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.

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