Friday, October 2, 2009

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

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