Friday, February 26, 2010

Let History be with Historians

To understand one's history is as essential and important for a people as it is to live together. But then history, to be meaningful in a people's life, must be taken in its totality; not in the sense of pick and choose. Bangladesh is an example of a country where our awareness of history is as good as any people anywhere. Unfortunately, we also have the tendency to pick and choose.

Our love for history also has the unfortunate problem of being infected by partisan politics that has just not distorted our perspective but also has affected adversely aspects of our social and political life. In 1971, we fought arguably the most glorious war of liberation in the last century and defended ourselves successfully against one of the worst genocides in known history. Yet in our eagerness to give credit for it to individuals, we have failed to acknowledge the contribution of the people who faced rape, torture and eventually death without compromise that was the most important factor for our liberation. On the clarion call for independence by Bangabandhu, 75 million people of Bangladesh just threw Pakistan out of their minds and hearts once the Pakistani army started their carnage on the night of March 25th, 1971.

In the pick and choose method of accepting the importance of history in our lives, we have set aside the fact that we just did not free Bangladesh from the Pakistani oppressors only; 25 years before that we the Muslims of Bengal were also at the forefront of the movement for Pakistan. Even before that, Bengali Muslims led by Haji Shariatullaah and Titu Mir had led the fight against the British, and the Hindu Zamindars, long before the Congress and the Muslim League took up the cause of freedom. Bengali Muslims' yearning for freedom has been thus a long history and also an unfortunate one because we were not able to cash on after giving impetus to these freedom movements; in fact leading them. In case of the Pakistan movement, the outcome was indeed sad because the leaders of Bengal played a major role in the movement for Pakistan. The switch of Fazlul Huq from Krisak Praja Party to the Muslim League in 1940 and the support of Bengal for movement for Pakistan was what made Pakistan a reality. In Pakistan, that we created, we were treated as second class citizens. Our mother tongue was threatened and economic disparity between West Pakistan and East Pakistan was also stark and widening, facts that our democratic sprit did not allow us to accept. We needed our own space and our own country. So we created Bangladesh. One good thing happened for us though during the time we were a part of Pakistan; in 1951 the Zamindari system was abolished that freed the Muslim peasants from the stranglehold of the Hindu Zamindars that in any case would have ended in a predominantly Muslim Pakistan.

The emergence of Bangladesh finally freed the Bengalis of the British, the Hindu Zamindars and the Pakistani neo-colonialists. That should also have ended our many decades of fight for freedom and right of self determination for the establishment of a democratic society. True there were some elements who did not want the liberation, the Jamat/Razakars and their cohorts. But they were just too few in number to stand between Bangladesh and democracy. Unfortunately, that did not happen because Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation was killed within 4 years of independence, in too dastardly and heinous a manner even to transcribe. He was not killed by Razakars or forces who did not believe in Bangladesh or democracy; he was killed by the party he led, the party that led the war of liberation and a few disgruntled army officers.

The death of Bangabandhu naturally led Bangladesh to the lap of the military and put democracy in the backburner. After Bangabandhu's death, President Ziaur Rahman, who gave the call for independence in the name of Bangabandhu and led the liberation war from the front, was also killed, ironically at the hand of freedom fighters, to condemn Bangladesh to a decade of Ershad's military rule. These developments brought to the surface the fact that as a nation we lack the basic ingredients that are essential to lay the foundation of a democratic society; namely tolerance; compromise and accommodation of opposing views.

In 15 years of civilian rule after President Ershad's fall, one had hoped that democracy for which our spirits have yearned for decades and for which so many have given lives, would be finally established in Bangladesh. That also did not happen because the two mainstream parties, the Awami League and the BNP, fought between them to make democracy unattainable. One had hoped that the emergency or 1/11 that came as a consequence of the conflict between these two parties would make the politicians think that the people are not entirely happy with them; that they would reform to make democracy work. As days pass, the politicians seem in no mood to think that there is any need of reform; they have dismissed the efforts during the emergency to reform the political parties with contempt. In fact, in our politics, the word reform has been trashed in the trash bin of history; those who had wanted reform in the political parties during the emergency now have no place to hide.
The elections results have not helped either. The voters, as they had done in 2002, did it again in 2009, returning a political party to office with a massive mandate. In any system, a huge mandate for a political party is a very positive event as it lets that party carry out its agenda that it promises to the people to fruition. In Bangladesh, this did not happen when the BNP was given a huge mandate; and although it is too early to suggest whether the AL that has been given even a bigger mandate would also follow the BNP to the same fate, early indications gives a lot of people cause for concern.

One reason for this is a major mistake the parties in Bangladesh make when in power. They tend to equate their majority in parliament in the same proportion among the people which is not the case. When the BNP won the 2/3rd majority in 2002, its popular support was marginally more than the AL. In the last election, while the AL has won 3/4th of the seats in Parliament; its popular support among the people was far short of that percentage. Here is where history could and should have come to rescue of Bangladesh. That history is a history of sacrifice of millions that led to our liberation because of the unity that the people had shown for establishing in Bangladesh a democratic government. Unfortunately in the last two decades, neither of the two mainstream parties with known popular support that is neck to neck has shown any unity of issues fundamental to establishing and sustaining a democratic government. The two mainstream parties have governed without acknowledging the fact that in a democratic system, existence of and respect for the opposition is indispensable.

All these have created a political culture in Bangladesh where, when a party wins power, it believes that it has been given the right to govern as an authoritarian system. Any opposition is considered as opposition to the state. The name of the game is zero-sum which is the anti-thesis of a democratic system. This political culture is getting entrenched deeper and thus we are really moving away from democracy with each new election and unfortunately, the roots of this culture are embedded in pick and choose method of looking at history by the two mainstream parties.

History is important in a nation's life but when subjected to politics, it creates more problems than where history is disregarded. In Bangladesh, this is the case. History has divided the nation, instead of uniting it. That unity seems now farfetched but unless we achieve that unity, we would be playing name games; and politics will see all the distortions it has been witnessing since the fall of Ershad's military dictatorship and push our desire for a democratic system further and further away. May be we should for a while let history be the subject of historians and not a matter of politics to regain the spirit of 1971.

Published in The Daily Independent, February 26th, 2010

Friday, February 19, 2010

McHale sees positive side of Islam in Bangladesh

MS. Judith A McHale, US Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs, who was recently in Dhaka, is the senior most ranking US Government official to visit Bangladesh since President Obama took office in USA and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh. During her public engagements, she made some remarks that are very encouraging for Bangladesh. In Dhaka University she said that US would take 20,000 students every year from Bangladesh where at the moment, the intake is far fewer.

The Under Secretary made more encouraging remarks when she addressed Madrassah students of Uttar Badda Islamia Kamil Madrassah. When a student informed her that Madrassah educated students are seldom given US visa for education, she said categorically that US doors are open to Madrassah educated students of Banagladesh. She also said that the US Embassy is providing teachers for teaching English in Madrassahs and her Government “is proud to be working with the Madrassah.” She also said that religious leadership is a key to the success of socio-economic development efforts. Her most positive remark was her belief that Bangladesh could assist the US to bridge its gap with the Muslim world.

The Under Secretary however did not say how many Madrassah students who would be given visa annually as she did for the general students. This notwithstanding, the fact that a senior Obama administration official has publicly made positive remarks for the Madrassah educated students and role of Islam in society is very significant. Her statement came on the back of a number of other initiatives that the US Government has taken in Bangladesh to work with the Madrasahs. The US Government is working with a number of NGOs to sensitize Madrassah students on democracy, information and communication technology, etc.

This is a significant change in US stance on Bangladesh. Not very long ago, the US Ambassador to Bangladesh Harry Thomas was crying hoarse about religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh; that was dismissed by the BNP Government. The Awami League went overboard to spread the news that Bangladesh was seething with religious fundamentalism, even labeling the BNP Government as “Taliban”. Early in 2006, the US Assistant Secretary for South Asia, Ms. Christina Rocco, on an official visit to Bangladesh, strongly advised the Government that it had no choice but to rein in the religious fundamentalists, that later led to the arrests of Bangla Bhai and the JMB terrorists. The BNP Government arrested religious terrorists in a make believe manner that was a far cry from the dangerous portrayal about them in the media and by the opposition, when they were at the height of their criminal activities.

The meekness of their surrender and their execution under the Caretaker Government without any repercussion from their cadres who were supposed to on the verge of capturing power by force left no doubt that the case of religious extremists in Bangladesh was over politicised and overstated. They raised their ugly face in no uncertain terms because the BNP Government indulged and encouraged them. The national elections in December 2008, in which over 20 million first time voters entered the election process further sealed the nation's contempt for political parties in Bangladesh that use religion for achieving their ends. In fact, even the BNP found the religion based parties a political liability in the last elections when the biggest of the religion based parties in Bangladesh, the Jamat-e-Islami could manage just 2 seats.

Although the parties that have used religion for politics have been historically rejected by voters in Bangladesh, interestingly Islam as a religion has made significant inroads into the lives of the overwhelming majority of its people since independence. There are many reasons for this that is outside the scope of this writing. This spread of Islam, unlike in many other countries, is still tampered by liberal traditions embedded in the history of the religion in this part of the world where Sufism has played a major role. Nevertheless, the resurgence of Islam in Bangladesh also faces the dangers of evolving in the opposition direction. It is an issue that must be dealt with the utmost caution to deter Bangladesh from following Algeria or Afghanistan.

Soon after the Awami League came to power early last year, a vested group was busy spreading distorted information to create public opinion against the Qoami Madrasahs (QM) and calling for restoration of secularism by removing Islam from public life. A World Bank Report later trashed the propaganda against QM, one that suggested that under BNP Government 35% soldiers recruited were from QM. There was a period of lull in the campaign of this group against Islam based political parties and the Madrasahs after the WB report, although the report may not have been alone responsible for the lull. . The annulment of the fifth amendment of the constitution, the war trial criminals that would involve mostly the Jamat; and the recent activities of Jamat's student cadre in the universities have re-activated the move. A section is claiming the restoration of the 1972 constitution to ban the Jamat.

Ms Judith McHale's visit is very significant in the present context of Bangladesh's politics. Unlike Ms Christina Rocco's visit in early 2006, she did not sound any alarm bells for Bangladesh on the issue of religious fundamentalism. To the contrary, her visit to the Madrassah, together with the initiatives of her Government to work with the Madrasahs of Bangladesh by providing them with modern educational tools are positive signs that US is not worried about 'religious fundamentalism' in Bangladesh and that it even visualises a role for Bangladesh to help it reach out more towards the Muslim world. Some months ago, the US Government dropped the name of Bangladesh from the watch list of countries where religious freedom is at stake. This is another indication that religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh is on the decline in US perception.

Published in The Daily Star, February 20, 2010

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My Foreign Affairs Days

The period of Nazrul Islam was memorable for the tennis some of us played encouraged by the Foreign Secretary who was himself a tennis enthusiast and would not miss any opportunity to play the game. When Mohammed Mohsin took over, we continued to play tennis in the tennis court inside the Padma-Maghna State Guest House complex. Nazrul Islam stayed quite sometime after he was relieved of his duties as Foreign Secretary; waiting first for a post that he thought would be fit for a Foreign Secretary and then waiting for the necessary formalities. He was given Soviet Union and while he waited to go to his post, he continued to play tennis with us.

Those days, he lived 2 roads away from me in Dhanmandi R/A. I used to take him to play tennis in my personal car that I drove myself. On way to the tennis court and back, he used to dwell a lot about his tenure as Foreign Secretary. He was particularly upset with the Foreign Minister, who he thought was responsible for the abrupt end of his tenure. Nazrul Islam was also upset that he was given Soviet Union because in the Foreign Ministry, posts like Washington, London and New York were more sought after and for a Foreign Secretary, these posts figured ahead of Moscow in those days as it still does. Those discussions were mostly one sided. I used to interrupt only to remind the former Foreign Secretary that while holding that post how frequently, he would tell me what a great Foreign Minister HRC was and that we should all pray to the Almighty that he was leading the Ministry.

The day Nazrul Islam left for his post is a day that I still recollect critically about my colleagues at the Foreign Ministry, particularly the senior colleagues. When Nazrul Islam fell from the grace of the President, he made very good efforts to remove the distance that he had created with the senior officers of the Ministry when the going was great for him. To a large extent, he had also succeeded. The tennis games also helped bring him closer with these officers. However, while he waited to go to his post and remained an OSD in the Ministry, there was practically no one willing to make an effort to spend some time with him or inquire about his well-being. At the tennis court, I could sense the difference in a manner that was sad. The day he left, I told him that I would be at the airport to see him off. He was touched but in his usual manner, said he would break my leg if he saw me at the airport. Instead, I was at his residence to see him off for the airport, the only officer of the Ministry to be there. M. Mohsin, the Additional Secretary, was the only officer from the Ministry who was at the airport to see off Nazrul Islam.

Our tennis playing days also came to a sad and abrupt end. It ended during the 1988 floods. We were playing tennis under flood light while a press conference was going on in Meghna. A news paper reported the next day that we were playing tennis while the country was facing floods that was brought to the attention of the President. He wasted no time to impose a ban that ended tennis as a game in the Foreign Ministry for good. In taking the decision, he failed to take into account the efforts of the Foreign Ministry in creating an international awareness for the disaster that helped bringing a great deal of assistance to the country. The Foreign Ministry also brought significant amount of cash as donation through the Bangladesh Missions. Almost every day those days, the Foreign Secretary would take a few officers with him as we joined the rest of the country in raising cash and handing it to the President who received it at his office personally. Interestingly, except where flood waters interfered, life and games continued as usual in all the cantonments throughout Bangladesh. The ban on our tennis was imposed to humiliate the Ministry. I could not find then nor now any reason for the ban.

The two centers of the Foreign Ministry, one in Dhaka and the other in New York, manifested itself negatively in 1988 with the election for the Asian seat to the UN Security Council. The Mission in New York decided that Bangladesh would put up its candidature. Malaysia also decided to contest for the one seat in the Asian Group. The Malaysian Government approached us at the Ministry to withdraw on the argument that Bangladesh had contested and won membership of the Security Council for the 1979-81 term while Malaysia had never been a member of the UN Security Council although it had been a UN member longer than Bangladesh. Our Mission in New York did not buy the Malaysian argument. The Malaysians sent a Minister to Dhaka. The Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammad wrote a letter to President Ershad requesting Bangladesh to step aside in favour of Malaysia. The Malaysian efforts were futile and even a reply was not sent to the letter of the Malaysian Prime Minister. Early in the race, the Malaysians even proposed a split of the term that we rejected. Our Mission in New York felt confident that in an election, Bangladesh would be able to defeat Malaysia easily, using for argument the fact that for the 1979-81 terms, we had beaten a more formidable candidate, Japan. In the end, it was Malaysia that beat Bangladesh easily leaving us to use a cliché, to eat the humble pie.

It fell upon Mohammad Mohsin to deal with the fall out effects of the Malaysian victory for Malaysia did not take Bangladesh’s gestures to its overtures leading to the election at all positively. Our Ambassador to Washington Ataul Karim, who was also the Permanent Representative to the United Nations, was called to Dhaka for consultations. He of course had little to advise the Foreign Ministry for the damage had already been done. At that time, the Malaysian Prime Minister was in hospital and our High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur, a Major-General posted on deputation from the Army against a quota of such posts reserved for serving Army generals, was asked to send flowers to the Prime Minister on behalf of the President hoping some sort of a response that never came. The Malaysian side also did not respond to a request from our side for our President to speak with the Malaysian Prime Minister over phone. History repeated itself in 2004 with our relations with Malaysia when we again did to Malaysia what we had done in 1988, only this time with hundreds of thousands of our expatriates working there, the stakes were higher. In a three way contest that also involved Turkey for the post of Secretary-General of the OIC, Malaysia had advised us that we had no chance of winning and requested us to step aside in its favour. We again dismissed that request and lost the election miserably. It may not be difficult to explain why Malaysians are often tough with our expatriates.

Our Security Council debacle in 1988 left a lingering feeling in me about the way we conducted our foreign policy then, not that it has changed in any significant manner now. On important issues, there was very little in terms of professional conduct of foreign policy. The Foreign Ministry had to watch the New York Mission run the Security Council election without even the ability to signal a warning that a debacle was waiting us as the Mission was a power unto itself because of the relationship of the President with the Alternate Permanent Representative of the Mission. In fact, on such issues, professionals in the Foreign Ministry were more often than not dispensed with so casually that sometimes I was led to believe that those who ran the country felt that we had a Foreign Ministry simply because an independent nation had to have one. The Ministry was not expected to do much. There was of course a negative necessity of the Foreign Ministry; it was always there to take the blame when there was a blame to be taken. Between Anisul Islam Mahmud and Mohammed Mohsin, they were able to regain some powers for the Ministry but it was never enough to let the Ministry play a major role in the formulation and implementation of foreign policy. As a consequence, our national interests were seldom protected as was evident from the distance that grew between Bangladesh and India during the Ershad era. While that was not bad enough, the influence of Pakistan at the highest level of government, that did not have any influence in furthering our national interests, was clearly visible.

President Ershad’s leadership in foreign affairs had one good influence in a critical area of our foreign relations. He was instrumental in strengthening bilateral relations with China that was done to balance the influence Indo-Soviet axis in the context of Cold War international politics of the period. In his nine years in power, President Ershad paid five state visits to China of which one was undertaken during the period Mohammed Mohsin was the Foreign Secretary. In that period, President Li Xiannian visited Bangladesh in March, 1986 and Premier Li Peng in November, 1989. On his visits, Ershad was well received and the Chinese made us feel that we had a special relationship with them. The distance we kept from the Indo-Soviet axis brought us closer to the United States also that reached a climax when Bangladesh committed troops for the US led coalition against Iraq for invading Kuwait. Unfortunately before Ershad and Bangladesh could cash on that bond of friendship, fate intervened against General Ershad and his grasp on power ended in the face of public wrath.

Published in The Daily Independent, February 19, 2010

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Politics in Bangladesh: Can this Parliament really work?

I have watched BTV's live coverage of proceedings of the Parliament in recent evenings after the BNP returned to Parliament. I wished that BTV had better sense of not casting these proceedings live. The references made to living and dead political leaders held by the people in the highest esteem were detestable to say the least. To say that such language has been unparliamentarily would be giving dignity to such an expression. What was amazing and shocking was to watch such remarks applauded by members of the respective parties by banging hands on the table in front of them, and making encouraging gestures to urge the speakers to put more venom into what they were saying. The way the speakers expressed critical remarks about President Ziaur Rahman and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were indeed very sad and depressing. The Speaker, a gentleman and a good Speaker at that, was at a loss trying his best to bring proceedings under control.

Our politicians, when they have opportunity to speak publicly, and now that there is no emergency, they have plenty of it, say all the good things. They talk of the spirit of liberation, of sacrifices of the language martyrs, of those who laid down their lives for the country, of patriotism, of democracy, etc. etc. that would make one new to the affairs of Bangladesh, conclude that our country is perhaps the best nation on earth for democracy to grow and flower. So far the people are concerned; this is indeed the best nation on earth for democracy to be show cased. Our people have made the greatest sacrifices for democracy and freedom. Yet, after so many decades of such sacrifices, we are today as far away from achieving democracy as the day we started our journey. The words, the language and the manner in which the Parliamentarians hurled accusations at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and President Ziaur Rahman, with abuses at the Leader of the Opposition that was shown to the nation live on BTV just reiterated the fact. Democracy cannot be achieved when our political leadership behaves this way.

There are many who would say that our journey has not been long enough. They would like to give the politicians the benefit of doubt, arguing that our march towards democracy has been now and then interrupted by military interventions and un-democratic disruptions. I am not so sure I follow their argument because even counting the interruptions; we have nearly had two decades where the military and un-democratic elements had no say in exercise of political power. In those nearly two decades, what have we achieved? It is time now to seriously look into what we have because this issue is crucial to us as a nation in the time ahead.

In between the three parliaments, the 6th, 7th and 8th, there have been 15 years when the politicians cannot say that there has been any extra-constitutional threat to the march of democracy in Bangladesh. In these 15 years, the politicians have fought one another thus hindering the strengthening of the institutions upon which a country depends to achieve a democratic system of government and society. From the 6th Parliament, the AL stayed out for most of the time. From the 7th, the BNP did the same. In the 8th, it was the Awami League again that stayed out. In the present Parliament, the BNP is playing the same game again. The issues that the two mainstream parties have used to stay out of the Parliament are issues that cannot ever be fulfilled to the satisfaction of an opposition to encourage it to enter the Parliament. The issues relate to the nature of the election; the environment in the Parliament; harassment of those who lose the election, etc. When the opposition has made these arguments to stay out of the Parliament, it has not always been that their reasons were unreasonable. There have been flaws in the elections. The party in power has also made the Parliament a forum for themselves and has seldom given the opposition the opportunity to speak. Finally, the party that won has also harassed, attacked, litigated and created all sorts of problems for the opposition.

In the midst of all these, a "convention" has been established in our politics. It is now an acknowledged behavior for a political party that wins the election to make the government subservient to it, a legacy borrowed from communism where the party is the only political institution, where all other institutions draw their power from it, the government included. In communism, the communist party does not have any opposition because it cannot. Hence in such a system, that is now almost history, opposing the party is opposing the government and country and thus an act of treason. In Bangladesh, unfortunately, the ruling party simply does not believe that there can be any opposition to its views, neither in the country nor by extension of that convoluted logic, in the parliament. Under the "convention", it is not acceptable for the opposition to oppose the ruling party but as Bangladesh is constitutionally democratic, opposition political party/s cannot be banned as it can be in a communist country. The "convention" does not however allow the opposition political party/s to play their legitimate role as a watchdog of parliamentary democracy. As a consequence, in the rare occasions they attend the Parliament, they behave in the manner that we witnessed on recent BTV coverage, behaviour that has been encouraged and provoked by the ruling party. The "convention" eventually encourages the opposition to take their politics to the streets with great harm to our economic development. We may see this happening very soon again.

The issue in Bangladesh's politics therefore is the fact that while we say we are democratic; our political party in power behaves no different from a party in the communist system. In this behaviour, there is no difference between the two mainstream political parties, the Awami League and the BNP. In power, both have acted, the same way and the AL is continuing with this tradition. In opposition, both have accepted the fact that under the "convention" that they have established as partners, neither visualizes any democratic role for the opposition.

The two mainstream parties under the "convention" have instead helped establish an anarchic and confrontational role for the opposition, mainly outside the Parliament. The AL has played this role twice and it is now the BNP's turn to play the same role second time around which is not to help establish democracy but to capture power so that they can govern the country as a ruling party. This "convention" is thus firmly straddled on a zero-sum game in the context of political power sharing.

Thus although our political parties have been carrying for the people, the movement for establishing democracy, we are getting nowhere near the goal. In fact, we are taking one step forward and two steps backward. The "convention" that our two mainstream parties has established has also worked against strengthening another institution that is absolutely vital for a functioning democracy, the civil bureaucracy. When a party comes to office, it ensures that the civil bureaucracy that in a democracy is mandatorily required to stay above the interests of a political party, is also subservient to the interests of the party that rules. On this point, the AL is now set to turn this aspect of the convention into a formal arrangement.

Bangladesh's misfortune is that it has two mainstream parties that divide the country between themselves almost half and half. The fact that the AL has won the election with a 3/4th majority this time as the BNP had won in 2002 with a 2/3rd majority does not affect this almost a natural divide. Yet in power, neither mainstream party accepts this fact. They believe when in power, they can do whatever they think is right for the country. They literally make the government and the country their own and are not willing to accept an opposing view. Giving the parties a huge mandate is in fact a mandate to them to be more arbitrary and to disregard the opposition party more.

The parliament proceedings with which I started this piece reflect the summation of the unfortunate "convention" that the two political parties have established in our politics. Therefore, if there are optimists who still hope that we would have a Parliament where the party in power and the party in opposition would work together as they do in all parliamentary democracies, both matured and immature, then I am afraid those individuals would have to wait a life time. In this, it is not the AL or the BNP that is alone the problem; they are together the problem because they do not have in themselves the first and only imperative for establishing a democratic system, namely tolerance.

That is not the end of the frustration. Watching our parliamentarians speak during the rare occasions we see the opposition in the Parliament, one would have to give up even feeling frustrated because even in frustration, there is somewhere in the back of the mind a hope that something good would emerge, somehow. Our parliamentarians have taken away even that hope as we continue what seems like an endless journey to establish democracy in Bangladesh.

Published in The Daily Independent, February 18, 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010

Principal Shafiqur Rahman Trust Fund

Cheque-handing ceremony of Principal Shafiqur Rahman Trust Fund in Asiatic Society, February 15th, 2010

The sons and daughters of late Principal Shafiqur Rahman presented a sum of Taka Ten lakhs to the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, to replenish the Principal Shafiqur Rahman Trust Fund at a simple ceremony at the Asiatic Society yesterday. Present at the cheque handing over ceremony were late Principal Shafiqur Rahman’s daughters Mrs. Rowshan Ara Begum, Dr. Ziaun Nahar Fakhruddin, PhD, a resident in USA, sons Mr. Saiful Islam, a former civil servant and a leading businessman, and Mr. Serajul Islam, a former Ambassador to Japan. The other surviving daughters of Principal Shafiqur Rahman are Dr. Rokeya Farooq, a Psychiatrist in USA; Dr. Halima Qureshi PhD, an Associate Professor of Economics in Alabama, USA and Mrs. Khaleda Rahman, a resident in USA. Principal Shafiqur Rahman’s eldest daughter Hosne Ara Rahman died in 2007, and her son Dr. Mahmudul Anam PhD, Professor of Economics, York University, Canada was present at the ceremony. Mahbubul Anam, Vice President, Bangladesh Cricket Board, is the second son of late Mrs. Hosne Ara Begum. Dr. Aminul Islam , fellow , Asiatic Society received the cheque while Justice Kazi Ibadul Huq, Mrs. Mahfuza Khanam, General Secretary and Professor Ahmed Jamal, Secretary, Asiatic Society were present.

Principal Shafiqur Rahman, recipient of National Bank Prize for his research book “Pakistaner Orthoniti” in 1967 and named “Economist of the Year” by Bangladesh Economic Association in 1990, died in Dhaka in July, 1991 at the age of 87.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Is Obama Magic on the Wane?

M. Serajul Islam

Published in The Daily Star, 13th February, 2010

PRESIDENT Obama could not resist blaming his predecessor for a lot of the current mishaps to shore up his declining approval rating. In his state of the union address on January 27th , his second since becoming President and given on completion of his first year in office, he said early in his address: “one year ago, I took office amid two wars, an economy devastated by recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse and a government deeply in debt.” He said that although the worst was over, deep problems remained with job loss being the most serious where 1 in every 10 Americans was unemployed.

Senator McCain, his opponent in the presidential elections, while giving his reaction on the speech, said that the President did a BIOB or, "blame it on Bush", to explain the not so satisfactory state of the union. The USA is still involved militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan despite the President's election promise to bring the troops home. In fact, he has sent more troops to Afghanistan. Job losses have not yet been contained. These factors have neutralized "Obama-mania" that had brought the President to power last year amidst great expectations.

In fact, going to the address, the approval rating of the President had fallen to 48% in Gallup's daily tracking poll. A year ago, when he had entered office, the approval rating was 67%. That was not the only bad news for him. A week before the address, the Democrats lost the Massachusetts seat of late Senator Edward Kennedy that was considered the safest seat for the party in the country. The loss of the seat was a case of double jeopardy for the Democrats because as a result of the loss, the party also lost its super majority of 60 seats in Senate that was a shield for them against filibustering by the Republicans at a time when the White House had a number of important agenda, including the very crucial health care, in the Congress. More significantly, the loss of such an assured seat for which the President himself had campaigned, hinted at the waning of the Obama magic although the lackluster and casual campaign attitude of the Democratic candidate Martha Coakley was also an important factor for the loss. Earlier in November last year, the Democrats had lost the Governor's elections in Virginia and New Jersey.

Despite McCain's criticism, the President was justified to do the BIOB because a lot of the current problems that the President is facing are indeed because of the misadventures of President Bush abroad and his mishandling of the economy. It is just not that President Bush took the country first to Afghanistan for fighting the war on terrorism; he left that war unfinished to take USA to Iraq where there was no war on terror to be fought. In between the two wars, the USA has spent hundreds of billions of US dollars abroad. At home, President Bush, too busy fighting wars overseas, allowed the economy to fall into the hands of corrupt and greedy bosses of leading financial institutions who helped bring the US economy face to face with its worst economic predicament since the Great Depression that forced President Obama's new administration to pump close to a trillion dollars to save the economy. It is to the President's credit that he has taken up the challenge to take the US out of the doldrums into which President Bush had led the economy and foreign relations instead of putting all the blame on his predecessor. Even in his state of the union address, President Obama has been not been very explicit. He has been forced to do the BOIB because the Republicans have been insensitive, even blaming him for the job losses that have been entirely due to the actions of President Bush.

Not very long ago the elder Bush had lost his re-election bid for his failure to focus on the economy. Success in the first Gulf War and ending the Cold War had convinced him of getting elected for a second term easily. After the state of the union address in January 1991, his approval rating soared to 84% He did not pay attention to an economy that was on the slide. A virtually unknown Governor Clinton of Arkansas who accepted the democratic nomination that many in his party was not too eager to accept cashed on people's frustration with a President engrossed in his achievements abroad and voted him to office on the slogan “it is the economy, stupid.” Although the cases are not similar, the issue is and it goes to the credit of President Obama that he has realized it and devoted the major part of his speech on the economy and job creation.

The priorities in the speech were well conceived for reaching the average American. The health care bill that the President prepared as a top priority in his first year figured inconspicuously in his address with little time wasted to make the case. Foreign policy and national security issues were given 9 minutes only in a speech that was over an hour where the President re-iterated his election promise to bring the troops home. On Afghanistan, where he has committed extra troops against his election promise, the President devoted just one paragraph in which he said that though there were difficult times ahead, he was confident that USA would win. While putting the economy ahead, the President also called for new spending and tax cuts to add to the US $ 787 stimulus package he announced last year that will push stimulus measures beyond the US$ 1 trillion mark. Pushed ahead in the agenda to substantiate his seriousness with the economy and job creation were issues such as doubling exports over next five years that would bring extra 2 million jobs; a 3 years freeze on domestic spending except Medicare and social security that will help save US$ 20 billion for reinvestment to create additional jobs. While admitting that the measures he had proposed in his speech would address the economic ills, he did not think the measures would do enough to bring unemployment down from the 10% at present. For the middle class, the President offered nearly doubling child tax credit and benefits for college education. He called for building more nuclear power plants for encouraging American innovation and emphasized upon clean energy, offering rebates for energy efficient homes.

The speech should go down well with the majority of Americans whose lives have been turned upside down by eight years of President Bush. The President has acknowledged the dangers about what goes with “it is the economy, stupid,” by putting economic issues affecting majority of the Americans ahead of issues of foreign policy and national security. A newspaper carried the story under the caption “a dose of reality; a bid to restore magic,” that aptly captured the rationale around which the President built his speech. It has also helped the President to touch base with supporters in his own party very effectively. The Rasmussen Report daily Presidential Tracking Poll returned a figure of 50% Democrats who strongly approved the President's performance on the morning of his speech. Two days after the speech, the figure rose to 65%. The figure is significant because in the Massachusetts Senate election and the two governor's election that the Democrats' lost, disaffection among the party supporters was a major cause for the defeats. With mid-term Congressional elections later in November when 1/3rd of Senate and the whole House of Representatives will be elected, this surge in the President's approval rating among the supporters of his party is very significant because it could herald the re-energizing of the party for the electoral test ahead. The speech may also have addressed the concern in the party that the diverse coalition that President Obama had brought together to win the White House was not breaking in the seams. It may not have re-kindled the “Obama magic” or Obamamania but it may have stopped it from waning.

The author is former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bakar's death and afterthoughts

We are indeed a very resilient nation. Even when the worst is around us, we can smile as if we are in good times. Otherwise, there can be no explanation about what is happening in the public educational institutions and our almost nonchalant attitude as a nation. The death of the Dhaka University student Abu Bakar Siddiqui whose parents were counting their days when their son would end his education and become a teacher in his alma mater should have moved us to the end of our tolerance. It was heartening to see that the Prime Minister has called for reining these criminal elements who masquerade in the name of students. After it was reported that the Home Minister had said that the death of Bakar was a “stray incident” that created a lot of disappointment, she clarified later that she had said no such thing and described her determination to bring the criminals to book.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly warned the students in her party’s students’ wing, the Chatra League, to shape up even before the death of Bakar. In her frustration, she had even resigned from her patronage of the Chatra League soon after assuming power as Prime Minister when the leaders of the Chatra League were involved in taking law into their own hands and claiming all the dormitories of the public educational institutions, particularly in the Dhaka University, for themselves and their criminal activities. The Prime Minister’s stern warnings have fallen on deaf ears for reasons that are not difficult to comprehend.

It is now evident that the student leaders belonging to the party in power are a power unto themselves. The fact that they have continued with their criminal activities in the face of Prime Minister’s warnings would suggest that they do not believe that the Prime Minister is serious.. The proof of that is evident in the news appearing daily in the print media about the activities of the Chatra League vandalizing and criminalizing one public educational institution after another. Very recently, the Chatra League has demanded that there should be a quota for them to admit students in public educational institutions so that they could earn a hefty sum of money by selling the quota of admissions to admission seekers! In fact, there is already a de-facto quota system; what these Chatra League leaders are demanding is a legal cover to this illegal activity. In fact, going by one newspaper report, Chatra League leaders have netted Taka 1 core from three educational institutions in Dhaka by getting students admitted for money in recent days.

In the backdrop of this new innovative and money-spinning activity of the leaders of the Chatra League, their old activities that are equally criminal have not abated even a little bit. These student leaders are merrily carrying their “business” with tenders called “tenderbazi” and forced donation called “chandabazi”. Despite the Prime Minister’s direction to the law enforcing agencies to take action against those who are indulging in admission business” , tenderbazi and chandabazi, no substantial action has been yet taken against these students. Instead, the authorities have introduced on-line system to tackle the menace. Although, the outcome of this initiative is not yet known, it would be very surprising if it succeeds at all, even in limited scale. The reason is obvious. The fact that the authorities have gone on-line to deal with the problem speaks for the fact that they are either not serious or for some mysterious reasons, afraid to get into the root cause of the problem. The root cause is student politics that is empowered and sustained by political parties. In the game the students’ parties play, there is one “convention” that has assumed the force of law. When the students’ party supports the political party that goes to power, they have the “right” to tenderbazi, chandabazi and now “admissions business” that the authorities accept by de-facto sanction. The students’ party whose political party loses the elections accepts the reality by lying low. The intra-fight in the Chatra Dal witnessed in Dhaka University a few weeks ago is not against this “convention”; the Chatra Dal is just keeping its structure intact so that when the BNP wins, they can take the mantle from the Chatra League and carry on what the Chatra League is doing now!

The incident involving the Chatra Dal is interesting for another reason. There were pictures the following day showing police standing as spectators while students were brandishing pistols! While one of the students whose picture was caught in the photo journalist’s frame was later arrested, one is waiting eagerly to see what the authorities do with him. Going by past experience, there is no reason to feel that anything much will be done with him. He will just slip through the porous fingers of the law. While it would be disappointing if nothing happens with the arrested student, there is a more pertinent question that no one has asked; not in the newspapers that carried the pictures of the fight in Dhaka University that day. Why was the police not questioned for doing nothing? What about Dhaka University authorities? They claim for themselves for being at the forefront of all democratic movements in the country. What kind of democracy do they preach when they do nothing when pistols are brandished in broad light that scares the daylight out of the majority of the students who wants to pursue their studies in peace which is why we have a university in the first place?

The time has come for all of us to do some serious soul searching. It is amazing that in a country where there is no dearth of individuals and groups making tall claims about patriotism, democracy, sacrifices for the country, etc to give the impression that they have helped us build the perfect nation should accept such criminal activities taking place in institutions upon which the future of the nation rests without doing anything . Where are these patriots, these movers and shakers hiding when right before their eyes and under their noses, almost on a daily basis, the leaders of student political parties with patronage of national political parties are carrying on their mayhem as if they are a law unto themselves? Let us not fool ourselves that Bakar died in a stray incident. His death was inevitable. In fact, many such deaths should have been occurring every day in our public educational institutions because of the freedom that the student political parties have been given to do what they want and it is a mystery or may be divine will that many more Bakar are not dying.

The curious question is why are the authorities beating about the bush with the problem instead of dealing with it where it could be tackled? Why is the Prime Minister’s anger and directive falling on deaf ears? The answers are not difficult at all to fathom. Let us not for a moment doubt the Prime Minister’s intentions. She wants this mayhem in the public education institutions to end. Unfortunately, the way to go about dealing with the situation is not by issuing angry directives to the law enforcing agencies. The political parties depend on the student leaders for a lot of mischief that goes on in the politics of the country. This nexus of mischief have grown over decades and is so thick now that anger or outburst of the Prime Minister cannot do much. The most dangerous mix that has come into the nexus is the amount of money involved. When a party in Bangladesh wins an election, it can give benefit to only a few of its party activists legally for in Bangladesh we do not have the spoils system. Although, in a small way the present party in power has created a spoils system of sorts by giving government jobs to individuals outside the regularly recruited bureaucracy, the number involved here is very small. A big section of party activists who expect kickback after the election are student leaders and former student leaders. Since the party that has won the election cannot legally give this large number regular government jobs, it has allowed them to fend for themselves by giving them posts in the students’ wing so that they can remain professional students into their late 30s or early 40s to indulge in chandabazi, tenderbazi and admission business that now fetches them mind boggling sums of money.

The amount of money involved in chandabazi, tenderbazi and admission business has in fact created more formidable obstacles in dealing with the problem of violence and criminal activities in the public educations institutions. In a recent TV Talk Show a University Professor differed on the issue whether we can blame students for the violence and mayhem. While the general students, in fact the overwhelming majority, cannot be blamed, it is nevertheless also true that the general students are also often encouraged towards such unacceptable activities. Despite all that can be said about our public universities, the fact remains they help educate too many students whose degrees have little or no job value in the market. At the same time, getting a degree from Dhaka University in many subjects that attract the majority of the students does not require 100% devotion to earn a degree as it does in a University abroad. Majority of our students just have too much spare time and pay just too little for their education to value their degree or the value of education. A lot of these students become easy targets of student leaders when they carry out another of their favourite activities, namely vandalizing cars/vehicles and property almost always at the flimsiest of grounds. The victims here are all innocent citizens and sometimes our guests from abroad. In fact, in the latest act of such vandalism by our students, the car of the national cricket coach was a casualty.

All the above, and particularly Bakar’s death should be taken as the last straw on the camel’s back. Let it act as the catalyst to what we should have done years ago; ban students’ politics and save the nation and most importantly, save the students for they are the victims of students’ politics. If we are resilient on this anymore, the casualty will be the nation next time. Let the Prime Minister do this one good for the country that she alone can.

Published in The Independent, February 10th, 2010

Thursday, February 4, 2010

My Foreign Office Years, 1986-1990

M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Independent , February 5th, 2010

A disquieting feature of the years of General Ershad’s rule was the dominance of the military establishment in the affairs of the civil government. Regrettably, the door for the military to establish this dominance was shown by senior civil servants for their personal gains, although some of them exactly did not eventually get the treatment from General Ershad that they had expected. In the civil establishment, it was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that was at the worst end of receiving line of the military dominance.

The most difficult aspect of leadership for a Foreign Secretary in those days was handling the military establishment with tact. The Military Secretary to the President was someone who was more sought after by the Foreign Ministry than even the Principal Secretary in the President’s Office or the Director-General for Foreign Ministry affairs. In fact, at least one Ambassador was close to losing his job because he had incurred the displeasure of the Military Secretary while the President had gone to his country of accreditation on an official visit. The fact that the Ambassador had succeeded in arranging a very successful visit did not matter where it came to incurring the displeasure of the Military Secretary. The Ambassador did not eventually lose his job but was posted to a difficult station.

As a Foreign Secretary, Mohammad Mohsin was able to establish good rapport with the President and some of the top military leaders that created breathing space for the Foreign Ministry in dealing with the substantive affairs of the Foreign Ministry. Unfortunately, there were times and issues where he or the Foreign Minister were unable to do much to stop the military from its undue interference in the conduct of diplomacy. One such incident occurred in 1988 when Bangladesh was plunged into the worst floods ever that caused widespread havoc and damage to the country. The 1988 floods was also the worst disaster story of the time that was widely and extensively covered by the international media.

Bangladesh had sought help from abroad and appealed specially for helicopters for relief work. The Indians responded immediately and their helicopters manned by their pilots came soon after. These helicopters were a tremendous help in relief work. Lo and behold, one afternoon an innocuous looking letter came to the Foreign Secretary from military intelligence written in third person instructing the Ministry to ask the Indians to take the helicopters back. There was no explanation because none was intended. The Foreign Secretary was out of Dhaka but the matter could not wait for him. It fell on the Additional Foreign Secretary M. Mohsin to call the Indian High Commissioner, I.S. Chadda, a Sardarji who was well known for his diplomatic skills as well as for his skills at telling all kind of jokes, to the Ministry to convey the Bangladesh request.

The Additional Foreign Secretary conveyed the Bangladesh request to the Indian High Commissioner with profound appreciation of the Government for providing the helicopters at Bangladesh’s time of need. The High Commissioner was not amused. He was angry and reminded M. Mohsin about the President’s appeal shown in the previous evening’s news bulletin of Bangladesh Television for more helicopters because the flood situation was turning grave. The Indian helicopters were sent back and the Chinese helicopters came to the country for flood relief work. At the time, the reason that the military intelligence gave (not to the Indians of course) was the Indian helicopters were a security risk for Bangladesh. Quite understandably, the incident had a negative impact on Bangladesh-India relations with the military government more willing to play the India card for public support rather than making efforts for improving relations. Diplomacy, at least on crucial issues, was then conducted elsewhere and not in the Foreign Ministry.

The helicopter faux pas happened while HRC was in office. Under Anisul Islam Mahmud, the Foreign Ministry came into some reckoning as the new Minister had a good equation with the President. Mohammad Mohsin also played a good supporting role and between the two, the Foreign Ministry was being heard a lot more in the President’s Office than under the earlier combinations of Foreign Minister/Foreign Secretary. While the relations of the Foreign Ministry with the President’s Office improved, a new cloud appeared over the Foreign Ministry. AHG Mohiuddin who then virtually headed the New York Mission as the Alternate Permanent Representative was not at all pleased that HRC was replaced as Foreign Minister. A lot of that displeasure fell upon the new Foreign Minister. At the Foreign Ministry, many were caught in the middle, often unsure what to do when a decision related to the New York Mission, like posting/transfer of officers, needed to be taken. I remember a particular occasion when this conflict made me feel very uncomfortable. It happened at an international conference that was held at the President’s Office. AHG Mohiuddin had come to Dhaka for the Conference with Dr. Iftikhar Ahmed Chowdhury, the Foreign Affairs Adviser under the last Caretaker Government who was then posted at New York. The Foreign Ministry officer who was responsible for the Conference was Ananwarul Karim Chowdhury who later became an Under Secretary General at the United Nations. He had prepared the speech for the President as it was entirely his responsibility and his competence to write such a speech was then very well acknowledged in the Ministry. When the President delivered his speech, it was not the one he had written and the Ministry had approved but the one that was given to the President by AGH. Those of us who knew that a shift had been made were unhappy that it was done because it was a humiliation for the Foreign Ministry.

It was to the credit of Anisul Islam Mahmud that he made little efforts to reach out to AGH the way many did at that time. The personal assistant of Mohammed Mohsin knew AGH. One day he stood before me, scratching his head. I could sense he wanted to tell me something. When I encouraged him to say what was in his mind, he told me that one morning when he had gone to see AGH in his Dilu Road residence where he usually stayed when he came to Dhaka, he had seen a lineup of senior foreign service officers, many of whom in private were AHG’s worst critics. As for the Foreign Minister, he kept his head high and did not seem to care much that AHG was the President’s brother-in-law. Nevertheless, the Mission in New York was a power unto itself and no decision about the Mission was taken that was not the desire of AHG Mohiuddin. The situation was of course a great advantage for the officers posted there whom AHG had built up as an effective and efficient team. The three years rotation of officers in a station was not applicable to our Permanent Mission in New York and both officers and staff were posted to the Mission or posted out not by the Foreign Ministry but by the Permanent Mission itself.

After Mohamed Mohsin had firmly settled down as Foreign Secretary, I was called to his room one day when the Director-General (Administration) was with him. This officer was one who generally carried his files personally to the Foreign Secretary as his files were related to postings and transfers, a subject of particular interest and curiosity of the Foreign Service officers. Once before him, the Foreign Secretary told me that as I had done a good job as Director (FSO), the Ministry would like to reward me by posingt me to Ottawa where a vacancy had occurred. I thanked the Foreign Secretary and politely declined; telling him that I would like to go to Washington instead if that was possible. The Foreign Secretary was disappointed but what he said subsequently surprised me. He told me that I could be posted to Washington only if AHG wanted. I was eventually posted to Washington two years later after staying 4 years at Headquarters but AHG had nothing to do with my posting.

Despite those things that made me sad about the Foreign Ministry, there were also many bright spots. Those days, the Foreign Ministry had some of the brightest diplomats who would have done credit to even the best Foreign Service in the world. SAMS Kibria, a former Foreign Secretary, was making name for himself and the country as an Executive Director of ESCAP. Abul Ahsan, to become a Foreign Secretary later, was laying the foundations of SAARC successfully as its First Secretary General. In the missions, Farooq Sobhan and Shafi Sami, both to become Foreign Secretary eventually, were making headway at the highest political level in their respective host country. The Foreign Ministry had the potentials to do much more for the country because those days, it had the human resource to do so. Unfortunately, as a Ministry, it was deliberately kept handicapped by a power structure that did not see much need or value for a powerful and professional Foreign Ministry.

Anisul Islam and Mohammad Mohsin tried their best to bring the Foreign Ministry into prominence and in limited terms, they also achieved results. Years of marginalization when it was pitted against the rest of the civil bureaucracy nevertheless proved a very powerful obstacle for them. Unfortunately, subsequent elected governments also treated the Foreign Ministry like the military government that in effect deprived the country from having a powerful Foreign Ministry to reap the benefits of globalization. Sadly, as a consequence, our foreign policy today has remained reactive and not pro-active because the Foreign Ministry shares foreign affairs related functions with many Ministries/agencies and lacks the authority and responsibility to be effective.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.