Friday, June 11, 2010

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)

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