Friday, August 20, 2010

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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