Friday, May 28, 2010

Cheonan reshaping strategic relations

Published in The Daily Star, Saturday, 29th May, 2010

THE situation in the Korean Peninsula is tense to use a mild word to describe a situation that an US official has called, with reference to the sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan by an alleged North Korean torpedo that killed 46 South Korean crewmen, the gravest provocation in decades. It has also set into motion possible developments that could re-define the future of the decades old strategic relationships shaped in the region painstakingly out of realities emerging from the end of the Second World War; the Korean War; the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of China as a world power.

The most important of the strategic relationships has been the US-Japan Security Pact under which some 47,000 US troops are stationed in Japan with more than half of it in Okinawa to give it defense and nuclear protection as Japan is forbidden by its constitution from having offensive military capability. That pact has been under pressure since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power after overthrowing the LDP last year. In fact, when the schedule of the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's just concluded visit to Japan was being finalized, the hot topic was expected to be the fate of US air force base in Futenma in Okinawa that the local residents wanted to be shifted with the DJP also supporting the local demand. Japan-US Security Pact's future was under serious pressure as Hillary Clinton prepared for her Japan visit.

An international commission inquiring into the sinking of Cheonan revealed just before Hillary Clinton arrived in Tokyo last Friday that a North Korean torpedo had sunk the ship. The revelation had an unexpected result on the talks that Hillary Clinton had in Tokyo. Instead of heated exchanges where Japan was expected to put pressure on the US, it was the Japanese who changed their views. After his meeting with the US Secretary of State, the Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said, “in the current security environment, the presence of U.S. forces is indispensable for the security of Japan.” Okada also suggested that the DJP Government would be able to reach some satisfactory understanding with the residents of Okinawa. Hillary Clinton and Okada agreed that the international community cannot allow the attack to go unanswered and must send a clear message to North Korea.

North Korea has denied any responsibility for Cheonan, insisting that the situation in the Korean Peninsula is fast moving towards war. The tough action that the United States and Japan have demanded in Tokyo will depend primarily on which way China leans. China is North Korea's principal ally and has veto power in the UN Security Council. The early signs are not encouraging for China's support. Chinese President Hu Jintao this month welcomed the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on his train visit to China shortly after he met the South Korean President indicating clearly his country's unwillingness to take sides on the Cheonan issue.

The Cheonan issue, sad as it has been for the South Koreans, has opened up opportunities for USA's strategic interests in the Korean Peninsula by influencing the Japanese Government to resolve the conflict over the air force base in Okinawa to be resolved in favour of the United States. The US however must get China on board to drive home fully the advantage that the Cheonan issue has provided. That was one of Hillary Clinton's primary sale items to the Chinese at the US-China Strategic and Economic Talks that was held in Beijing early this week.

In the long list of US demands on China that came up at the talks, the issue of Cheonan was discussed in a matter of fact manner despite the gravity that the US attached to it. China did not seem eager to look at the issue with the same anger and passion that was generated during the Hillary Clinton-Katsuya Okada talks in Tokyo or in Seoul where South Korea has frozen all trade ties with North Korea and has strengthened its military posture towards its neighbour. Despite proofs to the contrary, China continued to remain skeptical about North Korean involvement in the sinking of Cheonan, making it difficult to launch a UN sponsored move for sanctions against North Korea let alone harsher punitive moves demanded by South Korea and to a lesser extent by Japan and the USA. In Beijing, Hillary Clinton strongly urged China to find common cause with the USA regarding “the serious challenge provoked by the sinking of the South Korean ship”. To the Secretary's forceful appeal, the Chinese called the incident “unfortunate” and hoped that “all relevant parties will exercise constraint and remain cool headed”. Although such a response by China is normal even where they may harbor a more intense reaction, in case of the Cheonan issue it does not appear that the parties seeking serious action against North Korea on the issue would get China fully on board.

The sinking of Cheonan is an extremely provocative action. Nevertheless, it was not unexpected. North Korea is in the habit of such provocations and the list is indeed a long one. It carries out such actions to draw attention of its neighbours and the big powers towards it. In fact, despite its lack of resources, North Korea has demanded and received world attention because of its nuclear capability and its ability to carry out threats. However, from the Obama administration, it has not been getting the attention it wants which is an abandoning of the six-party talks of the Bush era for a new format and veering away from threats of tough economic sanctions. Although the Obama administration has spoken of engagement in dealing with countries his predecessor termed as “axis of evil” in reality this has not happened, not even after North Korea's nuclear test in May last year.

Nevertheless, the US has always come back eventually to talks with the North Koreans and with promising results. It was engagement in the 1990s that has contained North Korea's nuclear arsenal to just 6 today. This time too, despite all the tough talk by the Secretary of State, the parties look likely to return to the table because without China's total support that is not forthcoming, the chances of tough economic sanctions or military action are very unlikely. In that sense, Cheonan will bring out the same result as always; listening to what the North Koreans have to say. This time however the latest provocative act of North Korea has, for the time being, strengthened US' strategic standing in the Korean Peninsula.

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

My Foreign Ministry Years, 1986-1990: Some reflections

Published in The Independent, Friday, 28th May, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

My tenure of nearly four years came to an end towards the end of May, 1990 and I handed charge to my friend Shahed Akhtar as the new Director (FSO). In the farewell accorded to me, the Foreign Minister said that when the file for my posting was sent to him, he spared no time to sign it because he was more interested to keep Abul Ahsan as the Foreign Secretary as according to him, I was in the habbit of ending the tenures of those I served as Foreign Secretary prematurely! Normally, a Foreign Secretary was in those days expected to serve at least 2 years in his post while in my four years, I had served 5 with Abul Ahsan still in office when I left.

The Foreign Minister's humour at my expense notwithstanding, the fact that in my four years as Director (FSO) there were five Foreign Secretaries reflected "something is rotten in the state of Denmark", to borrow a Shakespearean analogy. Except in the case of M. Mohsin who left to become an Assistant Secretary General in the OIC and Abul Ahsan who eventually completed his 2 years' term and perhaps a little more, Fakhruddin Ahmed, Nazrul Islam and AKH Morshed were not given their full terms not because of lack of ability on their part but because of the whims and likes of the President. It also reflected another fact about the Foreign Ministry at that time; it was not considered important enough for any care and thought to be given in choosing the Foreign Secretary and then allowing him to lead the Ministry to the best of his abilities. Both in choosing the Foreign Secretary and then dispensing with one, the President's attitude was arbitrary.

Fakhruddin Ahmed was the High Commissioner in London when he was chosen for the post at a time when he had two more years to retire. He had been Foreign Secretary almost a decade before he was called to the same post again. He was then also dealing with a personal tragedy, having lost his wife to cancer. There were others who could have been chosen as Foreign Secretary and Fakhruddin Ahmed left in his post which was also what he wanted. Unfortunately, he had to vacate his post because the President had already made up his mind to place a General in London as the High Commissioner. Thus Fakhruddin Ahmed was made Foreign Secretary for a second time not because the Government was interested in placing the Ministry under an experienced Foreign Secretary but because he had to vacate his position as High Commissioner to make way for a General.

The President liked his Secretaries to be in touch with him on a regular basis both in person and over the Red Phone. Fakhruddin Ahmed was not interested to please the President in the manner the latter liked. He was a professional and very experienced who did not have to do these things to fulfill his duties and responsibilities as Foreign Secretary. For Fakhruddin Ahmed, it was unfortunate that his professional ways also fell on the wrong side of the Foreign Minister Humayun Rashid Chowdhury who was just a couple of years senior to him in the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service and the two were expected to work hand in glove for the good of the Foreign Ministry. An incident that occurred at that time reflected the character of Fakhruddin Ahmed and what he thought of his job. A western Ambassador was in the Ministry one day and was meeting the Foreign Minister. The Ambassador had earlier met the Foreign Secretary with a request that he turned down. The Foreign Minister asked his Director to call the Foreign Secretary to attend the meeting. The Director sensed that something was seriously amiss in the request but managed to convey the Minister's desire to the Foreign Secretary. Seeing he was embarrassed, Fakhruddin Ahmed walked with him to his room and asked him to tell the Foreign Minister he was waiting for him. There was a heated exchange in the Director's room during which Fakhruddin Ahmed told the Minister that he had already denied the Ambassador's request and the Minister could go ahead and over rule him but he would not be present in his meeting with the Ambassador. It was inappropriate of the Foreign Minister to ask the Foreign Secretary to attend the meeting. Fakhruddin Ahmed could have conveyed that through the Director but saved him from embarrassment and made the point directly to the Foreign Minister that the Foreign Secretary's position could not be compromised.

It was indeed sad that Fakhruddin Ahmed was sent on LPR where he spent a year doing nothing just because he was not willing to surrender to the whims and likes of the President and the Foreign Minister. While a talent was wasted, the President chose Nazrul Islam to become the Foreign Secretary. Nazrul Islam was a brilliant individual. He had joined the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service by giving up his right to join the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan for which he had qualified. His ability to articulate himself in English and Bengali was perhaps the best among his peers. Those days, the Foreign Secretary used to hold weekly briefings for the journalists. In those briefings, Nazrul Islam was at his best. He made the President more than happy, for a while, on both counts on which Fakhruddin Ahmed "failed"; in using the Red Phone as well as not losing any opportunity to meet the President personally. It was not very long into Nazrul Islam's aborted tenure that the President realized what the rest of the Foreign Ministry knew when he was appointed Foreign Secretary; that temperamentally he would be ill suited to lead the Foreign Ministry. From day one of his tenure he failed to carry the senior officers of the Ministry with him, some of whom were afraid to meet him because of his temper. The Foreign Minister should have briefed the President about Nazrul Islam's mercurial temper at the time of his appointment. As it became known in the Foreign Ministry that the President was not happy with Nazrul Islam, everyone knew that it was just a matter of time for him to make way for a new Foreign Secretary. He was removed as arbitrarily as he was selected as the Foreign Secretary.

When Nazrul Islam was named Foreign Secretary, I was apprehensive as I was told by those who knew him about his temper. However, on that count, my experience was the reverse because the Foreign Secretary treated me with affection. I remember one incident even today with a smile on my face. As I sat across the table from him, clearing files, he suddenly opened his cigarette packet and offered me a cigarette. I was taken aback and said I did not smoke. He retorted back and said he saw me smoking many times. I then admitted that I smoked but I was not ready to smoke in front of the Foreign Secretary out of respect for him and the office he held. He accepted that and next moment, I saw packets flying in the air with the Foreign Secretary telling me that he wanted to see how good a cricketer I was. I caught half a cartoon of packets that day! Nazrul Islam, despite a very hard exterior, was not so in reality and the senior officers stayed away from him without trying to find out the real qualities of the man. If the senior officers had not stayed away from him and instead interacted with him from his first day in office, perhaps things could have worked out differently for Nazrul Islam.

Nazrul Islam spent a few more months while waiting to go out as Ambassador to the Soviet Union. I continued to keep in touch with him even more closely in those months. I felt sad at the way he was made to leave. However, there was one thing he did while he was Foreign Secretary that left an unhappy impression in me about him. The US Embassy those days used to invite an officer to visit USA for six weeks. That year, they invited an officer by name for the visit that was against the established procedure. A file came to the Foreign Secretary to name someone for the visit. He called my friend Iftikharul Karim who was then Director (FMO) for a name. He walked into my room after meeting the Foreign Secretary to give me the good news that I would soon be going on a trip to the United States. After a while the same day, the Foreign Secretary called me to his room and handed the file on the US trip, asking me to contact the US Embassy for visa for the officer named for the trip. I came to my room and what I saw written in the file was totally unexpected. The officer named was then posted to a Mission and closely related to the Foreign Secretary. In retrospect, I would like to consider that incident was an aberration because Nazrul Islam was impeccably honest. Nevertheless, at that time I felt sad that he did not consider me for the trip.

The Foreign Secretaries I served were extremely capable. The Foreign Service cadre was competent. Unfortunately, they were up against the rest of the civil bureaucracy that did not see much relevance of a powerful Foreign Ministry, a view in which the President actively indulged. Nevertheless I left the Ministry with some hope because at that time it seemed like Anisul Islam as Foreign Minister and Abul Ahsan as Foreign Secretary were bringing back the Foreign Ministry to reckoning with the President beginning to realize that he needed the Foreign Ministry for extending his hold on power.

(The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and can be reached on email

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Prime Minister's foreign policy initiatives A strong foreign ministry required

Published in The Daily Star, May 22nd, 2010

IN her present term in office, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has taken a number of initiatives in foreign affairs that have earned Bangladesh international recognition. Her visit to New York in October; to the Climate Conference in Copenhagen in November and her official visit to India in January this year have all brought good results for Bangladesh. Her stand against terrorism during her visit to India and later at the SAARC Summit in Thimpu has attracted positive attention towards Bangladesh.

The Prime Minister has a definite focus on foreign affairs. In her last term also, she had a busy time in dealing with matters of foreign affairs and achieved successes. Notably, in that term she achieved sharing of the waters of the Ganges and the accord on Chittagong Hill Tracts. In this term, she has been giving more attention to international affairs. Apart from some very important bilateral and multilateral visits she has already made yielding good results, she is currently on a trip to South Korea and Malaysia to address in both the capitals multilateral gatherings as a leader of the developing world. The invitation to address the ESCAP Session in Seoul has been extended to the Prime Minister in recognition of her leadership of the developing world in her second term in office.

The Prime Minister's initiatives in foreign affairs will just not strengthen Bangladesh's relations with the outside world; it could more importantly assist Bangladesh in removing the negative image that the country has suffered as a result of negative politics at home. Bangladesh's future depends to a great extent on its external trade, manpower export and FDI for which a good image for the country is absolutely indispensible. In order to assist the Prime Minister to successfully carry out her foreign affairs initiatives and create a positive image for the country; it is equally indispensible that she should have the most professional institutional support for preparing for these visits and for follow up action after these visits. Unfortunately, in this important context there is something seriously amiss in Bangladesh. The institutional support for the Prime Minister's initiatives should be coming from the Foreign Ministry as it is the constitutionally designated Ministry for this purpose. From what appears in print, the Foreign Ministry is being weakened, instead of being strengthened at this critical juncture where, in addition, due to the impact of globalization, the Foreign Ministry worldwide is now a major hub of the government's activities. Instead in Bangladesh, the Prime Minister is depending upon individual support and that too, outside the Foreign Ministry for carrying out her major foreign policy initiatives.

Following the Prime Minister's visit to India, her Economic Adviser has been entrusted the task of expediting the implementation of the decisions and expression of intent reached during the visit in the Joint Communiqué. The Economic Adviser has been doing the coordination function and most recently, he also visited India for the purpose. While a few issues in the JC are economic in nature, the rest are complex matters of foreign affairs and diplomacy. Then there is also the fact that the issues can be driven home over a time frame where an individual even of the stature of the Economic Adviser alone can only play an advisory role and very little more. In other words, for implementing the JC, the approach has to be institutional where there is no scope of looking beyond the Foreign Ministry to carry out this task. The Adviser's brilliance and competence alone cannot deliver the task imposed upon him. A head of state/government can and often does use individuals for specific foreign policy tasks. The task given to the Adviser is qualitatively different; one that can and should be carried out by a Foreign Minister and a Foreign Ministry.

The decision to entrust this task upon the Economic Adviser could also be a hint of a lack of confidence upon the Foreign Ministry. Insiders in the Foreign Ministry cannot think that another Ministry, let alone an individual, would be given the task to deal with issues that are expected to set new directions for Bangladesh's relations with India. To career diplomats, India is their major foreign policy pre-occupation. To take away the coordination function of an extremely important visit to India and give it to an Adviser of the Prime Minister not connected with the Foreign Ministry does not enhance the standing of the Foreign Ministry in the public eye especially when the Foreign Minister in September last year had set the agenda and the tone of the Prime Minister's visit during her official visit to India and was by the Prime Minister's side during the latter's state visit to New Delhi. In addition, the High Commissioner in India is one of Bangladesh's ablest diplomats who enjoys the rank of a State Minister. The follow-up action on the Prime Minister's India visit should have been given to them for the obvious reasons.

This government startled many by placing an inexperienced politician in charge of the Foreign Ministry with another inexperienced politician as her deputy who was later shifted to another Ministry without replacement. The Foreign Service cadre officers are at the core of any Foreign Ministry for success of a country's foreign policy. This Government also started by sending the wrong signals to the cadre officers; that it cannot depend upon them for running important missions. Most recently, it took away the Foreign Ministry's responsibility for issuing diplomatic passports and has given it to the Home Ministry. Given the fact that diplomatic passports are regulated under international conventions that are within the competence and responsibility of the Foreign Ministry, taking away this role is not just a surprising move; it is another development that goes to prove that there are forces within the Government who are working, for some unknown reasons, to marginalize the Foreign Ministry.

There was a time after Bangladesh's independence when the Foreign Ministry was a major hub of governance. It then worked hand in glove with the Prime Minister's Office and was responsible for everything related to the country's foreign relations. In the 1980s, the Foreign Ministry was systematically stripped of most of its powers and responsibilities. The elected governments that came after the end of military dictatorship continued to weaken the Foreign Ministry. The consequences have not been good. Bangladesh gradually lost a lot of its standing in international politics and became known for many negatives that the country did not deserve. A fragmented style of conducting foreign relations where many Ministries have become stake holders without anyone really coordinating together with the partisanship nature of domestic politics left the Foreign Ministry with precious little authority to formulate a coherent foreign policy for the country. The Prime Minister's foreign policy initiatives will become fruitful only if the Foreign Ministry is given the powers necessary to coordinate the foreign policy functions of the Government instead of being a minor stakeholder in that process, under constant threat of losing whatever role it has at the moment.

The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director in the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.
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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Israel-Palestine proximity talks start amidst pessimism

Published in The Daily Star, May 15th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

THE Israel-Palestine indirect talks, also called proximity talks, started this week after 17 months in the limbo following Israeli attack on Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, the deadliest Israeli assault since the 1967 war. The re-start, with the United States as the intermediary, has come a month to the year since President Obama's Cairo speech in which he outlined his vision for bridging the gap with the Muslim World. The Palestinian issue is the single major issue that has given the extremists among the Muslims the cause for their acts. President Clinton realized this and had made the resolution of the Palestinian issue his administration's number one foreign policy priority in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, his efforts were aborted shortly before his tenure ended when Yasser Arafat declined to sign the agreement offered by Prime Minister Ehud Barak that would have given Palestine 95% of the West Bank, entire Gaza strip and control over East Jerusalem for ceding 69 Jewish settlements in West Bank that comprised 85% of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. That was the closest Israel ever got to giving Palestine its legitimate rights. In the eight years under President Bush, Afghanistan and Iraq were the priorities following 9/11 and the Palestinian issue went to the back stage, although the Quartet consisting of the US, UN, Russia and UK tried to move the peace process ahead with the Road Map.

The Obama administration has been in office for almost seventeen months. In Cairo in June last year in his reach-out address to the Muslims, President Obama identified the Israel-Palestine conflict as one that goes to the heart of Muslim anger on the West. He also called for a settlement freeze on the West Bank and creation of an independent Palestine. However, his preoccupation with a faltering economy and health care reform at home left him with little time to seriously attend to the Israel-Palestine conflict where the peace process continued to remain practically suspended. The return of the hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu for a second term as Prime Minister of Israel in March 2009 just after President Obama took office was also not good news for the peace process. Under US pressure, Netanyahu announced in September, 2009 a 10 months freeze on settlements demanding a lot more in reciprocity that the Palestinians rejected. He then initiated a bill that became law requiring a referendum on any withdrawal from land, thus pushing peace prospect further apart. When the US Vice President Joseph Biden visited Israel to jump start the proximity talks in March this year, Israel announced its decision to build 1600 Jewish apartments in Ramat Shlomo in northeast Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of their independent state when it comes. That was a slap on the face of the US and halted the start of the proximity talks.

The Israeli decision was followed by a period of heated exchanges between the US and Israel. However, following behind the scene consultations by all sides, the proximity talks started this week with the US looking like the only interested party. The Palestinians are pessimistic as they do not trust the Israelis to remain committed to their promise to halt construction of new settlements during the proximity talks. In fact, while Netanyahu made such a commitment before the talks, a Minister in his Cabinet told the media that the Israeli Prime Minister has made no such promise.

The Arab League has endorsed the proximity talks but reiterated the conditions held by the Palestinians to end the conflict, like return of all territories seized by Israel after 1967; cessation and dismantling of all settlements on occupied land; return of refugees; and East Jerusalem as the capital of the future state of Palestine. The reiteration notwithstanding, the two sides have drifted apart and the situation in the region has also changed significantly as a result of 9/11 and President Bush's war on terror; changes that have been bad for the Palestinians. During President Bush's tenure when Palestine issue was sidetracked, the Israelis managed to consolidate their own position internally where their action in Gaza in the end of 2008 and early 2009 left few in doubt that they could do pretty much what they wanted in the region. They have also gone ahead with the settlements at will and their audacity to start new settlements in East Jerusalem while Joseph Biden was in the region should leave no one in any doubt that despite the intentions of Obama made public in Cairo last year, the Israelis hardly feel threatened or under pressure from the US President to deviate from their chosen path to dictate and browbeat the Palestinians to accept a peace agreement on their term.

The Israelis also used Bush administration's interest in Iran where towards the end of President Bush's term even war appeared a possibility to good use by diverting interest of the US and its allies away from Palestine. The Obama administration's choice to follow the same line in Iran and also Afghanistan where, against his pre-election promise, President Obama has sent additional troops have not helped to keep the Palestinian cause sidetracked despite its legality and President Obama's strong words in his Cairo speech last year. The resumption of the proximity talks thus does not suggest any dramatic breakthrough in the offing.

The proximity talks have also started with the two major stakeholders in asymmetrical position that also raises negative vibes about its outcome. Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu is now in the hands of the hardliners who have no intention to compromise on the major issues like returning to pre 1967 borders, settlements and East Jerusalem that the Israeli Prime Minister has said is non-negotiable under any circumstances without Palestine on its knees. In fact, the Israeli position today is the toughest since the two sides started negotiations directly and/or indirectly where Netanyahu can compromise the legitimate Palestinian demands only at his own peril. On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas are in antagonistic relationship. With the US's commitment in the Palestinian issue divided by its commitment to other more pressing issues like Iran, ending war on terror in Afghanistan-Pakistan and establishment of democracy in Iraq, the Palestinian cause will not get from the US the attention it deserves. Under these circumstances, time is not opportune for the proximity talks.

Israel is today in a position where it can virtually do anything in the region. The Palestinians, suffering internal split and having lost a lot of focus due to changed international environment, are too weak to oppose. Still, the proximity talks are taking place because the US has to show the Muslim world that it is still its friend with first anniversary of President Obama's Cairo speech just round the corner. In fact, the way both the sides have reacted to the proximity talks has left no doubt about the outcome. Both sides have agreed to the proximity talks only to please the US. That notwithstanding, the talks, expected to continue for 4 months, will bring the Israel-Palestine conflict back on world stage after quite a while and perhaps help remind the Obama administration and its friends that the Palestinian problem is still at the heart of Muslim anger on the West and drive home the truth that the war on terror can be won only by a just resolution to the many decades old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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

A powerful and independent ACC: A day dream for Bangladesh

Appeared in The Independent, May 10, 2010

Awami League parliamentarian Dr. Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir’s views and anger related to the ACC for its role during the Caretaker Government has hit a sympathetic chord in many minds. His attack on the former TIB Chief Dr. Muzzaffar Ahmed for his presence in the book launching ceremony of the former and controversial army chief General Moin U Ahmed has also likewise hit the right chord in a lot of people .

However from an institutional point of view, objectivity and not anger should lead the way. Most of the wrong doings by the ACC during the Caretaker Government was carried out by the General who headed the organization at that time for which the institution should not be blamed. He used the public’s anger with corruption in government and politics to bring charges against people, many with position and standing in society, acting as both the judge and the jury. It was disgusting and illegal the way those days the ACC regularly humiliated individuals in full glare of the media by announcing charges against them to lead people to believe that these individuals were guilty as charged. He trashed the most fundamental foundation of the law that an individual is innocent till proven guilty.

The assumptions upon which he set about tackling corruption were biased and questionable. For instance his assumption that all politicians/businessmen and civil bureaucrats were corrupt and that the military was above reproach were both false assumptions. He also failed to distinguish between greed based corruption and need based corruption. For example, he failed to consider the fact that the average civil servant at middle and low rungs of the ladder tend to be corrupt because they Government does not provide them the salary or privileges necessary to meet the basic needs of maintaining a family while with the military, the government ensures these necessities and much more. If he had thought on this for a moment, he would have been more sympathetic towards the unfortunate civil servants, who unlike their military counterparts, are not assured food rationing at throw away prices, many other privileges and frequent tour of duty as peace keepers to put that extra money in their pockets that some of their civilian counterparts have to seek elsewhere. In the end, it was his biased views and wrong assumptions about corruption that resulted in the Caretaker Government’s failure to govern and implement their vision about the future of the country. In fact, the mess they made of governance that many say has pushed the country back decades was to a large extent the result of the way the ACC Chief went about with the corruption agenda. By scaring the public servants and the businessmen, he managed to create gross inertia in governance and the economy.

The unbelievable thing about the ACC during the Caretaker Government was the indulgence given to it by the latter. It gave the ACC Chief Ministerial rank that encouraged him to consider himself larger than the Government, to boast and brag that he would catch both the big and small fish of corruption and make Bangladesh corruption free. After the initial enthusiasm was over, the public was left with no choice but to conclude that the ACC was implementing a blueprint whose objective was to discredit the politicians thoroughly and break the backbone of the civil bureaucracy to toe without question, the dictates of the men in uniform. Such a plan, for logical reasons, was doomed as soon as it was set into motion. In the end though, many innocent individuals have been harassed and some even tortured, with the ACC unable to prove any case of corruption against the politicians/civil servants/ businessmen because bias and preconceived notions were used against these individuals without adequate evidence, in some cases blatantly manufactured as was done with BNP leader Maudud Ahmed, to try them in a court of law. The military intelligence used the scare caused by the ACC to good purpose by arm twisting civilians to collect large sums of money that have gone to their pockets. One would like to ask where has all thousands of crores of money that General Moin had boasted would be recovered from corrupt politicians/businessmen and spent to build hospitals gone? In fact, the present government has a legal obligation to look through a Commission where the money collected from civilians have gone, together with the violation of human rights committed during that period. The military should also look into this on its own because of the greed of a few; the image of the military has been seriously tarnished during the emergency.

There was one issue concerning an Ambassador that should surely stand as an example of the high-handedness of the ACC Chief. The charges against the Ambassador were routine that should have been quietly handled in consultation with the Foreign Ministry. Instead the ACC chose to deal with the case publicly, accusing the Ambassador of wrong doing in full media glare while he was at his station as the country’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary abroad!. At that time the ACC stated that it would subject all Ambassadors to public scrutiny something that no country would even in a fit of madness think of doing. It is not that Ambassadors are above the law; but in their case corruption charges are dealt out of the glare of the media and only after recalling them from their posts in consultation with the Foreign Ministry to save the country from embarrassment. In case of this Ambassador, some of the accusations brought against him like change of residence, touring, are no business of the ACC and the Foreign Ministry is more than competent to deal with such matters. What was surprising at that time was the Foreign Ministry’s failure to instill some common sense in the ACC to refrain it from embarrassing the country. It acted like a nincompoop.

Nevertheless, corruption has been a serious matter in public life in Bangladesh since independence. With the widening of the gap between pay and price of necessities, need based corruption was inevitable and over the years, has become widespread in government and public life. As aid money started coming to the country and development fund began to be distributed through the government, greed based corruption also became a part of public and political life in which every government in varying degrees have been involved. It is for good reasons that Bangladesh was declared by Transparency International as the most corrupt country in the world, once under the AL and thrice under the BNP. Although it has improved in that dubious standing, it is still languishing not very far from the top. Therefore the need of an independent Anti Corruption Commission has always been and will continue to be a fundamental necessity for the country; a Commission based under the law and subject to it but having the power and authority of moving against anybody indulging in corruption.

One cannot argue against an independent and powerful ACC. The former ACC Chief’s misuse of the institution has nothing to do with the institution itself. It is also not whether the ACC or the Parliament is superior because they are not in any conflict with each other. ACC is subject to the laws of the land, laws that are made by the parliament. But once the laws are made, ACC can be and should be independent of the Parliament and questioned only in a court of law when it violates the laws that guide its work and its staff.

The present Chairman and his colleagues are men of high integrity to lead a powerful ACC subject to the laws laid down for its functioning. The Chairman had unequivocally stressed the need for an independent and powerful ACC, adding that any curtailment of its powers would not be good for the country before the Cabinet decided to make the amendments. That the Cabinet would clip the wings of the ACC was, however, expected. Corruption is still very widespread and for a ruling party to allow an independent and powerful ACC would be like a cat allowing a bell around its own neck.

The AL led Government has set to motion action to quash all the cases against AL politicians filed by the ACC during emergency. It has however recommended a ridiculously low number of cases concerning the BNP politicians. This speaks of a mindset and underlines certain hard facts about corruption in Bangladesh. First, Bangladesh is still far away from reaching that level of political and economic development where a party in power would be in a position to allow an independent and powerful ACC to function because in the present state of affairs that would net its own politicians who as members of the ruling party have all the opportunities for corruption, opportunities they are like to take because of ground realities. Second, thanks to the former ACC Chief, the bureaucracy needs to regain their confidence and freedom from fear to function. Finally, our people and our development partners have to be realistic about their expectations with corruption which will remain as long as we do not pay our public servants enough to ignore the temptations of corruption. Meanwhile, we can only day dream of a powerful and independent ACC free from political influence.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Friday, May 7, 2010

SAARC: Still limping after a quarter century

Pubished in The Daily Star, May 8th 2010

THE 16th SAARC Summit in Bhutan from April 26-28 marked the Silver Jubilee of the organization that was first launched in Dhaka in 1985 to become the biggest regional organization in the world. It brought together at present estimate 1.6 billion impoverished people with the promise of a better future through regional cooperation.

Bhutan had given up three previous offers to hold the Summit due to inadequate infrastructure. If any region in the world is in urgent need of regional cooperation to accelerate development, then SAARC is the ideal choice by a long margin. Yet, 25 years down the road, SAARC summits are barely more than annual gatherings of the Heads of State/Government of the region. Even the annual gathering as required under the SAARC Charter was irregular. Eight summits were not held because of reasons that do not reflect well upon the organization and its future.

The Bhutan Summit was preceded by a number of positive developments for regional cooperation. The Sri Lankan Civil War has ended; in Bangladesh, emergency rule became history and an elected government came to power with a massive majority. In India, the Congress has been re-elected with a comfortable majority; In Nepal, the armed conflict with Maoists and monarchy have also become history although the country is facing teething problems in establishing democracy. Overall a fair wind is blowing in South Asia for regional cooperation.

These positive developments could have yielded rich dividends in cooperation in any other region but not in South Asia. The South Asian leaders deliberated in Thimphu on a very limited agenda for regional cooperation, no better no worse than what they had done in the past 15 Summits. The Summiteers agreed that after 25 years, they have little to show in terms of achievements. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh underscored this disappointment with a cliché, suggesting that the SAARC glass is half empty and challenged the members to cooperate in a manner to enable free movement of people, goods, services and ideas.

In the end, the South Asian leaders adopted the 36 points “Thimphu Silver Jubilee Declaration” that is high on intent but without clear and well defined mechanism for delivery. The Summit adopted the “Convention for Cooperation on Environment” to develop an inter-governmental mechanism for dealing with issues of global warming and initiatives related to water management and conservation of nature at national, sub-regional and regional levels.

To enhance regional trade and economic integration, the Summit also adopted an agreement on “Trade in Services.” These two agreements aside, the Summit in its Declaration endorsed a number of ideas from member nations intended to enhance regional cooperation. These included emphasis upon the need to develop a “Vision Statement” and a “South Asian Forum” that would bring together eminent persons to generate debate to strengthen SAARC.

The Summit also endorsed steps to form a “Conclave of South Asian parliamentarians” in line with the Charter. It also endorsed Bangladesh's “Charter of Democracy”; Bhutan's “Gross National Happiness” together with similar ideas from other member states for strengthening SAARC. The Summiteers underscored clearly their intention to make all future SAARC decisions action oriented.

The agreements reached in Thimphu and intentions expressed are important but they would bring the SAARC nations no closer in regional cooperation than they had been before the Summit.

SAARC's potentials for regional cooperation still remains hostage to the legacy handed down by the British colonizers reflected in the enmity between India and Pakistan, two nations whose friendship is indispensable to create the trust necessary for SAARC to succeed.

The other factor that has handicapped SAARC is India's size and dominance. From the very beginning, India has been suspicious of SAARC. It viewed SAARC as a forum for its neighbours to deal with it collectively for solving their bilateral and regional problems. Upon India's insistence, the SAARC charter prohibited discussion on bilateral and conscientious issues in the SAARC forum. Importantly, this embedded in the so-called SAARC spirit a lack of trust, obstructing its natural growth. Despite optimism and conviction of the leaders in the Thimphu Summit, the trust deficiency did not fail to surface as Pakistan declined to sign the agreement on response to natural disasters because it could land foreign troops on the soil of member states.

The Thimphu Summit, as expected, emphasized upon vague and lofty ideals such as Bangladesh's “Charter of Democracy” and Bhutan's “Gross National Happiness” without any clear road map for enhancing socio-economic development of the region. The decisions will merely give the organization enough oxygen to breathe till the next Summit. Until Pakistan and India have normal relations, SAARC's development will be fundamentally impeded by the lack of trust between the two.

When India was apprehensive about SAARC, it had not yet emerged as the power it is today. This emergence should have encouraged India to play a bigger and positive role in integrating SAARC. Unfortunately, this has not happened. With positive wind blowing in India's bilateral relations with the other South Asian neighbours except Pakistan, it is time that India made genuine overtures towards its neighbours who have shown their friendly hands. India showed that intent in the speech of its Prime Minister but very little of it has been reflected in the Declaration. While Pakistan must accept its fair share of blame for keeping SAARC from achieving its potentials, the bigger responsibility in this context is India's.

For the sake of the SAARC spirit and for India's emerging role as a major world power, it is time for it to renounce its insistence on strict bilateralism and to revive the Gujral Doctrine, a concept under which the former Indian Prime Minister wanted to give smaller neighbours like Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan their interests with India without reciprocity.

As a thought, why could India not have helped adopt a decision in the Thimphu Summit on a visa free regime among SAARC member countries by agreeing to open its doors to its neighbours keeping in mind Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's strong advocacy for free movement of people, goods, services and ideas within SAARC? On a reality check, there is no chance of such a thing happening in SAARC in the foreseeable future because instead of easing free movement of people, goods, services and ideas, India is more interested in building barbed wires on its borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh.

With such ground reality, SAARC can only limp towards its Golden Jubilee as it has up to its Silver Jubilee. Meanwhile, the neighbours of India, with exception of Pakistan, could justifiably say what the 19th century Mexican leader Porfirio Diaz had said of Mexican-US relations in the context of their present predicament in SAARC: poor neighbours of India; so far from God, yet so near to India!

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

My Foreign Affairs Years, 1986-1990: Abul Ahsan’s tenure continues

Published in The Independent; May 7th 2010

I was discussing recently about Abul Ahsan with Jamil Majid, a friend and colleague whether he had stories to tell me that I could write here. Jamil Majid told me that there are so many stories about the man that I would need much larger space to write it all. There were few stories that I have heard from Abul Ahsan himself that spoke of the character of the man and his skills as a diplomat.

One of these stories occurred when Abul Ahsan was a Director-General in the Foreign Ministry at a time when Bangabandhu was leading Bangladesh. Those days, it was quite usual for officers of the level of a Director-General in the Foreign Ministry to be frequently called by Bangabandhu for briefing. As Abul Ahsan was going to Bangobhavan one day, he was called by then Foreign Secretary Enayet Karim who himself was with Bangabandhu early that day. He told Abul Ahsan to be fully prepared with answers to complaints the Prime Minister would surely have for him about the Ambassador to Kabul, M. Sultan, the country’s senior diplomat belonging to the erstwhile PFS batch of 1949, the first batch of ex-PFS officers. The Prime Minister, as Enayet Karim filled Abul Ahsan in, had received a report through the intelligence officer in Kabul that the Ambassador was in the habbit of expressing loose comments, some even about the Prime Minister.

As soon as Abul Ahsan faced Bangabandhu that day, the Prime Minister started the conversation angrily with the name the name of M. Sultan. Before the Prime Minister could say more, Abul Ahsan in a style that was his own, mixing partially the Noakhali dialect with some English, told Bangabandhu that Ambassador Sultan was doing an excellent job as High Commissioner to London. Impatiently, Bangabandhu stopped Abul Ahsan, reminding him that he was not talking of the High Commissioner whom he knew very well and also that he was doing an excellent job in London. He went on to say he was talking of M. Sultan in Afghanistan. Again Abul Ahsan sought Bangabandhu’s indulgence and told him that M. Sultan hero-worshipped him (Bangabandhu boltay oggayan) and frequently called him from Kabul to express his deep regards for Bangabandhu. Those words hit a sympathetic chord in Bangabandhu who smiled, adding that it was nothing unexpected as the whole nation felt the same way about him. By then Abul Ahsan had achieved what he wanted; a pause to Bangabandhu’s wrath. He then listened to Bangabandhu’s complaint against Ambassador Sultan. Abul Ahsan agreed with him but added that unknown to Bangabandhu but known to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Sultan had been having problem with his intelligence officer who wrote the report against the Ambassador to put him in trouble. At Abul Ahsan’s suggestion, Bangabandhu agreed that an investigation into the matter should be held to find out the truth. By then, Abul Ahsan had succeeded in saving Ambassador Sultan from serious trouble which in the least could have been premature recall to Dhaka. For Abul Ahsan, being forewarned was being forearmed that day and he used his diplomatic skill to good purpose in the case of Bangabandhu’s wrath on Ambassador Sultan. In fact, he had that uncanny ability of dealing with people at all levels who could not help being convinced by him by his cool disposition and matter of fact approach to serious issues.

Soon after he joined as Foreign Secretary and was staying in the Railway Rest House temporarily, there was a burglary in which his wife lost jewelry, apart from the family being at risk during the act. He was in office next day, and it was business as usual. It was only later in the day that I learnt about the burglary from his driver. On another occasion, a young niece of his had died during the night as a result of complication while using an inhaler for her asthma. He was in office as usual the next morning; attended to all his office engagements; went to his niece’s burial in between without anyone except me knowing about the tragedy. It was, however, not all praise for Abul Ahsan. There were individuals who held critical views of the man because despite his cool disposition, Abul Ahsan held strong views on issues and individuals and was often, uncompromising . One of them was no one less a person than Saifur Rahman, the former Finance Minister of Bangladesh. Saifur Rahman would refer to one incident in particular to express his displeasure about Abul Ahsan. At that time, Abul Ahsan was posted at the London High Commission as the Deputy High Commissioner. Saifur Rahman was on a visit with his wife and they were staying at a hotel near the High Commission. Saifur Rahman was then a Minister in the cabinet of President Ziaur Rahman. Saifur Rahman had asked Abul Ahsan whether the hotel was safe to keep a small bag with valuables, and unknown to Abul Ahsan, jewelry of his wife. Abul Ahsan in his usual style had told the Minister that it was safe. The small bag was lost. The Minister never forgave Abul Ahsan although the latter’s simple contention was that the Minister never told him what was in the bag and in any case it was not his duty as a senior officer of the High Commission to keep track of the Minister’s personal baggage.

Abul Ahsan could take major decisions nonchalantly as the simplest ones. At the time Abul Ahsan became the Foreign Secretary, AHG Mohiuddin was virtually the head of the New York Mission although he was officially the Alternate Permanent Representative with Ataul Karim, then Ambassador in Washington, the Permanent Representative as an additional charge. Ataul Karim used to travel occasionally to New York but in reality, the New York Mission was in AHG’s charge. The Foreign Minster and the Foreign Secretary decided that it would be in the interest of the Ministry to make AHG the Permanent Representative. That would bring AHG on the side of the Ministry and also make the President happy. One afternoon, Abul Ahsan called me to his room and casually asked me who was in charge in New York? I replied spontaneously that it was AHG in charge there for all practical purpose. The Foreign Secretary, with a smile on his face, added that if that was the case, why we can’t make him the Permanent Representative. Without waiting for my answer, he told me to prepare a summary for the President. Soon afterwards, a summary was before the Foreign Secretary, prepared elsewhere and placed before him by Anawarul Karim Chowdhury (AKC), then Director-General who was not particularly liked by the President, together with another one seeking the President’s permission for AKC to join a D level post under UNICEF. In case of AHG though, the elevation was short-lived because not long after he was made the Permanent Representative, Ershad Government fell and AGH was eased out of service. In AKC’s case, he went on to start a UN career that eventually took him to the level of an Under Secretary General of the UN with some at the UN even viewing him as a potential candidate for the post of Secretary-General of the United Nations when the Asian Group was looking for a successor to Kofi Anan.

AKC was one of the brightest multilateral diplomats of Bangladesh. While he was the DPR in New York, he chaired the committee that awarded UNFPA’s United Nations Population Award for a year I cannot recollect. The Committee awarded the prize to Bangladesh. It was later reported to the President by our Mission in New York that the Prize could have been awarded to him that did not happen because AKC did not want that who chaired the Committee that awarded the prize. The truth was never found out but so far the President was concerned; he had no doubt about AKC’s alleged role in the matter. It was good that between Abul Ahsan and the Foreign Minister, they were able to get AKC out of the Ministry in return for making AHG the Permanent Representative in New York. The duo of the Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary were also silently working with the President to bring the Foreign Ministry back into contention and were succeeding to some extent.

It was during Abul Ahsan’s tenure that the Chinese Premier Li Peng visited Bangladesh that stressed the close relationship between the two countries. In fact, during Ershad’s long stint in power, where he took the major foreign policy decisions, often with negative consequences, there were some successes too. It was during his era that Bangladesh strengthened its strategic relationship with China, himself visiting China 5 times and being received each time with warmth by the Chinese. By the middle of 1990, it looked like the Foreign Ministry had turned a corner and was moving in the direction that would soon place it in charge of conducting the country’s foreign relations that, thanks to a jealous civil service, had been fragmented and given to a number of Ministries/Division where the Foreign Ministry was a small stakeholder. That was an issue of great regret to many of us who had joined the Foreign Service to be in the company of diplomats like Abul Ahsan, AKH Morshed, SAMS Kibria , all of whom topped in their respective central superior service exam, to lead the country in foreign affairs as the Foreign Ministry had done just after independence. In our imagination was also the role that the Foreign Service had played in British India whose traditions led to the establishment of our own Foreign Service cadre. Annada Shankar Ray, writing about the Foreign Secretary of that period, described him as special even among the elites; using the Bengali term most “koolin” for him because he was the only Secretary who had direct access to the Viceroy. Other Secretaries of that period had access to the Viceroy only through the concerned Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council or if the Viceroy called them himself. Among those who held the post of Foreign Secretary were such giants of history as Sir Mortimer Durand; Sir Henry McMahon and Sir Alfred Lyall. In India and Pakistan, the Foreign Secretary still has an eminent position in Government. In Bangladesh, with marginalization of the Foreign Ministry, the Foreign Secretary is just another Secretary whom his peers can and often does bypass at will.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and can be reached on