Sunday, November 27, 2011

65 million collaborators? An immortal piece

The Holiday
Enayetullah Khan Memorial issue
November 25, 2011
M. Serajul

Time is incredible. It passes fast, the good times too fast. Memories compensate part of it. It helps us remember those good times that have passed so fast that we were not able to enjoy those times as we would have liked. As we observe the sixth death anniversary of Mr. Enayetullah Khan’s and record our memories about him, it is hard to convince ourselves that; in fact he left us for his eternal home six years ago.

There are too many memories about him that he has left behind among his friends and admirers. He lived a good and full life but sadly he was taken away from our midst at a time when he could have contributed so much more. But then the ways of the Almighty are mysterious. It is not for us ordinary mortals to understand His ways, let alone question them.

I knew Mr. Enayetulllah Khan or Mintu Bhai but mostly as an admirer. My last conversation with him was when I was Ambassador to Japan. He had gone there on a visit. I guess it was in 2004 or 2005. I came to know he was in town only the day before he was leaving. I could not invite him to dinner but only spoke with him over the phone. He was very happy that I called and regretted that we could not meet.

As a student and a teacher in Dhaka University in the 1960s, Holiday was a weekly that was a must reading for us. I don’t remember I missed any issue during those tumultuous years leading to the uprising of the students in 1969 and the liberation war in 1971. Holiday played a great role in preparing us for the liberation of our country.

Mr. Enayetulllah Khan’s editorials and the way he guided his weekly was a credit to the man. But then those days, there were many other newspapers that played significant roles in our fight for our rights, many more than the Holiday. His role to eternal fame was because of one article that he dared to write in the days after our independence when the dream for which many millions had willingly accepted martyrdom was being betrayed.

That article that he had poignantly titled “Sixty Five Million Collaborators?” was written at a time when the credit for our heroic war of liberation was hijacked by those who fled to India and had taken sanctuary there for fear of the genocide to which the people of Bangladesh were subjected by a Pakistani army that wanted to instill the fear of God amongst us not to think again of independence or right of self determination.

Bangladesh’s war of liberation was one that stands qualitatively in a class of its own among the many such wars and movements that were carried out in the years after the end of the Second World War as part of the process of decolonization across the world. Pakistan military government’s refusal to accept the electoral verdict and hand power to the Awami League was one of the worst recorded betrayals of democracy that has never been answered. When the military junta declared the AL’s electoral victory null and void, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took over the mantle of leadership of 75 million Bengalis and was catapulted from a Pakistani politician to the level of a world leader.

He united 75 million people of Bangladesh with his speech on 7th March, 1971 with his speech at the historical Course Maidan of Dhaka, like few other leaders in history. Great revolutions of our times, like the Chinese, the Russian, the Cuban and the Vietnamese, to name a few, were successful and owed a great deal to those who led them, like Mao Tse Tung, Lenin, Castro and Ho Chi Min. Yet none of these leaders were able to unite their peoples as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had with his own. After his March 7th speech, there were just handful of collaborators and misguided Islamists who were not with him. He instilled in the hearts of his people the courage to rise above the fear of life to fight for freedom.

Then came the genocidal crackdown of the Pakistani army beginning on midnight of March 25th, 1971. Such was the savagery of their attack that 10 million of our people were forced to flee the country and seek sanctuary in India. Of those who remained, hundreds of thousands were killed. Those lucky to survive were literally prisoners on death row. The Pakistani military raped many thousands of our women who remained in the country.

Yet, the 65 million who remained were inspired by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s call of independence. They were also inspired by the Mukti Bahini that was led among others by great freedom fighters like Major Ziaur Rahman who had declared independce of Bangladesh on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman over Swadhin Bangla Radio on the night of 25th March after the Pakistani genocide had started. The freedom fighters were joined by defectors from Pakistani army, police and other para military forces and ordinary folks who chose to remain inside Bangladesh and face the marauding Pakistani army and fight them.

The support the freedom fighters received from the people who remained is stuff that make up fairy tales that speaks of their love for their motherland. There is the story in Newsweek that I still remember that reported an action of the Pakistani army. A unit of the Pakistan Army had hauled a few dozen old and middle aged men (the young had joined the freedom movement) and had asked them for information of freedom fighters who had the previous day carried out a guerilla attack that had killed a Pakistani soldier. Those who were hauled were shot one after another. Yet no one revealed the name of one freedom fighter although they knew who the freedom fighters were and embraced death as martyrs.

When the country was liberated, the 10 million who had crossed into India returned. They were insensitive. They pointed fingers at those who stayed back. They used the excuse of the few who had collaborated with the Pakistan army to accuse the 65 million people that they had left behind to face the Pakistan military. The infamous phrase “16th Division” was coined then, a phrase that described those who fled to India to save their lives and who came back to claim the honour of the liberators. The action of these 16 divisioners were not confronted; rather the government of the time credited them and to many of them, gave the certificate of a freedom fighter that they converted into lucrative government jobs from which most of them retired at the highest level of the civil bureaucracy. The present government has extended that privilege to their children!

Mr. Enayetullah Khan’s article “65 million collaborators?” was written to articulate the frustration of people whose sufferings during the 9 months were just not acknowledged; people who were accused for lack of patriotism by those who fled on the first sight of danger. Unique as has our war of independence been in terms of courage and leadership; it has been equally unique in terms of the way the dividends of independence have been distributed. Those who faced death but never betrayed their faith in the liberation of the country have been questioned for lack of patriotism and those who decided that their lives were more important and crossed into Indian sanctuary have been given the fruits of independence.

Mr. Enayetullah Khan’s great article caused quite a sensation those days. Sadly, the government took no note of it. In fact, it was the government’s failure to acknowledge the sufferings of the people who faced the Pakistanis in 1971 by remaining inside Bangladesh that was a major factor that divided Bangladesh after our liberation; a division that has hindered Bangladesh in major way from realizing the fruits of independence. If we had remained united after liberation the way we were in 1971 under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then we could have achieved incredible heights. Perhaps, history would also have been otherwise and not as tragic as it has been.

It is so unbelievable that a nation that so proudly faced one of the worst genocides in history as a nation as united as very few nations have and came out winner is today divided the way it is, the division going back to the issues Mr. Enayetullah Khan penned in his immortal piece. There were people who were against our independence in 1971. They were so few however that they did not matter in the context of our victory except for the fact that they committed crimes against humanity and the need to punish them.

When we won our liberation, it should have been very easy for the Government to catch these betrayers of our independence; betrayers who collaborated with the Pakistani army and committed crimes against humanity. Yet in more than three years of absolute power, the government was unable to lay hands on any one of them. The reason is a simple one. By pointing fingers at all the 65 million people who remained in Bangladesh, the collaborators were given the reprieve.

The failure of the government of the day to pay heed to the message that Mintu Bhai so clearly and so brilliantly articulated did not just allow reprieve to the collaborators of 1971; it permanently divided the country into so called pro-liberation forces and those that these so-called pro-liberation forces have identified as an anti-liberation forces. Thus, in the so-called anti-liberation forces today, there are millions who remained in Bangladesh and faced death every moment and yet did not betray the call for independence given by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In the so-called anti-liberation forces today are hundreds of thousands who did not cross into India and took up arms against the Pakistani occupation force. The insanity of this viewpoint was taken to its illogical conclusion when a Minister of this government not too long ago identified Major Ziaur Rahman as an agent of the Pakistanis!

Mr. Enayetulllah Khan’s piece “65 million collaborators?” is something that will place him among the greats of journalism across national frontiers despite the fact that the message in it was ignored at great costs to the nation. It will also remain as an example of what went wrong in the days immediately after our liberation and why 40 years into our independence, we are still chasing the dreams for which millions had sacrificed their lives in 1971.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Tippaimukh: Indian disdain and apathy towards Bangladesh

Daily Sun
November 27., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The Indian decision, taken unilaterally, to construct the Tippaimukh Dam has caused indignation in Bangladesh. Critical statements have come out from the environmental groups as well as the civil society condemning the Indian decision. The opposition has of course come out as strongly as expected and has called a hartal in Sylhet, the district that is at the forefront of the expected environmental and other hazards that people in Bangladesh, across the political divide believe would accrue if the dam is constructed.

When this Government came to office in January, 2009, the issue of the Tippaimukh dam was at the top of the list of issues that had to be resolved in order for Bangladesh-India relations to move ahead. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina communicated the seriousness of building the Tippaimukh dam unilaterally in the context of Bangladesh-India relations during her official visit to India in January, 2010. The Indians accepted Bangladesh’s concern and it was duly reflected in the Joint Communiqué. In paragraph 21 of the Communiqué, the Prime Minister of India “reiterated the assurance that India would not take steps on the Tippaimukh project that would adversely impact Bangladesh.”

During his visit to Dhaka in September, 2011 that ended disappointingly on the failure to sign the Teesta deal, the Indian Prime Minister again assured Bangladesh on the Tippaimukh issue. This time, he did it in an audience that comprised a cross section of the intelligentsia of the country at a speech in the Dhaka University. He said “India will not, I repeat and assure you, India will not take steps that will adversely affect Bangladesh.”

These strong assurances convinced Bangladesh that on the Tippaimukh dam, the Indians were prepared to consider the sentiments of Bangladesh. Therefore, the unilateral decision first announced on October 22nd was totally unexpected. Noted Indian journalist Kuldip Nayyar who was in Dhaka for an event, said that the Indian decision is a “violation of trust.” He asked: “If a country like India has no respect for the word it has given, then what happens to small nations?”

Nevertheless, astute as the Indians are in the art of diplomacy, they had in both the Joint Communiqué and their Prime Minister’s speech in Dhaka the exit strategy so as not to be caught on the wrong foot. They did not commit to Bangladesh that it would not build the Tippaimukh Dam. It did not commit either that if they decided to build the dam, they would consult Bangladesh. The Indian commitment was that India would do nothing to “harm Bangladesh.”

That is exactly the message Bangladesh has been delivered from New Delhi when it sought clarification on the Tippaimukh dam. The Indians have told Bangladesh after being urged that the dam would not divert water from the river for any purpose and that it would be constructed to control floods and produce electricity. They have assured Bangladesh, true to their commitment, that the dam would not harm Bangladesh.

The Indians have not considered it necessary to discuss the issue with Bangladesh because they know what is good or harmful for us. They feel the dam would not harm Bangladesh. Therefore to them what the people of Bangladesh think of it or what experts and environmentalists in the country fear about it are not important. .

The chain of events now places the Bangladesh government, thanks to its naïve way of conducting business with the Indians, in a position where the Indians have been given the right to decide what is good or harmful for Bangladesh. Nowhere has it been put in writing nor have our negotiators pointed out in their negotiations that India would need to consult Bangladesh before building a dam on an international river.

In failing to do so, the Bangladesh negotiators have by implication accepted Indian “guardianship” ; they have also written off Bangladesh’s rights under the international law and convention related to the rights of a lower riparian of an international river. Unbelievably, , when the government has literally been caught with its pants down over an issue that has the potential to blow up as a major issue in our politics, the Bangladesh State Minister for Water Resources has said that India is fully within its rights to build the Tippaimukh Dam. Unsolicited, he handed to Bangladesh’s rights on all other cross border rivers, saying that India could do whatever it pleases with these rivers as internal matters of India!!

The Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary have both backed India on the trust factor. They dismissed as political all the misgivings being raised over the Tippaimukh Dam. The Foreign Minister said that the Government trusts completely that India would not harm Bangladesh by the Tippaimukh Dam. She said that those who criticize the Dam “turn a blind eye to reality.” The Foreign Secretary has been more forceful in dismissing India on the trust factor.

It would therefore be futile to appeal to our negotiators to be cautious about dealing with India. Never in the history of negotiations between the two countries have we shown the subservient attitude towards India as have those who are negotiating on our behalf with the Indians now. Indian analysts have blamed their country so critically over the way India has treated Bangladesh under the present government that one has to wonder how our negotiators can be in such of state of denial about the intentions of India.

Our negotiators should spare themselves time and think seriously why after giving India support on the crucial issues of security and land transit, both invaluable concessions, they have not signed the Teesta deal and now gone ahead and decided to construct the Tippaimukh Dam by taking us for granted. Such is their arrogance that they asked our government to read the details of the proposed dam in the website of the External Affairs Ministry! With some honest soul searching, they may realize their mistake in believing in India blindly instead of looking at how India has broken promises and agreements and betrayed us in the past.

India too should do some honest soul searching of its own. Sheikh Hasina had opened a great opportunity for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations by unilateral concessions on security and land transit. If India had reciprocated, it could have helped build sustainable friendship. The Indian mindset of taking its neighbours such as Bangladesh for granted has brought Bangladesh to a stage where the anti-Indian feeling has enhanced since the present government assumed office, thanks to the Felani incident, Teesta debacle and now Tippaimukh Dam. By its arrogant mindset, India has put at jeopardy both the security assurances and the land transit privilege given to it by Bangladesh. The unbelievably strong pro-Indian attitude of our key negotiators has also helped enhance the anti-Indian attitude in Bangladesh.

The current status of Bangladesh-India is certainly a poor testament to the skills of our negotiators. It is also a testament to the arrogance and lack of common sense on the part of the Indian negotiators. The decision of sending a Special Envoy to India will not help rationalize Bangladesh-India relations, not when the key negotiators see nothing wrong in what India is doing.

The decision to send the Special Envoy to New Delhi has no doubt been influenced to tackle the opposition from the lead it has taken in building public opinion on Tippaimukh. If the Government is conscious of public opinion and national interest and wants India to listen, it should take up the opposition offer for bipartisan Bangladesh stand against the Tippaimukh Dam. The Special Envoy would perhaps be told politely to look at the MEA website again!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

On Didi, Jamdani sari and Tippaimukh

As I See It
The Independent
November 25.,2011

An aide of our Foreign Minister seeking anonymity had leaked to the media that the Minister would present a Jamdani sari to the Chief Minister of Paschim Bangla when she met her in Kolkata on way back from attending an international conference in Bangalore last week. I was wondering what Didi would do with a Jamdani sari knowing that she does not wear one. The leaking of the gift to the media reflects poor judgment. Our Foreign Minister still does not seem to realize what she and Bangladesh are up to while negotiating with India. Weeks before she met Didi, the Indian Government announced it would build the Tippaimukh!

On the subject of Didi, the Foreign Secretary was caught on the wrong foot when he faced the journalists at the Foreign Ministry. When asked about this visit of the Foreign Minister to Kolkata, he stammered and ended giving an astounding reply. He said he did not know where the Foreign Minister was!

Our Foreign Minister received the same disappointing news from Didi that our Prime Minister was given by the Indian Prime Minister in Maldives. Didi informed her that her government would form a committee to find out how much water would be available at Teesta during the dry season and how much of it her State would be able to share with Bangladesh.

Before her meeting with Didi, our Foreign Minister had met the Indian Foreign Minister in Bangalore during the IOR/ARC meeting. SM Krishnan assured her that a deal on the Teesta is” round the corner”. How much of what SM Krishnan said should be taken seriously is not difficult to assess. Against his assurance, Dr. Manmohn Singh has stressed the need to build consensus among the stakeholders and Didi, upon the need to see the findings of the committee. In diplomatic parlance, “round the corner” could therefore also be an indefinite wait.

Nevertheless, our Foreign Minister, showing the same optimism she did late in the evening of September 6th on a Teesta deal even after the Indians had officially taken it off the table just hours before their Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka, has told a news media upon returning to Bangladesh that India is hopeful that a deal on Teesta would be signed “soon.” Neither Didi nor our Foreign Minister spoke to the media after their meeting in Kolkata that lasted for half an hour. If a deal is imminent, then Didi, who otherwise has good feelings for our Prime Minister and Bangladesh , would have said something positive about Teesta knowing Bangladesh ‘s impatience for a deal.

The Teesta apart, the Indians are breaking other commitments too. The news that the Indians are going to build the Tippaimukh Dam has caused uproar in Bangladesh among bipartisan non-government and environmental groups as well as the opposition political parties. The news comes after firm commitment given by the Indian Prime Minister during his recent visit to Bangladesh that India would not harm Bangladesh’s interest by constructing the Tippaimukh dam. The same commitment was given to our Prime Minister during her visit to Indian in January, 2010. In deciding to go ahead with Tippaimukh Dam, the Indians would also be violating international conventions and laws as well that require consultation with a lower riparian in construction a dam on an international river.

The Teesta debacle and breaking the commitment on Tippaimukh are examples of India lacking on the element of trust. These broken promises and commitments are nothing new though for India has a history of breaking promises, commitments and agreements. What is amazing is the fact that our negotiators for some mysterious reasons simply refuse to acknowledge the history and see the pattern.

This time, our State Minister for Water Resources has beaten all others in our negotiating team in backing India. He has called any concern of Bangladesh on Tippaimukh and whatever else India does on our common rivers unwarranted because such actions are internal matters of India! He has blamed the opposition of trying to play politics with what he thinks is none of our business. Kuldip Nayyar, a noted Indian journalist, reacted sharply, in contrast to our Minister and for that matter our government, and accused India of betraying a trust.

Indian Foreign Secretary Muchkund Dubey had said after the disappointing end to the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Bangladesh that the attitude of Indian politicians, bureaucrats and analysts towards Bangladesh is one of “disdain and apathy.” The decision to go ahead with Tippaimukh underscores the fact that the attitude of the Indians towards Bangladesh is exactly what Muchkund Dubey has said; India just takes Bangladesh for granted!

And why not? We have those negotiating for us with India telling us that we have made a historical mistake in the past by not trusting India. They have highlighted the US$ 1 billion soft but tied loan by India as a show of Indian generosity. They thanked India profusely for its promise to make us the regional connectivity hub that they said would make us rich and important. They bargained away our security and land transit cards for the loan most of which would be spent for India’s and for its promise on connectivity hub. In the process, they have made our position more vulnerable than ever before and have placed us at India’s mercy. And now, there is a Minister who thinks it is India’s right to do as it pleases with all our common rivers!

Amidst growing public concern in Bangladesh, a spokesman of the Indian External Affairs Ministry confirmed that India has decided to build the Tippaimukh Dam and advised Bangladesh to look for details in the website of the MEA Ministry! India, it seems, did not feel the need to even inform Bangladesh through the normal diplomatic channel about the matter. It is not that India is not aware of the importance of Tippaimukh to Bangladesh; their attitude can be explained simply as arrogance. Perhaps, it has been afflicted by amnesia and thus forgot the commitment of its Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, our government, hopeful that the Jamdani to Didi would get it the Teesta deal, could not find the courage to question the Indian decision, let alone demand its annulment. Or perhaps those authorized to speak over the issue have also been afflicted by amnesia to recollect the assurance the Indian Prime Minister has given to Bangladesh a few times. There is one difference though in the type of amnesia of the two sides. The Indian amnesia is one of convenience and arrogance; ours is one of subservience.

At time of filing this piece, the Prime Minister announced in parliament that she would send a Special Envoy to New Delhi to seek “information” on the Tippaimukh Dam in the face of mounting public opinion consolidating against India on the issue. A Special Envoy will serve little purpose for the government has demonstrated to the Indians its subservience by some naïve and poor diplomacy of its chief negotiators to be taken seriously. The only way to show India we are serious about the Tippaimukh Dam is to face the Indians unitedly. The BNP has offered to work with the government over Tippaimukh; it is now for the ruling party to unite the nation on a grave national issue against Indian designs.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bangladesh-India relations: astrology versus diplomacy

The Independent
Anniversary Issue
November, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Foreign Minister Dipu Moni is certain that the agreement on the Teesta will be signed while the present Government is in office. When pressed for a specific date at the press conference where she expressed her view, she said she is not an astrologer. It appeared like she was feeling sorry for herself that she was not one because if she was one, she would have predicted the timing correctly. In the evening before the Indian Prime Minister arrived in Dhaka, she was more confident about the Teesta agreement and had predicted confidently like an astrologer that it would be signed during the visit.

It was not. That led Bangladesh to “withdraw” the offer of land transit. Like a pack of cards, the great expectations that the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister’s Advisers had built since the visit of Sheikh Hasina to New Delhi in January, 2010, fell apart. In the heat of the moment, the FM’s categorical statement about the Teesta agreement was forgotten. It was also forgotten that few hours before her surprising statement; the Indian FS had told the media that as Mamata Banarjee was unhappy, New Delhi was withdrawing the Teesta deal from the table.

Quite clearly, the FM did not appear to know how the Indians negotiate for after Ranjan Mathai statement to the media, the issue of Teesta was closed. If she needed to hear from the horse’s mouth, she should have called the Indian Foreign Minister that would have saved her and the Government serious embarrassment.

Our FM would have no regrets about not being an astrologer if she only knew about the Ministry she heads. She heads a Ministry where trained diplomats can often predict events almost like an astrologer. In fact diplomacy is the art of predicting future course of events, sometimes with more certainty than the astrologer. If our negotiators had conducted negotiations with India professionally with trained diplomats showing the way, they would have achieved the results they predicted after our Prime Minister had taken great political risks to make the first moves for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations.

Ironically, the negotiators who led our talks with India by largely ignoring the Foreign Ministry came back to the latter when the Indians withdrew the Teesta agreement. The Foreign Secretary was given the task to call the Indian High Commissioner to the Foreign Ministry to communicate to the Indians that Bangladesh would take back the land transit agreement in retaliation for India’s withdrawal of the Teesta deal.

The summoning of the Indian High Commissioner was a showdown of sorts. It was also a diplomatic faux pas as it was done while the Indian Prime Minister was in the city for a visit that we trumpeted would move our bilateral relations to a new level with India making the reciprocal gestures to Sheikh Hasina’s support on security, grant of land transit and offer of our sea ports.

The Teesta-land transit showdown notwithstanding, our side claimed the visit of Manmohon Singh was a “big success”. Dipu Moni claimed so and so did Dr. Gowhar Rizvi. Against their claims, Indian media blamed its leaders for not doing enough for the visit to end on a disappointing note. One of India’s most respected retired diplomats Muchkund Dubey, former Foreign Secretary and High Commissioner to Bangladesh, wrote an article in The Daily Star headlined “India-Bangladesh relations: failure of leadership on the Indian side” where the title itself suggests that the visit of the Indian Prime Minister was a failure.

Our negotiating should read this article to get over the state of denial over the visit. He wrote: “The attitude of most of Indian political leaders, senior officials, business magnates and strategic thinkers towards Bangladesh has been one of disdain and apathy.” He further wrote that India’s Pak-centric politicians, senior officials, journalists and analysts could, by their ineptness and negligence, force Bangladesh to become like Pakistan although it is no means anything like Pakistan yet.

Our negotiators believed in the Indians’ sincerity and showed no signs of awareness of the concerns that Muchkund Dubey expressed. In fact, they expressed anger on anyone who was critical of the Indians when they conducted the talks. They were busy highlighting the virtues of the Indians and refused to take a look at India in the context of their “disdain and apathy” to Bangladesh’s legitimate demands on water, maritime boundary, land border, trade and the rest.

In their enthusiasm to highlight Indian virtues, they made particular mention of the Indian loan of US$ 1 billion without clarifying that almost all of it would be spent on constructing roads and other facilities to integrate India’s northeast to its mainland. In the process, they totally undervalued the land transit card that Muchkund Dubey has described as one of “supreme significance” to India because, first, it is the key for Indian mainland’s integration with its strategically located but fragile northeast, and second, Bangladesh is “the pathway to the integration of our economy to those of South East and East Asian countries.”

Thus we underplayed what was a major card for us in negotiating our interests with India. We also almost totally failed to ask India value for our security card. By handing over the ULFA terrorists at our own initiative (we even refused to have done so for mysterious reasons), we have helped India break the backbone of the dangerous ULFA insurgency. If one was to put value for this favour, India’s US$ 1 billion loan would be pittance by comparison.

Instead, despite the failure to reach agreement on sharing the waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers, we have hailed the visit of the Indian Prime Minister a “big” success. Some enthusiastic people have also given the Foreign Secretary great accolades for calling the Indian High Commissioner and withdraw the land transit. Great credit was also given to our Prime Minister for this “courageous” move.

Our negotiators have claimed success for the visit based on the agreements on the 6.4 km land boundary; exchange of enclaves; 24 hours’ access to Dahagram and Angorpota ; and the 46 items in the RMG sector that we can now export to India duty free. They have however not told us that India was agreement bound to give us all they have now given many decades ago. For instance, the 24 hours’ access to Dahagram and Angorpota through the Teen Bigha corridor is a regression not a success because under the India-Mujib Accord of 1974, it was agreed that the corridor would be given to Bangladesh permanently on reciprocity. Bangladesh kept its deal soon after the Accord was signed.

Nevertheless, these are achievements and there is no way to sidestep these as insignificant. However, on each of these agreements, major groups in India have already started to put pressure on the Indian Government to backtrack. On the land boundary and exchange of enclaves, the BJP is leading the pressure. We should also be careful, going by India’s past track record of promising and reneging, to claim success before India actually delivers on the agreements.

Most recently more confusing and contradictory information have come in the media pointing to our unprofessional way of conducting negotiations with India. The most important one in this context is the issue of land transit. It has now come to light that the land transit offer that our Foreign Secretary withdrew in retaliation to Indian withdrawal of the Teesta agreement was a bluff. Recently, the Economic Adviser said in the media that the land transit and Teesta are not tied!

Subsequently, it has been revealed in the media that the land transit has already begun! The Economic Adviser called this a trial run. The NBR has gone one step further and sent instructions to Akhaura land port about goods from mainland to Tripura but did not mention in the instructions that it is a trial run. Therefore when the FS called the Indian High Commissioner and withdrew the land transit, he was bluffing for by then land transit was signed and gifted away to India.

This raises a very serious issue of ethics not to speak of the fact that by the time the India PM had arrived in Dhaka our negotiators had all but messed up the negotiations. The ethical issue is who was the FS asked to bluff; the Indians or the people of Bangladesh? Quite clearly, it was not the Indians going by the ease with which the land transit has started. Bangladesh in fact went ahead with its commitment on the land transit despite India’s betrayal with the Teesta deal.

To be fair to the FS and the Government of Bangladesh, there was no other choice available to Bangladesh when the Indians reneged on the Teesta. They had to bluff because water is too sensitive an issue in Bangladesh. The recourse to bluff was the only option to Bangladesh once the Indians pulled the Teesta off the table. However, the Government owes it to the people and to future negotiations with India to re-consider its past mistakes and carry forward negotiations with India because our future as a nation depends on it.

There were some major mistakes. First, we believed in India, almost obdiently. Second, our negotiators were not in fact a team but individuals with wrong notions of India and their brilliance as individuals notwithstanding, with little or no experience in diplomatic negotiations. Finally, in their eagerness to make India happy, they completely undervalued our two major cards, namely the land transit and security, and instead harped on how India would turn Bangladesh rich as the connectivity hub of the region.

We are making the same mistake as we did with Farakkha. We allowed a trial run of the Farakkha to eventually become our death warrant. We should reflect upon that and hold back on the land transit. It can still be held back and we must do so for our national interest. We then should seriously evaluate the security card. In both, if played deftly, there is immense value for us to interest India to give us our rights of the waters of the common rivers for which we should seriously ask India to seek a regional approach for augmentation, and a fair demarcation of the maritime boundary.

The other issues that we have with India, some of which have been agreed upon in Dhaka during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit, are to put it bluntly, the minor issues in our bilateral relations. We should also for the time being, take our minds off from the promise of rich financial gains as the connectivity hub, keeping in mind that the Indian northeast is still too poor and impoverished for such day dreaming, for the moment at least. As for China becoming a part of that connectivity hub, India in its right frame of mind would never agree to building modern roads connecting China to its fragile northeast, not yet.

We need a negotiating strategy and a new negotiating team. More than that, we need the Foreign Minister to think positively; that diplomacy is the tool that can help us achieve what we need to achieve in our bilateral relations with India. The fact that she has mentioned that she is not an astrologer and hence cannot predict the exact time of a date for signing the Teesta deal is an expression of her lack of knowledge and experience in the art of diplomacy.

Let us have negotiators who are a team. We do not need Harvard scholars or brilliant individuals negotiating on their own. Trained diplomats of the Foreign Ministry would do far better. Let that team take a look at the history of Bangladesh-India relations and then at the issues. Most important of all, let the Prime Minister herself take charge keeping in mind that we achieved the Ganges Accord and the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord because she led and directed the negotiating teams. It is a pity that between astrology and guesses and misplaced confidence in India, we have almost wasted the Prime Minister courageous initiative with India that she had taken unilaterally after becoming the Prime Minister in January 2009.

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

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Rajeet Mitter’s positive spin to Indo-Bangladesh relations

November 18, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The outgoing Indian High Commissioner Rajeet Mitter endeared himself to the people of Bangladesh by his demeanour. His low profile was quite a contrast to his predecessor who had a way of upsetting us by his hard line attitude on our issues of concern with India. He will no doubt be missed and more so considering his tenure in Bangladesh was for only 2 years. He left Bangladesh because he reached the mandatory age of retirement.

Rajeet Mitter gave a farewell press interview at the India High Commission that has been carried in all the newspapers. I liked the positive spin he gave to the recently concluded visit of the Indian Prime Minister. He regretted that the failure on Teesta was a disappointment. Nevertheless, he felt that the visit achieved many positive agreements that will move our relations ahead.

Among achievements, the High Commissioner named the 24 hours’ access to Dahagram and Angorpota enclaves, 46 RMG items in the duty free list, exchange of enclaves; joint border management and sale of 250MW of electricity by 2014. Regrettably, the outgoing High Commissioner did not care to look at the issues seriously. If he did, he would not have been as upbeat as he was at the press conference.

Take for instance the 24 hours access through the Teen Bigha corridor. By the terms of the Indira-Mujib Agreement of 1974, India is bound to give Bangladesh the corridor for which Bangladesh has already given to India Berubari in reciprocity soon after the agreement was signed. India reneged on its commitment on the excuse that a case was filed against the transfer of the Teen Bigha corridor to Bangladesh. The two countries later reached an agreement during the 1980s to give Teen Bigha to Bangladesh as “lease in perpetuity” to get around the court case.

What Bangladesh has now got which Rajeet Mitter has highlighted as a success is in fact a regression on India’s commitment under the Indira-Mujib agreement of 1974. Bangladesh has just been given tenancy with India holding the rights to withdraw the privilege anytime it wishes. As for the 46 RMG items that Bangladesh
can now export to India duty free, RMG groups in India have already started putting pressure on the Indian Government against it. The BJP has told the Indian Government to cancel the agreement on exchange on enclaves.

The joint patrol of the border is controversial for many in Bangladesh. The incidents in the border where more than a thousand innocent Bangladeshis have been killed by the BSF in the last one decade have created an extremely negative image of the latter for any joint exercise with it. Many in Bangladesh do not see the usefulness or necessity of the joint exercise because India has unilaterally fenced off the border and in full control of the points of passage across the border where peace can prevail only if India is interested. Further, on this issue, a lot is still not transparent and before such a joint exercise sinks among Bangladeshis across party lines, the Bangladesh Government must come out with all the details of this issue.

That leaves the sale of electricity by India to Bangladesh that Rajeet Mitter has identified as one of the achievements of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit. In an energy starved country, such a prospect must be accepted as positive. However, between an agreement and actual delivery, there is a lot that would need to be done. When Sheikh Hasina visited India, the Indian case of land transit, use of our ports and security commitment was sold by the promise of sale of electricity to Bangladesh together with the US$ 1 billion loan. At that time, the impression given to the people of Bangladesh was that we would receive the electricity as soon as we connected our national grid with the Indian grid. That could now come on our national grid not earlier than 2014.

The outgoing High Commissioner left no doubt that India has already been granted land transit. He advised Bangladesh to set reasonable transit fees so that Indian businessmen would not get disinterested to use the privilege! That left a big question unanswered. What then did our Foreign Secretary withdraw when he met him on the morning of 6th September? From what the Foreign Secretary said that morning after his meeting with Rajeet Mitter, Bangladesh had withdrawn the land transit offer in retaliation for Indian withdrawal of the Teesta Agreement. Surely between Rajeet Mitter and our Foreign Secretary, someone has distorted the truth that must be resolved before any evaluation on where Bangladesh-India relations are going can realistically be made.

The issue has become serious because the BNP has taken a strong stand on the issue. It has said Bangladesh has given India the corridor that is against our national interest. It has vowed not to allow India to use the corridor. Given the fact that BNP carries with it at least half the country if not more, the issue of land transit has to be resolved satisfactorily. Unfortunately, our negotiators have themselves taken confusing and contradictory stand on whether we have or not have given India land transit. They have given fancy prospects of the benefits we would receive from land transit without detailing what these benefits are. More importantly, we have not been told clearly what benefits India would get out of it. Going by former Indian Foreign Secretary Muchkund Dubey, the land transit is of “supreme significance” to India as it would integrate mainland India with its fragile northeastern states and would provide it a pathway to Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia.

On Teesta, our FM expects an agreement to be signed within the tenure of this Government. Our Water Minister who has been mysteriously absent from negotiations said it would be signed in 3 to 4 months. The Finance Minister “guessed” it would be signed in 3. All these guesses were made soon after Manmohon Singh’s visit to Dhaka. Rajeet Mitter feels it would be signed very soon. Against their guesstimates, the key player on Teesta Mamata Banarjee has said that there is not enough water at the point of sharing for India to give Bangladesh any share at all. She further said that there must first be an assessment of the water available before any agreement is reached which makes an agreement on Teesta very uncertain indeed.

Thus, Rajeet Mitter’s positive spin that the Indian Prime Minister’s visit has achieved significant results does not stand up to serious scrutiny. On one of the major issues, namely Teesta water sharing agreement, India has reneged at literally the proverbial eleventh hour leaving its credibility in serious doubt on the trust factor. On land transit, our negotiators have not yet come out with the truth on whether we have given it to India or not with India in no doubt that we have and the BNP determined to deny it to India.

On the less important issues of land boundary, exchange of enclaves, getting more items in the duty free list, access through Teen Bigha and sale of electricity, there have been agreements that could yield positive results. Unfortunately, given India’s past track record on promises and agreements and opposition in India on promises and agreements made during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit, one must wait before making a final judgment even on the less important issues. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had opened a great opportunity for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations by her courageous initiatives. For the first time in decades, India seemed inclined to match Bangladesh’s initiatives. Sadly, due to our poor negotiating skills and strategy where our negotiators were more eager for upholding Indian interests than ours and the Indian mindset towards Bangladesh aptly described by Muchkund Dubey as one of “disdain and apathy”, that opportunity has been largely wasted, Rajeet Mitter’s positive spin notwithstanding. Once again, Bangladesh has ended giving India the major concessions, like on security and land transit, and once again received a “bag full of promises” that India is not in the habit of keeping.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

On bringing charges against Ambassadors

As I See It Column
The Independent
M. Serajul Islam
November 19, 2011

Yet another Ambassador has come to news for the wrong reasons. This time it is not a case of sexual harassment for which two Ambassadors were in the news not too long ago; one a career diplomat while another, a political one. The career diplomat is back in Dhaka and now working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The political one is merrily carrying on with his duties and responsibilities. No action has been taken against him.

Our Ambassador to Vietnam, a career diplomat, has been charged with corruption, allegedly committed while he was a Minister (an officer of the rank of a Joint Secretary) in our Embassy in Turkey. A case against him has been registered in the Ramna Thana by the Anti-Corruption Commission.

The Ambassador has been alleged to have misappropriated Taka 2.19 lakhs by claiming he brought a car to Dhaka from his post in Turkey while in fact, he did not. He has also been accused for siphoning Taka 12 lakhs from the Mission’s secret fund and Taka 3.18 lakhs from the Welfare Fund. The information of his alleged misconduct has been revealed in the media that the Ministry of Foreign Ministry has not contradicted. Therefore, it can be assumed that so far as the charges are concerned, the newspapers have reported correctly.

There are a number of issues here that are matters of concern. The allegations have been made public about an officer who is not in the country. He has been appointed as an Ambassador by the President, following the recommendation of the Prime Minister. He is at the moment representing the interests and more importantly, the honour of the country abroad. An Ambassador in his post represents in his person, the sovereignty of the country.

An Ambassador posted abroad, is as much subject to the laws of the land as any other citizen of the country. Nevertheless, it does not mean that the same procedure should be followed with an Ambassador as with those in the country. The reason is as much a matter of the law as one of common sense. A little explanation would be useful why this is so.

Take the case of the Ambassador in Vietnam. As soon as the case was filed against him in the Ramna Thana, the matter must have been communicated by the Embassy of Vietnam in Dhaka to its government. What will be his status in Vietnam now? Will the Vietnamese Government deal with him with honour and with respect? More importantly, what will happen to the image of Bangladesh in Vietnam? The answers are all negative that impact the country much more than the Ambassador.

This is why the case of the Ambassador in his post should not be the same as someone in the country while applying anti-corruption laws. There are various options available to the Government in dealing with Ambassadors in the same predicament as is our Ambassador in Vietnam at present. There is a critical need of delicate handling in such an allegation. If the ACC considers such a case so serious that the government cannot defer action, the Ambassador should be recalled and the matter dealt with while he/she is in the country and not in his post. It is also equally important that such a matter should be handled discreetly to protect the image of the country.

There are a few other intriguing aspects in the case of the Ambassador in Vietnam. First, the allegations date back to 2007. Our Embassies are audited regularly every two or three years by the office of Mission Audit under the CAG. Therefore the allegations against him must have been known in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time he was considered for his appointment. Why was it overlooked then? Second, some allegations against him appear to be objections raised by Mission Audit. Such objections by Mission Audit are a common fact of life for our diplomats and are settled routinely and regularly at the time he/she claims pension against the Taka 40 lakhs pension settlement to which an officer of MFA is entitled these days. It is virtually impossible for an officer to escape such objections of Mission Audit.

The allegation against the Ambassador for defrauding money from the secret fund is different. It does not appear to be one made by Mission Audit. A mission’s secret fund is handled by the Ambassador or one acting as an Ambassador, a CDA. A secret fund is given to a mission head to be spent at his discretion for which he/she is not answerable to any authority for reasons of secrecy. Such a fund is placed at the discretion of the Ambassador purely on trust.

It appears that the charge of defrauding the secret fund is based on information of intelligence. Given that Turkey has a Defense Attaché who reports to the DGFI and not to any other Ministry or department, this allegation against the Ambassador may have originated there. It is common knowledge at MFA that due to personal problem between a head of mission and his defense attaché, such allegations are widespread. In fact career Ambassadors consider themselves lucky to be posted in a mission that has no defense section.

Finally, the allegation of claiming money for transportation of a car seems a weak one because an officer returning to Dhaka from a post abroad is not entitled to such a claim. Such a claim, if the Ambassador had indeed made one, would have been detected when he settled his transfer bill. In any case, this is not a big issue at all and could have been easily settled by putting an audit objection and initiating a disciplinary action against him.

During the Caretaker Government, when the ACC was in the hands of a chief who wanted to change our characters to make us honest, our Ambassadors were subjected to such actions by the ACC. An Ambassador in his post was humiliated and almost sent to jail. The diplomat fought and has since been able to quash all allegations against him but after years of litigation. The allegations against him were proven in the court to have been wrongly and vindictively initiated. Nevertheless, the good image of the country was compromised then. The Ambassador suffered years of anguish not to speak of the amount of money he paid his lawyers.

ACC today is under much saner authority. The allegations against the Ambassador in Vietnam appear to be such that all of these could have been handled better through consultations between the MFA and the ACC without compromising the law in any way. It seems that there have been no such consultations.

At MFA, things are hardly the way it should be. One Ambassador after another is coming into news for accusations ranging from sexual harassment to corruption. It is therefore of imperative need that the matter of appointing an Ambassador should be treated seriously than has hitherto been the case. Equally important is the need of consultations between the MFA and ACC in dealing with allegations of corruption against Ambassadors not for any leniency for the Ambassadors but for sake of the country’s rather fragile image abroad.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear programme

Daily Sun
November 20, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

One major item that has dominated newspapers round the world from the international scene recently was the report of the IAEA on the extent of Iran’s nuclear programme. In the days leading to the publication of the report, there was strong hint coming out of Israel that an attack on Iran was imminent to take out its nuclear capabilities. Israel was also strongly urging the US for a pre-emptive attack.

The report, when it eventually came out, indicated that Iran had built a large explosives vessel to conduct hydrodynamic experiments which are “strong indicators of possible weapon development.” There are in the report strong hints that Iran is moving surreptitiously towards a possible weapons development programme. Nevertheless it does not provide definite proof that Iran is actually pursuing a weapons development programme.

The IAEA report has given those arguing against such a pre-emptive strike the chance to calm down Israel from taking a unilateral move for attacking Iran. For the time at least the need to engage Iran diplomatically has won although Israel has not stopped from making public utterances for a military strike.

US President Barak Obama, facing a tough re-election bid, is clearly faced with a difficult situation with the question of Iran and the bomb, under pressure from the Israeli lobby and the rather large anti-Iran sentiments in the country for touch action against Iran. So far the President has spoken of tougher sanctions but has fallen way short of going along with Israel and its small group of supporters in the USA for a pre-emptive strike against Iran.

The mood in the USA, after long winters in Afghanistan and Iraq, is most definitely against any more involvement abroad. But nevertheless, Americans are eager to see their country do something with Iran in order to stop it from owning the nuclear bomb. There is no question that world opinion is against any more country possessing nuclear weapons. In this context, everybody is concerned about the possibility of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons country.

This notwithstanding, world opinion is equally against Israel or the US attacking Iran. Understanding world opinion, Israel, while trying to build up opinion in favour of a pre-emptive strike against Iran, has said that it would be able to take out Iran’s nuclear programme as effortlessly as it had done in Iraq in 1983 and in Syria in 2007. Iran has cautioned Israel that any attempt at that would be met with force that Israel would regret.

Israel’s argument that it would be able to take out Iran’s nuclear programme effortlessly is of course a very weak one. There is just no comparison between Iraq in 1983 or Syria and Iran. Iraq was under a military dictator who ruled according to his whims. Syrian is a dictatorship where a minority is in government by power of the military. Iran has a system that, despite what the West and Israel says, is run by consensus where a number of institutions both secular and religious are involved. Further, Iran has a heritage and resources that should put it on equal footing to any country in the world. Attacking Iran would be a humungous mistake whose consequences are too nightmarish even to contemplate.

There are also serious issues involved in going after a nation like Iran simply on the assumption that it is building a bomb. A nuclear programme in itself is no proof that it is being undertaken to build a bomb given the fact that a nuclear programme can be carried out for nuclear energy. Then there is the instance of Iraq where the US went without provocation on false assumption that the country was building the nuclear bomb.

Then of course there is the question of one nation’s right to deter another nation from making the nuclear bomb where the one deterring is itself in possession of one. In case of Israel, it is not that it just has a bomb; it has a stockpile of nuclear weapons. For some mysterious reasons, there seems to be a taboo even to mention this in public. Yet it is Israel that is spearheading the move to attack Iran even when the proof of its alleged nuclear programme is not clear. The cliché that those living in glass houses should not throw stones at others applies in case of Israel more than perfectly.

The recent gaffe involving the US and the French President is very indicative about the truth surrounding the state of Israel. At the recent G20 Summit, the two were in a conversation about Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Bibi as he is also known. In a mood of frustration, President Nicholas Sarkozy said: “I can’t stand him. He is a liar.” President Obama joined with his frustration by telling President Sarkozy to imagine his predicament, having to deal with Bibi on a regular basis. Unfortunately for both, the speaker was on and the intimate conversation was heard by journalists!

Yet the reality is in public, the Israeli Prime Minister is one who gets the attention and support of both without any questions asked. After Bibi had torpedoed the US initiated Israel-Palestine talks on the issue of illegal settlements that the Netanyahu government would not stop, he was received like a hero in the White House and was given the highest honour at Capitol Hill when he addressed a Joint House of Congress. Israel has that magic power where despite whether its Prime Minister is a lair or difficult and irritating to deal with, both he and Israel always has and will have fullest support and attention in Washington and Paris. That is reality.

At this stage, Israel realizes that an attack on Iran would not have much support in Israel’s traditional base of support, the West. More importantly, inside USA just coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, with tremendous costs in terms of lives and money and in economic recession that is just not going away, Americans across the political divide are against any further US military involvement overseas. In fact, in the coming Presidential elections, such an involvement would most likely cost the candidate supporting it, a certain defeat.

Therefore, the IAEA report notwithstanding, in this round of international turmoil concerning Iran, the winner is diplomacy although the chances of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations remains very much on the cards. Hopes are being pinned on a possible move inside Iran between opposing political forces to stop building the bomb or that the intelligence forces of Israel, US and the West would be able to work together to deter Iran from building the bomb. A recent bomb blast at a weapons development installation that led to the death of one of Iran’s top commander in its ballistic missile programme has been credited to Israel’s intelligence.

At this stage, the IAEA report and the President’s gaffe over Benjamin Netanyahu have not gone by without a price. That price has been paid by the poor Palestinians, as always. A White House spokesman, when asked to explain the gaffe, said that US remains committed to the settlement of the Palestinian problem through negotiations and strongly opposes its move for statehood through the United Nations.

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Daily Sun
November 13, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The meeting between the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and India on the sides of the SAARC Summit in Maldives has left Bangladesh disappointed again. The Indian Prime Minister was unable to give Bangladesh any time frame about the signing of the Teesta water sharing agreement. Briefing journalists after the meeting, the Indian Foreign Secretary said that the Indian side must consult all the parties, including Paschim Banga before it could sign the agreement. He said this process would take some time.
The Indian Foreign Secretary left many disappointed. The “guess” of the Finance Minister that the Teesta agreement would be ready for signature in 3 months made immediately after the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, now looks like a wild guess. The Water Resources Minister’s hope that the agreement would be ready in ¾ months time now looks like a forlorn hope. The Foreign Minister’s guess was the most realistic one when she said that only an astrologer would be able to say with certainty when the Teesta agreement would be signed.
Against the guesses of our Ministers, the Indians have got whatever we promised them and what they expected from us. The security support and commitment we gave them has already helped India break the many decades old separatist movement of ULFA in Assam. The land transit card that we withdrew from them in retaliation for the withdrawal of the Teesta agreement now seems to have been an empty threat. In the Maldives meeting, we admitted that India has been allowed land transit already on a trial basis and that at present; India is carrying goods in containers over river and land routes from mainland India to the northeastern state of Tripura free of charge. A spokesman of our Prime Minister said that the two sides would meet and work out the details such as charges for moving from trial run to a more permanent arrangement.

The meeting in Maldives has thus removed confusion in many minds over the status of land transit and Teesta. First, it cleared the confusion and contradictory statements of our negotiators on the two issues. The Maldives meeting’s clear message was that the two issues are not tied. In fact, on the Teesta, the two sides have regressed, on land transit there has been forward and positive movement in favor of India. Second, it has underlined the fact that when the Foreign Secretary informed the Indian High Commissioner about Bangladesh government’s decision to withdraw the land transit, it was only a knee jerk reaction to deal with the embarrassment into which the Indians led the Bangladesh government on the Teesta agreement. The Bangladesh side “withdrew” the land transit for domestic consumption, knowing well that land transit was a done deal already.

The Bangladesh side went to the Maldives meeting with high expectations that the Indian side would give some positive hints on the Teesta. Before the delegation went to Maldives, Foreign Ministry sources went to the extent of suggesting that unless the Indians had something concrete to inform Bangladesh on Teesta, Bangladesh would consider slowing on land transit, exposing a growing restlessness and impatience. It does not appear like our Prime Minister expressed any such strong views with her Indian counterpart in their meeting.

The Maldives meeting has thus moved the two countries further apart from the hope of the paradigm shift that our negotiators had promised us. Unless an agreement on Teesta is signed, public opinion in Bangladesh would assess the negotiations so far as one where it was Bangladesh that made all the concessions with India keeping our hopes alive with mere promises. On that note of promise too, the Indians have been less enthusiastic in Maldives. Only an astrologer could now say with any amount of certainty as to when the two sides would be able to sign the accord on Teesta after the statement of the Indian Foreign Secretary that India must first consult the interested parties before it can bring the Teesta agreement before Bangladesh.

Among the interested parties is Paschim Bangla where its Chief Minister holds the handle over the fragile Congress led coalition at the centre. Mamata Banarjee these days is upset with the Centre for a number of reasons. Accusing fingers were pointed at her following the withdrawal of the Teesta agreement from the table at the proverbial 11th hour,. At that time she had reacted strongly by stating in the media that as a friend of Bangladesh and for her personal respect for Sheikh Hasina, she could not agree to a water sharing agreement as recommended to her by New Delhi because there was not enough water in Teesta at the point of sharing during the dry season for an agreement with Bangladesh.

There is news now that upstream on the Indian side; a hydro electricity project is being contemplated. Sikkim has also come into the picture since the signing of the Teesta agreement in Dhaka was aborted. These developments have made the likelihood of an agreement in anytime in the future even more remote.

Clearly India has betrayed Bangladesh on the Teesta. Over the time that the two sides have been negotiating during which we were making the concessions on security, transit and on a number of other issues, the Indians never told the Bangladesh side of the interested parties that it would need to consult. In fact, the Indians had always hinted that the Teesta was ready for signature much earlier and that they were holding it back to be the icing on the case for the visit of the Indian Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, the view of Foreign Ministry sources that Bangladesh would hold the transit card to encourage India on the Teesta is unlikely to happen. The history of trial run is not a good one in Bangladesh-India relations. It brings back to memory the trial run we had given India on the Farakkah barrage only to regret it later. Further, India has a stranglehold on Bangladesh by controlling the waters of the common rivers and a fair demarcation of our share of the Bay of Bengal that is rich in hydro-carbon and maritime resources. Any attempt to tie the Teesta with the land transit could influence India to tighten the screws on us on our share of the waters of the common rivers and in other areas where India has the advantage.

In any case, our Prime Minister has untied the two and hence the issue is settled now. This has placed Bangladesh in a position where it can merely hope India would do the right thing having bargained off its strong playing cards of security and land transit unilaterally without demanding reciprocity.

The high hopes of not too long ago that our negotiators had raised that India would make us rich by making us the regional connectivity hub and provide us fair share of the waters of the common rivers is fast fading. India is living up to its past; an emerging world power interested in playing with its neighbors a zero-sum game. Sadly our negotiators never even suspected it. They went to Maldives with high hopes only to have those hopes dashed again.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Narayanganj elections: Mixed signals

As I See It Column
The Independent
November 12, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

No election in recent memory has attracted so much attention as has the Narayanganj City Corporation (NCC) elections. The media, the visual in particular, made it a national issue. The focus was totally on the election of the Mayor. The private TV stations devoted almost all its time and energy covering the NCC elections for days leading to voting and celebrations after the dream candidate was elected.

Everybody, or almost everybody got carried away with the election of Mayor in the NCC elections, even the winner who in TV talk shows thanked everybody in the country and abroad for their support. In her excitement she made it appear as if her election was an international event. In fact, she did say so!

That minor slip notwithstanding, Selina Hayat Ivy has indeed been the candidate that we dream to see in the elections, particularly in the national elections. She is honest; dedicated and most important of all, courageous enough to stand against her party and its Chief who is not kind to those who show inclination to oppose her.

In the end, it was not Selina Hayat and her supporters alone who celebrated her victory. All and sundry came to the wining party and embraced her as their candidate; all except the opposition. The ELection Commission (EC ) that was snubbed when the government turned down its request for the army deployment in apprehension of trouble, took credit for holding a free, fair and peaceful election. It forgot to take up with the government its refusal to deploy the army in violation of the Constitution.

Shamim Osman , who was supported by the ruling party but lost, also buried his shame, anger and humiliation and welcomed the winner. His belief in Allah and confidence that only terrorism and voting fraud could rob him of a thumping victory , simply withered away. The Prime Minister, fortunately, did not let people wait too long guessing what turned SHamim Osman to into such a fine gentleman so suddenly and dramatically when she summoned him and Selina Hayat to her official residence together and patted both in the back . She claimed credit for all the good and unexpected things that happened in the NCC elections.

The Prime Minister also claimed that Selina Hayat was her candidate. It was a claim that many would not agree with. In days leading to the election, Selina Hayat expressed her disappointment and frustration before the media that she had been by-passed in favour of SHamim Osman by the party and the Prime Minister despite being an Awami Leaguer who had served Naryangang municipality honestly and faithfully for many years till it was made into city corporation and elections called to elect its fist Mayor and Councillors. She also regretted that her father was also by-passed in 1973 for a parliamentary seat by the AL that he won as an independent candidate and returned to the party. To her credit, she said that like her father, she would also not leave the Awami League.

The Prime Minister further claimed that the NCC elections went to prove that a political government is capable of holding a free and fair national election and that there would be no need anymore to go back to the caretaker government. During the BNP's first term in 1991-96, the AL backed candidates won both the Dhaka and Chittagong mayoral elections that in no way weakened the party's demand for the caretaker government. In Naryangang, once the BNP supported candidate withdrew and it became evident that Selina Hayat would win a landslide victory, there was little incentive to intervene in favour of Shamin Osman.

That became all the more un-necessary and impossible when the EC put all its efforts behind the elections to ensure that nothing untoward happened. With its credibility at stake, the EC was left with no other alternative but to work overtime for a free and fair election. The safety net for a free and fair election became full proof with the positive role of the media that was everywhere with journalists and cameras ready to catch anyone daring to use fraudulent means. Therefore the PrimeMinister's claim that the NCC elections supported her party's stand that national elections could also be held under an interim government instead of a neutral caretaker government in a free and fair manner does not stand to serious scrutiny.

The ruling party, to put it mildly, has been caught with its pants down with the victory of Selina Hayat, the Prime Minister’s claims notwithstanding. It reflected a few things that would no doubt come back to haunt the party later. First, its top leadership including the party chief backed the candidate with the corrupt image against the one with a honest one. It reminded many of the party and its chief’s backing for known terrorists in the 2001 elections that was one main cause of its debacle in that election. Second, the NCC elections also underlined serious fissures in the ruling party. Known dissidents in the party openly backed the winning candidate while senior leaders of the party backed the loser.

It would be unrealistic to imagine on a national scale what happened in the NCC elections .The EC would not be able to give even a fraction of attention to each of the 300 constituencies that it gave in Narayanganj. The media likewise would be rendered inactive on a national scale. Most important of all, the warmth shown to Shamim Osman by the ruling party does not cause optimism in most people's mind that candidates like Selina Hayat would be preferred over the likes of Shamim Osmam in the national elections.

Politics in Narayanganj under its new Mayor is not expected to be any better than in rest of the country with SHamim Osman already showing his real face and the ruling party sympathetic and supportive of him.The recent murder of the popular Mayor of Narsinghdi due to intra-party conflict is a reminder that the Narayangang phenomenon should not raise our expectations that we would be delivered anytime soon from our violence ridden and conflict prone politics that today is not just between the ruling party and the opposition but within the parties as well.

In the hurry to embrace Selina Hayat, we have failed to congratulate SM Akram who did something unheard of in our politics. He resigned from the key post of Convenor of Narayanganj AL in protest of his party’s blessings for SO by ignoring him! One wishes that there would be more like Selina Hayat and SM Akram to deliver us from the politics of conflict that we have today, politics that is pushing Bangladesh to the edge.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

On dissent in Awami League

As I See It Column
The Independent
November 5, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

One issue that came to forefront during the last Caretaker Government about politics in the country was the lack of dissent within the mainstream political parties. It was also an issue that had concerned most people because they felt that parties that did not allow dissent within their ranks could not be expected to establish democracy in the country.

At least in one of the mainstream political parties now, it is clear that there is too much dissent. It started in an uncoordinated manner when the Awami League assumed power after the last elections. We witnessed initially subdued criticisms of some Ministers by some senior members of the party. We also saw dissent in wings of the party, the student wing for instance, that refused to follow directives coming from the top.

Recently, this dissent within the Awami League seems to have taken a new turn. When the Prime Minister was away attending the Commonwealth Summit in Perth, a section within the party had a field day in parliament. They took the Ministers apart for their absence from the parliament. They had choicest words for some of the Ministers. They were furious about the role of the Advisers.

The members who led the attack were given ammunition by the Ministers by their willful absence from the parliament. Leading the way was Tofael Ahmed who noted that out of 50 Ministers; only 6 were present that day. Another AL leader Sheikh Selim said that the Ministers attend parliament only to please the Prime Minister or for fear of her. They have no respect for the parliament.

Another senior leader Suranjit Singh did not mince words, stating both sarcastically and angrily that the Ministers do not care for the Parliament and instead spend their time for retaining their jobs by sycophancy with powers that matter. The speakers were most critical on the Advisers. Sheikh Selim said that they are Advisers to the Prime Minister and not to the Government and most definitely not to the Parliament. He and others regretted that the Advisers run the Government but not answerable to it and felt indignant about it.

All who spoke left no one in doubt that they had a lot of pent up anger and frustration to get off their chest. Although they expressed their anger on the Ministers and the Advisers, they ended in criticizing the democratic foundations of the government. They ended describing the present government as one the Prime Minister runs with her un-elected Advisers where the Ministers are powerless. In fact, they ended criticizing the government so severely that the opposition would have felt proud if they were the ones criticizing the government instead.

Not long ago, when the country was engrossed with corruption in the communications sector, the Minister for Communications was subjected to harassment rather than criticism in parliament. Other Ministers, for instance the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Commerce have also been subjected to critical scrutiny by the members of their own party in the parliament in a manner that humiliated them as much as it embarrassed and humiliated the government.

Dissent and criticism of policies, decisions and leadership by its own members is no doubt a sign of democracy in a political party. Therefore, in the first instance, the critical views expressed by the members of the ruling party about the Ministers not attending parliamentary sessions and about the un-elected Advisers controlling elected Ministers are developments that must be welcomed. Likewise, criticisms of certain Ministers who have become controversial are also to be commended.

However, on deeper examination a few facts emerge that point at a different direction and not really towards growth of democratic dissent in the ruling party. In fact, it reflects a growing revolt by the senior members of the ruling party whose views have significant following within the party.
These are the leaders who have been left out of the Cabinet and other favours from the Government after the AL came to power for their attempts at reform during the Caretaker Government with encouragement of the military intelligence.

The only issue that is keeping their dissent from becoming open revolt is the fact that they are not yet ready to openly take on the Prime Minister. Their fear of the Prime Minister notwithstanding, they are nevertheless pointing fingers at the Prime Minister anyway. They have gone ahead and criticized the Ministers in full knowledge that the Prime Minister has appointed them and any criticisms of the Ministers would also fall upon her. Likewise, they know that the Advisers are closer to the Prime Minister than her Ministers. Yet, their criticism of the Advisers has been more severe.

Thus, what is happening within the Awami League does not appear to be democratic dissent but expressions of personal anger and frustration by a section of the Awami League leadership for being left out from political power. What is disturbing is the fact that the number of parliamentarians who are critical of the Ministers and Advisers is not a small one. It is also disturbing that no member of the ruling party attempted to defend the Ministers and the Advisers when they were subjected to such severe criticism in parliament although it is common knowledge in the ruling party that the Ministers and the Advisers all enjoy the confidence of the Prime Minister.

In fact, the Prime Minister defended the Ministers who were subjected to harassment and criticism by senior members of the ruling party on issue of competence and corruption very strongly, showing contempt at their critics. One therefore has to wait and see how the Prime Minister reacts to the latest show of frustration and anger of senior members of the party with more joining their ranks. Her reaction notwithstanding, the dissent in the ruling party that we are now witnessing may be growing signs of serious conflict within the party instead of emerging signs of democracy in it.

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

Bangladesh’s image and the Padma Bridge

Daily Sun
November 6, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The foreign minister thinks that our image has not been tarnished by the allegation of corruption resulting in cancellation of funding of the US$ 2.7 billion Padma Bridge (PB) project by the World Bank. Unfortunately, soon afterwards, the ADB and JICA also took similar action as co-financiers. The IMF is also not willing to give Bangladesh the support it now needs desperately. In a recent meeting of the foreign minister with the US Secretary of State in Washington, the latter raised concerns over freedom of the media in Bangladesh and the Grameen Bank. She hoped that the noble prize winning institution would be allowed to function un-hindered.

These are scathing criticisms and serious concerns coming from powerful sources. These are not just hurting our image; more importantly are hurting where it matters more, our development efforts. Therefore, the foreign minister would have done better not to have dismissed the image issue outright because going into state of denial would neither bring funds for the PB nor improve the image that Bangladesh needs desperately to attract support and foreign assistance to become a middle income country by 2021.

Addressing the WB concerns, our government must not forget that it is governed by the big powers where the US has a dominant role. Hence the Bank’s concerns are not just its concerns; the concerns are shared by our other developments partners and also by other international financial institutions such as the ADB, IMF and JICA. The goodwill of these countries and institutions are indispensable to our future.

It must also be kept in mind that the issue on which the WB has stopped funding is corruption; that is of critical significance in development aid and project financing by developed countries and international financial agencies. The WB has a strong resident office in Dhaka that has been following Bangladesh on the issue of good governance. This office and offices of other international financial agencies and embassies of developed countries have formal and informal liaison among themselves in Dhaka. They watch every day how the country is sliding on the corruption index.

In recent times, they have watched our civil society’s bipartisan moves against corruption in the ministry upon which the WB has focused. In fact, a group representing the students, professionals and university teachers have started a movement seeking the resignation of the communications minister. The media has been continuously exposing corruption in his ministry and elsewhere in the government. Therefore the concerns of these agencies and governments cannot be just pushed aside by denial for the money they provide us as aid has to be accounted for or else they would stop coming. An “ostrich mentality” on such concerns would not help any of the stakeholders.

The seriousness of the WB was communicated forcefully to our government when it sent its Vice- President for Ethics to Dhaka to meet the prime minister, a step in itself very unusual that underscores the seriousness of the concern. Our government treated the concern in an astonishingly casual way. The WB expected the government to change leadership in the Ministry of Communications. Our government stubbornly refused to do so. Instead, the relevant parliamentary committee abused the WB and recommended that the government should seek funding for the PB elsewhere! The communications minister also spoke in the media that the government would raise funds for PB privately.

However, he also wrote to the Transparency International Bangladesh for investigating corruption in his ministry, a highly unusual and desperate step that confirmed the concern raised by the WB, instead of removing any one from the ministry. When the TIB refused to take the Minister’s offer, he wrote to the ACC showing his desperation for a certificate of honesty. His strange steps convinced no one; these just underscored the government’s knee jerk approach to governance.

Recently, on the TV programme Tritio Matra, a member of parliament of the ruling party openly named the communications minister as corrupt. He said that this minister and a few like him are tarnishing the honest credentials of the prime minister, her family members and the government. He told viewers that the minister’s claim of closeness with the prime minister, her sister and her husband are baseless. The prime minister’s sister, upon hearing he was using her name, had called him to her presence and rebuked him and warned him to refrain from such malafide acts.

The MP thereafter revealed an absolutely incredible story about the minister. This minister with Obaidul Quader and Saber Hossain were in Sheikh Hasina’s delegation to China when she was in the opposition. The MP was also a part of the team. On a sight-seeing outing one day during the trip, Sheikh Hasina in fun mood asked for a whistle to pull a joke on the three. When she was given one, she told them to run a race and added that the one who won would be made a minister when the AL came to power. All three ran but two of them for mere fun knowing that Sheikh Hasina was joking. The Communications Minister was serious and ran as if his life depended on it and won.

Now readers believe this if you want. The MP told viewers that after winning the elections, Abul Hossain went to Sheikh Hasina and insisted that she must keep her promise and make him the minister for communications. The prime minister obliged as he was persistent! I am not sure how many viewers would believe this astonishing story but it is another proof that the concern about the minister of communications is not just a concern of the WB and our international friends or of the opposition in Bangladesh but also shared by important people of the ruling party.

Most people would have no problem in believing that the communications minister is using the name of the PM and her family. If the minister is guilty of corruption as the MP has said on the programme, changing him would not just save the reputation of the prime minister; it would also satisfy the WB and the other financial institutions to reconsider the financing for the PB project. Therefore, it defeats logic why the minister is being allowed to remain in his post.

This is the first instance where a mega project of Bangladesh has been stopped by an institution like the WB for concerns of corruption. Those involved in sharing this concern are crucial to our development; they could make or break our efforts to break from poverty to economic viability for the majority of our people. Therefore the cancellation of PB funding is not one that is just harming our image for it surely is; it is putting into jeopardy our overall development efforts.

The foreign minister’s denial on the image issue, the communications minister’s move for “honesty certificate” from the TIB and ACC, and the MP’s attempt to clear the PM, her family and the government on Tritio Matra are not going to convince those who are looking towards Bangladesh government to be serious.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

Friday, November 4, 2011

47 Anniversaary issue
November 4, 2011


Are we losing our friends aboard?
M. Serajul Islam

When we were fighting our war of liberation in 1971, peoples everywhere supported us because of our courage and determination. Unfortunately, our liberation war did not get the support it deserved from the governments around the world except for India and the Soviet Union.

Those were the times when many countries were threatened by internal movements for self determination. Such attempts were strictly discouraged to retain the territorial integrity of the countries of the time. When we were fighting our war of liberation, there was a similar movement in Nigeria where the Biafrans had declared independence only to be crushed and the province retaken by Nigeria.

Our war of liberation was qualitatively different. It was not just a fight of self determination. We had won the national elections of Pakistan. The Awami League was poised to form the government with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. The elections were declared void by the military-bureaucratic clique in Pakistan forcing Mujib to declare independence.

The Pakistan military junta’s response was genocidal where it did not go after the Awami League for declaring independence. The junta went on a killing spree against those who spoke Bangla that made their killings one of the worst recorded cases of genocide of our times. The genocide and our courageous fight for independence attracted worldwide attention. In Japan, school children saved money by skipping Tiffin so that they could contribute to the welfare of 10 million refugees who fled to India to escape the genocide.

When Bangladesh became independent on 16th December, 1971, there was a massive outpour of support for the new born country. Japan whose government did not support the war of liberation for the sake of Pakistan’s territorial integrity made up for that by putting Bangladesh on top of the list of countries receiving its development aid. Likewise, Australia made Bangladesh the second biggest receiver of its aid, after PNG to which it had special commitment as its former colonizer. USA and the developed nations came forward to assist Bangladesh generously.

The way Bangladesh was recognized as an independent country was also significant. It was received by the comity of nations with open arms. China held back on recognizing us because of strategic reasons, being indebted to Pakistan for being the conduit to normalization of Sino-US relations. In offering Bangladesh membership of the OIC, the Foreign Minister of Kuwait, the brother of the Amir of Kuwait came to Dhaka to take Sheikh Mujib to Lahore where the OIC Summit was held in which Bangladesh was admitted as a member.

Although the change of government in 1975 caused some disruption in Bangladesh’s pursuit of friends abroad, it was restored soon afterwards, although between 1975 and 1990, the country was under military rulers. In fact, under President Ziaur Rahman, Bangladesh became a member of the UN Security Council, beating Japan for the Asian seat for 1979-80. Although Japan was then as it is now our largest bilateral donor, our relations with Japan was not affected for the defeat we served it.

During President Ershad’s term, then Foreign Minister Humayun Rashid Chowdhury became the President of the UN General Assembly. Bangladesh played the major role in the establishment of SAARC that came into being in the first SAARC Summit held in Dhaka in 1985. Those were also the days when any major world leader who visited India and Pakistan, also almost always visited Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, the importance of Bangladesh in world and South Asian politics started to decline with the return of democratic governments. Although we still succeeded in winning a seat in the UN Security Council in 2000-2001, one could not help noticing fewer visits of world leaders to Bangladesh and a perceptible decline of our standing in international politics. The end of the Cold War has been one major reason why a resource poor developing country like Bangladesh had been marginalized in international politics.

Another major reason for Bangladesh’s decline in international politics was the enhancement of the status of India and Pakistan in regional and world politics after they became owners of the nuclear bomb in 1998. That created a huge gap between Bangladesh and its two other neighbours where the world powers took Bangladesh for granted.

Nine eleven further pushed Bangladesh out of contention for attention by the world powers when focusing on South Asia. Pakistan became a favourite in Washington when it became US’s partner in the war on terror. India, by its emergence as a major world economic power, also went few steps up in the ladders in international politics. Nevertheless, 9/11 also held out hope for Bangladesh to come into attention of the USA and its allies who were looking for a big Muslim country with liberal democracy to underscore the fact that Islam is a peaceful religion and that those using terror in the name of Islam were in the minority.

In that context, 9/11 was a heaven sent opportunity for Bangladesh as the 3rd largest Muslim country in the world to befriend the US and the western world. Soon after 9/11, the BNP won democratic elections in Bangladesh with a 2/3rd majority to carry forward Bangladesh’s liberal traditions. With the right signals, Bangladesh would have become a close friend of the US and its allies.

Instead, the BNP squandered that heaven sent opportunity by looking the other way when its Islamic coalition partners supported by a section in the party nurtured and encouraged Islamic terrorists like Bangla Bhai. Repeated pleas by the US Ambassador Harry Thomas to crack down on these elements fell on deaf ears. Foreign Minister Morshed Khan openly ridiculed the US Ambassador for believing in what he termed as press propaganda.

As a result both Bangladesh and the BNP fell on the wrong side of the US and its allies. During the political crisis in 2006-2007, the US through its Ambassador in Dhaka did not leave anyone in doubt which party the US wanted in power. More precisely, the US, its allies and UN agencies that played an active role in politics of the time were eager to see the BNP out of power. Thus during the BNP’s 2001-2006 term, Bangladesh missed a great chance of moving closer to the US and western powers.

Upon assuming office, Sheikh Hasina created the opportunities to move closer to the US and the western powers. First, she touched the right chords with these powers by her stand against terrorism when she stated unequivocally that Bangladesh’s soil would not be allowed to be used for terrorist attacks on India. Second, in the UN Conference on Climate in Copenhagen in 2009, she became a favourite of the US, China and India although her initiatives in the Copenhagen Summit that attracted world attention also brought criticisms of the LDC countries as the three she supported are also the world’s worst polluters.

The gains were lost when the country was caught in the controversy over Dr. Mohammed Yunus. The Government took the stand that Dr. Yunus must go because he crossed the mandatory retirement age limit to remain a Managing Director of the Grameen Bank. The Prime Minister and her Ministers were also very forceful in accusing the Grameen Bank of sucking the blood of the poor by the high rate of interest it charged. A lot of their criticisms were directed at Dr. Yunus who was also accused of financial wrong doings.

Unfortunately, the arguments were lost to the US that took a major interest in both the Grameen Bank and Dr. Yunus who is a friend of the US Secretary of State and her husband, President Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton made a personal request to the Prime Minister by a telephone call and followed this by sending an Assistant Secretary of State to Dhaka for a honourable exit for Dr. Yunus that could have been done easily by making him the Chairman of the Grameen Bank.

The Prime Minister rejected the request, sighting that the laws of the country did not permit her to do so. Dr. Yunus was unceremoniously pushed out of the GB that was no doubt a personal affront to the US Secretary of State. The US government while requesting Bangladesh for a honourable exit for Dr. Yunus stressed the point that he has also been awarded the US President’s medal of honour. That was a clear hint that the US would consider it an affront to its President as well if the Bangladesh Government turned the request down. The Government of Bangladesh refused Dr. Yunus the honourable exit leading President Clinton to call it “vindictive”.

There were many who applauded the stand of Bangladesh over Dr. Yunus. They praised the Prime Minister’s courage in standing up against the US Secretary of State. Unfortunately, those who applauded the Prime Minister failed to take into account that there would be consequences for turning down such a simple request from such powerful sources. Those whose job it was to advise the Prime Minister perhaps forgot that the US is still the only remaining Super Power not to be taken lightly whose support for our development efforts is of critical importance.

We are now paying the price for our Prime Minister’s courage. It is true that the WB, the ADB and JICA have stopped funding the Padma Bridge for corruption. The IMF has also recently shown unwillingness to provide us the crucially necessary budget support. Our recent efforts for market access for our RMG products to the US market have likewise hit a brick wall. It would be naïve to believe that all these have nothing to do with upsetting the United States over Dr. Yunus.

After this Government came to office, it made no secret about its preference for India. On Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s official visit to India, the strongly worded paragraph on Bangladesh’s support for India in an expanded UN Security Council in the Joint Communiqué together with the commitment on security, grant of land transit and use of ports, all unilaterally, sent the wrong signals to China that in regional politics it is India that Dhaka is backing. In preferring India so openly, the government put at stake over 3 decades of successful diplomacy where China accepted us as a special friend. The fact that the Prime Minister had to wait a year to make her official trip to China that she had made within two months of assuming office the last time no doubt hints at China’s declining interest in Bangladesh although it continues to remain very much in its good books as a market for its products.

All of the above would not have been just bad news if we had been able to move ahead with India for which this government did so much in the nearly last 3 years in office. In the end, after promising so much, the Indians withdrew two major deals on water, on the Teesta and Feni rivers, leaving many in Bangladesh wondering why our negotiators did not take into account the fact that in the past, India had reneged many times on the trust factor. Instead, those who negotiated for us believed in India enthusiastically and almost blindly and even expressed anger at those who raised questions of trust against India.

All the above raises a serious concern, whether Bangladesh is losing its friends abroad and if so, is it simply because of the change in international politics after the Cold War? On examination, there is merit to suggest that changes in international politics have been responsible in marginalizing Bangladesh in international and regional politics. Nevertheless, Bangladesh’s failure in understanding international politics and diplomacy is the more important reason why Bangladesh is becoming friendless in international politics. For instance, if Bangladesh had maintained the warm relations with China that could have been done with a little else eagerness to sing the virtues of India, the Government could have gone to China for opening the doors closed by the WB, IMF and ADB. Today China is a power whose voice in these financial institutions is taken very seriously.
Bangladesh finds itself isolated in international politics today because of the casual way it conducts foreign relations for which all the past four elected governments must share blame. Under this government, the conduct of foreign affairs has been diluted in such a manner that one would need to research to find out where our foreign policy is formulated and who implements our foreign policy initiatives.

It is hard to believe that a country like Bangladesh that needs international support and assistance for its development would have been impulsive enough to have annoyed a powerful US Secretary of State and USA on an issue that it could have easily avoided if conduct of foreign affairs had been in the hands of those who understand international relations and diplomacy. To add to the disbelief, Dr. Yunus is not just a friend to Hillary Clinton; during the controversy, the French President had also sent a Special Envoy to plead with our Prime Minister for Dr. Yunus. There were many other world leaders who also spoke on behalf of Dr. Yunus in order to encourage our Government to provide him a honourable exit. Instead, where in our foreign policy initiatives, we could have used the Noble Laureate for opening doors; we used him for closing doors.

Thus by a combination of a number of factors, some for which we are responsible and others, the product of changes in the international relations not being in our hands, we are surely losing our friends abroad at a time when we need their support more than at any time before. It is for the sake of our future that we need to take corrective measures where we can for the mistakes we have made instead of going into denial with them or explaining these away on a false sense of confidence and misplaced sense of national pride. Most of all, we need to bring foreign affairs and diplomacy into the centre of governance instead of treating it like there is no need of expertise, experience or professional approach for conducting it and put it in charge of those with experience and competence in handling foreign affairs and diplomacy, people with courage and vision to distinguish between personal ego and national interests and not to confuse between the two.

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