Friday, August 27, 2010

End of US combat mission in Iraq?

The Daily Star, August 28th.; 2010
M. Serajul Islam

US President Barak Obama made a historical statement on 2nd August. He announced that the US combat operations in Iraq would be over by August 31st that would end US's 7 years war in Iraq. His predecessor had signed an agreement with the Iraqi government that all US troops would come back by end of 2011. The incumbent President had penned an addition to that agreement that US would bring back all combat troops by 31st August of this year. Under that agreement 50,000 non-combat troops would remain in Iraq to train and assist Iraqi security forces and the rest of the 1,40,000 US troops, all involved in combat, would return home.

The subdued response in the United States to a historical decision to end combat operations and effectively US's war in Iraq is somewhat surprising. It reflects the fact that the troops are not returning home with victory won decisively. In fact, there are many who would question if a victory has been won at all. President Bush had gone to Iraq on flawed and manipulated intelligence. In the beginning, the rationale was destroying Weapons of Mass Destruction WMD in Iraq. When that was established as a lie as Iraq did not have any WMD, getting rid of the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein or regime change became the new rationale. When that too was achieved, the US found itself mired in fighting insurgency where the major ethnic/religious groups were fighting one another and extremists and fundamentalists, fighting the US occupation force. The US named this third phase as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” as a reason to occupy Iraq.

President Bush who had declared “mission accomplished” within seven months of the war in December 2003 on board an US aircraft carrier soon regretted his mistake as Iraq went up in flames where death and destruction became a routine matter with insurgency everywhere in the country. Till the time of President Obama's announcement on withdrawal of troops, 4,400 US men and women in uniform gave their lives for achieving the changing rationales of the war. Many times more than that number, in fact running into hundreds of thousand, innocent Iraqi men, women and children have also died in what has been insensitively described in the media as “collateral damage”.

It is just not these deaths that have made US's involvement in Iraq a questionable one; the amount of money spent in Iraq by the United States is also mind-boggling. According to a Congress Budget office report in January 2008, the Congress wrote checks worth US$ 691 billion for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and such related activities as Iraq reconstruction. The misfortunes of poverty, disease and denial of minimum conditions of life for billions in Africa and Asia would have become history if the US had spent even a part of that money there instead of Iraq.

It is true that Saddam Hussein has been tried and hanged; his entire gang of close associates have also been likewise brought to face the law and many have been executed. The Baath party of Saddam Hussein has been banned. Iraq has meanwhile seen two elections where political parties and groups have fought in a democratic spirit, although such parties and alliances have been formed primarily on the basis of the country's religious and ethnic basis, thus strengthening these divides. When the first of the two elections was held in 2005, the voters came out and voted with a lot of hopes and aspirations. Nevertheless, it took three months for a government to be formed, bringing to the surface the extreme difficulties of forging alliances in a country as deeply divided as Iraq.

This time, the follow up on the elections has been more disappointing. The elections were held in March. The Iraqi National Alliance led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won 91 seats; the State of Law Coalition led by incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki won 89 seats; the National Iraqi alliance 70 and the Kurdish alliance 40 seats in a parliament of 325 seats. The alliances have been negotiating for the last five months and they are nowhere near forming a Government. The US that had hoped to hand over combat operations to Iraqi security forces under a new Government must be deeply disappointed. President Obama's statement that the 50,000 troops who would remain in Iraq till the end of 2011--for what he described as training and support jobs--has now been qualified. A Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell said in Washington after the President's announcement that the non-combat troops would be armed and ready for combat operations in case of necessity.

The time of exit nevertheless has been a favourable one for the US President. After the surge of 2007 when under President Bush, combat troops were substantially enhanced; insurgency has been to a great extent controlled. These days, insurgency being witnessed has been described as a low grade insurgency that the US feels could be controlled by the over 500,000 Iraqi security forces trained by the US forces. There is also discussion to bring combat troops from the Arab countries to fill the gap to be left by the departing US combat troops.

Some of these facts suggest that although political situation has improved considerably in Iraq under 7 years of US occupation, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” to take a quote out of Hamlet. Iraq watchers are keeping their fingers crossed to find out whether insurgency would be contained after the US withdraws from combat operations. There are many who would argue that the US combat troops have been able to bring down insurgency only in specific areas of the country. They feel insurgency would flare up once the US combat troops withdraw.

Those who fear the worst in Iraq once Iraqi security forces take control argue that Iraq's deep-rooted ethnic and religious divides create the natural conditions for conflict. They feel that the US by its presence in the country for long 7 years has not been able to blunt in any way these differences. In fact, they argue that the occupation has enhanced these differences and once US withdraws, these divides would lead to dangerous and sectarian conflicts. They further argue that Iraq has never been a nation state and strong dictatorships like that of Saddam Hussein have kept it as an independent country.

The Obama administration may have sensed these problems and thought it's prudent to leave Iraq's security to Iraqis and till final withdrawal, watch how Iraqis fend for themselves without losing any more lives. This may be also a reason why he has refrained from claiming victory. Iraq may be on course to prove what some people have said earlier that Iraq's religious and ethnic divides create the conditions for a strong dictatorial government where democracy may not be the right prescription till elements of Iraqi nationalism emerge and consolidate. That is a long distance away by any count. The future of “Operation New Dawn” as the US has named the new phase is therefore, uncertain.

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

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Govt’s knee-jerk reaction to traffic problem

The Independent,
Post Editorial
Sunday, 22 August 2010 00:07
Author / Source : M. Serajul Islam
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The Government's sudden decision to close down the schools during Ramzan is a classical example of a knee-jerk reaction to a very serious problem. Obviously, it was the result of some wise men in the Government waking up suddenly to offer solution to Dhaka's unbearable traffic congestion knowing that the Prime Minister is upset and angry over it. The only problem in such knee-jerk reaction is that government does not work that way, or the traffic. Like all previous initiatives of the authorities to tackle Dhaka's traffic problems, and there have been quite a good number, this latest knee-jerk reaction will also have only a small effect to Dhaka's traffic woes that have crossed the limits. In fact, I have found very little respite to my own owes on the road after the decision of the Government to close all schools for Ramzan. Area wise, this may have some positive effect, like in Dhanmandi which has become a hub of schools/clinics/shopping malls and cannot any longer be called a Residential Area. I reside in Gulshan and I travel to Motijheel every day. My travel time to and back from Motijheel has increased after the latest decision of the authorities to manage traffic. Strangely, after every effort of the government to ease traffic, traffic problems have aggravated. Every day, I pass the new connecting road from Tejgoan to the VIP Road near old Rangs Bhavan that was supposed to ease traffic. However, thanks to the new road, I have to spend 5 minutes each way to Motijheel and back for letting traffic move into this new road and out of it into the Tejgoan Road.

One cannot blame the authorities for not trying to tackle Dhaka's traffic problems. Very recently, the Prime Minister expressed her serious concern about Dhaka's worsening traffic problems at a Cabinet Meeting. This was also not the first time she has shown such concern. Initiatives after initiatives have been taken by this government since it came to office. While such initiatives have grown in arithmetical progression; the problems have grown in geometrical progression. One reason for this is the fact that the authorities have themselves contributed to aggravate traffic problems. Gulshan is as an example where certain authorities of the government are creating problems much faster than other authorities trying to resolve traffic problems. It is just a matter of time before Gulshan Avenue is declared unfit for traffic. The mindless and senseless permission being given by Rajuk for building multi-storied buildings on the Avenue that will house big corporate businesses, shopping malls, hotels and what not will increase manifold the already totally unmanageable traffic on the avenue. After these new businesses start their operations, the fate of the Avenue will be beyond reprieve. One does not need a crystal ball or to be a traffic management expert to predict the impending disaster awaiting Gulshan Avenue.

There is another strange aspect to the Gulshan Avenue that should amaze the readers. When traffic is of such nature on the avenue where the residents fear going out into the road more than they fear going into a rat infested room, the police authorities of all have thought it prudent to build at the southern tip of the avenue a mega shopping plaza. It is just not the traffic aspect of this plaza that should worry any sensible person, the fact that it is being built on what is no doubt part of Dhaka's wet land is what makes this project unbelievable. Next door to the police plaza, the authorities have given permission to one of Dhaka's major departmental store chains to open a branch. The shooting club community centre is about to become another mega departmental store but with little parking facility except on the Gulshan Avenue. The result of these two structures when they are ready for business will be a nightmare for travelers between Gulshan Avenue and the city centre. They would have to pray to the Almighty to cross the deep jungle of traffic that the city authorities are about to "present" them shortly. The new road that is being built around the Hatirjheel may not be much help either.

The mindlessness and senselessness of the authorities in permitting high rises on the Gulshan Avenue has been their inability to comprehend, willingly or otherwise, the number of cars and vehicles these new businesses would bring to Gulshan Avenue's jungle of traffic. With the Police Plaza and the new departmental store yet to come into operation, it takes me sometimes 10 minutes to come a few hundred meters from Road number 4 to the Avenue because the headquarters of such big private institutions such as BRAC and Banglalink have already turned the lives of residents into a mess. Traffic from these businesses uses the Gulshan Avenue as their legitimate parking area! In fact, road numbers 1, part of 2 and the whole of 3 have been turned into "official" parking space for those who do business or work in the corporate houses on the southern tip of Gulshan Avenue. Recently, as I was waiting to get to the Gulshan Avenue, I could not check my anger that part of the delay in movement of the traffic was due to cars that had double parked at the mouth of Road Number 3 as it falls into the Avenue with a policeman standing near these offending cars. As traffic was not moving, I came out of my car and asked the policeman why he was ignoring such a criminal violation. He pointed me to a traffic sergeant who was nearby. When I went to talk to him, he just casually told me not to worry and things would be taken care of! I knew it would not be as there is a connivance there; a connivance of corruption. Recently, the municipality is improving roads 1, 2 and 3 of Gulshan. It will not serve traffic movement but will be of better use for illegal parking of cars and more income for the traffic police lucky to be posted there.

My banker was very supportive of the closure of schools during Ramzan not for sake of improving traffic but for the positive impact it will have on his family. He told me that his wife who fasts has been having a very difficult time coping up with fasting, praying and then having to get up early to take their son to school. She was practically not getting any sleep at all. The news of closure of schools came as a heaven sent gift to her. After all every cloud has a silver lining; only in case of the cloud called traffic of Dhaka, the silver lining is just too thin with more threatening clouds in the horizon!

(The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt)

Friday, August 20, 2010

President Obama backs mosque near Ground Zero

The Daily Star, 21st August, 2001
M. Serajul Islam

AT an event in the White House marking the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, President Obama defended the right of the Muslims to build a 13 storey cultural center and a mosque to be named Cordoba House at a stone's throw from Ground Zero. Ever since the news of this project became known, various groups and politicians have vehemently opposed the project. Sarah Palin called the project a stab in the heart of the families of the victims of 9/11. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich called the project “an assertion of Islamist triumphalism”. One protester's billboard read: “Islam builds mosque at site of their conquests.”

The US President gave his support for the project in the presence of US Congressmen, government officials and diplomats, stressing unequivocally that denying the project would contradict US' commitment to religious freedom. The President highlighted what the opponents of the project have avoided mentioning; that the project would in fact be a short distance away from the hallowed Ground Zero and on private land that is subject to local laws. The President further said that the United States welcomes people of all faith to live in the country and the law treats all religious groups as equal. Hence, he said, the project must have the green light of the concerned authorities just like any other project of any religious community in the USA.

The White House had initially hesitated getting involved in an extremely sensitive issue. It had left it to the local authority ever since a New York developer had announced plans for the project and controversy erupted over it immediately. Among the few notable politicians who did not oppose the project has been the New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. After its initial hesitation, President Obama backed the project with clear understanding of what the US stands for and the values it preaches in its contacts with the international community. He said America's religious tolerance sets it apart from “its enemies” and it is on the basis of that tolerance, the project must be given official approval.

There was one particular reference that made the President's support for the mosque at Ground Zero both refreshing and full of promise. To his audience at the White House, the President said, “Al Qaeda's cause is not Islam…It is a gross distortion of Islam”. In the days, months and years till President Bush left office, the US and its allies had lumped Al Qaeda, Islam and all the Muslims of the world into one; holding them responsible for the 3,000 deaths in the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. In Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands of innocent Muslim men, women and children paid the price because the administration of George Bush felt that the followers of Islam must pay for the actions of few dozens of Al Qaeda. At the height of insensitivity, his administration called the death of these hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims as “collateral damage.” Looking back in retrospect into those days, one cannot but draw many unfortunate conclusions from President Bush's reference to the word “crusade” that he blurted out to the media in giving his first reaction on 9/11.

For years, it was not the Iraqis and the Afghans who were called day in and day out to answer for the crimes of Al Qaeda. The name “Mohammad” which millions of Muslim men all over the world use as their first name became a hassle for travelling to the USA and for those living in that country. Another first name “Abu” became equally suspect because a few of the 9/11 hijackers had “Abu” as their first name. Even kids were stopped at airports and questioned who had such a first name. Very few Muslims have travelled by air in the USA and to the country since 9/11 without fear of being put to security screening that made such travelling a nightmare. The sad aspect of facing such nightmares has been the fact that the Muslim world was deeply hurt and angered by the acts of 9/11. Many Muslim countries supported the US and allied attack of Afghanistan in pursuit of the Al Qaeda.

In June last year, President Obama had given his historic speech in Cairo extending US' hand of friendship to the Muslim world in an attempt to bridge the deep divide his predecessor had inserted between the West and Islam like he was following on Professor Huntington's prophecy of the clash of civilizations. In the early 1990s, this Harvard Political Scientist had evolved the thesis that in the post Cold War era, people's cultural and religious identities would be the primary source of conflict. Under President Bush, it looked all but inevitable that the clash of civilizations had begun; a clash that had the potentials of grave consequences for the world. With the presidency of President Obama, that doomsday prediction seems to have been averted. Most recently, he has kept his election pledge to end the US occupation of Iraq by handing Iraq back to the Iraqis. Although he has been forced to increase troops in Afghanistan, he had little option but to accept his Commander in Afghanistan General McCrystal's recommendation of fighting Taliban resurgence. Recently, he has sacked the General and replaced with General Petraeus who as Commanding General of Multi National Forces in Iraq, has been credited for turning the tide in that country. In Iran, the President has kept his promise to seek a solution on the nuclear issue through negotiations, in the process inching away from the preparations that were made by his predecessor for an armed intervention there.

President Obama is living up to the promises for which just not the USA but the world, particularly the Muslim world, had hoped he would win the election for the White House. On the Palestinian issue he has not yet lived up to the expectations of the Muslims. Nevertheless, they feel that he would do the right thing for settling the Palestinian cause eventually; namely ensure they are free and have a state with East Jerusalem as the capital. For the moment, his firm stand on the mosque on Ground Zero has assured Muslims that under his watch, they can hope to receive fair treatment and not victimized simply for being a Muslim.

The President's support has come when elections to the Congress are due in three months and the Democrats are in a tight corner. He has thus placed ethics and principles ahead of politics that not enhances his credibility to the Muslims only but also his stature as a statesman to the rest of the world.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign

My Foreign Service Years: MY High Commissioners

The Independent
Friday, 20 August 2010 22:42
Author / Source : M. Serajul Islam

An Ambassador's role in an Embassy has no parallel in terms of authority and power. A colleague from a western Embassy had told me how he and his wife had to wait in the kitchen, all dressed up, as stand-by in case any of the guests at the sit-down dinner of his Ambassador failed to turn up at the eleventh hour! In our service too, many junior diplomats were scared out of their wits in trying to please the Ambassador. There was an Ambassador of the old vintage who expected his officers to arrive for dinner at the appointed time, not a minute early and not definitely a minute late. His officers with their wives used to arrive ahead of time and wait at the door or around the corner of the road so that they could knock the door at the appointed time. Times have changed and we have diluted the role of the Ambassador where he is these days just a senior officer in a Bangladesh Embassy.

My posting in Canberra was made pleasant because I was lucky to have two High Commissioners whom I respected very much. Air-Vice Marshal (Rtd) AK Khandker was my High Commissioner for the first two years and Harun ur Rashid for a year. When I arrived in Canberra, AK Khandker was already in the post for close to five years. He was well respected in the diplomatic community and had also very good contacts with the senior officials of the host government. As it was my first posting, I was not very conscious of the feeling among professional diplomats about non-career Ambassadors. Later as I gained more experience in working in an Embassy and made friends with diplomats from other countries, I came to know that the career diplomats tend to think that non-career diplomats do not make good Ambassadors except in exceptional cases.

Those days, we used to talk about a Pakistani Ambassador who was not a career diplomat but whose performance exceeded those of his colleagues who were from the Foreign Service career. The Ambassador was Jamsed Marker who was once also a legendary test cricket commentator. Jamshed Marker has gone into the Guinness Book of Records for being Ambassador to more countries than any other person. As Pakistan's Ambassador to Washington, he is reported to have negotiated the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. He was also Ambassador to France and Soviet Union and Permanent Representative to New York.

I served AK Khandker again for 3 years in New Delhi. I would not hesitate to say that he was better than many career Ambassadors of his time. In Banagladesh, a percentage of Ambassadors and High Commissioners are appointed from outside the Foreign Service cadre following a practice present in most countries. Such Ambassadors are generally referred to as politically appointed Ambassadors. The USA practices this as a policy where 31 per cent Ambassadors during President Clinton presidency were politically appointed; 36 per cent during President Bush's tenure and under President Obama it is in between. In the 1980s, when the power of the military was limitless, a good number of serving Generals were given posts of Ambassadors in Bangladesh under a formula that 25 per cent of posts of Ambassadors would be from outside the Foreign Service cadre, including the army generals, secretaries to the Government and important people in public life.

Recently, I was exchanging views on this issue with a colleague who served as a Foreign Secretary after the return of democracy in 1991. One day in office, he received a letter from the Army Chief informing him that the Prime Minister had desired that eight Generals in the list he attached should be posted as Ambassadors from the so-called quota for non-career Ambassadors. The Foreign Secretary talked with the General over phone immediately on receiving his letter and asked him to withdraw it, because first, there was no such quota and second, it was not his decision to appoint Ambassadors. The Foreign Secretary told the General that if the letter was not withdrawn within the day, he would have to send it to the Prime Minister's office. Much before the day was over, the letter was withdrawn. There is a postscript to this episode. Eventually only one in the list made it to an Ambassador and it was the General himself.

AK Khandker was however not a politically appointed Ambassador. After 15th August 1975, his services were paced from the Defense Services to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and he was inducted into the Bangladesh Foreign Service cadre together with General Shafiullah. In Canberra, he became the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, a position that goes by seniority among the Ambassadors in terms of length of stay in the post. During his tenure as Dean, AK Khandker hosted the Prince of Wales to a lunch given in his honour by the diplomatic corps. In New Delhi where I was posted in 1983, a year after AK Khandker had been posted there as High Commissioner, I found the Indians treating him with a lot of respect. It was his polite nature that endeared him to the hosts. The fact that he was also a freedom fighter and the Deputy Commander of the Mukhti Bahini also enhanced his position in New Delhi. A senior official in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs once had told me that they were careful to ensure that whenever they called him to the External Affairs Ministry; it had to be the Foreign Secretary who would receive him. In fact, in a capital where Ambassadors and High Commissioners were then, and I believe still now, called to the External Affairs Ministry at the level of the Joint Secretary regularly, this was something exceptional. It is not that AK Khandker was not called below the level of the Foreign Secretary but when that happened, the Ministry would explain that the Foreign Secretary was either not in town or busy in some other important event.

Harun ur Rashid was appointed as High Commissioner from his post as Ambassador in Nepal. He had joined the Pakistan Foreign Ministry as a Deputy Legal Adviser and in Bangladesh, he was the Legal Adviser. Subsequently when the BCS (FA) cadre was constituted, he was taken in as a lateral entrant into Bangladesh Foreign Service. As a High Commissioner, Harun ur Rashid was very caring and although I was then a Second Secretary, he never made me feel the difference and treated me with affection. I remember many advice he gave me at that time that helped me later in my career. Those days, the Ministry used to value political reports on the host country a great deal. I was however not fully convinced about the value of such reports. In fact my colleague in Canberra Hosne Ara Karim met a western diplomat in his office and wanted to know what type of political reports he wrote for his Foreign Ministry. The diplomat replied that nothing called political reports were written in his Embassy but all officers were on a continuous basis sending status reports on issues of interests to their government that were factual and analytical and short. In our situation those days, missions were sending regularly long, often boring reports that no one really read but nevertheless writing such reports used to take away a lot of the time out of a diplomat's work in the Embassy.

I discussed my reservations about political reports with my High Commissioner. He told me not to worry myself about who was reading or not reading my reports and that I should go on writing political reports for one simple reason. It will keep my name from being lost in the memory of those the Ministry who determine my fate and those of others in the Missions. By hindsight, I think he was correct and although most reports went to the files, the good ones were read and helped an officer make a mark in Foreign Service and helped his/her career prospects. Those days, the High Commissioner and I used to share the topics and write political reports very regularly. The Director for the Pacific Region those days in the Foreign Ministry was Dr. Iftikhar Chowdhury who later became the Adviser in Fakhruddin Ahmed's Caretaker Government. As he had done his PhD from Canberra's ANU and thus lived in Australia, he read my reports and would mark some of those to the Foreign Secretary.
Not long after arriving in the post, Harun ur Rashid was recommended by his doctor for a heart by-pass operation, quite a rarity those days. He had the operation in Sydney. Hosne Ara Karim and I were by his side when he had the operation. I was impressed by the calm manner in which he faced the operation. I still remember him cracking jokes right up to the moment he was wheeled to the operation theater. The High Commissioner recovered fast and was settling down in his job. I had also by then received my transfer order to New Delhi, having been promoted to a First Secretary shortly before the transfer. One day not long before my departure, I decoded a cypher and I did not know how to place it before the High Commissioner. He had been transferred to Manila although by then he had not completed a year in the post.He had to make way for General Dastgir who wanted to be cross posted to Canberra from Saudi Arabia. It was one of those things that happened those days; the Generals had their ways in the Foreign Ministry in whatever way they wanted. When I placed the message before the High Commissioner, he showed little emotions although I knew that it was a very bad news for him given the fact he was recovering from an open heart surgery and he was being transferred prematurely so that a General had his wish.

I left Canberra before Ambassador Harun ur Rashid to join my post in New Delhi where AK Khandker was the High Commissioner. It is good to see both still very active in public life. AK Khandker is the Planning Minister in the present Government. Harun ur Rashid is now a well-known columnist.

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

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Beyond time to say good-bye to vandalism

Published in The Independent, August 19th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The tendency by various groups to take law into their hands and vandalise vehicles and private property at will for achieving their demands is spreading dangerously. In such acts, the workers in the garment factories and the students in the universities are behaving in the same way in breaking someone else's property in publicly expressed sadistic acts that do not achieve the desired results for the perpetrators but harm innocent people and in case of the RMG sector, the economy of the country. Acts of violence by the public by taking law into their hands is not an unknown phenomenon in other countries. Sometimes such acts are also accompanied by looting. In countries that have a control over law and order, as majority of the countries have, public vandalism is quelled quickly and the perpetrators and abettors are brought to face the law.

Bangladesh, however, is exceptional in acts of public vandalism for a few reasons. First, such acts in Bangladesh are not motivated by looting and have started historically by active encouragement of the political parties to fight oppressive, undemocratic governments under the principle that end justifies the means. Second, the political parties have encouraged such acts even when governments have been elected democratically. The party that failed to win power in an election placed the elected government on the same footing as an undemocratic government to encourage the public to force it down. The aberrations of extra-constitutional governments only enforced the argument that a government perceived to be in power illegally had to be forced out by any means. In the post-1971 period, public vandalism became more destructive when attack on private cars, buses and other vehicles was added as a strategy to bring the government down by force, both elected and extra constitutional. It is because of the nexus between vandalism and politics that has made it so difficult to tackle this menace in Bangladesh or bring the perpetrators to face the law.

Public vandalism has become a major issue of concern of the government and the country because it is now being carried out in a sector that is extremely important for Bangladesh's economic survival. It is the RMG sector's success that has given Bangladesh the hope that it could eventually make sense to its potentials and bring the country out of its tryst with poverty. Uninterrupted public vandalism in the RMG factories is now threatening not just the RMG sector but the country's economy as well. The pointing of fingers by the AL notwithstanding, the opposition BNP is today also concerned with the growing public vandalism in the RMG sector. Despite there being very good reasons for grievances of the RMG workers over pay that has caused the latest round of vandalism, there is no reason at all for the workers to carry out the rampage as they have over the latest increase in pay. The Government has shown its goodwill to back the RMG workers that has more than doubled their minimum pay to Taka three thousand although it has fallen short of the Taka 5000 they have demanded.

There is an eerie similarity in vandalism carried by the RMG workers and those being carried out by other groups in the country to force the authorities to meet their demands like the students of Chittagong University who vandalised over a slight raise in tuition fees. Hartal activists vandalise property in the same manner. It is difficult to believe that the garment workers or students or any group would be able to carry out such perverse acts on their own in such a destructive and systematic manner as being witnessed in the current public vandalising in Bangladesh. There is often accusation from the government about foreign hands in addition to encouragement from opposition parties in vandalising in the RMG sector. So far nothing has emerged from such finger pointing except unproven accusations. Although the BCL has in recent times taken part in public vandalism in a major way, it would also not be correct to assume that such acts have any political encouragement. In fact, the ruling party has publicly disowned the BCL for such acts.

There is therefore reason to believe that many decades of indulgence given by the political parties to public vandalism has created a cadre of agent provocateurs who have now become "free agents" as they no longer have sponsorship from political parties who are now giving leadership to the current surge of public vandalism wherever the opportunity arises, including the RMG sector.

The media has been responsible for exposing the criminality in public vandalism and its danger to the economy in the context of the RMG sector. The exposure has now convinced the public that there is nothing but perverse criminality in public vandalism forcing the political parties also to see these acts in the same way. The reflection of this is now clear in the stand taken by the Government to deal with public vandalism firmly. The opposition is also is in no mood to back public vandalism anymore knowing that they would only incur public displeasure and wrath for supporting or encouraging it. It is thus now up to the law enforcing agencies to do the rest and end this menace before it takes the nation down. It is beyond time to trace out the agent provocateurs and bring them to face the long arm of the law.

The way to go about tackling this menace should not be difficult, given the fact that the public mood is dead against it and the political parties have distanced themselves from such evil acts. The law enforcing agencies now have to draw the line and deal with public vandalism as essentially a law and order situation of grave national significance. It would be very easy to catch the miscreants, the agent provocateurs, involved these days in public vandalism because of the private TV channels catch them in their cameras while committing their heinous crimes. Once they are caught, they should be put on a fast track for trial and punishment to send an unequivocal message that the government is not going to let such acts of sadism be tolerated anymore. In dealing with these acts, the law should make no difference whether the people involved are garment workers or students and definitely not about their party affiliations, if they have any. The law should treat the perpetrators of public vandalism as criminals of the lowest type because they target, one, people who are innocent and give the perpetrators no reason for their dastardly acts, and second, as is in the case of the RMG sector, threaten the backbone of the country's economy.

(The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Can threats achieve results?

Published in The Independent, August 17th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

One can only be concerned and worried about the threats being expressed at random by the leaders of this government. The Ministers are doing this with monotonous regularity. Threats are being expressed on the issue of price rise, on law and order; on BCL's criminal activities; and of course to the opposition parties for alleged conspiracy to derail the trial of the war criminals. In the country's nearly 4 decades long history since independence, when both democratic and dictatorial governments have been in power and politics was often tense and uncertain, such indulgence with threats by those running the Government was never heard.

In a recent news analysis on a private TV channel, a University Professor said something thought-provoking. With reference to the fact that only four or five businessmen have been found to be behind the sugar syndicate, he said he was simply amazed why these four or five businessmen have not been brought to face the law; why instead the Commerce Minister was going about threatening what the Government would do with dishonest businessmen who would hike up prices during Ramzan. He thought that the threats notwithstanding, there must be very powerful people protecting them to make the Commerce Minister's threats merely empty ones. He gave an advice that sounded both rational and correct; that action not threats was necessary to tackle the various problems in our politics and society at present.

A government is within its rights to warn groups and individuals to ensure that they refrain from doing anything that is harmful to the public. But these are not warnings that this government is expressing; these are threats and that is why a lot of people are concerned. Threats by a government are rare and given only as a final warning when action is imminent. The widespread nature of such threats with very little action underscores the fact that the government is facing serious problems in governance and not sure what to do. What is even more alarming is that despite the threats, those at whom most of the threats are addressed have not even bothered to take notice of the threats. The case of the BCL in this context is worth noting. This Government is moving towards completing two years in office. It has been facing considerable problem with the BCL, its student's wing, from its first day in office. The BCL has declared themselves the government in the educational institutions where they are indulging in all sorts of criminal activities. In its most recent show of criminal power, BCL students were seen parading Rajshahi University with weapons that should shame the most hardened criminal.

This government came to power because the overwhelming majority of the people supported them on one particular issue; the need to try those who supported the Pakistani military in their genocide in Bangladesh in 1971. Such support notwithstanding, those who would be brought to justice have their own support, however small, in the country and they would try to see that such trials are not held. However, all one hears is that there are conspiracies all around from those who are against the spirit of the liberation war. There has been very little manifestation of such conspiracies, let alone any attempt by such conspirators to obstruct the trials.
The question is if it has taken the government nearly two years to put all the necessary steps together for the trials, when actually, one wonders, the trials would be held and completed. The people are losing their patience for such trials to be held and done away with. All they hear are threats in abundance that no one should dare to derail the trials and the government would deal with any group that tries to stand in the way of such trials with an iron fist. It would be interesting if someone would collate the innumerous times Ministers of this Government have gone before the media and threatened those who they said are conspiring to stop the trials. People would like to be given some evidence of such conspiracies.

In common knowledge, when someone is sure of what he/she would do, there is no need to shout or threaten. That individual can do whatever needs to be done calmly and coolly. When such an individual loses cool, then there is reason to believe that things are in a mess. When that individual goes beyond losing cool and starts threatening, then common sense would dictate that the individual has lost direction and not in a position to do what needs to be done. In case of this government, threats have now become a routine matter and everyone in political authority is indulging in threats. What is not clear about such threats is the fact that in Bangladesh's history, the opposition has never been as weak as it is today. BNP has just not lost the election, it is now riddled with internal dissensions where it is not really in a position to launch the type of action that we know opposition parties have done in the past, like regular hartals accompanied by all kinds of violence. During this term of the AL, the BNP and its allies have succeeded in holding just one hartal.

Despite the Government's accusations that the country is seething with conspiracies to stop war trials and other actions against the government by the opposition, facts do not show any such evidence. Nevertheless, there is a lot of uncertainty in politics. The law and order situation is poor, the educational institutions have become hubs of criminal activities and the RMG sector is being subjected to public vandalism that portends grave consequences for the nation. The recent coverage of the private TV channels leaves little doubt that unscrupulous business people are systematically raising prices of essentials. In fact, it is only with the war crimes trial that there are little signs of unrest yet despite the Government's threats and accusations to the contrary.

These facts could point to something new in Bangladesh's politics; that the enemy the party in power is threatening is largely within. It would do the Awami League and the country great good if it would stop threatening all and sundry in the opposition camps and take a quiet and dispassionate look at what is happening within the party. Why can't the BCL be stopped? It is unimaginable what would happen to the country's image if the international press were to pick the pictures of students of the ruling party parading the university campuses with machetes and other weapons of death and moving around freely with the law enforcing agencies watching. Why can't those who have been identified to be behind the sugar syndicate be brought to book? In the state of country's politics, no one even in a fit of insanity would believe that any of these business people belong to the opposition. If they were, such syndicates would have been history and its leaders behind bars.

Bangladeshis are facing grave problems they have not faced before, like the acute shortage of power and water and they are praying on bended knees for the government to deliver. In the kind of politics the country has, the opposition will seek every opportunity to put the government in trouble. In opposition, the AL has done it. Threats will get the government nowhere; such threats will only convince the people that the government is not succeeding in tackling the problems they are facing. It is time for the government to act and give up threatening all and sundry. More importantly, it is time for the AL for introspection.That will help it understand the problems better, find solutions and take the country forward.

(The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt)

Friday, August 13, 2010

A new fillip to Bangladesh-India relations

M. Serajul Islam
The Daily Star, August 14th.; 2010

THERE seems to be mixed feelings about the Indian Finance Minister's recent visit to Bangladesh, a lot of it of course coming down party lines. Last time, when he was here, he by-passed a request from the Leader of the Opposition for a meeting and instead found time to meet the controversial General Moyeen who during his stranglehold on power under the Caretaker Government had openly boasted that he would resolve all outstanding problems with India on the eve of a visit he undertook to New Delhi at that time. Although Bangladeshis are easily susceptible to conspiracy theories and the opposition BNP not inclined too see anything good in India, Pranab Mukherjee on his part has given some genuine encouragement to the conspiracy prone Bangladeshis and the BNP. This time too there was no meeting with Khaleda Zia but he reportedly found time during his 4 hours' stay in Dhaka for another controversial meeting with three top AL leaders who did not find Cabinet berths on issue of loyalty to the party leader.

There are few other issues about the visit that have caused a few eyebrows to be raised. The news about the visit was released to the media by the Economic Adviser to the Prime Minister, after a meeting he chaired with stakeholders on the progress of the agreements signed and Joint Communiqué issued during the Prime Minister's visit to India. He said that the Indian Finance Minister would be visiting Dhaka to witness the signing of the US $1 billion credit promised by India during Sheikh Hasina's visit. Subsequently, the Indian High Commission released a press statement where it was mentioned that Pranab Mukherjee would be coming to Dhaka on an invitation of Foreign Minister Dipu Moni. The Foreign Ministry came out with its own statement but after that of the Indian High Commission. There seems to be confusion in Bangladesh about who to be given the charge to deal with Bangladesh-India relations.

In the midst of the media campaign by the Foreign Minister after the Prime Minister's visit, it was mentioned that the Indian Prime Minister would undertake his return visit to Bangladesh within six months of Sheikh Hasina's visit. This is not going to happen. During this period, after the initial euphoria during which the Foreign Minister had described Sheikh Hasina's visit as a watershed in Bangladesh-India relations died down, little was said in the media about follow up action on the visit. In fact, the Bangladesh Commerce Minister expressed his disappointment about progress on the trade sector, blaming Indian bureaucracy for it. The sharing of the water of Teesta that some had thought would be signed soon after the visit of the Prime Minister is still a distant possibility. Death of Bangladeshis on the Bangladesh-India border at the hands of the BSF have become a permanent feature of tension where Bangladesh's repeated pleas to India have so far gone unattended. In fact, the great hopes that the Government had risen after Sheikh Hasina's visit seemed to have stalled for reasons that have not been explained by anyone.

There was no announced agenda for discussion at the meetings that Pranab Mukherjee had in Dhaka. The Foreign Ministry statement mentioned that the Indian Minister would discuss bilateral issues with Bangladesh Foreign Ministers. The visit was however too short for any meaningful discussion on bilateral issues. In fact, very little of it was discussed. Overtly, the two sides reflected on the US$ 1 billion loan as the only reason for the visit. The presence of a good number of Ministers during the signing ceremony left little doubt that the Bangladesh side was eager to make a public demonstration of the importance of the loan. Pranab Mukherjee highlighted the loan as a soft one given at 1.75% interest repayable in 25 years, stressing that it is the largest amount loaned by India to any country. He said that the loan has been extended keeping Bangladesh's interest in mind.

The BNP has rejected outright the offer of loan with very hard-hitting criticisms. Khaleda Zia has asked it to be scrapped. This notwithstanding, there are few issues about the loan that have not been highlighted by the Government. First, it is a supplier's credit and thus serving the interest of it where Bangladesh would be obliged to spend the money for purchase of goods and items from India and would not be allowed to buy these at competitive prices in the international market. Second, Bangladesh would borrow the money from an Indian bank whereas it has that money and more in excess liquidity in the market from foreign remittance. Although the rate of interest would be higher in borrowing the money from internal sources but the advantages of buying goods and services from untied sources and charges from other details of the agreement, which have not been spelt out, could outweigh the advantages on low interest rate. Finally, the money would be spent for those infrastructures that would allow India's transit to its northeast. In other words, India would be giving the loan for its own interest where Bangladesh would be a collateral beneficiary but by playing away in the process, its only bargaining chip with India.

Little information has been made known on what transpired in the meeting with the Prime Minister. Pranab Mukherjee has close relations with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. There is reason to believe that he may have had few suggestions and advice for her on state of politics in Bangladesh where things are fluid over the trial of the war criminals and the constitutional amendments. The Foreign Minister has written the postscript to the visit. In a briefing, she highlighted the issue of connectivity that is a new parlance for the unpopular transit suggesting that through the US $1 billion loan and India's assurance of transit to Nepal and Bhutan, Bangladesh would become a regional hub of connectivity. It would be good to think that way. History of Bangladesh-India relations and India's relations with its neighbours make it hard to accept that India would be magnanimous to help Bangladesh become a regional hub of connectivity. For a small incentive of doing business with Nepal, Bhutan and northeast India, Bangladesh would give India what it always wanted; a free access between its mainland and northeast. Bangladesh has unilaterally decided against being the big lump in the Indian throat simply for the assurance of cooperation in water and trade sectors but without reference to the maritime boundary demarcation and other outstanding issues.

It is in Bangladesh's interest to have good relations with India. Bangladesh's 160 million people make it essential for India to ensure Bangladesh's stability for its own security. India should know too well that many Bangladeshis have serious reservations about India and that AL's 3/4th majority is only in the parliament. In the country, the support among the people is divided between the AL and the BNP almost in the same proportion. India could have played a positive role by using its present influence over the government to urge it to talk to the opposition for making improvements in Bangladesh-India relations sustainable. Pranab Mukherjee himself could have done his part by meeting the leader of the opposition and briefed her on his visit and the loan India has offered. Unfortunately, he did not do so and instead by his two visits to Bangladesh, he has inserted a wedge into the existing animosities between the BNP and the AL and has strengthened the “India factor” in keeping the two divided.

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

Friday, August 6, 2010

Pakistan under US and UK attacks: A look at history

Published in The Daily Star, August 7th., 2010
M. Seraju Islam

(This is the 200th article carried in this blog)

Pakistan has suddenly become the scapegoat for what is going wrong in Afghanistan. The latest documents released on WikiLeaks (92,000 documents in total) reveal that in Afghanistan USA is losing the war and the truth is far removed from what the Obama administration has been telling the people. The documents also show Pakistan's intelligence agency (Inter Services Intelligence) ISI's close collusion with the Talibans and other terrorist groups. In line with the leaks, British Prime Minister David Cameron has caused a major controversy by stating bluntly that his country and allies cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that Pakistan is allowed to look both ways and is able in any way, to promote the export of terror to India, Afghanistan or any other country. Quite understandably, Pakistan protested furiously but David Cameron did not recant his statement rather he came up with free advise about what Pakistan should do, which was like adding insult to injury.

A current view in Washington is that the US administration may have leaked the WikiLeaks documents to shift the responsibility of losing the war in Afghanistan on Pakistan's shoulders. As the latest WikiLeaks documents revealed it is therefore not very surprising that the Prime Minister of Britain, the country that along with the USA had brought Pakistan into the team as a strategic partner of the West in their war against terrorism, had to blame Pakistan as a country that exports terrorism to its neighbouring regions. It is not just this that makes the latest US-UK offensive against Pakistan so ironic. A look at history would make the current attacks on Pakistan by the USA and UK even more so because both have in the past betrayed Pakistan's interests at critical times.

It was the US that had encouraged Pakistan to get involved in the Afghan war after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Again, it was the US that had given Pakistan the moral and material support needed to build the Taliban resistance and then abandoned it as soon as the Soviet Union disintegrated. It is again the USA which is now seeking Pakistan's assistance to negotiate agreement with moderate Talibans to weaken the Taliban resurgence. At the same time, it is the US that is bombing Pakistan's northwest regions with drones in pursuit of taking out Talibans and when such attacks end killing innocent Pakistanis and blaming Pakistan's intelligence for the failure.

History makes David Cameron's accusation more ironic than the US's accusations of Pakistan. It was British policy of divide and rule that sowed the seeds of discord between the Hindus and the Muslims that created Pakistan. It was the British indulgence while leaving India after 200 years of colonial rule that divided Kashmir that as a Muslim majority princely state should have gone to Pakistan under the principles of partition. It is the Kashmir conflict that has been at the cause of tension between Pakistan and India that has forced these nations to fight two wars and turn into nuclear states. It is the same conflict that has encouraged Pakistan to get involved in the jihad over Kashmir and actively assist groups fighting for freeing Kashmir from India, groups that are using terrorism as a strategy for their goal. It is again the Kashmir dispute that has led Indian security and police to commit human rights violations to keep control over its part of Kashmir that in turn has given terrorist groups like the Laskar e Taiyaba; Jaish e Mohammed and Harakat ul Mujahadeen the cause to survive and thrive.

The British Prime Minister could perhaps have taken a look at history before making the statement in public against Pakistan. In doing so, he has also shown scant respect to diplomatic norms where it is most unusual to accuse a third country while on a bilateral visit. The fact that David Cameron chose to accuse Pakistan while on an official visit to India is what makes his act a difficult one to understand. Only recently, the Pakistani and the Indian Foreign Ministers had met to open dialogue between their countries that ended abruptly with the Indian Foreign Minister failing to make the point on Pakistan's tryst with terrorism that was so well articulated by David Cameron. Pakistan High Commissioner in London regretted that David Cameron failed to see “Pakistan's immense role in the war on terror and sacrifices made since 9/11”. He went on to say that the British Prime Minister should have pursued his goal of attracting Indian investments to his country without “damaging the prospects of regional peace”.

Pakistan has reacted furiously at the attempts by Great Britain and the US to link it officially to terrorist groups. Its disapproval to the US administration is being communicated through the many diplomatic and official channels at its disposal. In case of its reaction to David Cameron's accusation, the Pakistanis are protesting pro-actively and angrily. It has cancelled a very important visit by an intelligence team to London. After actively considering cancelling an official visit to London, President Zardari eventually decided perhaps to take the opportunity to communicate first hand with the British Prime Minister about his country's indignation.

The latest WikiLeaks and the British Prime Minister's comments have come for Pakistan at a very inappropriate time. It is facing India in Afghanistan where the Indians are gaining upper hand with the Karzai administration. In recent times, India has opened four regional consulates in Afghanistan and has given Afghanistan US $ 662 million as aid, with a promise of more and even an offer to send troops. It has found favour with the Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tagiks who are behind the Karzai administration although the President himself is a Pastun. The Pakistanis were hoping to balance and perhaps gain the upper hand in Afghanistan by its contacts with the Talibans. It will now be under intense scrutiny to keep its distance from the Talibans, allowing the Indians a better negotiation of Afghan affairs. It should convince Pakistan that in international politics, there are no permanent friends but only permanent interests. US's interest at the moment is to come out of Afghanistan by blaming it on someone else, perhaps Pakistan; whereas Britain's interest is to benefit from India's new-found status as a world economic power for which Pakistan-bashing may not be a bad strategy.

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

Monday, August 2, 2010

Death of a Secretary and a Chairman

The Independent
Monday, 02 August 2010 22:59
Author / Source : M. Serajul Islam
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The death of the Secretary of the Women's Affairs Ministry Razia Begum together with her colleague Siddiqur Rahman, the Chairman of BCSIC, was a tragedy that words cannot describe. They died while going to an event where the Prime Minister was scheduled to deliver an address. Hence the two died on duty, in the cause of the government and the country. They were destined to die the way they died. One can only pray for their departed soul. We cannot; in fact, we do not have anything in our powers to be able to comfort enough the families of the departed but feel some of their pain, knowing that the pain they have in their hearts is a million times more. We can and should however express indignation because the deaths, and many thousands similar ones, that have occurred on our roads, could and should have been avoided. Among the many failures of the governments of Bangladesh over the years, one major one has been the failure to connect Dhaka to the network of districts with roads that could be called safe and civilized. We have what is an apology of roads where fatal accidents for travelers, when they do not happen, do not happen because some superior power wills otherwise. When one travels on these roads and reaches his/her destination, he/she has only the Almighty to thank.

In the network of roads we have for connecting Dhaka and the districts, there are no dividers; with pot holes in every part of the way and with sharp bends. Traffic flows from both sides. On these roads, vehicles of all types ply, from the most sophisticated SUVs and luxury cars to buses and trucks that should have become junks years ago. In between these two extremes, there are vehicles that should be in museums like man drawn carts, bullock carts to rickshaws. That is not all. These so-called inter district roads are littered with local markets and people even use these roads for pedestrian traffic! This dangerous mix makes the inter districts roads an inevitable place for fatal disasters.

Almost all of Bangladesh's inter district roads are very narrow where traffic flows both ways. On such roads, overtaking a vehicle going the same way is extremely hazardous. Notwithstanding this, vehicles merrily do this all the time, with the buses and trucks considering this overtaking a game they love to play on these roads. Invariably while overtaking with such gay abandon, these buses and trucks enad up hitting a car or some other vehicle coming from the opposite side, ending precious lives in the manner one squats flies. Another major reason why these fatal accidents occur on the roads is because authorities allow persons to drive trucks and buses who have little or no sense of what driving is about. The drivers of the buses and trucks are allowed to drive with criminal negligence that will not be allowed anywhere else on planet earth! I must admit ignorance on this fact but I would like to know whether there is any patrolling system by authorities on the inter district roads of Bangladesh to manage traffic. However I am pretty much sure there isn't any because otherwise there would then not have been many buses and trucks plying on the inter district roads. These truck and bus drivers drive their vehicles literally like they are kings on the road. While deaths on the road, like that of the Women Affairs Secretary and her colleague, are extremely sad and occur because of the criminal negligence of drivers, one never hears of even one such driver being brought to court and punished. The message from the law enforcing agencies to the drivers is clear; the law will remain silent and they have no reason to worry in driving as merrily as they want. There is reason to suspect that there is a nexus of corruption in such indulgence to the errant drivers.

There is no doubt a lot of views will be expressed and many will propose suggestions on how to get over such tragedy in discussing the deaths of the Secretary and the Chairman. Most newspapers have already written powerful editorials. However, it is also as certain that such deaths will continue to occur with monotonous regularity because the government that has overlooked this problem all these years does not have any magic wand in its hands to suggest any immediate remedy. It cannot build the roads needed to make the highways safe for driving overnight. But it can build the roads on a priority basis because till the country has broad roads, with dividers and traffic flowing only one way, the roads will remain death traps for anyone who travels on them.

The Government can of course deal with the issue of the errant drivers of the buses and trucks who are literally death squads on the steering wheels, immediately. It is past high time to bring these drivers within the purview of the law. In a country that has death penalties, it is unimaginable how so many thousands of innocent people have been allowed to be slaughtered by these reckless drivers and not one of them has ever come close to going to the gallows. In fact, very few have been punished in any way at all. There is a very sad postscript to the deaths of the senior civil servants that prompted me to write this piece. The Chairman who died with the Secretary had lost two of his daughters just a few months ago to another of these senseless road accidents. At the time of his own death, he was carrying on a move to bring the law into picture to deal with deaths on the roads.

It is now the nation's debt to him (and to the Secretary) to complete the work he started. It is also what the needs of civilized behaviour demands of the government. It is such a shame that a country that prides itself of such glorious achievements as its successful fight to establish its language; its victory over the forces of oppression in 1971 leading to the country's independence, can sit back and watch the inter district roads of the country being turned into slaughter houses given up to the mercy of the reckless drivers of the trucks and the buses and remain silent. Why cannot so many civil societies of the country form a human chain in front of the Police Headquarter and demand that the criminality on the roads is ended immediately? Why can't they do the same and ask of the Ministry of Communication when they will end giving hopes to the people of building modern roads between Dhaka and Chittagong and get down to actual work?

It is indeed sad that in the country human lives have become the most dispensable commodity because no one seems to care when lives are lost in such a meaningless way. Nearly 3000 people have died in road accidents in 2009 and most of these lives could have been saved if the Government had the will to do so. These deaths will be on the conscience of all those who have responsibility for constructing roads; for traffic on the roads and for over-seeing that drivers are not allowed to drive like criminals as they are allowed at present. May the Almighty grant eternal peace to Razia Begum and Siddiqur Rahman.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt


Sunday, August 1, 2010

The FDI issue: Let us take it above politics

Published in The Independent, August 1st., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The World Investment Report (WIR) , 2010, on the decline in FDI flow to Bangladesh was hardly surprising. The explanation given by the Executive Chairman of the Board of Investment (BoI) was however surprising. The Executive Chairman did not hold the energy crisis, lack of water supply and political unrest for the fall. He thought that bureaucratic tangles to be main reason why in 2009, the country attracted US$ 700 million compared to US $ 1086 million the previous year.

Participants expressed disagreement with the Executive Chairman at the seminar in which the WIR was launched. They considered gas and power crisis and confrontational politics as the major factors for the decline. Energy is the heart of industrial production for which a steady and uninterrupted supply is indispensible. Given the fact that Bangladesh’s poor energy situation is well known and likely to continue for a few more years, it does not need a crystal ball to predict in which direction FDI flow would go.

It is unfortunate that the energy situation in the country has become such a huge problem at a time when Bangladesh seemed poised to overcome the major factor that had held back the expected FDI flow to the country. In the past, political instability had stood in the way of FDI flow. In the last 4 years, political instability that has been epitomized by hartal did not occur and generally the message that such instability is destructive to economic development has sunk in the minds of the politicians. This is the time when Bangladesh should have been poised to draw to the country the same way such FDI has flowed to China and Malaysia, countries whose miraculous economic development has been fuelled in a large way by FDI. It is the time when Bangladesh could have gone to the foreign investors with the natural lures that it has for attracting FDI.

These lures are significant. Bangladesh is a bridge between two regional blocs that together have a population that is 1/4th of the world’s population. SAARC of which Bangladesh is a founding member is also committed to become by 2016 a free trade zone for trade among its member countries. Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is also likewise committed to have a similar free trade agreement among its member countries including Bangladesh. A foreign firm investing in Bangladesh would thus have a huge market eventually. Bangladesh’s own large population that is also a source of cheap labour is added attraction to the foreign investor as is its location at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal. Between the AL and the BNP governments, Bangladesh has also put together an attractive policy to attract the foreign investor.

Yet FDI has never flowed to Bangladesh at the expected level. It is also not going to increase unless the basic problems are tackled. Bangladesh has an image problem for a complex set of reasons; some of which we have ourselves created. During the last BNP regime, we have gone out of way to show to the rest of the world what we are not; a country seething with Islamic fundamentalism. The WIR has shown that even Pakistan where acts of terrorism are a fact of life, more FDI has flown than Bangladesh. In fact, in newspaper analysis after the WIR, a great deal of curiosity was expressed over this fact. It is true that acts of terrorism are widespread in Pakistan but then such acts are on objects of politics and not economics. In Bangladesh, two facts have deterred FDI in past and present. One is hartal which targets politics but ends up destroying the economy. Second, in recent times the disturbances in the RMG sector have also created an image problem for Bangladesh as a country not safe as a FDI destination.

In a country where domestic resource mobilization is weak, FDI holds one of the keys for transforming the country to a middle income group. For this, dealing with issues with political motivation will only hamper the process of bringing FDI. Political stability and steady and uninterrupted supply of energy are the absolute must for FDI increase in Bangladesh. On the issue of political stability, it would be wrong to consider Bangladesh as politically unstable. Since 1991, except for 2 years’ aberration under the emergency, the BNP and the AL have completed three terms uninterrupted and there is no reason to think that the AL won’t govern till end of its term. It has been the hartals in between that have given the perception outside that Bangladesh is politically unstable. While the politicians at home have felt that hartal is a political strategy for fighting undemocratic forces; those whose money we have sought as FDI have considered hartal as the antithesis of FDI. Bangladesh seems to have just come around this issue of hartal not because the politicians have suddenly realized its destructive nature for the economy but because they have correctly assessed that by indulging in hartal, they can only lose favour with the public. The recent raise of salary in the RMG sector is also expected to calm the workers.

It took our politics 2 decades to realize what damage hartal can do. Today, Bangladesh cannot even seriously seek FDI with the energy situation being what it is. Seeking FDI now by highlighting all the pluses we have like location, population, good policy, etc would be like inviting guests with the promise of a sumptuous dinner and then serving them with a few entrées and that too in a room without lights! If Bangladesh is serious on the FDI issue, it has no alternative but to work overtime and ensure s steady and uninterrupted supply of power for the industrial sector as quickly as it can. Till then, it would just be futile to enter into any discussion on the reasons for fall in such flow.

The Prime Minister would soon be going to Japan for an official visit. Despite its current economic woes, Japan is still the best target for Bangladesh to woo FDI. In four years in Japan from 2002-2006 as Ambassador, I was convinced that Bangladesh could be a major target for Japanese FDI. Before my departure from Japan, the chief of Japan External Trade Organization ( JETRO) told me at a farewell lunch that Japanese investors in China were becoming wary about the future of their investments there and were openly talking about a formula called “China plus one”. Under the formula, Chinese investors were seeking out other countries to divert slowly their investments in China where Bangladesh fitted perfectly. I am not sure where that formula now stands but I have no doubt that Japanese investors would be positive still about Bangladesh if their concerns on political stability and uninterrupted energy supply are met.

To go about wooing the Japanese investors, the Prime Minister would be well advised to take a grip of reality; that lack of energy supply would be the biggest question in the minds of the Japanese investors. She must have an explanation for that; perhaps give them a clear road map on energy development in the country and couldeven seek Japanese investments for energy development. She could brief the Japanese that the days of hartals are a matter of the past and then place her case for the Japanese investors. If she does so, Japanese FDI would not start to flow immediately but at least the Prime Minister would succeed in ensuring that eventually it would and when it does, it would flow very encouragingly.

Targeting FDI is not an easy matter. It is most definitely not a matter of slogan or propaganda or politics. The chief of Toyota told me during an exclusive meeting I had with him as Ambassador in Japan of a visit he had undertaken to Russia where Putin as President treated him as his personal guest because he was interested for Toyota to build a plant in Russia. The point worth noting here is that a plant of Toyota is a great message for foreign investors that the country is an excellent destination for FDI. During her Japan trip, the Prime Minister could perhaps keep Putin in her mind.

There was one important point in what the Executive Director had said in his speech on inauguration of the WIR, the issue of the weak bureaucracy. It is absolutely true that with such incompetence in the bureaucracy, foreign investors would think twice before coming to Bangladesh. Here is a suggestion for the BoI and the government. There is little chance in the short term for the country’s bureaucracy to raise its level or come out of its current tryst with corruption. The BoI which theoretically works directly under the Prime Minister should be allowed to recruit its own staff and pay them as salaries and perks that are paid today in the private sector and raise their level of competence. In USA, where there is a cap on government recruitment, contractors are appointed by the government who then recruit staff for the government departments and pay them. May be we could try this as an experiment in the Board of Investment for the simple reason that its success could bring the FDI at a level of flow that could sooner rather than later make Bangladesh a middle income country.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt