Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ambassadors to be appointed by the Cabinet: An editorial comment

As a retired career diplomat, I follow the events concerning our Foreign Ministry and matters related to Bangladesh foreign policy almost like reflex action. Sometimes I wish I did not for the way the Foreign Ministry is being marginalized is really sad.

After this government came to power, it has named as Ambassador to all the important posts, individuals who are not from the Foreign Service cadre. A couple of them though are retired diplomats but still, the message to the foreign service cadre has been that they are not considered good enough for such posts; the first time that has happened with them.

Recently, an Adviser to the Prime Minister has been given the task of coordinating the inter-ministerial review of the Joint Communiqué reached during the Prime Minister’s official visit to India. As a former Director-General for South Asia, I cannot even believe that a day would come when our Foreign Ministry would be so by-passed in dealing with India!

Then there has been the news about the Foreign Ministry being deprived of its authority of issuing diplomatic passports which has now been given to the Ministry of Home Affairs. As if all the above was not bad news for the Foreign Ministry, Ambassadors and High Commissioners will henceforth be appointed by the Cabinet!

All the above relegates the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry to be now bereft of most major roles and functions that its counterpart plays in other governments. It is just not bad for the Ministry; in an age of globalization where all governments are strengthening their foreign Ministry for upholding its national interests, the marginalization of the Foreign Ministry is bound to harm Bangladesh’s national interests. It is sad that as the Foreign Ministry is being systematically marginalized, there is not even a murmur from those who are supposed to lead it.

Of Fish, fruits and formalin

Published in The Independent, June 30th., 2010

M. Serajul Islam

In a dinner party recently, a doctor gave us some spine chilling information on how the traders of fruit and fish are poisoning us day in and day out. The discussion that led to the doctor to talk on the subject came up when someone referred to a picture in an English daily that showed a mango farmer spraying chemicals on mangoes that were already ripe so that they do not rot. He said sarcastically that soon there would not be any necessity of sending a dead body to the morgue to keep it fresh for a few days pending burial because the formalin we are being forced to take with fruits and fish would keep the dead bodies from rotting.

Others who joined the discussion came up with other unbelievable stories of their own. One of the guests said that these days, a favourite roadside fruit in Motijheel and Bangabandhu Avenue is the papaya. These papayas are very sweet but such sweetness is hardly the credit of nature. The papayas are soaked in a chemical solution for a few minutes to give it the taste that has made it such a favourite of the public only that those who are eating it do not know that the sweetness is poison. The story of the papaya has another twist. These sellers poisoning their buyers with their papayas can be seen carefully keeping the papaya seeds stored in a corner. They do not retain these seeds because they can be cooked and eaten as some seeds are eaten; these are retained to be sold to unscrupulous traders who mix it with black pepper as papaya seeds and black pepper have a great deal of similarity!

On banana, that is such a favourite fruit for all of us, one of the guests said that when bananas ripen, they do so from the top layer and gradually go down to the other layers. In other words, naturally all rows of bananas in a bunch do not ripen simultaneously. Not so anymore in Bangladesh where unscrupulous traders using chemicals manage to ripen all the rows of bananas in a bunch simultaneously. Fruits like apples can be kept as long as one wants without any worry of rotting. Mangoes, the king of fruits, that we thought was free from the poisonous hands of the traders are no longer safe and have also come into the ambit of these unscrupulous people as in their greed to make money out of the last mango fruit in their possession, they now use chemicals so that they do not lose even a single mango to nature. The use of formalin to keep fish from rotting was also mentioned by quite a few guests. Buyers of fish became aware that they were being poisoned when they started noticing something eerie about the fish markets. Somehow the flies had abandoned the fish markets! In the days before these criminals entered the trade, buying fish in a fish market was perhaps one of the most unpopular things one was forced to do because the fish markets were a haven for the flies. The formalin literally drove the flies away to seek dirtier pastures. Today, buyers look for flies in a fish market to be assured that they are buying fish not treated with formalin!

The presence of unscrupulous traders and businessmen in developing societies is not a matter of great surprise. However, what is happening in Bangladesh in the fish and fruits trade is exceptional. These traders cannot be called unscrupulous and left at that. They are criminals not of the ordinary types that indulge in thefts but hardened criminals who have no value for human lives. There have been efforts during the Caretaker Government when these criminal acts came to public focus because of the good work of the private TV channels and the media. We have seen magistrates visit fish and fruits markets and taking action against traders found using chemicals to keep their products fresh. In recent times, we have also seen truckloads of mangoes being destroyed because these were treated with chemicals for malafide reasons. It does not seem like that such actions against these criminals masquerading as traders has had the desired effect. One of the guests at the dinner table said that she does not eat banana anymore, regretting that the fruit has been her favourite since as long as she can remember. The guests were also unanimous about denying themselves of one of the pleasures in Bangladesh in summer, namely indulging in mangoes unless they are assured that these are safe which means they do not buy mangoes from the market anymore.

It is not that all the fish and fruits in the market are treated chemically to keep them fresh that is poison for those who eat these items. Nevertheless, the problem is widespread. The government's action to send a magistrate once in a while to the market and destroy a truckload of mangoes will not even scrape the problem, let alone resolve it. The laws are also extremely inadequate to deal with a problem that is far bigger than the government cares to acknowledge. The time to take action to nip this problem in the bud is fast slipping away with consequences that could be devastating in not too distant in the future. We all know what has happened to Dhaka where small encroachments by land grabbers were overlooked and in some cases, encouraged by the regulators leading to a situation today where it is impossible to correct it anymore. In case of the slow poisoning to which we are being subjected everyday by the fish and the fruits that we are being forced to eat without any help from the government may very soon create the same situation the land grabbers have done with Dhaka city; only in the case of the fish and the fruits, we will have to pay with our lives. These criminals poisoning us know too well that it is just a small financial loss with which they can be punished today because the law does not provide for anything more. It is up to our authorities and our law makers to correct a very dangerous situation where people are getting away with murder in daylight for practically no punishment at all.

On another level, there is a very serious issue here. For a small financial gain, why do these traders play with human lives? Ours is a country of 160 million people that is a huge market for traders and businessmen to make money by honest means. True, there are problems in infrastructure that sometimes cause these traders to lose some of their products to the natural process. To choose murder to overcome such loss is incredible. In no other society would traders choose to do what our fish and fruits traders are doing because the laws would ensure that they do not dare to do so. More importantly, that such an action for financial gain would be incomprehensible in any other society. Our thinkers who study our people and society would do the nation a lot of good if they would study the behaviour of the fish and fruits traders of Bangladesh to find out the reasons for their love for formalin and other poisonous chemicals. Is it that they do so because they know the law is too soft or is it that they are psychopaths?

(The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Ministers and the Media

Published in The Independent
M. Serajul Islam

The dramatic exchanges between the State Minister for Public Works and a leading land developer of the country that was for some very strange reasons allowed to be videotaped by TV channels and later shown on the TV had many thinking about governance. In what many of us saw and were flabbergasted, the Minister was very much told to get lost by the land developer.

The issue over which the Minister and the land developer fought was the Dhaka Area Plan. In recent times, due to a number of accidents and other problems faced by Dhaka city of which water logging is a major one, a great deal of attention is being focused upon land developers who have grabbed what is Dhaka’s natural drainage system and have made Dhaka unlivable in the rainy season. The Minister over extended this issue and made some un-necessary and humiliating remarks that some of the land developers took personally that led one of them in particular to react the way he did that, courtesy the TV channels, many of us had the pleasure or displeasure of watching.

In another twist in this saga, the Minister later said in the media that a sensible government cannot bring down constructions made illegally because this would disadvantage many who have not been themselves responsible for the illegal constructions in the first instance. In other words, the Minister has tamely surrendered to the land developers in general and to the particular land developer with whom he had that strange alteration. Questions have now arisen in the public mind about hidden strength of the land developer to openly humiliate the Minister and get away with it.

Without going into the issue of who was right and who was wrong, the Minister’s tame surrender did not add to the image of the Ministers who as a group do not have high public rating. It is not just this Minister who has somersaulted on stands taken in public before the media. Many Ministers of this Government have done this quite frequently. The State Minister of Law is one whose name comes readily to mind. He has somersaulted on the issue of President Ziaur Rahman, calling him a Pakistani collaborator and then acknowledging his role in our liberation war.

One wonders why Ministers behave this way. In case of the Minister for Works, the fact that he was seen on the private TV screen being challenged by a land developer raises serious questions about the way changes have come in running of the government as a consequence of explosion in the information sector through the emergence of the private TV channels. These days, Ministers like to appear on the TV screen as often as they can. The private TV channels follow the Ministers for stories as a commercial commodity. Although both the Ministers and the media believe that by speaking freely on the TV channels they serve the cause of the public’s right of information, it is anything but information that they give the public. Most of the time, it is a party or a personal agenda that Ministers give through the media in the name of the public’s right of information.

The State Minister for Law’s meaningless attack of President Ziaur Rahman was one instance where the Minister used the media to serve a party agenda as well as a personal one. The Minister perhaps thought that the issue would be a right one to attack the BNP which is an unwritten agenda of the ruling party. The Minister perhaps also thought that by attacking the late President, he would also be able to come into attention of the Prime Minister. When the attack backfired, the Minister made an about turn that neither did his image nor that of the Government any good. In fact, a lot of times, Ministers speak to the TV channels not for the sake of the public but to attract the attention of the Prime Minister as their access to her is very restricted.

There is a serious error of perception here about how a democratic government functions and how much of information a government is obliged to give to the public. More important of all, there is also the question whether the public is at all interested in learning like a running commentary what the government is doing.. A great deal of the business of the government in all systems is conducted out of the glare of the public. It is best that they are conducted that way. All decisions of the government are not in black and white and there are choices that have to be made all the time based on information and other sources that cannot be made public for a variety of reasons.. In certain cases, such as decisions reached in the Foreign Ministry and related Ministries that deal with foreign governments, information cannot be given as demanded by the public for obvious reasons. However, all these do not mean that the Government has the right to act without accountability. In all governments, the parliaments act as the watchdog for the public in ensuring that the executive branch of the government that in the public parlance in countries like ours is equated with the government itself, is not only made accountable but in a way that is transparent and meets all the demands of the public’s right of information.

However, the above does not rule out the media of its right of information on behalf of the public. They have every right to do so but they should gather such information without creating the drama we have seen in the exchanges between the State Minister for Land and the land developer. The way to do so rests entirely on the Ministers. They should set things right. They have to take into view the fact that Ministers everywhere appear before the media only in case of an emergency. If there is a railway accident involving deaths of hundreds of people, the media will ask questions of the Minister of Communication. Sometimes, Ministers may also find it necessary to appear before the media to explain an important agenda of the Government. However, even in such cases, Ministers should remain out of the media unless they have a well coordinated approach to such an interaction with the media. We have seen that when our Ministers under the present government tried to do so, as has been in the case with the BDR carnage and trial of war criminals, they have ended giving contradictory statements, ending up by confusing the people, where the right of dissemination of information to the public was hardly served at all.

The Ministers, for their sake and the Government’s , need to come out of their current over indulgence with the media, and particularly TV glare and let the media gather information from the spokesman of the Ministry. There was a time when such information was regularly given to the media by the Public Relations Officer whose main job was keeping contact with them. The PROs did a very good job then but as Ministers felt the need to appear before the media and as media expanded, the job of the PRO has fallen by the way side although the post itself is there in every Government Ministry. To take the Government out of the mess into which some of the Ministers have taken it, it is time to revive the role of the PRO and designate him as the official spokesman of the Ministry. At present, a Ministry’s PRO is a junior level officer. In recognition to the media right to gather information of the work of the Government, the PRO’s position could be enhanced to the level of a Joint Secretary or in the important Ministries, to that of an Additional Secretary. The media l, on a need basis, will of course have the right to approach the Minister, but only through the Ministry’s spokesman.

Ensuring transparency in the functions of the Government is primarily the role of the Parliament and not the media that has a secondary role. Unfortunately in our country, the reverse has happened because the parliament has not been allowed to function as it does in other democracies. The consequence of this reversal is the drama and disinformation that we watch and read about these days on a regular basis. It is time to set the system in the correct mode by restricting the interaction of the Ministers with the media. Governance after all is not all drama; a great portion of it is hard work behind the desk of the Ministers.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Anniversary of Obama's Cairo speech: Promises unfulfilled

Published in The Daily Star
June 19th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

In his Cairo speech on June 5th last year, President Obama had raised a great deal of hope and expectations among Muslims that his administration would make sincere attempts to address their concerns. Instead he has sent more troops to Afghanistan and has decided to win the war against terror, primarily militarily. In Iraq, there was an election that was heralded to be a major step towards establishing democracy. But three months have gone by and still a government has not been formed and though conflicts, deaths and suicide bombings have declined, Iraq is far from being a safe country. President Obama seems to be following the script of his predecessor.

The Muslims have been deeply hurt by the West's indifference to Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian land. During eight years of President Bush, the Palestinian problem was almost forgotten while USA and its western allies pursued the war on terror in Afghanistan following 9/11 and the WMD under false pretext in Iraq. Unfortunately, while the war on terror has still not been won, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have lost their lives as collateral damage. The Muslim world hoped that President Obama would bring the focus back on Palestine and win the war on terror by means other than military to convince them that his administration is sincere in reaching out to them. In his inspiring Cairo address, President Obama had correctly identified the Palestinian issue to be at the heart of Muslim anger on the West. Yet Palestinian miseries have worsened since he came to office with 1.5 million of them blockaded in Gaza by Israel for last three years, cut off from the rest of the world, to restrict Hamas from gaining access to weapons. Israel has arrogantly continued building new settlements on Palestinian land. In fact, when the US belatedly sent Vice President Joe Biden to re-open the proximity talks to resolve the Palestinian problem in March this year as an intermediary between Palestine and Israel, the Israeli Government announced that it would allow new settlements in West Bank and in East Jerusalem that Palestinians want to be the capital of the Palestinian state. The White House cancelled the scheduled visit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, angered by the Israeli snub. The visit took place soon afterwards and on that visit, Netanyahu was welcomed by President Obama as if nothing had happened and he also addressed a joint session of Congress and was hailed as a hero! The proximity talks have re-started last month but the prospect of a breakthrough is bleak.

The Muslim world's disappointment with the Obama administration hit a new depth of despair by the raid in the international water on a Turkish flotilla on May 31st that resulted in the death of 9 Turkish citizens and the US response. The six ships named Free Gaza Flotilla were carrying humanitarian assistance consisting cement, wheel chairs, paper, and water purification systems for Gaza to break a catastrophic, man-made humanitarian crisis created by the illegal Israeli blockade. The Israeli attack was terribly flawed. Their commandos killed the men in international waters. Its claim that those who organized the flotilla had connections to Al Qaeda was also trashed as facts about the attack became known. It was revealed that the 700 activists in the flotilla included nationals of many countries including 11 Americans of whom one is a former Ambassador, three German parliamentarians, journalists, two Israel Knesset members, etc. None had any connection to what Israel termed as terrorists.

The attack instantly caused indignation worldwide. Noble Prize winning Elders Group that includes Nelson Mandela called the attack “completely inexcusable”. A statement issued by the Group, which was launched in 2007 to try solving world's intractable problems, said: “This tragic incident should draw the world's attention to the terrible sufferings of Gaza's 1.5 million people, half of whom are children under 18.” They called the Gaza blockade as “one of the world's greatest human rights violations”. The UN Secretary General asked Israel to provide a “full explanation” and described the Gaza blockade “counter- productive, unsustainable and wrong.” 21 European nations, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa condemned Israel for its murderous attack.

In the face of worldwide condemnation, the Obama administration's reaction helped take some of the heat off Israel. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs did not go beyond re-iterating the UN resolution that condemned the loss of life without holding Israel responsible. In fact, the US did a lot of arm-twisting for adoption of that muted UN resolution that made no direct condemnation of Israel or a call for an international investigation and weakened the demand to end the blockade of Gaza. President Obama talked with Prime Minister Netanyahu over phone to reschedule the latter's visit to White House that he himself cancelled abruptly after the attack on the flotilla. The President expressed “deep regret” over the raid but did not hold Israel responsible nor did he, like the rest of the world, condemn Israel.

The strength of the Jewish influence in USA's politics was driven home very recently when a comment on Israel ended the illustrious career of Helen Thomas, an 89-year-old legendary journalist in Washington. On the Jewish Heritage Day Celebration at White House, a Jewish Rabbi asked Helen Thomas to comment on Israel. She replied laughingly that they “should get the hell out of Palestine”. The Rabbi asked her for “better comments” to which she said that Palestinians have lived for centuries in the land now occupied by Israel whose people should go back to their homes in Germany, Poland, America and everywhere else. The comments created an uproar and condemnation from the Jewish lobby and their supporters. Helen Thomas apologized for the comments but the uproar did not diminish. The White House rebuked her; Nine Speakers Inc., a full service entertainment agency representing people across the world in literature, films, etc, dropped her as a client and a Maryland School cancelled an invitation to her as a commencement Speaker, forcing her to resign. Interestingly, the majority of Jews who now live in Israel are post Second World War migrants predominantly from Poland, Germany, and America and “elsewhere” while the Palestinians who have been driven out of Israel and made refugees in the West Bank have lived there for many hundreds of years till Israel was created in 1948.

President Obama called the remarks of Helen Thomas who is of Arab origin, “offensive” and “out of line” and welcomed her decision to resign. For a nation that takes pride in itself for upholding all forms of freedom and has taken upon its shoulders the responsibility to spread this idea of freedom to the rest of the world, the reactions were quite contradictory. With such consideration to the sentiments of the Jews, it would be unrealistic to expect that President Obama would be able to take the stand necessary to make Israel negotiate with the Palestinians for a just resolution of the Palestinian problem. Without that, the West and the Muslim world would continue to drift apart.

There is one positive outcome from the flotilla incident for the Palestinian cause. It has shifted strategic balance in Middle East against Israel as Turkey withdrew its Ambassador to Tel Aviv amidst intense anger towards Israel and the US. Egypt that backed the Gaza blockade and earned the wrath of Muslim nations lifted the blockade on its border with Gaza.

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

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Student Politics: Time for a strategic decision

Published in The Daily Star
June 18th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

THE role of students, particularly of Dhaka University, in Bangladesh's political history is unique and inspiring. They led the Language Movement that laid the foundation for an independent Bangladesh. They led the 1969 popular uprising against Ayub Khan's military dictatorship that weakened Pakistan, paving the way for the emergence of Bangladesh. In 1971, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the political and military leaderships in the fight against the Pakistani military. Perhaps only here have students played such a role.

Nevertheless, in today's student politics, it is impossible to think they played those roles. Today, the activities of the Bangladesh Chatra League (BCL) -- the ruling Awami League's student wing -- is a national problem and embarrassment as it indulges in criminal activities right under the government's nose.

Incredibly, the prime minister has failed to control it after repeated warnings. The home ministry ordered the police to deal with the BCL's criminal activities but they too have failed. Student politics is, literally, an out-of-control Frankenstein.

Awami League leaders have made unbelievable accusations to explain BCL activities. Some of them suggested that opposition elements, notably the Chatra Shibir, who "infiltrated" the BCL have committed these crimes.

The link between the Awami League and its student wing is deeper than meets the eye where, by tradition, BCL leaders eventually become Awami League leaders. In addition, family and many other traditions tie the BCL to the AL, making "infiltration" almost impossible. To be told now that "infiltrators," and that too from Shibir, have "infiltrated" the BCL and are using it to commit criminal activities is so absurd that only those who propagate it fool themselves into believing it.

The "infiltration" theory would have made sense if they had suggested that the supporters of senior AL leaders in the BCL, who were cornered in the party, are carrying them out to discredit the AL. Otherwise, the "infiltration" theory is childish. Nevertheless, it points to a dangerous truth; that the AL has lost control over the BCL, and unless something extraordinary is done there is no way to restrain it.

The BCL problem is, however, not Awami League-specific. It is simply that, with the present government, the Frankenstein has reached adulthood to challenge its creator. Other mainstream parties' student wings are quite capable of committing the same acts as the BCL, if their parties are in power. Therefore, it is now time to look at this as a national problem because it is destroying public educational institutions and, in that sense, the country's future.

A few facts stand out. First, in the past, national and international lures created and sustained student parties in our politics. In the 1950s and 1960s, students were motivated to fight for their language and culture and for political and economic rights, based on Bengali nationalism.

Second, they were motivated to fight for emancipation of the society's proletariat, or the downtrodden, through the strong appeal of communism. In other words, in those years, ideals and principles created the rationale for students to be drawn into national politics. Political parties involved with the same issues provided students with support and encouragement for their roles. In fact, student parties were, as today, wings of the mainstream political parties.

Bangladesh's emergence removed the nationalism lure that had brought students into politics. The Soviet Union's fall and China's changed stance in international politics removed the international lure. After independence, students felt compelled to remain involved in national politics to overthrow President Ershad's military dictatorship.

Since the return of democracy, all lures for political involvement have ceased. Students should have been allowed to sever their connection with national politics to pursue their studies. Instead, the political parties sustained and strengthened ties with their student wings.

Bereft of principles and ideals, student politics paradigm shifted for the worse -- a consequence of the mainstream parties' conflict politics -- since 1991. Student wing leaders became political agents for the parties in educational institutions.

In time, an evil nexus developed where student wing leaders reaped the benefits of their political connections when their party came to power. These included financial benefits from tenders related to development works; distribution of dormitory seats for money; involvement in campus crimes, including sexual harassment of female students, all without any fear of punishment.

The BCL's recent demands that they should be given a quota of seats in educational institutions to sell openly to those seeking admission manifested the utter depths to which student politics have fallen.

The nation, unable to do anything, watched with growing concern as public educational institutions went from bad to worse. The civil society that could have done something, where the politicians were silent, never spoke about this nexus.

These indifferences allowed student wings to freely and openly indulge in national politics and bring its conflicts to the educational institutions; its corruption and criminality, vitiating the educational environment of these institutions thoroughly and completely.

Teachers, who in the past had never felt the need to organise under the banner of political parties, have also become involved. Thus, BCL activities today are logical and should not surprise anybody. Nevertheless, they cannot be allowed to continue.

The problem, however, cannot be wished away because it did not go even after the prime minister's stern and repeated warnings. There is too much money, power and freedom, without fear of the law, at stake for student leaders to voluntarily give up their stranglehold on public educational institutions. These leaders eventually also land in key posts in their respective political parties.

The evil nexus will be broken only when mainstream parties sever all connections with their student parties. Once that is done, the rest is a simple law and order situation because without political protection student politicians are no better and no worse than common criminals running from the law.

It is high time to free our educational institutions from student politics. It benefits only a handful of "political" students at the cost of the majority of the students who, apart from the inconveniences of studying in the midst of criminality, lose up to four years of their lives to session jams.

The BCL's criminal activities should be a wakeup call for the AL to take a strategic decision to sever ties with it. It should also be a wakeup call for other mainstream parties to do likewise for their own sake and the nation's future.

M. Serajul Islam is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Japan-US relations poised to strengthen

Published in The Daily Star, June 12th , 2010

THERE was another twist in the tail related to the sinking of Cheonan. Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned, primarily over his failure to keep his election promise to the people of Okinawa to shift the US base out of the island. The sinking of Cheonan allegedly by North Korean torpedo created heightened security concerns among the majority of the people of Japan. They have seen the indispensability of strengthening the security links with USA instead of weakening it, as Hatoyama was perceived to be doing.

The sinking of Cheonan came at a wrong time for Hatoyama. Only eight months ago, he had led the Democratic Parry of Japan (DJP) to a resounding victory ending the LDP's nearly 6-decade long stranglehold on power. One important factor that influenced the public to vote for the DJP was its promise to stand up firmly in dealing with the United States, particularly on the sensitive issue of the stationing of over 40,000 US troops on Japanese soil, with the air force base in Futenma in Okinawa that has the majority of US troops stationed in Japan at the centre of the controversy. Hatoyama also promised to make Japan's foreign policy more Asia centric looking more favourably towards China, which was not the case under the LDP.

Hatoyama's personal popularity started to nosedive with early allegations of corruption in the DJP traced to him and more importantly, in dealing with the United States on Futenma. The Obama administration made it very clear that it had no intention of reopening the agreement the two countries had reached in 2006 when the LDP was in power. The agreement was to move the Futenma base to a new but less crowded facility on Okinawa's northeast shore. US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, on a visit to Japan in October last year, said that the 2006 agreement was a “done deal” opposing Hatoyama's efforts to move it out of Okinawa altogether that strained Japan-US relations from the beginning of DJP rule. Okinawa is strategically located on the Straits of Taiwan that makes US troop location there of the essence to the United States.

The US stand on keeping the air force base in Okinawa against his election pledge to move it out put Hatoyama in a difficult situation. He could not deal with the issue with Washington in a decisive manner that affected adversely his standing with his people. His popularity rating was on a serious decline from an impregnably high of 70% when he assumed office to below 20% in recent weeks because of financial scandals and his indecisiveness in dealing with Washington. Cheonan was the straw that broke the camel's back.

There are a few ironies in Hatoyama's departure. The US has always wanted a change of power in Japan, wary of the LDP's stranglehold on power; that should have worked in favour of Hatoyama. Yet it ended by pushing Hatoyama to a corner over the Futenma base, making him indecisive that created the ground for his departure. The public that supported him strongly and voted the DJP to power because of the stand to be treated as an equal by Washington eventually went against him. They felt that as Prime Minister he was trying to make Japan independent of the United States and was putting Japan's security at stake, a view that was reinforced by Cheonan.

The DJP quickly elected Naoto Kan, who was the Finance Minister in Hatoyama's cabinet, as the new Prime Minister; the sixth Prime Minister in the last four years. This incident is raising fear of a return to past political instability when Japan, apart from Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982-1987) and Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006), had a new Prime Minister each year. Naoto Kan is in many ways a sharp contrast from Hatoyama. In background, he is also a sharp contrast from Japanese traditions of electing those with politics running in the family to head the Government. Kan is a first generation politician, coming from middle class background. As Health Minister in 1990s, he had earned a tough and clean image for dealing with Japan's powerful bureaucracy by ordering an inquiry into his own Ministry for promoting HIV tainted blood transfusions. In the last eight months of the DJP Government, he kept that clean image while Hatoyama was immersed with serious allegations of corruption. His background and image will no doubt bear him in good stead in leading Japan from the mess into which eight months of inept governance of Hatoyama had taken Japan.

The new Prime Minister's major task will be in dealing with Washington that could also determine how long he will remain in power. He would need to keep in mind that getting respect from USA would be crucial while not forgetting that there is still no scope for Japan to carve a foreign policy independent of the USA; not as long as a nuclear North Korea under an unpredictable regime is in power. The reaction from China, which did not show much enthusiasm to deal with North Korea for sinking Cheonan despite strong urging from the US, has convinced Japan about the indispensability of strengthening the Japan-US defence pact. The US that was to a great extent responsible for pushing Hatoyama to his doom, must offer to the new prime minister the opportunity to keep his standing with his people because Japan is US' most important ally in Asia with a long track record. The US now must show flexibility on Futenma and at least allow the new Prime Minister the chance to negotiate on the issue keeping in mind that in politics perception is sometimes more important than reality. After becoming Prime Minister, Naoto Kan told his party members that he would emphasize a “Japan-US relationship at its core while contributing for forward development in Asia.” He also assured Okinawans that he would lessen their burden of retaining the US airbase. The US would need to allow Naoto Kan space on the issue of the base if it does not want him to meet the same fate as his predecessor. The US should also keep in mind that he did not support Hatoyama when as Prime Minister the latter had chosen to free the 2006 agreement arguing that the agreement reached by the LDP should be respected.

Naoto Kan will also have serious domestic issues to deal with such as the nagging debt, history of fiscal scandals and an economy not in good health as well as regain people's trust in DJP. The litmus test for success for him will however be foreign affairs, particularly in dealing with USA. He would be wise not to move closer to China under the pretext of an Asia-centric foreign policy and playing the USA and China against each other that Hatoyama tried and failed. In this context, the sinking of Cheonan has helped reassert the strategic relationships in the Korean Peninsula where the value of the US-Japan defence pact has reasserted itself and now seems poised to grow stronger in the time ahead. All these seem to be at the expense of China. Naoto Kan's background, image and lessons from his predecessor's downfall could set Japan on course to political stability under a two party system that the US should also be interested to sustain for its own sake.

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

Life in a Bangladesh Mission

Published in The Independent
June 11th., 2010
M Serajul Islam

My posting to Canberra in May, 1980, my first assignment to an Embassy/High Commission, was the result of a few unrelated factors. The year before I was posted as a Second Secretary, I had gone to Australia to attend a four months training course in diplomacy and international law. That course was mainly for the Australian Foreign Service trainees to which foreign diplomats were also invited. During my stay in Canberra for that course, I had met the High Commissioner Air Vice- Marshal AK Khandker, at present the Planning Minister of Bangladesh, a few times. At that time Ruhul Amin, who was my teacher in Dhaka University, was posted there as a Counsellor. In early 1980, Ruhul Amin was recalled to Dhaka and was replaced by Hosne Ara Karim, who was inducted into the Foreign Service after her husband Enayet Karim had died while serving as the Foreign Secretary in 1974. Hosne Ara Karim was a wonderful individual, full of life and optimism despite her personal tragedy. She also had an elder daughter who was handicapped and she had to look after her that in itself was a full time job. Hosne Ara Karim, unfortunately, had little aptitude for a demanding job in a High Commission where there was no other officer besides her to assist the High Commissioner.

Within a couple of months of her posting, AK Khandker was left with no alternative but to send a SOS to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for an officer. Ruhul Amin was then the Director (Personnel). He advised the High Commissioner to request the Ministry to post me to the Canberra Mission as a Second Secretary. One day, in May of 1980, as I was boarding the official microbus that carried officers home, a peon of the Foreign Secretary's Office came up to me to tell me that the Foreign Secretary SAMS Kibria wanted to see me. It was a brief few seconds meeting with him. He asked my name; I answered and he told me he would send me out soon to a good posting. I was not sure where that good positing would be because Farooq Sobhan who was my Director General in the Ministry then was trying to get me posted to Geneva where a post of Counsellor had fallen vacant. The Ambassador there was resisting the posting because he did not want a Counsellor and not a Second Secretary.

I was happy to find later that the posting was to Canberra because I had liked the post. I was also happy because the High Commissioner in Canberra was AVM Khandker, who I thought then and still believe to be the finest gentleman one could hope to come across. In any case, I was more than overdue for a posting although my case was exceptional. I belonged to the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service batch of 1971 that was not given a fair deal in Bangladesh. I lost my job upon returning home in September, 1972 from Pakistan where I was under training for the Pakistan Foreign Service in the Civil Service Academy, Lahore. After the change of Government in 1975, I was called with others in the batch to be re-instated in service as a former officer of the Pakistan Foreign Service. I was about to be enrolled as a PhD student on a Teaching Assistantship that I gave up and returned from Canada only to find that in the meantime under pressure from the former members of the erstwhile East Pakistan Civil Service, nearly four years of seniority was taken away from our batch.

The first thing that struck me, my wife and our seven-year-old daughter on arriving in Canberra was the isolation. Australia is known as the country down under and the three years we remained in the post, we realized what that meant. In terms of our bilateral relations though, Australia was those days important for us. Australia was deeply impressed by fight for liberation and chose us to be the second largest recipient of its development assistance after Papua New Guinea for which it had special care as its former colonizer. Thus those days, there were a lot of economics related activities for the mission. There was of course no one from the economic/commerce ministries stationed in Canberra and those functions were carried out by the two of us in the Diplomatic Wing. In the end, the functions fell upon me together with consular and publicity works because my colleague was not often able to devote herself fully for work in the office because of her personal problems. The Canberra posting therefore provided me with lots of opportunities to gather experience.

There was one experience that I detested gaining those days. It was related to cypher. Those days, a lot of secret messages used to be sent from the Foreign Ministry to the Missions. The secret messages were exchanged in cypher. The embassies with more such traffic had a cypher officer from the Ministry. In the smaller missions such as the Canberra mission, the cypher traffic was performed by an officer of the Diplomatic Wing. I did the Cypher functions of the Canberra Mission based on three days' training I received in the Ministry before my posting. I learnt the cypher work fast because a lot of cyphers were being exchanged at that time on the candidature of Saiful Azam for the post of Executive Director of ESACP. One day, AVM Khandker had gone to the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, to represent Safiul Azam's candidature based on a cypher message that I decoded for him. Upon returning from the Ministry, he called me to his room and told me of his embarrassment. The Australians had told him that SAMS Kibria, the Foreign Secretary, had become the ESCAP Chief! Unknown to the High Commissioner at that time, although Saiful Azam was the official candidate, there had been behind the scene campaign for SAMS Kibria that had started when the UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim had taken a trip to Dhaka early that year. As the post was not an elected one and chosen by the Secretary General made through consultation, Safiul Azam's name was never withdrawn as Bangladesh's candidate for the post.

These days, our Diaspora figures significantly in the work of a Bangladesh mission abroad because of their numbers and contribution they make to the economy through foreign remittance. Those days, the numbers were very small. In Canberra, there were only a few families. Nevertheless, they were a handful in terms of keeping us at the High Commission busy. At the time I arrived there, they were having problem with the High Commission and in particular with the High Commissioner over a matter that was none of their business. The High Commission wanted to send back a member of the staff home after the completion of his tenure. He however wanted to stay back on the pretext of treatment of a son in the family. The Bangladeshi expatriates took sides on behalf of the staff member.

Soon after my arrival, an executive of the Bangladesh Association called on me at my house with his wife. They were brought to my house by Arif Ali, the son of Ambassador Hossain Ai, who was then living in Canberra. Without wasting much time, this gentleman started telling me things critical of the High Commissioner and Ruhul Amin. I politely reminded him that I knew of the matter in better details as I also knew the Government's side of the story that he did not know, in addition to the story on the staff's side. I also told him that he was wrong about his conclusions and that I was not interested to discuss the matter with him. He was so upset with what I said that he flared up, said that I was insulting him and left my house angrily.
The Bangladeshi Diaspora in Canberra had a view that I thought was strange. They felt that the Mission was established by their money and some openly said so and thus its first task was servicing their needs and demands. That view was definitely not correct. A country establishes a diplomatic mission abroad for conduct of bilateral relations. Looking after expatriates is a consular function that is just a small part of a Mission's overall functions. Unfortunately, because of the role of remittance in our economy today, the impression seems to have taken root among the Diaspora worldwide that the main purpose of a diplomatic mission is to look after their welfare. Such a misperception creates an unhealthy tension that serves no one's purpose and can be resolved only by strengthening a Mission's consular and labour wings that was in those days and still is, grossly understaffed.

There were very few visitors from Bangladesh to Canberra. One of the few ones was General Manzur. He came to the Mission to call on the High Commissioner soon after I joined the High Commission. I remember him telling the High Commissioner that we were committing the same human rights violations in the Chittagong Hill Tracts as the Pakistanis committed on us in 1971. After he left, I remember telling the High Commissioner my impression that General Manzur would not remain quiet for long just being a Major General before making a claim to run the country.

(The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan)