Saturday, October 30, 2010

Pakistan receives US$ 2 billion in military aid and warnings

Published in The Independent
M. Serajul Islam

The US, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistan, by its Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi met in Washington this month for third Pakistan-USA Strategic Dialogue this year, a forum set up by President Obama for cooperation outside those related to counter terrorism. However, counter terrorism issues dominated the talks in which the Pakistanis were on the defensive with accusations from the US administration about lack of commitment of the Pakistan military. The Pakistanis were also on the defensive on human rights issues with certain units of Pakistan’s military accused of extra-judicial killings. These killings came under the scrutiny of the Leahy Amendment that requires cessation of military aid to a country whose troops are involved in such acts. In the past, the law has been applied to military aid to Indonesia and Colombia.

In the end Pakistan had its way but only for the time being. The US pledged US $ 2 billion for 2012-2016 that will be in addition to the US$ 7.5 billion that has already been approved for civilian projects. In announcing the aid, Secretary Clinton did not bring up the issue of the human rights violations to avoid embarrassing Pakistan whose support is crucial to win the war on terror. Instead she said: “The United States has no stronger partner when it comes to counterterrorism efforts against the extremists who threaten us both than Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s earlier alliance with the United States was not a pleasant one. The two came together to stop the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There are a few parallels in these two US-Pakistan alliances. In 1979, it changed Pakistan’s pariah status internationally under General Ziaul Huq for usurping power by military coup. In 2001, the international community had kept Pakistan at arm’s length after General Moshraff came to power through a military coup. On becoming USA’s ally in the war on terror, Pakistan became the closest friend of the US and the West. During the Soviet invasion, Pakistan had received extensive military aid from the United States. After General Ziaul Huq had turned down a US 325 million in military aid as “peanuts” given under the Carter administration, Pakistan ended receiving in excess of US 3 billion in military aid under President Reagan. In providing military aid the, the US overlooked allegations of human rights violations by Pakistani military.

This time, there are a few differences. The world has changed meantime and the Cold War is over. In the post Cold War era, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11and the war on terror, international politics has become far more complicated. Tackling the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was comparatively an easier task than the war on terror where the enemy is a known one but where it is like the phantom lost in between Afghanistan and Pakistan in terrain so intractable that finding the terrorists and annihilating them is like finding the proverbial pin in the hay stack. But for the US and the West, the war on terror must be won for them to rest in peace. Pakistan is the country whose help they need the most. The alternative to Pakistan’s help is for the US to take over Pakistan and pursue the Taliban and the Al Qaeda that is an impossible proposition.

The above notwithstanding, at various international forums, the US has left Pakistan in no doubt that its patience is running out. Secretary Clinton has openly criticized Pakistan’s civilian government of corruption and incompetence. US officials have clearly shown their preference for the military while also making it known to them that they have not showing full commitment in pursuing the Taliban and the Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s northwest. President Zardari has been informed by the United States directly that it would not hesitate to bomb “150 terrorist centers” in Pakistan if there is any terrorist attack on US soil that it can trace back to Pakistan.

Thus there is considerable pressure on Pakistan Government about delivering on its commitment to tackle insurgency and the money it is receiving has very strong strings. It is in fact a carrot and stick policy that the US is pursuing with Pakistan. There is a new element entering into the US efforts to win the war on terror. Earlier the US encouraged the Karzai administration to isolate the moderate Taliban from the extremists through negotiations. Now there are hints that the US is getting directly involved in such negotiations. When her attention was drawn to this, Secretary Clinton remarked that stranger things have happened in politics. Defense Secretary Robert Gates clarified that the US is not directly involved in these talks and only offering counsel when necessary. There is also news that NATO has been providing the Taliban with safe passage for such talks.

The US is thus looking into more options than depending totally on Pakistan for winning the war on terror or winning it militarily. The war itself shows no signing of going towards a resolution. Although, the US stills has shown no signs of abandoning Pakistan, it is beginning to show signs that it is seeking alternatives. Meanwhile, the association with USA is causing to Pakistan the same social and political upheavals that it faced after the end of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; in fact much more. It may again wake up and find the Americans gone, and this time left with a potato hotter than the one it was left holding the last time. Pakistan, if it knows what is best for itself, should look back at history while keeping an eye on the new options that the US is seeking, not forgetting that the US President has his strategy set for starting withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in a year’s time.

There are a few developments that are emerging that may have impact upon on the way Pakistan-US strategic alliance goes in the time ahead. One is President Obama’s forthcoming visit to India. Washington is weary of China’s “ambitions” in the Pacific. Recent cooling of US-China relations on other issues could encourage the United States to look with concern at China-Pakistan strategic alliance that the Indians could use against its nemesis Pakistan during President Obama’s India visit.

Pakistan’s present predicament in its relationship with US, despite the huge amount of US aid given and committed is thus far from a happy one. If the US again leaves as it did the last time, Pakistan could be left holding the potato that Pakistan would be left holding could very easily burn more than its hands; it could seriously threaten the state itself.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies. He can be reached on email

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bangladesh Foreign Policy: Missed Opportunities

Published in The Daily Sun
October 25th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

Globalization has profoundly changed the way relations are conducted between nations. It has made the conduct of such relations more difficult and complex. In every country conduct of foreign relations has attained the highest significance. Consequently, the Foreign Ministry has been strengthened everywhere.

Bangladesh for some unexplained reasons has stood against the tide of time. It has steadily, wittingly or otherwise, weakened its ability to conduct its interests in the international environment. Its conduct of foreign relations is based on partisanship where, if the Government wants to go in one direction, the opposition would want to go the oppositeway. The Bangladesh Foreign Ministry today, instead of holding charge of formulating and implementing foreign policy, has been pushed to the periphery where the Foreign Minister’s role has been taken away and distributed elsewhere.

One does not need much common sense to predict that foreign policy formulated in partisan manner by a Foreign Ministry so weak, where the stakeholders are not consulted, cannot achieve Bangladesh’s national interests to the fullest extent possible. The history of Bangladesh foreign relations is replete with examples where the nation has missed furthering its national interests because of the way it conducts its foreign relations.

9/11 hit the world like a huge meteor, and turned it upside down. The world is still struggling to stand up on its feet. Ironically it came for Bangladesh as an opportunity. After the United States absorbed the initial shock and embarked on the war on terror, it also looked to reach out to the Muslim world to isolate the peaceful world of Islam from the fundamentalists where it knew that the majority supported peace. In other words, the US and its allies looked for Muslim countries with large population with a liberal democracy in place. In that context, Bangladesh and Turkey were the two countries on top of the list.

Just at that juncture in history, the BNP assumed office with a big majority in the elections. For Bangladesh and BNP, the stage was set to win the friendship of the US and the West instantly by aligning its foreign policy to the new realities. Instead, the BNP misunderstood the international issues and to please the Jamat, it gave the US and the West a wrong message; that it actively supported Islamic fundamentalism. The Jamat took full advantage of BNP’s indulgence to build in the country an extensive network of Islamic fundamentalist groups who threatened to establish a fundamentalist Islamic rule in the country. The US Ambassador in Dhaka at that time cried hoarse in trying to attract the attention of the Government but failed as the latter described the rising wave of Islamic terrorist activities in the country, particularly in northern Bangladesh, as media hype.

The AL that was aggrieved because it lost power that it thought was through a “conspiracy” took full advantage of the wrong line of the BNP and gave Bangladesh a branding as a Taliban state. That branding destroyed further the possibility of Bangladesh to get on the right side of the US and the West by establishing its credentials as a Muslim country with a liberal democracy. The other opportunity that the BNP Government missed was to win the post of the Secretary General of the OIC that went to Turkey. Bangladesh had destroyed that prospects by its indulgence to Islamic fundamentalists and choosing a controversial candidate. The AL helped Bangladesh lose the post by arguing the case against the candidate abroad. The post of the OIC Secretary General ,that had been promised to Bangladesh by the Saudis when Bangladesh withdrew the candidature of Humayun Rashid Chowdhury in the 2000 elections on request of the Saudi King , would have given Bangladesh a significant handle for achieving its foreign policy goals in a post 9/11 world.

In the end, but when it was too late, it was explicit that Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh was the product of BNP’s indulgence with the Islamic forces and AL’s propaganda that Bangladesh was an Islamic terrorist state, with the Indian media actively propagating AL’s stand. In 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to New Delhi referred to Bangladesh as the “next Afghanistan”, based on the briefing by the Indians. Early in 2006, Christine Rocco, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia came on a visit to Bangladesh and gave Bangladesh a strong message to control elements the Islamic fundamentalists. Within a very short time after that, these elements were arrested in a fairy tale manner. They were tried and hanged under the Caretaker Government without any trouble from their supporters who, going by the media campaign about Bangladesh in the India and international media, were on the verge of taking power by force. The tame fashion of their arrests and execution went to prove that the media propaganda notwithstanding, was not a fundamentalist Islamic state but a liberal democracy.

If the BNP Government’s had understood the international forces of the time and pursued its foreign policy accordingly, it would have achieved its interests in a major way with the western countries led by the United States. Instead, it won for Bangladesh the tag of an Islamic fundamentalist state, whose negative impact fell, among other things, on its economy, particularly in attracting foreign investment. BNP’s failure to take AL on board on its foreign policy initiatives that in itself is the product of the country’s negative politics and the AL’s propaganda that Bangladesh was a “Taliban” state, have contributed to Bangladesh’s failure to pursue its international interests for which the international situation was tailor made.

The partisanship in pursuing foreign policy under the last BNP Government was thus responsible for Bangladesh missing out of a heaven sent opportunity to develop with the West a relationship that would have launched it on road to economic prosperity. It was this partisanship on foreign relations that was also responsible for the emergency. The western powers who were pursuing the war on terror, intervened directly through their diplomats in Dhaka to bring the military into power to avert the country failing that would have made it a haven for international terrorists or in Condoleezza Rice’s words, turn Bangladesh into the “the next Afghanistan”. Today many believe, particularly the business community, that the emergency has pushed Bangladesh back a few decades in its development efforts.

Politicians in Bangladesh speak of history and of taking lessons from history. However, when it comes on deciding on vital national issues, history becomes the first casualty. One expected that the Awami League would look upon the BNP’s last term and realize the historical mistake it made by not looking upon forces in international politics on a bipartisan basis. This time, the opportunity that has come Bangladesh’s way is with India, a country that is vital to its efforts to succeed in economic development, because of factors of geography and politics. Again, the AL is following the footsteps of the BNP did after 9/11, in choosing to deal with opportunities to improve Bangladesh-India relations without talking with the opposition parties and the stakeholders.

Soon after coming to power, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced that Bangladesh will not allow its territory to be used by terrorists against India. Before Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in January this year, Bangladesh handed to India the top ULFA terrorists, a step that was an answer to India’s dream. Subsequently, Bangladesh also acceded to India’s long standing demand for land transit from mainland India to its seven sensitive northeastern states in the name of connectivity. During her Indian visit, Bangladesh also accepted India as the regional leader by supporting India’s candidature as a permanent member is an expanded UN Security Council which ironically is not an issue at all in the UN at this period of time. The support given in the Joint Communiqué has been strongly worded to affect China’s sensitivity, a country with whom Bangladesh has painstakingly built strategic partnership over the last few decades.

The BNP, true to the partisan way Bangladesh conducts its foreign relations, has called for agreements and understanding reached by Sheikh Hasina in New Delhi to be scrapped. Subsequently, when the Indian Finance Minister visited to Dhaka and offered a US$ 1 billion soft loan to build economic infrastructure in Bangladesh to make it a sub-regional connectivity hub with promises of great economic gains, the BNP again dismissed the Indian offer. It accused the Government of giving India its long standing demand for land transit (Bangladesh’s only major bargaining chip with India) from its mainland to the Seven Sisters without receiving anything on its own demands on water sharing, trade issues, land and maritime boundary demarcation except promises.

On a recent visit to New Delhi, a group of us who interacted with Indians who know about the recent moves in Bangladesh-India relations have returned with the impression that this time there is sincerity on the Indian part to provide Bangladesh concessions on its demands. A lot of the change in India has come because of the moves Bangladesh has made on key issues of security, transit and India’s international politics. The media in fact recommended to the Indian Government to give Bangladesh whatever it wanted after these concessions. In our discussions with the Indians, we told them that their intentions were still not understood and that unless they moved very quickly on giving Bangladesh concessions on water rights, trade issues; land and maritime boundary demarcation, politics may not wait for Indian good intentions on economics to catch up. We also told them that when the Indian Prime Minister goes on his visit to Bangladesh that is expected to take place early next year, there must be an agreement on Teesta sharing; land boundary demarcation and a political statement that on maritime boundary that Bangladesh’s principled stand would be discussed with sincerity. On trade, we said that the days of bureaucratic discussions should become history and India must provide Bangladesh with a one way trade regime where its products would be able to enter India without any tariff or non-tariff barrier. We told them that through such a gesture, Bangladesh would not even be able to come anywhere near the humongous trade deficit that India enjoys but would cause in Bangladesh a sea change in perception that India is interested in Bangladesh’s welfare.

The Indians this time are in the mood to be friendly to Bangladesh. However, they are moving slowly, not realizing that the window of opportunity that has come about in Bangladesh-India relations since the AL came to power in Dhaka and Congress returned to power in New Delhi will not remain open too long. They must consider that the BNP has already taken a public stand against the recent initiatives. India’s failure to give Bangladesh its demands quickly may change the mood in those who are not partisan, including the new generation who are otherwise fed up with partisan and conflict ridden politics of the country. The recent overtures by Bangladesh towards China could be the reflection of wariness within the AL camp about moving ahead with India with India lagging behind.

Bangladesh can achieve its full economic potentials only when it resolves its geopolitical problems and prospects which means resolving its problems with India. In this context, a historic opportunity is in front of the country. The historic opportunity to develop a friendly and sustainable relation with India could again go the other way by default like the opportunity Bangladesh wasted after 9/11 because of partisanship in the way it conducts foreign relations. Unless India makes quick and substantial concessions on the issues of concern to Bangladesh by the time the Indian Prime Minister visits Bangladesh, the possibilities for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations may just wither away. India’s US 1 billion loan may also just be wasted as the BNP’s negative campaign against India begins to find favour among those who are not traditionally BNP supporters. . There is a new problem on the Bangladesh side that was not there when BNP missed the opportunities after 9/11. The Foreign Ministry has been weakened substantially meanwhile with many sharing the functions of the Foreign Minister who are not formally supposed to have any role in the conduct of foreign relations.

Partisanship of the parties in foreign relations could thus destroy the possibilities in improvement of Bangladesh-India relations as it destroyed the opportunities that came Bangladesh’s way after 9/11. The only difference between then and now could be made by India if it reciprocates generously on the concessions made by Bangladesh and very quickly as time may be fast running out. Otherwise, there could be another opportunity lost by Bangladesh due to the partisan way it conducts its foreign relations.

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

Dhaka City and Our Civic Responsibilities

Published in The Independent,
October 23rr., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

I walk to my mosque on Gulshan Avenue that is a few hundred yards from my house every Friday to say my Jumma prayers. Last Friday on my way, I saw a board on a plot where a multi storied building is under construction. The message on the board in Bangla said that those walking by the site should be careful from falling materials.

One must commend the good civic sense of the builder to warn pedestrians of such danger. There is one problem however in commending the builder without some words of criticism. The builder has in fact kept no space for the pedestrians to walk, having taken over the footpath for keeping building materials. The under construction building has access to two roads. The side where this board has been raised is on Road No 2 on Gulshan. On the other side, the construction is on Road no 4. On that side, the builder has taken over half of the road for other building materials and we who live close to this building on Road 4 are lucky that he has spared us some space on the road for us to use!

However he is not so kind when we try to sleep at night. His construction materials all come at night. At dead of night, some of us are woken by sound of bricks being off loaded into the footpath which is not that bad. It is unbearable when stone pebbles are off loaded from the truck and then arranged on the footpath. The screeching sound makes us pull our own hair in rage because a few attempts, even with a complaint with Gulshan Police, have not been able to stop these criminal activities at night.

The builder has one point in his favour though. He told us that the city authorities do not allow the trucks into areas such as Gulshan at night before 10pm and therefore he cannot help his unlawful activities at night. However, the important point is not what the city authorities do or do not do; the bottom line is no one has the right to do anything as the builder has been doing at a time when people inside a residential area are sleeping. Such acts are both illegal and uncivilized..

Let us come back to this board cautioning pedestrians. Thanks to new building code now in operation in Gulshan, every builder must leave space from the wall. If minimum building safe codes are applied by the builder, there would be no need of this bill board. In fact, this billboard is a proof that something is seriously amiss here. There can and should not be no earthly reason, let alone a lawful one, for of a single brick or for that matter even a pebble falling from a construction site to the road. The builder can very easily ensure that by adopting simple safety precautions like safety nets around the building under construction. But this builder has done nothing like that; instead by the billboard he seems to have put the onus on the pedestrian where even death is possible. The city authority should read this builder the law; that he needs to warn himself that if any pedestrian is injured; the arm of the law would grab him by the throat. At the moment, he is blissfully and may I say, criminally, unaware of his responsibilities.

While waiting to come down the stairs at the Mosque after the prayer was over the same day, a fellow devotee attracted my attention to the cars parked in front of the Mosque. In fact, the cars were parked on the road in triple rows leaving little space for vehicles to move towards Circle One of Gulshan. These cars are parked this way every Friday and remain so for at least an hour. The gentleman who attracted my attention thought the Mosque should have enough parking spaces. He was of course not right because given the fact Dhaka is known as a city of mosques, it is an impossible proposition. The important point here is how easily people in our society, those who are educated and are elites of the society, break laws so easily. It does not need to be stated that all those whose cars are parked every week at Jumma prayer in front of the Mosque are in clear violation of the law. In any other country, their cars would be towed away for a hefty fine so that they would not again commit such a breach.

Those who come by car and violate the law all live, like I do, in walking vicinity of the Mosque. They can all walk to the Mosque and avoid violating the law. For those who live a little distance away, they can have themselves dropped and then picked up very easily. But few do that and those who park their cars illegally do so as a matter of habbit. It is not just the Mosque they use by illegally parking their cars outside it; all big corporate houses on Gulshan Avenue do so. These corporate houses and businesses know too well that they do not have even a small percentage of the parking space they need. Still they open their establishments and the authorities allow them and they merrily use the Gulshan avenue and the residential roads as “legitimate” parking space.

Dhaka city is close to becoming inhabitable if not one already. A lot of the ills of the city are due to people who are educated, influential and Dhaka’s elites. The examples cited in this piece are just a few and everywhere around us, we are breaking civic laws that are pushing Dhaka over the edge. The Government and the City Corporation speak of the problems but so far has done little to save Dhaka. It is time for the city dwellers, particularly those who complain about the ills of Dhaka life to see what laws and codes they are violating. If they act on their violations, there may be hope for Dhaka coming back from the brinks.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and may be reached by email

Friday, October 22, 2010

New citizenship law in Israel: Another issue of discord

The Daily Star, October 23rd., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

Israel's Cabinet by a vote of 22-8 recommended a bill to amend Israel's citizenship law that would require non-Jewish new citizens to swear allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state. The amendment will become law after it is passed by a simple majority in parliament and Israel's Supreme Court accepts it; both expected to come without any hassle. The amendment, aimed at Israel's Arab population, has been widely condemned as a racist policy among Israel's Arab neighbours. Turkish Prime Minister whose country recognizes Israel said that no one can impose citizenship law the way Israel has done with this new law. Syrian President Bashir al Asad has condemned the new law as fascist and racist.

The new law will for the time being affect only a very small number of people; those from the occupied territories who marry Arab Israelis. That notwithstanding, the new law that requires an oath saying Israel is a Jewish and a democratic state, brings into question fundamental contradiction between religion and democracy; whether a religious or theocratic state can be democratic. There are more serious dangers lurking behind the law looking into the future. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann who is the force behind the new law expects the new law to be applied to all Arab Israelis, one fifth of the population, eventually who would be asked to take oath under the new law and their citizenship revoked, if they refuse to do so.

The religious extremists in the Cabinet of Benjamin Netanyahu have taken advantage of the current status of Israel-PLO talks that has stalled over the settlement issue to push this new controversial legislation. They have agreed to extend the moratorium on settlement that is crucial to carry the peace talks forward. The US President in his September 23rd address at the UN said that peace would be established in ME in a year. The US is thus putting a great deal of pressure on the Israeli Prime Minister not to allow the peace talks on the settlement issue. The legislation on citizenship is thus possibly the outcome of a deal between the Prime Minister, willing to please the US by carrying forward the peace process, and religious fundamentalists in the Prime Minister's coalition not willing to extend the freeze on settlement.

The citizenship law will ultimately carry forward the peace process. But the law acknowledges certain principles or the lack of it that have embedded in it the seeds of future conflicts that could be much more serious than those that are stalling the peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. First, it is taking away freedom of 20% of the population of Israel who are not Jews but Muslims. Taking oath as citizen of Israel as a Jewish state would take away the religious freedom of the non-Jews of the state of Israel by forcing them to take up religious obligations of another religion. Second, it is intended to target the non-Jews or Arabs in Israel and impose upon them conditions and obligations that are, under the UN Charter of Human Rights, unacceptable. Third, the law will turn Israel from being a homeland for Jewish people to becoming a Jewish state in the religious sense; thus destroying its secular character, totally. Finally, the Arab population in Israel and their ancestors who have been living for millenniums in what is now Israel would now be forced to live as citizens by the conditions set by Jewish migrants who came to the region from Europe and elsewhere after 1948!

The nature of demography of Israel where its Arab population is growing faster than its Jewish population will mean that in the future the difference between the two will close creating a dangerous prescription for explosion. A new system of apartheid is in the process of being created in Israel right under the nose of the world with the US supervising it in the name of establishing peace in the region!

It is incredible that Israel is allowed to get away with its acts such as the citizenship law and many others like the attack on the Turkish flotilla a few months ago. At a time when barriers are falling all over the world, the Israelis have caged the Palestinians on the land locked West Bank, cutting them off from their livelihood; subjecting them to economic deprivation. While in possession of a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons that for some strange reasons is, with US and Western indulgence, taboo even for discussion, Israel urges the US regularly to attack Iran so that it cannot build nuclear weapons! In the ongoing violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians, where the Palestinians are fighting for their right of self determination and where many more of them are getting killed than the Israelis in the process, the western sympathy seems to be with those killing more and occupying land illegally with contempt. Such is the impact of the West dominated media that today after years of sustained propaganda for Israel, people have forgotten that the Palestinians are fighting for freedom. The victim has today become the accused!

The new citizenship law has been condemned even in Israel by its liberals. Yitzhak Herzog, a labour member of the Israeli parliament, has said on Israel radio “that there is a whiff of fascism on the margins of Israeli society”. An Israeli writer Isaac Herzog disagreed with Yitzhak and said that fascism in Israeli society is no longer in the margins; it has now come into the mainstream. Surprisingly, the new citizenship law has not evoked reaction from those who matter in what happens in the region eventually. There has been no reaction officially to the new citizenship law from the US administration. President Obama wants this to appease extremists like the Israeli Foreign Minister and encourage them to extend the moratorium on settlement to bring the PLO back to the negotiating table.

The new citizenship law has sinister designs. Israeli Arabs think that this is designed to ultimately throw them out of Israel. It is a clear hint that Israel is firmly in the hands of extremists who have little or no desire for peace with Palestine. They may extend the moratorium on settlements and carry the peace negotiations only to get the concession on the citizenship law that Prime Minister Netanyahu would not have otherwise agreed to give not because he does not want to but because he has reasons to please President Obama. With such elements on the Israeli side in the negotiating team, it would be futile to expect that there would be any positive outcome of the current peace talks between Israel and Palestine. One wonders if President Obama is being utterly naïve in publicly declaring in his September 23rd speech in the United Nations that he expected peace talks to end successfully in a year's time.

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

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Illegal settlements threaten Israel-PLO peace talks

The Daily Star, October 16, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

In his speech at the United Nations on September 23rd, 2001, President Obama confidently stated that the Palestinian problem would be resolved within a year. His optimistic statement was based on the success of diplomatic endeavors of his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Middle East (ME) Envoy Senator John Mitchell that have resulted in, first, bringing the two parties on the negotiating table, and second, to push the peace process ahead. He has been given significant support by Jordan and Egypt, with the latter also offering the venue for the talks that started early last month after being in cold storage from the time of President Bush.

President Obama's speech in Cairo last year offered friendship to the Muslim world and placed the Palestinian problem on top of his administration's foreign affairs agenda. Nevertheless, serious domestic issues and Iraq and Afghanistan kept him busy to be able to focus on Palestine. Only after gaining a handle on these issues, President Obama did find the time to come back to Palestine. His leadership and intense efforts of his Secretary of State and Middle East Envoy helped jump start the direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) early last month.

Although both parties discussed the substantive issues without threatening to disrupt the talks that perhaps encouraged the US President to make his optimistic statement, the issue of settlement by Israel on occupied land was there in the backdrop even when the talks started as a dark cloud threatening to derail the talks. The end of 10 months moratorium on settlements that ended on September 26th and whether Israel would extend the moratorium was the overriding issue that hampered forward movement on the substantive issues. For the PLO with Hamas breathing fire down its neck, it was well known to everybody that it would be impossible to continue with the talks unless Israel extended the moratorium. For Israel, given the fragility of Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition, it 2qw equally well acknowledged that it would be very extend the 10 months moratorium on settlement that is the key for the US brokered peace talks that started in early September to proceed.

The US sponsored direct talks have thus hit serious snag when the Israeli moratorium on settlements ended on September 26th , threatening to sidetrack Obama's optimism. The Arab League meeting early this month has provided a lifeline but the talks have not yet re-started, as both sides remain ambivalent. The League issued a statement supporting the Palestinian position that the talks should not go on if the settlement activities do not stop. The Palestinians cannot go back to the talks without an extension on the moratorium. The Israelis cannot give that moratorium without the fragile coalition snapping that Prime Minister Netanyahu is understandingly reluctant to do. The Arab League stand is expected to put pressure on the Israelis not to break the talks on the settlement issue because it does not want to be seen as the party that ended the talks. The Arab league's stand it thus expected to keep the parties negotiating by encouraging the Israelis to extend the moratorium for the talks to continue. Israel, despite the pressures of domestic politics, is also well aware of the pressure of international opinion that it cannot just set aside; international pressure that had almost cornered it after the incident a few months ago involving the Turkish peace flotilla to Gaza.

Nevertheless there are a few other factors that dampen President Obama's optimism even if the Arab League's stand helps the peace process to remain on rail. The decrease of violence and terrorist attacks on Israel has changed the mood in Israel about giving concessions to Palestine. Many Israelis feel that a Palestine state on the West Bank will create another Lebanon and more security problems. A poll taken by Tel Aviv University among high schools recently showed that 48% were ready to oppose Government's orders to evacuate settlements in West Bank. Half of the students said that Israeli Arabs were not entitled to the same rights as the Jews.

The perception in Israel as revealed by the Tel Aviv university survey is not good omen for Palestine because the threat perception in the past had made many Israelis support the peace process. On its side, the Palestinians are now more divided internally with Hamas and the PLO as opposed to each other as they are against Israel.

Despite President Obama's optimism, the ME peace process is thus far from being resolved. In fact, the peace prospect may have become more difficult to resolve than before. New realities such as as perceived in Israel on the issue of security and nature of Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition have emerged as new obstacles to Israel's interest and sincerity to the peace process. Internal division in Palestine between PLO and Hamas has weakened the Palestinians at the negotiating table. As a consequence, the rights and claims of the Palestinians that are recognized under international law and have been endorsed in umpteen US resolutions have lost a lot of strength. In the process, Israel has been encouraged to dispense with the illegality of its occupation and to go ahead with the illegal settlements as if such settlements were being built on land legally owned by Israel.

It is indeed a pity that at a time when the western powers led by the United States lay claims to morals and principles to make their war of terror a legal one do not see that the same principles and morals are trampled with contempt by Israel. The Palestinians have been pushed to such a corner that they cannot even ask for a complete cessation of settlements on land that is theirs to continue with talks, settlements that are illegal under international law; that can be endorsed only if international law accepts the principle that might is right.

Nevertheless, the ME peace process, despite what many Israelis may be thinking these days, is crucial to peace not just in the region but the world. If the West perceives that Iran is a threat to future world peace, then they must see that Muslims are not victimized in the name of the war on terror and the Palestinians are given their rights. Else, Iran will have the reason to stand up to the West using these issues as reasons to oppose the West and the rest of the Muslim world would be encouraged to look Iran's way. President Obama as the leader of the world's only Super Power and the harbinger of peace must now not just ensure that Israel would extend the moratorium on the settlements for the peace talks to continue; he must now do more. He must put pressure on Israel to help create the state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital and also come to agreement on the other major issues that have remained unresolved for many decades such as return of those who were made refugees when the state of Israel was created in 1948 and water and other related issues. The US must now stop urging Israel to do the right thing in the context of the peace process; it must now arm twist Israel, if necessary, to stay in the negotiating table till the peace process ends successfully because only by creating the state of Palestine can the PLO succeed over Hamas which is the key for a peaceful Middle East.

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

Banks and the foreign remittance business

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

Foreign remittance is one of the major economic success stories of Bangladesh. Last year, nearly 7 million Bangladeshis have sent almost US$ 11 billion in foreign exchange to the country. Major part of the money remitted has come from the Middle East where the overwhelming majority of our expatriates lives and works in conditions that are sometimes too sad to describe.

There is no dearth of praise for the efforts of the expatriates, particularly from the Government. We even have a Ministry of Expatriate Welfare. Other major manpower exporting countries in South Asia and Philippines have nothing like what we have. Yet, we all know our expatriates suffer in every step of their epic journey to go abroad, serve there in conditions that are often inhuman and then send almost all they earn expect what is required to keep them alive, and then return home to find the same poverty awaiting them as the one from which they wanted to escape by deciding to go overseas. Those who speak of the role of our expatriates in glorious terms in reality offer very little help to them when they grapple with unscrupulous manpower agents, loan sharks and their unfair employers in their work places abroad.

It is true that the expatriates remit a mind boggling amount of foreign exchange to the country. By offering us far less than that amount, our development partners behave as our masters, humiliating us publicly in any manner they like. Yet those who contribute so much to the economy of the country have not even been given a policy transparent enough for them to understand and seek protection within its provisions when they are subjected to fraud and miseries at every step of their effort to go abroad and during their stay abroad.

It has now common knowledge that the average Bangladesh expatriate worker spends 2 to 3 times more money for a job abroad than an expatriate from other countries where the job is the same type and the workers have the same qualification and experience or the lack of it. When they land in their work places, many of our expatriate workers sadly find out that the pay given to them is substantially less than what they had been promised. Given the fact that many of the expatriates borrow money from loan sharks or by selling whatever possession they have, the discrepancy in salary has two serious effects. In quite a few cases, these poor expatriates fall sick both physically and mentally and some even die from heart attacks. In many cases, the workers try to change jobs because they have no other alternative but to seek a job at better pay so that they can repay the loan that they have incurred at home. Such efforts to change jobs are illegal in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia alone, there are reportedly over 2 hundred thousand Bangladeshis running from Saudi police for seeking a better paying job.

There are just too many things that need to be done to bridge the gap between the lip service that our Government provides and what is actually offered to the expatriates to help them in their efforts. Our expatriates literally take their hearts in their hands to send us those mind boggling sums of foreign exchange. The nation owes them a big debt but doing very little to pay it back.

The private banks are pillars of our economic strength. It is their role that has allowed our RMG exporters turn what was initially a petty business into a multibillion US dollar success story. It is time that the banks should play a similar role with the manpower export industry. The present Governor of Bangladesh Bank has shown us where his priorities are by encouraging the banks to allow poor farmers to open bank accounts by paying a nominal amount of Taka 10. This initiative will allow the farmers to take advantage of the huge loans that have been diverted to the banks for benefit of the farmers. This initiative of the central bank could change dramatically the lives of the farmers and their ability to invest more into the farming sector.

The central bank now needs to look the same way at the Bangladeshis who go abroad to work. It should encourage the private banks to extend the same cooperation that it has asked for the farmers by asking them to extend private loans to them so that they can be saved from the loan sharks. By bringing the banks into the process, the central bank would also bring the banks’ legal expertise with it. This would let a stake holder of tremendous credibility bring transparency to the manpower business by examining the legal documents of the expatriates so that they are not subjected to fraud at the hands of unscrupulous manpower agents.

Southeast Bank, a leading private sector bank is currently taking part in a pilot project financed by the DFID and backed by Bangladesh Bank where it is working with a consulting firm, a manpower agency and a NGO. The objective is to let the manpower agent select and send to the consulting firm expatriates for training before they leave for their jobs. After the training or simultaneous with that process, the consulting firm will send these potential expatriates to SEBL for loan to pay the manpower agent and other related expenses at a rate of interest around 12% where the Bank under a policy will take guarantees for repayment of the loan . The potential expat will also open an account with the Bank and while remitting money home to his beneficiary, will also pay back the Bank’s loan in installments.

The project is being run as an experimental one. Its possibilities are immense. Bangladesh Bank’s initiative for the project renders it instant credibility. It would save the potential expatriates from the money sharks and also give them the opportunity to check their job related documents by the Bank’s legal department. These workers would be going to jobs after initial training. In such a transparent process, the ills that now rule the manpower business would be tackled effectively. There is just a small risk that the Bank would be taking related to the repayment of the loan. But when these poor expatriates are paying back loans at much higher rates of interest to loan sharks, there is no reason to suspect that they would default on loans from Banks at much less interest where the Banks would also have their legal papers examined to guard them against fraud.

The project has great potentials. All it would require is for the Bangladesh Bank to encourage all banks in the remittance business to follow the SEBL’s initiative and build it into a part of a national policy on remittance. For a small risk, the banks could bring dramatic transformation to the current problem ridden; untrustworthy and intransparent remittance business. It would be just s small step for the banks; but a giant step for remittance business.

There are of course a lot more areas in the remittance business that needs to be regulated but that is another story. As a starter, bringing the banks into the remittance loop, the Government could bridge the huge gap between reality and lip service in the hugely important remittance business.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt may be reached on email

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Indo-Bangladesh relations: the importance of perception

The Daily Star, October 9, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The excitement spun by the Bangladesh government about a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations following Sheikh Hasina's state visit to India in January is receding. The promises made by India have either been slow in coming or where given, the Indian concessions have not been properly reflected in the media, particularly in Bangladesh.

It is to Bangladesh's credit that it has made the first move towards resolving the decades old problems with India just before and during Sheikh Hasina's visit to New Delhi. First, Bangladesh handed the top ULFA extremists to India, thus unequivocally backing India on its security concerns. Second, Bangladesh accepted India's long standing demand on land transit by signing an agreement on a US1 billion soft loan for mainly infrastructure development to build roads, railway lines, improve river ports, etc not just to help inland connectivity but also between India and its north-eastern provinces. The old concept of transit that was very sensitive for Bangladesh has now been positively replaced as an issue of connectivity in which Bangladesh has been promised to become the sub-regional connectivity hub with great economic promises.

The economic reasons forwarded by India and Bangladesh on connectivity are strong. Unfortunately, in the context of Bangladesh-India relations that have suffered from lack of trust, economics cannot be the sole rationale for moving relations forward. In fact, economic rationale will fall by the way side unless the political and other substantive issues from Bangladesh side such as water sharing, trade, resolution of land boundary, demarcation of the maritime boundary are handled first because the dividends of economics are not instant. In most cases such dividends would come after years of initiatives and actions. The people of Bangladesh would not have the patience to wait particularly because Bangladesh has already met India's security concerns and on way to meet its transit needs.

For Bangladesh, the impatience is also enhanced from the nature of its politics where even foreign policy is contentious. When it comes to India, the contentious nature is more intense where the opposition BNP does not see much good in India's intentions towards Bangladesh. Although there has been a shift towards reality in Bangladesh about India with the people no longer willing to oppose India just because of the BNP stand, the perception that India is not trustworthy still persists because of past experiences. This is a very important reason why both India and Bangladesh must address the perception aspect that is deep rooted before expecting the people to believe that the relations are ready for a major thrust forward where there would be great economic dividends for both, particularly Bangladesh.

The perception factor is in fact crucial to the outcome of what the Bangladesh-India relations promises following Sheikh Hasina's historic visit. On the Indian side, there has been a clearly move in perception about Bangladesh; that Bangladesh is genuinely interested in improvement of bilateral relations and that it has given India more than it expected on the security concerns. By unequivocally agreeing in the Joint Communiqué to support India's Security Council candidature, Bangladesh has accepted India as the regional power to calm past Indian concerns. On connectivity, Bangladesh has shown the willingness to let its territory be used for India's interests.

The positive Indian perception about Bangladesh is acknowledged in Bangladesh but differently. The perception that is growing in Bangladesh is that it has given to Indian demands without reciprocal gestures. The connectivity issue has not been explained in Bangladesh in a transparent manner. Hence public opinion in Bangladesh may not remain optimistic for long for the economic dividends to accrue and may move towards the BNP. Even within the AL, there is a certain amount of restlessness at India's inability to respond so far on issues of concern to Bangladesh, the promises to do so in the Joint Communiqué signed during Sheikh Hasina's visit notwithstanding. The window of opportunity may thus not remain open for too long.

A group of us who had the opportunity to interact at important levels in New Delhi have returned with positive impression about Indian intentions, something not easy to perceive from Bangladesh. At the same time, we found on the Indian side a lack of proper awareness of politics and perception in Bangladesh. The Indians are convinced that economics would remove the negative perception and take Bangladesh-India relations forward on sustainable basis where Bangladesh, by becoming the sub-regional connectivity hub, would reap the benefits of cooperation with India. Such a perception fails to consider the political divisiveness in Bangladesh where it does not have the luxury to wait for economics to launch bilateral relations; where delay would be playing into the hands of the opposition that has already asked for scratching of all agreements signed during Sheikh Hasina's visit.

The forward movement of relations would now depend a great deal on the return visit of the Indian Prime Minister that is expected to take place early next year. The Indian Prime Minister must make major concessions on transboundary waters where an accord on the Teesta would be crucial. The Issue of land border demarcation that has been held up for lack of political will on Indian side and has contributed greatly to negative perception about India must be resolved during this important visit. The demarcation of maritime boundary is difficult but India must show positive attitude to negotiate on a basis of mutual benefit because Bangladesh's economic future is largely dependent on a fair settlement of the issue.

There must also be concession on trade where Bangladesh does not expect the huge gap to be reduced dramatically. It does however expect India to dismantle the tariff and NTBs to increase Bangladesh's exports to India. After our New Delhi visit, I had a chance conversation with a top executive of an important business chamber. I failed to convince him about India's intentions for improvement of relations, particularly in making Bangladesh the sub-regional connectivity hub. Individuals like him have a major role in changing perception and such individuals would be interested only if India would unilaterally lower its trade barriers to show the political will for friendly relations with Bangladesh. For a world economic power, Indian attitude on trade has contributed largely to the negative perception. Allowing Bangladesh even the best opportunity of a non-reciprocal tariff free trade regime would not even scratch India adversely but could lead to a sea change in the negative perception in Bangladesh.

For improvement of relations the ball is now squarely in Indian court with a very short time span to change perception in Bangladesh that is crucial to forward movement. The visit of the Indian Prime Minister could determine which direction relations go. In fact, if India cannot make major concessions on Bangladesh's needs and demands then his visit would be futile.

There is a postscript on perception and reality. Bangladesh is convinced that on the border, Bangladeshis are being indiscriminately killed by BSF. We were told in New Delhi that 70% of those killed are Indians and all are related to failed smuggling negotiations!

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

Who is a government servant answerable to?

Published in The Independent, October 9, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

It is time in Bangladesh to emphasize the importance of political science in public life. Listening to our ruling party politicians and civil society leaders in the media, one can perceive a gap in the understanding of such individuals about the basics of political science. I was awe struck by a statement made by the MP from Pabna during the now infamous Pabna incident. The MP said that “the DC is not a good person … he doesn't work for me or for the party [Awami League]”! The statement went unanswered and uncontested as if it was the right thing. In fact, the MP’s statement was accepted by the Government as correct and the DC and those who protested, were withdrawn from Pabna.

A Member of Parliament is a high elected official who has powers that demand respect from all, including the DC. However, it is not respect that the MP was demanding from the DC of Pabna. He was expecting him to work as his subordinate and more importantly, for his interest and that of the Awami League. The MP’s statement, if accepted as the position of the government, could be the beginning of the end of district administration that we have inherited and that has withstood the test of time. There is also the issue of democratic governance that the MP’s statement has directly contradicted.

In the good old days when communism was in favour, the communist party was more important than the government. The dictates of the party would always prevail over the decisions of the government. In fact, in those days the position of the communist party in governance also influenced the political parties in democratic systems as well. In India, for example, the famous Kamraj Plan took out important people of the Congress Government and placed them in the Congress Party in a failed attempt to manifest the dominance of the political party over the government.

The dominant role of the party over government has been diluted substantially in communist regimes since the end of the Cold War. In democratic systems, the political party today plays many roles but none that says it has any authority over the government. The nomination and presentation of candidates in the electoral campaign is the most visible function of a political party in democratic governments today. In other words, the political party has the most dominant role in electing governments but very little after the governments have been formed.

The political party chooses the individuals for elections who eventually become Presidents, Prime Ministers and Ministers. After these leaders get elected and the elected government takes charge, the role of the political party is one played out behind the scene. Over those who help run the government, the civil bureaucracy, the political party has no direct role in the way they work and operate except in aggregating public needs, grievances and demands for incorporation into the decision making process. In fact, even in such spheres, the political party interacts with the elected leaders of the government rather than with the civil servants to influence policy.

The MP from Pabna’s claim that the DC is a “not a good man” because he did not work for his interest and that of the ruling party is contrary to the principles of a democratic government. In fact, the DC acted correctly because the law does not permit him to take orders from anyone or any group not in government (meaning the executive branch) and in his chain of command. As the DC, he is obliged to listen to the MP (and the local AL leaders) but the decision he takes cannot be dictated by either. As far as the local AL leaders are concerned; they have no more legal influence over the DC than the leaders of the other political parties in the district.

Due to indifference to the principles of democratic governance by the politicians while in power, certain undesirable patterns have been established that could eventually destroy democratic governance itself. The elected political leaders in power have encouraged their party members outside government to influence the civil bureaucracy as an election dividend since the fall of General Ershad in 1991. In the beginning, the party was not well organized in considering the civil bureaucracy as an extension of their sphere of influence till the BNP came to office in 2002 and established the so-called Hawa Bhavan. In its present term, the AL cadres have made such claims as a rightful one. The criminalization of the public educational institutions by the BCL and now the Pabna incidents are very clear signs that the ruling party cadres are now well organized to exert political power on their own where there interest is less to serve the public or the party and more to serve their own selfish ones, particularly those related to making quick money from the government’s development funds and by extorting money from business and students seeking admission in public educational institutions.

The Pabna incident was a wakeup call for the government to correct extremely serious misperceptions that have become deep set in the minds of the ruling party cadres; that they can directly intervene in governance even though they are not a part of it. There were of course faults on the part of the government officials led by the DC that should have been dealt with by an inquiry by the relevant government department. Instead, the government withdrew the DC and the other officials that will only encourage the ruling party cadres to believe that they are also the government.

Our district administration is in a mess where the officials are not as talented as district administration officials of the past. The structure of district administration has also become fragile from infighting within the civil bureaucracy itself. The conflict between the elected local government officials and the members of parliament for power has not been resolved that has also weakened the effectiveness of the district administration. To give a wrong signal to the district administration at such a critical time would leave the government with no option but to turn it fully political where all officials must be loyal to the party in power or allow the party cadres to use the district administration as and when they please. In fact, the district administration is unfortunately going in those directions.

The above are bad tidings for democracy as defined in political science. The political leaders of the present government and leaders of civil society must either re-write important concepts of political science such as democracy and democratic governance or must educate themselves on these concepts, assuming that the contradictions are unintentional. Let it not be misunderstood. Government servants are answerable in a democracy to elected politicians in parliament through the due process but not the way being defined in Bangladesh.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and can be reached by email

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cabinet Division Backs Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Published in The Independent
Thursday, 7th October, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

A recent circular of the Cabinet Division (CD) should warm the hearts of the career diplomats in Topkhana who have been losing almost everything except their unimpressive building that was once the office of Dhaka’s Commissioner because perhaps no other Ministry wants it! The CD’s circular issued to all the Ministries has forbidden them not to contact foreign governments and donor agencies directly. The Ministries have been reminded that under the Rules of Business (ROB), contacts with foreign governments have to be made through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The requirement was there when ROB was written first soon after 1971 and also when it was revised in 1996. The ROB gave MFA a wide range of duties and responsibilities as the Ministry responsible for formulating and conducting the foreign policy of Bangladesh in accordance with the relevant part of the Constitution.

Over the last few decades, the other Ministries have been showing the right thumb to the MFA on matters of formulating and conducting the country’s foreign policy, with the concurrence of the erstwhile President’s Office; the Prime Minister’s Office ; the CD and of course the other Ministries. As one who has worked in the MFA and have seen closely how the MFA has been systematically deprived of its legitimate role in conducting the country’s foreign relations, I must admit that I am both happy and surprised that the Cabinet Division has finally come out with such a circular. These days we are, for the right reasons, realising the value of the Constitution, fundamental laws, rules and regulations in governance and in our lives. However, there are many who are expressing views in the public debates in favour of the Constitution and laws/rules, have themselves in one way or another stood by or even taken part in actions that have undermined the Constitution or documents such as the ROB.

The annulment of the Fifth and Seventh Amendments are very welcome for constitutional guarantees against military governments that are anathema to the spirit of Bangladesh’s liberation. However, in going after military regimes, it would be unfair to ignore facts that both President Ziaur Rahman and President HM Ershad had received enough encouragement and support from political parties and civilian groups. In case of General Ershad, senior civil servants, particularly those of the ex-CSP vintage, who were very unhappy with President Zia, guided him through the dark alleys to power through the back door, believing that with him as President, the strings of power would be with them. In Ershad’s decade long illegal hold on power he simply put the Constitution in cold storage and conducted governance to suit his whims; that of the armed forces and those who supported military rule. It would not be possible or necessary to detail here the role that the civil servants and for that matter other groups in the country played in Ershad’s scheme of things. However, it would be necessary to find out their roles to ensure that another military leader with their connivance does not usurp power again.

The same civil servants were responsible for usurping the authority and responsibility of the MFA. As a Counsellor in the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington in the early 1990s, I listened to a senior civil servant on an official visit to the United States tell us that he did not believe that a Bangladesh Embassy had any other role other than providing protocol assistance to visitors like him from Bangladesh! These civil servants systematically took away from MFA its authority on all subjects other than the innocuous and benign ones in which no one was interested. They cared little about the ROB and nothing at all about MFA. Many among them even thought MFA was really not necessary.

The civil bureaucracy has lost a lot of the dominance of yester years as the erstwhile CSP officers went into retirement. Its cohesion is also not there anymore. These facts notwithstanding, MFA continued to lose its fragile hold on conducting foreign relations as more and more of its functions were taken away and given elsewhere. The decision of the Government to let the CD handle Ambassadorial assignments and the Ministry of Home deal with diplomatic passports are the latest examples of erosion of the powers of MFA. Therefore the move by the CD to come out with a circular in favour of MFA is a surprise. Those of us who have retired as career diplomats know too well that the CD was one Division that we all dreaded when matters of MFA were referred to it for decision.

Although welcome, the CD’s circular may have come about because it is also the Economic Relations Division (ERD) that is being by passed by the other Ministries together with MFA as the ROB makes it mandatory to route aid matters to foreign governments and organisations through both MFA and ERD. It could be that MFA has received “collateral advantage” as CD’s circular was meant to establish ERD’s role and could not be done without collateral benefit to MFA. There are still ex-CSP officers who hold extremely important positions in this Government. It could be their personal views that have led to the circular of the CD. It is difficult to accept that MFA would have on its own received such favour from the present leaders of the Government and the CD. The other reason could be that in the absence of cohesion among the Ministries, each Ministry may have declared independence in dealing with foreign government and donor agencies causing concerns at the highest level of this Government.

A newspaper report on the issue based on investigative journalism mentioned that after recent initiatives with India, a number of Ministries have directly written to regional Governments on issue of trans-shipment from Chittagong port. The Home Ministry has written directly to some governments on the issue of extradition of the convicted killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and other fugitives. The Communications Ministry sent directly a list of projects for Chinese assistance that led the Chinese Embassy in Dhaka to ask the ERD if the ROB has been amended! A CD official was led to conclude that these acts have demeaned the image of the Government.

The background of the circular notwithstanding, it is both a legal and correct decision. It should be followed to its logical and legal details to restore MFA to its constitutional role in the conduct of the country’s foreign policy. Before MFA rejoices over CD’s hand of friendship though, it would need to look out for what really motivated the CD to show this act of friendship to avoid possible disappointment.

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

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Money saved or money spent?

Published in The Indpndent
October 2nd; 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The Prime Minister recent visit to New York for addressing the current session of the United Nations General Assembly was a memorable one as she was the recipient of the UN award for achieving MDG goals. At the time she left for the trip, there was an interesting news item that had attracted quite a deal of public attention. Three poets of renown who were in the Prime Minister’s delegation as “eminent persons” were lauded for their decision to forgo travelling business class in favour of the economy class to save money of the people. Of course one has to commend the poets for their care and concern for public money.

There are serious issues here though outside what the media tried to convey. The newspapers reported that the Prime Minister’s entourage to New York was indeed a large one; nearly 100 members in all. The Deputy Speaker, Ministers; senior government officials and 30 businessmen, besides a good number of “eminent citizens”; security personnel and members of the media were in the VVIP delegation. There has always been concerns in the public mind on why our Prime Minister has to travel with such a large delegation where only a very few members of such a delegation are extended official hospitality that covers hotel accommodation and food costs but not travel. In case of VVIP visit to a multilateral destination, such as the one the PM took to New York, even that hospitality is not extended where all expenses are paid by the tax payer. The Prime Minister’s recent visit has reactivated that public concern.

A Prime Ministerial delegation is divided into a few components. First, there are the officials who accompany the Prime Minister to assist her in her official meetings. Second, there is the Prime Minister’s personal staff that includes officials at the PMO. Third, there are the security officials. Fourth, there are those who are included in a VVIP delegation as “eminent citizens”. Fifth, the VVIP delegation also includes a media team. Finally, there are businessmen who are also made a part of the VVIP delegation. Except for the businessmen, the Government bears the expenses for all the members of the delegation.

The Prime Minister’s foreign trips are of two types. The one to New York is a visit to a multilateral forum. Then there are visits to countries that are bilateral visits. In case of both visits, the hosts limit number of members in the VVIP entourage to be with the Prime Minister in her official meetings; events and engagements. Depending on the country/international organization and the ability of the Ambassador, the number accompanying the Prime Minister when attending her official events is very limited; usually in the lower single digit. Hence, apart from a very few again in single digit number, the Prime Minister has no need for advice/assistance from the overwhelming number of people who accompany her. They just make the trip for their own pleasure and there is no way even if one wants to be flexible on the issue to suggest that they play any role in the success of the mission for which our Prime Minister undertakes her official trips abroad.

The issue of the security men accompanying the Prime Minister is even more interesting. When a Prime Minister visits another country, her security is the responsibility of the hosts from the moment she disembarks from her aircraft to the time she again boards it to return home. Yet we just do not see these security men accompanying the VVIP delegation in fairly large number; they are the only ones who also travel in advance to oversee security arrangements of the hosts. At our insistence, the hosts allow our security to accompany the Prime Minister but they nevertheless make it clear that it is their security arrangements and their security personnel who would be responsible for the safety and security of the Prime Minister.

That leaves the businessmen in the delegation to consider. They pay for their travel. Yet after those very few in the delegation who are actually involved with the Prime Minster in her official work, the businessmen are the only people whose inclusion in the VVIP delegation makes sense. It helps the businessman get the credibility and focus to do business abroad. The Prime Minister’s presence brings to her meetings in a host country, its top business executives that allow our businessmen in her delegation to interact with them, develop contacts, in some cases strengthen contacts and increase business.

Therefore with all respect to the three poets whose gesture was indeed noble, and who had nothing to do the way the reporters carried the news, it needs to be stressed that there is a great gap between perception and reality. The real issue is not the gesture of the poets but whether there is a need for a resource poor country like Bangladesh to let such a large number of people travel at tax payer’s account where they have no role to play as a member of a VVIP delegation. We have a pro-people, democratically elected Prime Minister with responsibilities far more important to attend to than deciding about the members of her delegation. She cannot be expected to look into these aspects but those who are supposed to tell her the facts never care to tell her that the majority of her entourage are merely tourists who have no role to play in the outcome of her visit. It is not that the poets have saved money; the fact is they have spent the people’s money that could and should have been saved fully; not just the balance between a business class and economy class ticket. If facts are put across in correct perspective, there is no doubt that she the Prime Minister will see the need to do the correct thing which is off loading the “tourists” from her delegation.

There is a postscript on the eminent persons on the trip. The only events to which they were perhaps invited were to the reception given to the Prime Minister by the local Bangladeshis and the diner hosted by the Permanent Representative in New York. I do not have first hand information whether indeed there was a Bangladeshi reception or a dinner by the Ambassador but in the past for all VVIP delegations such events have been an integral part of a VVIP trip and I assume so was the case with the New York visit that would mean the tax payers have paid for the 3 poets and the other eminent persons to travel at their cost just to attend these two events!

The writer is a former Ambassador of Bangladesh to Japan

The limits of diplomatic conduct

Published in The Indepndent, 24th September, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

An European Ambassador’s concerns about Bangladesh expressed at a forum recently, particularly about our politics, were a blatant interference in our internal affairs. The forum was provided by the Diplomatic Correspondents Association of Bangladesh (DCAB) where he was the chief guest. The Ambassador expressed his disapproval for what he termed as “hostile” politics, blaming both the party in power and the opposition for it. When asked if he saw a situation like 1/11 returning to Bangladesh politics sometime soon, the Ambassador said that he hoped not to see the repeat of 1/11 and expected that Bangladeshis would likewise hope that undemocratic governments would not return.

The Ambassador, I am told, has been in Bangladesh for quite some time. In fact, he was here when 1/11 occurred. Therefore he should know what everyone else now knows; that a few of his fellow Ambassadors worked together to “gift” Bangladesh with emergency and General Moin’s rule. At a time when, after the 5th and 7th amendments, the people are determined to see forever the back of military rule, it is imperative that the role that Ambassadors have played in our politics and continue to play, should be discussed to ensure that all avenues for entry of extra-constitutional forces in politics are secured and stopped. Surely questions should be asked why such Ambassadors have encouraged extra-constitutional interventions when they represent democracies and make it incumbent upon themselves to make us democratic!

A lot of what the people think about the western Ambassadors in the context of 1/11 could be conjectures. This notwithstanding, the diplomats themselves have given cause for such conjectures. Their indulgence with the media and politics have been the main reasons for encouraging people to think that behind the scene, they play a very important role in the politics of Bangladesh. These diplomats also forget the nature of Bangladesh society where, despite its huge population, its elite is very small and only a very small group of such elites dominate the country’s private and public lives. Some of the Ambassadors have themselves boasted in private dinners where Bangladeshi elites were present about their roles in our politics that are now common knowledge. There was one particular Ambassador who took pride in detailing his role in the momentous changes in our politics in 2007-2009.

There is of course the issue of diplomatic legality and propriety here. The issues on which the Ambassador from Europe spoke or commented in his speech in the DCAB forum are on Bangladesh’s internal affairs. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations within which diplomats act and operate in the host country strictly prohibits a diplomat from interfering in the host country’s internal affairs. Such a prohibition has been necessary because the same Convention grants diplomats immunity from persecution in the host country. The issue of propriety is also important here because the Ambassador under reference has passed comments on the Prime Minster and the Leader of the Opposition who have both been elected to those positions by the people of Bangladesh out of many considerations, of which respect has been one. The Ambassador by his comments has lowered their estimation in the eyes of the people.

Clearly there is a violation of both diplomatic legality and privilege in the Ambassador’s comments at the DCAB forum. However that was nothing new. The Ambassadors have been doing it all the time. In fact, they have been pleaded and prodded to influence our politics by our mainstream political parties. In my own experience as a diplomat for over 30 years, I have not seen anywhere I have been posted or have travelled anything close to what Ambassadors do in Bangladesh. If the Ambassadors would have expressed even a little bit of the views that they express about our politics in next door New Delhi, they would have been sent packing even before they knew what hit them. Of course, no Ambassador in New Delhi would take leave of his senses and indulge in India’s internal affairs. Before anyone would want to do that, the External Affairs Ministry would put an end to such a desire. Diplomats everywhere, as required by the Vienna Convention, must seek permission of a host Government’s Foreign Ministry to speak at a public forum or before the media. In Bangladesh also in the good old days, such permission was sought as a mandatory requirement and sometimes denied. The way the Ambassadors these days speak at various gatherings, it seems like they have themselves dispensed with such a requirement. Bangladesh is a sovereign nation and its dignity requires that the Foreign Ministry should reclaim this right granted to it by the Vienna Convention under which every country sends its Ambassador to Bangladesh.

The DCAB is clearly not aware of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations for if it were, it would not have invited the Ambassador to speak on the subject upon which he spoke. In the comments on the online edition of a leading Dhaka newspaper, there are a few interesting comments. One reader advised the European Ambassador to ensure greater advantage for Bangladeshi exports to his country and to allow Bangladesh’s environmental migrants to migrate to Europe. In fact, that is a part of the job that brought him to Bangladesh. Bangladesh did not grant him agreement to be an Adviser on our politics and to embarrass us in the media, his good feelings for us notwithstanding that would serve much useful purpose if dealt with outside the media and through diplomatic channels.

It is high time that organizations such as the DCAB and various business chambers that regularly give these ambassadors the forum to tell us how corrupt we are, how confrontational our politics is, are shown the rules and principles of diplomatic conduct, more importantly its limits. It is up to the Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh to deliver by playing the role that has been entrusted upon it by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to regulate both the conduct of the Ambassadors and the freedom of organizations to invite the Ambassadors.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and can be reached by email

My Foreign Affairs Years: Mrs. Gandhi passes the mantle

The Indepndent, October 1st., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The death of Mrs Gandhi and the emergence of Rajiv Gandhi, although a family affair, was a huge change in the Indian political context. It took away from Indian politics a colossus and brought in a novice. Rajiv Gandhi was just not a novice in politics; he was also one who in the first instance was not even interested in politics that was in the blood of the rest of the Nehru clan. In fact, he was publicly by-passed by Mrs. Gandhi herself as she allowed her younger son Sanjay Gandhi to take over the Nehru mantle ahead of elder brother Rajiv Gandhi till death by accident removed Sanjay Gandhi.

Mrs. Gandhi’s death announcement was delayed to allow Rajiv Gandhi’s return to the capital from West Bengal where he had gone on a party visit. The Congress, immediately upon the death of Mrs. Gandhi named him the Prime Minister. In the general elections held soon afterwards, he led the Congress to a massive victory. Riding on a sympathy wave, Rajiv Gandhi helped the Congress win 411 of 540 seats in the Parliament. There was a general feeling that the Congress would win comfortably but few had predicted the massive victory that the Congress won eventually. Those days, I used to write a lot of the political reports for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dhaka. My own assessment was also a very easy win for the Congress. Amongst the friends in the diplomatic community with whom we were in regular contact also were of the same opinion. However, it was our Deputy high Commissioner Ahmed Tariq Karim, now our High Commissioner in Delhi who had predicted that the Congress would win over 400 seats. His prediction made him quite popular among his peers in the diplomatic community.

President Ershad came to New Delhi for the funeral of Mrs. Gandhi as did a large number of other world leaders of the time. In a courtesy call on the new Prime Minister, the President succeeded in achieving something unique. He was able to move Rajiv Gandhi to tears when he told him that in the death of the Indian Prime Minister, it is not just that he had lost a mother; “we too have lost our mother”. A friend at the Indian External Affairs Ministry told me that there was only one other dignitary who had come to the funeral who was able to make Rajiv Gandhi emotional. Otherwise, through those fatal days of the assassination and the funeral, Rajiv Gandhi was not seen by anyone to be emotional at all.

The massive electoral mandate launched Rajiv Gandhi to great political heights. Indeed he was an instant hit to not just the Indians who voted for him but also to the rest of South Asia for whom his tenure brought high hopes. Bangladesh was one of India’s neighbours that did not feel particularly comfortable while Mrs. Gandhi was in office. There was one story that went around in the High Commission about which I heard later that on his first visit to India, there were just too much negative elements in the air that was certain to make the trip a flop. Later in the evening of General Ershad’s first day in Delhi, when Mrs. Gandhi met him for the official dinner, she eased up that was discernible from the manner in which she spoke with the Bangladesh President and even from the sari she picked to wear that day that gave the impression that she had made an effort to be nice to her guest. The Indians of course were unhappy then with military rule in Bangladesh but the visit was saved from ending in disaster because for some reason Mrs. Gandhi was happy that day although that was seldom reflected in Bangladesh-India relations.

Years later when I was Ambassador to Japan and handling Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s official visit to Japan, I was tensed not knowing how the vibes between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia would work out as the Japanese Foreign Ministry gave me clear message in advance that they would not be able to tell us how their Prime Minister would react on various issues we would raise with him at the talks as their Prime Minister was well known for his mood swings. A senior Foreign Ministry official told me frankly that a lot would depend on what impression our Prime Minister made on him. The meeting with Junichiro Koizumi was in two parts. There were official talks at the Prime Minister’s Office and the second part was at the official dinner that was held at the Residence that was a part of the Prime Minister’s Office. At the official talks, Prime Minister Koizumi was formal and the discussions were not overtly friendly. The Japanese Prime Minister’s mood changed at the dinner table where official issues were also discussed. At one stage, he even praised the Prime Minister for her good looks! This unexpected change of mood was perhaps because at the dinner table, the Prime Ministers were more relaxed and were able to connect better. In my career, I have seen this happen so many times; where no matter what we as officials did, the ultimate outcome of high level discussions depended on how the leaders connected at their level .

Generally, at the High Commission in New Delhi, we were not at all upbeat when it came to furthering Bangladesh-India relations. On the Indian side, there was seldom the interest to look at Bangladesh in the context of its problems and expectations from India. Those days, the water issue was on top of the agenda. We had at the High Commission a First Secretary whose exclusive responsibility was to remain in constant touch with the officials of the Indian Water Ministry and the Indian Joint Rivers Committee. The officer was Khalilur Rahman whom most of us used to call Khalil Bhai. His feedback was always negative; that the Indian side never had any intention of considering giving Bangladesh share of the water of the common rivers of which the share of waters of the Ganges was of the highest importance to Bangladesh.

Rajiv Gandhi had no hang over from history; nor did he suffer from the mindset that the other politicians and the bureaucrats had about India’s neighbours. He made very positive gestures and we started to get very strong vibes that we would be able to achieve a major breakthrough on the Ganges water sharing. At one stage, the High Commissioner decided to communicate these strong vibes to Dhaka. On second thought and on the advice of Ahmed Tareq Karim, Khalil Bhai was sent to the JRC to find out the position. He was told by the JRC officials where most officers those days were from South India that our High Commissioner should do nothing on what the Prime Minister says because as far as the JRC was concerned, India’s stand on the Ganges water sharing had not changed even a bit. Those days the Indians would argue that there was little water in the Ganges at Farakkha during the lean season to share and that Bangladesh should build a link canal to bring the waters of the Brahmaputra through its own territory and join it with the Ganges at Farakkha and then share the augmented flow!

Nevertheless, Rajiv Gandhi was indeed a breath of fresh air in Indian politics vis-à-vis the neighbours. We got an insight to this when Bangladesh was struck by a devastating cyclone in Urirchar. Just after the calamity, Tariq Karim received a call came from the PMO that the Joint Secretary there wanted to meet him immediately. If memory serves me right, the JS was Ronen Sen , later India’s Ambassador to Washington. After an hour or so he returned and he was excited. Rajiv Gandhi had decided to fly directly to Urirchar and see the devastation to express his sorrow and sympathy with the people of Bangladesh. The High Commissioner was again in Dhaka and we were given a very short time to get a feedback to the Indian side without anyone else other then Tareq Karim and I at the High Commission knowing what was about to transpire. Those were the days when we had to call Dhaka through the operator and sometimes, it would even take days to get a call. We somehow managed to contact the High Commissioner almost instantly and he was able to give us a positive feedback by the early hours of the following day.

Rajiv Gandhi’s visit was one of those rare occasions after 1971 when India made a gesture to reach out to the people of Bangladesh. But it was not long that the expectation generated by the visit was wasted away because at the bureaucratic level, India was in no mood to relent to the legitimate demands of its neighbours. Of course, Bangladesh also contributed its own share to help India harden its attitude and the closeness of the military led regime towards Pakistan was one cause for India’s unrelenting stance and for us at the High Commission, sometimes quite an embarrassment in the context of our war of liberation.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and can be reached on email