congress will be in power for the next 5 years, stronger and confident. The AL Government that has historically close relations with India can now use that closeness to resolve a number of outstanding issues in our bilateral relations , on water sharing, maritime boundary demarcation, trade issues and militancy. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina should, at the earliest opportunity, meet the Indian Prime Minister and also make efforts to interact with Sonia Gandhi, for political direction from them to overcome the mindset in India for betterment of Bangladesh-India relations. There are also a few lessons to be learnt from the Indian elections. The way Manmohon Singh and LK Advani have interacted with each other after the results were announced should remind our leaders what they lack. The offer of Manmohon Singh to take the opposition on board to govern India is the most important lesson our political parties could take from the Indian elections.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Qaumi Madrassas and the reality

The Daily Star, May 16, 2009

THE World Bank Country Director recently forwarded to the government a report that is interesting in the context of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh in reality. In the last few months, the media has published series of reports and news items, many based on statements of Ministers that would suggest that Bangladesh is in imminent threat from Islamic militancy. At the time the intelligence agencies discovered a huge arsenal of arms and ammunition in a remote village in Barisal and linked it to a Bangladesh born British national. Some concluded that the Qaumi Madrassas (QM) were hotbeds of Islamic militancy. The WB report contradicts most of these allegations.

In a seminar in BILIA, a government sponsored think tank, the alleged link between QM and Islamic terrorism was blown out of proportion. Its Director quoted from a research in which the WB report found too many potholes. The Director had said that from 2001-2006 or during the BNP government, 35% of Army soldiers were recruited from QM against 5% before 2001 elections. The other dangerous element of his statement was his conclusion that the majority of madrassa educated soldiers “are involved with militancy.” The research paper that the BILIA Director quoted also mentioned that QM curricula are designed to prepare students for army entrance exams.

The WB report has trashed the all hitherto published news reports on QM; in particular the research paper that the BILIA Director has quoted. The Report said the QM is “doing a good job “and that it is not as well entrenched in rural Bangladesh as has been reported in the media. Only 1.9% of total rural primary enrolment is from QM. The WB report found no link in QM and militancy and has also rejected the claim of rise of madrassa educated graduates in Army as “unfounded.” In this context, the Prime Minister must be given the credit for dealing with the QM issue effectively when she met with its leaders and assured them that her government has confidence in the institution and did not believe what has been said about it in the media.

Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country with the overwhelming majority of them simple but firm believers in Islam as a complete code of life. Most of them are not educated enough to understand the virtues of secularism and other intellectual concepts. It is therefore very important for the government to be extremely cautious when handling Islam politically. The current debate over the Fifth Amendment to the constitution, which is now in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, must be handled with care. If the Appellate Division upholds the High Court verdict, then secularism will replace "Absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions" as the fourth principle of state policy with democracy, nationalism and socialism. The Law Minister, acknowledging that the amendment could affect Islamic sentiments, has reassured the people that "bismillah" will remain before the Preamble to the Constitution although this assurance may not be enough.

The trial of the war criminals must also be handled with care. The government cannot backtrack because people voted it to power on this plank as it did on a number of other issues like “Vision 2021” and “Digital Bangladesh.” There is little or no need for the government to go to the media with it because it is pledge-bound to carry it out. Media hype together with the inclination of the ministers to talk about the issue in the media will only delay the government's efforts to conduct the trials and give the opponents an excuse to use the Islamic card against the trials.

It would be foolhardy to underestimate threats of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh. But if any country facing such a threat is poised well to handle it, Bangladesh is the country only if the politics of blame-game does not intervene. One can still move about anywhere in Bangladesh without any fear of being blown up by a bomb. One cannot, however, move around in Bangladesh freely because of common criminals, some with alleged link to those in power. There has been a rapid deterioration of law and order all over Bangladesh and a lot of it is linked to politics in the country. Yet we seem to be concerned more with Islamic militancy and less about the slide in law and order that poses an equally great problem for Bangladesh.

The AL has no links to Islam based parties and thus has no baggage to carry to please such groups as the BNP had to during 2001-2006, an opportunity the Islamic parties used to good measure. The AL has won a massive mandate from the people on an agenda of economic development where power generation, water distribution and overall economic development are their promises to the nation together with holding the trial of the war criminals. To succeed on all these issues, a stable political environment is absolutely indispensable. It is unfortunate that they are now moving into areas that have potential of making politics volatile and unstable.

Our people are deeply sensitive towards Islam. Giving wrong perceptions of Islam abroad also has the potential of harming Bangladesh. Millions of our expatriates live in the Middle East with nearly two million in Saudi Arabia. If these countries perceive that Islam is in danger in Bangladesh, the economic consequences will not be good for the country. Islamic political parties have their supporters in these countries and hence when we blame them for terrorism, we must have our facts absolutely correct and discuss these with our friends in the Middle East, take them on board and then proceed with the matter. Here our diplomacy has a great role to play. Before anyone runs to the media to score points with Islamic militancy, they must have their facts impeccably correct and then weigh it against the diplomatic considerations.

With the AL's massive election victory, the country has been given a great opportunity for economic and social development. The WB report should remind the government that there is a lot of serious research that needs to be done on the status of Islamic militancy in the country before going public over it. This government must save the country from the threats of Islamic militancy and at the same time it must save the image of Bangladesh.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Indian Diplomacy and the focused Army General

Published in The Dhaka Courier, May 15, 2009

The recent news of the Indian High Commissioner's meeting with the Leader of the Opposition Begum Khaleda Zia was unexpected coming after the Indian Foreign Minister and the Indian Foreign Secretary had visited Dhaka and ignored the former Prime Minister that left many raised eyebrows with a lot of unhealthy speculations and criticisms to boot.

India's democratic credentials are universally acknowledged. Most of us have heard about the famous exchange the legendary Jawaherlal Nehru had with his three defense chiefs who had called on him soon after India's independence in 1947. He kept them waiting a long while, knowing their intention was to advise him on Pakistan, and when they faced him, he simply asked them to leave their uniforms if they wished to "advise" a Prime Minister on political affairs.

Therefore, when the Indian Foreign Minister came to Bangladesh and found time to meet our Army Chief but none to call upon the Leader of the Opposition, there were a lot of expected criticisms. The reason given by the Indian side that Pranab Mukherjee could not meet Khaleda Zia for lack of time was a poor one, given that he found time to visit Dhaka University, in addition to meeting General Moeen.

The meeting of the Indian Foreign Secretary Shivsankar Menon with the Army Chief was also equally surprising because it is unusual for someone in his position to call on someone like General Moeen while on an official visit. Since he followed his boss to meet the Bangladesh Army Chief, it may not be unfair to either to suspect that they both had something secret to discuss with him that forced them to break with practice and protocol. It would be interesting to find out whether an Indian Foreign Minister or a Foreign Secretary, while visiting another country, has met someone like General Moeen, especially as in case of Pranab Mukherjee, where he skipped meeting the Leader of the Opposition.

For good reasons, Indian diplomacy as Indian democracy is based on solid credentials. Indian Foreign Service has some of the finest diplomats. Therefore, for justifiable reasons, the meetings of Pranab Mukherjee and Menon with General Moeen have raised many questions in Bangladesh. A lot of this has also come out of the controversial role the General has played during the post 1/11 emergency rule when he tried to impose upon Bangladesh his "vision" of democracy that did not have any place for either Sheikh Hasina or Khaleda Zia. He summarily assumed politicians to be corrupt and got a large number of them incarcerated. Then he changed course and under his encouragement, the civilians in the emergency government negotiated an agreement for the 29th December elections that BNP thought favoured the Awami League.
During the emergency, the General also visited India and met senior leaders of the Congress-led Government. Before undertaking the trip, he said that he was going to put the Bangladesh-India relations on track, something political governments had failed to do, and would even meet the Indian Prime Minister that did not eventually happen. He, of course, met the Indian FM on this trip.

These facts about the General are known to the Indians. Yet the Indian Foreign Ministry arranged the meetings that have naturally caused suspicion in Bangladesh about what transpired in the meetings. There were reports in the Indian media that Shivsankar Menon came to warn Sheikh Hasina about a plot to assassinate her that was picked up on the internet chat sessions! Like the reason given for the Indian FM's failure to meet Khaleda Zia, this explanation is also a very wishy washy one that no one in Bangladesh has taken seriously.

Geopolitics and political realities leave Bangladesh and India with no alternative but to be good neighbours if they want the welfare of their peoples and their countries. Bangladesh, an agricultural nation where rivers sustain life and livelihood of its people, has 54 of the 56 rivers flowing from India. Our position is between the mainland India and seven Indian provinces in the Northeast whose economic development can only be fully achieved with Bangladesh's cooperation. Further, at times when terrorism is a major concern in India, it is essential for Bangladesh with its 150 million people to succeed and move forward as a state. If we fail, India cannot avoid the consequences as Bangladesh then can very well turn into a hotbed of international terrorism.

Few things have happened in Bangladesh recently that suggests we have crossed a bend to align our relations with India in a win-win perspective. Parties and informed groups are now openly talking on issues such as land transit/connectivity and giving India use of our ports that were taboo subjects in our politics not too long ago. The emergence of the AL with a massive mandate that has historically good relations with the Indians, particularly the ruling Congress, is another positive development for realigning Bangladesh-India relations on the basis of mutuality.

It is, therefore, surprising that Indian diplomacy should be making moves that are bound to cause legitimate concerns in Bangladesh. There are other causes for worry coming from the Indian side. In his meeting with Sheikh Hasina, Menon extended to our Prime Minister an invitation on behalf of the Indian Government to send a delegation to look at Tipai Mukh barrage, little concerned that this is an explosive issue for damaging relations, as dangerous as the Farakka issue. Already opinion inside Bangladesh is crystallizing dangerously against this barrage which people feel that just as the Farakka barrage will eventually turn northwest Bangladesh into a desert; this barrage will do the same to northeast Bangladesh after it is commissioned in 2012.

For achieving good and sustainable relations, India must change her mindset from bilateralism and seek regional and sub-regional resolution of the problems that have stood in the way of good relations between our two countries. The sharing of the issue of water of the common rivers, which is a major cause of ill feelings between our two countries, can easily be turned into a bondage for sustainable friendship given the undeniable fact that sub-regional approach to this issue could leave both India and Bangladesh together with Nepal and Bhutan with not only just enough water in the dry season but also enough electricity to share and devastating floods to contain.

Indian diplomacy in Bangladesh is perhaps focusing the wrong areas and thereby overlooking a momentous opportunity, one that may not come again in foreseeable future, when Bangladesh is really eager to improve its relations with India. Overtures to Bangladesh's armed forces together with building of barrages like Tipai Mukh (not forgetting fencing the border) are some of the recent Indian steps in opposite directions. Such overtures from Dhaka's point of view could throw Bangladesh-India relations into a new abyss out of which fundamentalism and terrorism could grow dangerously. A successful and stable Bangladesh is to India's advantage; while an unstable Bangladesh with attempts to project it as a 'failed state' is dangerous for India also. It is still a mystery why Indian diplomacy is moving in a wrong way to ensure the latter.

Indian High Commissioner's meeting with Khaleda Zia may be a move to manage relations from sliding, although India must do a lot more to re-assure Bangladesh. The Indians need Khaleda Zia on board for improvement of relations. They also need to talk to Sheikh Hasina to encourage her to resolve conflicts in Bangladesh's politics and not create any. Indian diplomacy is on test again not just for Bangladesh's sake but for India's as well.

Editorial Comment: Death of a Brilliant Scientist; National Sycophancy and an Opportunity Missed

The death of Mr. Wajed Ali Miah, the husband of the Prime Minister was sad news. He was a brilliant student. In his days, to secure a First Class First in Physics in both the Honours and Master’s examinations from Dhaka University were something that only the exceptionally bright and gifted could achieve. He was also elected the Vice President of Fazlul Huq Hall of Dhaka University that was also an exceptional feat because the best students of that period used to reside there.

These credentials and the fact that he was the husband of the Prime Minister are enough reasons for his death to be mourned nationally. In addition, as has been revealed in the floodgate of information that has come to the media following his death, he was also a brilliant professional and a kind and considerate man.

But his life and his credentials faded in the way his death was “mourned”. The way the doctor “cried” while announcing the death news, the wave of people who turned up in his funeral rites; the editorials and articles written on him; the number of talk shows held on his life; and the advertisements by the banks and commercial houses mourning his death reflected the type of a nation we are; sycophantic to the point of being ridiculous.

In the wave of national sycophancy, we have missed on the most important thing that happened surrounding this sad event. It was the embrace of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The decision of Khaleda Zia to visit Sudha Bhavan and for the Prime Minister to give her nod of approval to it was unexpected but one that should have been the thread that our media should have picked to give it a positive spin for the sake of the nation. Instead, the papers and the media sidelined this news and instead opted to join the floodgate of sycophantic news coverage, editorials, talk shows etc, etc. In those brief moments of the embrace, the two ladies wept and their tears were perhaps the few genuine tears that were shed over the death together with those of the immediate family and friends of the departed scientist. The rest of the tears was no better and no worse than “crocodile tears”.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Obama's speech in Turkey and hope for a better world

Published in The Daily Star, May 9, 2009

PRESIDENT Barak Obama is truly a breath of fresh air in every sense of the term. That his presence means Bush is no longer around is in itself great news. It is for good reasons that the story about God telling the guy who came to White House looking for Bush made such rounds on the internet. When the guy came the first day to White House and asked God about Bush, he was told he lived there no longer. The guy came a second day; asked the question again and received the same answer. When he came a third day and asked the same question, an irate God asked him why he was asking the same question knowing what the answer would be. The guy's answer, with a broad smile was, to hear from God over and over again that Bush is history.

Thus the warm welcome that President Obama received during his just-concluded first overseas trip to Europe and ME was because of the relief in these countries that he had replaced Bush in the position of the most powerful individual on earth. But this partly explains the rousing welcome he was given by the leaders and the people in these countries. The man is also to a large measure responsible for the reception he received. When he had started his campaign for the White House, he was given a long shot because of his colour. But the more his people saw him, the more they liked him for in what he spoke, there was both a moral and intellectual depth that made him comparable to the great presidents of US history, like Lincoln and Kennedy, for example. President Obama is now on the centre stage to prove that he is as good as these great US Presidents; in fact he may even have to be better to undo the harm that eight years of Bush presidency has done to US and the world.

The Bush presidency was at its worst in the way it divided the US and the Islamic world. In giving his first reaction to 9/11 on TV, President Bush had blurted out the word “crusade.” His actions in Afghanistan in pursuit of Al Qaeda that he held responsible for 9/11 was supported by many countries. However, when he entered Iraq where there was no Al Qaeda or Islamic militants, the Muslim world felt that his intentions were anti-Muslim and that his reference to the crusade was by no means accidental. In fairness though it must be admitted that long afterwards, Bush did say that US is not at war with Islam but by then very few in the Islamic world believed that his war was anything but against Islam; a clash of the Western and the Islamic civilizations. President Obama's speech before the Turkish parliament during this trip where he said that “US never is or will be at war with the Islamic world” has gone a long way in assuring Muslims that the US is not their enemy. The Islamic world's excitement has been based on other carefully crafted words in his speech such as: “many Americans have Muslims in their families; I know because I am one of them” in direct reference to his own Muslim heritage. He was introduced as Barak Hussein Obama by the Turkish speaker, the emphasis clearly on his middle name Hussein that he himself had emphasized while taking oath.

Muslim hearts worldwide have been gladdened by the speech. In his speech, President Obama extended a genuine hand of friendship to the Muslims. He acknowledged the importance of resolving the Palestinian problem that Bush had considered secondary in his foreign policy goals in ME, having taken eight months after assuming office to send his Secretary of State there who had then said that Iraq and not Palestine was the major concern of US in the region. He asserted US's commitment to the two-state policy for ending the Palestinian problem. He again reasserted that Iran is not “an axis of evil” but an Islamic Republic with which US wants dialogue for friendly relations; a statement that was so dramatic as to be unbelievable when it was made by the US President in a TV address that he gave before embarking on this overseas trip. These commitments are like waking up to a bright, sunny morning after a nightmare in hell under President Bush. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, whose country is crucial to the resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict, has articulated the reaction of the Muslim world aptly by referring to it as the “first and significant“ step for mitigating the tension between US and the Muslim world.

Despite his best intentions that few doubt; the odds on President Obama bridging the wide gap between the US and the Islamic world will not be easy. Newly emerging realities also add to make his task difficult. The emergence of the hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel's Prime Minister is not good news although his initial reaction to Obama's resolve for peace in ME and the Palestinian state has been positive. A statement from his office said: "The government of Israel is committed to both of these goals and will formulate its policies in the near future so as to work closely with the United States." The way Pakistan is sliding toward political uncertainty and Taleban gaining ascendancy there and in Afghanistan are worrying factors. Without a stable and dependable Pakistan and an Afghanistan where Afghans are in control, US's efforts to tackle terror and militancy will falter as the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan becomes stronger everyday as a safe haven for Al Qaeda.

On Israel-Palestine conflict, positive result will depend primarily on how forcefully President Obama can handle Israel. Netanyahu's name is enough to freeze any thought of a forward movement on the Israel-Palestine conflict, his positive reaction to Obama's speech notwithstanding. In the past, US moves in resolving the conflict faltered because the fundamental fact that the plight of the Palestinians who have been made refugees in the land that has been theirs for centuries, has not entered into the equation. Instead, the victims have been asked to make the concessions and blamed for the consequences. Recent events in Gaza have opened the eyes of even those who have so long been blind towards Israel about the mindlessness and cruelty of their behaviour towards Palestinians. It has made the Palestinian Doctor Ezzeldeen Abu Al-Aish, whose three daughters were recently killed by Israelis in Gaza, a top contender for this year's Noble Peace Prize. The US alone has the power and influence, as Israel's main ally and benefactor, to settle the Palestinian problem by convincing the latter that leaving this problem unresolved has been the main reason for rise of Islamic militancy. Resolving the Palestinian problem can still take a lot of the wind out of the sail of Islamic militancy and bring US and Muslims closer. Stabilizing politics in Pakistan and Afghanistan and ending Talebans' ascendency there will need great efforts. Getting Iran off the list of the “axis of evil” may not be enough and engaging Iran in constructive discussion could be a long drawn process. All said, President Obama has undoubtedly set US priorities in the right perspective.

The world is yearning for peace and there are hopeful signs. The worst seems to be over in Iraq, although it was achieved through the lives of thousands of US troops and hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi men, women and children who were “collateral “victims. The scepter of a war with Iran has dissipated. Obama's presence at this moment in history is too good to be true; a black US President with Muslim heritage. Even the best of the story tellers could not have imagined, when Bush was taking the world apart, fighting his war on terror in Muslim countries that there would be a black US President, with Muslim linkage and a Muslim middle name. Only the future can tell whether Obama would bring peace to the world. For the moment, his speech in Turkey has given us the courage to hope for a peaceful world.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bipartisanship and Bangladesh's Future

Dr. Muzzaffar Ahmed Chowdhury, Professor of Political Science and Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University was also a Minister in the Cabinet of Bangobandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He had in him what makes a legend and a legend he was. In class, he used to tell us while reflecting on the politics of Pakistan that a major problem of the country was mindset of the political leaders to blame others for their faults, never accepting any on their part.

Thirty eight years after our independence, we are still caught in the same mindset that Dr. Chowdhury saw in Pakistan. As a nation, we have failed to grow out of it just as Pakistan failed till it disintegrated. The blame game has worsened. In her latest speech on May Day, our Prime Minister explicitly pointed accusing fingers at the BNP for the major crises Bangladesh is facing with electricity and water. In fact, from the very first day of assuming office, she has been harping on this theme consistently with her Ministers orchestrating this blame game with consistency and devotion. Khaleda Zia in her May Day rally a day later also proved that she is equal to her nemesis in the blame game by blaming the AL for the current problems.
The people agreed overwhelmingly with the Awami League's anti-BNP platform in the December 29th elections. In fact, they left no one in doubt on the issue by the margin with which they returned the party to power. They also voted for AL's "Vision 2021" and "Digital Bangladesh". Therefore, they expect the AL to go ahead fulfilling the promises instead of wasting time blaming the BNP over and over again. It does not serve the AL's purpose either; the time wasted in this blame game is also a waste of time for the nation. It is in fact more than a waste of time; it provokes the BNP and if history is any guide for a prediction, Bangladesh will no doubt suffer the consequences of such provocation as it can only lead to making politics volatile and un-stable.

Even in this blame game, all is not fair. When the Prime Minister blamed the BNP for the current problems of the country, she failed to consider that there was a two-year period in-between during which an emergency government led by Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed was in office. Two years is a long time in the life of a government and more so, if power generation and water distribution are the issues. The emergency government in addition had the advantage of ruling without any opposition and did not also suffer the other disadvantages that elected governments confront. Hence, while the Prime Minister may have been justified in blaming the BNP on power and water in her May Day address, she should not have left the emergency government out of the equation in the blame game. Quite predictably, Khaleda Zia's response to Sheikh Hasina was nothing new. She made a number of accusations of her own in her public rally and threatened to launch a campaign to unseat the AL Government. This can very well be a prelude to conflicts and violence to follow.
Our politicians talk of history. Yet sadly no political party or political leader takes lessons from it. Today the AL is basking and for good reasons. Yet it is forgetting that in 2001, the BNP's victory was almost equally massive in terms of the number of seats won. The BNP squandered that massive victory by turning a blind eye to their mistakes, allowing corruption and terrorism to thrive in their backyard, too busy playing the blame game.

It is still too early to predict the direction in which the AL is going. But then in the course they are taking, there is an eerie similarity with the course BNP had taken in 2001 that left many people, who voted for the party in the belief that things would change the country for the better, worried. While it is true that the BNP has just 30 seats in parliament; it is also a fact that they represent a very large section of the nation whose support for governance is vitally necessary. Going after the BNP cannot be a national agenda; it can only come in the way of the AL implementing the promises it has made to the people who are only interested in the successful implementation of these promises. They do not care now about the BNP; they care much less about what wrong they had done in politics when they were in power.

Bangladesh is the envy of the rest of South Asia for its homogeneity and egalitarian society. It does not have the deep religious, regional, ethnic and rich-poor divides that are the bane of politics in many of the South Asian countries. Yet as a nation, we are the most divisive in the region, barring Sri Lanka, for it is just not that we have divided ourselves nationally into the two mainstream political parties, these parties in turn have divided the nation by extending their all-pervasive influence into the civil bureaucracy, civil society, educational institutions, judiciary; in fact, they have not spared any branch of organized activities in this country from their race for grab. Before this elected government came to office, we had 15 years of elected rule where the BNP was in office two times and the AL, once. They made the parliament non-functional and encouraged politics to be conducted in the streets through violence and mindless conflicts. During this period, many hundreds of days were lost because of hartals that not just damaged the economy; in case of students, this resulted in loss of valuable years from their lives. In economic and social development however, we achieved significant growth despite such violence and conflicts in our politics mainly because of the pioneering role of the private sector that just goes to prove one point; if the two mainstream parties were united on national issues of development between 1991-2006 and had given the private sector the support that they so richly deserved, then the AL's Vision 2021 and Dr. Yunus's dream of a Bangladesh free of poverty would have been achieved long ago.
Political parties in opposite camps fight in all democracies. They hold conflicting views too. But on issues of national importance, political parties everywhere make their best efforts to follow a bipartisan approach. When Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee was invited to visit Pakistan by President Pervez Musharaff, he (Vajpayee) made sure that he had the Congress on board and talked to Congress Leader Sonia Gandhi to ensure that she and her party were aware of what the Prime Minister would be discussing in Pakistan.

There is no reason why Bangladesh should not become what the Prime Minister envisions. Then there is also no reason why the Prime Minister's vision would be realized. The explanation to the obvious contradiction is embedded in the fact that Bangladesh cannot achieve its potentials on entirely the Awami League way or entirely the BNP way. In a basically two-party system, no nation can develop where the party in power tries to take the country forward with total disregard for the views of the opposition. Development is a national agenda, not essentially a party one and definitely not where the parties think of politics the way they do in Bangladesh. There has to be a bipartisan approach to Bangladesh's development. There is no alternative to it.

Recently I was in Cape Town and there visited Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held captive for 18 years of apartheid. A former inmate of the prison briefed us. We were shown the lime quarry where the prisoners worked under the sun day in and day out. Many of the prisoners were eventually blinded as a consequence of the glare of the sun in the quarry. This ex-prisoner also told us of other inhuman cruelties, a lot of which we know from books and other sources of information. Yet when apartheid was overthrown, Nelson Mandela and his colleagues forgave their former captors, all for the sake of South Africa. In Bangladesh, the reasons of the blame-game of the two mainstream parties are trivial compared to what the blacks in South Africa had gone through. Yet why cannot our politicians and political parties find it in their hearts to forget and forgive for the sake of Bangladesh?

President Obama is a phenomenon for the same reasons. He has extended his hand of friendship to his bitterest foes. He has risen over his party credentials and personal dislikes for uniting a country that his predecessor has so badly divided. It is time for our elected Prime Ministers to do the same; the AL more so for it has used Obama campaign's theme of change in the December elections. Bangladesh is not a nation of just the Awami Leaguers or just the BNP supporters; both are almost equal in numbers. Serving the interests of just one of the parties forgetting the other completely is not even common sense that dictates a bipartisanship approach on national issues. As the Awami League is now in office, it is their responsibility to take this approach for the better future of Bangladesh. In fact, there is no other approach if the issue is the future of Bangladesh.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Interview with Voice of America's Ziaur Rahman

(Audio is in Bengali)

Ambassador Serajul Islam Comments on President Obama’s First 100 Days
By Ziaur Rahman

In an interview with Voice of America, Ambassador Serajul Islam says President Obama in the first one hundred days of his administration changed the world atmosphere and attitude from animosity to friendship towards United States.

Ambassador Islam says President Obama extended a hand of friendship and cooperation towards the Muslim world, bringing Muslims of many nations closer to America.