Saturday, April 30, 2011

In Search of truth in Public Affairs

Daily Syn,May 1st., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

I write rather frequently these days for newspapers on current affairs. I face an ordeal for almost every piece I write on our domestic and foreign affairs because of the difficulty in assessing facts and the truth regarding major issues of our national and foreign affairs.

Take for instance the important visit of the Indian Minister for Commerce to Dhaka. One English Daily’s caption on the visit reads: “India to pay land transit fees.” The minister, according to this paper, said categorically that India would pay transit charges based on “internationally established” norms. The minister deals with WTO affairs on behalf of India and should know WTO provisions like the back of his palm. What happens then to the statements made by important people representing this government that Bangladesh cannot charge any transit fees from India? The issue is a subject of critical importance in Bangladesh-India relations, one that the opposition has rejected outright. In fact, not long ago, the idea itself was pariah and was not uttered in public, not even by the Awami League Government when it was in power the last time.

However, here lies a big problem not just for me but for Bangladesh. Something unusual has been happening with this government since it assumed office. Often while speaking on major national and foreign affairs issues, the ministers contradict their own statements and public utterances. The ministers and party leaders also often contradict one another on such issues publicly. Our ministers and party leaders often play the game of contradictions for totally inexplicable reasons sometimes; at times for purely their own self-interests and often because they love to speak to the media, particularly the private TV channels.

Hence it is hardly surprising that the Minister for Finance called late President Ziaur Rahman “a great war hero”. I am sure when he said this at the function of the Foreign Ministry honouring diplomats who had defected in 1971; he had not forgotten that a good number of his Cabinet and party colleagues have identified the late president as a collaborator, a Razakar and a Pakistan agent! There is of course no doubt that President Ziaur Rahman was exactly what Mr. Muhit has said. The declaration of independence he read on Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra was heard by millions, not once, but over and over again in those nine months of our liberation war. He also led the fight for liberation as a Sector Commander and fought the enemy within the soil of Bangladesh.

The Finance Minister has also cleared Grameen Bank on two counts of alleged wrongdoing based on a report by a government constituted committee. He has given it a clean chit over the Norwegian fund. He has also said that the 20% interest rate GB charge is the lowest among the micro-credit institutions of the country. On both, the statements contradict the Prime Minister and many of his cabinet colleagues and fellow senior party members! While the Adviser for Power has given assurance that our misfortune with power outages are going to end soon, the Parliamentary Committee on Power has said that we cannot expect respite from power shortages for a decade more.

On the issue of the constitutional amendments, our ministers have done the same thing. Some of the ministers have said that the 1972 Constitution should be restored in its original form; that the Islamic insertions made by the 5th and 7th amendments should go to restore its secular character and that Jamat should be banned because it uses Islam for political ends. Other Ministers have said that while secularism should be restored as it is the Court’s verdict, certain Islamic provisions brought by amendments should not be touched, like the insertion of Bismillah and Islam as a state religion through the 7th amendment. For a long time, ministers were unanimous in demanding the banning of Jamat. Recently, the Prime Minister has drawn the line by stating that secularism would be restored but the Islamic provisions would remain and Jamat would not be banned. A former Minister for Home Mr. M. Nasim has only the other day said that it would no longer be possible to restore the 1972 constitution!

Very recently, on the issue of the share marker scam, the same lack of well coordinated views from ministers and important ruling party leaders were obvious once again. For a Committee handling a very sensitive issue, it was almost eerie the way the Minister for Finance and the Chairman of the Committee played out the issue in the media. The Finance Minister stated categorically publicly that the Report would be made public only after names that were mentioned in it were edited. The Chairman of the Committee went to a private TV channel and without blinking an eyelid named a number of well known individuals from the business community for wrongdoing that he himself contradicted later, again on a private TV channel. The strangest thing of all surrounding the public drama played with the Report was that while the Finance Minister insisted on not making the Report public, all who wanted to read an unedited copy of the Report was given one through the Internet – courtesy of the internet based newspaper The SEC that was at the receiving end as one held the guilty party in the Report has now come out with a statement blaming the Committee of bias and lack of professional competence.

In this game of contradictions, no one with the responsibility on behalf of the government cared to consider the plight of many thousands of people who were taken for a ride in the share market scam and reportedly lost their fortunes. These people were seen in public display of their anger as they went breaking cars and vehicles for days together and ended their frustration by blocking the road in front of the DSE, kneeling in prayers, to rest their case with the Almighty knowing the futility of expecting action from the government.

It is high time that some sense is brought into the way leaders of this government are confusing the people and even themselves by making statements on important public issues without checking facts or without consulting one another. Ministers and advisers have specific responsibilities and charges. They should confine their public statements only in the context of their own responsibilities. There is therefore the urgent need of some coordinating mechanism for ministers/advisers when they speak in public on any issue that they share with other ministers/advisers. They should also be strongly advised not to comment on issues of national importance for which they are not responsible as ministers/advisers.

One hopes that Mr. Sharma’s categorical statement will lay to rest the un-necessary controversy over India using Bangladesh’s roads for economic reasons. In fact, someone in this government should make an effort to go back to the Joint Communiqué issued after our Prime Minister’s visit to India to see why we are talking of land transit (which in Bangladesh-India context means carrying goods from mainland India to its northeastern states through Bangladesh) when the JC just recommends for use by India of the Chittagong and Mongla Ports to carry goods to and from India.

In any case, the controversies that the ministers/advisers raise in public mind by their statements to the media that they themselves often contradict as well as get contradicted by their colleagues should stop forthwith to enhance the credibility of the government and in the interest of the nation and truth.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Double Click to Read

The Independent, As I see it Column, April 30, 2011

Land Transit to India for Free?

Daily Sun, April 23, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

For over 3 decades we who worked in the Foreign Ministry and had the experience of dealing with India felt extremely disadvantaged not just because of our size but also because of our poor natural hand in bilateral negotiations with our great neighbour. We were at India’s mercy with the vitally needed water of our rivers, with the maritime boundary, on trade and on border issues. Our only comfort was in the belief that we had the “land transit card” in which India was very interested for economic reasons. We knew it was a strong hand and if we played it deftly, we could get from India our legitimate demands.

Therefore, it is extremely surprising to wake up suddenly to the fact that the “transit card” is a useless one. An Adviser to the Prime Minister has gone on record to state that it would be “uncivilized” to ask from India any fees for transit. At least one senior Minister and few others have referred to relevant WTO regulations to which both Bangladesh and India are signatories to prove why Bangladesh cannot charge any transit fee from India. Senior members of our own Government are now advocating land transit for India for free!

This Adviser’s statement is “breaking news”. What is comforting though is that an inter-Ministerial Committee headed by the Chairman of the Tariff Commission has recommended in a Report to the government between US$ 4- 50 in transit fees depending on the route to be used. The Report that has dealt with a wide range of other related issues has been reviewed by the Ministers of Finance, Foreign Affairs and Commerce and a few Advisers of the Prime Minister. They have however given no reaction on the recommendations.

The Bangladesh side never agreed to accept land transit as an item in the agenda for discussion in the many decades of bilateral negotiations with India. Even the Awami League did not allow the issue to be discussed in bilateral negotiations, knowing how sensitive it is to Bangladesh when it was in Government from 1996-2001.

The controversial land transit issue was given a new name to make it acceptable to Bangladesh after this Government came to office and started bilateral negotiations aimed at achieving a paradigm shift in the otherwise conflict-prone bilateral relations. The two sides started to refer to land transit as regional connectivity in which Bangladesh was conveniently pitched as the hub for road and rail network to bring it with Northeast India, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and South China into a sub-region of economic growth and development. Bangladesh was drawn into the concept at a time when except for India talking with it secretly, none of the other countries were even consulted. India threw in a soft loan worth US$1 billion to be spent with India’s approval primarily for building roads and related infrastructure to facilitate land transit under a new nomenclature.

In addition, India also offered electricity to an energy starved Bangladesh. Very deftly, the Indians transformed an issue in bilateral relations that no Bangladesh Government in the past, except the present one, dared to even talk about in public, let alone discuss it with India without the latter relenting on the issues of water, trade, maritime boundary, etc. Without receiving even one concession on any of these issues, Bangladesh has presented India land transit to India on a silver platter. To make it sugar coated, some members of its own Government together with interested groups in non-government circles are now eager to offer land transit to India free!

Bangladesh must be a very generous country or it may not even know what its national interests are. If WTO regulations do not allow it to charge India for transit, how come Government sources quoted huge amount of money that Bangladesh would make by allowing India land transit to make a controversial bilateral issue saleable to the people? More importantly, who would pay for the infrastructure costs that would be according to the Tariff Commission’s Report over US$ 7 billion? And what about the environmental costs and damages where Bangladesh is a frontline state in the fight against environmental degradation?

These questions apart, why would an Adviser of the Government use such a harsh word as “uncivilized “to criticize his own country in favour of India where the latter has been anything but fair in dealing with Bangladesh? Why are others in Government taking a different stand? The way Bangladesh Government is dealing with the issue shows that those in charge are not clear about what they are handling with an absurd lack of coordination that will only strengthen he hands of the opposition that has already dismissed the land transit issue as sell off to India.

The only way to deal with the opposition would be to show the people clearly the financial gains that would accrue to Bangladesh from land transit. If the Adviser and his supporters succeed in waiving for India the transit fee, then it would not need a crystal ball, WTO provisions if they are there notwithstanding, to predict that India would never get to use Bangladesh roads for its economic benefit knowing that the opposition has the support of almost half the people of Bangladesh.

It would be in India’s interest therefore to urge the Bangladesh Government to ensure that its officials do not contradict one another or offer land transit to it free. India should simultaneously also show its willingness to give Bangladesh its fair share of the river waters and resolve other outstanding bilateral problems for bipartisan support of Bangladesh on land transit.

As for its diplomatic efforts, Bangladesh has made a mess. India that coined regional connectivity to get land transit must be smiling at Bangladesh’s negotiating skills by the way certain sections in the Bangladesh Government and non-government organizations and individuals are openly talking of land transit without the need to refer to it as regional connectivity! India must also be curious as to who runs Bangladesh’s foreign policy but happy nevertheless that people within Bangladesh Government are doing it favours that it dared not even ask of Bangladesh Governments in the past.

The surprising support in a section in Bangladesh for giving India land transit has raised apprehensions in a lot many particularly because those supporting are in government and willing to giveit free and without any reciprocity from India. For the many who feel apprehensive that Bangladesh is playing away its only card against India without caring for its national interests, the hope seems to lie in the fact that the infrastructure for land transit would take 4 years in implementing. In the context of Bangladesh’s politics, the issue could come back to square number one in this period of waiting!

There is a postscript to the drama over the transit fees. India has very recently written to the Government of Bangladesh that it should fix “reasonable” transit fees. Perhaps the Indians are unaware of the WTO regulations as some of us in Bangladesh know or if they know, they know, such regulations notwithstanding, how absurd it would be for expecting to receive land transit from Bangladesh without charges given how shabbily and unfairly it has treated Bangladesh in the past.

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

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On Human Rights and Bangladesh

Daliy Sun, April 18th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The Human Rights Report that the US State Department publishes every year at this time of the year, is out. In the Report, the State Department grades the countries of the world every year and has been doing so for a long time now. The Bangladesh Country Report on Human Rights for 2010 is available on the website and the web address for it is:

The Foreign Minister has taken serious umbrage with the report. In a press briefing, she said that the report on Bangladesh “has been weak, inadequately researched and poorly sourced.” According to her, credible reports on human rights are those documented and presented by internationally recognized human rights organization, like for instance the United Nations Human Rights Council. She also said that Bangladesh has twice been elected in this body that reflects the country’s standing on human rights issues.

It is not difficult to fathom the disappointment of the Foreign Minister. The report has made observations about nature of governance that does not show the Awami League led Government in good light. The main criticisms are:
1. Security Forces continue to kill people in custody and extra-judicial deaths in the hands of RAB continue to be a “matter of serious concern.”
2. The judiciary is becoming increasingly politicized that constrained the access to justice by the opposition.
3. Freedom of speech and press freedom remained threatened and journalists continued to be under pressure from security forces.
4. Right of assembly continued to remain an issue for those who did not belong to the ruling party.
The Report also spoke of other forms of discrimination as those against women, religious and ethnic minorities. It did not fail to mention about the 59 deaths in custody of those accused of BDR killings of February, 2009 as a matter of serious concern in violation of human rights.

A great part of the report consists of information of deaths of individuals in custody. It has gone to some depths in reporting these cases. Most of these have been based on information given to the media by leading human rights organization of the country such as Ain of Salish Kendra (ASK) and Odhikar. The report has also taken a lot of its information from the newspapers. In collating these information, the Report has underscored the fact that despite such cases of extra-judicial and custodial deaths being reported extensively in the newspapers and in the media as well as by human rights organization in their reports, very little to no action has been taken by the authorities to deliver justice for the deaths and violations of human rights.

An underlying message in the report is the political bias in the violation of human rights. The report said that “politically motivated violence is on the increase since the AL assumed office.” It quoted Odhikar to report that 220 deaths were suspected to be politically motivated in 2010 as compared to 251, the previous year.

It is unfortunate that the Foreign Minister has out of hand dismissed the US State Department’s Report. There are many elements in it that needs to be addressed. In that context, the Government should have taken the Report as an encouragement to address the issues raised because that would have enhanced the image of Bangladesh. One has to agree with the Foreign Minister on suggesting that the credibility of Bangladesh on the human rights issues has been enhanced by its membership of the UN Human Rights Council. But to assume that the membership of HRC sets aside the human rights issues reported in the US Report is not logical.

The reason is a simple one. No country has a perfect human rights record. Even the United States that publishes the yearly report on human rights across the world for reasons that it alone can explain has violated and continues to violate human rights. The Muslims for example have faced many basic human rights violations in the United States after 9/11. Therefore criticisms, no matter who makes it, are useful if the country in question is willing to accept it. In fact, acceptance will make it a better nation than rejecting it, especially when as is the case with Bangladesh, the issues and facts raised in the Report are those that everybody in the country knows to be true.

On the matter of our membership of the HRC, readers could find it interesting to see the names of some of the countries that are members of this Council or have been members in the past. For reasons of politics, countries with abysmal human rights credentials have found a place in the Council. There is a further issue that we need to look at carefully. Bangladesh depends on support and assistance of the international community. In this context, the support of the United States is critical. Whether we like it or not, our development partners, USA included, these days make it imperative that we stand firm on human rights credentials for their favours. Therefore, it may be poor diplomacy if we dismiss the US State Department’s Report publicly that will not enhance the country’s standing in any way but will put at risk the future of millions of our people.

And why should we dismiss the Report just like that? The extra judicial killings have become a Frankenstein. When it started, many people were happy because they thought RAB would take out those that the law and politics were protecting; thugs and crooks who were making lives of the common people intolerable. Before people had time to take a deep breath, RAB had become a power unto itself. In fact, while the extra-judicial killings started with the BNP, it did not recede under the CG. The AL that made an election promise to stop all forms of extra-judicial killings is stuck because such killings are going on like business as usual. Sadly, other law enforcing agencies have taken up RAB as their role model and these killings are going on as merrily as ever.

It is puzzling and unbelievable that no strong voice is heard from the so-called civil society on the story that accompanies each extra-judicial killing. The official story always is about a fight between RAB and the law enforcing agency and the suspect/s where the former is forced to shoot in self defense that ends in the death of the suspect. In these fictitious “encounters” in which many hundreds have died thus far, not even one law enforcing agent has been hurt. They are explaining these deaths as if those listening are children. It is incredible that the Government is accepting these explanations! To outsiders, it just shows how shallow we are as a nation.

If the Foreign Minister had instead argued against the right of the US State Department to bring out yearly such a report on all countries of the world , it could have hit the right chord with a lot of people. But that is a different issue. We have serious human rights problems and it is incumbent upon us to deal with it. It would not be wise to ignore the abuses just because the US State department has reported it.

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

Friday, April 15, 2011

On Nehru’s Vision of a united India

The Independent, As I see it Column, April 16th, 2011
M. Serajul islam

A video is making rounds on the internet on YouTube. It is a speech of a well known and well respected retired bureaucrat at a seminar in the city. He wanted people present at the seminar to know that India has not accepted the partition of 1947 and that they have a plan to reunite Bharat Mata.

He spoke of a resolution that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru helped adopt at a meeting of the Central Working Committee of the Congress a month after the 1947 partition. When he was charged for the failure of the Congress to protect Bharat Mata, Pandit Nehru found a way out of a tight spot by adopting a resolution that described the 1947 partition as “temporary” and that India would be united again.

The retired bureaucrat gave a range of examples from his official and personal life on the Indian intent. In one of these examples, he revealed that Bangladesh had given India permission for running the Farakkha Barrage on a trial basis during Bangabandhu’s time for seven days only that India unilaterally extended permanently till the 1997 treaty was signed.

Facts clearly prove that the bureaucrat is correct about India. The way India handled the issue of Teen Bigha is a shame. The way India constructed the Farakkha Barrage and unilaterally withdrew waters of the Ganges was an unfriendly act. India’s failure to be fair to Bangladesh on trade issues is equally unfortunate. Their decision to construct Tippaihmukh and indiscriminate killing of Bangladeshis in the border are unfriendly and insensitive acts.

However, to conclude from these examples that India has a plan to annex Bangladesh to undo the 1947partition is farfetched. Lots of water has gone under the bridge that has thrown many new factors into the equation that has changed the way Pandit Nehru and his colleague’s viewed India’s destiny in 1947. For one, Pakistan has since emerged as a nuclear power and thus has a rock solid insurance against Bharat Mata.

Bangladesh has emerged in blood. People have tasted freedom. It is not just that; Bangladesh now has a population of 150 million highly politically conscious people. The country has done well all around except in politics. Seven million Bangladeshis live abroad. The country’s GDP by 2010 estimates was over US$ 100 billion. Its homogeneity could be the envy of nations that suffer ethnic, religious, regional or rich-poor divides .If only it could set its political in order, Bangladesh could someday become the most successful country in South Asia.

Pandit Nehru’s vision did not take any of these facts into consideration. He could not because these facts have emerged after his death. Nevertheless, these facts have altered the dream of Nehru and many like him who took comfort in the belief that Pakistan would not last and India would again become one. However, there are still many in India who believes in the vision that Nehru left in their psyche. Bharatiya Janata Party’s concept of Hindutva that it espoused while in power is Pandit Nehru’s vision of 1947 in a different name.

However, BJP’ dream of Hindutva was a manifestation of its irrational beliefs that millions of Hindu fundamentalists hold that partition allowed the Muslims to escape the clutches of an independent and united India under Hindu domination that would have allowed the majority Hindus to settle the score of Muslim domination for 800 years. India, looking into the future at this stage of its history, knows too well that such a desire would stand between India and its vision to emerge as a regional leader of world stature with permanent membership in an expanded UN Security Council.

One must also think about what India would gain by fulfillment of Panditji’s vision. For one, India would with Bangladesh a part of it; have to accept all of Bangladesh’s demands made to it over the last 4 decades. It will have to take care of 160 million people who can be very troublesome. Indians would also have to consider nearly 300 million Bengalis of Bangladesh and West Bengal uniting under Bengali nationalism which could be the start of India’s disintegration. Equally dangerous to India’s unity would the prospect of 150 million Bangladeshi Muslims uniting with an equal number of Indian Muslims that would make India the largest Muslim nation on earth. If Indian leaders are sensible there is no good reason for India today to believe in Panditji’s vision in the physical sense.

India has already achieved more than it bargained for in 1971. When it entered the Bangladesh war of liberation, it was not sure whether it would be able to break Pakistan. Having done that, India has relieved itself of Pakistan’s pressure from the East. The value of this, given the nature of problems in India-Pakistan relations, is fantasy becoming a reality. Nevertheless, the retired bureaucrat’s apprehensions were right about Bharat Mata. There is a genuine problem for Bangladesh with Pandit Nehru’s vision. This is coming less from India but more from amongst us. All of a sudden, some of us and the number is not small, have woken to the fact that those raising apprehensions about India are wrong; that India is our friend in need.

These Bangladeshi friends of India do not see any harm in Farakkha, or in trade deficit or Tippaihmukh. Nor do they care how generations of Muslims on either side of 1947 partition have suffered from the Zamindari system overwhelmingly dominated by the Hindus or from their Hindu neighbours. Strangely, they say that the problem then and now is with us; that we are fundamentalists and that Islam makes us that way.
The video of the retired bureaucrat is a must watch one for these friends of India. While they watch it, they should spare a moment and think about India that they admire for its history; its democracy and its secularism. Our history is as rich as is India’s and our democracy, conflict ridden as it may be, has made significant strides. India has hundreds of millions of active members of the RSS and the Hindu Mahashaba, both stridently Hindu fundamentalist organizations who support the BJP that has formed government at the centre.BJP has a Chief Minister in Gujarat who has genuine aspirations of becoming an Indian Prime Minister who stands accused by the United States for personally supervising killings of Muslims in Gujarat. In the context of religious fundamentalism, we are still in the minor league because the overwhelming majority of our people have kept the religious fundamentalists parties insignificant. In India, the BJP with hundreds of millions of its supporters is in the super league and espouses Hindu fundamentalism proudly and has no qualms with Hindutva that proposes to make India a land of the Hindus.

Panditji was right about Pakistan being temporary though but not the way he envisioned or the retired bureaucrat concluded. Pakistan was the need of history arising out of the British policy of “divide and rule.” Having taken power from the Muslims without firing a single shot, the British ruled us for 200 years by playing the Muslims against the Hindus. To Hindus, they gave education, job, and commerce. When the Muslims became politically conscious at the turn of the 20th century, they found that the British had given the Hindus a head start and had prepared for them, a second class status in an independent India.

Pakistan allowed the Muslims to escape such a predicament. Everything else about Pakistan was illogical. West Pakistani leadership ended the illogical state by its genocide in 1971, although its destruction was embedded in its creation in 1947. Bharat Mata in the physical sense or the way Panditji visualized is a myth for India was united only under the British in the sense we understand an independent country today. Nevertheless, Bharat Mata is in Indian psyche; the urge to dominate the Muslims of South Asia for reasons of history. That is what India has manifested all these 4 decades with Bangladesh. Our only chance to escape the grasp of Bharat Mata is to unite. The spirit of 1971 demands of us that unity.

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

Monday, April 11, 2011

On sending our workers to Japan

The Independent
April 11th, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

I read with interest in one leading English daily about experts suggesting that the Government should take immediate steps to enter the Japanese manpower market. They have said that as a consequence of the earthquake and tsunami devastation, Japan would require to undertake massive reconstruction work for which they would need to import manpower from abroad. They have said that the depletion of the ME manpower market has made it necessary to look at Japan urgently together with renewed efforts in Malaysia.

While appreciating the concerns of the experts, there are issues of history, culture and policy concerning Japan that they have overlooked. In fact, they may not even be aware of it. Japan is one of the very few countries in world’s history that was never colonized. In fact, for 200 years up to the middle of the 19th century, Japan pursued a policy of isolation. Although Japan later interacted with the outside world, there are in Japan many widely held misconceptions about foreigners, most of them uncomplimentary.

In the 1950s, Japan’s economic situation was desperate. It did not have any other resources other than human to reconstruct a war ravaged country. That destruction was epitomized by the atom bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan developed through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s virtually on its own and emerged as the second strongest economy in the world. Japan did not depend on any help from outside in its development in terms of manpower. True the last earthquake has been the worst in its recent history due to the accompanying tsunami causing damages worth US $ 235 billion. But Japan overcame one in Kobe in 1995 where the damages were worth US$ 200 billion at a time when the economy was doing worse than now entirely on its own. There is no doubt that it will also tackle the recent one also on its own without any need to import manpower.

In recent years, Japanese population has shown a declining growth and in many sectors in the small and medium enterprises, the country has faced a serious shortage of manpower for a long time now. As Japan became affluent, people, particularly the new generation, became less and less interested in serving in these sectors that added to the dearth of manpower in these enterprises. Nevertheless Japan did not consider opening its door to manpower from other countries, largely because the homogenous Japanese society did not feel comfortable with foreigners.

Instead Japan introduced a scheme for the SMEs through the Japan Industrial Training Cooperation Organization (JITCO) to bring to the country people to work as trainees and apprentices for a total of 3 years. Under this scheme, Japan fulfilled a small part of the need for manpower in the SMEs and also its duty as a responsible developed country to help developing country train its manpower. JITCO is a Government programme that was introduced in 1991 by five Ministries including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice. Over the years, it has brought to Japan thousands of workers from many developing countries in Asia including China, Vietnam, etc. In 2005, Bangladesh also signed with Japan, the JITCO agreement.

Unfortunately, the JITCO agreement was not activated in Bangladesh till only very recently. Why it was not activated is in itself a sad story that shows government inertia when it comes to helping people. The JITCO Agreement is designed to bring to Japan workers from developing countries like Bangladesh in about 60 designated SMEs, like welding, packaging, agricultural etc. The SMEs of Japan themselves interview and select the workers in the sending country. They l train them in basic Japanese language either in the sending country or in Japan. They pay for the workers’ air travel and even a monthly amount to the workers’ family for security for losing an earning member to the JITCO programme. In Japan, the worker works as a trainee at first and then as an apprentice up to 3 years.

The worker under the JITCO programme is not allowed to overstay and must return to the sending country. In the three years, an average worker can save Taka 15 to Taka 20 lakhs (by 2005 estimates when Bangladesh entered the JITCO programme) together with training and experience in world’s second strongest economy. The JITCO agreement does not allow any authority or agency to charge the workers even a single cent and also prohibits the manpower agencies from entering into the programme. The agreement does not limit the sending country on number of workers they send to Japan.

I was personally involved in the signing of the JITCO agreement. Later when I returned from Japan in 2006, I met Ministers and officials before this Government came to office, urging them to activate the programme. I could not believe that any sensible government would let such an agreement lapse. In one of my meetings with senior officers of the Expatriate Affairs, I heard one officer ask what JITCO really offered to them. For this officer, the fact that Bangladeshis would be trained in Japan for 3 years, would not have to pay a cent and return home with Taka 15 to Taka 20 lacs were not good enough reasons! In contrast, our workers who go to the ME pay up to Taka 2 lacs to manpower agents to work under inhuman conditions for a paltry salary. Our Expatriate Ministry favoured the latter and not the JITCO programme till recently, perhaps because there is something for them in sending workers to the ME through the manpower agencies and none under the JITCO programme.

The present Government must be commended for staring the JITCO programme although more than 4 valuable years have been lost during which we could have sent so many workers to Japan. Nevertheless, the JITCO programme is not manpower business as there seems to be the understanding of the experts. Also, there is little possibility that Japan would open its manpower sector to overseas workers soon, although in selective fields, many foreigners work in Japan under special visa status.

This does not mean that Japan would not open its doors to overseas manpower in future. The possibility is always there. This is why the JITCO programme is so important. When Japan opens its manpower sector, it would take those first who have worked in Japan under JITCO programme and have returned home. This is why we need to run the JITCO programme with care, follow its provisions and wait till Japan one day opens its manpower sector to foreign workers to be able to send our workers to Japan under manpower export business. Till that happens, utmost care should be taken to keep the JITCO programme out of the each of the manpower agents as the experts are suggesting. The JITCO agreement demands it.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Indian Cricket: As superior as its diplomacy

Daily Sun
M. Serajul Islam

April 11, 2011

India entered the World Cup as a top contender. Pakistan joined the contest as an outsider but with potentials to spring a surprise. Both countries lived up to the pre-match assessments of the cricket pundits. India went to Mohali confident and in style. Pakistan, true to form, almost lost to Canada, beat former champions Australia and entered the semi-final unpredictably but threatening an upset.

A semi-final that over a billion South Asian and many more cricket lovers around the world wanted was achieved. All attention was focused on Mohali, for the dream semi-final. Then, for whatever are the reasons, the Indians played a fast one and that came from the Indian Prime Minister Manmohon Singh. He invited President Asif Zardari to join him in the VVIP Box in Mohali and together watch the match. He declined and the invitation was passed on to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani who accepted. Suddenly, the attention of the rest of the world, many of whom hardly understood cricket, was drawn to Mohali.

Cricket commentators were upset. Many called it an attempt to put diplomacy ahead of cricket and they did not like it. In talk shows on private Indian TV channels, even members of the public who were asked for their views, were unhappy that the politicians attempted to take away the limelight from cricket. In fact in one talk show, former Indian diplomat and former Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar was the lone participant who defended the Indian Prime Minister.

In the end, no dramatic breakthrough was achieved in India-Pakistan’s thoroughly messed up bilateral relations. In fact, the so-called cricket diplomacy had a negative impact on the meeting of the Home Secretaries of the two countries that was held just days before the meeting of the two Prime Ministers. With all attention on Mohali, who cared what the Home Secretaries discussed? In the field, India expectedly won and again expectedly went to win the World Cup, that too in style.

The Mohali match nevertheless revealed a few interesting facts for analysis of politics and relations between Pakistan and India. Although India won the match in the end easily, yet in retrospect the match could have gone either way. The Pakistanis had the game in control after the initial onslaught of Sewag was tackled. In that brief period, the Pakistanis showed its leadership qualities or the lack of it. Umar Gul, till the Mohali match, one of the tournament’s most dangerous bowlers was sent to all parts of the field by Sewag. Yet Pakistan’s Captain persisted with him. After those 20 plus runs he gave in his second over to Sewag, any other Captain would have rested him. Pakistan’s Captain Shahid Afridi did not. Again towards the end, when India had asked for the batting power play, Afridi brought back Umar Gul and let him be hit for crucial runs. Afridi failed to realize that it was not Gul’s day and he also failed to apply his mind to work out a distribution among his other bowlers to shield Umar Gul who eventually ended giving 69 runs in 9 overs where all the other bowlers who had India in a tight spot. In the end those 20 to 30 extra runs that Umar Gul conceded gave India not just the chance to get back into the game but also to win it.

Again when Pakistan batted, they failed to apply themselves. Many were out to shots they should have played in club cricket and definitely not in a World Cup Semi-Final and that too against India. Misbah ul Huq’s batting was a mystery. He plodded along; killing crucial overs as if he was playing in one of the timeless tests of ages ago and when he woke up, the asking rate was too demanding to overtake the Indian score. Misbah’s batting was not the only mystery. The mental paralysis of Pakistan’s captain and its dressing room in forgetting to take the batting power play when Misbah and Afridi were together was inexplicable. Power play when Misbah and Afridi were together could have helped Pakistan with extra runs to put psychological pressure on India that could have altered the course of the game. All through the game, Afridi was high strung whereas the team needed leadership with a cool frame of mind.

In contrast, MS Dhoni was serious, focused and calm and lived up to the name he has earned for himself as “Captain Cool.” He had a well thought out game plan for using his bowlers, on when to take the last batting power play and on setting fields in a way to entrap the Pakistani batsmen. His bowlers also had a game plan on how to bowl and capitalize on the weakness of the Pakistani batsmen. By his leadership, he was able to bring the team back a few times when the game was slipping out of Indian control. In fact, by going to bat ahead of the inform Yuvuraj Singh, he showed willingness to take responsibility and eventually his brilliant 91 not out was the final nail in Pakistan’s coffin of defeat. He did not take one false step for which he could be criticized and his team followed him like an orchestra follows its conductor.

The style of leadership displayed in the cricket match at Mohali in a way reflected the style of diplomacy of the two countries. Dr. Singh is like the Indian cricket Captain, relaxed and easy going but firm in giving anything to his adversary. The Pakistani Prime Minister was unsure and his smile was hardly spontaneous. Like Shahid Afridi, he did not appear at all confident. Shahid Afridi left little doubt in the minds of those who watched that he was not in any sense in charge with many dictating his decisions from the background. The Pakistani Prime Minister was likewise not in charge too, sent to Mohali without any thought to the decision to be there.

The attempt of the politicians to gain limelight for a world sporting event did not succeed. The media that covered the match wasted little time to the two Prime Ministers who were only fleetingly shown on live TV coverage of the event. Nevertheless, the Indians who successfully floated the idea, gained mileage by showing the rest of the world that they wanted to break the deadlock in bilateral relations, knowing full well that no such possibility was even remotely on cards. The Pakistanis played into the Indian hands and got nothing out of it except perhaps the opportunity for its Prime Minister to watch the game free! There is a qualitative difference in Indian and Pakistani style of diplomacy and at Mohali Indian diplomacy was the winner like its brilliant cricket team that won the World Cup.

There is a postscript. A news on internet revealed that the India was planning a technical knock-out against Pakistan in case it lost on the cricket ground. There were at least 3 players in the Pakistan team whose domicile was in dispute. The Opposition BJP learnt of the disputed domicile the night before the match through a leak at the Ministry of External Affairs and brought this to the notice of the External Affairs Minister. When India was floundering at 194/5, Dr. Singh was told that the ICC would offer the match to India even if it lost if a complaint was lodged on the domicile issue. The Indian PM turned down the proposition unequivocally although it had the endorsement of senior leaders of the Congress and the BJP with the latter ready to go public with it if India had lost!

The writer of a former Ambassador to Japan and a former Secretary to the Government

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Fall in remittance: the reasons

Daily Sun, April 3rd 2011
M. Serajul Islam

A report in a leading English Daily on declining remittance flow to Bangladesh made a few doomsday predictions. The report was based on an interview with economists and analysts. The doomsday scenario was based on developments in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt and these events influencing pro-democracy movements leading to political instability in the oil rich ME countries where our expatriates work in millions. These gentlemen have predicted that as a consequence thousands of Bangladeshis would be sent home leading to dramatic fall in remittance that in turn would have a disastrous impact upon the economy.

One of the few success stories of Bangladesh has been the contribution of our expatriates in sending to the country their hard earned income as foreign remittance. Last year, our expatriates sent home foreign exchange worth US 10.92 billion that had a huge positive impact on the economy and society. That amount was a 2.2% growth on the previous year and was a sharp fall in remittance flow from previous successive years when remittance flow had grown in double digit figures.

The learned gentlemen who gave this leading weekly the interview did not look at right places for the reasons for remittance declining so sharply in 2010. True, there was the worldwide economic depression that no doubt adversely affected the oil rich countries of the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait, our three largest destinations for manpower export. That world economic recession started in end of 2008 and was there for the whole of 2009. Yet in 2009, our remittance growth was in double digit.

In 2010, that economic recession did not deteriorate. In fact, it showed signs of recovery. Also, the demand of the type of manpower that we export to these countries did not fall either. Next door Nepal has sent larger number of its expatriates to these countries last year whereas Bangladesh failed to send any additional manpower in the same year. In fact, last year many Bangladeshis have been sent home. Those the newspaper interviewed would have done better if they had looked into these facts to get to the root of the problem of declining remittance.

Their concern about Libya is a correct one because we had sent 60,000 people there. But in the overall remittance business, our expatriates to Libya who were cheated by those who sent them there were able to send only a little over US$ 100 million. Thus the Libyan case is not an appropriate one to conclude any doomsday scenario for the remittance market. The emphasis of a democratic wave running across the ME and in its wake, creating major political instability in the oil rich countries leading to our expatriates returning home in large numbers is also a case of misplaced emphasis.

Tunisia and Egypt that have been overrun by a democratic surge are not manpower export markets for Bangladesh. Jordan, Yemen and Syria where the democratic wave has started to make significant impact, are also not manpower exporting destinations for Bangladesh. Only in Bahrain where we are witnessing political disturbances is a manpower market. However, the movement in Bahrain is not similar to the movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Yemen. In Bahrain, it is a sectarian conflict where the majority who are Shiias is seeking to be free from rule of the minority Sunnis and the downfall of the ruling royal family.

The other countries of Middle East are the very rich oil/gas producing countries. True, the rulers in these countries have little regard for democracy and people’s rights. Hence in these countries, the majority of the people has democratic aspirations and has shown inclinations to seek their democratic rights. There has been news of limited political unrest in Saudi Arabia where again such unrest coming from minority Shiias influenced more by neighbouring Bahrain than by Libya, Egypt or Tunisia. Nevertheless, fearing political demands in future, the Saudi King has offered a multi-billion dollar appeasement package, including creation of 60,000 new jobs.

There are qualitative differences in economic conditions in the oil rich countries compared to Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen for instance to make them instantly or in the short term susceptible to mass upsurge and downfall of regimes. Tunisia and Egypt, the trail blazers in the movement for democracy drew inspiration from the majority of the people who were economically deprived largely because the inability of the governments to deliver due to lack of financial resources. In Tunisia for instance, the whole movement was triggered when a young man committed suicide by putting himself on fire to escape his economic hardships.

In Egypt, the vast majority of the people, particularly the youth, got together against President Mubarak’s dictatorship because they too were economically depressed and felt that democracy was the panacea for their economic ills. In Syria, Yemen and strangely in Libya too, the majority who came out into the streets have done so in order to seek an end to their economic ills through capturing power or by getting rid of the dictatorial regimes.

There is no doubt that the people in the oil rich ME countries have also been affected by Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in the context of seeking their democratic rights. However, the driving force that moved people to the streets to overthrow the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen has been economic. The oil producing countries are so rich and getting richer at regular intervals by windfall gains from rising prices of oil that they possess the power to take out the economic factor for pro-democracy movement almost totally out of the equation. Hence it is extremely unlikely that pro-democracy movements in ME will attain the intensity and force as in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen.

The other element in the equation that a lot of those who are suggesting democratic upsurges all over the ME like those seen in Egypt and Tunisia is missing is the nature of society in the oil rich ME countries. Although at one level, they do not share political power with the people, on another level there is the element of equality between the rulers and the people that removes a lot of the hatred that we have seen in Egypt and Tunisia for the erstwhile dictators. These rich countries are based on tribal linkages that provide the element of equality to blunt the conflict between the ruler and the ruled and also the hatred that moved peoples in millions in Egypt and Tunisia to fight to overthrow their dictators.

Nevertheless, the democratic movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen are bound to resonate in the shores of these oil rich countries, like the effects of the Tsunami. Like the effects of the Tsunami, the rulers of these countries would also be warned in advance about what is coming and hence they would no doubt be encouraged and prepared to make the necessary democratic changes to avert any serious uprising.

Therefore those who have pictured the doomsday scenario that oil rich ME would be faced with political instability leading to depleting seriously our manpower export market may have over stated the case. Nothing dramatic is likely to happen; not in the short term. They would be better advised to look at the cause of the depletion of our export market to the ME that has happened and continuing, elsewhere, in the failure of our foreign policy. Our favour for secularism and haste to ban Jamat are much more important reasons for the depletion. Bangladesh’s rating with these oil rich countries is now on an all time low and the proof of it is in the sharp decline of foreign remittance from the oil rich ME countries.

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

On Foreign Ministry and the media

The Independent, Saturday, 2nd April, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

A recent exchange in the media between the Foreign Ministry and the media reminded me on my days in the Ministry in the period 1986-1990. I was then a Director in the office of the Foreign Secretary. Those days, the diplomatic correspondents that covered the affairs of the Foreign Ministry were a small but compact group. They had close relations with the Foreign Ministry where the Foreign Secretary used to brief them regularly at weekly briefings sessions.

The Foreign Secretaries did not like those weekly briefing sessions but had to oblige nevertheless for so was the wish of the President who wanted such sessions to be propaganda sessions for his regime. In the period I worked in the Foreign Secretary’s office, I had served five Foreign Secretaries. One of them was brilliant but temperamental. There was a young diplomatic correspondent who sadly passed away at an early age in the 1990s who used to ask this Foreign Secretary questions that irritated him. There was a heated exchange in one of his briefings with this correspondent. The correspondent did not take it lightly and threatened to hold a press conference over it at the Press Club. The matter was eventually resolved in the office of the Foreign Secretary with an apology from the latter.

The recent unpleasant exchange between the Foreign Ministry and the media as reported in a leading English daily involved its correspondent who was singled out by the Foreign Secretary during his briefing to the media for some harsh comments. The paper described the Foreign Secretary’s comments as a “tirade” against it in an editorial. It also quoted the Foreign Secretary accusing the paper of “bad journalism” “sad journalism” etc. Apparently the confrontation occurred over the paper’s criticism of the Government’s repatriation efforts in Libya in its reports from its correspondent that it sent to the Libyan border. The Ministry did not like some of these reports and sent a rejoinder that the paper thrashed that led to the Foreign Secretary’s anger.

The exchanges left a bad impression in many who read the exchanges in the newspaper. The Ministry and the media should have resolved the differences through discussions. It was not clear from the editorial in the paper in question whether such an effort was made. There could be a version of the Foreign Ministry on the unfortunate incident that could show the exchange in a somewhat different light. Unfortunately for the Foreign Secretary, he cannot write an editorial to put across to the public the Ministry’s side of the incident. The Foreign Secretary may have been harsh in his choice of words and may have hurt the feelings of the correspondent and perhaps some pride of the paper. The editorial was nevertheless equally harsh, perhaps more for its sarcastic tenure, and has hurt the credibility of the Ministry and the Government. It was an editorial that should not have written.

There are a few issues that this unfortunate exchange between the Foreign Ministry and the newspaper has brought to focus. It seems that the Foreign Ministry has not carried on with the tradition of a weekly press briefing. Instead it now holds such briefing on need basis. Those days, the Director-General (External Publicity) used to maintain very cordial relations with the diplomatic correspondents and exchange of information between the Ministry and the media was very smooth. In fact, when the present editor of The Independent was a Director-General (External Publicity), he was the designated Spokesman of the Foreign Ministry following the Indian system where a Joint Secretary in charge of External Publicity is the Spokesman of the External Affairs Ministry of India.

The Foreign Secretary in the South Asian countries is more than a highly placed official in the Ministry; he or she is an institution. It is absurd even to think that the Indian Foreign Secretary or her Pakistani counterpart could ever face such a predicament with the media in their respective country. In fact, the media in these countries take their cue from the Spokesman in the Foreign Ministry who is one or two ranks below the Foreign Secretary, on major foreign policy issues of the Government. It is time that in Bangladesh, an official below the Foreign Secretary, of either the rank of Additional Secretary or Director-General (External Publicity) is named the Spokesman and a strong unit is built with him in charge that would interact with the media intimately for furthering the country’s foreign policy objectives.

There is another problem of having the Foreign Secretary speak to the media in Bangladesh. The Government expects him, as President Ershad wanted of his Foreign Secretaries, to make a political statement whenever he briefs the media. An official of a junior rank can easily avoid making the political statement. In this instance, the Foreign Ministry was interested in telling the people through the media that the Government is doing a wonderful job with the Libyan repatriation. It wanted to take political mileage out of its efforts. Unfortunately for the Foreign Ministry, the newspaper with which the Foreign Secretary had the exchange has a correspondent in the Libyan border talking to the Bangladeshis fleeing from Libya and watching firsthand the repatriation process. Obviously, he has come across too many flaws to make the Foreign Ministry’s claim credible. For instance, the Foreign Ministry has to take a lot of blame for sending an Ambassador to an important remittance destination where 60,000 Bangladesh were working from another Ministry. It was also not fully staffed. Thus at the first signs of danger, they surrendered their diplomatic responsibilities to take care of their personal safety.

The Bangladeshis that this paper’s correspondent interviewed have told him too many horror stories for him to send reports to pat the Foreign Ministry or the Government in the back. In fact, the experiences the Bangladeshis are horrendous. It speaks of a deep rooted nexus of corruption involving government officials and manpower agents in Bangladesh who have fleeced many of these expatriates of huge sums as fees for their jobs only to find on arrival that the jobs they were promised were not there!

The misfortune of our expatriates in Libya is not yet over. The Bangladeshis must first be brought home and rehabilitated before the Government claims any credit. The Government must bear in mind that they went to Libya with its encouragement. In fact before the Libyan situation exploded, the Government took a lot of credit for opening the Libyan market. It is a pity that neither the Expatriate Ministry nor the Foreign Ministry surveyed the market for if they did they would have cautioned the expatriates that they were walking into the line of fire by going to Libya. That the Libyan market was fragile was known to other manpower exporting countries that were cautious in sending their expatriates there. Where we sent 60,000, other South Asian countries did not even send a third or a fourth or a fifth of the number we did. Surely they must have known of the dangers brewing there.

Instead of fighting the media, the Foreign Ministry must first accept criticism as an integral part of the democratic process. It must also create a Task Force together with the Expatriate Ministry as a permanent inter-ministerial body with adequate manpower to develop a plan of action for helping our expatriates if they face the Libyan situation in the countries where they are working now. Together, they should also look into the deep rooted problems in the manpower business because we are the only country in our region that sends expatriates to work abroad without any transparency in the process; expatriates who remit nearly US 11 billion a year for our future and about whom we talk a lot and do very little. For a starter, they should find out why a Bangladesh expatriate has to pay two to three times more as fees to the manpower agents than an expatriate from any of our neighbouring country for the same type of work and also paid comparatively substantially less at their place of work. .

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