Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Rohingyas: partisan politics and poor diplomacy
The Daily Sun
Jne 24th., 2012
M. Serajul Islam

Bangladesh’s stand to shut its border to Rohingya refugees has disappointed many at home and abroad.  Article 28 (b) of the constitution commits Bangladesh to “…support oppressed peoples throughout the world in waging a just struggle against imperialism, colonialism or racialism”.  The commitment is based on our experiences in 1971 when 10 million of our people were forced to flee to India to escape racial crimes committed by the Pakistani military. 

The Rohingya refugees have been forced to flee before this instance twice in 1978 and 1991-92 in numbers much larger than the current influx to escape ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar government that has not officially recognized their existence although they number close to a million.  There is racialism and barbaric oppression, often state sponsored, that drives Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, nevertheless, has stated that as Bangladesh is not a signatory to the conventions on refugees, it is not obliged to open doors to the Rohingya refugees. 

The government of Bangladesh should spare itself a moment and contemplate its own predicament if New Delhi had closed its doors in 1971. Just as we are not in a position financially to accommodate the Rohingya refugees today; India too was in a similar position in 1971. And mind you, the Bangladeshi refugees were in millions. Yet they accepted us willingly and did not look for excuses to close its doors to crimes against humanity. 

The position that our Foreign Minister articulated was bold in its lack of ambiguity. It has nevertheless been well short of projecting Bangladesh as a responsible nation that is willing to make the sacrifices when it comes to saving humanity at risk. It is also clearly in contrast to the spirit with which we have fought and won our liberation. Most importantly, it has shown the government rejecting the very ethos of its emergence as an independent nation; a commitment for freedom of oppressed peoples everywhere.  

A government that has won support both at home and abroad for its courageous decision to put to trial those who committed   crimes against humanity in 1971 has now allowed the authorities in Myanmar to commit the same crimes on the Rohingyas without protest. Unbelievably, instead of protesting the atrocities and assisting the victims, the government decided to push them back to the perpetrators of crimes against humanity!  By closing its border to the Rohingyas over the pleas of the UNHCR, the UN and the government of the United States, the government of Bangladesh has exposed a double standard on issues of human rights. In clear departure to diplomatic norms, the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry imposed restrictions on the movement of the UNHCR Representative in Bangladesh. 

The government also injected politics to the issue that has been very frustrating. In a statement in the parliament, the Foreign Minister said that the Myanmar has complained that Jamat has been behind the disturbances that have led to the refugees’ influx.  The Secretary General of the ruling party went a step further. He said that the Jamat was responsible for the influx because it wanted to derail the war crimes trial! These statements left many wondering why the Bangladesh Government was making excuses for the crimes against humanity committed by Myanmar authorities  and its majority Buddhist population who have a history of racial hatred towards the Rohingyas.  

The Government’s stand to agree with Myanmar and make Jamat the villain is clearly strange diplomacy. Does the Government think that by putting the blame on Jamat, its decision to close the borders would be justified? Does it not realize that in doing so, it has validated Myanmar’s contention that Jamat is the guilty party without even asking for evidence and thereby has absolved that country for committing crimes against humanity? In fact, Myanmar’s treatment of the nearly 1 million Rohingyas is one of the well documented   examples of state sponsored ethnic cleansing in modern history.  There are piles of evidences documenting atrocities by Myanmar authorities against the Rohingyas in the past in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Why has the Foreign Minister turned a blind eye to records and evidences available in her Ministry to hold Myanmar responsible from crimes against humanity? 

In fact, the Government of Bangladesh committed mistakes galore in dealing with the problem. In the first place, it was caught totally unguarded till the refugees tried to cross the border. There was a major failure of intelligence. Second, the Foreign Ministry did not lodge a formal protest to the Myanmar Government, detailing the atrocities that were committed on the Rohingyas. Instead it allowed the Myanmar Government to make the first move by accusing the Jamat for the crimes to avoid its own responsibilities. By failing to make the first move, the Government allowed the offender to justify its crime. 

The major mistake of the government has however been to close the border. As it has turned out, the problem was not as serious as it was in 1978 and 1991-92 when hundreds of thousands of refugees crossed the border causing massive problems, financial and otherwise, to Bangladesh. In this instance, the influx occurred due to the majority Buddhists attacking the minority Rohingyas as a consequence of communal conflict. Earlier it was the government machinery that had attacked the Rohingyas as a part of ethnic cleansing that had caused the huge influx. The actual number of potential refugees this time therefore was quite within the ability of the government to handle. 

Therefore, the correct way of handling the problem by the government would have been to accept the refugees as part of its constitutional commitment and international obligations and in remembering its own history. At the same time, it should have taken up the matter strongly with the  Myanmar Government instead of going public with the latter’s accusation against Jamat and thus giving  legitimacy to the atrocities. It should have moved strongly with the UN and UNHCR for their support against the Government of Myanmar to receive international support for the Rohyngas and for funding the costs for looking after the refugees. 

The government handled a very serious diplomatic issue in an immature and ill motivated way. It sacrificed national interest for gain in domestic poliitcs by not protesting Myanmar’s accusation against Jamat. Jamat is currently in disarray with its top leaders in jail and the threat of war crimes trials hanging over the party. The party is not in any shape either to carry out cross boundary terrorism as accused by Myanmar or to create disturbance inside Myanmar to cause the refugee influx to derail the war crimes trial as  stated by the AL General Secretary. The government responded to Myanmar as if it was representing the interests of the Awami League while dealing with its international obligations and not the nation’s as it should have. 

In resolving problems with Myanmar in the past on the Rohingya issue, Bangladesh was supported by the Saudi and the US Governments, the latter with its influence in the UN and UNHCR. This time neither would be interested to assist Bangladesh, the latter because it is trying to get closer to Myanmar’s military regime as it shows signs of reform. China that has influence over Myanmar Government would also not be overtly warm to any request that Bangladesh could make to it to talk to Myanmar. Perhaps Bangladesh could turn to India for help that it has not. 

The Bangladesh government thus stands alone in dealing with Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya issue.  It would need the nation behind it to succeed. Unfortunately things are not going the way of the Bangladesh Government because by some poor diplomacy and equally poor politics, the government has already absolved Myanmar of any wrong doing by accepting the latter’s contention that Jamat is responsible for the influx of refugees!  

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

Two more terms for Sheikh Hasina?
"As I See It"column
The Indepenent
June 23rd., 2012
M. Serajul Islam

A senior AL party leader has said something unbelievable. He said that Sheikh Hasina should continue as Prime Minister for 2 more terms for the sake of the country. The party official was addressing a wing of the ruling party when he made this absurd suggestion. He drew inspiration from Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammad and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew for justifying his fond wish for his leader and his party. 

Suggestions such as this are fit to be garbaged except for the fact that the leader making this one is the unofficial spokesman of his party. Therefore what he says just cannot be trashed without trying to find out what made him make such an absurd suggestion. Recently, a group of well known individuals from the country’s cultural front with intimate connections with the ruling party had asked the people to elect the AL led by Sheikh Hasina for two more terms. 

Clearly, the two suggestions have something in common. It underscores a serious desire in a section in the ruling party  to be in government for the next terms by any means. The cultural activists at least showed some sense in suggesting that the people should do the favour to the ruling party. The senior leader has left that choice to the party itself! 

The serious issue here is not that such a suggestion would be rejected for its sheer absurdity that would no doubt happen. The serious issue is how a senior leader of the party could make the suggestion. This is the same leader who goes hoarse talking at the top of his voice on the democratic virtues of his leader and the party. Of his leader, he tells us continuously how she is the great champion of democracy. He never fails to refer to the Father of the Nation and in that context,  to tell us repeatedly that he and democracy are synonymous.  

The same political leader is now suggesting that Sheikh Hasina should remain the Prime Minister till 2024. With the opposition demanding an election under a caretaker government and the country praying on its knees that the ruling party would sit down and talk to find a resolution to the problem, the Awami League leader’s suggestion was to say the least, provocative. He seemed to suggest that the ruling party has  abandoned holding the next general elections and would  like to remain in power simply by assuming that the people wants it in power for their own interests! 

One has to wonder whether the leaders of the ruling party ever think before they talk. If they did, they would know that by talking in public the way they do, they are literally cutting the very branches of the tree where they are sitting. Even a cursory analysis of what they say would show, first, they destroy the very foundations on which they claim such glory for their party and their leaders, and, second, they end up enforcing the opposition’s demand that they must go for the sake of the country. 

In this instance, one understands and even appreciates that the political leader who said that Sheikh Hasina should remain in office till 2024 really adores his leader. It may even be true that he really believes that it is in the best interest of the country that she should continue to remain as Prime Minister for 2 more terms. It is also heartening to see that within the ruling party, this political leader is not alone in his admiration and loyalty to the Prime Minister. Such adoration of associates is indeed something that transforms an ordinary political leader to a great one. 

Unfortunately, it is not adoration and loyalty of associates that alone makes an ordinary leader a great one. Such adoration and loyalty driven to the extent that these leaders are willing enough to keep the Prime Minister in power without giving the people the chance to express themselves is what is called sycophancy. And sycophancy is what transforms a great leader to an ordinary one and paves the way for his/her exit. History, even our own one, is replete with such instances. 

There is no question that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a leader worthy of greatness. Her lineage, being the daughter of the Father of the Nation, gives her added importance in politics. Both Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Sheikh Hasina have earned people’s love and respect through the democratic process. They never needed anyone to tell them to show their respect to them. Through the ballot, the people of Bangladesh have shown their support for Bangabandhu in the November 1970 elections and to Sheikh Hasina twice in 1996 and 2008.  

Bangladesh was born though sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of lives to give the people a country based on democracy. Even great leaders are subject to the law and the constitution in a democratic country where they can exercise political power only when people have returned them to  office. That is called the stamp of legitimacy. Without the sanction of the people expressed through the ballot, a leader loses his/her legitimacy and becomes a usurper. The legitimacy of the political leader is also determined to the extent the elections choosing him/her and the party are fair or otherwise. 

Therefore the political leader with whom I began this piece has in fact suggested that Sheikh Hasina should remain in power setting aside the democratic process. In other words, driven by sycophancy, he has suggested that his leader should remain in power if need be, illegitimately for the sake of the country! Unfortunately, he is not alone in showing such sycophancy. There are many other leaders in the ruling party who are also suggesting that Sheikh Hasina should remain in power for two more terms.  

This is what worries many in the country. There seems to be a move within the ruling party that no matter what, the AL should remain in power for two more terms. By their uncoordinated manner of talking irresponsibly in pubic, some leaders of the ruling party have given this impression very clearly and unambiguously. In a way, the suggestion of the senior leader of the AL that like Mahathir Mohammed and Lew Kuan Yew, Sheikh Hasina should remain in power for two more terms may have been made deliberately. He may have expressed his party’s intention not to hand over political power for at least two more terms under any circumstances. 

There are many in the AL who genuinely believes and for good reasons that their party is the champion of democracy notwithstanding what these sycophants say or do. They must be scratching their heads and worrying that with such people in the party, the BNP would be left with little to do for people’s favour. They are establishing on behalf of the BNP that, first, the AL has little intention of holding any credible elections, and second, if need be, it would try to remain in office without   holding elections; both dangerous propositions even to contemplate. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan .

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Daily Sun, Wednesday, 20th June, 2012
Defence and Diplomacy

Next News »

Taking diplomacy away from career diplomats!
M. Serajl Islam

My article on the Foreign Ministry in the first issue of the “Defense and Diplomacy” page drew critical comments from a number of my colleagues. Most of them agreed that we are witnessing a paradigm shift in the way the Foreign Ministry is performing under this government compared to all past governments and that the shift is not in the desired direction. I was provoked by the comment of one senior colleague who thought that we could be seeing in this shift a line of thinking where the government is considering foreign affairs as too important to be left just to the career diplomats.

My colleague may be right. Under this government, the major thrust of our diplomacy is no longer with the career diplomats. In choosing political leadership for the ministry, the government made a sharp departure from the past by naming a foreign minister who had no prior exposure to foreign affairs. The previous AL government, in choosing Abdus Samad Azad had given the post to one of the party’s senior most leaders who was a Foreign Minister before. The BNP Foreign Minister Morshed Khan had prior experience as an investment adviser to the prime minister. He also had Reaz Rahman as his Deputy who was a former Foreign Secretary.

It is not just this government named someone without prior experience to the Foreign Ministry; it also gave to prime minister’s advisers the leadership role in crucial areas of foreign affairs. Two advisers of the prime minister have been entrusted the responsibilities for dealing with India and the United States. Economic diplomacy has also likewise been given to other ministries. For instance, in matters of manpower export and external trade, areas with significant foreign policy interests, the Foreign Ministry is not in any major role.

Consular affairs on which the prime minister has given great emphasis as vitally important for career diplomats unfortunately has never been a subject of the Foreign Ministry. In key missions, the head of consular affairs is from the Home Ministry or the intelligence agencies. The only hold the Foreign Ministry had on consular matters in the past was controlling and issuing diplomatic passports. This government has given this responsibility to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

In appointing ambassadors, the career diplomats have not been given importance. The missions in London, Washington, New York, New Delhi and Moscow are headed by non-career ambassadors. Although Washington and New Delhi have gone to individuals who were career diplomats, nevertheless they were sent to the posts because they are close to the political leadership. In fact, both have been given ministerial rank that underscores the importance of their political connections because if they had been taken on their diplomatic skills alone, the government that has shown scant regard for career diplomats would not have given them the ministerial status.

Therefore, the government has already cast the dye on the career diplomats on matters of substance. The important question is whether it is the result of some well thought out policy or the product of an ad-hoc approach by the state to the conduct of diplomacy. The perspective from which the senior colleague introduced the subject to me has been from what is happening in other countries. These days, it is not the Foreign Ministry alone that deals with a country’s foreign affairs.

The field of diplomacy has these days become so vast that a country’s Foreign Ministry and career diplomatic service are no longer able to handle the depth and breadth of diplomacy in the context of the needs of the country. Foreign Ministry everywhere is today assisted by the rest of the government to successfully represent that country’s interests abroad under a well thought out foreign policy.

The key principles under which a Ministry of Foreign Affair shares foreign policy functions and responsibilities with other ministries and departments in other governments are cooperation and coordination. There is no competition or attempts by the other ministries and departments to bypass or ignore the Foreign Ministry. Everywhere the Foreign Ministry is in charge of foreign policy. It coordinates and cooperates with other ministries and departments to achieve the country’s foreign policy goals and objectives in which the career diplomats play the major role. This is the new era of diplomacy worldwide.

Unfortunately, in our context, the emergence of the new era, if it is indeed one, where the other ministries/ departments/individuals are playing a significant role in matters of foreign relations has not come about because the Foreign Ministry alone is unable to conduct foreign relations. The current state of affairs where diplomacy is no longer the exclusive domain of career diplomats has emerged not to assist the Foreign Ministry but to bypass it. That is where there is a vital difference in the way things are in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

In Bangladesh, the dawn of the new era is not the result of any rational approach to diplomacy but one that has come about from a history of mistrust and dislike for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in the other parts of the government. It started in the days immediately after independence when senior members of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan, concerned that in the new country, their position would be subordinated to the politicians, wanted to switch to the foreign service. Their overtures were not just dismissed by the foreign service officers; it was done with contempt.

Unfortunately for the career diplomats, the members of the ex-CSP cadre came back strongly in governance. In the Ershad regime, they held considerable power and used it to full extent to take powers and responsibilities away from the career diplomats. The return of elected government in the 1990s did not help the decline of the foreign service. The BNP government had set up a committee, the Morshed Committee (named after Morshed Khan who later became a Foreign Minister) that submitted a report giving the Foreign Ministry the leading role in leading the country’s foreign policy. The civil service members did not allow the report to see the light of day. They have succeeded in pushing foreign service to a corner and in building a public perception that the foreign service itself is something that the country could do without.

The career diplomats themselves did not help their cause either. They never approached the attack against their cadre unitedly and pursued their own narrow interests of postings and promotions than the need of building a strong foreign service cadre. Their own poor relations with those in other ministries have helped build a united front against them where there is very little enthusiasm from other ministries to let the MFA pursue even its restricted functions and responsibilities. Also, an element of jealousy has been responsible for other services uniting against the foreign service cadre.

In Bangladesh, the state has thus stripped the powers and responsibilities of the MFA in conducting foreign relations. It has distributed these functions piece meal in other ministries/advisers without any coordination. In fact there is not even a method in this madness. Thus we have become perhaps the only country where ministries/advisers end up contradicting one another while speaking on foreign relations! In other countries, the question of contradiction never arises because foreign policy issues are too important to be talked about in public without coordination among those who go public with such issues with the Foreign Ministry entrusted with the role of coordination.

Therefore, what we are seeing today in Bangladesh is a hazy dawn where diplomacy is no longer an exclusive affair for the career diplomats. It is so not because it is too important to be left to the diplomats but because diplomats are considered not important enough to be given such a role. The end result of this has been a near mess up in the way we are conducting our foreign policy which is natural because our foreign policy structure is like a ship in the high seas without a captain at the helm and run by sailors who have no vision where the ship is going.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Strategic changes in South and Southeast Asia favour India
Daily Sun
Jun 16, 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

It seems like a US and a Pakistani President were close enough to call each other close friends was something that happened ages ago. The Bush-Moshraff era when the two were just one phone call away from each other has now faded into distant history. In Chicago, during the NATO Summit last month, President Barak Obama could not spare even a minute for the Pakistani President Asif Zardari when the exchanges between the two were few inaudible courtesies. 

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta underscored the utter depth to which US-Pakistan relations have fallen in recent times when he went on an unscheduled trip to Kabul from his official destination of New Delhi early this month. There, he said that his country was losing patience with Pakistan because of its continued indulgence to the terror groups, in particular the dangerous Haqqani network that Admiral Mike Mullen had called a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s ISI in a Congressional briefing last year. It is not just this terse statement that signified that the two countries are falling apart; USA’s recent overtures towards Pakistan’s nemesis India is what is pointing not to just the parting of ways between two erstwhile allies but that the parting is going to be unfortunate for Pakistan. 

The Americans and the Pakistanis have been falling apart ever since the US Navy Seals killed OBL  in May last year by keeping Pakistan’s government and military in darkness in practically the backyard of its most prestigious military installation in Abbotabad, the Kakul Military Academy. The American action humiliated the country’s proud military at home and abroad. The continuous drone attacks by the Americans in Pakistan’s impregnable northwest bordering Afghanistan in pursuit of Al Qaeda without keeping Pakistan informed have further eroded trust and partnership between the two. The Pakistanis see in these drone attacks and the operation that killed OSB as direct infringement on the country’s sovereignty. 
The US attack in Salala in November was another major turning point in the breakdown of relationship. The attack killed 24 innocent Pakistanis including women and children. The Pakistanis, simmering in discontent, went ahead and stopped the critical supply line to US and NATO troops through Pakistan. That has put a spanner upon the smooth transition of withdrawal of US/NATO troops by 2014 because the period up to the withdrawal would be of supreme significance for the allied troops to make their final thrust to push the resurgent Taliban from making a bid for power. 
At the NATO Summit in Chicago in May, the US and NATO powers failed to encourage Pakistan to open the route. Pakistan demanded a “blackmail” price to do so; an increase from US$ 250 to US$ 5000 per container. The alternative route, the Northern Distribution Network is as expensive as the new price that Pakistan is demanding. The latest stance that the US has taken seems that it has either lost patience with Pakistan or it has a new strategy in mind to lessen its dependence on its now seems like its “former” ally. In fact, the killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi , Al Qaeda’s number 2, through another of the controversial drone attacks last week suggests that the US is looking beyond Pakistan to end its occupation of Afghanistan.
In fact, the US President hinted at that strategy last year when on a visit to Australia, he called his country a Pacific power. Recently at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore of Asian Defense Ministers, Leon Panetta explained explicitly what he and US leaders have been saying recently; a significant rearrangements of US Navy’s overseas presence. Panetta said that by 2020, 60% of US Navy’s presence overseas would be in Pacific and East Asia. Clearly, the US is making this strategic shift with China as the “pivot”. Significantly, the Chinese Defense Minister was absent at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

In proposing to make East Asia and Pacific its new focus of worldwide naval presence as part of   the “China syndrome”, the US of course has allayed the fears of its traditional allies such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand The new and important addition to this traditional nexus with common fear in China is India that the US is now aggressively wooing with India responding to US overtures positively. Before the US Defense Secretary was in New Delhi, the US Secreteray of State was there.  Pakistan has watched these visits closely. It was what Panetta said in New Delhi was particularly worrying to Pakistan. 

In his meetings with Indian leaders, Defense Secretary Panetta said that the US would like India to become more involved in Afghanistan, especially after the US and NATO withdraws their combat troops to assist an Afghan Government trying to stand on its own. The involvement of India in Afghanistan is something that Pakistanis do not want if they can get their way. In fact, it has always insisted when its going was good with the US that India should be kept out to the possible extent from Afghanistan.  

Nevertheless, the Indians have been present in Afghanistan on a bilateral basis with the Government of Hamid Karzai. It has already provided US$ 2 billion in assistance, in critical areas of economic development. This time, a direct request to the Indians to become more involved in Afghanistan is coming in the wake of the new strategic partnership that the US and India are building in Asia. In building this new partnership, the US is abandoning its hitherto pursued policy of paying due heed to Pakistan’s sensitivities vis-à-vis India. In fact, the US is using the excuse of its impatience with Pakistan to move more towards India even on issues that are not linked to terrorism but rooted in rivalries between the two countries. India that always wanted a foothold in Afghanistan for dealing with Pakistan from its western frontier is now being welcomed to achieve its strategic wish. 

Meanwhile, the killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi has weakened the Al Qaeda further in the   Afghanistan-Pakistan region. In fact, the terrorist outfit has moved its headquarter from Afghanistan to Yemen that should mean less worry for the US in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. This has encouraged the US to feel that they are leaving Afghanistan with the threat from the Al Qaeda in launching terrorist attacks on USA soil from Afghanistan that had taken them and allied forces there, tackled.  

Sadly, Pakistan today finds itself in the same situation it had faced with its alliance with the US in the 1980s in fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets had to be stopped in US’ interest not Pakistan’s. Pakistan got sucked into the war for lures of money and paid badly for it. When Soviet Union disintegrated, the US withdrew even without saying good bye leaving Pakistan to deal with 2 million Afghan refugees all alone that has created for Pakistan the problems that it is facing today that are threatening its very existence. 

What the US is doing in this second instance of dropping Pakistan as a hot potato is that it is not just abandoning Pakistan, it is doing so by strengthening the hands of the Indians both in terms of Pakistan-India relations as well as enhancing India’s stature in Asia in general and South Asia in particular. For Pakistan, the scenario surrounding the departure of the US from Afghanistan could not have been worse. 

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

“Experts” for top bureaucracy
"As I See It " Column
The Independent
15 June 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

The Government, it seems, is seriously considering appointing “experts” to “fix” the top bureaucracy.  Perhaps this is a genuine acknowledgement of the government that that with the civil bureaucracy, it has a big problem. If the need is an excuse to place party loyalists in key positions of the civil bureaucracy as some suspect it is, then “fixing” the top bureaucracy with “experts” would destroy a civil bureaucracy that is not far from it due to over politicization. 

The Minister for Agriculture explained the thinking of the government while giving her view on the fixing the top bureaucracy with “experts”.  She said that all over the world, governments bring into their top level of bureaucracy experts from various fields. She did not see any reason why Bangladesh should not follow this well established practice for the benefit of our civil bureaucracy. 

Bureaucrats in top positions have already voiced their opposition to the proposed reform of the top bureaucracy. They feel that this would politicize the bureaucracy further. Their main concern however is that it would take away a considerable amount of their power and authority to give to these “experts”. They feel that as these experts would be handpicked by the political leaders of the government, they would bring with their “expert” knowledge, political connections that would make the career bureaucrats lose a lot of their clout and power. Needless to say, they would also take away many of the top posts of the civil bureaucracy. 

The Minister for Agriculture however ruled out the concern that the proposed system would place in top positions, party loyalists.  She said that at  present , the government spends a huge amount of money employing consultants from home and abroad who are given responsibility to assist the civil bureaucracy. She feels it would be logical to give these consultants authority and incorporate them as a part of the top bureaucracy. 

Unfortunately, the Minister, her excellent political leadership notwithstanding, has glossed over a lot of very important issues critical to the civil bureaucracy in Bangladesh without showing much insight. Our civil bureaucracy is based on legal foundations that have been inherited from the British. With small changes here and there, all civil bureaucracies in South Asia are patterned the same way. The civil bureaucracies of South Asia are career services where lateral entry at different levels is the rare exception and definitely not the norm.  

In fact, the civil bureaucracy in next door India is so strong that the political leadership has never dared to even suggest putting these “experts” in leadership role in any of its existing Ministries. The Minister’s view that if consultants can be given responsibility, they can also be given authority and placed at top level of the bureaucracy is dangerous to the way our civil bureaucracy is based. Our top bureaucrats share authority grudgingly even with political leaders. To expect them to share authority with these “experts” would be expecting something that simply would not happen unless imposed by force. 

The Minister’s belief that bringing “experts” would not politicize the civil bureaucracy is a serious error. Given the nature of administration that the government has run in the last 3 years, political considerations have been primary in promoting bureaucrats and placing them in important positions. Recently a High Court Judge has issued a ruling upon the government to provide the Court with a list of officers who are OSDs, a group of officers who are not placed in bureaucratic posts mainly because of their political leanings. 

The Judge was forced to issue the order because under this government, the largest number ever has been made OSDs. In fact, in the present civil bureaucracy, not one bureaucrat has been given a post of Secretary whose leanings are not clearly with the ruling party. Thus, the bureaucracy is already extremely politicized. The “experts” would only politicize the bureaucracy further by dividing it into camps out to prove which is more loyal to the ruling party. 

The idea of placing “experts” in top positions has perhaps come from the “spoils system” in USA. The general perception in Bangladesh, in fact a misperception, is that in the US , when a new administration comes to office, it places in senior positions those from the party who have helped it win the election under the principle “to the victor belongs the spois”. The origin of this system called the “spoils system” dates to the times of President Andrew Jackson (1828-1836) who appointed almost a fifth of federal posts from party loyalists. Subsequently, through extensive civil service reforms, the “spoils system” has been streamlined because it brought with it extreme corruption and inefficiency. 

 Today, the President’s power to appoint individuals to federal posts under the so-called spoils system has been subjected to a legal framework where senior appointees must receive congressional approval. What is more significant is that the US spoils system is based on other legal foundations that ensure that whoever comes to the administration serve the government and not the party. Such appointments are nowhere as extensive as it was in the times of President Jefferson or President Ulysses Grant in whose term it got a really bad name. In Washington today, federal government employees are not allowed to keep even pictures of their political leaders in their place of work during election time under the Hatch Act. They are by law also prohibited from showing overt preferences for any political party. 

The posts the new administration gives today under the so-called spoils system are given to run the government and not for the interest of the party in power. In addition to legal prohibitions to bringing partisanship to the administration, there are ethical standards that these countries have achieved over decades of development. We are just nowhere to achieving the legal and ethical framework required even to think of replicating the system let alone achieving any   positive results,  should we at some stage go ahead and employ “experts”. 

Sadly, our reformers are not focusing where they should; that aggressive politicizing of the civil bureaucracy by successive governments has taken away any sense of dynamism among the bureaucrats. Like the parliament that now is the meeting place of ruling party lawmakers; the civil bureaucracy is a much larger institution of ruling party supporters and activists. The neutrality that is still the legal basis of our civil bureaucracy has been  destroyed leading those who have no known connections with the ruling party to either join the OSD club or just keep their hands off from taking responsibility lest what they do are construed as support for  the opposition. 

The government said it would hold views with stake holders before employing “experts” to fix the top bureaucracy.  Those in service who are supporters of the government have already opposed the idea of “experts”.  Those in the civil bureaucracy who are languishing as OSDs would of course dismiss the so-called reform outright if their opinion is sought that is very unlikely. Thus if these “experts” ever make it to the top level bureaucracy, they will have the entire civil bureaucracy up in arms against them.  

The need of the moment is therefore not to waste time with the idea of “experts” to “fix” the bureaucracy but to restore its neutrality to save it from the cancer of politicization that is killing it. The idea of employing “experts” would only help spread that cancer. 

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

Sunday, June 10, 2012

On the Professor and the Parliament
Daily Sun
June 10, 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed has unwittingly provoked a serious debate in our politics. The members of parliament with Ali Ashraful as the acting Speaker took serious umbrage over a statement that the Professor was accused to have made on politics of the country and against them. The members were furious. They asked the Professor not just to render an unconditional apology; the acting Speaker said that he should come to the Parliament, kept standing before the members while he uttered public apology! 

Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed is one of the very few eminent citizens of the country who has, by the simple life he leads, established the principle of plain living and high thinking that has won him the unquestioned respect and admiration of the nation on a bipartisan basis. He won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts for "cultivating in the youth of Bangladesh a love for literature and its humanizing values through exposure to the great books of Bengal and the world” through his leadership to the Biswa Shahittiya Kendra and his very successful project “books on wheels”.   

The members of parliament based their case against the Professor who is a living legend of the country on newspaper reports and acted as the judge; the prosecution and the jury. They passed judgment on his conduct without giving him the right of self defense. Even if the worst case scenario was true; that as accused the Professor called the members of parliament “thieves” and “dacoits”; the way they dealt with him hardly did their image any good turn. In fact, if there was any way to judge public reaction taking the worst case scenario, there would be overwhelming public sympathy and support for the Professor at the way the members of parliament attacked and tried to humiliate him.. 

The members have raised a public debate on their own conduct by the way they attacked the Professor.  In the last 20 years during which 3 parliaments have completed their terms and the current one already 2/3rd there, the members who claim to be flag bearers of democracy, have ensured that the principal organ of government that the country has chosen to make democracy functional, has been kept non-functional by the parliamentarians themselves. It is not an AL or a BNP thing in which the MPs can get away by playing the blame game. It is much deeper. Today, the public see it clear as daylight that the parliamentarians have disappointed and frustrated the nation. 

The AL parliamentarians started what has now become a “tradition” in our so-called parliamentary system that in opposition, they must choose the streets for doing politics and disregard the Parliament by abstaining from its proceedings.  The opposition members however have allowed themselves all the benefits of pay and privileges including a luxury car duty free without any question asked! Clearly, those who take pay and benefit and then do not attend their place of work cannot by any stretch of imagination claim the lofty pedestal in which the members of parliament placed themselves in attacking Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed with verbal and body language that not only offended the Professor but the nation. 

There are many honest and hardworking parliamentarians in the current parliament of 300 plus women members. With due apologies to them, as a body, the parliament has disappointed the people deeply.  These days, courtesy the private TV channels, we see a lot of debates in parliament live that are utterly frustrating to the people. These sessions bring out the worst in the parliamentarians where they abuse their political opponents in languages that should shame any individual with even the barest minimum sense of decency.  

In such debates, members of parliament distort history at will. A member of parliament and a Minister called late President Ziaur Rahman an agent of the Pakistani spy agency and his party members cheered him. When the opposition members had their time before the TV camera, they denigrated the Father of the Nation in language no less absurd. Where members of parliament show such disregard and disrespect to the country’s most eminent sons, it is hardly surprising that they would react the way they did to the Professor without checking facts. It suits the way they are by the examples they have set. 

The truth is the members of parliament have lost their ability to act independently and consequently their respect. In fact, a constitutional provision that they have themselves inserted bars them to any independent action.  They toe party lines and in doing so, they bring to the floor of the parliament, the same ugly face of confrontational politics that the two mainstream parties play out outside the parliament. As a consequence, the standards of parliamentary debates have fallen to incredibly low levels. Members of Parliament are at their best when they are hurling abuses at each other across the political divide.

In the present parliament, there is no one who attracts the attention of the people except in ways that are utterly negative. With the parliament now a body where only the members of the ruling party meet, the air of sycophancy rules almost every aspect of what happens inside it. The ability of any individual member to rise and shine as a parliamentarian has been stunted and made irrelevant. In fact, most members of the current parliament use their time on the floor of the parliament to assure the Prime Minister on their loyalty to her and shower praises at the Father of the Nation to please her. Many of them abuse Shahid President Ziaur Rahman not because they hate him but because they believe that this will please the Prime Minister! 

In effect, the two mainstream parties have turned the parliament into a fan club of their leader. If this is not bad enough, they have also turned it into a meeting place for abusing their political opponents. Therefore when the members claimed the parliament as sovereign and demanded to hold the Professor in contempt for humiliating this sovereign institution, all they did was bring about a sarcastic smile in the faces of the people who share none of the lofty views the parliamentarians have of themselves. In fact a leading legal expert humbly reminded the parliamentarian that the constitution rests the sovereignty on the people and by no means on the legislature. 

In a dramatic twist, it has now been revealed that the Professor did not mention the name of any country or any parliamentarian at the TIB event where he made the speech that infuriated the parliamentarians. It has further been revealed that two newspapers distorted his speech that in turn drew the wrath of the parliamentarians. The good Professor revealed certain facts about his life that should make those who attacked him hide their heads in shame, if they have any self respect. 

He said that he lives in a rented two room house in Dhaka and does not own a car. He referred in particular to one parliamentarian who humiliated him and said how saddened he has been that this parliamentarian was a student of his. He said that he has no wish to pursue the matter legally or the desire to demand an apology. TIB in which the Professor is a Trustee nevertheless has strongly demanded that the derogatory remarks about the Professor should be expunged with an apology. 

 It really does not matter whether this is done or not because the members of parliament with the Acting Speaker who presided over the session who censured the Professor did themselves and the parliament a very bad turn by attacking someone the nation holds in high esteem in an uncivilized manner without checking the facts. In the people’s mind, the sordid incident has ended with the Professor’s image among the pubic enhanced and that of the parliamentarians considerably diminished. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Deaths on roads: No signs of respite
"As I See It" column
The Independent
June 9, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

Our roads are these days in control of killer drivers. The government has surely gone both deaf and blind to people’s concerns on the deaths on the road. If it had even minimum sight and hearing ability, it could not have been so immune to the tragedies on the road. Anyone who uses our roads and highways these days does so by daring death. 

One of the strangest things that has happened so far with the tragedies on the roads is the way the Minister for Shipping has backed the right of drivers to drive on the roads with forged licenses and for new drivers to be allowed on the roads without proper tests when the nation is united to bring these killers on the road under a legal framework. 

The Minister backed his support for the drivers because he felt that he owed their association loyalty for his connections with it. No one has contested how a Minister can have connections with a pressure group! It is not that he just has connections with this pressure group; he has placed his loyalty to this group ahead of the oath he has taken as a Minister even to the extent of fighting for the “right” of its members to drive on roads with forged driving licenses and without tests.  

For a government that makes such a huge cry over its love for the law and the constitution, it is unbelievable that it stands silently where a Minister says publicly that the interests of the pressure group to which he belongs is more important than the oath he has taken as a Minister! Under such a situation, the thought to ask a few legitimate questions just falls out of the window. Nevertheless such question lingers in the minds of the people.  Can a Minister publicly claim connections with a pressure group? Is there no legal conflict in doing so?

These questions are nevertheless important  because the families of victims of road accidents cover every aspect of Bangladesh and can be left unanswered only by an insensitive and irresponsible government. There is no place in the country that has not had road death victims. Such fatality has not distinguished between the rich and the poor though on balance, deaths on roads have occurred much more to the poor than the rich; or between religion and any division that one would wish to consider. At this rate, it would not be too long before it covers Bangladesh right up to the family level.  

The problem of road accidents is today a major issue of concern of people in the country. It is of course unfortunate that the government is either oblivious of it or does not know what to do with it. The Minister of Home who has her own ways of upsetting people, has used road deaths to cover her own Ministry’s public criticisms when she said that the law and order situation in the country is far better than before  because there far more deaths on the roads than due to law and order situation! What do you do with a government that gives such an explanation as an excuse to avoid responsibility? Or a government that is so immune to public concerns that cut deeply across the country’s absurd political divide? 

Nevertheless, the government and its ministers notwithstanding, and notwithstanding their strange conflicting and contradictory statements in public on their jobs and jobs of their colleagues, there is an angle to these road accidents that needs to be considered to deal with what has today become a reality in our lives; that no one can go on the roads confident of coming back home safe and alive. The drivers of course are the major culprits. The new Communications Minister upon assuming office from his predecessor who was forced to leave on public wrath over his inability to provide safe roads has acknowledged about the unbelievable number of drivers with forged licenses and the need to correct the situation. Unfortunately, neither he nor has anyone else in government spoken on the condition of our roads and its relation to deaths on the roads. 

We have been independent for over 40 years. All past governments have claimed credit for connecting some parts of Banagladesh with Dhaka. This is of course true for today; there is no part of the country that one cannot travel to by road. What these governments have not said is the type of roads they have built. Consider Dhaka-Chittagong highway. It connects the national capital with the business capital of the country; a vital road by any description. Yet after 40 years of independence, this is still a one lane death trap where people, goats and cows share it with the fast moving traffic! In fact, the Shipping Minister was correct when he said that all the intelligence that the driver, licensed or otherwise, needs to drive on our highways is to be able to distinguish the goats and the cows on the road! He must have been trying to say that human beings, using their god given intelligence, would in any case move away from the traffic that goats and cows cannot! 

The legitimate question is whether these governments had any vision when they built these roads/highways? Of course, when these roads/ highways were built, the traffic was insignificant and even the one lane so called highways that were built were reasonably safe. Unfortunately, the roads/highways did not keep pace with the humungous growth of transport and people’s usage.  In fact, the roads have deteriorated and have gradually become the death traps they are today. Therefore, unless the roads/highways connecting Dhaka with the divisional and district headquarters are made into modern highways with lanes and dividers, the deaths on the roads will increase.  

Thus those who are creating public awareness on deaths on our highways must pressure the government to modernize the national highways as a first step. Unfortunately, the last Caretaker Government left the Dhaka-Chittagong four lane highway unattended when all it had to do is go ahead and build it. In 3 years of this government, there have been tall claims but no major headway in building the Dhaka-Chittagong highway. At this rate connecting Dhaka with the rest of the country with modern, safe highways is something that the country cannot even dream at this stage! 

In this unfortunate state of affairs on our roads, those using it are also responsible for the deaths. The passengers in the bus must come into the act and ensure that they refuse to travel on a bus where the drivers drive dangerously. The police must straighten the truck drivers from dangerous driving. Those riding in personal cars must caution their drivers to drive carefully. Unfortunately, the bus passengers are as much part of the problem as the solution for they seldom caution the drivers because they are more interested about travelling to their destinations than the dangers. The police, in its present form, would surprise everyone if it acts positively to caution the truck drivers and others using the road for the nexus of misdeeds on our roads are sources for their corrupt fortunes. 

The country is thus entrapped in a vicious circle of death with its roads and highways with little sign in the horizon for reprieve because of a variety of reasons to which all governments including the present one and the people have contributed to varying degrees. There is nothing on the drawing board to suggest that even a start is being made to deliver the country from the hell in which it is at the moment with its roads and highways. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.