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.