Sunday, January 29, 2012

What is happening in the Foreign Ministry?

Daily Sun
Jauary 29, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

A Foreign Ministry official on conditions on anonymity recently answered a reporter’s query by saying that it is sheer negligence why the Government has failed to appoint a new High Commissioner in South Africa a year after Mr. Shahidul Islam was posted out from Pretoria to Riyadh. It is just not with Pretoria that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs showing negligence. The Ambassador from Japan was brought back after an allegation of sexual misconduct by a locally based female employee.

Both the Missions are of great importance to Bangladesh. Japan is our largest bilateral donor. The Japanese must not be amused either that the post in Tokyo has been kept vacant so long. Nor would the Japanese Gaimashu be amused at the laid back reaction of our Foreign Ministry in recalling the former Ambassador. Pretoria has in recent times become very important because there are now 50,000 to 60,000 Bangladeshis in South Africa that is fast becoming a major manpower export market for Bangladesh.

It could be very well the case that at Tokyo and Pretoria, MFA may be in the process of placing new Ambassador/High Commissioner, although the news at MFA on new postings to the Missions from the Ministry is depressing for the career diplomats. A file from MFA for posting of about a dozen officers from the Ministry to the Missions was recently returned by the PMO after lying there for 2 months without a decision. All these suggest that something is seriously amiss at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The MFA official who has accused his superiors at the Ministry of sheer negligence not only made a major charge; he could not have been more correct in his accusation. In fact, he has hit the bull’s eye in what is really happening in the MFA these days.

The practice in the MFA, one that has kept it going all these years, has been to keep an Ambassador at his post for three years in case of the career diplomats. In case of those who are appointed on contract, the tenure is for 2 years in case of most and three years in case of a few. This system has fallen into the way side since this present government came to office without any new system in place.
Ambassadors appointed on contract basis are being given extensions at will without any policy. Career Ambassadors whose lot these days is to be appointed to the less important Bangladesh Embassies are more or less forgotten. Many officers have stayed beyond the customary three years and they are not sure if they would be moved to another station in the remainder of the tenure of this government. The result of the failure of this government to rotate/recall Ambassadors on a fixed tenure basis is having a negative effect at the senior officers working at the Ministry. Many of them who have been expecting that in the system of recall/rotation, they would be posted out as an Ambassador are on the verge of giving up hoping that they would be posted in the remaining years of this government’s tenure.

Even with the Foreign Secretary, this government seems to have lost track of time. He has been in his post over two years that in case of the post he is holding is the normal tenure. Rotating the post of the Foreign Secretary was also a part of the system of rotation that had been in place at MFA and had helped the Ministry function professionally although in the last BNP term this was interfered with whose impact was not a positive one. Even here, this Government seems to have no policy and inertia here too is helping complicate the gridlock in the MFA in terms of personnel management. The recent extension given to government servants’ retirement age should have allowed the Ministry to use it to straighten the rotation system for good purpose. So far that seems not to have been the case.

With not much substantive work in its hands, one has to wonder what really keeps the MFA busy these days. Nevertheless, the Foreign Ministry is constantly a topic of discussion among many because of the way the government is handling foreign affairs in general and our bilateral relations with India in particular. As former career diplomats, and there are a large number of us these days following events in the Foreign Ministry in our retirement, we often feel disappointed at the way the Ministry has been marginalized. It is this same Ministry that had been the focal point when the BDR had dealt with the BSF in a way that had made the nation proud during the Padua incident in 2001. Then Foreign Secretary Mr. Muazzem Ali had performed a national duty in a manner that made the career diplomats feel really good.

The same Ministry now watches in silence the Government making a mess of its relations with India, with little to do in dealing with our most important neighbour. We have seen how two of the Prime Minister’s Advisers preempted the Foreign Minister in arranging the failed visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka. When Bangladesh was caught with its pants down with India withdrawing the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement from the table at literally the 11th hour, the Foreign Secretary was made to call the Indian High Commissioner to inform him that Bangladesh was withdrawing the land transit agreement in retaliation. The power that ordered the FS to act must have forgotten that the land transit deal had already been signed off to India and there was nothing to take off the table in retaliation! That act only proved that MFA had been reduced to do the errands in dealing with India.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had showed the vision to take Bangladesh-India relations out of the doldrums to which successive Bangladesh regimes and Indian Governments had pushed it. She wanted a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations for mutual advantage of both. Unfortunately, by leaving dealing with India in the hands of those who has had no experience in diplomacy, we have lost on all counts whereas India holds all the cards. Politically, where handling relations with India should have given the AL a clear advantage in the next polls, its mishandling of relations with India would no doubt cost it a big way in those polls.
It is strange that India, after receiving so much from Bangladesh, has done almost nothing in reciprocity to let the ruling party face an increasing public discontent on the India factor. In the face of such discontent, the Acting Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka has said, as reported in a section of the press, that Bangladesh-India relations have never been so good in the last 80 years!! To complete the strange way India has been handling its relations with Bangladesh, it has appointed a Joint Secretary to be its next High Commissioner in Dhaka. Whereas we have someone of the rank of a State Minister in New Delhi, this is the Indian way of reciprocating. Truly, New Delhi must have downgraded us in their estimation to levels that our Government does not see and the MFA dos not dare to point out.

Nevertheless two years still remain for this government and foreign affairs, particularly our relations with India, will indeed be a major issue in the next polls. With this in view, the ruling party should focus on MFA and allow it the role that any Foreign Ministry plays in any Government elsewhere. As it stands now, MFA is not even in the periphery of foreign policy formulation and implementation and the cadre of professional diplomats languishing in despair. It is time to set things right and allow MFA to function.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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