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.