Friday, July 30, 2010

Conference On Afghanistan

Published in The Daily Star on July 31st, 2010
M. Serajul islam

Afghanistan, the frontier of President Bush's "war on terror" that his successor President Obama has embraced fully, continues to remain insecure and victory in the war is still as elusive as it was when it started 9 years ago. The main objective of that war was to destroy the Taliban that held power and had given sanctuary to Al Qaeda for its operations against US and western interests and capture Osama Ben Laden for allegedly masterminding the 9/11 attacks. Although the Talibans have been driven out of power, they have found new and impregnable sanctuary in the no man's land between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Osama Ben Laden is still free and the Talibans are on a resurgent mode in Afghanistan.

The protagonists of the war, the US and its allies, met in a one-day International Conference on Afghanistan on July 20th in Kabul that was co-chaired by the Afghan President and the UN Secretary General to support a plan by President Karzai for development, governance and stability. The conference brought 60 countries and international agencies together. Nato Secretary General Fogh Rasmussen wrote an optimistic piece in an IHT column to create an optimistic aura for the conference. He commended USA for sending 40,000 additional troops who played a major role in undermining Taliban in its stronghold in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. He acknowledged Taliban resurgence and supported a recent plan of Karzai for integration of moderate Talibans. He was upbeat about Afghanistan's future.

Rasmussen's optimism, however, is in contrast to a number of facts that surfaced in the days and weeks before the conference in Afghanistan. In June, President Obama ran into a problem with the General that he had backed so fully. In an interview he gave for the magazine the Rolling Stones, General McChrystal showed no respect at all for the President and his team. Derogatory remarks aplenty have been expressed not just about the President but also the Vice President. Marine General James Jones, the National Security Adviser, has been referred to as “the clown” and only Hillary Clinton has escaped grilling. The President regained control by sacking General McChrystal and replacing him with General David Petraeus who had a successful stint in Iraq as a commander. The sacking nevertheless left a poor impression about conduct of the war, as it is most unusual to sack a commander in the midst of a war. The drama surrounding the sacking of General McChrystal brought to surface the deep divisions between the military fighting in Afghanistan and the strategists in Washington. It was also revealed that even within the President's team in Washington, there are sharp differences. In Afghanistan, the news of resurgence of the Taliban has been accompanied by deep corruption in the Karzai administration.

The conference was thus held in the backdrop of uncertainties about the future of Afghanistan. The US and the allies focused on how quickly they could handover the security to Afghans and come out of it with the US committed to start withdrawal of troops by end of 2011. With mounting casualties among US and allied troops, domestic pressures in those countries are now strong about continuing with a war where victory is not so clear a prospect. There have been 1,966 coalition military deaths in Afghanistan so far of which 1,206 are US soldiers and 436 from UK. At the Kabul Conference, President Hamid Karzai demanded of the allies and the donor countries and agencies to handover 80% of development and governance assistance over the next two years to the Afghan government. He was critical of the US $29 billion that has been spent in Afghanistan since the war started and mentioned that 77% of it went to projects to suit the donors' needs and priorities and was not sustainable for development of Afghanistan. He assured the allies that they could leave Afghanistan by end of 2014 when 300,000 trained Afghans would be ready to take over the security of the country.

President Karzai's optimism notwithstanding, there are many twists in the Afghan tail. President Obama's vision of securing Afghanistan by a substantial increase of troops has not fully worked. The Obama administration has been forced to back the move of Karzai government to open dialogue with the moderate Talibans to isolate them from the extremists which in itself is an acknowledgement of victory of sorts for the Talibans because their name was a pariah to the US and its allies when the war on terror started. The news that has been headlined all over the world in recent times about Afghanistan's fabulous mineral resources worth US$ 1 trillion that has the potential of lifting the country from abject poverty to great prosperity is too alluring for the powers now present there to leave Afghanistan without some assurance of benefitting from marketing those resources. That could bring to play new dimensions in an extremely fragile security situation in the country. In a country as fragmented as Afghanistan, where the ethnic groups have a history of fighting, the mineral resources could divide these groups further by introducing new and serious issues to fight.

Finally, Pakistan and India's involvement in the conflict has brought new dimension that could prolong the conflict instead of resolving it. The press is already calling the Afghan conflict a proxy war between Pakistan and India. In a recent edition of the Guardian, William Dalrymple has written that internally, the Afghan war is a Pashtun rebellion against Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek dominated regime with Karzai “only a fig leaf of Pashtun window dressing”. Externally, it is a regional proxy war between India and Pakistan. In recent times, India has opened 4 regional consulates and provided the Afghans US$ 662 million in aid; all terrifying news for Pakistan as it would be left squeezed on the west and east by India. Dalrymple has thrown in an interesting probability: eventually India would withdraw from Afghanistan accepting it as Pakistan's sphere of influence for Pakistan's guarantee to stop encouraging the Kashmir jihad accepting that to be the Indian sphere of influence!

The Kabul Conference has not raised optimism about the future of Afghanistan although President Karzai appeared upbeat. Indian Foreign Minister Krishnan who attended the Conference said that foreign troops should remain in Afghanistan much longer in response to a question on US decision to start withdrawal by end of 2011. He also said that India would consider sending troops to Afghanistan if asked, a loaded response in terms of the emerging situation and also the India-Pakistan proxy war, the latter in turn with the potentials to derail all strategic calculations of the allies. Is history again shaping to repeat itself; that the foreigners can only meet their Waterloo in Afghanistan?

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

My Foreign Service Years: Allowances and Permanent Embassy

Published in The Independent,July 30th.,2010
M. Serajul Islam

In terms of foreign and entertainment allowances, the Bangladesh Government has been miserly. However, in case of spending money on house rent for the diplomats and in hiring the Embassy and Residence of the Ambassador, the Government has been much better. In fact, a major part of money that the Government pays for maintaining an Embassy goes in hiring accommodation. At the time of my first posting to Canberra in 1980, the Government did not practically own any property abroad. Since then, there are now e a few places where Bangladesh owns the Embassy and in a few stations, also the Residence of the Ambassador.

In Canberra, my High Commissioner AK Khandker felt very strongly about the need of the High Commission and Residence owned by the Government. The Australian Government was also quite positive to the idea. The High Commissioner even succeeded in getting a local bank to agree to finance the construction of a permanent chancery on a plot of land that the host government was willing to give us close to the US Embassy in Canberra. Unfortunately and very surprisingly, the High Commissioner’s effort was turned down by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the plea that in its scheme of things, Australia was not in the list where it would be interested in constructing a permanent chancery at that time!

When I was Ambassador to Japan, the issue of buying a permanent chancery and residence was very high on my agenda. The reason was a simple one. In Tokyo, we were then paying almost US$ 0.75 million a year in renting the Chancery and the Residence and both the buildings were modest. In fact, in Cairo where I was Ambassador before Tokyo, the government was paying 1/4th of what it was paying for the Ambassador’s residence in Tokyo where the Residence in Cairo was three times larger than the Residence in Tokyo. On my request, the Government allocated a good amount, Taka 12 crores to be precise, for a permanent Embassy. My efforts were first stalled by undue interference of the wing of the ruling party in Tokyo that wanted to be a party in the acquiring process to make quick money. The government backed me against this undue influence and the President was removed for his role but that delayed the process and we missed out buying an Embassy when we were close to clinching a deal. When I started the process again, I looked at buying both the Chancery and the Residence. With the money placed in the account of the Embassy as down payment, I managed loan from a local bank that in Tokyo was quite an effort to buy the Embassy and the Residence. I sent the final proposal to the Ministry hoping that it would not just accept it but also pat me in the back for a great effort. Unfortunately, the Foreign Minister turned it down on the plea that the Government would like to by property located in prime areas close to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Imperial Palace.

In my proposal, we would have owned the Chancery and Residence in 8 years and we would have, after the initial down payment, not required to seek any extra amount from the Government and could have met the bank’s advance from the monthly rent we would have paid on the hired premises. In fact, that amount we would have to pay to the bank monthly would have been less than the monthly rent. The properties were almost tailor made for us and we could have moved in immediately after purchase. Four years have gone by since I left Tokyo and in four more years, we could have had both the Chancery and the Residence owned by the Government. Recently, the Government has purchased land in Tokyo, something that should have been done decades ago.

Our High Commission in Delhi when I was posted there in 1983 was located far from the diplomatic enclave in Chanyakpuri and in Lajpat nagar, not a particularly good area for a High Commission. If we needed to showcase a High Commission or an Embassy, then that station was undoubtedly New Delhi. Soon after our impendence, the Indians had offered us both land in Chanyakpuri and to construct the Embassy at their cost given the fact that the Bangladesh’s coffers were practically empty at that time. We turned down the offer. One cannot but agree with the decision in declining the Indian offer but we should have at least looked into the issue of acquiring land in Chanyakpuri on a deferred or payment by installments. We eventually bought land long afterwards in Chanyakpuri at a much higher price. In return, we gave India access to abandoned properties in Dhanmandi at throw away prices for decades.

In Washington, we sold a prime property that we had purchased from the Daughters of the American Revolution, a conservative group, to Chile on a request by President Allende because it was near to Chile Embassy. But Allende died shortly afterwards and his military successors felt little need to appreciate the gesture. We gave to Bhutan its Residence in Dhaka but we never received reciprocity in Thimpu for it.

One could say that because of the tumultuous nature of our independence and politics in the first couple of decades, such issues as purchasing property abroad was not handled with the vision that was necessary. Unfortunately, the attitude of the Ministry of Finance was also responsible for very little property being acquired at a time when such properties were available at affordable prices. The under the surface conflict between the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service Officers and the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan officers in the 1970s and 1980s was also responsible for things not happening rationally in the Foreign Ministry. On their part, these ex-PFS officers at leadership role in the Foreign Ministry also did not pursue the issue seriously enough. They were content with their own postings and positions. It was only with the return of democracy in 1991 that successive governments took up the issue of acquiring property abroad with some seriousness and in the last 2 decades, we have been able to own some of our Embassies and Residences abroad. Today we own the Embassy and Residence in New Delhi; Washington; London, Pretoria; and the Embassy in Brussels. In Riyadh and Islamabad, the Embassy and Residence are under construction while in Tokyo; the Government has purchased a plot of land. We have 46 Embassies and a number of Consulates/Deputy/Assistant High Commissions. Thus, in terms of acquiring property abroad, we are still far behind. The Government needs to focus on this seriously because in many capitals, it is a buyer’s market these days.

There are also the houses of the diplomats and staff of the Embassies/High Commissioner for which the government is paying huge sums of money. It is also appropriate time for the Government to buy property for residence of the diplomats and staff members. All the government needs to do is allocate extra sum of money for the initial down payment and then the mortgage payments can be made from the rents and over a period of time, these residence would be owned by Bangladesh. If only the Government had taken such a view immediately after independence, we would now have owned many of the property we now rent for which we pay huge sums of money.

In my previous articles, I touched upon the allowances of diplomats. In my time, we were paid foreign and entertainment allowances to which educational allowance was later added. There was no medical allowance because all diplomats/staff members and their families were provided medical treatment by the Government at actual. During the first BNP Government, Finance Minister Saifur Rahman injected an amendment and made it mandatory for everybody to pay to the Government 10% of the medical bills. It was introduced to stop misuse of medical benefits and had a positive impact. Unfortunately, it has also meant that in the developed countries, many are denying themselves and their families much needed medical attention because of their inability to pay the 10% of the bills. In the late 1990s, a young officer died in a mission because his Ambassador did not send him for treatment to a third country as permissible under the medical rules because he thought the medical budget was not enough.

In my early years in service I used to hear stories aplenty of officers/ staff members and their families suffering through the cold weather in countries with severe winter because of the prohibitive heating charges. In the Washington Embassy, there was a joke among the expatriates about parties in winter in the residence of a Bangladeshi diplomat. If the diplomat lived in an apartment where heating charges were built into apartment rent, guests used to dress lightly and carried the overcoat only for the short distance to the car. Inside the house, a guest could not even keep a sweater on. In a house where the diplomat was paying the heating charges, guests would invariably have a sweater and a coat or something warm to keep the cold away! In Washington, the staff members were in fact better off on the heating issue because most of them held a second job and their wives worked too and thus they had more financial ability than the officers to deal with financial problems. But in stations where there was no opportunity for a second job or for wives to work, there were horrific stories of how staff members and their families suffered through the winter and generally also because they were paid just pittance.

Although things have improved, these and other sad things happen in our lives in the Embassy because issues such as pay/allowances/owning property, etc have never been approached rationally. Most countries have an Inspector-General for Embassies or its equivalent for dealing with these issues. Our government has always approached these issues in an ad-hoc manner.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

Friday, July 23, 2010

Have Bangladesh-India relations hit a snag?

Published in The Daily Star, July 25th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

RECENTLY in a seminar arranged by the Policy Research Institute (PRI), the Minister for Commerce made a statement that poured cold water on the spin of optimism that the foreign minister had succeeded in giving in the media to the Prime Minister's state visit to India in January. The foreign minister had given the visit a perfect score. She also spoke in a number of seminars arranged to evaluate the visit. In these seminars, she articulated herself brilliantly, based on the agreements and the Joint Communiqué of the visit, to convince everybody that Bangladesh-India relations were poised for a paradigm shift for the better to the mutual benefit of the two countries. She had then said that India's sincerity was amply manifested in its positive response to Bangladesh's power needs in giving Bangladesh a US $1 billion credit and a host of other offers that spoke of India's goodwill in improving Bangladesh-India relations.

The commerce minister regretted that even after six months of the visit, specific decisions on the agreement on removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers have not been implemented. In speaking to the media after the PRI seminar, he criticized the bureaucrats on either side for things not moving the way they should have following the Prime Minister's successful visit. The foreign minister did not appear before the media for clarification on her colleague's statement. Her silence and that of her Ministry on the commerce minister's statement has surprised many who are following Bangladesh-India relations and left them guessing about what is exactly happening.

A few other developments have added to the confusion. The foreign minister seems to have lost her enthusiasm in the visit rather abruptly. Meanwhile, the task of coordinating follow up action on the agreements and the Joint Communiqué to move relations forward has been entrusted to the Economic Adviser of the Prime Minister who led a delegation to India some months ago for the purpose. No news has come out from his office or from him about his visit. In fact, if anyone would know about the current state of affairs of Bangladesh-India relations in the context of the Prime Minister's visit, it is the Economic Adviser and not the commerce minister who has spoken on it and the foreign minister, who has not spoken on the visit lately.

The government has not presented the agreements reached during the visit in Parliament nor made these public, which has added to public confusion. A few important decisions that had encouraged the public to hope that the Prime Minister had indeed succeeded in achieving a major breakthrough have not gone the expected way. The 250MW of electricity that India had agreed to give will require a 100 KM transmission line to join the power grids of the two countries. This transmission line will take two years to build after the award of the contract, for which a decision is yet to be reached. Agreement on sharing of water of Teesta seems to be getting perpetually delayed although in the meantime the Bangladesh water minister had given hope some months ago that an agreement was just round the corner. India has recently expressed its determination to build the Tippaimukh dam although during the visit Sheikh Hasina was assured that India would pay heed to interests and sentiments of the people of Bangladesh.

There is news which suggests that things may be moving in the right direction in some areas. An inter ministerial committee was formed in July last year with the Prime Minister in the Chair and with her Economic Adviser as the prime mover for economic integration of Bangladesh with the economies in the region, including India's northeast states. The foreign minister is a member of the committee. This development is positive but curiously it has not been given publicity. The development appears even better when seen in the context of what former Union Minister Mani Sankar Aiyar had to say on a recent visit to Bangladesh. He said that the Indian government has a plan to spend Rs 20 lakh crore for development of India Northeastern provinces that lacks managerial, technical and technological support, by the year 2020. He felt that Bangladesh could, by extending its hand of cooperation, get a good share of that cake. In the case of such an integration, where politics must play second fiddle to the dictates of economics, Bangladesh will surely benefit as it has what India's northeast provinces lack. Bangladesh, in addition to its managerial, technical and technological abilities, has the ports that could figure in a major way in the success of the proposed integration and also the success of the Indian investment.

Historically and economically, such integration makes great sense. I remember sitting in a meeting that Sheikh Hasina had during her 1996-2001 tenure with the chief minister on one of the Northeast Provinces of India. To convince the Prime Minister that Bangladesh should allow border trade, the chief minister said that the trouser and the shirt he was wearing were manufactured in Bangladesh as was his belt and shoes. He said that most of the people in his province were using a lot of Bangladeshi manufactured goods that were being smuggled and wondered why the two governments could not formalize the illegal exchange of goods that would drive the smugglers and the middlemen away and allow legality to come into the economic reality to the mutual benefit of the two countries.

Of course, things were then as it is now, not easy to do as the chief minister had then wanted. India has been seeking land transit through Bangladesh to its Northeast so that the economic benefits of the Taka 20 lakh crore go to investors and businessmen in India and not Bangladesh. Therefore, although one would like to believe with Mani Sankhar Aiyar that Bangladeshi businessmen would be allowed to play a significant role in the development of India's Northeast, India's past in dealing with Bangladesh does not encourage analysts of Bangladesh-India relations to hope too much into the prospects of Bangladesh's integration in that development and benefit from it.

There is reason to look seriously into what the commerce minister really intended to say. Indian bureaucracy is powerful and capable of working independently of its political masters. In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi as the new Prime Minister of India made gestures to give Bangladesh its water needs. The then Bangladesh High Commissioner in New Delhi was AK Khandker who was about to send a very optimistic message to Dhaka. On second thought, he sent his officer dealing with water issues to the Indian Joint River Commission to check if what the Prime Minister was hinting was really true. The Member of the Indian JRC told the Bangladesh High Commission official bluntly that there was no likelihood of any change in India's position, the Prime Minister's hints notwithstanding.

Bangladesh-India relations can change positively when the political leaders in New Delhi and Indian bureaucrats dealing with Bangladesh are in agreement. That does not appear to be the case on trade and water issues, where the core of discord rests on Bangladesh's side. Bangladesh has, meanwhile, handed in more ULFA insurgents, a key Indian concern. Bangladesh has also followed up on areas where it needs to act on the Joint Communiqué and the agreements despite its weak bureaucracy and serious problems in coordinating functions involving many ministries. It is time for India to show its hands on the concerns of the commerce minister and on water where an immediate agreement on Teesta is crucial. More importantly, the return visit of the Indian Prime Minister has to take place soon to motivate the Indian side to positive action.

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

Hospital wastes dumped on roadside

Published in The Independent, July 23rd., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

A picture and a news item in The Independent’s issue of July 21st should jolt the conscience of people in charge of health care system of the country, if of course they have a conscience to jolt in the first place. The picture shows dangerous waste from Dhaka Medical College (DMC) dumped in the road in front of the hospital. In simple parlance, this is the equivalent of a prostitute quarter and a gambling and drinking place near the gate of a premier educational institution of the country because Dhaka Medical College and hospital has been established to be just that.

The deterioration in the affairs of Dhaka Medical College is nothing new. These days thanks to the influx of private TV Channels, we have visited the inside of Dhaka Medical College many times in virtual reality of course. The inside of the Medical College is in fact is worse than what the picture in The Independent has revealed. Those of us who have had the misfortune of visiting Dhaka Medical College physically have wondered whether anyone ever comes out of this place alive once entering it as a patient.

The Independent story has mentioned that there are 1000 hospitals, clinics, diagnostic centers that dump dangerous wastes regularly in the roads in front of their premises. In 1998-1999, I watched such pollution everyday from my apartment adjacent to the Bangladesh Medical College on Road 14 A Dhanmandi Residential Area. In the first place, the hospital has no business being there right inside a residential area. In course of time, I have moved out of the apartment for my family’s safety. It was not just that the Medical College was polluting the environment; it has also violated building by-laws and has turned the lives of those living on Road No 14 A upside down.

Coming back to The Independent story, Dhaka Medical College has defended itself on the issue of the wastes and has explained that clinics in nearby areas dump wastes in front of Dhaka Medical College to avoid paying money that is involved in the professional disposal of wastes that DMC carries out. The defense is a strong one by the DMC. However, it still does not resolve the fundamental issue; that dangerous medical wastes are dumped in front of the DMC which is a big institution and has enough security guards to ensure that such dangerous wastes are not dumped anywhere near it . Why can’t the DMC’s security deal with such illegal waste disposals that are just not causing great harm to people in the vicinity but also earning the DMC a bad name? Is there an evil nexus between some people in DMC and the clinics in the nearby areas?

It is no doubt that the large number of private medical clinics and diagnostic centers are playing a valuable role for providing medical services to the people of the country, particularly to Dhaka’s teeming millions. Unfortunately, barring a handpicked few, the majority of these clinics and diagnostic businesses are carrying out their functions and activities in a largely unregulated fashion. It is now a frequent story in the newspapers to read that one clinic or another has been ransacked because a patient has died due to the negligence of the attending doctor. Incredible as it may sound, there has been news in the papers lately that has mentioned such clinics appointing fake doctors! In the good old days, we knew there were doctors in the villages of Bangladesh that we called quacks. Fortunately those quacks seldom killed people because they did not have the benefit of the drugs that are in the market today; drugs when administered professionally save a patient but when served by others, call them quacks if you want, kill patients.

A country with such a large population as Bangladesh with such poor infrastructure and resources will never be able to provide medical attention to its people at the expense of the Government. The gap has to be provided by the private sector. It is gratifying that we are seeing the private sector come up to fill the gap. Unfortunately, in filling the gap, the private sector is not entirely motivated by the service elements of the medical needs of the people. Greed has been a major factor in the large number of such clinics and diagnostic centers coming up like mushrooms. Thanks again to the media, particularly the electronic media; we now know how patients are lured by professional goons from government hospitals to these clinics, a criminal process in which the doctors themselves also play a major role for reasons of greed.

All these factors point to a very dangerous situation existing all around us concerning the state of affairs in the medical profession of the country. There are very few in this country who have not suffered tragedy in personal lives because of wrong treatment in the hospitals, both government and private. For some strange reasons, such tragedies have always been allowed to remain at the personal level and have never been brought to the national level although the problem is serious enough to deserve national attention. We often hear of one doctor or another as being brilliant in Dhaka and commended for saving patients with their professional ability. It is good to hear when our doctors are praised this way. But while we praise our doctors, we often do not consider that Bangladesh is perhaps one of the few places in the world where the doctors can literally treat patient and experiment with them without anyone in the patient’s family being told anything about what the doctor is doing. In such experiments, patients die frequently with little or nothing that can be done against the doctor. There is very little legal recourse available to a patient’s family to take action against a doctor when a patient is killed either while experimenting or due to professional incompetence of the doctor. If doctors elsewhere had such liberty to treat patients as guinea pigs, they would have achieved wonders.

It is time for the Government to look seriously in regulating the medical profession, particularly the mushroom growth of private medical institutions. In the developed world, doctors can only dare deal with a patient with nothing short of the highest professional attention and devotion if he is not afraid of losing his license or going to jail. This is why doctors in the developed countries pay through their nose in taking personal insurance, something from which our Government blissfully protects the doctors. Our legislature should look into the laws that exist in the medical profession of the developed nations and replicate some to save patients from the mercy of the doctors. It is past time that there should be something called patients rights in the medical profession in Bangladesh and pasted boldly in all medical institutions that doctor should read every day while going to their places of work and coming out of it together with the Hippocratic oath that our doctors have very well forgotten.

On the issue that motivated me to write this piece, the story in The Independent, let something be done as a starter in cleaning the medical waste in front of private and government medical hospitals, clinics and diagnostic centers as a beginning in regulating the medical institutions of the country. The explanation by the DMC that the wastes belong to nearby private clinics is not good enough for it is also its duty to stop those who are disposing such wastes in front of its premises. Let the Government come with a prohibitive fine to stop this criminal menace for it is money that can bring some sense into these unethical businessmen who are giving such a bad name to the noblest of human professions.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and has a blog

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On Remand and Custodial Deaths

Published in The Independent, July 21st , 2010
M. Serajul Islam

In a criminal matter, remand is the grant of a request of the law enforcing agencies to take an accused to custody for questioning when a judge finds there is reason for it after a preliminary hearing. In the context of Bangladesh’s politics however, the word remand has achieved a great deal of notoriety. It is something that stinks. It is to the credit of the Caretaker Government that they have succeeded in making remand so utterly despicable in Bangladesh.

The reason remand has become unacceptable is because during the emergency, people have been tortured on remand to get them to agree to what the law enforcing agencies wanted. There are all sorts of horror stories that people who have been taken on remand have said in the media. Some of the people who have spoken are politicians and individuals of high social and political standing and there is no reason to believe that any of them lied. We are again witnessing the use of remand in the context of high profile individuals and politicians that is bringing back memories of the emergency that to most of us was a nightmare that we prayed would never again come back to haunt us. This has many of us concerned whether we are regressing back to the emergency days.

Remand is a requirement of the law. The prosecution needs to take an accused in custody for questioning to find out facts. But there are a few things happening with remand that does not make sense. In high profile cases, remand is sometimes accompanied by violation of human rights. Some accused are tortured either physically or mentally to break them down to tell the interrogators what they like or want to hear. However, information gathered from the accused under duress, threat or torture can be used in a trial only when recorded later in the presence of a magistrate. The accused will certainly deny such information instead of confessing to it when a magistrate is present. If the accused confesses, then there would be reason to believe that threat has been used by the law enforcing agencies. This makes acquiring information by torture in one form or another difficult to understand as it ultimately does not help prosecute an accused. In the public mind, information revealed by an accused on remand is always taken negatively.

Some of the torture stories on accused on remand make one think about the type of government we have achieved after making so much sacrifice for a democratic government and a democratic social system. These days another burning topic in the country is the number of people dying while in custody of the law. Although such deaths are not related to accused taken on remand, nevertheless these occur in the hands of the same custodians of the law who question and torture accused on remand. This has added a new dimension to apprehension of those whose close ones are granted remand by the judges.

It is good to see that in most recent days, the government has reacted positively to public concerns about deaths of accused people while in custody. In the case of the killing of the auto rickshaw owner of Nayatola last month that had created quite a sensation, five policemen of the Ramna Thana including the Officer-in-Charge have been sued following a case file in the court of the Metropolitan Magistrate. Earlier, four policemen of another police station were also sued for another custodial death. Since the last BNP Government, custodial deaths have become a normal way of doing business by the law enforcing agencies. We have been constantly fed on stories to explain such deaths that only those giving out the stories could believe. Such stories are absurd because the same scenario is depicted in each of the deaths; that the accused is taken to some spot in pursuance of revealing some details of a crime where his accomplices suddenly attack the law enforcing people and in the ensuing “cross-fire”, the accused is killed. While hundreds of such accused are killed one after another in the so-called “cross fires”, the law enforcing agents never suffer even a minor injury! The stories that the law enforcing agencies give to the media on custodial deaths are an insult the intelligence of the public.

To be fair though, there was some kind of acceptance among the public for the custodial deaths when it started because politics has created too many criminals whom the law is unable to punish in the due process. The law enforcing agencies however have gone overboard with the indulgence of the public. It is not that they are killing just the hardened criminals; they are also being accused of killing innocent people for making money as has been revealed in the case of the Nayatola murder. Today, the public opinion is totally against custodial deaths.

How far the Government’s nod to satisfy public concern over custodial deaths will go to deal with a problem that has just not domestic repercussions but international is yet to be seen. The US Ambassador has most recently said that his government is watching custodial deaths with concern. For the short term, custodial deaths will no doubt be less. Action against the police as seen in a few recent instances will restrain the law enforcing agencies but it will be too optimistic to believe that it will go away altogether unless some other steps are taken by the Government. Already, a new dangerous development is taking place; dead bodies are appearing of people who have been in conflict with the law. It is extremely important to investigate whether these are simple cases of murder or whether the law enforcing agencies have any hand in such deaths. The public is inclined to believe the latter. Is something more sinister emerging to replace custodial deaths?

The issue of remand and custodial deaths must be seen in the context of the law for removing the public apprehension of criminality that has come into the process. One way of achieving this would be to ensure that the law enforcing agencies are not allowed to question anyone in custody either on remand or otherwise without the presence of the lawyer of the accused. In legal systems that are matured, the law enforcing agencies have no right to question an accused without his/her lawyer. . We need to have this in our legal system if it is not there. At the same time, we should also amend our laws so that any evidence gathered from an accused without the presence of the lawyer for the accused is not allowed to be produced in court as evidence.

It is politics that has in the first instance made remand and custody such despicable concepts of the law in Bangladesh because the party in power has always encouraged the law enforcing agencies to abuse both, to which the latter then added their own abuse and corruption. It is in the government’s hands to deal with the issues above politics as it is in its interests to do so. Many leaders of AL have suffered miserably on remand during the emergency and they have a duty to set things right because remand serves only vindictiveness and ulterior political motives in the way it is used in Bangladesh. Remand in its current form has made politicians of all our major parties suffer which is another reason why the present government with past experience to guide them should make remand transparent and civilized and free it from abuse by the law enforcing agencies.

In case of the custodial deaths, the ball is entirely in the Government’s court. It is just not that those in whose custody such deaths occur should be sued; till they prove their innocence in a court of law they must be treated no better no worse than the members of the public against whom similar charges are brought. Custodial death is pure evil and a Government with any sense of morality and legality has to banish it to claim that it is civilized. Till transparency is brought to the process of granting remedy and custody, the judges have a major role to play to ensure that the law enforcing agencies remain within the bounds of the law while accused are with them on remand and in custody.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Opening new embassies: The reality

Published in The Daily Star, July 17th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

THE Ministry of Foreign Affairs is seriously contemplating to open a few new embassies. There are also pressures from the country's vibrant private sector for opening new embassies for economic reasons. Sources in the Foreign Ministry have said that the Government has decided to re-open the Embassy in Brazil and open a new one in Sierra Leone.

Bangladesh is a nation of nearly 160 million people. It has an economy whose GDP is now getting close to US$ 100 billion. Nearly 7 million Bangladeshis now live abroad. They have remitted over 10 billion US dollars last year to the country. Its exporters are making significant inroads into the international market. Bangladesh is now a major player in the international RMG trade. To consolidate such gains and make these sustainable, the private sector that is literally leading the engine of the country's economic growth needs all the help it can get. They would surely benefit from the opening of new missions because of the assistance they can provide in their endeavours overseas.

At present, Bangladesh has 46 Embassies/High Commissions. While Bangladesh's GDP has grown many times since the country became independent and the population has more than doubled during this period, the number of Embassies abroad has remained more or less static over the last few decades. Past governments felt no need for increasing the number of Embassies with the massive growth in the size of the GDP and increase in number of Bangladeshis living abroad. In fact, a few embassies have been closed during this period.

Instead of opening new embassies, existing embassies have been systematically weakened over the years for unexplained reasons. In 1996 the AL led government made economic diplomacy the priority in its foreign policy that the BNP government also pursued. It escapes comprehension why both have failed to see the inherent contradiction between weakening an embassy and success in economic diplomacy where a strong embassy is unquestionably held worldwide as a precondition for effective economic diplomacy.

The point would be clear to the reader only when a few facts about how a Bangladeshi Embassy is structured and allowed to operate are examined. Bangladeshi Embassies are grossly understaffed and those serving there are underpaid even when compared to embassies with economies on the same scale. The Embassies are also the most ill organized on a comparative scale for handling economic diplomacy, meaning assisting in expanding exports, enhancing manpower and providing services to expatriates. In the past, the Ambassadors used to be largely drawn from the Foreign Service cadre. They were thus naturally loyal to the Foreign Ministry as were the small number of non-cadre Ambassadors. These days, people outside the cadre are being made Ambassadors in larger numbers and sent to the major diplomatic missions who may not feel inclined to give the same degree of loyalty to the Foreign Ministry. As a consequence, the control of the Foreign Ministry over the Ambassadors, which is necessary for success of diplomacy in general, and economic diplomacy in particular, that is assured everywhere, has been weakened.

There have been recent newspaper reports that henceforth the Cabinet Division would recommend the appointment of Ambassadors, which the Government has not contradicted. If this information were correct, then it would be disastrous for the conduct of diplomacy of Bangladesh in general and economic diplomacy in particular. If it is not, the Foreign Ministry should have contradicted it because the news directly undermines its role and importance.

The above about the Bangladeshi Ambassadors are not the only disturbing news for a Bangladesh Embassy. The officers in the commercial, economic, labour, consular, and press wings in the Bangladesh Embassies come from cadres other than the Foreign Service cadre on a onetime posting. They are sent over without training in diplomacy or language skills, and represent their respective ministry. They often bring to the embassy the well-known conflicts of their respective ministry with the Foreign Ministry, thus creating an environment that does not in any way help in the rational functioning of the embassy. The career diplomats who have the professional diplomatic skills are not allowed to perform economic or commercial functions: they write useless political reports that no one reads and perform protocol work for visiting VIPs and their relatives and friends that serves individual interests but are farthest removed from the interests of the nation.

Today, Bangladesh embassies function according to a prescription for chaos. To expect such an embassy to deliver on the demands of economic diplomacy would be unrealistic. Only the foolhardy would dare to post an officer, untrained in diplomacy, who has been working as a Deputy Commissioner in the District, a Deputy Secretary in a Ministry or as Deputy Commissioner in the Income Tax Department as a Commercial Counsellor to Washington, Tokyo or Beijing and expect the officer to enhance the country's exports. If diplomacy would have been that easy, then countries would not have brought together in their Foreign Service cadre some of the best talents and spent huge resources to train them to become professional diplomats.

Something is seriously amiss. A lot of it come from the way foreign affairs and diplomacy is perceived outside the Foreign Ministry in Bangladesh; that conducting foreign affairs and diplomacy is anybody's job. This is also one reason why conducting foreign affairs in Bangladesh has been fractured and distributed across a number of ministries where the Foreign Ministry does not have a major role. In no country would it seem normal as it is in Bangladesh for the Commerce Minister to say publicly that the Joint Communiqué, which was signed after the Prime Minister's official visit to India in January this year, and which was heralded by the Foreign Minister as a paradigm shift for the betterment in Bangladesh-India relations, has now run into trouble because of inefficiency of the bureaucracy in both the countries. The Commerce Minister would have been somewhat within his territory to criticize his country's bureaucracy; his criticism of the Indian bureaucracy was way out of line in the way diplomacy is conducted between nations. It only reflects the poor standing of the Foreign Ministry in matters of foreign affairs. It is now a routine matter in Bangladesh for other ministers to publicly discuss both major and minor issues of the country's foreign affairs as if the country does not have a Foreign Minister.

The systematic weakening of the Foreign Ministry and the state of affairs in the embassies are very serious issues. Where globalisation has increased the importance of the foreign ministry everywhere, it is not rational that in Bangladesh it is being marginalized. It must first be corrected. Simultaneously, the irrational environment in the embassies must also be corrected. All officers working there must be brought under the unquestionable authority of the ambassador. The ambassador, his/her background and way of appointment notwithstanding, must be brought under the control of the Foreign Ministry. Before these steps are taken to bring Bangladesh's way of conducting foreign affairs and diplomacy in line with principles and norms established in rest of the world, opening new Embassies anywhere would not serve the nation's interests.

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

Friday, July 16, 2010

My Foreign Service Years: Life in a Bangladesh Embassy

Published in The Independent, July 16th;, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

Serving Bangladesh as a diplomat in a foreign country is a difficult task. However, the general perception in Bangladesh about the work of our diplomats abroad is quite the opposite. People tend to think that our diplomats spend a life in luxury contributing very little to the country while being allowed to spend the taxpayers’ money for their own sake.

On the point of luxury, the difference between reality and perception cannot be further apart. For the sake of dignity of the diplomats, it would be unwise and embarrassing to quote any figure about their pay and allowances. It is often said in a lighter vein that a diplomat is sent abroad to lie for his country. On one issue however, a Bangladesh diplomat has to lie through his/her teeth is when a fellow diplomat from another country or foreigners he/she has befriended asks about his/her pay and allowances in the post. Generally, we avoid answering such a question, and muster all our diplomatic skills to do so. When we are forced to quote a figure, we invariably double or treble the amount we are paid by the government to save our own face and that of the country. On my first posting in Canberra as a Second Secretary, I dreaded when this issue was raised with me which was quite often because I had a good number of diplomats from other countries as close friends and in our informal gatherings, it was quite common to discuss our work and work environment.

In New Delhi, where I was posted after my tour of duty in Canberra, we were asked to run an exercise by the High Commissioner on foreign and entertainment allowances diplomats were paid from South Asian countries and countries on the same scale of economy as Bangladesh. The High Commissioner was Air Vice Marshal AK Khandker who went there from Canberra in 1982. When a paper was placed to him, he could not believe the figures he saw. As a High Commissioner, his foreign allowance was less than the Counsellor of most of the Embassies we surveyed and a First Secretary of a South Asian country that is better left un-named! Over the years, the Government has very grudgingly enhanced the foreign and entertainment allowances of the diplomats but such allowances in Embassies of other countries have also increased, keeping the gap which in fact has increased. To suggest that diplomats paid such level of foreign and entertainment allowances live in luxury is a travesty of the truth.

Those who criticize us for our so-called lives of luxury never consider that our diplomats are paid the barest minimum. One of the reasons why the allowances of our diplomats have never been approached rationally has been the fact that those who can do so are government servants themselves. They can never get over the fact that as diplomats we receive a pay package that is a few times more than what they receive at home. It must nevertheless be said that since my Canberra days, new perks have also been included in the allowances package that makes a diplomats’ life more acceptable at present. These days, diplomats receive educational allowances that were not paid when I was posted to Canberra. In the absence of educational allowances those days, diplomats were forced to great hardships in educating their children. Some of us who were educating our children in the best educational institutions at home were forced to either keep our children at home or send them to educational institutions inferior than those at home because we could not afford to send them to good educational institutions in our posts.

The other issue that critics fail to consider while evaluating the work of a Bangladeshi diplomat is how difficult it is for him/her to succeed in representing the country’s interests. Bangladesh is not exactly the most sought after country in stations where our Embassies are located where the interest for spending time for a Bangladesh diplomat is less than if the diplomat seeking the time is from India, England or the United States. In fact, the hosts are lukewarm most of the time when a Bangladeshi diplomat seeks to meet them. It is only by perseverance that we eventually succeed in making the contacts necessary to further the country’s interests. A Bangladeshi diplomat thus has to work much harder for making the contacts and achieving the results that diplomats representing countries that are important to the hosts have it readymade for them. However, once we make the contacts, we have always found the hosts both eager and impressed with Bangladesh because they seldom think about Bangladesh or look at it the way we are able to represent it to them. In representing Bangladesh, our history, particularly the sacrifices we have made for our liberation, our sacrifice to establish our language; and our rich culture and cuisine are always extremely useful.

Unfortunately, we are just not constantly criticized as diplomats by our own people; those criticizing us are most of the time oblivious to the fact that we are not given the support we require to represent the positive sides of Bangladesh in countries where we have representation. Bangladesh practically spends nothing on external publicity and image building and seldom sends cultural delegations/exhibitions abroad to expose the rich culture and traditions of the country. On my first tour of duty to Canberra, I would regularly be invited by embassies of countries in South Asia to performances of cultural troops and exhibitions from their countries but was never able to reciprocate that often embarrassed me. Such visits allow the diplomats to represent his/her country’s culture, history and traditions as well as make the important contacts for furthering national interests. We are deprived of this support that makes our work of representing our country more difficult. In the absence of such support from home, our Embassies manage cultural events/exhibitions with their own resources and with the assistance of the expatriate Bangladeshi community which does not even scratch the potentials that cultural troupes/exhibitions coming from home can achieve for Bangladesh’s image and its interests. During my Canberra days, we did a lot of such locally arranged functions, exhibitions, etc. I always felt sad that at our Government’s total lack of interest to assist the Bangladesh Embassies in such efforts as other countries did for their Embassies. In fact, it is strange but true that our Government feels that money spent in such efforts is a waste!

Such a view has been one reason why Bangladesh has not succeeded in countering its persistently poor image problem which has not always been based on facts. Bangladesh Embassies can effectively counter part of the problem if they are given the assistance and the resources needed to market Bangladesh’s rich culture, history and traditions. There are countries all over the world, including in our own region, that spend more money and resources on external publicity and image building alone than what Bangladesh spends in running its Embassies abroad. It is indeed a pity that those responsible for our foreign policy fail to see the importance and potential of marketing Bangladesh’s rich culture and traditions through the Embassies.

The High Commission did not have any press/economic/ commercial officer while I was posted in Canberra. Majority of Bangladesh Embassies have no press officer. All such work in Canberra fell on my lap. I found that the press in Canberra had little interest in Bangladesh except when calamity struck the country. I found the same to be true in all the other stations to which I have been posted in later years. Such lack of interest notwithstanding, personal contacts sometimes made it possible to get positive news and articles published in the host country’s media. For such efforts to succeed, positive developments in Bangladesh are always a great help which is unfortunately seldom the case. In my Canberra days, we were able to receive extremely positive press coverage in the Australian media when Bangladesh announced its Drug Policy early in the Ershad years for which Dr. Zafarullah Chowdhury had worked a great deal. In Canberra, we also formed a press and information corps of diplomats from a number of countries that we named the Press and Information and Cultural Corps of Australia (PICCA) through which I was able to represent Bangladesh to some extent in Canberra. In one event of PICCA, we were able to bring then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser that was a major media event in Canberra.

In those days, the Australian National University used to run a master’s degree programme for Bangladeshi government officers in development economics. Government officers also attended the ANU under other programmes. During my stay in Canberra, officers of the erstwhile CSP cadre AKM Jalauddin, Abdul Haroon Pasha and Ezaz Ahmed (sadly, now no more) were studying in ANU. They were good company and made life in the lonely city of Canberra a little more fun than it was otherwise. There was also a steady flow of many others from the Universities whom I knew who came to Canberra during my tenure and added spice to life in an otherwise dull post.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt. He has a blog

Friday, July 9, 2010

Myanmar: Hope for democracy fades

The Daily Star; July 10th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

FOR the developed nations that presume they have the responsibility to spread democracy around the world, Aung Saan Suu Kyi is a living proof of their failure to uphold the cause of democracy in Myanmar. The 65th birthday of the Noble Laureate on 19th June was another reminder to the guardians of democracy that the generals continue to keep her under house arrest in Yangon for nearly 15 years. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), overwhelmingly won Myanmar's last democratic election held 20 years ago but the generals did not want to hand power to an elected government. In many capitals round the world, individuals and rights activists celebrated her birthday while condemning the military junta. Such groups have been observing her birthday every year with no effect on the junta at all.

The developed nations must bear a lot of responsibility for the fate of Aung Saan Suu Kyi and democracy in Myanmar because they have not matched the passion and the conviction of these groups and more importantly, have not fully backed the courageous movement of the NLD, whose leaders have faced threats of all kinds, including incarceration without recourse to the law. Instead, they imposed economic sanctions that were of no particular effect and made toothless diplomatic efforts to deal with the junta. Since President Obama took office, his administration decided to follow the path of “pragmatic engagement” to deal with the junta. These efforts have encouraged the junta to deal with them on their terms. They announced that Myanmar's next parliamentary elections would be held later this year but also ensured that Suu Kyi would not qualify to participate. The junta used the case of a US national who swam the lake to Suu Kyi's house, apparently on his own to convey to her a message that her life was in danger; that went to trial and earned her an extension on her house arrest.

The NLD decided not to register as a political party and thus gave up its right to participate in the next elections as required by Myanmar's election laws. Early this month, it disbanded the party acknowledging the futility of continuing as long as the junta lasted because it felt that under the military junta, the party had no chance whatever of winning. It is a pity that one of the most committed movements for establishment of democracy of our times had to end the way it has. Its decision not to register and wind up has been a conscious one taken to snub the military junta because without the NLD's participation, the forthcoming elections in Myanmar will not gain the legitimacy that the junta wants. The NLD has also decided to disband itself to stir the conscience of the developed world to the way it has watched a vibrant movement for democracy snuffed out of its life without doing much.

In an age where military dictatorships have become history everywhere, the military junta of Myanmar did not just prevail; it outlasted successive western leaders and their governments who had opposed them by remaining in power for over 20 years now and are getting stronger. A lawyer representing the Noble Laureate told the media that she wants the NLD to continue serving the people of Myanmar by doing social work for them. A leader of NLD told the media that by disbanding, it was losing a battle but not the war as it will continue to remain active by doing social work for the people of Myanmar. Others in the party's leadership expressed views that with the current leadership getting advanced in years (Aung Saan Suu Kyi's Deputy U Tin Oo is 82), there is need to pass on the baton to the large crop of young members of the NLD. These young members have joined the movement in recent years and they would be able to take up the fight for establishing democracy in Myanmar in the future. Such optimisms notwithstanding, the chances of Myanmar achieving a democratic government and society have been pushed back indefinitely.

President Obama has called for the unconditional release of Aung Saan Suu Kyi from her house arrest. The UN Secretary General and other world leaders also joined the US President in the call. However, these calls or sanctions or pragmatic engagement will not change the attitude of the Myanmar generals. The die has been cast on democracy in Myanmar. The generals have decided to follow the footsteps of the military generals of history who have tried to become civilian leaders by electing themselves and their collaborators to form the garb of a democratic government and keep power perpetually. The Myanmar generals, however, have a few things running in their favour and may not as easily meet the fate of other dictators of history. There is no single general who has a personal whim or wishes involving Myanmar; it is a united junta that is thrashing democracy there. The presence of a good number of secessionist movements in the country has given the military junta a strong rationale to remain in power since 1962. Their long tenure in power and unity in their midst have also helped the junta face public opposition, like the one from the NLD, far better than other military dictatorships in history that have eventually fallen to popular uprisings.

The never ending house arrest of Aung Saan Suu Kyi and the disbanding of the NLD are not the only bad news about Myanmar. Facts are coming to light about the reclusive regime's nuclear ambitions that should send a chill down the spines of the guardians of democracy. Myanmar severed diplomatic ties with North Korea in 1983 when North Korean agents tried to assassinate the South Korean President while he was on a state visit to Myanmar. It began secret liaison with North Korea not long after the present military junta came to power in 1988. By 2006 it felt confident enough to resume public diplomatic ties with North Korea, leading analysts to think an evil nexus was developing. The Economist in its June 12th edition has given some details on Myanmar's overt and covert North Korean links based on leaks from a defector from Myanmar's military who worked in the missiles program; the report suggests a clear intent by Myanmar to possess nuclear weapons. Reports on the subject have appeared in other leading world dailies hinting the same. The Myanmar generals are seeking the nuclear option as they do not feel fully secure from external aggression without nuclear weapons.

The signals emanating from Myanmar are thus depressing for a world striving for peace and democracy. It is time for those who are pursuing these ideals globally to focus more positively and with the same intent with which they have pursued or are pursuing dictators and dictatorial regimes in other parts of the world. The Obama administration's “pragmatic engagement" with the military junta has been followed by the NLD disbanding itself. President Obama's call for release of Aung Saan Suu Kyi is also not likely to have any effect. It is time for the USA and its allies to re-think their strategy in dealing with Myanmar generals and at the same time look into the regime's nuclear ambitions. A nuclear-armed Myanmar would be too dangerous to contemplate.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.
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Monday, July 5, 2010

Is Politics forcing reforms in Awami League?

Published in The Independent, July 5th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

An article on Bangladesh in The Economist’s June 12-18 issue has not been complimentary. It said that politics has again become “personal, vindictive and confrontational” as if the 2 years of the emergency never took place. In the critical piece, there was not even the proverbial silver lining in the cloud. There is of course no reason to take the article as authoritative. Its confident prediction that the incumbent would win the Chittagong mayoral election easily was utterly incorrect and he lost it by a humiliating margin.

Politics in the country nevertheless is back to its old form. The Awami League is competing hard to prove that it can do better on all counts for which it had criticized the BNP during its last term in power. The way the daily Amar Desh has been stopped from its work and its Editor incarcerated has done little to give Bangladesh the democratic image it so badly needs for attracting foreign direct investment for its economic development. Hartal, the mortal enemy of the economy, has returned and although the public sentiment has largely crystallized against it, there was a quiet acceptance among the people that there is little they can do to stop its resurgence so long as the Government fails to deliver on the promises it has made for winning the elections.

There are a few long term dangers looming very prominently in the political horizon of Bangladesh. The failure of the Awami League to control the Bangladesh Chatra League (BCL) has embedded in it many issues that need serious consideration to determine the direction in which the country is going. The BCL started showing its ugly fangs very early in this term of the AL leading the Prime Minister to severe her connections with it as its chief patron. Her anger and action had no effect and instead the BCL increased its evil activities with more vigour to show that they are not ready to pay heed to her anger. Thereafter some AL leaders claimed that the BCL’s evil activities were being carried out by elements belonging to the Jatiyatabadi Chatra Dal, the student wing of the BNP and the Chatra Shibir, the student wing of the Jamat who they claimed have “infiltrated” to take over top positions in the BCL that no one believed.

In very recent times, the BCL leaders have beaten up authorities in the government colleges to force them to give a percentage of seats for admission to them that they could trade for money to students who would otherwise not be admitted on merit. In one instance, they beat up the Principal of a Government College who was unwilling to accept their atrocious demand. The BCL also beat up pro-Hartal activists belonging to the BNP that led the AL General Secretary to announce in the media that the AL had no connections with the BCL! The BCL has been a student wing of the AL till this dramatic statement of the General Secretary. The AL leaders, including the Prime Minister and the General Secretary of the Part,y have themselves come from the BCL to the AL as a matter of intra-party mobility and they have, including the rest of the AL leadership, all taken pride of their membership in the BCL. In fact, as an unwritten norm, leadership in the BCL has always been considered a major credential for a major position in the AL. The General Secretary’s statement has thus come as a major surprise to everybody, including many in the party itself. Questions are being raised whether the AL has formally abandoned student politics and has severed the umbilical cord between it and the BCL. The Joint Secretary of the party has publicly questioned the General Secretary over the statement and said that the AL cannot absolve itself of its responsibilities for the illegal activities of the BCL.

The publicly aired difference of opinion over the illegal activities of the BCL is unusual in Bangladesh’s politics. The fact that the BCL has not ceased its illegal activities even after the Prime Minister’s repeated warnings is also strange. The concerns expressed by some AL leaders over the actions of the law enforcing agencies at the residence of the BNP leader Mirza Abbas is also equally unusual. It is not the first time that law enforcing agencies have shown over enthusiasm for their political masters. It is however for first time that a senior party leader not in Government has openly criticized such over-enthusiasm and that too in the Parliament. It is also for the first time that the candidate that the Prime Minister backed in Chittagong election did not receive the wholehearted support from the party that was one of the major reasons for his humiliating defeat.

Looking at these developments, one could however argue that politics is forcing the AL to change for the better where dissent expressed openly is not yet causing any reprisal. If the decision not to acknowledge the BCL as a part of the AL is correct, then the logical conclusion is that the AL is giving up using students for their political objectives. This could be the answer to prayers of many people in the country to end the criminalization of the public educational institutions and save the future of the nation. If the difference of opinion between the General Secretary and the Joint Secretary over the BCL is indeed one expressed in pursuance of a key democratic principle that dissent is inherent in democratic behaviour, then this could signal a paradigm shift in AL’s style of politics.

On reality check, however, it would be naïve to conclude that the unusual developments are positive signs for Bangladesh’s politics. In fact, history and nature of our politics points in an ominous direction. The link between the BCL and the AL is too deep to be severed by a curt statement in the media by the party’s General Secretary. The BCL leaders who are not listening to the demands of the Prime Minister have no reason to accept the decision of the General Secretary either because they could be drawing strength and inspiration from within the party that the top leadership is trying to ignore and push under the table. In forming the cabinet, the AL has sidetracked senior leaders because during the emergency they are alleged to have worked for change in the top position in the party. These leaders have their own following in the party that they have painstakingly built over many decades and their links with the BCL are the strongest because in their younger days, they have been top leaders of the BCL themselves. The recent unusual developments could mean that dissent is growing in the AL or besides those that have been demonstrated publicly, there are strong murmurs of dissent in private; something so long considered impossible in any of the two mainstream parties but necessary for democracy. However, if this is indeed dissent; the way it is happening and the reason behind it could lead to more conflicts within the party and hinder democracy instead of strengthening it.

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

Friday, July 2, 2010

Life in Bangladesh Embassy: Handling VVIP Visits

Published in The Independent, July 2nd., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

Handling a visit of a Head of State/Government, commonly called a VVIP visit, is a very important event in the work of an Embassy. For Bangladesh where most of our Embassies have skeleton staff, such a visit creates pressure that tests fully the abilities and capabilities of the diplomats. In case of such a visit, it is easier for an embassy to deal with one that takes place bilaterally because in such a visit, the host government takes care of a great deal of hassles connected with the guests. In a multilateral visit, the responsibility for making arrangements for the delegation such as accommodation, transport, etc, falls almost entirely on the participating country and by default, on the Embassy of that country.

My experience with handling a VVIP visit came within a very short time of my posting to the High Commission in Canberra. The event was the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that was held in Melbourne in September-October, 1981. For handling the Bangladesh delegation to that meeting, the High Commissioner AVM Khandker, the Counsellor Mrs. Hosne Ara Karim and I had to move to Melbourne ahead of the meeting. While handling a multilateral visit is in itself quite a difficult task, the fact that we had to deal with the meeting in another city far away from where the Embassy was located made the task of attending the Melbourne CHOGM extra difficult.

One disquieting fact about Bangladesh delegation’s participation at an event such as CHOGM is the matter of accommodation. In case of the Melbourne CHOGM, the Hilton Hotel was designated as the official hotel for the delegates. Unfortunately, the charges of staying in that hotel were way out of range in the context of what the Government paid the members of the Bangladesh delegation. As a consequence, the High Commission had to arrange the accommodation of most of the members at a cheaper hotel located close to the Hilton. There was one good experience that I had while attending CHOGRM. In the hotel we were staying, we all shared rooms and it was my good fortune to share a room with Dr. Farashuddin Ahmed, at that time a senior officer in the External Resources Division and much later the Governor of Bangladesh Bank. I found him a thorough professional, fully prepared with the items he was supposed to deliberate upon in the Conference at the officials’ level. I could not say the same of those who came from the Foreign Ministry who did not seem to have much focus on what Bangladesh would do with its participation in the Meeting.

Of course, it was not entirely the fault of the Foreign Ministry that it appeared so disjointed and without focus at the Melbourne CHOGM. The politics in the country at that time was largely responsible for the state of affairs. Just before the CHOGM, President Ziaur Rahman was assassinated that left Justice Abdus Sattar as the President. Due to his ailing health, he nominated Shah Azizur Rahman, the Prime Minister, to head the Bangladesh delegation. The decision to let the Prime Minister lead the delegation was however taken quite late when Shamsul Huq, the Foreign Minister, had left for New York enroute to Melbourne. At the time his departure, the Foreign Minister was aware that he would lead the Bangladesh delegation to CHOGM and the decision to let the Prime Minister lead the delegation was taken while he was in New York. Thus when the Foreign Minister arrived in Melbourne, he was not a happy man. The consequences of his unhappiness fell on the overall performance of the Bangladesh delegation because the Prime Minister who had no experience in the task that was placed on his shoulder was left practically to himself. He thus was relegated into a non-performing leader of a country delegation to CHOGM.

Our High Commissioner to London ARS Doha was also a member of the Bangladesh delegation as traditionally in all CHOGM Meetings, the diplomat holding that position is always included in the Bangladesh delegation. ARS Doha and the Foreign Minister did not get along well that caused another tension in the Bangladesh delegation that was already fractured because of the under currents between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister. In the midst of all of that was the High Commissioner, AK Khandker. At a personal level, he is the best person I have served in my entire career. His qualities as a human being are worthy of the highest respect. His patriotism is also of the highest class which of course goes without question as he was the second in command of the liberation forces during our war of liberation. When I joined the High Commission, AK Khandker was already in that post for over four years during which he had developed contacts in the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade at very important levels. He could have been extremely helpful for the Bangladesh delegation. But that was not to be the case because the delegation had little, if any, use for his experience and his influence.

Although my first experience in handling a Bangladesh delegation as an officer in an Embassy was not a happy one, it nevertheless allowed be to have glimpses of some of the outstanding world leaders of the time who attended the Melbourne CHOGM. There was Indira Gandhi from India, Jules Nyerere from Tanzania and strange as my comment may seem now, there was Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe who was one of the stars of the Melbourne CHOGM having led Zimbabwe to independence in 1979. Although those days security was not such a major issue as it is now, I witnessed one security related incident that still impresses me. The Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was passing through security when she was stopped because she did not have the security pin. As she stood aside, the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser came by and inquired whether the Indian Prime Minister was having any problem. We were watching what was happening from a little distance and we saw the two stand aside as other Heads of delegations passed by. In a few minutes, an aide of Indira Gandhi came with her security pin and then she was allowed into the conference! I wondered what would have happened if a case like that happened in Bangladesh. Which security guard would have dared stop a visiting Head of Government with our Prime Minister with him in Bangladesh?

In 1982, I was involved with another VVIP delegation. That one was to the Commonwealth Regional Heads of Government Regional Meeting (CHOGRM) in Fiji . Fiji is under concurrent accreditation of the High Commissioner to Australia. By that time, AK Khandker was replaced by Harun-ur-Rashid who joined the Canberra mission from his post as Ambassador to Nepal. In the country, Ershad had successfully removed through a military coup the elected President Justice Sattar and installed himself as the CMLA. The Fiji meeting was his first overseas trip on assuming power. I arrived in Fiji as part of an advance delegation as did Waliur Rahman, then a Director General in the Foreign Ministry. We called on the editor of Fiji’s leading English daily and Waliur Rahman impressed him enough for the paper to carry a lead story about General Ershad the next day that we placed at the General’s suite so that he would not fail to see as soon as he stepped to his suite upon arrival in Fiji. I remember calling the VVIP delegation that was in Sydney on way to Fiji because Waliur Rahman wanted to talk with a member of the delegation. I asked the girl at the exchange to put me to a member of the delegation and she put me through to General Ershad. He was very polite and courteous and understood that I had mistakenly called him. Waliur Rahman who understood the mix up quickly took the phone from my hand, apologized profusely for disturbing the President and then they continued a conversation that surprised me because he seemed to know General Ershad very well judging by the nature of the conversation.

ARS Doha was also part of that delegation but as the Foreign Minister. He was very close to the President. It amused me a lot to see him there at CHOGRM, dictating everything, and to compare with his participation in Melbourne where he was marginalized his position as High Commissioner to London notwithstanding. There was also a young army officer in the delegation who was a dreaded name with the civil bureaucracy because of his way of dealing with its members. I could see from where he derived his influence because I found him discussing a subject with the President that had my ears turning red while we assembled for the President’s lunch for the Commonwealth Secretary General Sir Sridhat Ramphal and was waiting for him to arrive. A Major General who was on the delegation caught me in the stairs of the Hotel where the President was staying one day after midnight to ask me if I ever rested because he said he saw me running all the time. I smiled while dying to tell him that I could not rest so that delegates like him could have a holiday while being part of the Bangladesh delegation. Such travelers in VVIP delegations were increased manifold as President Ershad established himself in power later; a trend that democratic governments have carried later.

On way home, the President made a stopover for a night in Sydney. Our Counsellor Hosne Ara Karim who did not go to Fiji arranged a meeting for the President with local Bangladeshis without clearing it with the High Commissioner. On way to Fiji, the President was heckled by Bangladeshis in Singapore for the military coup. He was therefore infuriated that an officer of the High Commission had arranged such a meeting without approval. The Foreign Minister ordered her recall to Dhaka. Abul Ahsan who was then the Additional Foreign Secretary and was a member of the delegation spent a good couple of hours calming down the Foreign Minister to get Mrs. Karim the reprieve.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Egypt and Japan.