M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Independent, March 19th., 2010
When AKH Morshed was made the Foreign Secretary, he had less than 4 months left to go on leave preparatory to retirement (LPR). We all expected for very obvious reasons that he would be given an extension. Otherwise, the President’s decision to make him the Foreign Secretary would not have made any sense at all.
The President, of course, had other ideas. Even in that short period he was the Foreign Secretary, AKH Morshed did not get the respect from the President that he so richly deserved. In fact, looking back, one incident comes to my mind about that time that made me bitter at the way the President treated the Foreign Secretary. It involved the visit of a Special Envoy from the President of Philippines who had come to Dhaka with the letter of invitation for President Ershad to undertake a state visit. The Special Envoy had previously served as Ambassador of the Philippines to Bangladesh and during that tenure, had befriended President Ershad in the Golf Course of Kurmitola. President Ershad was an avid golfer and a good number of Ambassadors were quite chummy with him as golf-mates. When the Special Envoy arrived in Dhaka, there was a diplomatic faux pas at the airport. The Foreign Ministry failed to receive the Special Envoy at the airport. There was of course no problem for the Special Envoy in terms of his reception at the airport because his Embassy staff, including the Ambassador of the Philippines, was there at the VIP lounge to welcome him.
The Special Envoy took serious offense at not being received by the Foreign Ministry at the airport. He reached the President, some said at the Golf Course that afternoon, others said over the phone, and complained about the lapse by the Foreign Ministry. There as a Cabinet Meeting that evening. According to established procedure, a Secretary to the Government is required to be present at a cabinet meeting if there is an item in the agenda retaining to his/her Ministry. That day, there was no item in the agenda concerning the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign Secretary was nevertheless called to the Cabinet Meeting that evening; in fact asked to come while he was attending a private dinner. He was made to sit without any questions asked while the President gave the Foreign Ministry a dressing down. AKH Morshed had no clue as to reasons for the President’s anger because he did not know about the incident concerning the Special Envoy earlier that day. The next day, the Foreign Secretary expressed his sadness to me over the incident because he felt and rightly so , humiliated, because the incident should have been handled in a more civilized way instead of the Foreign Secretary being called to a Cabinet Meeting and given a one sided lecture without even the right to speak on the issue. The failure to receive the Special Enjoy at the airport was a failure of the Protocol Wing of the Foreign Ministry where a Brigadier was the Chief of Protocol. The issue of airport reception is such a routine protocol issue that a Foreign Secretary is informed of such matters only as routine information with no reason to give any decision or direction. In the instance that made the President so angry, the Foreign Secretary was totally oblivious to what the President knew when he gave that “lecture” in the Cabinet Meeting and slighted him for no good reason at all.
It was not just that the Foreign Secretary had to face such a predicament; the same was the story with everyone who served in the Ministry or the Missions those days. No one was sure when the rulers in uniform would make their displeasure known. Their way of making such displeasure known was sometimes very humiliating. It was again during AKH Morshed’s short tenure when one incident occurred that we who knew of it were insulted beyond words of expression. In one of the many written submissions that the Foreign Ministry used to make routinely, there was one where there were a few typographical errors. Those were also the days when the Foreign Ministry did not have the benefit of the computer and software such as MS Word where after a document is prepared, the programme itself fixes all the spelling errors! That particular document fell into the hands of one of the officers at the President’s office in uniform who made the “corrections” and brought the “mistakes” to the attention of the President. The document had the signature of the Foreign Secretary. The President took great interest to ridicule the Foreign Ministry for its mistakes by highlighting the brilliance of the officer and the lack of it in the Foreign Ministry. To us that was humiliation at its worst. My own conclusion was different. The incident made it clear to me that the President had personal reasons to dislike the Foreign Ministry for reasons that had little to do with the Foreign Minister’s professional competence. Otherwise, he would not have chosen to ridicule the Foreign Ministry on the issue of competence in English with AKH Morshed as the Foreign Secretary because on that issue he stood in a class of his own among his peers in the civil service at that time!
I had already served over three years as a Director in the office of the Foreign Secretary by the time AKH Morshed had assumed the office. He was my fourth Foreign Secretary. These days, an officer does not serve in that post even half the length of time that I eventually served that was close to 4 years. The other unusual aspect of my tenure as Director (Foreign Secretary’s Office) was the number of Foreign Secretaries that I served that totaled five in all. I had no complaints about either of those unusual aspects of my tenure because it allowed me exposure to serve in the nerve centre of the process of foreign policy formulation and implementation. My experience also allowed me to gain the experience and confidence that helped me later in my career as a senior officer in the Embassies and in the Ministry and eventually in my assignments as an Ambassador. At the same time, those years as Director (FSO) also exposed me to the weakness in the process of foreign policy formulation and implementation in Bangladesh. It astonished me then and in retrospect it makes me sad now when I reflect that our foreign policy, except for that short period when Bangabandhu was in office and for a while when President Ziaur Rahman was the President, has not been handled professionally. The Foreign Ministry has never been in charge because at the level of the Head of Government and in other Ministries of the Government, there have been very few who were/are willing to accept the role of the Foreign Ministry as central and crucial to the process of foreign policy formulation and implementation. While in the office of the Foreign Secretary and watching closely how the Foreign Ministry was by passed on foreign policy matters by the President’s Office and the other Ministries, I was often left wondering over the contrast in India where the Ministry of External Affairs is the Ministry without whose initiative or concurrence noting happened in that country in the area of foreign relations based upon my posting in New Delhi prior to my posting as Director (FSO).
Recently, Ambassador Farooq Sobhan who was a High Commissioner to India narrated an experience he had while in India in a seminar organized by the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies. He said that a senior Minister of the Indian Government had to call him after all arrangements for his visit to Bangladesh was finalized, to postpone his visit. The Minister explained to the High Commissioner that the Joint Secretary for Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives in the Ministry of External Affairs of India had asked for the cancellation because his Ministry was not consulted in arranging the visit. The Minister had to oblige. In Bangladesh context, it would seem like a fairy tale to think that the Director-General (South Asia) in our Foreign Ministry, the counterpart of JS (BSM) in Bangladesh could play a role even remotely close to the latter. Sadly, the Foreign Ministry in all governments around the world play the same role the Ministry of External Affairs plays in India in foreign relations. Bangladesh is perhaps the lone exception where the Foreign Ministry has to share the function of foreign relations with many other Ministries, without even a coordinating role. The process of marginalization of the Foreign Ministry was institutionalized during the tenure of General HM Ershad. Unfortunately, successive democratic governments followed the trend that was set during the era of military rule. In the age of globalization, this is inconceivable if the objective of our foreign policy is to further our national interests.
AKH Morshed did not last long. The extension that we expected he would be given was denied. The way he left was another sad episode of my stint at the office of the Foreign Secretary. That, however, will be the subject of the forthcoming piece.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan