Sunday, September 18, 2011

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.

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