Friday, December 31, 2010

On newspaper editorials and commentaries

Published in The Independent
January 1st , 2011
M. Serajul Islam

There is something unique that most newspaper editors do in Bangladesh. They frequently write columns that they call a commentary in which they raise issues that they consider are of national importance. In these commentaries, they often hold what could in plain words be described as a trial of top political leaders, often even the Prime Minister, raising questions that they think they have a duty to do this. Often, the assumptions on which they ask such questions are subjective and politically biased. I wonder what purpose these commentaries serve as the political leaders to whom they are directed pay no heed. However, there is little to wonder that these commentaries allow the editors to satisfy their egos for they just not only ask questions in their commentaries to the top political leadership; they deliver judgments too. In fact, the editors aside, there are none in the country who have such awe inspiring powers except when they care to take on the judges!

Newspapers outside Bangladesh perform this function that our newspapers do through commentaries simply with their editorial; but seldom as overtly as our newspapers and editors do in their commentaries. The editorial is an important part of a newspaper, in fact it is the most important one that makes or breaks a newspaper and is never taken lightly. In the editorial, the editor brings his experience not just to express opinions on issues of national and international importance; sometimes such opinions even set the political direction of the country. The editor has what is universal everywhere; a column of his own to bring such opinions before the politicians and the nation. The editorial does not merely tell the reader about the ability of the editor; it really sets the standard of a newspaper. The editorial is often the product of an editorial board that most newspapers have to make its quality and content beyond reproach.
Editorials are not sermons. The better editorials are focused, crisp and as objective as one can get. Editorials are supposed to be short so that it can hold the reader’s interest. Whether a daily is worth the paper on which it is printed is easily assessed by the readers’ interest in reading the editorial as an indispensible part of what he/she reads when he/she holds the paper. The credibility of a daily is also determined by the importance the government gives to what is said about its policies in the editorials.

In Bangladesh, editorials have not evolved in the way it has in other countries. Rarely has any newspaper in Bangladesh been able to reach that level of credibility where its editorial has left the government with no alternative but to accept the message in it and act according to it. Nor have newspapers been able to place a government in a predicament where it could ignore the message in the editorial at a political price. Our editorials have not reached that level of credibility or acceptability.

Editorials reach credibility and acceptability on the strength of their ability to influence and motivate the public. Our newspaper editorials have failed to achieve this either because editorials have generally taken political lines, which is generally not a negative factor. Unfortunately, in the context of Bangladesh’s politics, political lines in editorials end by dividing the people and hence losing credibility. The two years of Emergency have further diminished the acceptance of the editorials to the public. A number of leading newspapers that had acquired or were beginning to acquire the sort of acceptance that newspapers of merit have in many of the world’s capitals were caught with their pants down backing the Emergency.

These newspapers made the mistake that a newspaper should not make. The newspapers got interested in playing politics. They crossed the fine line between suggesting to the political leadership what is good for the country to getting involved in politics and forcing the changes themselves. They got interested in protecting the so-called Third Force and in the end what they achieved was the company and friendship of corrupt and anti-democratic elements of the society. It would take these newspapers a long time before they can regain the credibility in their editorials.

It does not seem like the newspapers of Bangladesh are going about the way to regain public confidence as newspapers do elsewhere. They still seem not interested to assist politics but to guide and control it. They still continue to indulge in partisan politics. It is their abiding interest to play politics that has encouraged newspapers to add a commentary to supplement in more details what they believe they cannot do through the editorial. With the commentary, a newspaper editor raises himself to the level of the political leadership and then holds court and delivers a verdict! These commentaries are often lengthy pieces where most of what is written is subjective and ends up annoying those for whom it is meant. In the end such commentaries reflect the anger and frustration of the editor but fail to move the political leadership towards listening to what the commentaries try to say, suggest and demand. Often editors write these commentaries from a misplaced sense of importance by placing themselves at par and often above the elected leaders.

Newspapers play a major role everywhere in shaping democracy by being a conduit between the public and the government. The role is a pro-active and positive one. Unfortunately, because of the history of our politics, newspapers have played a role of conflict with the government at times of extra-constitutional governments. The papers failed to adjust to the elected governments that they treated and continue to treat as they had treated the unelected governments. The newspapers also failed to build with the political leadership the element of trust and respect for which the political leadership too must take part of the blame.

As a consequence, our newspapers have lost a lot of their potential as an instrument of democracy. It is time that they make conscious efforts on their part to earn the trust of the political leadership and the people. They could do so by giving up their commentaries and concentrating on editorials. Commentaries are provocative or at least that is the way the political leaderships view them. There are a lot of people who also see the commentaries as subjective writings meant to accuse or embarrass the government. What the newspapers write in the commentaries would be better served if written in editorials because editorials are an integral part of a newspaper designed precisely to serve just such a purpose. A good newspaper or a good editor does not need a commentary to supplement their efforts. A good editorial can serve the purpose adequately provided the paper has earned the credibility and the editor, the capability.

The writer is a former ambassador to Japan and Egypt

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Our Expatriates and Politics: The case in USA

Published in The Daily Sun
M. Serajul Islam

The Awami League supporters gathered in the Kennedy Airport in New York to welcome Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her recent visit to New York. Things went out of hand as the Awami Leaguers broke into groups and there was altercation between them that caused quite a deal of embarrassment. Our expatriates ended up giving a bad impression about the country to the hosts.

It is a very heartening matter that our expatriates show enthusiasm in receiving our Prime Ministers or Ministers on their overseas visits. However what is not so heartening is the partisanship in the way they show their enthusiasm in receiving these political leaders. In 2005, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was on an official visit to Japan. On that visit, s a historic event took place. In the heart of Tokyo, the local authorities offered Bangladesh a place for a permanent Shahid Manner that then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia inaugurated. This was a major concession made by the Japanese who are not accustomed to such an overture to a foreign culture. For Bangladesh, this was recognition of its language because this gave it the opportunity to inscribe in the heart of Tokyo, the story of the glorious Language Movement.

Unfortunately, the supporters of the Awami League did not see it that way. They made attempts of a black flag demonstration to spoil the occasion on the plea that the BNP was hobnobbing with Islamic fundamentalists and for a series of other alleged misdeeds in governance. It was with great efforts that the black flag demonstration was avoided with the help of the Japanese security. The BNP expatriates are also equally capable of doing what the AL expatriates had attempted during the visit of Khaleda Zia.

The nation owes great debt to our expatriates for their contribution to the national economy through remittance. That notwithstanding, the expatriates also do something that expatriates from other nations do not do. They establish branches of the parties in Bangladesh in their adopted countries. They also bring the conflicts and partisanship of these political politics and keep themselves divided just as the political parties at home keep the nation divided.

Thus there are branches of the AL, the BNP and the other smaller parties in every country to which Bangladeshis have migrated. In countries like the USA and UK, the mainstream parties have their branches in the cities where Bangladeshis live in a large number. The Bangladeshi private TV channels that can be viewed in the USA often carry advertisements from parties and candidates seeking support to get elected to the committees of these overseas branches of the political parties of Bangladesh. There are also other types of associations of Bangladeshi expatriates and in New York alone there are over 100 associations representing just not the political parties but districts and thanas reflecting the narrow parochialism of the community. The expatriates of other countries do not show even the hint of the division and disunity that the Bangladeshi community does. They are united for common benefit and also to unitedly represent their country. The Bangladesh community is divided on political and narrow self interests and in the process fail to make the impact that other expatriate communities achieve in the USA.

There was discussion during the Caretaker Government to ban the political parties from having overseas branches. The question of banning is a redundant one. These overseas branches need no formal sanction from the mainstream parties for opening overseas branches. These overseas branches however have to get approval of local authorities to function that control their activities. The call for banning these overseas branches nevertheless resonated in the minds of many in the country for a different reason. Many felt that by organizing as branches of parties in Bangladesh, Bangladeshi expatriates just assist in washing the dirty linen of Bangladesh’s politics abroad and thus enhances the negative image from which the country suffers.

Bangladeshis in the United States in the last two decades have increased in a substantial way. There is no reliable statistics on how many Bangladeshis live in the United States. It could be well in excess of a quarter million. Wikipedia mentions that between 1990 and 2000, the Bangladesh community was the fastest growing one in the US. It has now reached a position in cities such as New York, LA, Chicago, Greater Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Houston and Dallas where by their numbers they can act as a lobby to influence the country’s policies in areas of interest to Bangladesh. This year, a politician of Bangladeshi origin Hansen Clarke has been elected as a Member of Congress from Michigan.

Unfortunately, the achievement of the Bangladeshi Congressman seems to be a surprising exception as most Bangladeshis who can lead the community dissipate their energy in fighting the partisan politics of Bangladesh in the USA. The Federation of Bangladesh Associations of North America (FOBANA) that could have emerged as an apex organization of Bangladeshis in the USA for achieving not just social and cultural needs of the Bangladeshi community but also as an organization of political strength has now broken into a few splinter groups. Although the groups do not accept that they have been divided on politics of the country, there is enough reason to believe politics to a large extent as well as personalities have created the splinters.

The mainstream parties really do not gain anything through these branches established in their names. The branches gain even less in such a connection. Yet for some strange reasons, they keep the connection and as a consequence, the expatriates keep themselves divided as the nation keeps itself is divided at home. One reason why our expatriates love organizing themselves in line with politics at home is because they have been involved in politics as students or in their professional lives as activists of one or the other of the political parties before they migrated. By force of habbit, they do the same in the States. The fact that none of them would ever come home to do politics makes this attitude of the expatriates so hard to understand.

It is time that the Bangladeshis take a look at what other expatriate communities do and achieve in the USA. The Indians for instance organize themselves in the USA for furthering their social, economic, cultural and political lives in the USA. They do not try to get involved with politics in India that they leave to those in the country. They nevertheless love their country as much as Bangladeshis in the USA love theirs; most importantly their Indian identity. When it comes to furthering India’s interests in the USA, they thus have no problem in backing to the hilt the Government in power and in return, act as a powerful lobby for furthering India’s interest. All other expatriate communities in USA do the same because that is the logical thing to do. Unfortunately, in case of Bangladeshis in the USA, the community remains divided on politics of Bangladesh and have seldom been united in making Bangladesh’s interests a common cause with the power structure in the USA.

It is time for the expatriates of Bangladesh to unite. That will allow them not just to serve the interests of the community in USA but also help build a positive image for the country. They could even do better. They could create pressure on the politicians in Bangladesh given the love they have so clearly demonstrated for the motherland to end the “politics of hatred”, to take a quote out of the damning coverage by The Economist in its issue on 18th November, that is destroying Bangladesh. The expatriates in USA have the potential given the talent they have to send such a message but only if they unite and rise above politics.

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

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Nation Fails to Defend an Icon

Published in The Independent, December 18th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The controversy created in the country involving the name of Dr. Mohammad Yunus was unfortunate. It was unbelievable that the media and politicians reacted to the documentary shown in Norway without verifying the facts with official sources in Norway or the Norwegian Embassy in Dhaka. Their reaction suggested that they were more eager to believe in the story than to check facts.

The documentary in question is “Caught in Micro-credit” that was aired on Norwegian National Television, NRK. It charged Grameen Bank of violating the terms of an agreement signed in 1994 by transferring US$ 100 million given to it by Government of Norway to Grameen Kalyan, a subsidiary of GB. The money was meant for being given out as micro credit and Grameen Kalyan has nothing to do with micro credit. Although the money was transferred back to GB, questions were raised over it by the Norwegian Embassy of Dhaka. After protracted exchanges, the Norwegian Embassy was finally satisfied in 1998 and settled the matter in favour of GB

It was open season in a section of the press and in the community on Dr. Yunus as soon as news of the documentary reached Dhaka. It was taken out of context and sensational headlines such as “embezzlement”, “siphoning “ of millions of dollars, etc were liberally used to give readers the impression that the Noble Laureate had misappropriated the money and that he should go to jail for it although in the facts that they revealed, there was little to substantiate such a serious accusation.

The Prime Minister stepped into the controversy early. She asked for an inquiry that was fair enough. In seeking the investigation, the Prime Minister’s choice of words was subjective and uncomplimentary. Dr. Yunus who was out of the country when the controversy exploded instantly welcomed the call. The matter should have rested there. Instead, the Foreign Minister pitched in with her own spin, stressing that the image of the country did not depend on the image of an individual.

In politics, patience is a virtue. One wished that the political leaders had shown this virtue. If they had, they would have saved themselves the embarrassment because the Norwegian Government later unequivocally cleared Dr. Yunus and the Grameen Bank of any wrongdoing. The country’s Minister for Environment and Development Erik Solheim underscored this in a statement issued after the press reports in Dhaka that said ” there is no indication that Norwegian funds have been used for unintended purposes, or that Grameen Bank has engaged in corrupt practices or embezzled funds. The matter was concluded when the agreement concerning reimbursement of the funds was entered into in May 1998 under the government in office at the time."

The statement of the Norwegian Minister and facts that have become known since have shown that a section of the media played a deplorable role. First, they treated the allegations as true without checking facts about a Noble Laureate who has done so much for the country’s image. Second, they left little doubt that they were happy that something like the Norwegian documentary fell into their hands. Third, they did not consider even the need to contact the Noble Laureate before declaring him guilty as accused. Fourth, they used motivated headlines to mislead readers. Finally, they even created a few “original” stories of their own to “help” substantiate the allegations of the documentary like involving the Indian Prime Minister as criticizing Dr. Yunus leading the Indian High Commission in Dhaka to trash it.

The Foreign Minister’s negative spin to the story was surprising. She said in the media that an individual’s image cannot affect the image of the country. There is a little problem in accepting this argument because Dr. Yunus cannot be dismissed as just any individual. For Bangladesh, he is an icon; an individual larger than life. In fact, when Dr. Yunus won the Noble Prize in 2006, people felt the same pride for him as they felt about the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman during the war of liberation. Since winning the Noble Prize, Dr. Yunus has won many more international awards that have enhanced the image of Bangladesh. To dismiss him as individual whose reputation is not worth fighting for is surely is unacceptable to many in the country and abroad.

Hindsight is not always a fair way to judge people or events. In case of Dr. Yunus however people who jumped to believe the Norwegian documentary should have spared a moment to consider the impeccable credentials that the Noble Laureate has established for honesty and integrity. If they had done so, they would have thought twice before expressing their views.

Dr. Yunus has put Bangladesh positively on the world map long before he won the Noble Prize with the concept of Grameen Bank. During the 1991 Presidential campaign, then candidate Bill Clinton said in one of his campaign speeches that Dr. Yunus deserved the Noble Prize for the revolution he brought about with his concept of Grameen Bank and that if elected President, he would replicate the Grameen Bank model in some of the big cities of USA to deal with poverty. Since winning the Noble Prize, he has amongst his friends some of the most powerful men and women in contemporary history. He was a member of Global Elders, an international group announced in 2007 by Nelson Mandela on his 89th birthday “to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.” His name, reputation and awards he won are today the best products for helping Bangladesh’s poor image abroad.

It is indeed unfortunate that we did not defend his image against a slipshod documentary that deliberately misled viewers by failing to tell them that the allegation brought against him was settled in favour of Dr. Yunus and the Grameen Bank more than a decade ago. . Any other nation with an icon such as Dr. Yunus would have cried foul against the Norwegian documentary and demanded legal action against the producers of the documentary. Unbelievably, we declared him guilty without even an investigation or a chance to him to defend himself and even wanted to send him to jail!

The controversy has however brought to the surface the fact that there are many in the country not happy with him. The reasons for this are difficult to fathom except if one would like to conjecture. Perhaps by his Noble Prize winning feat, Dr. Yunus has made many unhappy. Perhaps, those who went after him believe that he is not with them politically. There are of course many who disagree with micro-credit for a variety of reason and they may have jumped into the fray to discredit him for the Noble Laureate is truly the “Father of Microcredit”. Nevertheless the unfortunate reaction in favour of the Norwegian documentary by groups in Bangladesh and their eagerness to declare Dr. Yunus guilty without checking facts or allowing him the right of defense raises serious questions about us as a nation.

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

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Human Rights Watch Report on Border Killings

The Daily Sun, December 26th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The issue of killings of Bangladeshis on Bangladesh-India border by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) has been a thorny one that has not been resolved satisfactorily. It has the potential to derail the positive steps that the two countries have taken in the last 2 years for a paradigm shift in their bilateral relations, given the emotional nature of the issue.

Bangladesh has protested these killings at various levels but without success. In the last decade, at least 1000 Bangladeshis have died at the hands of the BSF. The number alone underscores the seriousness of the issue. The reported cases of abuse and torture at the hands of the BSF have further complicated the issue of killings of Bangladeshis in the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Recently Human Rights Watch, one of world’s leading independent organisation dedicated to the protection of human rights, has published an 81 pages Report on the border killings/torture/abuse suffered by Bangladeshis (together with Indians) on the 2000 km border between Bangladesh and Indian province of West Bengal and the role of the BSF. The Report has documented indisputable evidence about BSF’s wrong doings and has shown that the problem is not really going to be resolved soon. The Report has been based on interviews with the families of the victims and in case of those abused/tortured, with the victims themselves. BSF officials and human rights groups in India and Bangladesh were also interviewed together with BDR officials.

The findings are grim. It has shown that the victims have been killed while involved in smuggling or cattle hustling or just being with those involved with those nefarious activities. It concluded that the relationship between the alleged crime and punishment was utterly disproportional and that in many cases, the victims were shot dead while fleeing. Some victims had been tortured to death simply on suspicion of being involved in smuggling. Children who were used by the smugglers to avoid detection had also been killed summarily.

There was almost no accountability in bringing the BSF personnel involved to justice and even the palpably evident cases of arbitrary killings had gone unpunished. The Report found the abuses and violation of human rights by the BSF acceptable to the Indian Government. The Indian Government argued that the BSF shootings had been necessary to check smuggling, mass migration of Bangladeshis and terrorists using Banagladesh as sanctuary to cross into India for terrorist attacks. The Report found that few of those killed had terrorist connections. Mass migration of Bangladesh was also an unacceptable excuse because India had fenced 3,200 km of the border. Smuggling was also not a good excuse to justify the killings because of fencing unless the BSF had connived and later, deals with smugglers had gone wrong.

The Report showed that Indian laws stood in the way to bring the “trigger happy” BSF personnel to bear responsibility for their acts. It also shed light to the fact that many of the BSF personnel involved in unlawful acts had gone to the Bangladesh-India border after a stint in Kashmir where security forces had been accused by both local and foreign human rights organizations of human rights violations.

The recommendations of the Report also pointed an accusing finger at BSF. It called upon the Indian Government to assure that the BSF followed UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms Law enforcement officials. It also recommended that the BSF officials accused of killing and abuses should be investigated by civilian courts as the BSF had failed to deliver justice in trying such cases. It also asked for an independent commission to try serious cases of violation of human rights by the BSF. The Report also called upon the Indian Government to remove all legal obstacles that provide immunity to BSF officials from prosecution. The Report called upon India and Bangladesh to accede to the request of the UN Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions to visit India, pending since 2000 and Bangladesh, pending since 2006, to inquire and document the killings in the hands of the BSF. The Report also recommended that BSF officials accused of wrong doings should be barred from serving as UN Peace Keepers.

The Human Rights Watch Report has thus upheld a widely held view in Bangladesh that innocent Bangladeshis are killed, tortured and abused by BSF. The defense by the Indian side that the Bangladeshis deserved to die because they were caught at a place where they were not supposed to be legally is unacceptable because those killed could have been apprehended as they were unarmed. The abuse and torture of Bangladeshis by the BSF manifested an anti-Bangladeshi mindset as well. These findings have come at a time when Bangladesh and India are involved in making a paradigm shift in their bilateral relations and hence could be provocative.

The first thing that the AL Government did upon assuming power was to assure the Indian government that its soil would not be used for terrorist attacks against India. Before Sheikh Hasina visited India in January this year, Bangladesh handed to India top ULFA terrorists for which a grateful Indian media urged its government to settle Bangladesh’s concerns in bilateral relations with India immediately. Bangladesh’s major demands like sharing of waters of the common rivers; a fair demarcation of the maritime boundary or a better deal in trade that is heavily weighed in favour of India have not yet been addressed by India.

The only offers that India has made to Bangladesh are a US$ 1 billion loan on soft terms for the communication sector and a promise to sell electricity. So far, a little over US$ 600 million of the amount has been earmarked for 14 communications related projects mainly linking mainland India with its Northeast provinces through Bangladesh. The opposition in Bangladesh has called the soft loan an Indian ploy to get from Bangladesh another of its important needs, namely the land transit that in the past Bangladeshi negotiators had considered as their only card against India.

The window of opportunity for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations that Bangladesh officials have so enthusiastically drummed up will wither away unless India quickly concedes on Bangladesh’s major claims. A great deal will therefore depend on what the Indian Prime Minister has to offer when he comes on a visit to Bangladesh expected to take place early next year. The Report of the Human Rights Watch with all the negative manifestations will add extra pressure on India to relent. The ball is now in India’s court and unless India concedes, the agitation of the opposition against India will begin to gain momentum.

Writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Center for Foreign Affairs Studies.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

President Obama gives India a dream visit

Published in The Sun, November 17th.'2010
M. Serajul Islam

If the Indians were to write the script for President Obama for his Indian visit, they could not have written a better one than what President Obama scripted and executed. While giving Indian support for a permanent seat in an expanded UN Security Council, the President suggested that with “increased power comes increased responsibility,” leaving no doubt that the USA considers India a responsible world power. In fact, in his speech in the Indian parliament, Obama said that India is not an emerging world power; it has already emerged as one.

The President entered India through Mumbai, the financial capital of India. In Mumbai, the President talked business that was on top of his agenda for the Indian trip for which a record 215 member trade team was in his entourage. He was eager to demonstrate to the Americans his focus on what was the major issue that led to the debacle in the mid-term elections for the Democrats. The massive defeat in which the Democrats lost control of the House, has also cast doubts on the President’s re-election bid. He thus pampered Indians to encourage them to sign business deals for not just increasing trade but also creating jobs in USA. He expressed surprise that India is not even in the list of 10 top trading partners of the USA.

Towards helping India achieve that position, deals worth over US$ 10 billion were signed by business executives travelling with him. For USA, such deals will have the potential to create 50,000 jobs. These deals were signed in areas of defence production; automobiles; electronics; aeronautics and transportation. Significantly for India, the US has agreed to lift controls for export of high technology items and technologies to India. This is a manifestation of the trust that US now has upon India.

In Mumbai, the President and the First lady stayed at Mumbai Taj, the scene of 24/11.The hotel was chosen deliberately to convey to the Indians USA’s support for fighting terror. However, Indian expectation that he would also convey a message to the Pakistanis whom they believe to be behind the 24/11 terrorist attacks in which 166 people were killed did not happen. That was perhaps the only issue that the President left undone in the Indians’ wish list but that was understandable given Pakistan’s strategic value to USA in the ongoing war on terror in the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the Joint Declaration, the two sides “called for Pakistan to bring to justice the perpetrators of November, 2008 Mumbai attacks”.

The President was received in New Delhi by the Indian Prime Minister in breach of protocol that permits the Minister in waiting to receive a visiting Head of State. In official talks between the President and the Prime Minister, there was not a chance that there would be even the remotest possibility of any differences on any issue emerging. None did. A gleaming Prime Minister told the press in the press briefing he held jointly with the President that the USA has also agreed to help India gain membership in multilateral export control regimes, including the powerful Nuclear Suppliers Group, a cartel that has held India to a pariah status for over 3 decades following its nuclear tests of 1974 till the US had intervened to help remove India from that status to sign the civil nuclear deal.

The President’s speech in the joint session of parliament was simply the sweetest music to the Indian ears. He said India and the US are “indispensible partners” and the US fervently supports India’s rise as a world power. He partially satisfied for failing to name Pakistan for 24/11 earlier in the trip by stating in the Indian parliament that terrorism linked to safe havens in Pakistan “is not acceptable.” He spoke admiringly about India as a great civilization and even mentioned thoughtfully that the all important number zero was invented in India. He spoke of Mahatma Gandhi and how his life influenced him. Clearly, the President made very serious efforts to make India happy.

The Joint Statement on the visit contained the usual clichés that India and the US are the two largest democracies of the world. Nevertheless, there is a clear emphasis in the JS to conclude that the US now accepts India as an equal in strategic global partnership. In fact, in the JS, US-India has been described as “one of the defining and strategic partnerships of the 21st century.” The areas of cooperation are also significant because it covers important areas to underscore the depth of relationship.

President George Bush had come to India in 2006 with one issue; the civil nuclear deal. President Obama came with his domestic agenda and foreign affairs as priorities.. He has learnt a very valuable lesson on the relation between the economy and job creation and elections; that “it is the economy, stupid” that is of fundamental importance to voters. That explains the record trade team as well as the emphasis on the trade deals and job creation. One therefore cannot help but wonder whether the President would have praised India as he did had the Democrats not lost so badly that made India’s huge market of1.2billion people very attractive.

The foreign affairs agenda was to send a strong message to China to go slow in believing that it would be left with Asia and the Pacific as its spheres of influence. In that context, the President used his trip to tell China that USA and India would stand together to contest such a Chinese desire. The strong words used to support India’s Security Council candidature that is not a burning issue at UN Headquarters at New York at present was intentional for the same China factor.

The President travelled to India with 40 planes, including Air Force One, for reasons of security and logistics. In these, were 6 armoured vehicles including the President’s Cadillac that is fitted with mini communications centre to let the President remain in touch with Washington. This was by far the most extravagant arrangement ever for a US President allegedly costing US$ 200 million a day. The President’s men also lost no opportunity to remind that the 3 days that the President spent in India were the longest on a foreign trip. Clearly, the message of this new interest in India is for China. Nevertheless, for South Asia, it is also a message that India has made a quantum leap in world affairs, leaving the rest of South Asia behind. All said, the question that will linger in this region among those who know India better is whether India has the heart and the vision to live up to the importance that US has given it. Bangladesh for one would be looking expectantly for an answer when Dr. Manmohon Singh comes over to Dhaka for a visit early next year.

India’s current position, rising as it is towards becoming a world power, did not warrant the extravagant praises the President heaped upon it. For one, India’s contribution to the world GDP is still a low 2%. Inside the country; it has plenty of problems; one being the situation in Kashmir on the human rights issue that is hardly a happy one. India’s problems with its neighbours still linger where India has not shown the maturity that would make President Obama’s lavish praise fully comprehendible. One analyst called the President’s efforts high on “diplomatic flattery” while another reminded him that he spent the early part of his administration “kowtowing” China and neglecting India.

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

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sino-Bangladesh relations: Need for vision

Published in Daily Sun, 9th., November, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

There was news in the media recently that Foreign Minister Dipu Moni had postponed her China visit on health ground. There was no news afterwards whether that visit has been rescheduled. In the absence of any information on the issue, questions have arisen in minds of many whether the visit was postponed on medical grounds alone.

Sino-Bangladesh relations had a very unhappy beginning. China opposed Bangladesh’s liberation and had held up its UN candidature for quite a while at a time when it was extremely important for it to have that membership. Following the changes after 15th August 1975, China established diplomatic ties with Bangladesh and also facilitated Bangladesh’s entry to the UN by withdrawing its veto. In the next three and a half decades, Sino-Bangladesh relations developed from one level to another in excellence. In the process, every aspect on which a country builds a relationship with another, like trade, economics, defense cooperation ; people to people contact, etc., have been brought into the Sino-Bangladesh relations with many agreements/protocols providing the framework for conducting these relations.

Although Bangladesh and China have not built a strategic partnership in the formal sense; there has never been any doubt that India has always been a factor in jelling their bilateral relations. In 1988, when Bangladesh faced one of history’s worst floods, General Ershad brought the point home in a dramatic way. He asked India through diplomatic channels to take back the helicopters that it had provided for dealing with the flood telling the Indians that there was no need of helicopters anymore. At the same time, in fact the same day, the President requested China on the national TV for helicopters to deal with the flood.

President Ershad visited China five times during his tenure to underscore the importance China gave Bangladesh. There were high level visits from China during this period including one from the Chinese President. There were reasons for China to please Bangladesh. First, Bangladesh had the opening to the Bay of Bengal in which China was interested for strategic reasons, including the need for a deep seaport for economic purpose that it hoped Bangladesh would build. Second, China in those days was also interested in the ongoing insurgencies in the Seven Sisters of India and Bangladesh was ideally located for furthering such interest. Third, China also had its problems with India. Fourth, China viewed Bangladesh with its large population as a potential market for its businesses. Finally, China perceived India as a competitor to its ambition to become a regional power and for that it needed Bangladesh (and other countries in South Asia) as an ally.

Although the end of the Cold War that also saw the return of elected government in Bangladesh changed many equations of international relations, Bangladesh-China relations remained warm. When the AL came to office in 1996, Sheikh Hasina accepted China’s invitation for a visit that was her first overseas trip when she was barely in office a couple of months, the party’s historical ties with India notwithstanding.

Bangladesh’s foreign policy practitioners did not fully comprehend the changes in international politics of the time, particularly the fact that some of the reasons that had made it attractive to China were losing their edge. They also failed to realize that Myanmar could give more to China, and in fact doing so, on the strategic issues than Bangladesh.

While these changes/developments were taking place, the BNP made a blunder in 2005 by allowing Taiwan to open a trade office without taking China into confidence. The office was opened at a time when elections were taking place in Taiwan and thus the most inopportune time to give such permission. It also cancelled a Chinese aided project DAP 1 that was signed in the final days of the AL government unilaterally that angered China very much. When the AL came to office in January, 2009, China’s eagerness for a relationship with Bangladesh based on special considerations had mellowed substantially. On coming to power, the AL also gave China cause for disappointment when it failed to take China into confidence while changing the name of the China-Bangladesh Convention Centre that China had fully funded.

The AL Government also made overtures to reach out to India that it did not last time. It made dramatic concessions on land transit and security during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s “state visit” to India in January this year. In the Joint Communiqué, Bangladesh agreed to support India’s candidature for membership in an expanded Security Council although the issue is not even current in UN affairs. The strong words of support sent a clear message to Beijing about Bangladesh’s regional preference.

Bangladesh has painstakingly built its relations with China over many decades starting when China was a developing country to a position where it plays a dominant role in international politics and economics today. To lose China’s interest now or a mellowing down of the earlier warm relations would be losing out on benefits out one of the most successful pursuits in the foreign policy initiatives of Bangladesh, namely building with China excellent bilateral relations.

It is Bangladesh’s prerogative as a sovereign nation to get close or distant to and from any nation for pursuing its national interests. So China cannot have any qualms about what Bangladesh does with India. Nevertheless, Bangladesh should keep in mind that it befriended China for leverage against India. China reciprocated warmly towards Bangladesh also because of the India factor. Thus if Bangladesh would like to improve relations with India now, the least China would expect is to take a time tested friend into confidence. Today, as a responsible world power, China is no longer interested in meddling in India’s internal affairs. The two countries are also patching up their bilateral problems. Hence, India to which Bangladesh has made exceptional overtures for friendship that it has never done before would also not have any reason to worry if Bangladesh had taken China into confidence on moving ahead with it. Bangladesh foreign policy practitioners have not shown enough maturity in handling its relations vis-à-vis India and China for it does not appear that they have taken China into confidence. The time it took to invite Sheikh Hasina to Beijing this time underscores Chinese disappointment.

The Bangladesh Foreign Minister’s visit to Beijing would have answered questions in the public mind about China’s present perception about; whether Bangladesh has played away the strategic value of China for promises from India. The forthcoming visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka and what offer he brings for Bangladesh on its water sharing; trade and maritime boundary demarcation problems would also help clear a lot of uncertainties. If the Indian Prime Minister fails to offer major concessions to Bangladesh on the outstanding problems, the public would be convinced that Bangladesh has indeed played away its cards with India and in the process, lost the warmth of China.

China conducts foreign policy on long term perspective. It is also not in the habbit, as some major powers are, of abandoning a tested friend like Bangladesh. Thus whatever Manmohon Singh offers us or does not, Bangladesh should deal with China with vision and while trying to improve relations with India, do so with China on the loop. Between the BNP in its last term and the AL so far, Bangladesh has shown no such vision. One just hopes that China would understand if Bangladesh showed the vision.

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

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

President Obama’s India trip: Pakistan out

The Daily Sun, November 2nd.,2010
M. Serajul Islam

President Obama will start a trip on November 5th to India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan for an APEC meeting. It is however his trip to India that has created discussion and controversy; a lot of it caused by the US side itself. The discussion and controversy has been based on the fact that he would be visiting India without a trip to Pakistan, something ususual. In the past, Washington had taken the sensitivities of the two South Asian rivals and had pleased both without playing favourite with either with a Presidential visit.

US-India relations have been on a fast track since the US and India signed in 2005 an agreement under which India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and place the former under IAEA inspection. In the next 3 years, the US backed India through complex negotiations to get the consent of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, a very powerful cartel group whose consent was necessary to allow India to seek assistance for building nuclear reactors for energy needs. The NSG’s approval gave India the prestige and respectability as a responsible world power and helped it come out of its pariah status following its 1974 nuclear test.

President Obama backed fully his predecessor’s moves towards India and the whole gamut of bilateral relations was reviewed positively during Prime Minister Manmohon Singh’s very successful visit to Washington last year. The visit of President Obama to New Delhi has been described by his aides as one intended for action on what was agreed during the Indian PM’s trip to Washington in November last year. They said little time would be wasted on talks or negotiations, underscoring the fact that the two sides are ready for a paradigm shift in relations from one of “doner-donee” to one of strategic partnership between two equals.

President Obama has decided to visit India without a parallel trip to Pakistan fully conscious about what it would mean to Pakistan. It wants to give recognition to the massive strides that India has made in the last one decade or so in international politics and the importance of a US-India strategic partnership in Asia. US Under Secretary William Burns described this partnership as “ a cornerstone of our broader Asia approach.” China’s recent initiatives in Asia and the Pacific have not brought comfort in New Delhi. Washington too is viewing this with concern. The US side has none the less dismissed media speculation that the importance it is giving to President Obama’s India visit is intended to send signal to Beijing saying that it is equally interested to strengthen its relations with China. There is nevertheless reason to believe that the visit to India is being arranged without Islamabad on the loop to give that message precisely.

On the agenda for the trip will be the entire gamut of bilateral relationships; from health care to defense; from trade to climate change; from education to high tech exports. Trade and financial issues will however be a principal focus on the trip. US-India trade has doubled between 2004-and 2008 when it reached US$ 43 billion. This year, the two way trade is expected to touch US$ 50 billion. During the visit, both sides will push for exponential growth that is within reach of both countries. Market access by US farm products to Indian market is perhaps the only issue of contention in US-India relations at present is also expected to be discussed. One administration official hit the bull’s eye for anyone seeking to understand where US-India relations stand today when he said: "What concerns US today, concerns India as well. And what concerns India, concerns the US. If we move ahead on these issues, it will be a big push forward."

Nevertheless, Pakistan will be an important backdrop for the visit. Understandably, the Pakistanis have been upset by being ignored. However, leading to the visit, it has been the US administration that has made most of the attempts to explain that the importance of Pakistan cannot be under-estimated from the visit in the context of US’ foreign policy priorities where Pakistan is one of its most important allies. President Obama called President Zardari over telephone to reassure him that Pakistan continues to be a very important partner of the USA and its relations with India did not in any way affect its relations with Pakistan. He referred to the recent Third Round of US-Pakistan Strategic Talks in Washington to underscore the importance and depth of US-Pakistan bilateral relations. In his conversation, President Obama assured the Pakistani President that his country will assist Pakistan to get back on track once the war on terror is over, perhaps to assure Pakistan that it would not abandon Pakistan as it had the last time during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Earlier, President Obama had made an unexpected visit to the venue of US-Pakistan strategic talks in Washington to demonstrate the importance the US attaches to its relations with Pakistan. During that visit, he had told the Pakistan delegation that was led by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister that he would undertake a separate visit to Pakistan next year. During his telephone talk with President Zardari, President Obama re-confirmed this invitation.

The overtures that the US side has made to meet Pakistan’s sensitiveness are interesting and unusual. It is something that US has not done before, not for any country. The US, while undertaking these efforts, has also been aware about the furor that was created in US-UK relations when the British Prime Minister had visited India ignoring Pakistan. Yet it has gone ahead and arranged President Obama’s visit to India ignoring Pakistan.

Thus, all the pep talks to soften Pakistan’s sensitivities including a promise of a visit by President Obama next year notwithstanding, there is clearly a shift in preference of the US for one of the two arch rivals in South Asia. It is only the war on terror that is keeping the US committed to Pakistan. Recently, the US has committed US 2 billion in military aid; even overlooking human rights violations by Pakistani troops that should have come under serious scrutiny under the Leahy Amendment that bars aid under such circumstances. This aid comes on top of US$ 7 billion already committed for civilian projects. But at the same time, the US has also expressed its disappointment over the Pakistan military’s commitment in counter terrorism efforts and has warned that if any terrorist attack in USA is traced back to Pakistan, USA would take out “150 terrorist camps” in Pakistan unilaterally. USA is losing its patience with Pakistan and needs more commitment to end the war on terror with the US President committed to start withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan from next year. Ignoring Pakistan on the South Asian trip could have a message about this impatience.

The only silver lining that Pakistan could see in President Obama’s visit to India is he could convey to the Indians its concerns about Indian presence in Afghanistan where it has become a leading donor having so far pledged US$ 650 million. President Obama’s visit to India underlines the fact that it has emerged in a class of its own with Pakistan in the race as long as the war on terror remains unresolved with the rest of South Asian nations not even in the race in USA’s scheme of things in the region.

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

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Pakistan receives US$ 2 billion in military aid and warnings

Published in The Independent
M. Serajul Islam

The US, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistan, by its Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi met in Washington this month for third Pakistan-USA Strategic Dialogue this year, a forum set up by President Obama for cooperation outside those related to counter terrorism. However, counter terrorism issues dominated the talks in which the Pakistanis were on the defensive with accusations from the US administration about lack of commitment of the Pakistan military. The Pakistanis were also on the defensive on human rights issues with certain units of Pakistan’s military accused of extra-judicial killings. These killings came under the scrutiny of the Leahy Amendment that requires cessation of military aid to a country whose troops are involved in such acts. In the past, the law has been applied to military aid to Indonesia and Colombia.

In the end Pakistan had its way but only for the time being. The US pledged US $ 2 billion for 2012-2016 that will be in addition to the US$ 7.5 billion that has already been approved for civilian projects. In announcing the aid, Secretary Clinton did not bring up the issue of the human rights violations to avoid embarrassing Pakistan whose support is crucial to win the war on terror. Instead she said: “The United States has no stronger partner when it comes to counterterrorism efforts against the extremists who threaten us both than Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s earlier alliance with the United States was not a pleasant one. The two came together to stop the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There are a few parallels in these two US-Pakistan alliances. In 1979, it changed Pakistan’s pariah status internationally under General Ziaul Huq for usurping power by military coup. In 2001, the international community had kept Pakistan at arm’s length after General Moshraff came to power through a military coup. On becoming USA’s ally in the war on terror, Pakistan became the closest friend of the US and the West. During the Soviet invasion, Pakistan had received extensive military aid from the United States. After General Ziaul Huq had turned down a US 325 million in military aid as “peanuts” given under the Carter administration, Pakistan ended receiving in excess of US 3 billion in military aid under President Reagan. In providing military aid the, the US overlooked allegations of human rights violations by Pakistani military.

This time, there are a few differences. The world has changed meantime and the Cold War is over. In the post Cold War era, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11and the war on terror, international politics has become far more complicated. Tackling the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was comparatively an easier task than the war on terror where the enemy is a known one but where it is like the phantom lost in between Afghanistan and Pakistan in terrain so intractable that finding the terrorists and annihilating them is like finding the proverbial pin in the hay stack. But for the US and the West, the war on terror must be won for them to rest in peace. Pakistan is the country whose help they need the most. The alternative to Pakistan’s help is for the US to take over Pakistan and pursue the Taliban and the Al Qaeda that is an impossible proposition.

The above notwithstanding, at various international forums, the US has left Pakistan in no doubt that its patience is running out. Secretary Clinton has openly criticized Pakistan’s civilian government of corruption and incompetence. US officials have clearly shown their preference for the military while also making it known to them that they have not showing full commitment in pursuing the Taliban and the Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s northwest. President Zardari has been informed by the United States directly that it would not hesitate to bomb “150 terrorist centers” in Pakistan if there is any terrorist attack on US soil that it can trace back to Pakistan.

Thus there is considerable pressure on Pakistan Government about delivering on its commitment to tackle insurgency and the money it is receiving has very strong strings. It is in fact a carrot and stick policy that the US is pursuing with Pakistan. There is a new element entering into the US efforts to win the war on terror. Earlier the US encouraged the Karzai administration to isolate the moderate Taliban from the extremists through negotiations. Now there are hints that the US is getting directly involved in such negotiations. When her attention was drawn to this, Secretary Clinton remarked that stranger things have happened in politics. Defense Secretary Robert Gates clarified that the US is not directly involved in these talks and only offering counsel when necessary. There is also news that NATO has been providing the Taliban with safe passage for such talks.

The US is thus looking into more options than depending totally on Pakistan for winning the war on terror or winning it militarily. The war itself shows no signing of going towards a resolution. Although, the US stills has shown no signs of abandoning Pakistan, it is beginning to show signs that it is seeking alternatives. Meanwhile, the association with USA is causing to Pakistan the same social and political upheavals that it faced after the end of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; in fact much more. It may again wake up and find the Americans gone, and this time left with a potato hotter than the one it was left holding the last time. Pakistan, if it knows what is best for itself, should look back at history while keeping an eye on the new options that the US is seeking, not forgetting that the US President has his strategy set for starting withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in a year’s time.

There are a few developments that are emerging that may have impact upon on the way Pakistan-US strategic alliance goes in the time ahead. One is President Obama’s forthcoming visit to India. Washington is weary of China’s “ambitions” in the Pacific. Recent cooling of US-China relations on other issues could encourage the United States to look with concern at China-Pakistan strategic alliance that the Indians could use against its nemesis Pakistan during President Obama’s India visit.

Pakistan’s present predicament in its relationship with US, despite the huge amount of US aid given and committed is thus far from a happy one. If the US again leaves as it did the last time, Pakistan could be left holding the potato that Pakistan would be left holding could very easily burn more than its hands; it could seriously threaten the state itself.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies. He can be reached on email

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bangladesh Foreign Policy: Missed Opportunities

Published in The Daily Sun
October 25th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

Globalization has profoundly changed the way relations are conducted between nations. It has made the conduct of such relations more difficult and complex. In every country conduct of foreign relations has attained the highest significance. Consequently, the Foreign Ministry has been strengthened everywhere.

Bangladesh for some unexplained reasons has stood against the tide of time. It has steadily, wittingly or otherwise, weakened its ability to conduct its interests in the international environment. Its conduct of foreign relations is based on partisanship where, if the Government wants to go in one direction, the opposition would want to go the oppositeway. The Bangladesh Foreign Ministry today, instead of holding charge of formulating and implementing foreign policy, has been pushed to the periphery where the Foreign Minister’s role has been taken away and distributed elsewhere.

One does not need much common sense to predict that foreign policy formulated in partisan manner by a Foreign Ministry so weak, where the stakeholders are not consulted, cannot achieve Bangladesh’s national interests to the fullest extent possible. The history of Bangladesh foreign relations is replete with examples where the nation has missed furthering its national interests because of the way it conducts its foreign relations.

9/11 hit the world like a huge meteor, and turned it upside down. The world is still struggling to stand up on its feet. Ironically it came for Bangladesh as an opportunity. After the United States absorbed the initial shock and embarked on the war on terror, it also looked to reach out to the Muslim world to isolate the peaceful world of Islam from the fundamentalists where it knew that the majority supported peace. In other words, the US and its allies looked for Muslim countries with large population with a liberal democracy in place. In that context, Bangladesh and Turkey were the two countries on top of the list.

Just at that juncture in history, the BNP assumed office with a big majority in the elections. For Bangladesh and BNP, the stage was set to win the friendship of the US and the West instantly by aligning its foreign policy to the new realities. Instead, the BNP misunderstood the international issues and to please the Jamat, it gave the US and the West a wrong message; that it actively supported Islamic fundamentalism. The Jamat took full advantage of BNP’s indulgence to build in the country an extensive network of Islamic fundamentalist groups who threatened to establish a fundamentalist Islamic rule in the country. The US Ambassador in Dhaka at that time cried hoarse in trying to attract the attention of the Government but failed as the latter described the rising wave of Islamic terrorist activities in the country, particularly in northern Bangladesh, as media hype.

The AL that was aggrieved because it lost power that it thought was through a “conspiracy” took full advantage of the wrong line of the BNP and gave Bangladesh a branding as a Taliban state. That branding destroyed further the possibility of Bangladesh to get on the right side of the US and the West by establishing its credentials as a Muslim country with a liberal democracy. The other opportunity that the BNP Government missed was to win the post of the Secretary General of the OIC that went to Turkey. Bangladesh had destroyed that prospects by its indulgence to Islamic fundamentalists and choosing a controversial candidate. The AL helped Bangladesh lose the post by arguing the case against the candidate abroad. The post of the OIC Secretary General ,that had been promised to Bangladesh by the Saudis when Bangladesh withdrew the candidature of Humayun Rashid Chowdhury in the 2000 elections on request of the Saudi King , would have given Bangladesh a significant handle for achieving its foreign policy goals in a post 9/11 world.

In the end, but when it was too late, it was explicit that Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh was the product of BNP’s indulgence with the Islamic forces and AL’s propaganda that Bangladesh was an Islamic terrorist state, with the Indian media actively propagating AL’s stand. In 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to New Delhi referred to Bangladesh as the “next Afghanistan”, based on the briefing by the Indians. Early in 2006, Christine Rocco, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia came on a visit to Bangladesh and gave Bangladesh a strong message to control elements the Islamic fundamentalists. Within a very short time after that, these elements were arrested in a fairy tale manner. They were tried and hanged under the Caretaker Government without any trouble from their supporters who, going by the media campaign about Bangladesh in the India and international media, were on the verge of taking power by force. The tame fashion of their arrests and execution went to prove that the media propaganda notwithstanding, was not a fundamentalist Islamic state but a liberal democracy.

If the BNP Government’s had understood the international forces of the time and pursued its foreign policy accordingly, it would have achieved its interests in a major way with the western countries led by the United States. Instead, it won for Bangladesh the tag of an Islamic fundamentalist state, whose negative impact fell, among other things, on its economy, particularly in attracting foreign investment. BNP’s failure to take AL on board on its foreign policy initiatives that in itself is the product of the country’s negative politics and the AL’s propaganda that Bangladesh was a “Taliban” state, have contributed to Bangladesh’s failure to pursue its international interests for which the international situation was tailor made.

The partisanship in pursuing foreign policy under the last BNP Government was thus responsible for Bangladesh missing out of a heaven sent opportunity to develop with the West a relationship that would have launched it on road to economic prosperity. It was this partisanship on foreign relations that was also responsible for the emergency. The western powers who were pursuing the war on terror, intervened directly through their diplomats in Dhaka to bring the military into power to avert the country failing that would have made it a haven for international terrorists or in Condoleezza Rice’s words, turn Bangladesh into the “the next Afghanistan”. Today many believe, particularly the business community, that the emergency has pushed Bangladesh back a few decades in its development efforts.

Politicians in Bangladesh speak of history and of taking lessons from history. However, when it comes on deciding on vital national issues, history becomes the first casualty. One expected that the Awami League would look upon the BNP’s last term and realize the historical mistake it made by not looking upon forces in international politics on a bipartisan basis. This time, the opportunity that has come Bangladesh’s way is with India, a country that is vital to its efforts to succeed in economic development, because of factors of geography and politics. Again, the AL is following the footsteps of the BNP did after 9/11, in choosing to deal with opportunities to improve Bangladesh-India relations without talking with the opposition parties and the stakeholders.

Soon after coming to power, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced that Bangladesh will not allow its territory to be used by terrorists against India. Before Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in January this year, Bangladesh handed to India the top ULFA terrorists, a step that was an answer to India’s dream. Subsequently, Bangladesh also acceded to India’s long standing demand for land transit from mainland India to its seven sensitive northeastern states in the name of connectivity. During her Indian visit, Bangladesh also accepted India as the regional leader by supporting India’s candidature as a permanent member is an expanded UN Security Council which ironically is not an issue at all in the UN at this period of time. The support given in the Joint Communiqué has been strongly worded to affect China’s sensitivity, a country with whom Bangladesh has painstakingly built strategic partnership over the last few decades.

The BNP, true to the partisan way Bangladesh conducts its foreign relations, has called for agreements and understanding reached by Sheikh Hasina in New Delhi to be scrapped. Subsequently, when the Indian Finance Minister visited to Dhaka and offered a US$ 1 billion soft loan to build economic infrastructure in Bangladesh to make it a sub-regional connectivity hub with promises of great economic gains, the BNP again dismissed the Indian offer. It accused the Government of giving India its long standing demand for land transit (Bangladesh’s only major bargaining chip with India) from its mainland to the Seven Sisters without receiving anything on its own demands on water sharing, trade issues, land and maritime boundary demarcation except promises.

On a recent visit to New Delhi, a group of us who interacted with Indians who know about the recent moves in Bangladesh-India relations have returned with the impression that this time there is sincerity on the Indian part to provide Bangladesh concessions on its demands. A lot of the change in India has come because of the moves Bangladesh has made on key issues of security, transit and India’s international politics. The media in fact recommended to the Indian Government to give Bangladesh whatever it wanted after these concessions. In our discussions with the Indians, we told them that their intentions were still not understood and that unless they moved very quickly on giving Bangladesh concessions on water rights, trade issues; land and maritime boundary demarcation, politics may not wait for Indian good intentions on economics to catch up. We also told them that when the Indian Prime Minister goes on his visit to Bangladesh that is expected to take place early next year, there must be an agreement on Teesta sharing; land boundary demarcation and a political statement that on maritime boundary that Bangladesh’s principled stand would be discussed with sincerity. On trade, we said that the days of bureaucratic discussions should become history and India must provide Bangladesh with a one way trade regime where its products would be able to enter India without any tariff or non-tariff barrier. We told them that through such a gesture, Bangladesh would not even be able to come anywhere near the humongous trade deficit that India enjoys but would cause in Bangladesh a sea change in perception that India is interested in Bangladesh’s welfare.

The Indians this time are in the mood to be friendly to Bangladesh. However, they are moving slowly, not realizing that the window of opportunity that has come about in Bangladesh-India relations since the AL came to power in Dhaka and Congress returned to power in New Delhi will not remain open too long. They must consider that the BNP has already taken a public stand against the recent initiatives. India’s failure to give Bangladesh its demands quickly may change the mood in those who are not partisan, including the new generation who are otherwise fed up with partisan and conflict ridden politics of the country. The recent overtures by Bangladesh towards China could be the reflection of wariness within the AL camp about moving ahead with India with India lagging behind.

Bangladesh can achieve its full economic potentials only when it resolves its geopolitical problems and prospects which means resolving its problems with India. In this context, a historic opportunity is in front of the country. The historic opportunity to develop a friendly and sustainable relation with India could again go the other way by default like the opportunity Bangladesh wasted after 9/11 because of partisanship in the way it conducts foreign relations. Unless India makes quick and substantial concessions on the issues of concern to Bangladesh by the time the Indian Prime Minister visits Bangladesh, the possibilities for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations may just wither away. India’s US 1 billion loan may also just be wasted as the BNP’s negative campaign against India begins to find favour among those who are not traditionally BNP supporters. . There is a new problem on the Bangladesh side that was not there when BNP missed the opportunities after 9/11. The Foreign Ministry has been weakened substantially meanwhile with many sharing the functions of the Foreign Minister who are not formally supposed to have any role in the conduct of foreign relations.

Partisanship of the parties in foreign relations could thus destroy the possibilities in improvement of Bangladesh-India relations as it destroyed the opportunities that came Bangladesh’s way after 9/11. The only difference between then and now could be made by India if it reciprocates generously on the concessions made by Bangladesh and very quickly as time may be fast running out. Otherwise, there could be another opportunity lost by Bangladesh due to the partisan way it conducts its foreign relations.

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

Dhaka City and Our Civic Responsibilities

Published in The Independent,
October 23rr., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

I walk to my mosque on Gulshan Avenue that is a few hundred yards from my house every Friday to say my Jumma prayers. Last Friday on my way, I saw a board on a plot where a multi storied building is under construction. The message on the board in Bangla said that those walking by the site should be careful from falling materials.

One must commend the good civic sense of the builder to warn pedestrians of such danger. There is one problem however in commending the builder without some words of criticism. The builder has in fact kept no space for the pedestrians to walk, having taken over the footpath for keeping building materials. The under construction building has access to two roads. The side where this board has been raised is on Road No 2 on Gulshan. On the other side, the construction is on Road no 4. On that side, the builder has taken over half of the road for other building materials and we who live close to this building on Road 4 are lucky that he has spared us some space on the road for us to use!

However he is not so kind when we try to sleep at night. His construction materials all come at night. At dead of night, some of us are woken by sound of bricks being off loaded into the footpath which is not that bad. It is unbearable when stone pebbles are off loaded from the truck and then arranged on the footpath. The screeching sound makes us pull our own hair in rage because a few attempts, even with a complaint with Gulshan Police, have not been able to stop these criminal activities at night.

The builder has one point in his favour though. He told us that the city authorities do not allow the trucks into areas such as Gulshan at night before 10pm and therefore he cannot help his unlawful activities at night. However, the important point is not what the city authorities do or do not do; the bottom line is no one has the right to do anything as the builder has been doing at a time when people inside a residential area are sleeping. Such acts are both illegal and uncivilized..

Let us come back to this board cautioning pedestrians. Thanks to new building code now in operation in Gulshan, every builder must leave space from the wall. If minimum building safe codes are applied by the builder, there would be no need of this bill board. In fact, this billboard is a proof that something is seriously amiss here. There can and should not be no earthly reason, let alone a lawful one, for of a single brick or for that matter even a pebble falling from a construction site to the road. The builder can very easily ensure that by adopting simple safety precautions like safety nets around the building under construction. But this builder has done nothing like that; instead by the billboard he seems to have put the onus on the pedestrian where even death is possible. The city authority should read this builder the law; that he needs to warn himself that if any pedestrian is injured; the arm of the law would grab him by the throat. At the moment, he is blissfully and may I say, criminally, unaware of his responsibilities.

While waiting to come down the stairs at the Mosque after the prayer was over the same day, a fellow devotee attracted my attention to the cars parked in front of the Mosque. In fact, the cars were parked on the road in triple rows leaving little space for vehicles to move towards Circle One of Gulshan. These cars are parked this way every Friday and remain so for at least an hour. The gentleman who attracted my attention thought the Mosque should have enough parking spaces. He was of course not right because given the fact Dhaka is known as a city of mosques, it is an impossible proposition. The important point here is how easily people in our society, those who are educated and are elites of the society, break laws so easily. It does not need to be stated that all those whose cars are parked every week at Jumma prayer in front of the Mosque are in clear violation of the law. In any other country, their cars would be towed away for a hefty fine so that they would not again commit such a breach.

Those who come by car and violate the law all live, like I do, in walking vicinity of the Mosque. They can all walk to the Mosque and avoid violating the law. For those who live a little distance away, they can have themselves dropped and then picked up very easily. But few do that and those who park their cars illegally do so as a matter of habbit. It is not just the Mosque they use by illegally parking their cars outside it; all big corporate houses on Gulshan Avenue do so. These corporate houses and businesses know too well that they do not have even a small percentage of the parking space they need. Still they open their establishments and the authorities allow them and they merrily use the Gulshan avenue and the residential roads as “legitimate” parking space.

Dhaka city is close to becoming inhabitable if not one already. A lot of the ills of the city are due to people who are educated, influential and Dhaka’s elites. The examples cited in this piece are just a few and everywhere around us, we are breaking civic laws that are pushing Dhaka over the edge. The Government and the City Corporation speak of the problems but so far has done little to save Dhaka. It is time for the city dwellers, particularly those who complain about the ills of Dhaka life to see what laws and codes they are violating. If they act on their violations, there may be hope for Dhaka coming back from the brinks.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and may be reached by email

Friday, October 22, 2010

New citizenship law in Israel: Another issue of discord

The Daily Star, October 23rd., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

Israel's Cabinet by a vote of 22-8 recommended a bill to amend Israel's citizenship law that would require non-Jewish new citizens to swear allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state. The amendment will become law after it is passed by a simple majority in parliament and Israel's Supreme Court accepts it; both expected to come without any hassle. The amendment, aimed at Israel's Arab population, has been widely condemned as a racist policy among Israel's Arab neighbours. Turkish Prime Minister whose country recognizes Israel said that no one can impose citizenship law the way Israel has done with this new law. Syrian President Bashir al Asad has condemned the new law as fascist and racist.

The new law will for the time being affect only a very small number of people; those from the occupied territories who marry Arab Israelis. That notwithstanding, the new law that requires an oath saying Israel is a Jewish and a democratic state, brings into question fundamental contradiction between religion and democracy; whether a religious or theocratic state can be democratic. There are more serious dangers lurking behind the law looking into the future. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann who is the force behind the new law expects the new law to be applied to all Arab Israelis, one fifth of the population, eventually who would be asked to take oath under the new law and their citizenship revoked, if they refuse to do so.

The religious extremists in the Cabinet of Benjamin Netanyahu have taken advantage of the current status of Israel-PLO talks that has stalled over the settlement issue to push this new controversial legislation. They have agreed to extend the moratorium on settlement that is crucial to carry the peace talks forward. The US President in his September 23rd address at the UN said that peace would be established in ME in a year. The US is thus putting a great deal of pressure on the Israeli Prime Minister not to allow the peace talks on the settlement issue. The legislation on citizenship is thus possibly the outcome of a deal between the Prime Minister, willing to please the US by carrying forward the peace process, and religious fundamentalists in the Prime Minister's coalition not willing to extend the freeze on settlement.

The citizenship law will ultimately carry forward the peace process. But the law acknowledges certain principles or the lack of it that have embedded in it the seeds of future conflicts that could be much more serious than those that are stalling the peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. First, it is taking away freedom of 20% of the population of Israel who are not Jews but Muslims. Taking oath as citizen of Israel as a Jewish state would take away the religious freedom of the non-Jews of the state of Israel by forcing them to take up religious obligations of another religion. Second, it is intended to target the non-Jews or Arabs in Israel and impose upon them conditions and obligations that are, under the UN Charter of Human Rights, unacceptable. Third, the law will turn Israel from being a homeland for Jewish people to becoming a Jewish state in the religious sense; thus destroying its secular character, totally. Finally, the Arab population in Israel and their ancestors who have been living for millenniums in what is now Israel would now be forced to live as citizens by the conditions set by Jewish migrants who came to the region from Europe and elsewhere after 1948!

The nature of demography of Israel where its Arab population is growing faster than its Jewish population will mean that in the future the difference between the two will close creating a dangerous prescription for explosion. A new system of apartheid is in the process of being created in Israel right under the nose of the world with the US supervising it in the name of establishing peace in the region!

It is incredible that Israel is allowed to get away with its acts such as the citizenship law and many others like the attack on the Turkish flotilla a few months ago. At a time when barriers are falling all over the world, the Israelis have caged the Palestinians on the land locked West Bank, cutting them off from their livelihood; subjecting them to economic deprivation. While in possession of a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons that for some strange reasons is, with US and Western indulgence, taboo even for discussion, Israel urges the US regularly to attack Iran so that it cannot build nuclear weapons! In the ongoing violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians, where the Palestinians are fighting for their right of self determination and where many more of them are getting killed than the Israelis in the process, the western sympathy seems to be with those killing more and occupying land illegally with contempt. Such is the impact of the West dominated media that today after years of sustained propaganda for Israel, people have forgotten that the Palestinians are fighting for freedom. The victim has today become the accused!

The new citizenship law has been condemned even in Israel by its liberals. Yitzhak Herzog, a labour member of the Israeli parliament, has said on Israel radio “that there is a whiff of fascism on the margins of Israeli society”. An Israeli writer Isaac Herzog disagreed with Yitzhak and said that fascism in Israeli society is no longer in the margins; it has now come into the mainstream. Surprisingly, the new citizenship law has not evoked reaction from those who matter in what happens in the region eventually. There has been no reaction officially to the new citizenship law from the US administration. President Obama wants this to appease extremists like the Israeli Foreign Minister and encourage them to extend the moratorium on settlement to bring the PLO back to the negotiating table.

The new citizenship law has sinister designs. Israeli Arabs think that this is designed to ultimately throw them out of Israel. It is a clear hint that Israel is firmly in the hands of extremists who have little or no desire for peace with Palestine. They may extend the moratorium on settlements and carry the peace negotiations only to get the concession on the citizenship law that Prime Minister Netanyahu would not have otherwise agreed to give not because he does not want to but because he has reasons to please President Obama. With such elements on the Israeli side in the negotiating team, it would be futile to expect that there would be any positive outcome of the current peace talks between Israel and Palestine. One wonders if President Obama is being utterly naïve in publicly declaring in his September 23rd speech in the United Nations that he expected peace talks to end successfully in a year's time.

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

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Illegal settlements threaten Israel-PLO peace talks

The Daily Star, October 16, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

In his speech at the United Nations on September 23rd, 2001, President Obama confidently stated that the Palestinian problem would be resolved within a year. His optimistic statement was based on the success of diplomatic endeavors of his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Middle East (ME) Envoy Senator John Mitchell that have resulted in, first, bringing the two parties on the negotiating table, and second, to push the peace process ahead. He has been given significant support by Jordan and Egypt, with the latter also offering the venue for the talks that started early last month after being in cold storage from the time of President Bush.

President Obama's speech in Cairo last year offered friendship to the Muslim world and placed the Palestinian problem on top of his administration's foreign affairs agenda. Nevertheless, serious domestic issues and Iraq and Afghanistan kept him busy to be able to focus on Palestine. Only after gaining a handle on these issues, President Obama did find the time to come back to Palestine. His leadership and intense efforts of his Secretary of State and Middle East Envoy helped jump start the direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) early last month.

Although both parties discussed the substantive issues without threatening to disrupt the talks that perhaps encouraged the US President to make his optimistic statement, the issue of settlement by Israel on occupied land was there in the backdrop even when the talks started as a dark cloud threatening to derail the talks. The end of 10 months moratorium on settlements that ended on September 26th and whether Israel would extend the moratorium was the overriding issue that hampered forward movement on the substantive issues. For the PLO with Hamas breathing fire down its neck, it was well known to everybody that it would be impossible to continue with the talks unless Israel extended the moratorium. For Israel, given the fragility of Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition, it 2qw equally well acknowledged that it would be very extend the 10 months moratorium on settlement that is the key for the US brokered peace talks that started in early September to proceed.

The US sponsored direct talks have thus hit serious snag when the Israeli moratorium on settlements ended on September 26th , threatening to sidetrack Obama's optimism. The Arab League meeting early this month has provided a lifeline but the talks have not yet re-started, as both sides remain ambivalent. The League issued a statement supporting the Palestinian position that the talks should not go on if the settlement activities do not stop. The Palestinians cannot go back to the talks without an extension on the moratorium. The Israelis cannot give that moratorium without the fragile coalition snapping that Prime Minister Netanyahu is understandingly reluctant to do. The Arab League stand is expected to put pressure on the Israelis not to break the talks on the settlement issue because it does not want to be seen as the party that ended the talks. The Arab league's stand it thus expected to keep the parties negotiating by encouraging the Israelis to extend the moratorium for the talks to continue. Israel, despite the pressures of domestic politics, is also well aware of the pressure of international opinion that it cannot just set aside; international pressure that had almost cornered it after the incident a few months ago involving the Turkish peace flotilla to Gaza.

Nevertheless there are a few other factors that dampen President Obama's optimism even if the Arab League's stand helps the peace process to remain on rail. The decrease of violence and terrorist attacks on Israel has changed the mood in Israel about giving concessions to Palestine. Many Israelis feel that a Palestine state on the West Bank will create another Lebanon and more security problems. A poll taken by Tel Aviv University among high schools recently showed that 48% were ready to oppose Government's orders to evacuate settlements in West Bank. Half of the students said that Israeli Arabs were not entitled to the same rights as the Jews.

The perception in Israel as revealed by the Tel Aviv university survey is not good omen for Palestine because the threat perception in the past had made many Israelis support the peace process. On its side, the Palestinians are now more divided internally with Hamas and the PLO as opposed to each other as they are against Israel.

Despite President Obama's optimism, the ME peace process is thus far from being resolved. In fact, the peace prospect may have become more difficult to resolve than before. New realities such as as perceived in Israel on the issue of security and nature of Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition have emerged as new obstacles to Israel's interest and sincerity to the peace process. Internal division in Palestine between PLO and Hamas has weakened the Palestinians at the negotiating table. As a consequence, the rights and claims of the Palestinians that are recognized under international law and have been endorsed in umpteen US resolutions have lost a lot of strength. In the process, Israel has been encouraged to dispense with the illegality of its occupation and to go ahead with the illegal settlements as if such settlements were being built on land legally owned by Israel.

It is indeed a pity that at a time when the western powers led by the United States lay claims to morals and principles to make their war of terror a legal one do not see that the same principles and morals are trampled with contempt by Israel. The Palestinians have been pushed to such a corner that they cannot even ask for a complete cessation of settlements on land that is theirs to continue with talks, settlements that are illegal under international law; that can be endorsed only if international law accepts the principle that might is right.

Nevertheless, the ME peace process, despite what many Israelis may be thinking these days, is crucial to peace not just in the region but the world. If the West perceives that Iran is a threat to future world peace, then they must see that Muslims are not victimized in the name of the war on terror and the Palestinians are given their rights. Else, Iran will have the reason to stand up to the West using these issues as reasons to oppose the West and the rest of the Muslim world would be encouraged to look Iran's way. President Obama as the leader of the world's only Super Power and the harbinger of peace must now not just ensure that Israel would extend the moratorium on the settlements for the peace talks to continue; he must now do more. He must put pressure on Israel to help create the state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital and also come to agreement on the other major issues that have remained unresolved for many decades such as return of those who were made refugees when the state of Israel was created in 1948 and water and other related issues. The US must now stop urging Israel to do the right thing in the context of the peace process; it must now arm twist Israel, if necessary, to stay in the negotiating table till the peace process ends successfully because only by creating the state of Palestine can the PLO succeed over Hamas which is the key for a peaceful Middle East.

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