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.

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