Monday, March 26, 2012

ITLOS decision opens up vast possibilities in the Bay

Daily Sun
25 March, 2012
M. Serajul islam

The decision of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas (ITLOS), Hamburg in the case on delimitation of maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar is indeed significant news for us. The ruling is also expected to have a positive impact on our case against India as both India and Myanmar in their on and off decades long negotiations always harped on the equidistant method as the only delineating principle against Bangladesh’s assertion on the use of equitable principle for achieving "equitable solution" as per Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC)) that both the neighbours of Bangladesh have ratified and ITLOS now has upheld. Our case against India is still under consideration at the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration at Hague.               

 In the case against Myanmar, 21 members of ITLOS plus two ad-hoc members from the contesting states heard the case. In The Hague, there will be three members of ITLOS and an ad-hoc member each from Bangladesh and India. Decision of the ITLOS is binding and final while at the Court of Arbitration, the contesting parties can appeal a verdict. 

By applying the equidistant method as the only deciding principle, Myanmar and India wanted to take away most of our legitimate claims on the extended maritime zone as ensured under the LOSC in the Bay of Bengal. At ITLOS, the judges also accepted the concave nature of Bangladesh’s coastline and called for the use of equitable principle a fortiori. Another feature of the ITLOS decision has been the acceptance of St. Martin as an island that allowed Bangladesh full 12 nautical mile territorial sea instead of the 6nm that Myanmar had been insisting that brought the two countries close to a conflict in 2008 over gas/oil exploration. 

The ITLOS judges gave Bangladesh 200 miles from the base line as our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) opening up to the High Seas in a manner that Government of Bangladesh says allow us  fishing rights in the Bay over 111, 000 sq km in the EEZ that is significantly more than our land area  on Myanmar side only. The ITLOS judges also gave Bangladesh mineral and other resource  rights in the same area and beyond  the 200 miles continental shelf and beyond to be determined on scientific evidence later by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf of the UN, a right  that Myanmar never  accorded to Bangladesh in the past. A similar future decision in the on-going against India could give us a comparable area of the Bay of Bengal that India would not like as it has already showed the inclination to keep Bangladesh zone locked perpetually not to speak of exercise of Bangladesh's rights in the outer continental shelf. The fact that the Bay is rich in both hydro-carbons and marine resources makes the  cognizance of our legally due claims at ITLOS potentially the best news for Bangladesh since our independence.  

India had for decades spurned our legitimate claims on sea and common waters based on equity was quick to acknowledge the new realities based on Bangladesh's legitimate rights vis-à-vis its past attempts to impose its will on us. The new Indian High Commissioner in his first courtesy call on our Foreign Minister communicated his Government’s offer for the bilateral negotiation to resolve the issue, an option which we have been carrying out with them for decades without an iota of meaningful progress.   One would wish that the media had asked the High Commissioner when he gave the  interview  the reasons for this change of heart of  the Indian Government  when 38 years of our utmost friendly efforts could not budge them an inch from their negotiating position as if their opening shots were their bottom line. 

The decision on our case against Myanmar has opened up vast possibilities for this resource starved nation. We must be careful how we proceed from here onwards. The issues before the Government are not one shot affair by any calculation. It is definitely not an Awami League versus BNP issue. The verdict in Hamburg is also not a zero-sum victory for Bangladesh either.   Myanmar also received a substantial area in the Bay out of the verdict. In fact, against Bangladesh’s 111,000 sq km gain, it received nearly 200,000 sq km. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister must be given due credit and applause for her decision to take our case to ITLOS because she did so against the hitherto established trend to succumb to all Indian needs and demands without any quid quo pro. The Foreign Minister and her team led by Commodore Khurseedul Alam, Additional Foreign Secretary, must also be warmly felicitated for doing an excellent job for Bangladesh. The team of international lawyers was wisely chosen who we should not forget argued the case for us. 

In fact, the ITLOS verdict is the outcome of policy continuity of a very rare type in Bangladesh’s politics from one government to another. Bangladesh acceded to the UNCLOS in the last stages of the last AL term. The BNP Government followed this up and did the bulk of the groundwork in preparing the case upon which Bangladesh went to Hamburg. It fought very hard and succeeded in making the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the focal point of the Government to pursue our case. The Ministry developed a separate wing and expertise under the direct supervision of then Legal Adviser AKH Morshed and a retired Foreign Secretary and an international expert of the subject. State Minister Reaz Rahman also played a major role in developing the wing in the Ministry and fought and succeeded with the other Ministries for adequate funding. The AL Government wisely picked up the threads from where the BNP had left making the case perhaps one of the very rare examples where the AL and the BNP have followed each other for the cause of the nation. In this context, the felicitations extended by the Leader of the opposition to the Hamburg verdict also augurs well for the case of bipartisanship concerning this extremely important national issue. 

Nevertheless, before we go ahead and implement the Hamburg decision and look at the Indian offer, Bangladesh Government must get down to very serious introspection. There is also a need to look at the decision of ITLOS by putting it under the scanner. It is true that compared to what Myanmar had threatened to take away from us, we have recovered a substantial portion of that but not all that we aspired to, once again legitimately.  Therefore we have to ascertain how much we have failed to gain and why by the set legal standards and jurisprudence of judgments and awards to-date on other maritime boundary cases.  We need these answers to argue ur case at The Hague against India. Although the Hamburg decision may likely help us against India, nothing can be taken for granted. 

Foreign Minister Dipu Moni ruled out the possibility of withdrawing our case against India from the UN Permanent Court at The Hague. She nevertheless held out the possibility of bilateral negotiations if Indian proposal are favourable or acceptable in the light of ITLOS decision. Once again this is an extremely friendly gesture to the Indians given their behavior pattern on record. Let us put it in this way that the time is on our side and we need not hurry in any way to respond to the Indian request officially.   

In deciding on the Indian offer, we should keep in mind that India has not only attempted to impose the equidistant method as the only delineating principle on use  for determining the adjacent maritime boundary, it reportedly encouraged Myanmar to do the same as evidenced by the engagements of Indian law of the sea experts in the panel of lawyers of Myanmar initially.. Then there is of course the history of Bangladesh-India negotiations on the issues of water, trade, land boundary and killings at the borders interlaced by un kept and broken promises and assurances deliberate or otherwise. That history alone should be the single most important factor to be cautious of the Indian offer especially when we have very good reasons that the Arbitration Court would give us a far better binding decision than we can hope to receive from India.. 

Teesta, Tippaimukh, the river linking projects and the non-stop killings of our innocent and un-armed citizens on Bangladesh-India border are but a few of the real life empirical evidences that cannot but remind and haunt our policy makers of the perils of taking Indian proposals and even agreements signed at the highest political level  seriously in any kind of outcome through bilateral discussions as opposed to definitive international judicial pronouncements. There is no harm in asking the Pakistanis on how India is upholding the spirit and words of the specific provisions of the Indus Basin Treaty Agreement sponsored by no less than an authoritative international actor like the World Bank in their inter-se relations.  

We are totally inexperienced in benefitting from the vast prospects that the Hamburg decision has opened up for us and if we receive a fair judgment from Hague in 2014 as we expect to. This is where we would need to take two important decisions as soon as possible on a bipartisan and national basis. First, we must create a national authority of experts and professionals with whatever resources needed to deal with the prospects of exploiting and managing our rights and obligations in the Bay of Bengal.  Second, we must also have the vision of acknowledging that whatever we get eventually after the 2014 verdict, we will have a part of the Bay of Bengal that we will share with Myanmar, India and regional countries where there would be no legal disputes over exercise of rights.

India and Myanmar would need us as much we would need them to develop the resources of the outer continental shelf over which we might have common rights based on the ITLOS and possibly the Hague verdicts. In fact, the ITLOS judgment and the expected one from Hague should encourage us for a regional approach over a bilateral one not just in the Bay of Bengal but also for issues of regional concerns such as our water rights over the international rivers and regional connectivity keeping in mind that on maritime issues and other issues of importance to us, we have had unproductive experience with both India and Myanmar bilaterally. The ITLOS judgment should give us the confidence as a nation to deal with these countries.  

However, to achieve our best national interests, the prime need of the moment is national unity. We wasted the rich prospects that came our way in 1971 because of lack of unity after that had given us our cherished and blood- earned independence. This is Bangladesh’s critical and perhaps the last chance to emerge as one of the success stories among modern nations. It is unity alone that can bring home the real benefits for the masses that ITLOS verdict has opened up and the one from The Hague may add to.

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

On Our traits as a nation

As I See It Column
The Independent
24 March, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

Very few talk about where we stand today as a nation as we cross the threshold of history to move to 41st year of our independence. Why should we? Most of us are just too busy living in a make believe world of what a great country ours is. We claim we have the best culture. Our language is the best. We are the only nation to have shed blood for our mother tongue. Ours is the most beautiful, the most scenic motherland of all! Whatever we do as a nation and want to praise ourselves, we do so in superlative terms. The claims undoubtedly have solid base. The question to ask is what have we done to turn the solid base into achievements apart from loud mouthing them?    

Like for instance our Book Fair.  Over the entire month of February, the media, particularly the private TV channels were spending a good part of their time and energy covering this fair on a daily basis. It looked like that this was more a media event, a fun one at that, than serious business of giving readers the benefit of some good books worth buying.  

The private TV channels revealed particularly startling information about the Book Fair. Nearly 90% of the books in the country are released in the market through this Book Fair.  For a country with 160 million people, claiming so much on issues of culture and language, one must wonder whether this in any underscores our standing as a   serious nation when it comes to books and publishing/reading books. In fact, it reflects to the contrary. 

For those who make tall claims over the Book Fair, let me say this. A serious nation creates the right environment for all, particularly the new generation, to develop the habbit of reading by creating public libraries and libraries at the educational institutions. Such a nation takes for granted that books, reading habbits, culture and development are inextricably linked. Serious nations do hold books fairs but not as the sole basis of producing books. Our much lauded and touted Book Fair seems to be giving this impression. 

Of course, there is no reason to lessen in any way the importance of the Book Fair. The authorities must be highly recommended for their efforts. The same cannot be said of the media, particularly the private TV channels, who seem inclined to turn such a serious business as books as something of fun, a mela in the Bengali translation of the word. It was heartening to learn that publishers are printing more books than it the past. Nevertheless, there is now the need to evaluate on the quality of the books before making those big claims. 

I did not want to digress to the Book Fair but I did so to make a point; that we have this habbit of looking for a few good things in our national life and to exaggerate these beyond proportions. In doing so, we hide the stark realities in which we live. Perhaps it is because of the stark realities of our lives that we pick up the few good things and exaggerate these as an escape from reality. It is this escapism from reality through exaggerating the few of our good points as a nation that does not allow us to overcome the negative national traits we have that is not helping us in realizing the vast potentials that were ours to achieve when we became independent in 1971.  

The reality is that we now live in a society where almost every aspect of our national live has become partisan. Politics that resolves conflicts in other countries creates more conflicts in our country. When the nation hoped that the opposition would enter the parliament to create the right environment of bipartisanship, it was partisanship of the worst type to which we were treated, courtesy the private TV channels. The diatribe to which the lady BNP MP exposed us was the last thing we wanted to see. 

One understands, as the Opposition Whip explained, that the ruling party has hurled abuses at the opposition leaders in languages no better.  But then he should also understand that two wrongs do not make a right. Public speaking is no small business. It needs talents and more importantly, it needs training and dedication. It would be too much to expect from our MPs, particularly the women MPs most of who are in Parliament not on merit, a speech as the one Mark Anthony gave over Caesar’s dead body where by praising the assassins craftily, he turned  everyone against them. 

Nevertheless, we could expect from them common sense. Common sense should have dictated that this lady MP to refrain from abusing her opponents. Is she had, her speech would have had more profound impact upon everybody. It is true that her party has been subjected to lots of abuses by the Treasury bench, particularly by again two lady MPS,  where President Ziaur Rahman, Begum Khaleda Zia and Tareque Zia have been abused in languages that are not worthy of print. It seems like the lady MPs are adept in the art of the foul language ahead of their mail compatriots!

The BNP lady MP could have flagged the abuses in a more civilized manner. Instead of returning those abuses in worse language, she could have spoken in the line her party has taken in national politics lately that has attracted people’s attention favourably, the path of democratic protest.  Such a course would have gone with the demonstrations and long marches of the BNP that are constitutionally permissible, instead of hartals and would have hurt the AL politically. People who were turning sympathetic to the BNP are now seriously perturbed whether they can look at the BNP positively. One expected that after the public reaction of the BNP Lady MP, sense would return in the Parliament. It did not and the Treasury and the Opposition followed the BNP Lady MP as a trend setter much to the disgust of the nation! 

The recent ruling of ITLOS is great news for Bangladesh. It opens up huge prospects for Bangladesh to the hydro-carbon and marine resources of the Bay of Bengal. Importantly, the ruling will strengthen our claims vis-à-vis India and give us another large mass in the Bay of Bengal. This is a victory for Bangladesh. Unfortunately, here too we are witnessing partisanship where the ruling party is claiming that the victory is its. The ruling party is missing another opportunity of uniting the country not realizing that bringing to shore the rich prospects that the ITLOS ruling has opened would need a united nation behind it. The ruling party seems to have decided to use a national victory as a party issue to overcome some serious political setbacks in recent times. 

Bangladesh won its independence in 1971 because 75 million people united for the cause of freedom. In the midst of this insensible lack of unity on national issues and our national trait to live in a make believe world on exaggerated claims of culture, language and the rest, we are letting precious time pass us by where we are distancing ourselves more and more from the rich prospects that the emergence of Bangladesh had brought before us in 1971. If we can achieve the illusive unity that we once showed in 1971 and set aside our national trait of self-glory, the rest of the world will tell us that we have a lot of excellent national characteristics and not we ourselves drumming these claims. But who is listening? Common sense and decency have taken leave of our politics and politicians and those who are the public face of the nation.

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

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Can economics drive Bangladesh-India relations?

Daily Sun
March 18, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

A good friend asked me to look for some positive developments in Bangladesh-India relations to arrive at a balanced view of the way in which these relations are moving. In particular, he said that as a result of the initiative of our Prime Minister, there have been big strides on the economic front, particularly in our exports to India. His emphasis was on the 65 RMG items that have been given duty free access to the Indian market that he felt would help Bangladesh make big inroads in to the Indian market.

In a number of seminars I attended recently, I came across some economists who have strongly opposed those critical on Indian failure to reciprocate on issues of water, border and land boundary. They termed such criticisms of India as rhetoric and detrimental to the interests of Bangladesh. They asked the critics to wait with a little patience to see the benefits that Bangladesh would soon receive from Indian policies aimed at assisting Bangladesh benefit from  trade cooperation  trade with it.

In my own writings in a number of newspapers on Bangladesh-India relations, I have been critical of the way India has failed to reciprocate to the courageous gestures and initiatives of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. I felt that our Prime Minister took great political risk to unilaterally offer India full support for its security concerns by stating firmly that Bangladesh would not be allowed to be used for terrorist attacks on India. In that context, she handed to India seven top ULFA insurgents who had been hiding in Bangladesh that has virtually ended the strong movement of independence of Assam.

As a former Director-General for South Asia  in our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and having served in New Delhi, I have always felt that Bangladesh’s future and its prosperity is inextricably linked with developing positive relations with India. Factors of geopolitics make this absolutely indispensible.  However, this geopolitical compulsion is not upon Bangladesh alone. India too is as much dependent on geopolitics to seek positive relations with Bangladesh. Land transit from mainland to India to the 8 northeastern states is not just an economic imperative for India. In fact, the more important reasons are, first , security of the northeastern states and, second,  its integration with India.

Even in last term of the AL, land transit was an issue that the Government would not discuss with India because it was considered Bangladesh’s only card to negotiate with India for its legitimate rights on water, trade and border issues. Unfortunately this time those who feel that Bangladesh needs good relations with India for its own sake have been left wondering what more could Bangladesh have done to make India happy.  In Bangladesh, where India is a factor in politics, it is more a wonder why India would push the Awami League that is its natural ally historically into such a predicament where its failures are going to cost the AL heavily in the elections due in two years’ time.

The Indians, unfortunately seem to care very little for sentiments in Bangladesh or the predicament of the Awami League. The Indian Prime Minister saw for himself the deep frustration among the people on the failure to sign the Teesta deal. He acknowledged that by assuring in his speech to a gathering of Dhaka’s elites in Dhaka University that his government would make all efforts for the Teesta   deal to be signed as soon as possible. That is not happening and the Teesta deal seems now to be sinking into the quick sands. Other issues such as killings on the border, Tippaimukh, etc have moved away from the expectations of the people of Bangladesh.

Instead of caring for the sentiments of the people of Bangladesh, the Indians have introduced new and dangerous issues that are perplexing. The project or linking the Brahmaputra with the Ganges   is one such issue. The Indians had always their eyes on the water of the Brahmaputra that the Indians could not dam because of the terrain and its fast flowing nature. The Indians wanted a link canal to connect the two rivers to take the water on the Indian side to augment the flow of the Ganges and its own needs and those of Bangladesh.

The proposal was preposterous for many reasons and Bangladesh under both military and civilian regimes never took this seriously except as an Indian ploy to vex us and divert our demand for more share of the water of the Ganges.  They have brought this age old proposal that Bangladesh has in the past, on bipartisan basis, rejected as dangerous to its existence for reasons they alone can explain. If this project materializes, India would succeed in damning or diverting waters from the major common rivers, the Ganges, the Teesta, the Brahmaputra, and the Surma/Kushiyara. Recently, India has forced into Bangladesh to withdraw the water of another cross border river the Feni River.  The act infuriated President Ershad so much that he led a long arch to Feni to protest the reprehensible act as he did to protest the failure of India to sign the sharing of the water of the Teesta.

Indian actions are strange and difficult to fathom. What is stranger is the fact that there are many in Bangladesh who do not see anything unusual in such actions by India and refer to those who criticize these Indian actions as people who do not want well for Bangladesh. They hold the view that the openings that India has given Bangladesh in trade is going to bring such huge benefits that what India does or does not do on Teesta/Brahmaputra/border killings would not matter all. They of course point to the US$ 1 billion soft loan and India’s promise to make us as the connectivity hub of the region to overlook what India is doing or not doing on rest of  the bilateral issues.

There is bad news for those who cannot be motivated to think ill of India no matter what because of the rich economic promises they think India is offering us. In fact, my friend who was not happy with me for my critical views on India for its failure to deliver told me that till end of February, Bangladesh had exported an additional US$ 600 million to India benefitting from Indian decision to give Bangladesh duty free access on a number of RMG items. My friends who are in business have told me that recent policies of India are enhancing our exports. However whether few hundreds of millions of extra US $ or a billion would be enough to satisfy India’ denial to give us our legitimate demands on water, border and other issues is very doubtful.

The serious issue here is one of trust. In the past, India has promised Bangladesh many things but has always found one way or another to break its promises. India recently banned export of cotton to Bangladesh because of low production. The ban was later partially withdrawn not for our sake but for pressure from Indian cotton growers. Bangladesh depends for 35% of its cotton needs on India and a ban has the potential to cripple our RMG/textile sector. The ban should alert us to think how much we can depend on India to deliver.

Those who look at economics as the engine to drive Bangladesh-India relations have a lot on their plates to convince the people about what India really has in mind. The public mood has turned against India quite clearly. There were some good signs that the Indians were concerned with the changing mood in Bangladesh and were due to send their Foreign and Finance Ministers to Bangladesh. The visits were supposed to take place last month. Has India lost interest in Bangladesh or perhaps taken us for granted to consider it un-necessary to explain its failure to deliver on Teesta, Tippaimukh, Feni River and now the river linking project that  Bangladeshis feel will turn Bangladesh into a desert? Perhaps the Indians are complacent because we have amongst us those who are helping their cause by highlighting the promise of economic gains and no

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

Government helps BNP politically by imposing undeclared hartal

As I See It Column
The Independent
March 17, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

Courtesy the electronic media, the nation saw the unbelievable extent to which the Government went to spoil the BNP’s “Cholo, Cholo Dhaka Cholo” programme.   The private TV channels have showed days prior to the event the actions taken by the law enforcing agencies assisted by ruling party activists to restrict/check all busses and public transports plying to the city from the rest of the country.  Even the river routes and railways were clamped down to stop people from joining the BNP call. Nearer to March 12, all public transport to Dhaka was virtually stopped.

The police also clamped down on the hotels and boarding houses, issuing orders that they should not take guests till the 14th. The police of course denied issuing such orders. Nevertheless, the electronic media exposed that denial as untrue where hotel owners interviewed informed viewers about huge losses. In doing so, the law enforcing agencies did not consider the fact that the hotels and guest house are used by ordinary people who come to Dhaka for a multitude of reasons, including treatment for life threatening health problems.

The AL’s political leadership also went into the act. They claimed that the BNP’s call was intended for acts of subversion in Dhaka. They linked the claim to the line they have taken for a long time that the BNP/Jamat is conspiring to create a breakdown of the law and order to derail the trial of those being tried for crimes against humanity.  The ruling party leaders, however, have not been able to give convincing evidence of such conspiracies to the public except repeating their statements like the pin caught in a broken record.

The result of the actions of the law enforcing agencies and the AL leadership created a situation that was surreal. In the past, we have faced hartals, shamabesh and mahashamabesh by the opposition that had put such fears in our minds of the public that we shut ourselves in our houses and hoped and prayed that the calls by the opposition would pass by without harming us. This time, we faced a similar predicament of fear and apprehension but very little of it due to the opposition and almost all due to the ruling party. Dhaka was deserted by 11th and the BNP cannot claim even a little credit for it because it was the Government that did it all!

In the past, hartals of the opposition did not always pass by harmlessly. Lives have been lost, property damaged and the economy was forced to incur huge losses.  We were utterly disgusted and have been praying to the Almighty to give better sense to the opposition not to make us and the country hostage to their politics and put an end to hartal. It seemed like the Almighty heard us. In the past three years, unbelievable as it may sound, the BNP called just  7/8 hartals.

A lot of people would have a lot to say about the BNP’s governance in its last term for which it has paid badly by losing the last elections miserably. Nevertheless, in the last 3 years, the BNP has done very little to link itself to acts of subversion to destroy law and order to bring down the government. Instead, the BNP has adopted strategies such as demonstrations, long marches, etc that are guaranteed by the Constitution. Of course, many may blame the BNP for not going to parliament but then if the BNP did that as well, then it would have been too good to be true.

Nevertheless, even on the issue of not attending the parliament, the BNP has their reasons.   They feel that their 34 seats are so few that in a highly partisan parliament, their views would not even have any chance of being heard, let alone taken up for consideration. This was underscored by the Speaker while “reprimanding” the Minister for Finance in Parliament in parliament recently for his provocative statements against the BNP/Jamat in the context of their March 12 event.                                            

Those who thought that by stopping people from going to Dhaka, they would be able to turn the BNP’s event into a flop were badly mistaken. In the end, the number of people who turned out for the event was huge. It is strange that the AL leaders never considered that Dhaka has close to 15 million people and even a fraction of the people of the city would give the BNP the number it needed to claim success. By its un-democratic steps, the BNP has been given a much larger victory in political terms.

Few believed the police explanation that people were stopped from coming to stop Dhaka for acts of subversion.  In fact, ordinary folks interviewed on this point by private TV channel dismissed the explanation by saying that there was no reason for the BNP/Jamat activists to attack their own meeting. One folk said that if the BNP/Jamat activists were at all interested in subversion, the better target would have been the AL meeting on 14th March where everyone was welcome to attend! 

A more unbelievable explanation was given by the authorities that said that the transport owners themselves did not run the buses on the highways, fearing attack by the opposition. The electronic media has interviewed the owners lamenting losses in many crores of Takas from the action of the Government. The shutdown of the private TV channels from live telecasting of the BNP programme was the most regrettable act of the authorities because it badly damaged the ruling party’s democratic image and its claim of giving the country a free media. The live telecasting of the PM’s address on 14th March and encouraging access given to people to attend it also flagged the double standard of the Government. These actions have also dented badly its democratic credentials.

In the end, the Government’s fears of sabotage and subversion did not come true. In fact, the media showed armed ruling party activists in the streets of Dhaka trying to provoke the opposition.  Surely, if sabotage was the aim of the event, it could have been done at will.  The BNP event was to register their points against this government. In those objectives; the BNP achieved more than it could have hoped for. The opposition’s main claim that the government is undemocratic was successfully established by the government’s unbelievable actions.

One question lingers in the public mind which is why did the Government do all it did to stop the BNP event? One possible answer is that it feared that the opposition event would draw a huge number of people from across the country that would damage its political standing in the country  badly. In the end, the BNP programme drew a huge gathering. The public was left with no doubt that if the Government had not acted the way it did, the March 12 event would have drawn unprecedented numbers of people as the Government had feared and perhaps more.

Ironically therefore, by its undemocratic actions, the ruling party strengthened that fear more successfully than the opposition would have even if they were allowed to hold the event unhindered.  Nevertheless sadly, it is democracy that has been served badly in all that has happened by the actions of the Government leading to March 12. BNP’s overtures to do politics the democratic way have been spurned. It is such a shame that it the month of March, the country had to witness such un-democratic actions that led many to suggest that the country has returned to the Pakistan days.

People are now really worried whether by its actions the government has pushed the country and its politics into uncertainty. The programme given by the BNP from its Dhaka event is not encouraging with a daylong hartal called for the 29th of March and a 90 ultimatum for the ruling party to accept its demands.  For the time being, the BNP is relishing its current healthy position in politics thanks almost entirely to the ruling party’s unbelievable efforts.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Koran Burning in Afghanistan

Daily Sun
March 11, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The US has upped its schedule to withdraw its combat troops from Afghanistan. In June last year, President Obama had made a public declaration to bring the troops back by end of 2014. Recently, the US  Defense Secretary announced that the US would be bringing all combat troops home by 2013 instead. 

The President’s commitment notwithstanding, no doubt necessitated by the Presidential elections later this year, events in Afghanistan are not shaping the way the President would have liked. The Karzai Government has failed to show the potentials necessary to give the confidence to the US that the country would be on track in which it has tried to put the country at great financial and human costs in pursuance of the war on terror. The Talibans are resurgent and negotiations are under way with US concurrence for a role for the so-called moderate Talibans in a post-US Afghanistan. 

To make matters worse for the US, its troops have become embroiled in the country for burning the holy Koran. The incident occurred in Parwan on February 20th . It has affected since every aspect of relations between the two countries and all arrangements related to the withdrawal schedule of US combat troops in Afghanistan. Afghans are outraged. In incidents related to the Koran burning issue, 29 Afghans and 6 American soldiers were killed in the week following the burning. 

The US administration is very deeply concerned. The administration went to action immediately to contain the dangerous post-burning effects.  President Obama and  the US commander in Afghanistan also apologized; apologies that drew great flak in USA but nevertheless helped contain the situation from going dangerously out of hand. In addition, the US ordered immediately a joint American-Afghan investigation and the US military, its own investigation. The powerful Afghan religious body the Ulema Council also ordered a separate investigation.  

The US-Afghan investigations have identified a chain of human errors that led to the unfortunate event. The investigation revealed that six US military personnel that included an Afghan-American interpreter were involved in the burning. Importantly, the investigation did not find any pre-planned or deliberate attempt by the six involved in the burning to incite Afghans’ religious sentiments. Nevertheless, the episode had the script of a mystery drama and started with US suspicion of Afghans incarcerated in the Parwan detention centre. 

The US military in charge of the detention centre in Pawan became suspicious that the detainees were using library books to scribble notes internally and externally to organize an uprising. They feared a security risk and 2 Afghan interpreters were assigned to sort out the books in which the scribbling was reported to have been done. The two ended up with sorting 1652 books that included a few Korans but mostly books of secular nature, including novels and poems. 

What was actually scribed in the books and whether these writings in anyway posed a security risk was not thoroughly discovered by the US military personnel involved or the Afghans who assisted because there were too many books involved and too little time to review the writings. The Ulema Team that has also investigated the matter however found very personal writings on the books such as their names and other personal records. On the Korans and on  the  religious books, the writings were merely to explain the text in local Afghan dialects and had nothing to do with “terrorism or criminal activities.” 

Where the simple decision in the matter could have been to store the 1652 books as they did not reveal anything suspicious or threatening, the US military personnel involved in the matter simply went ahead and ordered the books to be burned. In deciding, the relevant officials made one procedural error and another of much serious nature, a total insensitivity and lack of understanding to Islamic beliefs and traditions. The procedural mistake was not to have retained the 1652 books for a while longer and instead deciding straightaway to burn the total lot. 

The cardinal error of the officials who ordered the burning was to have overlooked that in the lot, there were a few Korans or not to have thought that in lot, there could be a few Korans.  Clearly, anyone even with a vague notion of what a Koran means to the Muslims would have taken out the few Korans from the lot and gone ahead with the order to burn the rest. The officials did not do that.  It was only when Afghans who were ordered to burn the books found the Korans that the alarm bell was sounded but by then the Korans were substantially burnt. 

US apologies and orders of investigations however have not been enough to appease the Afghans. The Ulema Council has said that Afghan custom and tradition demands that those responsible for the burning should be publicly punished. The US of course is not going to do any of it. US public opinion is also strongly against such a demand. Some of the opinions on a report by the NY Times covering the burning incident make very interest reading. Almost all the 100 plus letters that I sampled  expressed deep contempt for Islamic  and Islamic values that could lead one to conclude that still in the US, Muslims continue to remain suspect even when their religion is violated and humiliated.  

The US has invested so heavily in Afghanistan that they should have been leaving the country as heroes. Instead, the Koran burning issue is surely going to be for the US the parting kick for all their sacrifices for the people of Afghanistan; the final nail to seal the coffin on US unpopularity in the country. In this Koran burning incident, the US has again underlined how little they know of Islam, Muslims and the Islamic world. The Koran is a living symbol of the Almighty in the lives of every Muslim, an overwhelming majority of who are not fundamentalists. They not just believe that the Koran has been authored by God; they believe that He gave it to Muslims through Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The Muslims show to the Koran the respect that a non-Muslim will never perhaps understand.

The US is also being forced to bring the Talibans to the negotiating table. Hamid Karzai has clearly proven that he would not be able to live up to the expectations that the US and its allies have placed on him.  The US would be spending the same amount of time in Afghanistan till it withdraws its combat troops by 2013 as did the Soviets in the 1980s. The Soviets had left in failure. It looks as if the US would likewise as did all foreign troops in history of Afghanistan. Like the dog’s crooked tail, Afghanistan is again about to go back to its own ways   and about to prove that there is a lot of truth in the cliché that history repeats itself.

Nevertheless, the US can take at least the comfort that it has broken Al Qaeda substantially having killed most of its top leadership including Osama Ben Laden. At its worst, even an Afghanistan free of US occupation with Talibans in power in one shape or another, would be a problem for the Afghans but little threat to the US or the West. The Muslim world would like to expect that after the US leaves Afghanistan, it would not use what happens there to humiliate them across the world. It is time for the US and its allies to realize that Muslims have been the victims of the world on terror that President Bush had started.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt