Saturday, March 26, 2011

Four Decades of Bangladesh Foreign Policy

Daily Sun, March 26th, 2011
Indeoendence Day Supplement
M. Serajul Islam

During Bangladesh’s war of liberation, the state actors in international politics were against it although Bangladesh had earned the respect of the peoples everywhere by the way it fought that war. Except for India and the Soviet Union, the Indo-Soviet axis of the Cold War era, no country of the time came to help Bangladesh as they successfully defeated the Pakistani military that was involved in an act of genocide in an attempt to keep the territorial integrity of Pakistan.

That lack of support of governments of the time was made up quickly as soon as the Pakistani army surrendered to the India-Bangladesh joint command on 16th December, 1971. Countries that opposed Bangladesh not only were in a hurry to recognize Bangladesh; many came forward to help build the war ravaged country. Japan is one nation that placed Bangladesh on top of the list of recipient countries for assistance.

The first decade of Bangladesh’s independence was its best 10 years in foreign policy achievements. In the years led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, foreign policy was one of the most important pre-occupation of the Government. It was the period when Bangladesh pursued and won recognition from all the countries of the world as an independent and sovereign country. Simultaneously, it also became a member of the United Nations and all other major world organizations such as the Commonwealth, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), and the Non-Aligned Movement. It also became the natural leader of the group of Least Developed countries.

Bangladesh’s foreign policy successes were also visible in the way the developed countries came to its aid with economic assistance. USA that had viewed Bangladesh’s emergence with contempt with Dr. Henry Kissinger’s insensitive remark about Bangladesh destined to become “an international basket case”, came around to meet Bangladesh’s economic needs together with Japan, the United Kingdom and a number of other developed nations known at that period as Bangladesh Aid Consortium that used to meet those days under the joint Chairmanship of the World Bank and the Government of Bangladesh.

Nevertheless, the decade of 1970 was a turbulent one in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs. The dastardly assassination of the Father of the Nation was a major blow for the country. It was more so for the country’s foreign policy. While Bangabandhu was alive, his office and the Foreign Ministry worked together hand in glove in seeking for Bangladesh a position of honor and dignity in international politics and in addition, getting for the country much needed foreign assistance to rebuild it after it was razed to the ground by the Pakistanis before they left.

Bangladesh changed its foreign policy priorities dramatically after the historic change of Government on August 15th, 1975. It cast its preference for China and in the context of China-US rapprochement, Bangladesh chose the China-US axis as its new friends in which fear and dislike for India, the country that had acted as its midwife for birth as an independent nation, was the key factor. Bangladesh had enough reasons though for withdrawing from India. Bangladesh was deeply disappointed with India on water related issues, on land boundary demarcation and trial of 193 Pakistani POWs that it wanted to try for war crimes. Many Bangladeshis felt they had bargained the Pakistani masters for Indians. Even Bangabandhu was restless by many of these insensitive acts of India and he was looking at China for leverage in dealing with India.

The new rulers of Bangladesh did not hide their contempt for India. They sought acceptance among the people by riding on the anti-India factor. Under the regime of President Ziaur Rahman, Bangladesh and China came very close in strategic cooperation, with China undertaking to build the Bangladesh armed forces that was treated with a great deal of indifference during the previous Awami League Government. China also came forward with economic assistance that was very much needed at that time for rebuilding a war ravaged Bangladesh. China, that offered economic assistance of various types that were those days extremely attractive for Bangladesh, became the major driving factor in Bangladesh’s foreign policy pre-occupations. It not just offered Bangladesh assistance at concessional terms, it also came forward to help build Bangladesh economic infrastructure that was of critical significance.

Under President Ziaur Rahman, foreign affairs were given the same importance in governance as under the previous government. President Ziaur Rahman was interested for a role for Bangladesh in world and regional politics. He conceptualized a regional organization for South Asia that ultimately became a reality with the birth of SAARC in 1985. It was due to the foreign policy initiatives of President Zia’s government that Bangladesh won a seat in the UN Security Council for the 1979-80 term, defeating handsomely a country of the stature of Japan. Bangladesh’s friendship with China that has done tremendous good to the country, both in its economic development and for strategic value, was established as an outcome of foreign policy initiatives of the Government led by General Ziaur Rahman. Shortly after his death, Bangladesh’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador KM. Kaiser was defeated by the toss of the coin to the post of the President of the UNGA by Iraq’s Mr. Ismat Kittani after both candidates had tied at 75 votes each.

The 1980s decade was a step back for Bangladesh in foreign affairs. It was also the period when the institutional basis of foreign policy formulation and execution was destroyed. More importantly, the military dictator General HM Ershad who ruled from 1982-1990 took major foreign policy decisions not in consultation with the Foreign Ministry but with those working in his office and his intelligence. Foreign policy initiatives for the entire tenure of General HM Ershad which coincided with the second decade of Bangladesh’s independence were taken more with the President’s personal interests in mind than that of the nation. Nevertheless, it was during his tenure that Bangladesh hosted the First SAARC Summit in Dhaka in 1986 that was a major foreign policy success of his Government. It was also during his tenure that Bangladesh-China relations were taken to a new level of excellence. He himself visited China five times and in that period, there were two top level visits from China to Bangladesh. President Li Xiannian visited Bangladesh in 1986 and Premier Li Peng, in 1989.

During the regime of General Ershad, Bangladesh and the United States moved close in their bilateral relations in which the President’s personal interests were crucial. He befriended important people in Washington through the very important Prayer Breakfast Group in Washington. His master stroke was in joining the US led coalition for the First Gulf War. In fact, the US Government tried its utmost to keep him in power when he was being pushed out as a result of the people’s movement against him led by the BNP and the Awami League. In the end, people’s power won and the President was pushed out ending the second decade of Bangladesh’s independence. During his tenure, Bangladesh won the Presidency of the UN General Assembly when Foreign Minister Humayun Rashid Chowdhury was elected to the post in 1986. However, during President Ershad’s tenure, Bangladesh lost the election for a seat in the UN Security Council against Malaysia. It was an ill advised decision taken without consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and at the insistence of the Bangladesh Permanent Representative to the UN, a close relative of the President. The loss also damaged at that point Bangladesh’s relations with Malaysia as the latter had requested Bangladesh to withdraw on its behalf as Malaysia till that point in time, had not sat in the UN Security Council. Malaysia had even offered to share that term that Bangladesh had arrogantly turned down.

There was one significant contribution of the Ershad era to Bangladesh’s foreign policy. It was in the late 1980s that Bangladesh started contributing troops to UN Peacekeeping missions. The Bangladesh Mission in New York played a major role in achieving the initial breakthrough in what is now acknowledged in the UN circles as Bangladesh’s greatest contributions to the work of the United Nations. The breakthrough has also been immensely beneficial because it has brought to the country huge amount of money. The peace keeping missions are also very attractive to the army officers and soldiers and they get a great deal of money from their peace keeping missions. In fact, the peacekeeping missions are also responsible in encouraging the armed forces to remain professional and not get involved in politics as they used to do in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The third decade was one in which Bangladesh returned to elected government after 15 years of military and extra-constitutional rule. This decade belonged half and half to the Bangladesh Nationalist party and the Awami League. The Government of Begum Khaleda Zia adopted as its foreign policy priorities those that were adopted by her late husband General Ziaur Rahman. Although the Cold war had ended and world politics was fluid and changing, Begum Khaleda Zia’s government based her foreign policy on close strategic relations with China and the West and a negative one towards India. Pakistan that had began to play a covert role in Bangladesh’s politics through its covert collaboration between its ISI and the Bangladesh intelligence during President Ershad’s regime continued to do so under the BNP Government.

When the Awami League came to power in 1996, there were a few marked changes in the foreign policy priorities. The closeness with India was a choice that the new government made consciously. It also paid good dividends. Bangladesh and India signed the accord on the sharing of the waters of the Ganges that India had kept unresolved since the change of Government in Bangladesh in August 1975. India also helped resolve the insurgency problem in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Agreement was signed in 1997 under the Awami League Government. The Awami League Government also achieved a major success in foreign affairs when Bangladesh got elected to a term in the UN Security Council. Despite its pro-India tag, Bangladesh and India came close to a serious border conflict in 2001 and it was only due to intervention of Prime Ministers Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sheikh Hasina that the two countries avert a major border conflict, short of a war.

The 1990s decade saw fundamental changes in international politics as a consequence of the end of the Cold War and globalization. Since Bangladesh had much earlier withdrawn from the Indo-Soviet Axis, it was not left looking for new partners in international politics and indeed benefitted from its closeness with the United States and China. Nevertheless, poor structural problem in the formulation and implementation of the country’s foreign policy did not allow Bangladesh to fully benefit for being on the right side following the end of the Cold War. Foreign policy formulation and implementation continued to remain in the hands of a very few individuals and surprisingly, continued to be significantly influenced by the military intelligence. The Foreign Office was kept deliberately weak by having its legitimate functions distributed among a number of other Ministries of the Government. An attempt by the BNP Government to bring the Foreign Ministry into the centre for formulation and implementation of foreign policy through the Morshed Committee remained an exercise in futility although the Committee had recommended that all foreign affairs functions should be brought under the umbrella of the Foreign Ministry. The Awami League Government, while unwilling to accept anything left by the previous BNP Government, accepted the way it handled foreign affairs and the Foreign Ministry. Foreign affairs under the BNP and AL Governments of the 1990s decade failed to come to the centre of governance and Foreign Ministry continued to remain sideline, with its functions distributed amongst an array of other Ministries.

The fourth decade of Bangladesh coincided with the coming of a new millennium and in the context of international politics also with the attacks on 9/11 that in its wake simply turned the way of conducting relations among nations upside down. Hitherto unheard of concepts such as doctrine of pre-emptive strike through which the US led war on terror was conducted became guiding principles of international politics. At that critical juncture, the AL gave way to the BNP that won the 2001 elections in Bangladesh. The western powers led by the USA was at that time seeking a Muslim majority country with liberal democracy , a description that fitted Bangladesh like the hand into the glove, to oppose the terrorists who were using Islam for their cause by projecting islam as a religion of pace. Instead of accepting that opportunity, the BNP led Government chose to encourage the home grown Islamic terrorists in the country thus losing a heaven sent opportunity to get the backing of the entire developed group of nations for its foreign policy interests. At that time, the government also messed its chances of winning the post of the Secretary General of the OIC that would have given the country a great handle in international politics by choosing the wrong candidate. The AL also played its part in blowing out of proportions the BNP mistakes by projecting Bangladesh abroad as a “Taliban” state.

In fact, as a consequence of its unstable and conflict ridden internal politics, Bangladesh failed to project a right image to nations abroad about the country that needed assistance in terms of trade and investment for furthering its development goals. A weak Foreign Ministry was thus unable to do much except watch Bangladesh get marginalized in international politics. In the context of South Asia, in the four decades of Bangladesh’s independence, India has gone from a minor power to a major one in international politics. Pakistan meanwhile has attained nuclear capability and become an ally of the US in the war on terror. These facts have taken these two countries head and shoulder above Bangladesh in regional politics where world leaders visiting the region do not anymore see the need to come to Bangladesh after visiting India and Pakistan.

Thus ironically, Bangladesh’s position in international and regional politics, instead of improving with each successive decade, has gone in reverse. Some of it has been out of Bangladesh’s hands and the consequences of changes of international politics. Some of it however has been contributed by Bangladesh itself by treating foreign affairs indifferently and keeping the Foreign Ministry intentionally weak. Under the present AL led Government, the country has at least half a dozen Advisers/Ministers formally and informally sharing foreign relations with the Foreign Minister in a manner that is almost absurd. At least in half a dozen important Embassies, non-cadre and political Ambassadors are in charge. Some of these missions are also in charge of Bangladeshis who have divided loyalty. To all these , we have now thought it prudent to “worry” the likes of the US Secretary of State and a host of world leaders on the issue of Dr. Yunus whose negative impact will no doubt fall on furthering our foreign policy priorities. It is difficult to comprehend how a weak Foreign Ministry would tackle the possible fall outs of such an un-wise decision of the Government for it is extremely unusual that a US Secretary of State or for that matter the US Congress or so many world leaders to be snubbed snubbed the way Bangladesh has done with the Dr. Yunus episode.

Any writing on Bangladesh’s foreign affairs will be incomplete without reference to the successive Bangladesh’s Government’s much touted economic diplomacy. True, today Bangladesh’s nearly 7 million people serve abroad and send remittance worth nearly US$ 11 billion a year in foreign exchange that has a major positive impact on the country’s economic development. Bangladesh has also done very well in exporting its product abroad. Unfortunately such successful endeavours have been largely the outcome of efforts of the private sector rather than in any way due to its economic diplomacy. The country’s foreign policy has failed in a major way in building a positive image that is more than amply reflected in Bangladesh’s poor performance in attracting FDI despite a number of natural advantages such as geographical location, cheap labour and a large market. In fact, its economic diplomacy is an amalgam of media statements and declarations that has very little basis in sound policy.

As Bangladesh starts its fifth decade of independence, its foreign policy has made a major shift towards India. After over 3 and a half decade of pursuing mutually unfriendly relations with India, Bangladesh has assured the latter of total commitment for that country’s security concerns. This can only result in weakening of Bangladesh-China strategic relations under which China has helped build Bangladesh’s armed forces almost exclusively as well as help the country’s economic development. How that works out in the new decade of our journey as an independent nation will have to be seen. One conclusion can be made at this stage. Bangladesh’s foreign policy , both it is formulation and execution, has not evolved after the first decade of our independence in a positive way where the institutional basis that was there in that decade has weakened in the course of the next three decades. It does not need much common sense to conclude that such weakening has only affected the country adversely in seeking its foreign policy goals.

The writer is a former Secretary and former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt. He can be reached on his email id

Thoughts on Independence

The Independent, March 26th, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

One of the many thoughts that come flooding out my memory to my consciousness when I think about 1971 is the evening of March 25th, 1971. A friend and I were in the Dhaka University Club close to what was then Iqbal Hall (presently Sergeant Zahurul Huq Hall) that was the base camp of the students who were preparing for the fight ahead. A lawyer, now quite a well known one, who those days was closely involved with the negotiating team of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman told us that if a document had arrived that mid-day at Road Number 32, all the waiting would be over. He then paused for a moment and said, if it had not, then “keep your finger crossed.”

I arrived home in Dhanmandi RA around 9pm that night. Soon afterwards, a friend who was an Army Captain made a call from Dhaka cantonment. He asked me to stay home, under no circumstances to look out of the window and if possible to hide under the bed. The phone went kaput soon afterwards. That night and the next day and night, we stayed home with curfew clamped over the city, terrorized beyond expression, with incessant gunshots making that terror eerie and unbearable.

When curfew was lifted on the third day briefly, a friend and I surveyed the horror of the two nights in which the Pakistani Army killed innocent Bangalis of all background and left many of them dead on the road. We then returned to my home and sat with my father who was speechless. My father was an educationist, a retired Principal of Comilla Victoria and Government Commerce College, Chittagong. He was one of the 10 East Pakistani economists who signed the “Two Economy” paper at the annual conference of the Pakistan Economic Association in Peshawar in 1958. He knew of the economic disparity. He also believed in Pakistan and actively supported the cause of Pakistan’s independence in 1947. He did not lose that faith even in March, 1971.

But after those two nights and a day of carnage, my father sat before us in a pensive mood. After a while, he told us in a firm voice that Pakistan was dead and Bangladesh’s emergence was just a matter of time. It was just moments later that the three of us listened to that famous broadcast from Sadhin Bangla Betar Kendra in which then Major Ziaur Rahman declared the independence of Bangladesh in the name of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. My friend and I watched my father’s face and we did not need any more convincing that Bangladesh’s birth had taken place.

Those days, we who were in Dhaka used to share secretly whatever information we could gather from personal sources. In particular demand were newspapers and magazines like Time and Newsweek. I can still close my eyes and read in my mind one particular story carried by one of these two well known magazines. It was about a village in Bangladesh where the previous day, the Mukti Bahini had ambushed some Pakistani soldiers and killed one of them. The Pakistani army returned the next day and collected quite a few middle aged and old men as the young men had all vanished, many having joined the Mukti Bahini. A Pakistani army captain demanded from them information about the Mukti Bahini, threatening to kill them if they did not cooperate. One by one, they were killed yet no one betrayed the Mukti Bahini.

It was also the time when people of all background followed one voice, the one they heard on March 7th of their leader Bangabandhu asking them to unite for freedom. It was a call that united a nation of 75 million in a manner that did not unite any people in history. The people of Bangladesh responded to his call in a manner that has few parallels in world history. There were collaborators but their numbers were insignificant and although they assisted the Pakistani army in crimes against humanity, committing such acts themselves, they had no impact on the determination and resolve of the people of Bangladesh in fighting for their independence.

During my career as a diplomat, I have served in many stations where Bangladeshis reside in significant number. I always used to feel proud seeing that Bangladeshis far outnumber Bangla speaking people from West Bengal in these cities. I now travel frequently to Washington. Events of either the Bangladesh Embassy or of the many Bangladesh associations or organizations there invariably draw more people than the organizers can accommodate. The Bangla speaking people from West Bengal in Washington also hold functions of their own but they come nowhere near the number and the fanfare that accompanies those organized by our expatriates.

As a diplomat in Washington, I still remember the words of Mr. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, then the Indian Ambassador to the United States, at our National Day Reception in 1991. All the guests had left except Mr. Ray who had remained with us the Embassy officials. He told us that he was nostalgic and finding it hard to leave, because he did not want his “dream” of attending such gorgeous reception in Washington with so many ladies wearing the sari and speaking Bangla to end!

In the pre-1947 days, our elders grew up and lived in a British India where they were dominated in almost all spheres by West Bengal. In fact, because of the lack of development of East Bengal in those days, our cultured, well-groomed and well spoken Bengali compatriots of West Bengal used to refer to us in a rather derogatory manner as Bangals because in addition to our lack of development, we could not speak the Bangla language as they could. We spoke in local dialects that they thought was a distortion.

How much we have progressed in comparison to West Bengal was driven home when I was a member of the Prime Minister’s entourage to Kolkata where she was invited to that city’s famous Book Fair in 1999. I was a Director-General for South Asia at that time. In one evening of the visit, a group of us were in the hotel office room at Taj Bengal. We received the West Bengal Chief Minister Mr. Jyoti Basu and his Deputy Mr. Buddhudev Basu. We also received Ms. Mamata Banarjee (she was then not a central Minister) and we talked with them before taking them to the Prime Minister like they were simple visitors, without any disrespect to any of them. Nevertheless, we felt we were representing a sovereign government while these individuals were representatives of a provincial government of India. At the reception given to the Prime Minister by Kolkata’s social elites, we could feel by their show of respect to her how big strides our independence has given us in international affairs.

West Bengal is a province of India. Thus it is not a fit subject of comparison. Nevertheless, to our generation who went to the Universities in the 1960s and generations who came before us, it can be a measure of judgment of the fruits of our independence. To leave West Bengal behind and so substantially is no small measure of what we have achieved as an independent nation. It is also the opportunity to pay them back for calling our fathers and their fathers and perhaps also their fathers, Bangals.

These are some of the thoughts that come in a hurry in my memory as I look back to our glorious war of liberation and our independence with pride. Nevertheless, as we celebrate our 40th National and Independence Day and pay our homage to those whose sacrifices have earned us our independence, I cannot help feel sad and sorry that the unity that brought us together and earned us the respect of the rest of humanity has all but been exhausted. Instead, we have divided ourselves over issues and matters so trivial that it is indeed tragic for such division stands in our way to achieve our true potentials. We should spare ourselves a moment and harp on the unity and how dearly we need it today. In fact, it is this unity that is what we need to achieve the Bangladesh for which we fought in 1971. Without that unity we will remain independent, be better than West Bengal but never fulfill the dream and vision for which we created Bangladesh in blood and fire.

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

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bangladesh-India Border Talks: Forward movement in relations

Daily Sun, Sunday, March 20th, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

There has been some major forward movement in Indo-Bangladesh relations at the recently concluded meeting of the heads of the border forces of the two countries. Major General Rafiqul Islam, Director General of the Border Guard, Bangladesh (BGB) and Mr. Raman Srivastava, the Director-General of the Border Security Forces (BSF) led their respective delegations. The talks were held in New Delhi between 8 and 12 March. A Joint Statement was signed after the talks.

The ghost of Felani, the teenage Bangladesh girl who was killed by the BSF in January in Kurigram and whose dead body was left spread over the barbed wire fence at the border that had created widespread bipartisan condemnation in Bangladesh, created the background for the talks. The two sides reviewed all pending issues carried over from the last talks at this level and reached a few positive decisions.

The most positive one was that related to the killings of innocent Bangladeshis like Felani in the Bangladesh-India border by the trigger happy BSF. At the joint press conference, the leader of the Indian delegation said that the BSF soldiers would henceforth carry non-lethal weapons at certain designated spots on an experimental basis. If the experiment is positive, the experiment would be expanded to bring the entire border under its purview. The DG however made it clear that the BSF soldiers would also carry their normal weapons while carrying the non-lethal weapons.

Death of innocent Bangladeshis at the hands of the BSF soldiers is a major sour point in the bilateral relations between the two countries. Felani’s death had brought patience in Bangladesh to a breaking point over the inertia of the Indian Government to stop the killings of innocent Bangladeshis. In fact, people were aghast when it took the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs nearly 10 days to hand over a protest note to the Indian High Commissioner against the killing of the young girl Felani.

The deaths has also been severely condemned and criticized by the Human Rights Watch, an international non-government watchdog against such arbitrary killings. The Watch’s report for 2010, has mentioned that in the last one decade, over 1000 Bangladeshis have been killed by the BSF on the Bangladesh-India border. The Report has gone to great details in investigating many of these deaths. In the majority of the cases, death could have been very easily avoided if the BSF had adopted a more civilized approach to the problem.

During the end of the last term of the Awami League, the two countries were involved in an armed conflict over killing of innocent Bangladeshis in the border by BSF soldiers, the first and only time in the history of the two countries. It was stooped before turning ugly after Sheikh Hasina and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee intervened on behalf of their respective countries. It did not however do India’s image in Bangladesh much good. Since then, the Indians have taken a number of steps to stop smuggling and illegal movement of people from Bangladesh to India that the BSF has identified as the major cause for the deaths. The most important of these steps has been the fencing of the Bangladesh-India border on the Indian side. In 2005, the Indians External Affairs Minister Mr. Natawar Singh categorically stated that it was Indian intention to fence the 4000 miles long border to stop cross border illegal activities. A large part of that intent of India has already been accomplished.

Despite the border fencing, the deaths of Bangladeshis at the hands of the BSF has not declined nor the way they are being killed. Although in such killings, there are many Indians too that are not reported in the Bangladesh media, the fact remains that the Bangladesh nationals are killed indiscriminately and insensitively. It is a well known fact that a very vibrant smuggling trade thrives at the Bangladesh-India border. India has the fence on its side and also the control of the gates. Therefore, it is India that must take the responsibility for the deaths of both the Bangladeshis and Indians some of whom have been shot and killed while running from the BSF. None of these victims were armed.

On its part, Bangladesh Government, both under the AL as well as the BNP Governments and even when the Caretaker Government was briefly in power, has regularly asked the Indian Government and the BSF authorities to stop these senseless border killings. The Bangladesh side has consistently asked the BSF to use non-lethal weapons in stopping Bangladesh nationals in the border because they were in a majority of cases used as conduit in smuggling operations that are largely controlled by operators on the Indian side with full knowledge of the BSF. It is a well known fact that on the India side of the Bangladesh-Indian border, phensedyl factories have been set up with official permission of the Indian authorities whose products are all smuggled into Bangladesh! In case of most of the Bangladeshi victims, their deaths are the outcome of smuggling deal with the BSF authorities going wrong. The insensitivity of the Indian side was brought home even when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was on her official trip to New Delhi last year and being treated as a state guest in exception of protocol for the visit of a Prime Minister. The BSF’s trigger happy ways against Bangladeshis went on like business as usual.

In the context of how this unfortunate issue has been handled by India in the past, the news from New Delhi augurs well for Bangladesh-India relations. An editorial by one leading English daily of Dhaka, while welcoming the decision, has written that the Indians would do well to see that no more innocent lives of Bangladeshis are lost.

The news that the Indians would allow Bangladesh 24 hours’ access to the enclaves of Dahagram and Angorpota enclaves through the Teen Bigha corridor is another welcome news from the Delhi talks. The Indians have unbelievably sat over it for over 3 and a half decades after the Indira-Mujib border agreement was reached in 1974 that should have given this access at that time. This will help clear some of the negative perceptions in the public mind about India’s small heartedness. Nevertheless, to borrow a cliché, it may be very well said, better late than never.

There was a final piece of good news from New Delhi. The two countries will soon introduce a ceremonial retreat or lowering of flags on Bangladesh-India border at Petraople-Benapole as is done in the Attari- Wagah sector on the Pakistan-India border. All these come together with the news that Bangladesh and India have reached an agreement on sharing of the water of the Teesta. The sum total of all these may be some forward movement in Bangladesh-India relations in the near future.

Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohon Singh is now expected to visit Bangladesh after the elections in April in West Bengal (the first round of those elections will start on April 18th). The long wait to see the Indian hand in improving the Bangladesh-India relations after Bangladesh played out its hand by giving India total commitment on its critically important security concerns and land transit, may be over with this impending visit. Or will it?

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a former Secretary to the Government.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan: playing with fire

Published in Daily Sun
Saturday, 12th March, 2011

The assassination of Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti on March 2nd, at the hands of his security guard has dented Pakistan’s already fragile image as an intolerant country. In January, Pakistan’s a leading politician and Governor of Punjab Mr. Salman Taseer, was also gunned down by his security guard for he too like Mr. Bhatti had been campaigning against Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws that target minorities, particularly the Christians. In both cases, the alleged killers were widely hailed in the country. In case of Mr. Bhatti, information on his security was leaked by government security detailed for him.

In case of Mr. Bhatti’s assassination, there was official apathy for his death that was palpably visible. At the funeral of the late Minister, the Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was the only senior Government official to turn up. The rest of his cabinet and officials, were conspicuously absent. Their absence was more than adequately made up by the presence of a large number of foreign diplomats, including the US Ambassador to Pakistan Mr. Cameron P Munter.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have brought the country criticism and censure from abroad particularly from the western nations. It was introduced in the country during the tenure of President Ziaul Huq who was an Islamic fundamentalist. The laws that are part of Pakistan’s Penal Code derive their authority from Article 2 of Pakistan’s constitution that makes Islam the state religion and Article 31that mentions that it is the duty of the country to foster Islam. The blasphemy laws that are included in Pakistan’s Penal Code are spread over a number of its sections. Section 295 prohibits defiling or damaging a place or an object of worship. Sub-sections of this section prohibits specific acts against Islam such as acts against Quran, against Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon Him), etc and also specifies nature and extent of punishment that extends up to the death penalty. Section 298 and its sub-sections are also parts of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Article 298-C contains discriminatory provisions against the Ahmediyyas.

The blasphemy laws are now threatening the very basis of Pakistan, already weakened first, by the aftermaths of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and now by the events after 9/11 when Pakistan became an US ally in the war against terror but now shows all the signs of becoming a victim of terror. The blasphemy laws of Pakistan were intended to respect Islam in a country where out of its 173 million people, 97% are Muslims and only 1.6%, Christians. In Pakistan, the religious minorities are not even by the remotest stretch of imagination any threat to the power structure in the country. The Ahmediyyas who have been made religious minorities and against whom the blasphemy laws have been systematically applied in Pakistan are also likewise not a threat to the Muslims of Pakistan.

Yet there have been hundreds of cases in various courts in Pakistan under the country’s blasphemy laws. Strangely, not all the victims of these draconian laws are non-Christians. The majority of the cases under the blasphemy laws have been brought against Muslims who have chosen to come into conflict with these laws. Coming into conflict is not difficult either. In fact for those who want to bring charges under these laws can find enough provisions in Pakistan’s Penal Code to do so easily and at will.

The case of Asia Bibi exposed the notoriety and their ridiculous nature of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan to the rest of the world. Asia Bibi is a Pakistani Christian who worked in a farm in Sheikhupura village. In 2009, she was asked to fetch water by fellow farm workers some of whom refused to drink water from her hand because they believed Christians to be “unclean”. There were some arguments over it but the matter later got entangled over property differences that Asia Bibi had with a neighbour. A mob went to her house and beat her and her family and accused her of passing derogatory remarks about Prophet Mohammed (phub). A case was filed against her under Section 295C and she was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. The case is pending appeal in a higher court.

Asia Bibi still is now languishing in jail, awaiting her fate. Pope Benedict has appealed for clemency and human rights groups round the world have been vocal in her favour. The fundamentalists pursuing her case have threatened that if the High Court turns down the death sentence or if she is ultimately granted clemency, they will take the law into their hands and implement the death sentence. A human right researcher writing on the Asia Bibi case commented that the “The law creates this legal infrastructure which is then used in various informal ways to intimidate, coerce, harass and persecute."

Between 1986 and 2007, 647 cases were brought before the court for trial. Fifty percent of those who were charged were non-Muslims clearly underscoring the there is opposition among the majority Muslims against the blasphemy laws. However there are ominous signs in the way the blasphemy laws are being played out in Pakistan’s volatile politics. Of the 647 against whom charges were brought, 20 were murdered. Those who are wildly supporting the blasphemy laws have support at important places of the government. In case of both Mr. Bhatti and Mr Taseer, the government’s intelligence helped the assassinations. Mr. Bhatti who knew his life was at stake because of his opposition to the blasphemy laws, tried many ways to protect himself, including staying away from his official residence at night but in the end , his killer tracked him down where he simply lay in waiting for him to pull his trigger. In case of both the Governor and the slain Minister, the killers showed no remorse and were hailed by many as heroes.

It is scary that even the government at the highest level is bowing down to these elements as was evident by the absence of Government leaders excepting the Prime Minister at Mr. Bhatti’s funeral. These elements have been able to put the fear of death in minds of a lot of leading figures of Pakistan. The saddest part of developments in Pakistan over the blasphemy laws is the surrender of the Pakistan People’s Party to these elements. Prime Minister Gilani has said that his Government is not going to change the blasphemy laws, not even after knowing that these elements were behind the death of Benazir Bhutto. Britain’s leading newspaper The Guardian in a recent editorial put Pakistan in perspective with its despicable blasphemy laws by writing that “the government, the army the courts are playing with fire. Appeasement never works and in the end it will consume them all.”

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and Secretary to the Government

On Bangladesh Cricket

Published in The Independent
Saturday, March 12th, 2011

It was not just the Bangladesh cricketers who disappointed us by their performance against the West Indies last week. The spectators were worse. The same crowd that ran behind the Bangladesh Team’s bus from Mirpur Stadium to the Hotel for wining a match against Ireland was on a rampage when Bangladesh lost to the West Indies. TV footages showed Dhaka University students taking down Bangladesh flags and advertisements related to the World Cup inside DU campus, the same students who were cheering late into the night after the Irish victory. Hence we cannot even say that the uncivilized behaviour was carried out by illiterate people.

The incident of throwing stones at the West Indian team’s bus was disgusting. Chris Gayle used choice words to abuse Bangladesh. From his bus, he went on Twitter and the news was instantly caught by news media around the world, denting Bangladesh’s fragile image abroad. A police official said later that the stones were meant for the Bangladesh team and landed in the West Indian bus by mistake. Chris Gayle did not show much sensitivity because he damaged a country’s image for faults of perhaps a handful of people.

The nation was shocked and disappointed because of build up in the media that was largely exaggerated on the issue of the ability of the Bangladesh team. The worst part of what should be for Bangladesh cricket termed as Black Friday was the attack on the house of the parents of the Bangladesh captain. It was utterly despicable to see how we can so easily fall to such utter depths of uncivilized behavior.

I am sure that those who are in charge of cricket in Bangladesh will use this defeat to good purpose by examining what went wrong. Cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties. Those uncertainties would have been acceptable if the fate of our team had been due to some exceptional bowling by the West Indians. That was hardly the case for when Junaid Siddiqui batted; he scored those 25 runs so fluently that his innings put in contrast the ridiculous ways in which his team mates were bowled out. The pitch was tailored to suit Bangladesh’s batting and bowling. It was a slow pitch that meant the West Indians’ fast bowlers were not expected to get much assistance from it. The team batted as if they were out to score 400 and even when the ship had sunk, it was incredible to see how Mohammed Ashraful was smiling at the crease as if he was out there for fun!

For those who understands cricket, the defeat was shocking because this time around, Bangladesh is not being considered as a minnow. Cricket commentators who in the past were dismissing Bangladesh rather insultingly are now accepting that on its day, Bangladesh can beat any of the teams playing in this year’s World Cup. However, this notwithstanding, we overlooked the fact that our expectations on cricket have been based on series victories in limited over’s cricket against West Indies, New Zealand and Zimbabwe and one time wins over Australia and India. In exaggerating the value of these victories, we failed to consider that we beat a West Indian team that was utterly depleted of its best players and we “white washed” a New Zealand team on home ground at a time when New Zealand is having a lean spell. Zimbabwe is today a minnow by its own acknowledgement and choice.

Our victories against Australia and India for which we have congratulated ourselves profusely have come after we have been losing to them monotonously. What could have been very well considered as a flash in the pan was instead taken by our media and our people who watch cricket as climbing the Everest. Suddenly, we became a self-acclaimed world cricketing power. Before the start of the Bangladesh-India game, due to the build up in the media and among the people, many genuinely expected Bangladesh to beat India.

The expectations were nevertheless built around certain facts. First we have in at least two of our players, Tamim Iqbal and Saqib al Hasan, class performers. Second, when the Bangladesh team plays, they show at certain stages of games, talent that inspires those watching to believe that this team would be able to beat anyone not just one time but repeatedly. However, we chose to build our expectations to become world beaters based on just these two players who themselves, despite their immense talents, have a lot to learn. More importantly, when they fail, the team crumbles like a pack of cards.

We did a few other things wrong too. The way the team was treated after its “white-wash” against New Zealand sent the wrong signals to the players. They were showered with land and cars as if they had brought the country the World Cup. A small section with a sense of history was reminded of General Mobuto and his gifts for the Zaire Football Team after it qualified in the World Cup Football, only to lose miserably. The team was unable to return home, fearing public wrath and the houses of the players were burnt.

It is time for all concerned with cricket to go back to the drawing board. There is a lot to be said about cricket, about team selection, etc. Let that be said elsewhere except let me raise one or two cricketing point here for the readers. Tamim Iqbal is a brilliant cricketer but he is not yet Virendra Sewag . Even Sewag now realizes that in 50 overs game, he must play till the last or try to do so. India has many world class players to hold the innings if he fails. Bangladesh has just Tamim Iqbal. Hence it is stupidity to let him play his attacking innings from the first ball. He has shown against India that he is capable of playing a restrained innings. Why then should he be allowed to play for himself only? Mohammed Ashraful is another player who summarizes both status and state of mind of Bangladesh cricket and cricketers, perfectly. He fails with monotonous regularity; yet he is included in the hope that the one good innings he plays once in a blue moon would also bring Bangladesh a once a blue moon win!.

And what about the media? Those who write on cricket need to educate themselves. After our victory against Ireland, newspapers carried banner headlines of this victory! It is time for all to show balanced response to our cricket that has improved substantially but still has a long way to go. We are today not taken for granted in limited over cricket while in Test we have still to prove our worth. In limited over cricket, we are far from attaining anything close to consistency in winning. In fact, we are still consistent in losing. In building our cricketing hopes, we should keep this in mind. We are building our hopes without caring about statistics.

Notwithstanding any of the above, Bangladesh could still move to the second round of the World Cup because of the upsets in Bangladesh’s group although its chances would have better if England had lost to South Africa. But Bangladesh cannot do that on cricketing ability alone, not yet; it would need a miracle of major proportions to move to the quarter finals.

The writer of a former Ambassador to Japan.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

On love for the country

Published in The Independent, March 5th , 2011
M. Serajul Islam

We begin each year by celebrating the return of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from his captivity in Pakistan to an independent Bangladesh that his vision and leadership created. Then in February, we devote the entire month to Bangla.

Our glorious war of liberation started with declaration of independence on March 25th, 1971. We now devote March every year to celebrate our independence and continue for the rest of the year remembering the great events of the 9 months long war. In April, we devote the month to the Bangla New Year. In August, we have the month of national mourning. We end the year as the month of liberation. In fact, there is hardly a month when we do not see the nation involved in demonstrating some event or other showing our love for our motherland, its history and culture and individuals whom we hold in esteem.

Other nations also acknowledge their history; celebrate their independence and if they have a leader like our Father of the Nation, they show him respect. They do these things but their enthusiasm comes nowhere to what we show. Where other nations spend a day for a national event, we end up devoting up to an entire month with some of these events and with our war of liberation, the observance just never ends. Does it then mean we love our country more than others love theirs?

If we look beyond the national events and leaders to our literature and songs devoted to our love for our country, we would surely stand head and shoulder above any nation on earth. In our poems, we depict Bangladesh as the most beautiful nation and express sentiments that no doubt reflect that our poets and those who read such poetry have their hearts in the right place but not their heads. The exaggeration is obvious.

What is really a wonder is the fact that in a country where we show such love for our motherland in so many ways, a significant part of the people accuses another significant part of utter lack of patriotism! For those of us who have lived through 1971, we know it to be true without any argument that except for a handful of people who collaborated with the genocidal Pakistani army as Razakars, the overwhelming majority of our people gave unequivocal and unwavering support to the cause of our freedom. It is therefore unacceptable that there can be such a large number of people opposed to Bangladesh today.

It is time therefore for us to look dispassionately whether we need to play our emotions and exposure in national life a little less so we can concentrate better at nation building efforts. There are many new issues cropping up in our national life on which we are unfortunately not focusing. A Few days ago, we wanted to watch World Cup Cricket on a big TV screen at a city’s elite club. We were not allowed because quite a large number of members were watching Indian superstar Mr. Salman Khan’s performance at Bangabandhu National Stadium where Hindi and Indian culture were on display and aired by a local TV channel for rest of the country to watch. We took the World Cup Trophy to the Shahid Minar that the nation cheered but the same nation also enjoyed Mr. Khan’s programme where Bangladeshi performers also joined with songs and dances alien to our culture. The fact that this was February meant little to the organizers and did not also draw any protest from those who are so passionate in our public life with such issues.

In Fact, in between our public passion with patriotism, we are being engulfed with invasion of Indian and foreign cultures , thanks to the easy availability of Indian TV channels and indulgence of our own private TV channels depicting copy cat programmes from Indian TV channels. In the midst of our indulgence with Bangla, we are blissfully overlooking how it is being sidelined from educational institutions to which not just the rich and the powerful but also people with lesser resources are sending their children. Bangla has in fact lost out in importance in educational institutions since our independence. Former US Ambassador Harry Thomas once said in a private discussion that he was amazed that in Bangladesh the upper section preferred the English schools for their children; those in the middle the Bangla schools and the vast section of poor of the country the Arabic schools while in public the whole country was overboard with their love for Bangla!

We take pride for the International Mother Language Day unaware of the fact that the Day is for committing ourselves to languages that are dying. We are pledge bound to save the languages of our indigenous peoples and our hill tribes but we are so busy with Bangla at the public level that we have just no time to bother about the languages of these peoples that our dying.

Have we served Bangla to the extent of the love we show for it? Speakers in this year’s “Boi Mela” have lamented that good books on serious subjects in Bangla are hardly coming to the market. Unless we are able to produce research and text books in Bangla, our language will never reach the heights for which it has the potential. The other sad aspect of books in Bangla is the cost factor. The ordinary folks are only capable of buying a token number of books in Bangla; nowhere to make such books an inevitable part of our lives. The rich and the powerful generally keep away from events as the Boi Mela because they have little use of these books.

We should feel proud of our love for our country; it language, history and leaders. However, sadly a lot of that love is not translated to nation building. We must consider restraining our emotions and spend more time and energy for nation building. Perhaps less emotion could lead us to do better things for the country. For instance it could help us find out that families of many we admire so emotionally in public are languishing in private in deep financial crisis and encourage us to care for them.

The bottom line is everyone loves his country for that is the natural thing to do. In his famous poem “Patriot” Sir Walter Scott had written those immortal lines: “Breathes there a man with soul so dead, who hath never said to himself, ‘this is my own, my native land.” The love of an individual for his country is natural as is one’s love for mother; anything to the contrary is not. Hence, patriotism is taken for granted everywhere without the need to boast about it or exaggerate it.

The way we demonstrated our love for the motherland in 1971 places us in a class of our own on patriotism. In fact, our sacrifices in 1971 should encourage us to be humble and use that patriotism to translate to reality the causes for which so many had made the ultimate sacrifice.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a former Secretary to the Gover

Daliy Sun, March 6th., 2011

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Branding Bangladesh and Image Building: The Problems

Published in The Bangladesh Journal of National and Foreign Affairs
Volume 8; Number 1, March, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

As a diplomat now retired, one of the many regrets that I have had over the years was the fact that I was not able to serve the country abroad in the early days of our independence. For my colleagues, who served the country overseas at that time, representing Bangladesh was a matter of pride. They could hold their heads high as representatives of the country that fought and won freedom that most nations would not even have dared to contemplate.

Yet something went amiss. In fact, a lot went amiss thereafter. Then it was no longer such a matter of pride to be a Bangladeshi diplomat abroad. The nature of politics at home was something that did not make life comfortable for a diplomat as humiliating questions aimed at Bangladesh were quite common from hosts in our places of postings; questions that made us hide our faces in shame. The horrendous crime perpetuated in killing Bangabandhu and his family was enough to wipe out all the international good feelings for Bangladesh that the country had earned by its glorious war of liberation. Bangabandhu himself did not help much either in the context of Bangladesh’s image. His 4th amendment to the Bangladesh constitution that turned Bangladesh from a democratic to an autocratic state was another fodder to the international press to humiliate Bangladesh.

It was however Dr. Henry Kissinger’s insensitive and gleeful nod to Ambassador Alexis Johnson’s reference to Bangladesh as the international basket case, made in Special Group Meeting on December 6th., 1971, that dealt a mortal blow to the country. Even after many decades, that cruel joke haunts Bangladesh and the damage it has done to Bangladesh’s development efforts is just too costly to comprehend. If there was justice in international relations, Bangladesh would have the perfect case to sue Dr. Kissinger and Ambassador Johnson for grave damages to Bangladesh. Dr. Kissinger, who encouraged the remark of Ambassador Johnson out of personal grudge that he and President Nixon held against Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Soviet Union, gained momentum in the international media after the famine of 1974 in Bangladesh; the 4hth amendment to the Bangladesh constitutions and the assassinations of Bangabandhu.

The 5th and 7th amendments that legitimized military rule and further damaged Bangladesh’s image abroad and made its development efforts that much more difficult given the fact that for a resource poor Bangladesh, international support was then as it is now, of the essence to its development efforts.

Despite the poor international image, the country made significant strides once democracy was restored in 1991. Kissinger’s international basket case has now an economy whose GDP size is close to US$ 100 billion that is larger than half of all Africa’s 54 states taken together. Seven million expatriates of whom the overwhelming majority have gone from Bangladesh’s poor villages have sent to the country roughly US$ 11 billion in foreign remittance last year. Bangladesh’s RMG exporters are now world class entrepreneurs competing with the best in business for markets in USA and Europe. In Dr. Yunus’ winning the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, all these major developments of Bangladesh have found projection before the world.

Still, Bangladesh has not yet fully recovered from the damage done by Dr. Kissinger. The international media took Dr. Kissinger’s theme about Bangladesh to heart and even used the natural calamities that visited Bangladesh more than other developing countries to continue to brand Bangladesh as a hopeless case. I still remember a Bangladeshi stringer for a British newspaper who had woken his contact in London to tell him about an important event concerning one of the major elections of the country. His contact was angry to be woken up at night and the stringer was told that he should wake him up next time only when he had a major disaster in Bangladesh to report!

The dark shadows woven about Bangladesh’s image will never go unless it is tackled as an issue of major national importance. In fact, if any nation is begging on its knees today for branding to change its image, that country is Bangladesh where it has put almost all its acts together to come before the international community as a country of hope for a better future. Take two examples and the point will be clear. Dr. Kissinger based his infamous and insensitive comment on the aid Bangladesh would need in case there was a famine. Today, Bangladeshis with more than 2 times the population is close to self sufficiency in food production and famine that Dr. Kissinger had feared, is a matter of the past. Bangladesh has today achieved the best preparedness against natural calamities like cyclones and floods that has made the world acknowledge the country’s resilience and its abilities. In fact, when an international conference was held in Japan after the Tsunami, Bangladesh was invited as a special guest to talk in the conference because of its successes in dealing with natural calamities although the country was not affected by Tsunami.

Bangladesh has almost put its entire act together to brand itself. The icing on the cake without which the cake will be incomplete and hence cannot be sold in the international arena is the getting together of the political leadership and providing that icing. Unfortunately, here Bangladesh has a formidable obstacle because of the partisan and conflict ridden nature of its politics. In 2005, the internationally acknowledged financial institution Goldman and Sachs named Bangladesh as one of the “next11” emerging economies. It was wasted because the BNP was indulging with the Islamic fundamentalists and Awami League eager to tag Bangladesh as a “Taliban” state. In the post 9/11 world, the two parties could not have done worse for Bangladesh. The emergency that followed did not help Bangladesh’s desire to brand itself as a country with hope for a better future.

The Awami League’s calls for “digital Bangladesh” and “Time for Change” have encouraged the private sector to lead the yearning for branding Bangladesh. There are a number of initiatives taken by private sector groups for this purpose. Unfortunately, at the level of politics, the environment necessary for branding Bangladesh is deteriorating. The calls that had inspired millions of new generation of voters for “digital Bangladesh” and “Time for Change” are turning out to be weak slogans and politics is becoming more partisan and conflict ridden.

Hence despite the country being ready for branding, politics is not. At the government level, there is no serious move for branding. There is an acceptance for image building at government circles that can be loosely interpreted as branding that the private sector is trying to achieve but even in image building, the government is talking more and doing less. In such talks and weak efforts at image building, clichés have dominated the thinking of the government and still does to create a positive image of Bangladesh internationally without much success.

The clichés that have dominated the psyche of all governments, including the present one, have been Bangladesh’s beauty; its longest natural beach in the world; its glorious war of liberation; and its sacrifices for language; etc. While these factors are useful for domestic consumption; these have little saleable value internationally. For instance, the love of our poets in the country’s beauty notwithstanding, such beauty is average in comparison to natural sites in other countries. Our longest beach may be a geographical fact but shorter beaches round the world attract much more tourists. Our contribution for language has won UNESCO recognition but again does not many takers abroad.

There may however be many takers if Bangladesh looked for image building materials elsewhere. As an Ambassador of Japan, one of the proudest moments for me was when I was listening to songs of Farida Parveen who was invited as a guest by Japan Foundation to mark the 30th year of establishment of Bangladesh-Japan diplomatic ties. She sang Lalon songs to the accompaniment of flute by a person whose name I cannot remember now except the fact that he was a world class flutist. Her songs were translated into Japanese. The audience listened to the songs in rapt attention. Afterwards when I spoke with some of the audience, I could feel the rendition had touched their hearts because Japanese people have great depth in the themes that Lalon’s songs uphold. We seldom if ever make attempts project such treasures abroad and tend to think such efforts are a waste of public money. Instead we prefer to give our poets free ride with the Prime Minister on her foreign trips and when they “choose” to travel in economy class instead of business, our media eulogizes them for their concern for public money! If Farida Parveen and Lalon songs are used for branding and image building Bangladesh in Japan, then we could just not reach the Japanese purse but their hearts, keeping in mind Japan’s Buddhist traditions went from Bangladesh through Atish Dipanker over a thousand years ago.

We miss out on the richness of our history and civilization too eager to dwell on the present where controversy raised by the two mainstream parties have not allowed us to benefit from the sacrifices our people made in 1971 that has few parallels in history. In the process, we have not been able to project that our history is as ancient and as glorious as of next door India that has branded itself successfully as decedents of a civilization that has been unbroken for many millenniums.

Our branding or image building has failed so far for many reasons; as those cited. However, it has also failed because the country has not spent the resources needed for such a national effort. In fact, the governments have so far undertaken propaganda oriented efforts that they have chosen to call image building, spending pittance for such silly efforts. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has an apology of a wing called the External Publicity Division that has been given in the most non-professional and ad hoc manner, the task for image building. In next door India, it has under the External Affairs Ministry, establishments like the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the External Publicity Division for official image building of India. These establishments have authority and resources to undertake the image building of India whose budget is perhaps more than what we spend for our Foreign Ministry!

Thus although everybody today acknowledges that branding and image building should be one of the major objectives of the Government, the ground reality for undertaking such an effort is not there. It is time that the civil society actively takes up the case to put pressure upon the political leaders to take a bipartisan approach to this important national task. The objective should be to give the role of branding or image building, as in India, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and provide it with the appropriate resources to lead Bangladesh’s image building and coordinate the initiatives being undertaken at the private level.

On the important issue of branding, the country must first decide on a bipartisan approach that is absolutely crucial. It must then choose a Ministry of the Government and give it the responsibility for branding Bangladesh and give it the power, authority and resources. That Ministry should logically be the Foreign Ministry that would have nearly 50 of its Embassies located on foreign soil for image building. Once these crucial issues are resolved, the Ministry must take professional assistance of the highest standard, preferably from professional establishments abroad, for the purpose. Thereafter, its history and civilization; its glorious war of liberation; its rich cultural diversity; music, song and dances; its cuisine; its economic successes; should be woven into a theme. That would be the branding part.

Then would come the all important image building part. The Government must have a plan and a strategy for sustained efforts over a long period of time. While this is being undertaken, the branding and image building exercises must be considered as important a job of the government and the nation as defending the country’s sovereignty. Only then can we put behind us the ghost that Dr. Kissinger and the international media criminally tagged to us that we did not largely deserve, never to haunt us anymore.

The task is a humungous one and the nature of Bangladesh’s conflict ridden politics does not cause much hope in most minds that the country will come together for branding and then image building. In absence of such much needed efforts at national level, the country can only depend on the private sector efforts. The government can supplement these efforts by encouraging them, and importantly, keep politics out of it. The Government could do something else too. It could take the propaganda out of publicity that hampers both branding and image building exercises. The opposition could supplement these approaches to branding and image building by refraining from what the AL did when it was in the opposition; by not washing the country’s dirty linen in public and that too abroad.

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