Sunday, September 25, 2011

Palestine’s bid for UN membership: USA in a difficult spot

Daily Sun
September, 25, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The Palestinians have finally decided to do something for themselves. They have spent decades hoping that the US, the UN and the western powers would use their good offices to convince Israel to agree to Palestinian statehood. They have got nothing with Israel using the indulgence of the US and its allies not only to deny the Palestinians statehood but to build settlements after settlements in occupied land.

The Palestinians had hoped great things from President Obama. In his Cairo speech in June, 2009, the US President had said categorically that the Palestinian issue would top his administration’s foreign policy priorities in the Middle East in contrast to his predecessor who had pushed the issue down in his agenda. Unfortunately, the new administration was able to bring the Israelis to negotiate with the Palestinians only once, an effort that lasted very briefly in September-October, 2010.

The talks aborted because Israel refused to extend the moratorium on new settlements. The US made no serious efforts to bring Israel to the negotiating table frustrating US Envoy for ME Senator John Mitchell to resign. Instead, even at his speech in UNGA in 2010, President Obama reiterated USA’s support for an independent state of Palestine based on pre-1976 borders with negotiated land swaps while doing little to carry the process of Palestinian statehood forward.

In the process, the United States failed to consider the changes in the ME while indulging the Israelis. The Arab Spring has sent chills down Turkey and Jordan that had diplomatic relations with Israel. Egypt has turned full circle following the downfall of President Mubarak, from being US and Israel’s most dependable ally to their strongest critic. Egyptian public ransacked the Israeli Embassy recently forcing its Ambassador to flee.

The once pro-US monarchies are now wary because Arabs have united themselves in the streets where anti-Israel feeling is a major jelling factor. Continued US bias for Israel is making it more unpopular. The coming together of Fatah and Hamas has also emboldened the Palestinians. These factors have combined to encourage the Palestinians to seek their right of self determination peacefully by stirring the conscience of the world.

In fact, the Palestinians made their intention to seek their destiny at the UN almost a year ago. The US and the Quartet did not take this seriously. They were certain that the move would fizzle out and they would be able to deal with Palestine as they have done in the past; blame them for their problem while pampering the aggressor. They are thus now bewildered and surprised that their decision for statehood has come thus far where the overwhelming majority of UN members support their cause.

The US and the Quartet are thus frantically meeting in order to convince the Palestinians to withdraw. Otherwise, some of them, including the US would have to veto the bid to stop it against world opinion. The US is blowing hot and cold. President Obama has met Mahmud Abbas to urge him to withdraw the bid. In his speech at the UN this week, he asked the Palestinians to seek their statehood by negotiating with the Israelis. Palestinian negotiator Hanan Aswari articulated Palestinian disappointment at the US President’s suggestion by saying that he made it appear as if it is Palestine that has occupied Israel! The US Congress has threatened to stop aid and President Obama has warned the Palestinians that their bid is going to increase volatility in their relations with Israel.

Whatever happens eventually, the membership bid has left the US holding the hot potato. If the bid comes to a vote at the SC, the US would have to veto it and it has said that it would. In fact, in an election year, it would be political suicide for President Obama even to think to the contrary. A veto nevertheless can have disastrous impact on US foreign policy goals in the ME.

The Arab Spring has left US standing in the ME at a historical low. President Obama who had promised so much to the Arab world is now seen as part of Israel’s right wing negotiating team. In fact, Benjamin Netanyahu offered him Israel’s badge of honour for his stand against Palestinian statehood. Most importantly, the veto for Palestinian statehood, if the US is forced to exercise one, would put at jeopardy huge US investments in terms of money and lives in Iraq that would be a tragedy. The US had hoped the US standing and popularity would spread in the region out of its humungous sacrifices in Iraq.

It is for the first time that the US has been placed in such a predicament over Palestine. A veto at the Security Council would not just make US more unpopular in ME; it would have similar impact on the Muslim and developing worlds which explains US’ frantic efforts to talk the Palestine out of the bid. That in itself has put the Palestine for the first time in decades of negotiations in a position where it is the US seeking a favour from it and not the other way around.

President Obama’s dire warnings and consequences accompanied by pleas notwithstanding, there are many who see in the Palestinian bid for UN membership their most viable option. With talks aborted on Israeli whims backed by the US, the Palestinians were in a hopeless situation even though after Fatah and Hamas got together, violence has come down markedly in Palestine-Israel relations. The Palestinians watched with utter frustration President Obama and the US Congress receiving Benjamin Netanyahu as a hero when he visited Washington in May this year. There was not one word or action on that visit that would encourage the Palestinians that the US was willing to play fair with the Palestinians.

The Palestinians have set the ball rolling and forced the issue with the US and the Quartet.. The Palestinian official Nabil Saath said that Benjamin Netanyahu is a pragmatist and the developments in New York may make him change his calculations as the odds change. Going by what is happening now in New York, it is more than certain that the odds are changing and changing in favour of the Palestinians.

The vote in the Security Council will take months. The contesting parties will have time to consider the issues with the US the most worried. The French President has suggested a way out. He said that Palestine should be given “observer status” at the UN that would not give it full membership but open its doors for membership in a number of important UN bodies. This status would also be a prelude to new talks. That in itself would be an achievement for the Palestinians and at the moment seems the minimum they can hope with much more there to negotiate.

By taking the decision for UN membership, the powers that be are treating the Palestinians for the first time as an equal. The Arab Spring has given the Palestinians this strength and this may be the right way to start the process of Palestinian statehood instead of President Obama’s disappointing and frustrating suggestion to the Palestinians to go to the Israelis for their statehood not as an equal but as one seeking favour. .

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

On Our Surreal world

As I See It
The Independent
September 24, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

I envy those who can believe that Bangladesh will become a middle-income country by the year 2021 and meantime also digital. If I knew what motivates them to have such convictions, I would not be suffering such mental anguish as I do these days.

One national event after another is frustrating me. After the government , led by its Advisers, had built a crescendo of hopes and expectations of Bangladesh becoming a regional connectivity hub and by that count, progress significantly economically, we are now searching who to blame for that dream falling flat on our face, at least for the time being.

One TV channel that was at the forefront of exposing the horrendous highways has telecast a few programmes recently on some departments/agencies of the government that are supposed to help Bangladesh become a middle income country. We would be living in a paradise of fools to believe that with such quality or the lack of it in the civil bureaucracy; we would ever come near to becoming a middle income country in the life time of those of us who are middle aged or over.

Leaks of Wiki Leaks are adding more to my frustration these days, particularly those related to our governance. In one of these leaks, Dr. Rizvi communicated to the US Ambassador the frustration of the Prime Minister about the quality of civil servants between her last term and the present term. She has given very poor marks to the civil servants assisting her present government.

Against this, there is the issue of the quality of the present cabinet. The Prime Minister herself has commented in the past on the ability of her Ministers that did not encourage the people to believe that she has confidence in most of them. Of course, she also defended them in Parliament recently when there was censure from her own party against some Ministers who were named as corrupt and inefficient. The Prime Minister’s defense confused the people even more.

Quite clearly, the Prime Minister is not depending much on her Cabinet. Leaks by Wiki Leaks have underscored this fact quoting Dr. Gowhar Rizvi. In one leaked cable, he has been quoted telling the US Ambassador that the Prime Minister has chosen Advisers like him to assist her in governance to overcome the weakness of the Cabinet.

Therefore, this government is carrying out governance with a weak cabinet and an equally weak if not weaker bureaucracy for achieving the twin objectives of becoming a middle income country and digital. I am not sure whether I can feel the same enthusiasm as those who are confident about our future. Clearly, democracy that is the key here and for that matter for any country for sustainable development is weakening not strengthening in Bangladesh. Our chosen path for democratic governance is parliamentary. Yet, in the last 4 elected parliaments, we have not seen the opposition that is an integral and indispensible part of parliamentary democracy, in attendance.

I was inspired by a ruling party parliamentarian and a chairman of a parliamentary committee who articulated recently the importance of the opposition in the TV Talk Show Tritio Matra. He asked the present opposition not to seek the redress to their grievances in the streets but to speak out in the parliament. My inspiration vanished when I sensed he was hitting the BNP below the belt for boycotting the parliament.

Of course, the BNP’s decision to boycott the parliament must be criticized. However, this parliamentarian missed out 2 critical points. First, he did not look at the role of his party for which the opposition feels necessary to stay out. Second, the “tradition” for boycotting the parliament was set not by the BNP but by his party. I never understood why the BNP did not allow the AL whatever time and opportunity they needed to speak in the last Palriament given the majority they had. With the AL now enjoying even a larger majority, it makes even less sense that the ruling party is making it difficult for the opposition to attend parliament.

We have to look beyond a weak cabinet, a weaker bureaucracy and a non-functional parliament in order to believe about a bright future for Bangladesh. Can a Prime Minister with six or seven Advisers really achieve the election promises of the Government with such a system? I have full faith in the ability of the Prime Minister but I would need much more than faith to believe that she would be able to carry the country forward with a government functioning the way it is.

As for the Advisers, questions are already being raised about their role. With full respect to their abilities and capabilities, there is an issue of democracy that is being compromised. There is a saying that says “nothing succeeds like success”. As long as there are successes that the people can see, they would not be bothered. Now with the government stuck on the core issues, the Advisers are being criticized and such criticisms are bound to increase in the days ahead.

The case of the Adviser who dealt with India is a case in point. Some of the Bangla newspapers have written about him a lot of things that are either incorrect or unfair. But this was bound to happen because what he promised would be the outcome of the visit did not emerge as India backtracked on the promises it made. When the media criticized the Adviser, it touched a right chord among the people who felt like asking why he was leading the negotiations and not representatives they elected.

We now have the Minister who thought he had weathered the storm of public anger that wanted him to resign doing something unbelievable. He has turned to an NGO, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) for a “good character” certificate! I am sure this is the first time that a Minister has done such a thing anywhere. When the ACC Chairman called his act “not right”, he turned to the ACC for the good character certificate.

The Minister’s desperation for a “good character” certificate came after a World Bank Vice-President arrived in Dhaka and conveyed the politically disastrous news that the WB would hold back financing the US$ 2.7 billion Padma Bridge, a project crucial to the ruling party for the next elections on allegations of corruption.

All these have created a surreal environment around governance. There are fundamental errors in the way we are being governed. We need a capable cabinet; an efficient and neutral bureaucracy; a functioning parliament and a working relationship between the ruling party and the opposition. The Prime Minister should have Advisers but to assist her and not supervise the Ministers.

Unfortunately none of these conditions exist or if they do, they exist in distorted ways, in the way we are being governed. The result of such governance cannot be positive. Thus we see plenty of negatives all around us. We have Ministers saying unbelievable things, like the Commerce Minister asking us to eat less to keep prices down! Those who are claiming we are moving in the right direction are building and sustaining this surreal world for us. They are also those who have the eyes and ears of the Prime Minister.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lingering shadows of a disappointing visit

Daily Sun
September 18, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

I have been trying my best to find out what Dr. Gowhar Rizvi meant when he said that those who are critical of the just concluded visit of the Indian Prime Minister as a failure do not understand the context of Bangladesh-India relations. I have also been reading whatever I can find to assure myself that the visit achieved substantial gains for Bangladesh as the Adviser is telling us.

My search for substance to agree with Dr. Rizvi is being frustrated by what I am reading on the visit instead. There is one report that has worried me particularly. It is a statement from the Bharatiya Janata Party that has asked the central government to release all information regarding the exchange of adverse possessions. Another news that has worried and concerned me is the reaction of RMG groups in India that have expressed their concern over the 44 items in the RMG sector that have been given duty free access to the Indian market.

The decisions to exchange adverse possessions and take 44 items off the negative list have been agreed upon during Prime Minister Manmohon Singh’s visit but not yet implemented. The BJP’s reaction on exchange of adverse possessions could put a spanner on resolution of the problem that has remained an irritant since the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement was signed between India and Bangladesh.

On the Teen Bigha corridor, it surprising that our negotiators are heralding the 24 hours access as a success, forgetting that under the Indira-Mujib Agreement, the Teen Bigha corridor was supposed to be handed to Bangladesh permanently. Later , during the Ershad era, Foreign Ministers Narashima Rao and Shamsud-Doha had signed an agreement under which India had agreed to hand over Teen Bigha to Bangladesh as lease in perpetuity to avoid constitutional hassle in India. In fact, on land exchange, legal experts in India are expressing concern that the agreement in Dhaka would need constitutional amendment, thus raising the scepter of the Teen Bigha corridor.

The Foreign Minister who was conspicuously absent from post visit briefings to the media finally emerged with an interview to UNB. Her optimism has not dampened for in the interview she called the visit a “big success”. Curiously, she also said that if the nation wanted, she would resign. Perhaps, this contradictory statement suggests that her faith in India has dented , having embarrassed herself by her statement to the media that the Teesta deal would be signed after the Indian Foreign Secretary had stated India’s stand to the contrary.

The Foreign Secretary has described the visit as historic and unique through which Bangladesh-India relations would enter a new phase based on friendship, trust and understanding in his press briefing. I am afraid he was playing with words and reacting to a journalist who angered him by describing the visit as a flop. In any case, Dr. Gowhar Rizvi left no one in doubt that the Foreign Ministry was a passenger for most part of the negotiations. The latest leak by Wiki Leaks also suggests the same. In the leak, Dr. Rizvi had told the then US Ambassador that improving relations with India was his main responsibility.

In an ironic sort of way, Bangladesh may not have been a loser because it still holds the transit card. Although it has played its security card by handing over the ULFA terrorists, there is still great value in the card.. Before the visit, there was great expectation in India that ULFA terrorist Anup Chetia would be handed to the Indian security. It was also expected that the two countries would sign an extradition treaty. Bangladesh has held back on both counts that must be greatly disappointing to the Indians who need Bangladesh continuous support for a much longer time for the handle it needs for its security concerns involving Bangladesh.

Most importantly, the hype in the media that India is a changed neighbour that is now ready to become a genuine friend of Bangladesh created by the Bangladesh negotiators has received a major dent. In Bangladesh, across the political divide, questions have come up whether India can be trusted. The ruling party activists are blaming India for back tracking on the Teesta deal. India has thus lost a great opportunity to establish its goodwill in Bangladesh and may have lost friends even in the ruling party that is soft on India.

Nevertheless the two Advisers, Dr. Gowhar Rizvi and Dr. Mashiur Rahman are still optimistic about the future. Dr. Rizvi, while referring to the vision document signed during the visit, has said that people should focus on the “historic” decision for multilateral power development involving Bangladesh, India and Bhutan that will bring enough energy for Bangladesh to achieve a growth rate of 9%! Perhaps, he is feeling sorry that his forecast just days before the visit that Bangladesh would be reaping a rich harvest from connectivity have been frustrated. His unfailing optimism must be welcomed for a nation without optimism is a nation that never progresses. Only, optimism must be based on ground reality that has not been the case with Dr. Rizvi.

Dr. Rahman has said that those who have criticized the visit are living in the past. I am not sure I have followed his line of thinking. The party he represents urges us every day to look at our glorious past to build our future. Why then should we not look at the past concerning our relations with India? The past in terms of Bangladesh-India relations is one that should make us proud. Though the much smaller country in size, resources and power, we have consistently made the sacrifices for better relations. We allowed the Pakistani POWs to return home and for India to run the Farakkha on a trial basis when Bangabandhu led the country.

Subsequently, we gave India water and land transits under the BNP Government in 1979. India availed water transit but land transit protocol was not implemented. We lowered our tariff against India in 1992 that affected us adversely but benefitted Indian immensely. As for agreements signed by India from which we expected to benefit, there is a long list of broken promises of which the glaring one is the Indira-Mujib Agreement of 1974 on land boundary. The comparison shows Bangladesh large hearted and India small hearted.

The Adviser’s suggestion against looking at the past would hide Indian litany of broken promises and Bangladesh’s history of generosity. Sheikh Hasina has followed her father by showing Bangladesh’s big heart by unilaterally offering India land transit and assurance on security. Again, India has failed to reciprocate. In fact, our negotiators’ major mistake was not to look at the past for as traditional wisdom suggests, forewarned is forearmed. By not looking at the past, our negotiators allowed India to take them and Bangladesh for a ride!

There is another storm gathering. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has called for review of the Ganges Water Sharing Agreement, no doubt emboldened by West Bengal.

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

On Shahid Minar and protest on Eid day

As I See It Column
The Independent
September 17, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The protest by one section of the civil society at the Central Shahid Minar on Eid day has drawn flak from another of its section. A number of eminent citizens from the field of culture and literature who have strong connections with the ruling party have issued a statement objecting to the use of the Shahid Minar to stage a political problem on a religious festival.

There are interesting issues in the conflict on the use of the Shahid Minar. Among those who staged the protest, there are many who have lost a member of the family to the madness in the roads. There are some in this group who are known to have links to the ruling party or have benefitted from it but now no longer in favour. In other words, there was no reason to suspect that the opposition was in any way behind the protest.

Another issue is the substance of statement given by members of the civil society against the protest. They said that the protest has compromised Shahid Minar’s standing as an icon of non-communalism because it was held on a religious day. This argument has been dismissed by those who protested at Shahid Minar. They said they have no political motive although they have not commented on the issue that holding the protest on Eid day compromised the Shahid Minar’s status as an icon of non-communalism.

On the issue of using Shahid Minar for political purposes, I am not sure what the civil society group that gave the statement objected to. If I know the history of the Shahid Minar correctly, it has been used ever since the first one was built soon after February 21, 1952, for no other purpose but political. It was the symbol of our struggle in the entire decade of Ayub Khan’s dictatorship. In that period, we in the then East Pakistan, built a Shahid Minar in almost each of our educational institutions all over the country from where the students and the people joined hand and fought for political rights.

In 1971, the Shahid Minar was the rallying point for our movement against the Pakistani genocide and for achieving our independence. In the Bangladesh era, we have drawn inspiration from the Shahid Minar for fighting military dictatorships. It is true that the Shahid Minar was visualized as a memorial for those who laid down their lives in 1952 for our mother tongue. However, over the years, people seldom gathered at the Shahid Minar for the sake of Bangla (that was granted the right as a national language of Pakistan soon after lives were sacrificed to achieve it) but for political rights.

Therefore the statement of the pro-AL civil society leaders has caused confusion among those who feel sympathetic to the protest. One issue is clear here. Those who protested are not seeking political objectives. They want the attention of the Government against the horrendous state of our highways that are killing innocent travelers and pinpoint responsibility in the Government for the state of affairs. Their demand for seeking resignation of two Ministers has in fact support among the people across the political divide.

Those objecting the use of the Shahid Minar are in fact injecting politics into the sincere efforts of people who have suffered the ultimate tragedy involving close family members. Their known connections to the ruling party suggest that they have a political motive which is to save the party they support from embarrassment or political threat, lest the protest gathers the strength to become a movement.

I am afraid I could not follow the connection of a protest on Eid day with communalism! Is this group suggesting that the protest became communal simply because the protesters gathered at the Shahid Minar, the icon of non-communalism, on Eid Day? What if the protest would have been held on some other day? I am afraid the group totally misunderstood the sentiments of the protesters who chose to give up celebrating Eid to highlight an issue that brought the nation together.

In any case, the controversy over the use of the Shahid Minar in a way hints at the weakness of our society and politics because even sincere efforts such as the one over which the protesters gathered at the Shahid Minar has have opposed. I have full sympathy for those who are expressing their frustrations and sentiments over the wanton murders on our highways. Unfortunately, such efforts may not bring the desired results because the solution to the problem they are seeking lies in politics of the country that is going from bad to worse. A Government pro-active to people’s sentiments would have done something with the Ministers who have meanwhile withered the storm and are as strong as they were before the storm started.

Therefore, one objective of those who protested at the Shahid Minar has already been doomed. As for their demand to make our highways free of the murderers who ply the roads with impunity, that too is doomed because the politics we have in the country will sustain it. There is too much money going to the pockets of those upon whom we have given the responsibility to assure our safety on the highways to place their greed for money over our lives. It is politics that sustains this greed and politicians are as much a part of this nexus and those who work for our safety.

Therefore, those who gathered at the Shahid Minar should focus on improving the quality of our politics that is going from bad to worse. The civil society of which they are a part has a significant role in this respect. Nevertheless, this is an effort that would require a civil society united over party lines. Sadly, the way the protesters have been accused of compromising the con-communal character of the Shahid Minar because they gathered there on an Eid day does not hold out any promise. The civil society is as much divided on the politics of the country as politics itself.

The civil society group protesting the murders on our highways should nevertheless do the following. They should work to expose the nexus of corruption that sustains the evil on our highways; create pressure on the Government to deal urgently with the ridiculous number of fake drivers; create public opinion so that laws are enacted to deal with deaths due to reckless driving as murder so that the perpetrators are treated as common criminals; and expose the role of the law enforcing agencies in the nexus that directly contributes towards the deaths on our highways.

It is a tall order. None the less these are the areas where efforts must be made for saving the lives of many thousands like you and I who use the highways who are literally on the death row because of the Government’s inability and unwillingness to deal with the murderers on our highways.

As for those who have protested the protesters, they should consider whether they have extended their views on non-communalism beyond limits.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Wiki Leaks and Coffee Club

The Independent
September 16, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

After the hype over Manmohon Singh’s visit is dying down, the newspaper readers are now being entertained by leaks from Wiki Leaks. The leaks are from the cables that were sent out from the US Embassy in Dhaka to Washington on politics under the last BNP Government, the Caretaker Government and the present AL Government.

Quite obviously, the leaks have caught many with their pants down. I am sure, many are in prayers that what they may have said to the US diplomats in Dhaka could very well come out tomorrow in the newspapers and embarrass them as well. Knowing the vicious nature of our politics, many are shivering that their future ambitions in politics could not just end; they could be in serious trouble in other respects as well.

Going through a lot of these leaked cables that have come out so far, I have been surprised at some of the stories that the US Embassy has sent to its capital. A great deal of these cables are unverified views of individuals who got carried away with themselves and blurted out information to the US diplomats that they did more to impress the diplomats than anything else.

We know our people more than the US diplomats in question. Our weakness for the fair skin is a historical fact. Otherwise the British would not have had it so easy in colonizing us. They practically did so without firing a shot and lest we have forgotten our history, it was through Bengal that they captured the rest of India. The weakness our ancestors showed to Lord Clive and his comrades is in a different sort of way visible in the way individuals in Wiki Leaks showed their weakness for the diplomats in the US Embassy.

Nevertheless, the leaks should be seen in a way not just for the weakness of those who talked to the US Embassy but also at the way the US Embassy has acted and still acting. For that matter, it should be looked at for the way diplomats of the developed countries behave in Dhaka. Clearly, there is a question of diplomatic conduct here that has been violated. I am referring in particular to the Coffee Club that’s existence has been revealed by the leaks, a Club consisting of the Ambassadors of USA, UK ,European Union, and Japan by invitation.

I am not sure if this Club is in existence now. I know that these Ambassadors previously had a club that they called the Tuesday Club that met as the name suggests, every Tuesday and discussed politics of Bangladesh. From my own experience, I know for a fact that the Club wanted to sponsor an international conference in Dhaka on election issues to embarrass the BNP Government but backed away because one member of the Club would not support it. I suppose the Tuesday Club has been subsumed by the Coffee Club.

Clearly, the Coffee Club’s main objective was to meddle in Bangladesh’s politics and by the materials leaked by Wiki Leak; they did so quite freely. For those not conversant with an international document called the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations (GCDR) that sets the rules and principles within which diplomats work while posted to a host country, such meddling in the host country’s politics and internal affairs is un-acceptable. It allows the host country the option to declare the meddling diplomats persona non grata which means that the host country could the sending country to take the meddling diplomat back. By even the most liberal interpretation, the activities of the Coffee Club are a clear violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Bangladesh is perhaps the only country that allows diplomats such liberty to set the VCDR aside and do pretty much what they like in the context of our internal affairs. However, there is a very strong defense also so far as the diplomats are concerned because Dhaka is also perhaps the only capital where the nature of politics is such that the leaders of the mainstream political parties themselves go to these diplomats and plead with them to play a role in our politics. They do so not for any positive reason but in order to harm each other’s prospects in politics!

The leaks of Wiki Leaks do not point to anything to make us feel proud as a nation. Take for example the ruling party’s strong case against the military’s intervention in politics for which they inserted the necessary provision in the Constitution through the 15th amendment. Yet the same party was all for bringing the military into politics when the country was in crisis following the end of the BNP’s last term so as to rule out any possibility of the BNP holding on to power.

Coming back to the case of the Coffee Club, diplomats are free to form any such club for their recreation. However, they simply cannot use any such Club as a vehicle for discussing Bangladesh’s internal affairs with a view to interfering in our politics in order to realize their own agenda. It is up to our Ministry of Foreign Affairs now to inquire into the activities of this Club if it is still in existence and ensure that they refrain from doing what has been revealed in Wiki Leaks. This should not be difficult, at least in the context of establishing the truth, for the Wiki Leaks have quoted cables that have the stamp of the US Embassy in Dhaka. Whether our Foreign Ministry would be able to embark upon such a course of action is a different matter.

When we were young diplomats in the Foreign Ministry in the 1970s and 1980s, we knew that any Bangladeshi in public service, whether as a bureaucrat or a politician, could not attend an event in a foreign embassy in Dhaka without clearance of the relevant authority. For national day events of an embassy, it was the Foreign Ministry that would select one Minister to represent the Government. Now in Dhaka, one can see the long line of flag flying cars for national day events of embassies that are not even the powerful ones. For a national day event at any western Embassy, there is literally a scrambling of Ministers to attend.

Bangladesh is no longer Henry Kissinger’s “international basket case”. The size of its economy is now over US$ 100 billion annually. We are quite capable of standing on our own feet and do not need dole outs called development aid anymore. What are we afraid of? It is time we straighten out how diplomats behave in Dhaka for our national pride without any offense to them. Their main power for meddling in our politics is on the strength of their development aid to Bangladesh

Unfortunately, again it will be our own politics that will stand between the diplomats and our national pride.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On self-aggrandizement and over indulgence

As I See It Column
The Independent
10 September, 2011

As I was flipping through the uncounted private TV channels during the recent Eid holidays with my remote control, I inadvertently stopped in one channel that recently came into highlight because of the death of its CEO. The TV channel was covering live its correspondents in a get together with the public on the occasion of Eid ul Fitr. The correspondents and workers of this TV channel were mingling with the public in front of the national parliament.

What was covered during the few minutes I watched made me reflect upon the momentous events of the last few weeks. I watched in amazement unbelievable self-aggrandizement. The programme on which this self-aggrandizement took place was the regular news of the channel. The newscaster, a lady, brought her colleagues mingling with the public in the front of the parliament into conversation with her for the benefit of those watching.

One correspondent told the newscaster that the public he interviewed were telling him that she looked like a film star. Another correspondent told the newscaster that for their news editor’s great popularity, the public were willing to pay money to have a picture taken with her! He called this news editor a “celebrity journalist” and hence unable to come live on the programme because her “fans” would not let her!

This same channel had caught the imagination of the country by the way it covered the news of its late editor. As I watched this programme, I wondered whether it was the same channel that had covered for many days at the stretch about the death of Mishuk Munir. If they were so moved with his death, how come they forgot all the sadness to indulge in laughter and frolic so soon after the tragedy? It did not seem fair.

I hope I am not misunderstood by my readers. I did not know Mishuk Munir except that he was the son of one whom I consider a giant in the literary annals of our country. Mishuk Munir’s father Munir Chowdhury was outstanding in his field, drama and literature. I remember a TV interview on BTV in which the late Utpal Dutta referred to Munir Chowdhury’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew for BTV as so outstanding that there was no way to understand that it was a translation and not an original creation.

After Mishuk’s death, the channel where he was CEO was able to establish that he was a worthy son of his great father. Watching the channel unfold his life, I was convinced with all who watched that we had lost a great son of the country who earned the love and respect of everyone in the channel where he worked with his genius and his humility. Now that those who helped us understand his life and cry for him are ready to enjoy and laugh, I guess it is time to raise a few issues in order to take lessons for the future.

Despite his greatness, would Mishuk Munir’s death have had so much exposure had he not been the CEO of the station? His death was not a national event for this channel to leave aside everything and spent days covering the after events of his death as if there was no other news. In their over indulgence in grieving his death, the channel exposed its lack of balanced coverage because an equally great son of the country, if not more, Tareque Masud ,was given only a small part of the coverage that was given to Mishuk Munir. The sad thing, now knowing Mishuk Munir thanks to this channel, he would have been the first to disagree with this over indulgence in the coverage of his death for unlike those in his channel who shed those tears for him, he was matured and balanced.

Mishuk Munir and Tareque Masud died in an accident. You and I could die in the same manner tomorrow because our highways are death traps and unfit for a country that can call itself civilized. The 43 students in Mirarsarai died in more tragic circumstances a month or so ago. Their deaths ended with a footnote, even by this TV station that had unlimited time to cover the death of its CEO.

Not for a moment do I not doubt the good intentions of the TV station. Their grievance was genuine. But in their eagerness to show their grief just because they had the media to use at will, they made a number of major mistakes. They lacked the professionalism, maturity and objectivity for becoming a great TV channel that their late CEO wanted them to be. They misused their channel.

In their over indulgence, they dramatized a very serious issue. The Prime Minister pointed to a few of these. She asked those who have taken the attack on the government as a result of the deaths to take a look at their own role in what is happening on the roads. We all believed that the driver of the killer bus was a murderer mainly because of this channel. We absolved the driver of the microbus that carried those who died of any responsibility. It was extremely insensitive of the Minister who went to see Katherine Masud to tell her that the microbus driver was at fault. In retrospect, the Minister was not entirely wrong.

The Prime Minister was also right in pointing to the BNP for the conditions of the roads. She was however wrong in absolving her government of any responsibility. In fact, all governments since independence have contributed their parts to the horrendous condition of the roads today. They all lacked the vision for building roads infra structure of a newly independent country. They all contributed to the most systemic corruption to take roots in the communications sector. They all looked the other way and allowed a nexus of corruption to develop among those who control the roads that has allowed 60% of our drivers to hold fake licenses and become unlicensed killers on our highways!

There is a litany of more such well known corruption truths in the communications sector due to the government’s direct and indirect patronization. We all know about these truths. These have contributed to the deaths of Mishuk Munir and Tareque Masud, the 43 school children and many thousands over the years. The drama over the past few weeks notwithstanding, such deaths will continue because what we see today is the product of 40 years’ maladministration and corruption by the government and will not go away by the drama of a gathering at the Shahid Minar on Eid day.

It fact, it will never go away because it is the corrupt nature of our politics that sustains the murders on the roads. That corrupt nature is becoming more entrenched. The Government’s defense of the two Ministers at the height of public discontent should rest all hopes that the deep nexus of corruption would be touched. Let us instead talk about the self-aggrandizement of this TV channel. If they had any sense, they should not have had this Eid celebration with the public, not when thanks to them our hearts are still crying for Mishuk Muneer and Tareque Masud.

Just for reference and refreshing our memory, this channel made the same mistake during the coverage of the BDR carnage. For some time that day, thanks to this channel, we were convinced that the criminals and killers had done the right thing that day in Pillkhana by giving us “breaking news”.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a columnist for The Independent.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Manmohan Singh’s visit: Lessons for Bangladesh

Daily Sun
September 11th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The Finance Minister is the eternal optimist like the Foreign Minister. The latter was still hoping on the evening of 5th hours after Indian Froeign Secretary Ranjan Mathai had spelled out categorically that the Teesta deal was off as the WB Chief Minister had objected to it that an agreement was still on the cards. Now the Finance Minister expects an agreement in 3 months.

Clearly neither knows India or Indian politics intimately. Mamata Banarjee has just come to power after many decades of Communist rule on populist issues of which assuring 5 WB districts that use water of the Teesta that their interests would not be sacrificed for those of Bangladesh was one. She is a heavy weight in Indian national politics where her party is crucial for the Congress led Government to retain power. In politics, everything is possible and Mamata could change her stand. If that happens, it would be something unusual and diplomacy and negotiations should not depend on the unusual happening.

That raises a critical question. What were Bangladesh negotiators doing? Were they assured by the Indians that an agreement on 50/50 sharing was a done deal? If that was so, then our side needs to tell the public about it. Even if such an assurance was given, the Bangladesh negotiators should have talked with Mamata Banarjee as the negotiators had done in 1996 with Jyoti Basu for the Ganges deal. In the latter case, it was Delhi that had suggested to Bangladesh to go to Kolkata and that was what clinched the agreement.

A check with Mamata Banarjee would have informed Bangladesh where she stood on Teesta. If our negotiators had this information, a number of diplomatic options would have opened for them not to have landed Bangladesh to face the embarrassment at the eleventh hour. Instead, we opted for an immature option which was to make the Foreign Secretary call the Indian High Commissioner to the Foreign Ministry and tell him that because India had aborted the Teesta deal, Bangladesh was opting out of the transit deal. He perhaps forgot that our negotiators had brought down the land transit to a mere “exchange of letters” and there was no agreement on the table for signature.

This was done when the guest was in Dhaka. In diplomatic parlance, this is an insult. A correct action would have been for the Prime Minister to call the Indian Prime Minister on the 5th just after the Indian Foreign Secretary had announced that the Teesta deal was off and expressed Bangladesh’s disappointment. The transit deal could have been called off diplomatically. At least, a call from the Prime Minister would have convinced the nation that Bangladesh had been betrayed at the 11th hour by India.

Indians are tough customers. If they have taken umbrage with the ‘threat”, Bangladesh would have to pay a price at a later stage as it has in the past. What we are calling betrayal by India can very well be explained by India simply by saying that they tried their best to convince Mamata Banarjee but failed and that there was little else that the Centre could do for Bangladesh. The “threat” to the High Commissioner was diplomatically indecent and cannot be explained as easily.

In fact, the way Bangladesh has negotiated could be a case study of negotiations with the mindset of boy scouts. After the Foreign Minister had laid the foundations of good things in the offing and the Prime Minister made her historic trip to New Delhi and unilaterally offered India dream concessions on security and land transit, the negotiations were placed at the hands of two of the Prime Minister’s Advisers. Neither had any experience in diplomatic negotiations nor the benefit of institutional support as head of a Ministry.

They seemed to have had a pre-conceived notion that India has been misunderstood in Bangladesh; that India is a generous nation that is eager to help Bangladesh in all its needs. They chastised past negotiators for not giving India the land transit decades ago and those at present who asked India to pay transit fees. If the two Advisers were sitting in the Foreign Ministry or being advised by the professionals there, they would have benefitted from knowledge of how India behaved with Bangladesh in the past. The career diplomats would have cautioned them not to take Indian assurances on face value.

Nevertheless, Bangladesh has no alternatives but to re-start negotiations with India. It must do so by taking lessons from past mistakes. Its major mistake was the choice of the negotiating team. This must change and all negotiations must be placed in the Foreign Ministry and to the professional diplomats. Of course, the Advisers and anyone else the Prime Minister wants could be part of the negotiating but not as leaders which should be left to those who know and understand diplomatic negotiations.

The Prime Minister herself could take the leadership as she had done in 1996 with the Ganges Water Treaty and achieved results with the Foreign Ministry by her side. There are extremely capable diplomats in our Foreign Ministry who may not be Harvard trained but much better when it comes to negotiating for our interests. It is time to let them play their rightful role. We must remember that on the Indian side, the ground work negotiations were carried out at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the leadership of the Joint Secretary (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives) as always.

To get from India its rights, Bangladesh must go to India united and not just on behalf of the party in power. That was a major weakness of Bangladesh’s negotiating strategy. With the ruling party now looking at the next elections and its popularity considerably weakened because of its failure to deliver on its election promises, it is very unlikely that India would make major concessions at this stage of negotiations. Bangladesh’s case with India has weakened considerably for this reason.
The BNP is happy that the transit deal has got stuck. The AL is now saying that the transit deal is off and tying it to the Teesta agreement. This has opened an opportunity to the ruling party to reach out to the opposition for a common platform for negotiating with India. Unless Bangladesh goes to India as united as it did 1971, it would be naïve to expect that India would make the concessions on water and maritime issues upon which the viability and the future of Bangladesh rests. Unfortunately, it would also be hoping too much that the AL and the BNP would meet at a common platform on India that lets India treat us the way it has, casually and non-seriously.

Nevertheless, the security card has become more crucial for India. Despite Bangladesh’s open door policy to India’s security needs since the AL came to power, the latter needs more time and bipartisan offer for fulfilling its security requirements fully. Even with the latest terrorist attack in New Delhi, accusing fingers are being pointed at Bangladesh. This should make Bangladesh think that a bipartisan offer to India on its security concerns could be priceless and that if it could play this card competently, India would be more than willing to meet Bangladesh’s demands on water, trade and maritime boundary or at least be moved to take Bangladesh seriously.

Meanwhile, the Seven Sisters have already seen the benefits of Bangladesh’s cooperation and land transit. The Tripura Chief Minister did not hide this when talking to the media in Dhaka. The Assam Chief Minister did not know how to thank Bangladesh for breaking ULFA insurgency. These States are the ones that Bangladesh would need to cultivate for future negotiations with India. They would also be helpful in tackling Mamata Banarjee, although with her, Bangladesh would need to do a great deal more itself.

For future negotiations, Bangladesh would need to carefully consider two developments. First is Manmohon Singh’s statement on the visit given from his aircraft while returning to Delhi that is available on his website. Second, is the news in Ananda Bazar Patrika of conservation between Mamata Banarjee and SS Menon. In the first, the Indian Prime Minister has laid all the blame on Mamata Banarjee for the failure of the Teesta deal. In the second, Mamata Banarjee has accused SS Menon and by that count New Delhi of unethical behaviour. In the conservation, Mamata Banarjee told him that the draft she had approved gave Bangladesh 28% share and that she would not sign an agreement giving Bangladesh 50% that would go against her State. SS Menon pleaded with her to sign and not worry as New Delhi would “manage” things to protect WB’s interests!

Bangladesh is thus caught in power play between the Centre and WB where the latter is now the strongest politically in Indian history. Then there is India’s habbit of deceit going by the Ananda Bazar Patrika report. In fact, the Indians have done this and got away with it with the Ganges water Treaty where the draft upon which the Bangladesh side negotiated and the one that was signed were different.

The Teesta deal is seriously struck in deep abyss. In fact, water that is our primary concern with India has drifted away further in terms of resolution as a result of the visit. In fact, as days go by, the chances of Bangladesh getting its fair share of the waters of the cross border rivers is moving away from a fair resolution because of upstream withdrawal. The much heralded Ganges Accord is not fetching us the agreed share anymore and its effects are already there for everyone to see. The way out is a regional solution involving Nepal, Bhutan and China which India does not approve because it is getting its need of waters through bilateral agreements with Nepal and Bhutan.

Our Prime Minister now with the nation behind her should seek that objective and link it to the land transit and security. This is the way out for Bangladesh. In she chooses to do so and can; she will gain the respect in New Delhi that she and Bangladesh deserves. Otherwise India will play as it always has, giving Bangladesh peanuts and getting the cake. In present negotiations too due to our botched up negotiations, we ended giving India the ULFA terrorists for it to end ULFA insurgency and in return promises of doing business with 41 new items and the assurance of24 hours entry at the 3 Bigha Corridor. One is almost 2 decades in the coming and the other 37 years! The Foreign Secretary is right; we are indeed succeeding with our incremental diplomacy where success comes in decades; not in months or years!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Daily Sun
September 7th.,2011

Bangladesh should take full advantage of its geographical locationFormer Ambassador M Serajul Islam talks to Nazrul Islam, City Editor of daily sun, on the occasion of Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh.
Bangladesh needs inclusion of China and Myanmar in its framework of regional connectivity to reap the highest benefit from the proposed transit facilities, now being allowed to India, Nepal and Bhutan, said former ambassador and career diplomat M Serajul Islam on the event of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka.

“The country should take full advantage of its geographical location and bring all its neighbouring countries under the proposed connectivity net,” said Islam. The Indian PM arrived in Bangladesh capital on Tuesday for talks with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina and high officials. The two countries are expected to strike a number of deals, including exchange of letters for transit facilities, after the meeting.

Describing the present geo-political scene, Serajul Islam said Bangladesh should keep it in mind that India was playing the American cards to stop China in the South East and the Pacific.

But in the case of connectivity, Bangladesh cannot be benefiting without connecting with its other neighbours. Asked what Bangladesh should expect from the Indian premier’s visit, the retired diplomat said that the two countries could resolve their major irritants using the top leaders’ good offices tapping the existing friendly relations between the two neighbours.

He called for political understanding among the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party for resolving those problems.

Islam said that India and Bangladesh should announce that they will share waters of all the 54 cross-boundary rivers on the basis of equity and fairness. India should promise that they will not allow drying up of rivers in the downstream. If needed, they will form a sub-regional block to resolve the disputes over the Himalayan rivers.

Indian prime minister should seek apology for killing of more than a 1000 innocent Bangladeshis on the border. He must assure us that such incidents will not take place in future and the people living along the border will remain safe, he added.

Indian must open its door for ‘Made in Bangladesh’ products to help reduce the existing trade gap which is heavily tilted towards India. “I will be happy to see Indian prime minister announce that major Bangladeshi products get duty-free access to Indian market of over 1 billion people.”

The dispute over maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal should have been resolved by this time and India could generously help Bangladesh in this regard.

Manmohon Singh’s visit: Poor diplomacy by Bangladesh as India shows its true face

The Independent
September 8th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The summoning of the Indian High Commissioner by the Foreign Secretary while the Indian Prime Minister was in town was the final act of a poor show of Bangladesh’s diplomatic skills. Having been caught with pants down by Mamata Banarjee, the Foreign Ministry tried to come to the rescue of the Advisers who had badly messed up negotiations, where Bangladesh’s high hopes for a deal on Teesta and connectivity were dashed when the nation, thanks to the optimism raised not by India but by our side, was ready to see historic movement in Bangladesh-India relations.

If the Adviser and the Foreign Minister knew the basics of diplomacy, they would not have been caught in the manner they were by Mamata Banarjee. All they needed was to look at files and talk with those with experiences of past negotiations. If they had done so, they would have known what the last AL Government did for the Ganges Water Treaty. While talking with the Centre, the Foreign Ministry simultaneously talked with the West Bengal Government to soften the State’s objections to the deal. In fact, both the Froeign Minister and Water Minister visited Calcutta to bring Jyoti Basu on board and that too, on suggestion of then Indian Prime Minister IK Gujral.

This Government, backed by a confident Foreign Minister and Advisers with Harvard background, did not even know of Mamata Banarjee’s views on Teesta. A check with the Calcutta Deputy High Commission would have revealed the election promises of Trinomool to the people in West Bengal on Teesta. I read on the internet the West Bengal Water Minister stating in the media that the agreement would give Bangladesh 28% share of Teesta waters during the dry season. I read that at least 10 days before the issue exploded on our face.

There was a meeting of JRC set in Dhaka for the 5th of September. Obviously that was for the Teesta deal. It is strange why no one was following preparations for this meeting for if anyone on our side was doing so, the news that the Teesta deal was up for grabs would have been know days ago. The Foreign Minister, who was insisting as late as the evening of the 5th when everyone knew that the deal had gone kaput, would have been saved some embarrassment. More importantly, if our Prime Minister was made aware by her negotiators that Teesta was going down the drain, she could have made a last moment effort with the Indian Prime Minister.

Let me a devil’s advocate for a moment. I cannot blame Mamata Banarjee for she has her constituency that is more important to her than pleasing Bangladesh. How come our negotiators did not get a hint of this for the Foreign Minister is on record as saying in the media that the Teesta Agreement was a done deal a few times over the past few weeks. Was it that they were not negotiating but just believing in what the Indian negotiators were telling them? The Foreign Secretary has stressed on incremental diplomacy. I am disappointed by his lack of public awareness. Where his Minister has announced that Teesta was a done deal and built up such great expectations, he just thought that a fine English phrase would hide the incompetence of the negotiators. He should visit the people who depend on the Teesta, who, irrespective of religion, were praying to God for giving India good sense on the Teesta deal, and explain what he means by incremental diplomacy!

Mamata Banarjee is a politician of great importance in national politics whose support comes from grass roots. To believe that she would by the virtues of incremental diplomatic skills of our negotiators, agree very soon to give Bangladesh a 50% share of Teesta waters would be expecting something that is not likely to happen anytime soon. To the Congress, her importance and that of her party is more than that of the Indian Prime Minister himself. Where her interests are in question, no Congress government would even be inclined to re-open Teesta negotiations, not for the immediate future.

Bangladesh has closed the connectivity issue because on India’s backtracking on the Teesta deal. It had no other choice to save the ruling party in domestic politics. In any case, the connectivity deal had come to the point of withering away in days leading to the visit because of poor diplomacy of our negotiators who did not seem to know what they were negotiating. Just days before the visit, Dr. Rizvi said as the regional connectivity hub in the making with Indian help, Bangladesh would become so rich from trade and commerce that it could very well forget the fees from transit!

The question therefore is how come he or no one in our negotiating team knew what was coming. More importantly, what was it that convinced our negotiators to have such confidence on the Indians with whom they were negotiating that they were not even checking the basics? If they had checked history of Bangladesh-India relations, they would have been cautious and not been caught with their pants down and embarrassed themselves and the nation. If they had checked files in the Foreign Ministry, they could have negotiated professionally instead like amateurs. Finally, why is it that our principal negotiators were telling those who were suspicions of India that they were dead wrong and insisting that India is a generous power that is eager to help Bangladesh is all ways it needed? Why were they arguing the Indian case more strongly than the Indians?

India’s betrayal and our negotiators amateurish negotiating skills have wasted the opportunity that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had created by her courageous decision to assure India on its security concerns and offer it land transit for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations. What this visit has achieved, like the 41 items off the negative list and the different MOUs could have been achieved without the visit. Between what the visit promised and what it achieved, the word disappointment would be too mild to describe. Nevertheless, relations with India must be carried forward and for that our side must take lessons from the mistakes they made, and they made plenty of that. Simply by putting the blame on India would be a humungous mistake for future negotiations. Our side must evaluate how important the security card is to India. By doing the favour with the ULFA terrorists, Bangladesh has helped India break that many decades old insurgency almost completely. Negotiating this favour alone successfully should have brought Bangladesh much more than the 41 items off the negative list.

Although Manmohon Singh has made Mamata Banarjee happy and secured his job and the fate of Congress led coalition, he must know that he has messed up a major opportunity to take Bangladesh-India relations to a new level. Thinking of this, it was another major mistake our negotiators made, believing that a weak Prime Minister like Manmohon Singh would deliver us what they led us to believe since the 56 paragraph Joint Communiqué was issued after Sheikh Hasina’s Delhi visit. I recollect, with some regret the article I had written for The Daily Star when this JC was issued. I had titled the article as: “We get promises and India gets concessions”. After almost 2 years of living in hope, Bangladesh-India relations are back to future promises and incremental diplomacy while our rivers get drier and our once fertile land move dangerously close towards desertification.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

Some thoughts on Manmohon Singh’s visit

Daily Sun
September 6th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Looking at the issue of land transit as we stand on the threshold of, to believe our own Government, a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations, I can’t help wondering how easily we have shifted between two extremes and why. Our sensitivity on the land transit over the past few decades was not entirely rational. In the last term of the Awami League, land transit was not mentioned in Bangladesh-India negotiations as we considered this our only negotiating card to get our water, trade and other rights from India. Now that we have given it to India, it is not rational either that one Adviser would tell us that this should have been given 40 years ago or another would state that we would be “uncivilized” to charge any fee for transit.

Interestingly, the Adviser who wanted to give India land transit 40 years ago has recently stated in a seminar that there is no need for an agreement to give this facility to India because we have already granted India land transit by an agreement signed decades ago. He is right but partly. This agreement was signed under the BNP Government of President Ziaur Rahman in 1979 and not in 1974 as he stated for which the ruling party had criticized the BNP during both its terms in office.

The Adviser, Dr. Gowhar Rizvi, would have done himself and the nation a great deal of service if he had cared to tell us why the land transit was not implemented for so many decades and India’s role as a neighbour during this period. An explanation would have revealed that land transit was not implemented because bilateral relations during this period were embedded in distrust for which India’s overbearing and unfair attitude towards Bangladesh was to a large extent responsible.

In fact, land transit was introduced as connectivity with promises of rich economic dividends for us when negotiations started with India after the new government was formed in Bangladesh. The switch was made to set aside India’s role in un-friendly state of relations and make the issue acceptable in Bangladesh. I am not sure which side coined this word, but whichever side did it, it was a master-stroke. The vision that Bangladesh would become a connectivity hub of this region that would include India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China was too grandiose for Bangladesh not to be sucked in especially for a new Government that wanted to make India happy.

When we are more than ready to count our chickens from connectivity, the Finance Minister spoiled it for us. He told us that such are the conditions of our roads that it would be years before Indian trucks could use our transport system. The Finance Minister was not concerned that the Indian Prime Minister is about to visit Bangladesh and that his statement would create confusion. In fact, he said what everyone now knows, that our highways are not fit for traffic and would need years to fix.

Quite clearly the Adviser and the Finance Minister were not consulting each other because just before the Finance Minister had spoken, the Adviser was giving us a break down on earnings from land transit telling us that fees from land transit would be peanuts compared to the rich harvest we would reap from commerce and investment relations with India’s Seven Sisters by becoming the regional connectivity hub. The Adviser later went before the media and said that the roads would not be ready for years and therefore transit by river and railways would be given priority.

One wonders how commerce and investment that would make us rich would be conducted without roads. Then again, if road transit was not expected to be a priority, why was all the optimism raised over it. Clearly again, the Adviser came up with the river and railways transits only as an afterthought having been put on a spot by the Finance Minister. All these revealed a lack of coordination, transparency and preparedness in a process in which mysteriously the Foreign Ministry is absent! Nevertheless, lest the people be disappointed with all these, the Adviser asked us not to worry because our negotiators have Harvard University background and therefore more than capable of upholding our interests with the Indian negotiators!

There is also a small problem with the new line that Dr. Rizvi has taken to sell connectivity apart from the strange logic of the Harvard reference. First, neither he nor the government has cared to explain that India’s northeast states are not a composite whole; that they are poor and impoverished and that they have many intra-states problems that will not put them in any shape to make Bangladesh rich, not in the immediately foreseeable future anyway. Second, there is a problem of international politics. India and China are sharpening their conflicts, the former with USA by its side that could put a spanner on connectivity and deal our hopes of getting rich a major blow. It is difficult to contemplate that at this stage, India would be in any way interested to connect China to its still conflict prone northeast by road for Bangladesh’s economic benefit.

India’s interest in land transit is partly economic but more security based. There is no doubt that land transit would help India to develop the impoverished Seven Sisters. However, emerging international relations in South and Southeast Asia have enhanced India’s need of a land transit even more than in the past. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after her meeting with the Indian Government in 2005 in New Delhi had hinted towards that by naming Bangladesh as the “next Afghanistan.” India thus needs a handle on Bangladesh and in that context a land transit is of immense importance in India’s strategic planning.

Bangladesh has committed itself totally to Indian security concerns. This is a political commitment of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Her Government has ensured the implementation of this political commitment. Land transit is the final element that would fulfill the Prime Minister’s political commitment to India’s security needs. Sadly, our side is not even aware of the price of the Prime Minister’s political commitment. If they were, they could have resolved most of Bangladesh’s outstanding problems with India upon which our survival depends instead of running after the promise of becoming rich as the connectivity hub that by admission of some of its own Ministers/Advisers is still in the distant horizon.

There will nevertheless be many agreements and MOUs, 14 by newspaper reports, to be signed during the coming visit of the Indian Prime Minister that may include some big Indian investments. These agreements/MOUs will promise a bright Bangladesh-India future but will deliver little for now or for some time to come. Whether just promises would please Bangladesh is uncertain. The opposition that represents a very large section of people of the country has been left out of the negotiations totally has most recently called the negotiations a “selloff.” Also, politically, the ruling party is not as strong as when it had started negotiations.

The Bangladesh government must nevertheless be commended for its courage to set aside the history of unfriendly acts by India to improve bilateral relations. Such unfriendly acts include among others, allowing 93,000 Pakistani POWS to return home; unilaterally constructing the Farakkha Barrage, denying Bangladesh a fair share of waters of all cross border rivers and killing hundreds of innocent Bangladeshis on Bangladesh-India border.

It is India’s turn to reciprocate. For the paradigm shift of bilateral relations, the Indian Prime Minister must commit his country politically for providing Bangladesh a fair share of waters of all cross-border rivers and if there is an issue of augmentation, seek a regional solution of Bangladesh’s water needs; and give up building the Tippaihmukh Dam and other dams on cross border rivers over Bangladesh’s objections. India must also commit Bangladesh an unfettered access of its goods to its market. Security assurance and land transit to India are worth much more.

Is India willing for such political commitment or Dr. Manmohon Singh in a position politically to do so? Indians could argue the need for such commitment when our own negotiators are championing their cause free of charge.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Mamata Banarjee casts shadow over Bangladesh’s optimism

The Independent
September 6th.,2011

Mamata Banarjee’s last minute exit from Prime Minister Manmohon Singh’s entourage is ominous. That this was in the offing was known to insiders in the Bangladesh Government when the Indian National Security Adviser SS Menon dashed to Dhaka on the 2nd of September after “fine tuning” the visit on an official visit last week.

Quite clearly, the issue is the much anticipated Teesta Water Sharing Agreement. Official West Bengal sources, in fact its Water Minister had said very recently in the media that Bangladesh’s share would be 28% of the dry season flow. The Minister had talked to the media in Kolkata following no doubt after some such signals from New Delhi. It is hard to believe that the Minister would make such a statement without basis.

Thereafter, there was a change of heart in New Delhi to give Bangladesh 50% share of Teesta waters. It must have been the result of media in India that had urged the Indian Prime Minister to be fair to Bangladesh. Mamata Banarjee did not like this change of heart in New Delhi. As a consequence, she has declined to be a part of the entourage.

Prime Minister’s Adviser Mr. Gowhar Rizvi tried to appear calm when confronted by the media to explain the news on Mamata Banarjee. He mumbled words and eventually ended up assuring us that the West Bengal Chief Minister would be coming on a separate visit to Dhaka very soon! He expected us to believe that it is the same or better that she would be coming separately. I am not sure what textbook he is following in negotiating with India but from my experience, Mamata Banarjee’s withdrawal cannot be dismissed so casually.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Minister has finally emerged on the scene. She has confused us ever further. In a press briefing, she has said that the famous land transit would now be set aside and there will be no agreements signed on this subject. Instead the two sides would sign a document covering existing protocols on transit and future deals that the two countries may sign for regional connectivity.

The great hope that was built by the Prime Minister’s negotiators on Bangladesh becoming the regional connectivity hub has now been reduced by the Foreign Minister’s revelation into an “exchange of letter”! This is unbelievable because in negotiations between sovereign countries, “exchange of letter” is no better than an expression of intent. Thus for the next few years, Bangladesh’s hopes of becoming the regional connectivity hub and by that count rich, would have to go to the cold storage!

Clearly, the Froeign Minister has been made the “fall guy” (can’t think of a better expression). Dr. Gowhar Rizvi’s “discovery” late in the day that the two countries have already signed a protocol on land transit in 1979 during the tenure of President Ziaur Rahman has now caused the Government of Bangladesh this embarrassment. The Froeign Minister was thus given the task to tell the nation that on land transit/connectivity, for the moment there would only be an exchange of letter which by diplomatic parlance is nothing more than a promise that India could revert at will.

Our optimism on connectivity is not the only one that has been dealt a near fatal blow. Mamata Banarjee’s withdrawal from the entourage is an equally serious one regarding our high hopes for getting from India a fair share of waters from the Teesta. Mamata Banarjee is a high profile politician and her support is crucial to the Congress and its allies for retaining power. If it is indeed a fact that she has withdrawn from the entourage (our Foreign Ministry knows nothing of this) because of the Centre’s decision to provide Bangladesh 50% share instead of 28%, then the chances of Bangladesh eventually getting 50% share would be in serious doubt.

On this issue too, Dr. Rizvi has assured us not to worry. I am not so sure and like many who understand Indian politics a little bit, I am worried. In 1996, the Centre could sign the Ganges Water Sharing Accord only after the West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu consented to the deal. In this case, a Congress Government that is now under severe pressure politically and needs allies to retain power may not be able to please Bangladesh over the displeasure of West Bengal and Mamata Banarjee. If the proposed Teesta Water Agreement runs into trouble because of Mamata Banarjee, then two of the major areas where Bangladesh was basing its hope to see a friendly India after many decades of a difficult India would run into serious trouble.

Even if the Teesta Agreement eventually gives Bangladesh a 50% share, there could be many ways to deny this as we have seen with the Ganges Accord. I am afraid that with Mamata Banarjee’s objections now known, it would be difficult for Bangladesh to eventually get a fair share of waters of the Teesta to which we were looking forward for setting the standard for sharing the other cross border rivers.

That would leave trade as the third and last major area on which Bangladesh expected to see India make major concessions. According to media information, there would be an agreement during the visit under which 41 news items would be removed from the negative list. If this agreement is signed, Bangladesh could export substantial amount of goods, particularly in the RMG sector, to India. One newspaper report suggested that Bangladesh could end up exporting up to US$ 5 billion in exports to India in the next 5 years which would be well over 10 times what it is now exporting.

Unfortunately, there is no direct relation between enhanced exports and removal of items from the negative list because past experiences in exporting to India in items not in the negative list are not a happy one. These items were subjected to non-tariff barriers that rendered their placement out from the negative list almost useless. Therefore, we must wait and see how Indian Governments at the Centre and States deal with Bangladesh with these new items that would be out of the negative list.

Our negotiating team has confused and worried us by their media interactions over the last few days. Mamata Banarjee has added to more confusion and tension. One has to be very optimistic to hope that the visit of the Indian Prime Minister would lead to that paradigm shift that we were promised ever since Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India nearly 2 years ago. For India though, paradigm shift or no shift, they have made extensive gains on the security concessions granted by our Government.

The writer is a retired career diplomat former Ambassador to Japan.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Libyan Lesson

Daily Sun
September 4, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The most telling message about the fall of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi came from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. In a news item covered on local TV channels, she said that when she was in power last time, the former dictator had written to her to forgive the killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman whom he had given sanctuary and hospitality. What was ghastly was the fact that he quoted from the Holy Quran to plead for the killers.

The Prime Minister rejected his plea. She quoted another verse from the Quran to reject it with contempt. The Prime Minister portrayed the nature of Gaddafi’s term in a manner that hit the right chord in most people who know the nature of the regime of the Libyan dictator. In his 40 years’ stranglehold over his country, Gaddafi projected himself as the savior of the down trodden and the oppressed across the world. Yet he has been responsible for most ghastly acts against humanity at home and abroad.

He squandered his country’s wealth supporting revolution and terror everywhere. His support abroad is a mixed bag. He supported the Palestinian cause; he also supported a fellow dictator Idi Amin of Uganda whose name was repulsive to the civilized world. He boasted sending weapons to the Provisional IRA to attack the British for their past historical misdeeds. He was responsible for a number of bombings of civilian aircrafts that ended doing nothing for any worthwhile cause but in deaths of hundreds of innocent men, women and children. A survey of the causes to which he gave money and support abroad reveals a mentality that was close to derangement.

Yet, till the Arab Spring caught up with him and led to his downfall, very few outside Libya knew as they do today that he was as evil inside the country as he was abroad. He ruthlessly put down even the faintest opposition to his regime. In fact, his only success in his 40 years of ruthless dictatorship was building a system of spies for control and oppression that ended employing more people than the formal structure of the Government. Thus Libyans were even afraid to think aloud for fear of their lives.

Libya was banished from the international community for almost a decade in the 1990s for Gaddafi’s support of terror and terrorists. The megalomaniac dictator then undertook a series of initiatives to get back to the international community starting with handing over the Libyans accused for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 also known as the Lockerbie bombing. UK took the case of Gadaffi supported by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and words of recommendation from Nelson Mandela. In retrospect, Gaddafi cleverly fooled the international community by these initiatives by lures of Libya’s oil. At heart; he was always the same evil dictator and was just putting on a show with his initiatives.

The result of Gaddafi’s initiatives led to the withdrawal of 27 years of US sanctions in 2004. As an icing on the cake of Libya’s return from the cold and Ghaddafi’s acceptance from his hitherto pariah status, Libya occupied a seat in the UN Security Council for 2008-2009. In fact, unbelievable as it may seem now, the western powers that had once banished him from the international community were referring to the dictator’s efforts in using diplomacy to resolve international problems as the “Libya model.”

Now that the evil dictator has become history, it is time to take a stock of his era. Gaddafi did not fall because of the rebels and rebellion against him. The Libyan uprising was not in the same class as uprisings in Egypt or Tunisia. It was NATO’s direct involvement in assistance of the rebels that felled the Gaddafi regime. The NATO powers backed by the UN now have a greater responsibility to establish a democratic and responsible regime in Libya. It must not be forgotten that many of those who are leading the National Transitional Council are former cohorts of the former dictator and little is known about others with them.

More importantly, the western powers must also review their own roles in Libya over the years. They have in the past allowed their material interests to compromise in favour of the Libyan dictator. In fact, western powers have done this not just in the Libyan instance but also with many other dictators in the region. The case of Saddam Hossein is a case in point. He became a monster at the direct encouragement of the United States that turned a blind eye to his ruthless ways because it wanted to use his regime to end Iran.

The fall of Gaddafi has given the western powers a historic opportunity to correct many of the injustices in the Middle East and North Africa that owe their origin from their role as colonial masters. Gadaffi was not wrong when he said that arming the Provisional IRA was the right thing to do to fight the British for the injustices they committed when they had colonized the region.

It is because of the policies of the colonial powers that the region has seen so many dictators of both the so-called elected and hereditary types. After many decades, the people in the Arab streets have successfully risen to overthrow many of these hated regimes. Ghaddafi’s fall leaves just Bashir Asad in Syria among the so-called elected dictators l to hang on to power against the tsunami that started in Tunisia early this year.

The message from the Arab streets is loud and clear; that the age of dictatorship is over. It is now the responsibility of the western powers to back the popular movements in the region to give democracy the chance for sustainable roots. These powers must see that the dictatorships that have fallen are replaced by genuinely elected governments. In the countries, where hereditary monarchs have absolute powers, the western powers must work with them to encourage them share of political power.

The western powers must now focus on the Palestine problem that remains as the “mother of all problems” with urgency because it is now uniting Arabs in the streets. The Israelis are already feeling the effect of the Arab Spring with the cushion provided by President Mubarak now no longer there and Jordan and Turkey distancing themselves. The recent unprecedented regret by Israel to Egypt for killing 3 Egyptian soldiers caught in crossfire suggests a Israel acknowledging the new realities. The western powers could use these developments in the region to encourage them to resolve the Palestinian problem without further delay.

The fall of Gaddafi is thus an opportunity for western powers to correct historical mistakes of the past. If they can put an elected government in Libya, imagine what impact it would have on world oil prices under which we are all reeling. A democratic Libya could put enough oil in the market to bring down oil prices by US$ US$ 20- 30 a barrel not to speak of all the other possibilities for peace!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Egypt.

On Manmohon Singh's Coming to Town

As I See It Column
The Independent
September 3, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The period of waiting for what India would provide us on our bilateral interests is about to end. The Indian Prime Minister would be coming to Dhaka on a return visit from 6-8 September. The expectations have been enhanced by the strong entourage of the Prime Minister that would include a number of Ministers and 5 Chief Ministers, including the mercurial Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banarjee.

Those of us who have been involved in the past in negotiating with the Indians knew that the issues holding forward movement of relations were a denial by India in giving us a fair share of the waters of the cross border rivers, a favourable trade regime, a resolution of the land and maritime boundary demarcation and killing in innocent Bangladeshis in the border by the BSF.

India wanted from us land transit to connect its mainland to its northeastern provinces for their economic development. In addition, India also wanted an assurance from Bangladesh that our territory would not be used by insurgents of India. Bangladesh never acknowledged the latter and was not inclined to discuss the former without linking it to our demands on water, trade, maritime and land boundaries.

The present government decided unilaterally to give India fullest cooperation on its security concerns. As guarantee, it handed over 7 top ULFA terrorists who were hiding in Bangladesh to Indian security before Sheikh Hasina went for her Indian visit. In return, the Indians raised the status of her visit from official to state, a privilege reserved under established protocol for a Head of State.

Sheikh Hasina’s visit was full of promises. In a 56 paragraph Joint Communiqué, all issues of interest to the two countries were brought into the equation. However, reading between the lines, there were no concessions from India on Bangladesh’s key demands except promises. India was nevertheless granted a number of clear concessions, like the land transit, expansion of the existing river transit with inclusion of new ports of call and the use of Chittagong and Mangla Ports and of course commitment on Indian.

Nevertheless, our negotiators were extremely confident that India would give us more than our expectations. They just asked us to wait till Manmohon Singh visited Bangladesh. In their enthusiasm, the Bangladesh side overlooked India’s role in the sad state of bilateral relations and even went to the extent accusing previous Bangladesh governments of not giving India land transit decades ago.

Our negotiators said that India would make us the connectivity hub of the region that would just not bring Indian northeastern provinces into the loop but also Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China. The promises of money coming from transit fees and investment and commerce were just too rosy for anyone not to feel exited. Just when we were ready to count the chickens with the Indian Prime Minister’s visit days away, an Adviser of the Prime Minister who it now seems is a key individual involved in the negotiations, is addressing seminars and giving TV interviews advising us to go slow on our expectations and not yet to start counting our chickens.

In an address to the diplomatic correspondents union, the Adviser Dr. Gowher Rizvi said that we would not need to sign any new agreement with India to provide it land transit for it was already given to the Indians by an agreement signed in 1974. The statement that India was granted land transit by an earlier agreement is correct. Dr. Rizvi was however incorrect about the year and agreement. It was granted in 1979 when President Ziaur Rahman was in office.

The statement of the Adviser raises questions. First, why did he not tell us about this earlier? Second, why did the Joint Communiqué not mention this agreement? Third, why did he err on the year? For refreshing his memory, this fact is known to many in his own party (and the Foreign Ministry) that was very critical of the BNP when it was in power for opposing land transit when it had in 1979 granted it to India.

The Adviser is also now cautioning us not to expect dividends from land transit straightaway. He said our roads won’t be ready in the next few years to handle Indian traffic. He instead asked us to look at rail and water transits although he did not tell us how much money this would bring us in transit fees and that river transit was there since 1979 anyway. One suspects that the Adviser was forced to this admission only after the Finance Minister embarrassed the government by admitting in the media that the roads would not be ready in years for Indian traffic.

Also, for sake of transparency, we would like Dr. Rizvi to tell us why subsequent governments after 1979 did not implement the land transit agreement. Was the Farakkha in any way responsible for change of heart in Bangladesh? Or for that matter the series of broken Indian promises, like its failure to implement the 1974 Mujib-Indira Agreement or its unfriendly and over-bearing attitude?

In a dialogue with Indians that I attended recently with colleagues, we were warned by the Indians that we should not expect too much from connectivity with northeastern states as they are not a composite whole, very poor and have many problems among themselves to allow us great economic benefits in the short run. Dr. Rizvi is now alluding to these Indian fears about expecting too much from connectivity. As for China coming into the loop, it was never even consulted while building our expectations. Now with the emerging international situation in the region, it is a non-starter to expect that India would allow modern roads to be built from China right up to the doors of its fragile northeast.

In the current debate over land transit raised by the Bangladesh negotiators, we seem to have forgotten that we need from India for our survival as a nation, the rights of the waters of the common rivers, a more balanced trade, a clear statement on Tippaihmukh, and a settlement of the maritime boundary based on the principles of international law. Why is the Adviser not telling us of these issues instead of harping on promises of enormous benefits from connectivity that by his own admission would be in cold storage for a few more years? Courtesy BBC Bangla Service though we have now been informed that India would make major concessions on trade. Also, in knowledgeable circles in Dhaka, there are expectations of big Indian investments in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, almost inconspicuously, India now appears to have a handle on its security interests in Bangladesh because we have opened our doors for them to do so. Our Prime Minister’s commitment not to allow our soil to be used for terrorist attacks against India is indeed a very courageous decision. However, on security cooperation, a great deal is intransparent. Handing the ULFA terrorists to Indian security secretly has raised suspicion in the public mind about our government’s intentions. The people would like more transparency on Bangladesh-India security agreements and deals because if it is true that India today has a handle on its security needs in Bangladesh, then we may have bargained a great favour to India for very little in return.

Our Advisers assured us that they are quite competent to negotiate with India and win our interests as they have Harvard University background. The logic is hard to follow because that would render the Indians incompetent as to my knowledge; none on their side is from Harvard! Indian news media also seems to have a somewhat perception because it has urged the Indian Government not to disappoint Bangladesh and to reciprocate on the hard core issues of water, trade and land/maritime boundaries demarcation for concessions already made by Bangladesh.

Nevertheless, as a believer in institutions, I wonder about the Foreign Ministry that is conspicuous by its absence in the media in the context of the visit. If the Foreign Ministry is out of the loop many could rightly question whether the Advisers are the right individuals to carry forward negotiations and relations that would have a long term impact on the future of Bangladesh.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.