Friday, October 30, 2009

Minister blames missions: Is the emphasis on the right place?

FOREIGN Minister Dipu Moni, while addressing a gathering of Bangladeshi labour attaches in Dhaka recently, expressed her disappointment and frustration at the state of affairs in Bangladesh embassies where lack of cooperation between the Ambassador and different wings has jeopardized the labour market for expatriates. The Foreign Minister was absolutely correct on what she said. However, she has scratched the surface of a problem that is much deeper. In blaming the missions for lack of cooperation and coordination, the Minister has focused on the effect of an irrational system the cause of which is the way our foreign policy is articulated, coordinated and implemented at home.

Diplomatic missions are established in foreign countries to allow a country to reach its foreign policy goals. The history of establishment of diplomatic missions is as old as the conduct of peaceful relations between countries. In modern history, conduct of diplomatic relations has become complex and complicated for a variety of reasons of which, the influx of so many independent states is one major reason. Globalization is another. Therefore, today, a diplomatic mission is required to pursue in the host country a whole range of objectives to expand a country's interests abroad. It conducts very serious and indispensable business for the country. It is the most important implementation mechanism of a country's foreign policy.

The sizes of diplomatic missions differ from one country to another. For example, a US Embassy in an important capital would be as big, if not bigger, than our entire Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, diplomatic missions of all countries have some uniform characteristics. The most important one is the role of the Ambassador (High Commissioner in case of Commonwealth countries). There are perhaps very few job titles that can match that of the Ambassador. In his/her mission, the Ambassador is the unquestioned authority over everyone and almost everything that happens in the Embassy. No one has any authority unless the Ambassador gives it to him/her.

Work in a diplomatic mission is also universally organized under wings such as diplomatic, economic, commercial, consular, labour, defense, etc. for sake of effectiveness where officers with specialized skills and background are grouped separately. In some countries, the bulk of these officers come from their respective Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In other countries, like in case of Bangladesh, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sends officers to the diplomatic wing; in the other wings officers are sent from other Ministries of the Government. Such organization notwithstanding, all wings work under the unquestioned authority of the Ambassador where coordination and cooperation is of the essence. As a diplomatic mission represents a country's sovereign authority in a foreign country, it can only speak in one voice and act unitedly for the sake of the country. A sacrosanct chain of command under the Ambassador's authority and unity is indispensable to the establishment of a diplomatic mission.

The Minister, by her statement at the meeting of the labour attaches, has admitted that our missions do not follow these sacrosanct principles of a diplomatic mission, namely the absolute authority of the Ambassador over his staff and the need of cooperation and coordination among the wings. It is also somewhat surprising that the Minister has blamed the mission for the independence of the wings. The history of Bangladeshi diplomacy shows how the Foreign Ministry has been virtually marginalised over the long haul since the death of Bangobandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In the fight between the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service Officers who nurtured and established the career diplomatic service of Bangladesh and the officers of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan carried out in the late 1970s and 1980s, the Foreign Ministry was virtually stripped of all its powers. Relevant documents of the Government like the Rules of Business and Allocation of Responsibilities were also suitably amended to legalize the marginalization of the Foreign Ministry. If the Minister cared to look into the roles of the Ministry of Commerce, the External Resources Division and the Expatriate Ministry in foreign policy goals, she would not have been surprised and frustrated that they can control the diplomatic missions on all affairs of economic diplomacy without the need to consult the Foreign Ministry.

The Minister's frustration over the missions, nevertheless, is absolutely justified because the consequences are affecting Bangladesh's vital interests very badly. The Minister has named manpower export as one but there are many more such instances. However, the Foreign Minister, while rightly assessing the problem, has failed to focus on where the solution lies. The solution is most certainly not in the mission. It is squarely and completely at home where the historical jealousy of the other Ministries with the Foreign Ministry is what has created this unbelievable situation in the Bangladesh missions abroad. A Bangladesh diplomatic mission, in a microcosm, is literally many ministries working under one ceiling abroad, taking to foreign soil all the conflicts they have at home. Each wing receives its orders and directives from its own Ministry at home that are often mutually conflicting. While it is not possible to relate here the nature and extent of conflicts and contradictions among the ministries that have external nature of work, it would suffice to say that such conflicts are unhealthy and defeats the objectives of our foreign policy.

If the Foreign Minister is serious about ensuring that the wings in a diplomatic mission work unitedly under the leadership of the Ambassador, which is the right and logical thing to do, then she must initiate action at home. The best way to achieve this is to expand the reach of the Foreign Ministry and bring under its wing trade, aid, and manpower export. The personnel for these specialized wings must be trained in diplomacy first, given the language skill next and then allowed to specialize before they are sent abroad. The present system of sending officers from the home based services, who have no diplomatic or language skills to work in a foreign environment, and expecting them to enhance trade, aid and manpower export is just a fond wish with little or no touch of reality. A colleague who lectured to a few labour attaches being sent to our missions aboard in the Foreign Service Academy was astounded by their lack of knowledge of the work they would be expected to do abroad. They also had very little perception of diplomacy and diplomatic work. Even if these officers keep the Ambassador fully informed of their work, it would be foolhardy to expect that they would be in any way able to enhance our manpower export.

If it is not possible to expand the reach of the Foreign Ministry, then the only other alternative would be to depute the officers of the other wings to the Foreign Ministry as it was done for awhile after our independence to allow the Foreign Ministry to issue their appointment letters so that they would be obliged to report to the Foreign Ministry. In any case, these officers do not belong to the Ministries that send them. Therefore, it would only be fit that they should report to the Foreign Ministry and be guided by it. This would also allow the Ambassador to have the control he should have over the wings.

If both the suggestions fail, then the only other way to force some rationality in the conduct of our foreign affairs would be to establish better coordination among all the Ministries with foreign policy responsibilities, with the Foreign Ministry in the coordination role.

Dipu Moni's frustrations notwithstanding, nothing will change till corrective measures are taken at home to bring the Foreign Ministry back into full reckoning or some at least in matters of foreign policy.

Published in The Daily Star, October 31, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Change of Guards: Fakhruddin to Nazrul

By the time 1987 came around, we all knew that it was just a matter of time for a change of guards at the office of the Foreign Secretary. It was a pity that for an excellent diplomat and a wonderful man like Fakhruddin Ahmed, his stint in the Foreign Ministry as a Foreign Secretary would be the way it has been for no fault of his. In his first stint when he became Foreign Secretary after Enayet Karim died in office in 1973, he had to hold charge as Acting Foreign Secretary for a long period till he was made a full Secretary although he was immensely liked by Bangobandhu for his ability and personality. In his second stint, he was not allowed to work because of the negative attitude of his superiors.

In January, 1987, President Ershad visited Kuwait to attend the 5th Summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conference countries. Fakhruddin Ahmed was not included in that delegation on the reasoning that a Foreign Minister and a Foreign Secretary cannot travel together in a Presidential delegation. At the airport, the President's aircraft faced some hassle. It was kept out of the boarding bridge for a while. There was a slip in communication somewhere but then the President was quite rightly very angry. The Ambassador in Kuwait at that time was Nazrul Islam, an ex-Pakistan Foreign Service Officer of the 1955 batch, a batch junior to Fakhruddin Ahmed. The President's anger quite naturally fell upon the Ambassador. He however turned that anger to his advantage by sorting out the lapse, pinpointing the responsibility that showed that the Mission was not responsible; secured apologies from the hosts, all achieved in very quick time that impressed the President. A Labour Attaché at the Kuwait Embassy was a nephew of a very influential army general close to the President, a connection that also worked in favour of Nazrul Islam. By the time the President left for Dhaka, his mind was already made up about who would soon be replacing Fakhruddin Ahmed at the Foreign Ministry.

In the 1980s, Dhaka did not have the large number of private TV channels that we see today. In fact, it only had the government owned Bangladesh television or BTV. There were fewer newspapers those days too. But those days, there was a vibrant and dedicated group of journalists who seriously covered the affairs of the Foreign Ministry. At the Foreign Ministry, the Foreign Secretary used to meet these journalists although during the period of Fakhruddin Ahmed, such press briefings had not yet become a weekly affair but were based on as and when needed. By and large, these diplomatic correspondents were good and covered news objectively. However, there were the odd ones who were more interested in the gossip in the Ministry; in the postings and transfers; and in what happened at the missions. The President's Office viewed these reports very seriously and the Foreign Ministry spent a great deal of time explaining such news reports primarily based on gossips and not on substance. Many career diplomats fell into problems due to such reports.

The press also speculated on the under current in the Foreign Ministry between the Minister and the Foreign Secretary and the Ministry and the President's Office. In fact, the media played the role of the straw that broke the camel's back in ending the tenure of Fakhruddin Ahmed. The incident occurred during the official visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary Ramesh Bhandari to Dhaka shortly before Fakhruddin Ahmed's tenure came to an end in May, 1987. Ramesh Bhandari and Fakhruddin Ahmed had fruitful talks. On the Indian side, there was sincerity to improve relations with neighbours because Rajiv Gandhi was serious about it. In fact, in 1985, he had made a trip to Urirchar to personally stand by side of Bangladesh after the country was hit by a devastating cyclone. Despite the desire on both sides for improvement of relations, there were nevertheless serious unresolved issues. The issue of South Talpatti in the Bay of Bengal was at that time a matter of serious controversy between the two countries related to the demarcation of maritime boundary.

Following the conclusion of the talks, the two Foreign Secretaries addressed a joint press conference. Fakhruddin Ahmed was reluctant to address the press but agreed to do so on the recommendation of the South Asia Wing of the Ministry. Journalists at the conference picked on the South Talpatti issue to try and corner Ramesh Bhandari and Fakhruddin Ahmed. Ramesh Bhandari said all bilateral issues were discussed. When one journalist insisted on South Talpatti, he said the issue was not important.

Fakhruddin Ahmed allowed the question to pass and did not add or contradict his guest for obvious reasons of diplomatic decency. Fakhruddin Ahmed was also aware that by discussing the issue in public, he would have harmed Bangladesh's interests. His diplomatic silence was misunderstood and blown out of proportion in the media the next day. The Foreign Secretary was held responsible for failure to take a stand in favour of Bangladesh on an extremely important national issue. The President did not fail to take note of the press criticism against Fakhruddin Ahmed and decided to replace him as the Foreign Secretary.

The end came in the shape of a drama of sorts. It was a May morning that I received a call on the intercom from the Director in the Foreign Minister's Office that he was coming to me with an important file in a sealed cover. In fact, he came to me soon after the call and gave me the sealed cover. He made me sign receipt for it in the peon book. He said that I should place it before the Foreign Secretary right away without opening it. He told me nothing about its contents.

My instructions from Fakhruddin Ahmed were to open all letters/covers sealed or unsealed addressed to the Foreign Secretary except those marked "personal" before giving these to him. So I opened the sealed cover. What I read shocked because of its abruptness but not on the details. The note said that the President had decided to appoint Ambassador Nazrul Islam as the next Foreign Secretary and to send Fakhruddin Ahmed to the Foreign Service Academy (FSA) as Principal. Career diplomats at that time looked upon the post of Principal as an expression of displeasure of the Ministry, a perception that is still current.

Fakhruddin Ahmed was with Faruq Ahmed Chowdhury, our High Commissioner in New Delhi and Humayun Kabir, then Principal at the FSA, when I walked to his room and placed the note before him. He read it in an instant. I watched him while walking out. I did not see any emotion in his face. He handed the note to his visitors like it was a usual file on an unimportant subject that he had just received from the Minister.

While this drama was being enacted in the Foreign Secretary's room, the Foreign Minister was in his office across the corridor. No phone call or meeting took place between them over such an extraordinary development. Fakhruddin Ahmed who seldom used to sit late in office left the Ministry early that day and did not call me to his room as was his habit before he left office. His early departure from the office that fateful day was the only sign of some emotion in the Foreign Secretary. That afternoon, he called me at home, something he seldom did. He told me over the phone what the note said and gave me instructions on what I should do in the next one week he would still remain a Foreign Secretary. I told him in emotion choked voice that there was not one soul in the Ministry who had not been shocked and saddened by the news of his imminent departure.

The news was quite expectedly a big one in the newspapers the next day. Reports pointed the finger at the Foreign Minister for easing the departure of the Foreign Secretary. The following week, the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Minister together with the Additional Foreign Secretary Harun-ur-Rashid were in many close door meetings to draft press releases rejecting that the Foreign Minister had anything to do with the decision about Fakhruddin Ahmed.

Fakhruddin Ahmed took everything with philosophical grace but also showed the mettle he was made of. He did not join the FSA and spent the remaining few months of his career as an Officer on Special Duty till he retired. Looking back, I cannot help feeling proud of my association with Fakhruddin Ahmed who had lent dignity to the post of Foreign Secretary that he had the unique distinction of holding twice. Sadly, his superiors had failed to appreciate his worth.

Published in The Daily Independent, October 30, 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009

Arrogance, humility and corruption

A news item that has appeared in newspapers recently on the former Chairman and others in the ACC during the emergency has attracted very wide attention. One could not help thinking, while reading the news, how quickly fate of people change in politics where the victor becomes the victim and the victim, the victor. This news item said that the Parliamentary Standing Committee for Public Undertakings has recommended to authorities that Taka 16 crores should be recovered from the former Chairman of the ACC and his colleagues for "unauthorised' expenditure. In the breakdown for the "unauthorised" spending, the Chairman said that the ACC paid Taka 10 crores to lawyers in violation of rules and Taka 6 crores was for "spying."
The former Chairman is none other than General Hassan Mashud, who for a variety of reasons was both respected and criticised for his actions while he held the position of the Chairman of the ACC during the emergency. The Chairman of the Standing Committee is Dr Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir. He is one of the high profile politicians who faced the institutional wrath of the ACC and the personal wrath of the General.

It is true that the allegation has little validity till the General acknowledges it or in case he does not, appropriate authorities take him to court over it and the case is proved there. In view of the personal stake the Chairman of the Standing Committee may have in the case, there is also need to be extra cautious in handling this matter. Nevertheless, the Standing Committee's recommendations merit serious consideration because it is based upon the work of the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General that is the institutional watchdog to oversee such inappropriate acts.

It is indeed an irony that such an allegation has come up against the former ACC chief. During the emergency, he assured the people of Bangladesh that he would change the character of the people to ensure that corruption is banished from the country. As he pursued his almost revolutionary zeal against corruption that everyone agreed with him was the cancer killing the nation, he became an instant hero. People thought he was fearless and fair when he incarcerated high profile politicians, irrespective of their standing. Then somewhere down the line, he lost his way and wasted the respect of people by going overboard with the corruption agenda. He made a number of extremely subjective conclusions and acted on them. He concluded all politicians were corrupt and he went after them. He also concluded that all businessmen were also corrupt and went after them as well that had tremendous adverse impact on the economy for which the ordinary people of the country suffered. He had no doubt that the civil bureaucrats were all thoroughly corrupt and acted upon it to scare the daylight out of the civil bureaucracy.

Against all these, he also concluded that the military bureaucracy was free of the corruption that tainted the rest of the society. His subjectivity in understanding corruption encouraged the ACC to incarcerate people with scant respect for an individual's fundamental rights. At the Commission, he allowed senior officials to hold regular press conferences where charges were read out against individuals, sometimes in dramatic fashion. These conferences were also televised and later shown on TV channels for the people to see at home and our expatriates abroad. In allowing this to happen, it is incredible that he did not consider the simple fact of the law that an individual is innocent till a court of law proves his/her guilt. It is true that allegations made by the ACC against individuals had to be given out to the media. It was nevertheless extremely inappropriate that these allegations were given to the media through press conferences in a manner that humiliated people with standing in society and showed the Commission's scant respect for the law. It was the ACC's handling of the case of an Ambassador that was simply astounding. This career diplomat was posted to a station where the ACC boss himself had been an Ambassador. Charges were brought against him he had changed residence that led the government to lose money. The Ambassador was also charged about visits he made in his area of accreditation that the ACC considered illegal. There were other flimsy charges against him. The point the Commission missed was that no Ambassador can change his house without the permission of the Ministry. Again, an Ambassador does not need permission to undertake visits in his area of accreditation. In fact, the ACC wrongly concluded what were, in the worst case scenario, audit violations, to be criminal offences and filed a case against him. When the Ambassador moved to the High Court and won a stay order, the Commission secured a five year jail conviction for him for which the lower court that sentenced him was issued with a contempt of court order. It was just not the flimsy nature of the case against him that is incredible. The ACC, while pursuing his case, stated before the media that Ambassadors are not above the law and that all Ambassadors that the ACC thought were "corrupt", would be treated accordingly. It is true that Ambassadors are not above the law. But then a government that has taken leave of its senses would think of trying an Ambassador in the media for corruption charges while he is posted abroad.

The civilised way of doing this would have been to re-call the Ambassador through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then proceed with the case against him out of media focus. When the ACC held press conference to announce its charges against this Ambassador that was carried in the newspapers and TV, it was not the poor Ambassador's poor name that was tarnished; it was Bangladesh's image that suffered more. As a career diplomat, this Ambassador had a hefty amount with the government as pension while the ACC's charges against him required him to pay back only a small portion of what the government held in his account. Common sense, legality, appropriateness and the rest required this matter to be dealt with discreetly. It was not. The astounding part of this sordid affair was the silence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chief Adviser's Office who should have forced the ACC not to take leave of common sense. They silently watched the ACC humiliate not the Ambassador but the country to foreign governments! Going by what the ACC did to this Ambassador and hundreds of other politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats, the Standing Committee's charge of Taka 16 crores "unauthorised" expenditure against the former ACC boss and his associates is a very big sum and a very serious allegation. Former Ministers were humiliated and incarcerated for a pittance compared to this amount. This matter should be pursued seriously within the limits of the law. It should also act as a reminder to those who when placed at important places do not lose touch with reality and more important than that, do not lose their sense of humility. During the emergency, the ACC had lost its touch with reality and thought arrogance was a virtue and humility a weakness. As a result, the ACC during the emergency lost for the nation, a rare opportunity to do something really worthwhile on the agenda of corruption. The present government has been withdrawing the cases of corruption filed by the ACC during the emergency because majority of the cases were filed without due regard to procedure and where the Commission, given its ability and resources, had filed far too many cases thus leaving too many loop holes for pursuing these cases in the court.

The former ACC Chief lost his focus on corruption despite all his good intentions because he did not want to spare anyone. He wanted to catch both the "big and small fish." That was arrogance for it did not let him realise that with his resources, he could just not do that. He therefore messed up on everything. The present ACC Chief is a sharp contrast to his predecessor, a picture of humility. In the middle of this pendulum swing, corruption remains unscathed. The country needs a mixture of a little bit of arrogance and humility in its ACC Chief. Perhaps the elected leaders of this government could help the country have such a Chief someday.

Published in The Daily Indepedent,

Friday, October 23, 2009

Military gains upper hand in conflict over US aid in Pakistan

The things that are currently happening in Pakistan are unbelievable. Suicide and ordinary bombings causing deaths and destruction that are “breaking news” elsewhere are ordinary news in Pakistan. But the attack by the militants on the army headquarter in Rawalpindi early this month is absurd even by Pakistani standards. The militants followed the Rawalpindi attack with three attacks simultaneously carried out in Lahore on top security installations that have underscored the tightening of alliance between the Taliban, Al Qaeda and militant groups in Punjab.

The militants, under attack by Pakistan's military in recent months, are determined to prove their capability to carry out acts of terror pretty much where they like. The Talibans are anxious to demonstrate that their leader Baitullah Meshud's death has not diminished their ability. There was a time though when the government of Pakistan, its military intelligence, and the people supported the militants. Some of the militant groups were created and sustained by Pakistan's military intelligence to fight Indian troops in Kashmir. Although General Musharraf joined Bush's war on terror in 2001, part of his own military establishment and majority of the people of Pakistan remained on the side of the militants.

The militants eventually turned their guns on their creators/hosts as a result of the military's action against them in recent months and weeks. The Talibans who had established rule in Swat disgusted the people there by their actions, reminding the Pakistanis about what they did in Afghanistan which disgusted the world. These actions led to widespread public anger in Pakistan against the militants that they had once supported. The army, whose popularity was sinking towards the end of President Mushraff's rule, particularly following the dismissal of the popular Chief Justice Iftikhar Chowdhury that pitted the military against the civilians, used the public sentiments against the Talibans to crackdown on them in the Swat valley, helping them regain their standing with the public in Pakistan's continuing love-hate relationship with their military. The success of commandos in rescuing hostages in the recent Rawalpindi attack has enhanced the standing of the army with the people that is being further extended by fighting the Talibans in South Wazirstan at the time of writing this piece.

The above notwithstanding, militancy and internal turmoil have reached a stage in Pakistan where questions are being raised about Pakistan's viability. The fact that Pakistan is also a nuclear state in the most volatile region of the world makes its problem also a problem for the rest of the world. One's worst nightmare would be imagining Pakistan failing as a state with Al Qaeda, Taliban and the other militant groups still active. The solution to Pakistan's problems is, however, deep rooted in its history. Pakistan was created in 1947 as an anti-thesis to India. Pakistan's political leaders have implanted deep into the psyche of every Pakistani that India is the enemy which would annihilate them if they let their defense down. This argument helped create for Pakistan a very strong military establishment that eventually used the strength of the anti-India campaign of the politicians to claim a dominant role in Pakistan's politics. The military's cup of power was filled when Pakistan eventually became a nuclear power. The political campaign for the nuclear power was carried out by the politicians with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto publicly saying that Pakistanis would eat grass if need be to posses the nuclear bomb.

Unfortunately, Bhutto's and Pakistan's desire for civilian rule have fallen victim to the military's power in Pakistan. The Pakistan military's rise to political power was also encouraged from outside. In the 1960s, Pakistan's first military dictator Ayub Khan became the darling of the United States and their support for him was largely responsible for keeping the civilians from political power for a decade. The case of 1971 was even worse where the Nixon-Kissinger clique led the US to support the genocide of Pakistan in Bangladesh. Under General Ziaul Huq, the US was perhaps the closest with the military and together built up the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to stop the Soviets from taking the country and opening their access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, a strategic dream of the Soviets at that time.

The US did not take time to leave the Pakistanis to their fate as the Soviet Union fell and the need for them to be in Afghanistan was over. Unfortunately, it was not that easy for Pakistan to wash its hands off Afghanistan because by then two million Afghans were in Pakistan's volatile and fragile NWFP and in them, the seeds of the Taliban movement had already been sown. Pakistan's military rulers were deeply involved in training the Talibans, providing them with weapons to fight for Pakistan's interest in Afghanistan where Indian presence was additional encouragement for them to support the Talibans. The Al Qaeda came on board in due course and the rest is history.

When the US came to Pakistan for support a second time immediately after 9/11, Pakistan's military intelligence, the ISI, was deeply involved with the Talibans and other militants and Jihadists. Thus, when General Musharraf responded positively to Bush's call to join the war on terror, his own military intelligence and many of his people were against the Americans. In fact, towards the end of Bush's presidency, the US was openly suspicious of the General's own commitment and even more suspicious of the ISI. General Musharraf's departure; an overtly pro-US President Asif Zardari; a General that the US feels it can trust in General Kayani, the present army chief of Pakistan and anger across the country against the terrorists and the militants have combined to put Pakistan-US relations in a somewhat better perspective in recent weeks after relations nosedived towards the end of Bush's tenure on US military's unilateral incursions into Pakistan for destroying the Talibans and Al Qaeda.

Thus, the US is trying to realign its relations with Pakistan under President Obama and slightly favourable circumstances. President Obama initially wanted to withdraw troops from Afghanistan to end the war on terror. Unfortunately, USA is getting more entangled there and the fight against Talibans and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan will take much longer than what President Obama had initially anticipated. Pakistan's cooperation is now more important than before because Pakistan holds the key to success in US and allied efforts in Afghanistan. To cash on the favourable wind for improving relations due to excesses of the Talibans/Al Qaeda and militant groups, USA recently announced a US 7.5 billion civilian aid package for the next five years over the US $ 1 billion annually in military aid to appease the Pakistanis. The package, however, ran into trouble immediately over two conditions that angered the military which has come back into favour with the public. The offending conditions are greater civilian oversight over the military and commitment to stop aiding the militants. In a dramatic gesture, Pakistan's Army Chief General Kayani flew in his helicopter to the President's quarters and demanded that a special emissary should be sent to Washington to impress upon the US government to withdraw the conditions.

President Zardari, whose fight with the General is now common knowledge, acceded to the demand and Foreign Minister Mahmood Qureshi was dispatched to Washington. The US is making efforts to appease Pakistan's military. Nevertheless, the incident underscored President Zardari's precarious position that should not bother the US because the military is once again holding centre stage in Islamabad and finally committed to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda that was not there when General Musharraf was in office. USA now needs to backtrack from its support for Zardari and shift it more to Pakistan's military. The US would do better if it could also encourage India to keep its hands off Pakistan in the Afghan-Pakistan border so that Pakistan's military could commit itself totally to destroy the Frankstein it has created and sustained without worrying about India. All these, sadly, are not good news for the future of democracy in Pakistan but it has no choice. Pakistan's future rests on whether the military is totally ready to crush the militants and terrorists. Democracy can wait to give Pakistan a chance.

Published in The Daily Star, October 24, 2009

Friday, October 16, 2009

Myanmar and Bangladesh: Alarm bells on the eastern border

BANGLADESH and Myanmar are on a collision course with tension in the border that has been heightened by amassing of troops in their respective sides of the border. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, when asked by journalists about the construction of pillars for barbed wire fence along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border at Naikkhangchhari in Bandarban, said that the action is in accordance with international law. The Foreign Minister, however, told journalists that she was not aware that the Myanmar military had gathered 10,000 Rohingas in the border on their side with the intention of pushing them into Bangladesh. The Foreign Minister also did not comment on the amassing of troops near the border. She was trying to diffuse the tension diplomatically, which is understandable.

Bangladesh and Myanmar relations have been faltering in recent years. During the emergency, the two sides faced off a confrontation in the Bay of Bengal where they have disagreement over demarcation of maritime boundary with potentials of armed conflict. In fact, the two sides brought their warships into the area during the emergency period in Bangladesh when it protested Myanmar's decision to allow the Korean company Daewoo to move vessels and rigs in a disputed block to drill for hydrocarbons. In fact, Myanmar warships had escorted the Daewoo ships and rigs into the block provoking Bangladesh to move its warships. Although the Daewoo ships and rigs were later removed without any incident, the tension later shifted to the border where Myanmar continued to lay landmines, thus moving the tension from the sea to the land.

Myanmar has a history of securing its border with landmines. Between 1995 and 2000, Myanmar's military junta mined its side of the border with landmines to allegedly stop Arakanese rebels from entering into Myanmar from Bangladesh. It stopped planting more landmines after the alleged threat receded. Myanmar had earlier abstained from voting on the pro Mine Ban Treaty at the UN in 2002 and hence has no obligations under international law not to plant land mines on its territory. Despite the tensions at sea over the maritime boundary demarcation and planting land mines on its side of the border, the two sides have accepted diplomatic channels to resolve their disputes. In fact, during the Caretaker Government's tenure, Foreign Affairs Adviser of the CG and Myanmar's Foreign Minister had met in New Delhi on the sidelines of BMSTEC in a cordial meeting where both agreed informally to resolve the thorny issues in their bilateral relations through diplomatic channels.

Recent actions of Myanmar's military junta have not been following that informal understanding; in fact, these actions are overtly provocative. The rounding up of 10,000 Rohingas bring back to memory the ruthless action of Myanmar's military rulers in 1977 when they forced into Bangladesh over 2,00,000 Rohingas by scaring the daylights out of them, leaving them with no alternatives but to flee to Bangladesh for their dear lives. Although by 1979, most of them went back to Myanmar, they again flooded back to Bangladesh in greater number in the early 1990s and by March, 1992, 2, 60,000 Rohingas were pushed into Bangladesh. Bangladesh, with its scarce resources, had to look after the refugees with UNHCR assisting for a long time and still over 20,000 of them are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh. A new influx of Rohingas in the numbers seen in 1979 and 1992 could have far reaching disastrous economic, social and political consequences for Bangladesh.

Bangladesh's current apprehensions are not restricted to just a new influx of Rohinga refugees. Myanmar is an unpredictable regime ruled by a military junta that has scant respect for international opinion, having chosen isolation on its own volition. It has strengthened itself militarily over the years and today possesses formidable defense and offense capabilities. In recent times, it has added missiles of both the short and the medium range capabilities to its military arsenals from China, North Korea, Russia, Bulgaria and Ukraine. On a comparative scale, Myanmar's military is thus extremely well equipped to pose a serious threat to Bangladesh.

The contentious issues notwithstanding, the two countries have so far preferred diplomacy in conducting bilateral relations. Thus the recent provocative actions of Myanmar are unexpected. However, they are not surprising. Myanmar has been steadily building its relations with most of the western countries without giving much in return. The demand of USA for the release of the Noble Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has fallen on deaf ears. The military regime's ruthlessness, last witnessed in 2007 when it put down dissent of the country's much revered monks, shows no signs of weakening. Yet all the western nations together with Japan and South Korea, are vying with one another for doing business with the country's military junta. The USA has finally also joined the bandwagon by deciding to engage with the regime having concluded that economic sanctions to bring the military junta to submission have failed. Engagement, without relenting on the economic sanctions, could encourage the junta to accommodate popular participation with the military in sharing power where the possible inclusion of Aung is being seen by the US administration as a possibility. Myanmar today is finding wide acceptance internationally through the back door.

For Bangladesh, none of the above is good news. It has given Myanmar a new importance with powers that could otherwise have come to its assistance to persuade Myanmar to stop its provocative acts against Bangladesh. In fact, the scenario is more depressing when it comes to countries that have in the past come to Bangladesh's assistance in time of need. China is one such country that Bangladesh could have depended upon in the past as a friend in need. China's recent engagements with Myanmar that it values very much for strategic reasons have weakened Bangladesh's bargaining position because it cannot now expect China to use its influence to back Bangladesh against Myanmar. China may have other reasons to be upset with Bangladesh, for instance, over the granting to Taiwan the permission to open a Trade Office in Dhaka unilaterally in 2004. Even India, that Bangladesh could otherwise expect to support its cause against Myanmar because of the historical closeness between the incumbent ruling parties in Delhi and Dhaka, may only be lukewarm in the event Bangladesh has to seek its assistance to talk to Myanmar. India has gone ahead and developed its own relations with Myanmar, allowing its democratic commitments to take back seat.

At the back of the junta's mind there is also a lingering suspicion about Bangladesh in the context of its not very effective national reconciliation where there are many groups still fighting the military junta for freedom and right of self-determination. The junta also has a score to settle with Bangladesh for declining the joint request it made with India to Bangladesh during the last BNP Government for a gas pipeline to India at a time when the military junta needed hard cash very badly. Although there may have been then and still may be good reasons to deny the request; the denial had not been handled diplomatically nor communicated to Myanmar (and India) in a satisfactory manner.

Despite the tension in the border, the chances of Bangladesh and Myanmar fighting even a limited war soon is very unlikely. Nevertheless, the current situation on Bangladesh-Myanmar points to failure of Bangladesh foreign policy vis-à-vis Myanmar for which responsibility should be pinpointed at the doors of the past governments of Bangladesh in the last one decade. Scarce attention has been paid during this period to foreign policy and foreign relations. It is foreign policy nevertheless that can help Bangladesh with not just Myanmar but with its future as well. In this instance, although the Foreign Minister is not saying so, Myanmar's provocation may have been caused by Bangladesh granting lease in the Bay of Bengal to US companies in the part that it disputes, a part that has good prospects of striking oil and gas. The decision of Bangladesh to see UN arbitration to which Bangladesh is legally entitled may have enhanced that provocation.

Published in The Daily Star, October 17, 2009

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

My Foreign Office Days, 1986-1990: HRC as UNGA President

President Ershad took an active interest in foreign affairs; in fact too active and not always for the right reasons that kept everyone at the Foreign Ministry on their toes. He knew that the legitimacy of his government depended to a great extent upon its acceptance by the international community. It was during his period that the candidature of Foreign Minister Humayun Rashid Chowdhury or HRC was floated for the Presidency of the 41st session of the UNGA in 1986. In 1981, Bangladesh came as close as possible to getting that august position when our Permanent Representative to the United Nations at that time KM Kaiser was defeated by the Iraqi candidate Ismat Kittani by draw of names from the hat after the two had tied with 75 votes each. KM Kaiser was so certain of his victory that according to some of our colleagues who worked with him at that time later said that when Kittani's name was announced, KM Kaiser was shell shocked for he had made all arrangements to celebrate his victory later that evening. A professional diplomat, KM Kaiser was a former Pakistani Ambassador to China who had befriended Chou en Lai and played a role in China-US rapprochement.

HRC's victory was as much a credit to his reputation as an outstanding diplomat as it was to the professional way his candidature was handled by the Foreign Ministry and its professional diplomats at home and abroad, particularly at the United Nations. That year, it was the Asia's turn for the post and HRC was the unanimous choice of the Asian Group, unlike in 1981 when there had to be an election because the Asian group could not put forward a unanimous candidate. Our Permanent Representative there was Justice BA Siddiqui, a former Chief Justice and Vice President of Bangladesh, who was posted there for reasons of political accommodation at home but none for diplomacy or for achievement of our foreign affairs goals. The mission's professional work there was in the hands of the Deputy Permanent Representative Anwarul Karim Chowdhury (AKC), who by then had already established himself as an outstanding diplomat at the United Nations. Later AKC returned to the UN as our PR and subsequently rose to the rank of an Undersecretary General of the UN. However, AKC was recalled to the Headquarters soon after HRC became the UNGA President although he should have been retained there for the period HRC was the UNGA President because his abilities and capabilities required him to be there. He was recalled to make way for someone that the President wanted there not for professional reasons but for personal ones. At Headquarters, as DG (United Nations) AKC went to the SAARC Summit in Bangalore, India in November, 1986 as a member of the Bangladesh delegation. His inclusion in the delegation no doubt enhanced the quality of Bangladesh's participation. Unfortunately, the President did not think so. Upon the return of the delegation to Bangladesh, the Foreign Ministry, Fakhruddin Ahmed in particular, had to face the anger of the President for inclusion of AKC in the Bangladesh delegation.

As UNGA President, HRC enhanced the reputation of Bangladesh and gave it a profile that it badly needed. However, there was one incident during his Presidency that did not please the Soviet Ambassador in Dhaka. At that time, Edward Shevardnadze was the Foreign Minister of Soviet Union. He had extended an invitation to HRC to undertake an official visit to Moscow towards the end of December, 1986. HRC accepted the invitation but did not make the trip on the plea that he could not get the air connections that upset the Soviets that was communicated by the Soviet Ambassador in Dhaka to Fakhruddin Ahmed in a manner that was blunt to say the least. The Ambassador told the Foreign Secretary that they were upset that HRC kept the Soviet Foreign Minister waiting to please the other Superpower of the time, the United States of America.

My posting in New Delhi in 1983-1986 had exposed me to a country where I gathered firsthand the role of diplomats and diplomacy in governance. The Indians of course have a high quality professional foreign service. Within the government, the External Affairs Ministry (as the Indian Foreign Ministry is known) is the final authority on any issue that is a matter of the country's external relations. This importance that the External Affairs Ministry is given in the Indian government because it is the correct thing to do and the other Ministries of the government and the country gains by letting it take the lead in conducting India's foreign relations. In fact, our Foreign Ministry worldwide plays the same role as the Indian External Affairs Ministry plays in India. During my four years in the office of the Foreign Secretary I had the pain of experiencing almost every day the sharp contrast when I compared, as I could not help doing, our Foreign Ministry and the Indian External Affairs Ministry.

President Ershad contributed a great deal in ensuring that the Foreign Ministry became innocuous. A number of other Ministries such as the External Resources Division, Ministry of Commerce, Water Resources, Home, were allowed to contact foreign governments and international organisations directly by-passing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At home, these Ministries, by an amendment to the Rules of Business, were given the authority to contact foreign missions in Dhaka without the need to keep the Foreign Ministry even in the picture. As professional diplomats, sidelining the Foreign Ministry of course angered us but the attitude of the rest of the government for professional diplomats at that time was an either take it or leave it situation. The fate of the Foreign Ministry, unfortunately, was sealed much earlier; only during the Ershad period it was institutionalised, like for instance the amendments to the Rules of Business. I can recollect one incident as a junior officer during the period SAMS Kibria was the Foreign Secretary that left me with little doubt that the rest of the government would eventually ensure that the Foreign Ministry was permanently placed in the sidelines.

SAMS Kibria had then just returned from Geneva where he was the Permanent Representative. The year was 1978. SAMS Kibria was an outstanding diplomat who had topped the Central Superior Examination of Pakistan in 1954. His experience in Geneva led him to believe that Bangladesh's participation at UN meetings was uncoordinated where delegations ended up representing a Ministry rather than the government. As Foreign Secretary soon after assuming office, he called a meeting of his peers from other Ministries with the intention of creating an inter ministerial coordinating body for our participation in international conferences. Most of his peers sent their representatives to this meeting. Those of his peers who attended not only did not see the rationale of the Foreign Secretary's proposal; they thought the Foreign Ministry was being audacious and was trying to become a "Super Ministry." In fact, the meeting ended in pandemonium that left an indelible print in my memory about how people in position and authority use their power for their personal views and bother very little about how it affects greater interests. SAMS Kibria had not sought anything from his peers that day that was unusual or irrational; he asked of his colleagues for a coordinated approach to a very important national business, namely the professional conduct of foreign affairs. He was rebuffed because there were powerful individuals in government who had committed themselves not to allow the Ministry of Foreign Affairs an important role in government; in fact not even a major role in matters of the country's foreign relations.

While HRC was earning credit for Bangladesh in New York, there was the growing apprehension in the Foreign Ministry that Fakhruddin Ahmed would not be around for long as the Foreign Secretary. There were silly issues that were common knowledge that everyone would talk about suggesting that the President was not happy with the Foreign Secretary. One such issue was the use of the Red Phone or the lack of it by the Foreign Secretary. The President used the Red Phone to keep his Ministers and the Secretaries, who were given the privilege of its use as a means of instant communication, on a tight leash. The President would frequently mention aloud that he seldom could reach the Foreign Secretary on the Red Phone.

Published in The Daily Independent, October 16, 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nobel Laureate Barack Hussein Obama

President Obama is a Super Star not simply because he sits in the most powerful office in the world. There have been many US Presidents before him who have been as powerful as he is because the post of the US President carries with it all that is necessary to make anyone who makes it to the Oval Office the most powerful man in the contemporary world. None of his predecessors in the last few decades can be called a Super Star. President Obama became a Super Star by making his way to the Oval Office in the quickest possible time against odds that everybody thought were insurmountable of which his color was perhaps one that few thought he would be able to overcome. His ability, conviction and personality have combined to create that aura on which the status of a super star is built. A man like Obama would easily have become a Super Star in a variety of other professions for he has that natural endowment that makes a man a Super Star in any branch of work he chooses to work.

Yet, when the Nobel Peace Committee announced that he is their choice for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009, everybody was surprised; even the recipient himself. In acknowledging the honour, President Obama said that he did not feel that he deserves to be in the company of so many “transformative figures who have been honoured by the prize.” The news was “stunning” to everyone even though President Obama is seen for all the right reasons as a President who came to office with the promise of changing the world from conflict; disaster; unilateralism and militarism of the Bush era to an era of peace through diplomacy, cooperation and multilateralism. The Nobel Peace Prize committee, aware that the award of the prize to Obama so early in his tenure would surprise everybody, gave an explanation on why it decided to award Obama the prize. The Committee’s Chairman Thorbjoern Jagaland said: “He got the prize because he has been able to change the international climate...Some people say, and I understand it, isn’t it premature? Too early? Well, I’d say then that it could be too late to respond three years from now. It is now that we have the opportunity to respond — all of us.”

The surprise is nevertheless a very pleasant one for the world who have supported Obama all throughout his epic struggle to become the US President because he could save the world from destruction. French President Sarkozy articulated the sentiments of the rest of the world when he said the award has returned America to the hearts of the people of the world. In July, the prestigious Pew Global Attitude fund had released a report conducted in 25 countries by interviewing 27,000 people that showed that there was a double digit boost in US image abroad after President Obama took office after it had plunged across the world under President Bush. The Pew Global Report underscores the fact that President Sarkozy’s view did not emerge from his personal admiration of the US President. As the world reacts in the days ahead, there is bound to be more excitement for the honour to President Obama.

The Nobel Peace Committee in the past has awarded politicians in high offices the peace prize to acknowledge and encourage their peace initiatives. In 1971, it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Chancellor Willie Brandt for his initiative to reach out to the communists in East Germany under “Otspolitik”. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was given the Prize in 1990 for his “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” policies through which he sought to release the East European countries from control by the Kremlin. President Obama’s award could be seen in that context; the Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s belief that by giving him the Prize, they could build support and confidence in Americans and the rest of the world for his initiatives to rebuild the bridges with the Muslim world, particularly in restarting the stalled Palestine Peace; overtures to Iran using diplomacy; and his initiatives to reduce nuclear arms worldwide again using diplomacy and negotiations.

Strangely but not surprisingly some Americans have not expressed happiness that their President has been honoured. Such expressions have followed political lines. Leading the negative reaction has been the Chairman of the Republican Party Michael Steel who said that President Obama has been given the Prize based on his “star power’. He did not think that President Obama deserved the Prize based on his accomplishments. He encouraged Americans to ask themselves what President Obama has really achieved. Conservative elements in the US who were stunned by Obama’s victory in the Presidential election are now gathering their act against President and his administration. Eight months of his administration has offered a lot of promises but has not done much yet either for the Americans waiting desperately for their economic situation to improve or looking impatiently at the world for peace and return of US soldiers home where instead, President Obama is considering seriously to send more troops to Afghanistan, where to date 800 US soldiers have died. Only last month, the conservatives organized rallies against the President to stop him from speaking to school children because they claimed he was trying to motivate them towards his liberal agenda. In the nation’s capital this month, thousands of people marched in opposition to his efforts in Afghanistan; during which demonstrators carried placard showing against the picture of Martin Luther King the word “dream” and against President Obama’s picture, the word “nightmare”. Conservative newspapers in the US like the Wall Street Journal and abroad have expressed “bemusement” and thought the prize has “embarrassed” Obama and diminished the credibility of the Prize.

The award of the Prize to Obama is thus not good news to the conservative opponents of President Obama. It will give him new aura and enhance his Super Star status immensely. Politics make strange bedfellows for they now find themselves in the company of Talibans who have also questioned the merit of the Award. Of the world leaders, Nobel Peace Laureate Les Walesa of Poland has questioned it as he thought it has been given to him too early. Otherwise, for the world minus the extreme conservatives and universally discarded Talibans, the award is a pleasant surprise. The fact that the winner has accepted the prize with great humility is another factor that has gladdened the hearts of everybody around the world. This humility will encourage them to hope that the President will eventually prove to them that he is worthy of their respect by achieving the goals he has set for his fellow Americans and fellow world citizens.

Two other US Presidents received the Nobel Peace Prize while in office. In 1906, the Prize went to President Theodore Roosevelt and in 1919, to President Wilson. President Obama, unlike these two Presidents, is standing at a critical juncture of world history where his role will be crucial for our future because eight years of unilateralism and militarism under President Bush has shaken the very foundations of a peaceful world order. The tasks nevertheless are very difficult and would need from a US President, the qualities of a statesman. President Obama has shown the glimpses of a statesman. Those qualities must be sustained over the remainder of his current term and hopefully over another term should he get re-elected to change America and the world for the better. He will need all the help he can get; and more so, he will need motivation and encouragement. The Nobel Peace Committee has correctly assessed this need and by giving him the Prize so early in his first term, they have given him the encouragement and motivation as well. President Obama deserves everybody’s congratulations for the award. The Nobel Peace Committee deserves the thanks for their vision to honour him with it. President Obama’s election as US President has given the world the chance to breathe fresh air again after suffocation for lack of it under his predecessor. This fact alone should have earned anyone in his place the Nobel Peace Prize. He has a lot more to go with it and that should answer the critics.

Friday, October 9, 2009

US Engagement with Myanmar: Implications for Bangladesh

A few events have put Myanmar on international focus in recent days. Myanmar's Prime Minister General Thein Sein was in New York and addressed the UN General Assembly, the highest ranking General of Myanmar to address the world body since 1995. In New York, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East met the Myanmar Ambassador at the UN and a Minister of Myanmar on the sidelines of the UN general assembly. This was the highest level direct talks between US and Myanmar in a long time and was undertaken at the initiative of President Obama. Under President Bush and President Clinton, the US policy was to punish Myanmar with sanctions to force the release of the Noble Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi with 2,000 other political prisoners and to soften the military regime there that has been in power since 1962, with the present military junta in office since 1988.

The Myanmar military leader also met Senator Jim Webb who is Chairman of the Senate Sub-Committee for Near Asia and Pacific. The senator had earlier visited Myanmar in August to seek the release of the US tourist whose dramatic swim to meet Aung had earned the Nobel Laureate an extension to her house arrest sentence. The senator told journalists that his meeting with the General in New York was to follow up on his discussions with him during his visit to Myanmar. Although the US has made a major shift in policy towards Myanmar, General Thein Sein said in his UN speech that his country would follow its own course towards democracy and would not give in to outside pressure. He also said there was no question of releasing Aung.

Thus, without any major concession, why has the US shifted towards engagement? The reasons are quite a few. First, the Obama administration has concluded that the sanctions have not worked to force the regime to change because US has been alone in trying to isolate Myanmar. Second, commitment of countries crucial to isolate Myanmar has never been forthcoming. China has its own strategic reasons vis-à-vis India to look the other way towards the ruthlessness of the Myanmar regime and to engage with it deeply. India, leaving aside its democratic credentials, has been drawn to Myanmar to balance the Chinese influence as well as to access Myanmar's gas for its energy starved northeast provinces. Thailand has use for Myanmar's gas and Singapore does business with it, acting as Myanmar's major trading link and a safe haven for its generals' wealth. Japan and South Korean companies benefit from doing business there and the European Union have invested heavily in Myanmar's gas industry, their support for sanctions notwithstanding. Third, the suspected nuclear collaboration between Myanmar and North Korea that has recently come to focus has also encouraged USA to seek engagement. Finally, the illegal drug trade has also motivated the change in US policy.

The US Government has, nevertheless, stated clearly that one-way engagement has failed. It has opted for engagement without lifting the tough economic sanctions. The US policy of engagement has also been influenced by a few faint hopes in the horizon of Myanmar's politics. The military junta has announced multi-party elections in 2010 to legitimize its power having achieved national integration by successfully dealing with the Karen insurgency in June this year. Although the junta gave Aung a shortened sentence in her house arrest following the case against her for the meeting with the US tourist, they have nevertheless made sure that her sentence extended beyond the date of the elections. Nevertheless, the US is hopeful that through engagement, the US may be able to push for Aung's participation. The Obama administration has considered the aging process of the leaders of the junta that took power in 1988. Senior General Than Shwe is 76 and reportedly not in good health and his Deputy General Maung Aye is 71. Engagement would allow the US to reach the younger elements of the junta who could be more susceptible to change as they have a better view of the world than the elders in the leadership role. The Noble Laureate has given her go ahead to Obama's initiative of engagement but has also asked the US to talk with the leaders of her National League for Democracy.

In a surprise but parallel development, Aung was escorted on October 3rd from her residence, where she has been in house arrest for 14 of the last 20 years, for a meeting with Relations Minister. It resulted from a letter she wrote to the junta chief Than Shwe a week prior to the date on which she said she would help lift international sanctions. In the letter that was a gesture of cooperation towards the junta, Aung also proposed to hold talks with western diplomats. Although details of the talks have not been revealed, the meeting has given cause for optimism.

There was a time not very long ago when Myanmar was almost totally isolated from the rest of the international community as much as by way of sanctions against it as by its own volition. At that time, Bangladesh was one of the very few countries with which Myanmar had direct diplomatic and economic contacts. Although for a while, Bangladesh-Myanmar relations were restrained with the influx of Rohinga refugees in the late 1970s, the two countries maintained close and friendly relations both under military and democratic governments in the successive decades. Unfortunately, in recent times, Bangladesh-Myanmar relations have faltered on the issue of demarcating the maritime boundary. There is also tension in the border where both countries have moved troops. Myanmar is being wooed by both China and India for their respective reasons. China's major interest in Myanmar is strategic. It wants an access to the Bay of Bengal to keep a watch on the naval presence of the US and India in the Indian Ocean, an access that Bangladesh also could provide. However, for that access, China has tilted towards Myanmar because Bangladesh has not been so forthcoming. The factor of geography and internal politics has also worked to bring China and Myanmar closer in strategic partnership.

In such a scenario, the initiative of President Obama to engage with Myanmar would put Bangladesh at a disadvantage. Its problems with Myanmar relating to the vital issue of demarcation of the maritime boundary would not fall on receptive ears if it tried as it may have to at some stage to seek assistance of the United States and other powers that are now drawn towards Myanmar for its rich energy and other resources. Simply put, Myanmar has a lot more to offer to these powers than Bangladesh and the latest developments concerning Myanmar would only make Myanmar more important. Although there is no reason to conclude that this would automatically weaken Bangladesh's position, nevertheless there is the possibility that its concerns vis-a-vis Myanmar would not find takers.

Thus, if the current initiative taken by President Obama succeeds in softening Myanmar towards democracy which is still very unlikely, it would only bring it closer to the US and the others that are in engagement with it. That in turn would strengthen Myanmar's international position which it could use against Bangladesh in the context of its bilateral problems. There is of course the nightmarish possibility of Myanmar becoming nuclear and in that context Bangladesh's position would be worse, in fact precarious.

The recent developments related to Myanmar are very important for Bangladesh. It must activate its foreign policy on a number of fronts. It must talk with the United States without losing time to convey its concerns about Myanmar that should be many so that these are brought into the equation when the US talks with Myanmar in greater depth in the weeks and months ahead. Bangladesh foreign policy makers must also hold in depth talks with China and India, two countries that could be crucial in the way they motivate Myanmar because they are already in direct contact with the military junta there. Bangladesh must find a way to convey to the military junta that it has friends to expect a fair deal on bilateral problems.

Published in the Daily Star, October 10, 2009

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Land grabbers and prime minister's directive

One disquieting feature of this government is the fact that the Parliament is not functioning effectively to give the public the benefit of debate on national and important current issues. The discussions there are one-sided monologues. There is a government spokesman at the Prime Minister's Office who often speaks on important issues on the Prime Minister's behalf but unfortunately these statements also reveal very little. The Ministers are more courageous and they speak freely in the media on national issues but they end up confusing the people more instead of enhancing their understanding because more often than not, they contradict one another.

Sometimes of course the Ministers speak out in a manner that is not only true but what they say really scares the daylight out of the people in the context of some of the burning national issues and issues faced by the unfortunate citizens of Dhaka. The Minister for LGRD and the AL General Secretary is one politician who often speaks the truth without mincing words. In a statement made on the floor of the Parliament the other day, he said that despite the Prime Minister's very strong directive to reclaim Dhaka's canals and waterways, powerful people were opposing it. It is just not the Prime Minister's directive: there is also High Court order for reclamation without which Dhaka could be on way to extinction. The Minister's exact words in Parliament, translated from Bangla, on land grabbing were: "Despite the Prime Minister's directive and the High Court order to dismantle illegal structures constructed in water bodies and canals after dirt filling, which causes stagnation of water in the city, the authorities are facing trouble as the land developing companies are powerful."

For Dhaka's more than 10 million citizens, the Minister's statement is both encouraging and disappointing. It is encouraging because in it there is recognition at the highest political level that the present water logging in the city during the rainy season has been caused due to a small section of people of the city, mainly the land developers. The Minister's statement is disappointing because he has told us that those who are supposed to carry out the order of the Prime Minister are failing in their duty because the land grabbers are powerful and influential.
In the context of misery of citizens of Dhaka owing to our incorrigible traffic, it is unfortunately the same scary story. In this case, it is just not the fact that the Prime Minister's strong directive is being flouted as on the canal reclamation and water logging issue; here she has herself been a victim. Only recently, she ordered "Operation Clean Street." On the first day after this order was passed, she was kept waiting at the Hotel Sonargoan intersection. Only the other day, with the traffic situation having worsened since "Operation Clean Street", there was a picture in this newspaper in the front page showing the Prime Minister's motorcade stuck behind Dhaka's monstrous traffic congestion.

This time as Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina has spoken forcefully on just not these two issues; she has also spoken of a number of other national issues that have rung a favourable chord in the psyche of the nation. In the wake of rising violent activities of the student wing of her party, she disassociated herself from that wing to send a serious message that they must give up their disorderly conduct. She has spoken very strongly against extortion and illegal involvement by members of her own party. Only recently, she has said that children should be kept outside politics because they are the country's future, which is an acknowledgement of the unacceptable nature of our politics.

These facts are scary. If a senior minister of the government acknowledges on the floor of the Parliament that there are elements powerful enough to stand in the way of implementing the Prime Minister's directive, it sends to these elements signal that they have little to fear. It reminds people about the Caretaker government's failed attempts to break the nexus between politics and corrupt elements. The "powerful" elements in the statement of LGRD Minister are the same corrupt elements who are now daring to stand against the Prime Minister's directive because the nexus the CG tried to break and failed is still there as strong as ever.

The Prime Minister is making serious attempts to deal with this nexus between politics and undesirable elements within her party and the country. The opposition political parties, particularly the BNP, are not. It is one of the sad aspects of our politics that the word "reform" has assumed such a pariah status in both the mainstream parties. In fact, reform is seen as betrayal which is of course because those who talked of reform during the emergency, did so not in the context of the party but in reference to removing their respective top leaders. In fact, whoever coined the word minus 2 on behalf of the Caretaker government must bear the primary responsibility for giving the much-needed reform of the political parties in Bangladesh such a bad name. Also, the overindulgence of the intelligence in political reform and in particular their "vision" of forming a "king's party" was also a major factor in the failure of achieving reform of the political parties although at that time, the public and the political parties themselves were aware of such need.

On the issue of the Prime Minister's directives, there are a few other reasons why her orders are not achieving the desired outcome. Politics, in the absence of reform, has politicised the bureaucracy. In fact, the trend is more towards it than the other way around. We are seeing all around us the adverse side of a ruling political party's influence in governance and administration. The civil bureaucracy is the best guarantee for a country against such adverse influence provided it is efficient and neutral. If it is partisan, then the nexus between it and the ruling party for corruption is strengthened. There is another very dangerous aspect to this argument. In a recent figure released in the media, the government's performance related to utilisation of ADP funds is very discouraging. This is also something expected because in the face of rising trend of politicisation, a large number of civil bureaucrats who are neutral are afraid to work. Then there are of course those who have already been identified as partisan against the ruling party and have been cornered. When their number is added to those who are neutral and lacking in confidence and motivation, the civil bureaucracy is left with precious little to implement the directives of the Prime Minister or the objectives of this government.

Unfortunately, this is the state of affairs in the bureaucracy and politics today.
Thus the Prime Minister's seriousness and directives are losing a lot of focus because of the quality of our politics. In this context, certain ominous things are also taking place. In the backdrop of the rapes on minor girls in recent weeks, one incident in the small, remote town of Kalapara is the most ominous. In this dastardly rape, local leaders of the ruling party took law into their own hands and meted out vigilante style justice on the alleged rapists, 16 in all of which 4 are allegedly from the ruling party, with police and local residents watching! They collected Taka 10,000 each from the accused and handed Taka 160,000 to the girl's family "to protect the image of the ruling party during puja." According to newspaper reports, a local ruling party leader said that "the villagers and the victim's family accepted the arbitration as justice done." The dangerous issue here is the ruling party leaders at Kalapara have no confusion that they are the government; a view that is fairly widespread, dangerously so, at various levels of the ruling party.

The LGRD Minister nevertheless has made it clear that the government has taken up various measures to recover the canals and water bodies. The citizens of Dhaka can only sit and wait and hope. The fear of what a point 7-point earthquake would do to Dhaka may now be occupying their minds much more than the illegal activities of land grabbers and incorrigible traffic of Dhaka.

Published in The Daily Independent, October 9, 2009

Friday, October 2, 2009

Iran under nuclear scrutiny again

AT the time of writing this piece, the outcome of the first meeting between the United States of America and Islamic Republic of Iran for the first time in 30 years scheduled for the 1st of October in Geneva was not known. Hopefully, their first encounter would engage the two nations in dialogue that would bring them together to work for peace rather than war and destruction towards which Bush seemed hell bent to go. Bush called Iran “an axis of evil” when he was threatening to browbeat the rest of the dissenting world to submission.

Iran is crucial to world peace for many reasons. First, its geopolitical location is something that no one can sidetrack. Second, it is a very rich country with capability to achieve goals it sets for itself. Third, despite what the western press may be suggesting, Iran is far from breaking in the seams due to internal political conflicts. Fourth, it has rich history and traditions; its people are proud inheritors of a civilization that have remained unbroken over thousands of years. Finally, it can be militarily attacked by any country, be it the United States or Israel that is just itching to take down Iran's nuclear installations that it claims are for peaceful use, only if the objective is to throw up the world in flames.

Hence, when Barak Obama made his first overture to Iran soon after becoming the President for engagement, the rest of the world was relieved because it ended what Bush had threatened, a new World War by attacking Iran. In Cairo, a few weeks later, President Obama made further overtures. Unfortunately, since then Iran had a disputed election that the western press attempted to blow out of proportions into a potential civil war between the clergy and the reformists. They also hinted at serious dissensions within the clergy. President Obama, who had remained quiet over Iran's disputed elections initially, came out later and spoke in favour of the reformists, sending a tough message to President Ahmedejine without derailing the possibilities of discussion and negotiation between the two former antagonists.

Unfortunately, ahead of the talks in Geneva between the US and Iran, new tension has appeared in the midst of the two countries. It has only been revealed last week that Iran has a second nuclear enrichment facility at Qum, Iran's religious capital, hitherto kept secret from the IAEA. This one is inside a facility occupied by the Revolutionary Guards. The serious question with the Qum discovery is whether there are many more like this where Iran is enriching uranium for the bomb while opening to IAEA the far larger one at Natanz to keep them off the track.

The new site has brought strong comments from President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, all demanding immediate access to the site. Gates said that the new facility is “part of a pattern of deception and lies on the part of the Iranians from the very beginning with respect to their nuclear program.” He said he feels that Iran will eventually build the nuclear bomb although there may be no formal decision to do so yet. Gates, however, clearly gave his verdict for diplomacy over a military response for which the Israelis are itching.

For the Israelis the revelation has come at an opportune moment ahead of the G20 Summit in Pittsburg on September 24-25. They wanted this Group to issue tough sanctions and push forward its intention to do with the Iranian nuclear reactors what it did with the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq in June 1981 by carrying out surgical air attacks. While one understands the Israeli concerns, what is incomprehensible is why those to whom Israel is appealing do not turn back to ask them about their own arsenal of nuclear weapons. Then of course, the case Israel is making to attack Iran the way it attacked Iraq is not, even for argument's sake, the same for Iraq was a murderous regime led by Saddam Hussein while Iran has a mature and responsible leadership at the helm. In fact, logically looking at the issue there is no reason why Iran would eventually not have the bomb as long as Israel has those weapons. Iran has Pakistan and Russia as neighbours that are both nuclear weapons states, which is an additional reason to go for the bomb.

Iran of course has consistently said that its nuclear programme is peaceful. Its argument is to sell its oil and gas for foreign cash while using nuclear energy for electricity and power for industrialization and economic development. The Shah of Iran who purchased Iran's first nuclear reactor in 1959 from USA and hoped to build 23 such reactors by the 1990s used this argument. There were few suspicions about Iran's nuclear programme but the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the Iran-Iraq war in the decade following put an end to such suspicions.

These suspicions re-surfaced when Iran made its intentions to build seven nuclear reactors to generate 1000 MW electricity from each by 2025. In 2003, Iran said that acquiring nuclear weapons is inhuman and immoral and against its basic principles and defense doctrine. At about the same time, Supreme Leader Khamanei and President Khatami have said that Iran would not give up its uranium enrichment programme at any cost. These statements do not make Iran's intent absolutely clear. Intelligence works by international powers as well as IAEA have given further cause of doubt about Iran's nuclear intentions. Meanwhile, the Iranian leadership, particularly President Ahmedejine is under pressure from within and needs whatever help they can get. Iran was therefore looking optimistically towards the opening of dialogue with the USA and the revelation of the Qum site has come at an inopportune time for Iran.

It has however come as handy for those led by the USA who want to end Iran's desire for the nuclear bomb, if any. After the Qum revelation, President Obama said in his weekly radio address that his offer to Iran for serious dialogue “remains open” but “it must now cooperate fully with the IAEA and take actions to demonstrate its peaceful intentions”. European countries also are now expected to pressure Iran to follow its agreement with the IAEA to allow its inspectors to go virtually anywhere to follow suspicions of nuclear work. At the threat of tough economic sanctions by the US and western nations, IAEA, urged by the US and western nations, would now seek from Iran documents based on their intelligence work suggesting that Iran was working on designing warheads and technologies for detonating a nuclear core. Iran had denied having such documents for last 3 years. The IAEA would now insist also that Iran must inform the Agency its intentions to build future nuclear facilities that Iran had originally agreed to do under the agreement but later renounced.

There are a host of other issues that the US would like to press forward with Iran on the nuclear question such as interviewing key officials, accesses to computers, etc. following catching Iran with the Qum reactor. The officials are not confident that Iran would comply with many of their requests but nevertheless they feel that they can turn the nuclear standoff with Iran of the last seven years sharply in their favour.

Gates' intuition that Iran would eventually have the bomb may be prophetic. Pakistan's Prime Minister ZA Bhutto had said in the 1970s that Pakistanis would eat grass to produce the nuclear bomb to be even with its nemesis India. Iran will do what Pakistan did; have a bomb because Israel is a nuclear weapons state. To dissuade Iran, the US and others meeting Iranians for direct talks in Geneva must balance the Israeli factor. Iranians are not Japanese and have no historical need to renounce the military option. Hence those negotiating with Iran must keep in mind what Gates has said and give Iran enough incentive not to build the bomb. They must also keep in mind about Iran-China closeness on energy exploration and development in Iran. China is crucial to influencing Iran on the nuclear issue and would be unlikely to push Iran too much.

My Foreign Office Days (1986-1990): More on the Fakhruddin period

When I began my stint as a Director (DSO) with Fakhruddin Ahmed, the Foreign Ministry's influence within the government was rapidly declining. Fakhruddin Ahmed witnessed this decline because he was Foreign Secretary in the hey days of the Foreign Ministry in 1974-75. In those days, the Foreign Ministry was in the frontline of Bangladesh's efforts for seeking recognition as an independent nation and foreign assistance for her war devastated economy. The Ministry achieved these objectives successfully. In fact the Foreign Ministry and Bangabhavan, where Bangabandhu's office as Prime Minister and later as President was located, acted hand in glove in achieving our foreign policy interests and goals. Even under President Ziaur Rahman, the Foreign Ministry maintained its important role in governance.

The trend towards marginalisation of the Foreign Ministry started with General HM Ershad's military coup in 1981. He started the process early by attacking both the institution of the Foreign Ministry and its officers. Once the senior members of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan became aware of the President's dislike for the Foreign Ministry, they utilised it to the fullest. They empowered the economic ministries with the diplomatic roles and responsibilities of negotiating foreign aid, overseeing foreign trade, etcetera ending up with leaving the Foreign Ministry to deal with the innocuous issues of political aspects of foreign relations only. Even in exercising those powers, there was the over-riding influence of the military intelligence that had the final say. For instance, the Ministry knew that any issue on our relations with India had to be vetted by the military intelligence with power of veto that the Ministry had no right to question.

Fakhruddin Ahmed was not particularly happy that he was brought back to the Ministry from his post as High Commissioner in London where he had lost his first wife to cancer. He had a short time left in service and would have loved to go into retirement from his post in London. As a professional, he however did not even make his sentiment on this issue known to anyone. The fact that he did not have a Foreign Minister who would have backed him in the matter made it easy for him to accept the Ministry's recall. There was of course another compelling factor for bringing Fakhruddin Ahmed to the Headquarters. Ershad had already decided to send a General to London and Fakhruddin Ahmed had to vacate the post anyway. With little or no influence over the President, the Foreign Minister accepted Fakhruddin Ahmed's recall. If he had the ability of influencing the President, then Fakhruddin Ahmed would perhaps not have been recalled.

One day during his tenure, I listened to a conversation that Fakhruddin Ahmed had with a very senior ex-CSP who was heading a very important office. He was telling the gentleman on the phone that one day, they would not be around but that their personal conflicts should not destroy an institution as important as the Foreign Ministry. In fact, one of the sad aspects of the many reasons why the Foreign Ministry has been marginalized today is the fact that it became a victim of the personal and professional grudges of some senior civil servants. These officers wanted to come to the Foreign Ministry after our Liberation because their good days as civil bureaucrats were ending under a dominant political government. The ex-PFS officers did not just decline; they did so rather undiplomatically. The civil service officers paid back this refusal with interest when they had in General HM Ershad, a President to support them.

Two interesting cases come to memory when I look back at that period. The President encouraged his intelligence people to keep him informed on a regular basis about the activities of the Foreign Ministry, particularly about some its senior officers in whom Ershad had interest. In the country, his military intelligence played that role. In the Bangladesh Missions, the Defence Attaches were the informers. The military attaché had the authority to send in diplomatic bags reports on other officers in the Mission, including the Ambassador! During Fakhruddin Ahmed's tenure, two senior diplomats faced Ershad's wrath. There was an added factor that played a key part in these two cases; Ershad's contempt for the opposition, particularly Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. A report by the intelligence officer in our Mission in Riyadh that Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Hedayet Ahmed had gone to the airport to receive Khaleda Zia led to the Ambassador's recall to Dhaka by an order of the President. The Foreign Ministry acted in this recall as the postman. Later it transpired that the Ambassador had met Khaleda Zia on verbal clearance from Dhaka. Hedayet Ahmed's ex-CSP connections were of no help because of the President's contempt for Khaleda Zia and he just did not have the inclination to check facts.

The second case involved Tareq Karim, then the Deputy High Commissioner to India and now the High Commissioner there. General Ershad's wrath fell on him when his intelligence guy in New Delhi reported that Tareq Karim was present at the meeting between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sheikh Hasina. The intelligence officer did not however mention a few other facts in his intelligence report that would have shown that Tareq Karim's presence in that meeting was in the interest of Bangladesh. First, the Indian Prime Minister's Office requested him to be present at the meeting as the Acting High Commissioner that he could not simply decline.

Second, Tareq Karim tried to keep the Foreign Ministry informed over telephone but failed to reach Dhaka because those were not the days of instant phone connections. Third, he sent a cipher message to Dhaka detailing everything. Finally, the Indian side asked Tareq Karim to be present so that Dhaka would know about the discussions at the meeting that was just a courtesy call.

Tareq Karim was called to Headquarters, not recalled like Ambassador Hedayet Ahmed, to explain his conduct. Fakhruddin Ahmed was Tareq Karim's maternal uncle. The Principal Secretary at the President's Office AHK Sadek was also Tareq Karim's uncle. Tareq Karim was also close to HRC having worked with him as his Counsellor when HRC was the Ambassador in Germany. In the end, Tareq Karim had to fend for himself. He and I had served in Delhi together. He was one of our outstanding diplomats. I suggested to Tareq Karim that he should seek an interview with the President because his case was intentionally misrepresented and if he could meet him, there was no way he would not win the reprieve. In the end, Tareq Karim met the President who was friendly during the meeting. But as Tareq Karim later recollected, he could sense the President's frustration because he was unable to pinpoint any ill motive in his presence at the Rajiv Gandhi-Sheikh Hasina meeting. Tareq Karim's meeting with the President lasted 30 minutes and when it ended, the matter was forgotten. Tareq Karim got his reprieve.

The Tareq Karim incident frustrated us the career diplomats immensely because it underscored the fragility of our careers. Personal dislikes and intelligence reports, often ill motivated, could land even the brightest amongst us in a desperate situation without anyone to help. It is true that the Foreign Ministry's decline resulted out of these actions of the President, his office, the intelligence agencies and the other Ministries; it was equally true that the Foreign Ministry itself seldom showed the solidarity that would have allowed it to stand against the onslaught. Within the Ministry, in HRC and Fakhruddin Ahmed, we had two of the ablest diplomats that any other foreign service would have been proud to have.

Below them, as Additional Foreign Secretary, we had AKH Morshed, who had stood first in the CSS Exam of 1957. Yet in the time they worked together in the Ministry, HRC seldom extended a hand towards the Foreign Secretary and kept AKH Morshed at arm's length that only made the Ministry more susceptible to these onslaughts. In fact, HRC, to maintain his own fragile position as the Foreign Minister, allowed and welcomed some of the onslaughts. I shall reflect on these later.

Published in The Independent, October 2nd, 2009