Monday, July 30, 2012

Bangladesh-India Foreign Office Consultations: Relations deadlocked
Daily Sun
July 28, 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Mijarul Qayes and his Indian counterpart Ranjan Mathai met in New Delhi on July 24 for Foreign Office Consultations (FOC). The FOC took place nearly 11 months after the visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka on September 6, 2011. Therefore, it provided the first comprehensive review of where relations stood between the two countries following that frustrating visit from Bangladesh’s viewpoint. 

The issues at the table of the FOC were mainly those that were left un-resolved by their Prime Ministers.  The Teesta Water Sharing agreement that was pulled off the table abruptly during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit when Bangladesh was assured unequivocally that it would be signed was the most important issue at the New Delhi talks.   The land boundary agreement (LBA) and exchange of enclaves’ agreement that were  signed at the Prime Ministers’ summit but has been held up since in the process of ratification due to the opposition of the BJP was another major issue at FOC.  

On the Teesta water sharing agreement, the consultations did not bring any good news. The Indian informed Bangladesh  that it is continuing the process of consultations with the mercurial Chief Minister of Paschim Bangla Mamata Banarjee.  All the Indians could say on this issue that has emerged as one of major political concern for the ruling party in Bangladesh’s  domestic politics is that it would be “sooner than later.”  The Indians were also vague on the ratification of the LBA and exchange of adversely held enclaves’ agreement and were unable to make any commitment on when Bangladesh could expect the ratification to go through. 

The killing of innocent Bangladeshis in the border by the BSF was another issue tabled at the consultations. The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary raised concerns in line with the way the government has in the country where it has become a highly emotive bipartisan issue. The Indian side nevertheless maintained that the infiltrators are not always innocent villagers straying across the border but individuals with criminal intent who cannot be allowed to cross the border illegally. The Bangladesh side maintained that the BSF should catch and jail these infiltrators and not shoot and kill them. The Bangladesh Foreign Secretary proposed to his Indian counterpart to improve communications to deal with infiltration and in that context recommended interfacing the local administrations of the two countries in the border districts. The Indians assured that they would consider the Bangladesh recommendation. 

On the controversial Tippaimukh dam, the Indian Foreign Secretary informed the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary that the Indian MEA has already received from the Indian Water Resources Ministry the names of its delegation for the Joint Survey. The Bangladesh delegation has also been firmed up. Therefore there has been some positive movement on this controversial dam  issue at the FOC over which there has been bipartisan opposition in Bangladesh. 

The Indians also tried to make the Foreign Secretary’s trip to New Delhi worthwhile by sugar coating the major disappointments. The Indian Foreign Secretary reiterated the commitment earlier made by then Indian Finance Minister and now the President Pranab Mukherjee that India would convert US$ 200 million of the US$ 1 billion loan into grant. He also informed his guest that interest on the rest of the US$ 1 billion loan would be reduced to 1%. The Indian Foreign Secretary also allayed the fear and opposition in Bangladesh about the proposed linking of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra on the Indian side. 

The Consultations also reviewed issues of security, trade, and power sector cooperation.  Projects worth US$ 183 are in the pipeline out of the US$ 1 billion soft loan that India has provided. Nevertheless, from the Indian side, their priority was on issues of connectivity and in that context, they wanted the use of Ashuganj as a port of call and sought new waterways link. It is interesting to note that in his opening statement at the Consultations the Indian Foreign Secretary avoided referring to the substantive issues of interest to Bangladesh  such as Teesta, LBA that are holding back smooth development of bilateral relations. The FOC also brought the two countries closer to signing three agreements on “Avoidance of Double Taxation”; “Health Cooperation” and “Small Development Projects.” 

When journalists pressed the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary  at the press conference after the talks whether there is a date for signing the Teesta agreement, he said that “it is not right to ask when the agreement will be signed.” The response was hard to understand as Indians had agreed to sign it during the visit of their Prime Minister as a reciprocal gesture to the unilateral concessions made by Bangladesh on Indian security concerns where it handed 7 top ULFA terrorists to Indian security and provided India a trial run of their much sought after land transit. It seemed that the Foreign Secretary was making efforts to explain Indian difficulties instead of clearly expressing Bangladesh’s disappointment and frustration. 

The Foreign Secretary however expressed urgency over the Indian delay to ratify the LBA, reminding India that “it is important to deliver.” Nevertheless, he did not express Bangladesh’s concern as strongly as he should have.  He perhaps forgot that it was his Minister who had described in the media that the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka was a big success and had used the LBA agreement as a main example of that success.  In fact, some strong words would have been appropriate to underscore India’s failure to honour an agreement that its Prime Minister signed and that too after accepting from a much weaker neighbour concessions that were of tremendous value. 

The government, in recent times, has shown its willingness to touch base with the nationalistic passion of its people over the Padma Bridge issue. It felt insulted and humiliated when the World Bank cancelled the US 1.2 billion loan on charges of corruption and showed the courage to take the fight to the World Bank and challenged it by raising nationalistic feelings. Why can’t the same government feel aggrieved and insulted that it is being treated by India in a manner that is humiliating? Why can’t this government tell the Indians that their excuses of consultations with Mamata Banarjee for signing the Teesta water sharing agreement are delaying tactics? Why can’t the government ask India to provide a time line to ratify the LBA? Does the Foreign Secretary’s admission that “I am not talking about any time line” mean that we would have to wait for India to ratify the LBA as long as we waited over the transfer of Teen Bigha? Is FS not aware that the Indians have made us wait many decades for that ratification which incidentally never came? 

Recently the former Indian State Minister for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor made strong points on both the Teesta and LBA on Bangladesh’s behalf in his book ““Pax Indica: India and the world of 21st century.”  He blamed New Delhi for failure on the issues and urged immediate action on both to avoid the perception growing in strength in Bangladesh that India does not deliver on promises.  It is a mystery why we have lost the courage even to express our disappointment at India for its failure to keep commitments and promises. It is also mystifying why the ruling party is not seeing that the longer India takes to deliver on its commitments on the major issues, the more politics would be moving in favour of the opposition. Most importantly, the courageous initiatives of Sheikh Hasina for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations would be wasted. 

The above notwithstanding, it is time for the government to take up its disappointment  strongly with India at the highest level.  The Times of India’s caption “Bangladesh willing to give India time to seal Teesta, and boundary pacts” says it all that Bangladesh officials have lost the courage to confront India over its delay to deliver. Unless the Prime Minister takes charge, Bangladesh-India relations would remain deadlocked for reasons of lack of political will on India’s part.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

The resignation may save the Padma Bridge loan but not Bangladesh’s image.

"AsI see it"
The Independent
July 27, 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

Renowned writer/novelist Humayun Ahmed’s death managed to temporarily take the heat off the Padma Bridge and related developments. Even the resignation of the central figure in the drama, former Minister of Communications Abul Hossain figured insignificantly in the news media because of the death of Humayun Ahmed. 

Nevertheless the resignation is big news. The Finance Minister had given hint of this just a few days before the resignation that the Minister would be asked to go to meet the most important of the five conditions that the World Bank had laid down for reactivating the loan.  In fact, even in the midst of the nationalistic pitch of the Prime Minister supported by her Ministers and senior party leaders, the Finance Minister did not stop talking of the World Bank. 

It is now to be seen how the World Bank reacts. The Bank is a professional international financial institution whose stake holders are the sovereign nations of the world, both from the developed and developing world. It is in the business of providing loans at very low interests for countries such as Bangladesh for their development efforts. The Padma Bridge under normal circumstances should have been a dream project for the World Bank to finance. The bridge is expected to benefit 30 million impoverished people of southwest Bangladesh and would, when finished, also be expected to help Bangladesh’s GDP to rise by 2%. Therefore there is enough incentive after the resignation of the Minister for the World Bank to provide the loan as the Bangladesh Government has finally bowed to its dictates. 

However, activating the loan may not be as easy as expectations are in the country or in the government. Ministers and leaders of the ruling party abused the WB with no holds barred. The attack was led by the Prime Minister who did so to create a nationalistic passion in the country. The WB was portrayed as an evil institution and an imperialistic tool of the developed countries. Her supporters credited her for the courage and vision to stand up to the WB. While abusing the WB, the Ministers and ruling party leaders promised to show the world that Bangladesh could build the Padma Bridge on its own and do what few developing countries dared to do to the WB; ask it to get lost! 

Surely, the abuse of the WB would come up when and if the Bank chooses upon reactivating the loan. The Country Director of the World Bank, speaking in the media earlier, said that the ill feelings left behind by the way the Bangladesh Government handled the PB loan issue would not just make the reactivation of the loan difficult, it would also affect adversely future World Bank funding for Bangladesh. Further, it would be common sense to expect that the WB would be in no hurry after the heaps of unparliamentarily and undiplomatic abuses hurled at it. Nevertheless, since the WB has the Bangladesh Government where it has wanted, the chances are it would provide the loan, the abuses and insults notwithstanding. 

Clearly, the Minister’s resignation leaves little doubt that the nationalistic passion over  the bridge  could not outweigh the reality that the Prime Minister’s  call to build the Padma Bridge from domestic resources , though theoretically possible, was highly unlikely. It also proved that the talk about Malaysia and China waiting on the wings to step on to the shoes of the WB was nothing more than deliberate attempts to placate the Prime Minister. The Finance Minister called the Malaysian proposal that the Communications Minister had drummed up as better than the WB proposal as hazy and unclear! 

The government, by the Minister’s resignation, has accepted the central issue upon which the WB had stopped the loan; that their charge of corruption against him was a correct one. That acknowledgement would affect adversely Bangladesh’s image and pursuit of FDI and development aid. The Japanese Ambassador in Dhaka has alluded to this possibility in the context of his country. Further, by accepting the other conditions imposed by the Bank, the Bangladesh government has accepted conditions that the Bank has not imposed on any other country.  

The Prime Minister’s role as the great leader with the courage to stand against such a powerful institution as the World Bank will surely take a serious battering if the WB reactivates the loan. That would be such a tragedy for the Prime Minister is a worthy political leader who has been placed in this embarrassing situation because her Ministers and senior party leaders failed to advise her against the jingoistic pitch that she built to express anger at the WB for cancelling the loan.  

Instead, these leaders gave a huge spin to her jingoistic pitch. In what was height of naivety, they came up with unbelievable and absurd suggestions. Sajeda Chowdhury encouraged the Chaatra League to collect money and a student in Rajshahi died as a result. In government offices and in other places, employees started raising money for the Bridge from “voluntary” contributions! The government failed to consider that the opposition wanted the WB funds to build the Bridge because of the benefits and had no reason to join the government’s tirade against the Bank or take part in any nationalistic passion. In fact, the Prime Minister’s move to raise nationalistic passion proved merely the fact that she leads just her party and not the nation. 

Nevertheless, the nation now hopes that the resignation of the Minister would encourage the WB to reactivate the loan for the PB is no doubt a national issue that even the opposition admits. For the government it is time to re-visit the entire drama to see the mistakes that it made that have now ended in its humiliation. When the WB asked for the Minister’s removal over the PB, the nation also wanted him out but on his failure over the roads. By removing him then, the government could have pleased the WB without being seen to have given to its demand while at the same time earned great favour of the people who wanted his resignation on a bipartisan basis. It is a mystery why this was not done then.

As the government awaits a response from the WB, it could do another right thing and explain to the people about what actually has happened between it and the WB. There is every reason to believe now that most things said in public by the Ministers and ruling party leaders were motivated. The World Bank Country Director has given the WB’s clearance to the Bangladesh Government to go ahead and make public all its correspondences with it. The government would need to do this now for sake of transparency. Most importantly, the correspondences must be made public for the sake of the Prime Minister’s credibility.   

The PB loan and the drama surrounding it should also be  lesson for the government. When it chose to fight such a powerful institution as the World Bank, it should have considered that it was not dealing with one of the many private banks of the country for that was the way the government behaved, the merits of its arguments against the WB notwithstanding.  It would be a huge underestimate to say the Ministers and political leaders messed up with their actions and reactions. They have helped Bangladesh accept the charge of corruption together with showing the government as incapable of doing business professionally across its national frontiers.  

In the way Bangladesh negotiated with the WB, the scores if the loan is reactivated would be 100 for the World Bank and zero for the Bangladesh government! Nevertheless, for the country, this would be a great news and a perfect score because the Padma Bridge has the potential for bringing significant economic development to Bangladesh, particularly its impoverished southwest.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

Sunday, July 22, 2012

India: from non-alignment to multi-alignment
Daily Sun
July 22, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

I thought that Shahshi Tharoor, the flamboyant former Indian State Minister for External Affairs, was down and out politically after he was forced to resign for using his official position to get shares in the IPL cricket franchise of Cochin, a charge he rejected but resigned nevertheless as that was the wish of the Prime Minister. It was good to see him surface in the media in Bangladesh very recently. It was more refreshing that he surfaced on issues significant to Bangladesh where an Indian leader has spoken on behalf of Bangladesh’s interests. 

Shahshi Tharoor, international civil servant and a Member of Parliament, is also a prolific and award winning author. He has come to news in Bangladesh over his recently launched book “Pax Indica: India and the world of 21st century.”  In it he has taken a a swipe at the Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banarjee for her unreasonable stand on the issue of sharing of the water of the Teesta with Bangladesh.  Shahshi Tharoor has argued that the Paschim Bangla Chief Minister should be persuaded not to think of waters of the common rivers as “ours” to give but as shared natural resources that should be used equitably and responsibly. 

He brought into reference the Indus Basin Treaty between India and Pakistan that has been based on the principle that the waters of international rivers are common natural resources to be shared. In fact, when we negotiate with the Indians on our water concerns, it is a regrettable that the Indus Treaty has not been brought into the equation and used as a basis for sharing of the waters of all the rivers we share with India, 54 in all.  

Of course, the reason has always been India that has never accepted in Bangladesh-India relations that the international rivers are for sharing between the upper and the lower riparian. It has always negotiated with Bangladesh with the mindset that Shahshi Tharoor has ascribed to Mamata Banarjee.  In fact, an Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka not too long ago went to the media in Bangladesh to highlight that there is no international law governing sharing of waters of international rivers. Hence he concluded that Bangladesh has no claims under international law for a share of the water of the Ganges except what India provided out of goodwill! 

He brushed aside the conventions that have been signed internationally on cross boundary rivers that should at least have given Bangladesh some claim to the waters of the common rivers. In fact, the High Commissioner retorted angrily in the media that there was not enough water in the Ganges at Farakkha to share with Bangladesh according to the terms of the 1996 accord between the two countries as a result of upstream withdrawal on the Indian side west of the Farakkha barrage in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that he thought was perfectly legitimate. 

In fact, the High Commissioner did not say anything new with his comments on the Ganges water sharing. He just underscored the Indian position that Bangladesh has no legal claim on the waters of the international rivers. The Indians tend to view that if waters are depleted upstream in the international rivers that run through India into Bangladesh, then so be it. They have long toyed and annoyed Bangladesh by suggesting that it should agree to link the Brahmaputra with the Ganges through Bangladesh territory to replenish the waters available at Farakkha so that Bangladesh could receive the share of water it needed! 

Bangladesh has always rejected such a view as totally unacceptable. Nevertheless, the Indians instead of accepting Bangladesh’s rights have recently stated its desire to link the two great rivers through its territory. The Indians by these views have taken a stand in contrast to the one Shahshi Tharoor has advocated. In fact, the Indians have shown the same mindset as Mamata Banarjee’s in its decision to build the Tippaimukh Dam without consulting with Bangladesh. The Indians have thus continued to withdraw waters of the common rivers upstream on their side at will without caring that such unilateral action’s surest outcome would be to turn Bangladesh into a desert, signs of which are already evident in northwest Bangladesh. 

Shahshi Tharoor has spoken against this view of the Indians, that the waters of the international rivers are “shared natural resources” and should be used “equitably and responsibly.” He feels that an agreement on Teesta water sharing is indispensible for Sheikh Hasina to convince her people that Bangladesh “has gained from friendship with India.” 

 He also made references to India’s failure to deliver on the land boundary agreement/exchange of enclaves that has been stuck up in the Indian parliament where a ratification by 2/3rd majority  is required to give effect to the agreement reached during the Indian Prime Minister’s to Dhaka in September last year. He said that the centre should make serious effort to ratify the agreement to avoid the perception from growing in strength that India does not deliver on promises. 

These are very refreshing concepts and views, something that has not come from Indian leader with the background such as the one that Shahshi Tharoor has. He is a leading member of the parliamentary committee on external affairs. He is influential in the party. If only his views could have reached  the Indian foreign policy makers at South Block and the PMO, then the great opportunity that had opened up in Bangladesh-India relations by Sheikh Hasina’s politically risky initiatives would not have been wasted. 

Shahshi Tharoor’s book is of course devoted to other major issues of Indian foreign policy and the references to Bangladesh are not the book’s primary focus. He has written  the quality of Indian diplomacy in mixed terms that he has described as “like the love making of an elephant: it is conducted at very high level, accompanied by much bellowing and its results are not known for two years.”  

He has argued in favour of importance of foreign affairs in an India focused on domestic transformation and has made serious observations about Indian foreign policy that are also refreshing. He has suggested that it is time that India made a meaningful transition from non-alignment to multi-alignment. He has underscored the perils of small countries living with a big neighbour and has referred to the predicament of the Mexicans vis-à-vis the Americans. In this context, he has highlighted India’s over-bearing presence in South Asia.  About Indian diplomats, he has written that they are brilliant in wining arguments but then goes on to add that diplomacy is more about winning  friends than arguments. 

Shahshi Tharoor has attempted to build a “grand strategy” for Indian foreign policy to assist it in its march to greater glory. In this strategy, there is just not hope for a better and greater India; there is hope for India’s neighbours too only if the Indian foreign policy makers would take his views and suggestions seriously and apply it to its neighbour.  India’s grand strategy envisaged by Shahshi Tharoor, one from non-alignment to multi-alignment, would do very well for India and South Asia with a dosage of the now forgotten Gujral Doctrine.

The writer is a former career Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

BUET and politicization of public educational institutions
"As I see it"
Daily Independent
July 21, 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

BUET had stood against the tide of systematic degradation of our public educational institutions since we became independent by refusing to be politicized, meaning to let it become a tool in the hands of the mainstream political parties for their political objectives. It never compromised on intake of students and academic considerations were given the highest priority in all activities of this institution. Recent disturbing happenings in BUET therefore are very unfortunate. It seems that those responsible for corrupting our public educational institutions have now focused upon BUET to spread the cancer called politicization that has affected all public educational institutions in the country and destroyed or close to destroying these institutions. 

Our independence has done us a world of good in many aspects. Unfortunately in education that is the backbone for any society attempting sustainable development, we have messed up the country to such an extent that we can only be apprehensive of our future. All governments that have come to power have made tall claims about where we have gone with education. Not unexpectedly therefore, this government has also made huge claims in the sector of education. The yardstick of such claim is the literacy rate. At the time of independence, we had a literacy rate that was one of the worst in the developing world.  That literacy rate was 51.9% in 2005 and has been growing at a healthy rate since. 

Unfortunately, when the government makes such claims, it does not explain what exactly constitutes that claim. In lay terms, the government’s big claims on literacy are based on how many of our children enter the schools at primary level. If literacy is restricted just to such simplistic explanation, then one cannot fault this government or the others that have made the claims. However, if literacy is meant to explain education in the sense where those being certified as literate are able to translate what they have learnt for their welfare and that of the society, then I am afraid we are not very literate. 

In fact, in the process of making the tall claims, we have also destroyed our educational institutions for higher learning that were the best when we were not as “literate” as we claim we are today. I have watched at least one, in fact the leading one, destroyed right in front of everyone. The deterioration of the public educational institutions started in Dhaka University that was turned into an extension of the ruling party immediately after we became independent. In the heat of the moment, no one felt that no matter what, an educational institution and politics are a dangerous mix; something that is prescription for disaster. Such politicization as was started in Dhaka University from where it spread everywhere is unheard of outside Bangladesh. 

I received the first shock in Dhaka University when I had gone to see the Vice chancellor of the University Dr. Muzzaffar Ahmed Chowdhury in 1973. He was my teacher when I was a student there and had recruited me as a teacher. For three days, I waited with his Private Secretary to see him. . With me there were dozens of teachers, many very senior ones. The Vice Chancellor had no time for any of us because he was spending most of his time with the student leaders who were literally running the university on behalf of the ruling party! Being the great educationist that he was, Dr. Chowdhury was not spending such time willingly. He was being held captive! 

Dhaka University never came out of the captivity. With the students, the teachers themselves became extensions of the political parties. Over the years as the quality of politics deteriorated, Dhaka University’s politicization also deteriorated. Soon, there were the session jams accompanied by control of the university dorms by the student parties. Then there were recruitments and promotions of teachers based on political affiliation. Even allotments of lucrative on campus residential accommodation were being made on basis of political affiliation. Crimes of all sorts became common place in the Dhaka University campus. 

The politicization started in Dhaka University is based on a very simple system. When a particular political party is in power, the teachers who openly acclaim their affiliation to it and group themselves for the purpose get the promotions and the other privileges. That party’s students’ wing gets to claim the residential halls as their fiefdom where they pretty much carry out their own administration. The Vice-Chancellor who has to be from the ruling party under this “principle” ensures that the politicization is carried out smoothly and efficiently where the teachers and the students who support the ruling party benefit and those who support the opposition are punished. 

The “system” established in Dhaka University has not been questioned by anyone; not even by the vibrant civil society. Like a contagious disease, the “system” was passed on to the other public educational institutions. The “system” weakened all the public educational institutions as seats of higher learning most of all Dhaka University but did not completely destroy them because the teachers and the students who took advantage of their political connections to the ruling party did not attempt to grab everything.  Only the leaders and activists among the teachers and the students were able to use their political connections for their personal benefits. In case of the teachers, the one closest to the ruling party became the Vice Chancellor. He then ran the University at the behest of his political masters and distributed the spoils. 

The “system” has gone haywire under this government. It started with the students of the ruling party who were no longer satisfied with the spoils going to the leaders. Their greed also lost limits. Those seeking the benefits of politicization became larger in number. They tried to legitimize participation in the development work of the institutions and the right to sell admission to the public!  The same happened with the teachers. The current Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University has been chosen on recommendation of the students of the ruling party in direct contravention of the Dhaka University ordnance of 1973.  

Jahangirnagar University epitomized this unfortunate trend where the ruling party followers among the students broke into two groups fighting each other with the Vice Chancellor openly patronizing one of the groups! Incredible and unbelievable stories came to light about the activities of the Vice Chancellor. He literally used the university as his personal property and under his tenure; activities were carried out in the University that would shame hardened criminals. 

The BUET has finally fallen victim to this sad trend of politicization of the public educational institutions. There is no way out unless those responsible for bringing the public educational institutions to such a state are prepared to do what is necessary. The cancer that has affected the public educational institutions cannot be treated any longer with any other means but a surgical one. There has to be a consensus among the mainstream parties to put an end to politics among the students and the teachers. The ruling party must take the lead as it is now in the driver’s seat running the universities to their destruction. 

Students no longer have the sort of impact in national politics as they had when we struggled for our independence. Teachers never had. Therefore it is time for the mainstream parties to cut their umbilical chord with their respective students’ organizations in the public educational institutions. As for the teachers grouping as agents of political parties, this is a national shame. Let the teachers and students of public educational institutions have groups, associations, whatever but only for academic pursuits and let them have none that makes them an extension of the convoluted and corrupt politics of the country. 

The former Vice Chancellor of Jahangirnagar University and now the present Vice-Chancellor of BUET have ironically done the nation a favour. They have highlighted for the nation in unmistakable terms that the cancer of politicization is snuffing life out of these institutions. It is time to create national consensus to demand an end of teachers and students from being agents of political parties. These universities run with tax payer’s money and not with funds of the political parties. 

The response of the government to the BUET crisis has underscored that the ruling party is not ready or willing to do what the nation wants. Where the nation expected the VC to be asked to step down, it has injected more politics into the crisis that has emboldened him to make incredible and unbelievable statements.  

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Japan and World Bank gives Bangladesh lessons in diplomacy
July 20, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

It is interesting that some ardent supporters of the ruling party are coming out of denial over the Padma Bridge fiasco and admitting that this government has messed its diplomacy pretty badly.  An editor who is well known for his pro-ruling party sentiments said on a TV talk show recently that he was surprised that even India that could have put in some strong words for Bangladesh in its fight against the WB over the cancellation of the Padma Bridge loan preferred to let Bangladesh fight its battle alone. Judging by the array of contradictory statements from leaders of the government in languages both undiplomatic and unparliamentarily on the Padma Bridge, it is apparent the government is both embarrassed and confused.   

Early in its term, this government wasted its special friendship with China built painstakingly since 1975 ironically because it has bent over backwards to please India that has now failed to come to its rescue over the Padma Bridge.   China would have perhaps come to Bangladesh’s aid if relations with it were as warm as under previous governments. The government is in an open and self imposed fight with the US that it has accused of conspiring against Bangladesh at the instigation of Dr. Mohammad Yunus. Recently, the government accused Germany for critical comments of the German Foreign Minister on human rights issues. The British have also expressed strong reservations on issues of human rights and governance. The other European and the EU Ambassadors do so regularly. Thus when the government needed support on the PB loan issue, there was no friendly hand in sight.  

The reason of unhappiness of these governments is simple. The government has been caught in a cobweb where it is failing to put personal issues behind to move the country ahead on issues of national interests in building bridges and friendship with nations/institutions abroad. It is intriguing as it is frustrating why a government in such desperate need of international support for furthering its national interests would fail to use the influence of Dr. Mohammad Yunus who by its own admission is powerful enough to have influenced the US to conspire against it and the WB to cancel its loan on the Padma Bridge. What is even more astounding is the fact that the government instead has chosen to humiliate the Noble Laureate knowing that such action would not be welcome by important countries and leaders abroad. 

When this government took up issues with Dr. Yunus, it said that there were principles that were more important than a Noble Laureate’s position and importance. The government called the Noble Laureate “blood sucker of the poor” and brought charges of corruption against him. Not one of the accusations was eventually proven and Dr. Yunus came out clean. In fact, his respect internationally was enhanced by the Government’s attempts to humiliate him that did not do the government’s image abroad any good.  He was nevertheless removed from the GB on technicality, having crossed the government set age limit to remain in his post. In the process, the government ended on the wrong side of Dr. Yunus’ long list of very powerful friends abroad.

If only the government had not taken its fight with Dr. Yunus in the media, perhaps a lot of the diplomatic damage would have been avoided. When individuals as powerful as a US Secretary of State make a request, it is simple common sense to accept the request or if the government has an issue, decline that request diplomatically. For some mysterious reasons, this government chose to turn down all requests from powerful leaders abroad on Dr. Yunus with contempt.  It appeared as if it was relishing the attention of powerful world leaders and nations on their attempts to humiliate Dr. Yunus not realizing what damage it was doing to the pursuit of the country’s interests abroad.

Unfortunately, the government repeated the same mistakes as it made with Dr. Yunus with the cancellation of the PB loan by the World Bank showing its poor ability in diplomacy once again. The government leaders just went overboard in accusing and abusing the World Bank in a manner that made little sense expect if one believed that such actions by these leaders were meant to make the Prime Minister happy.  In a series of confusing and hard to believe responses to the cancellation, the Finance Minister attempted what was poor diplomacy. He tried to put the blame on the outgoing President of the WB to encourage the new President to open doors for reconsidering the cancellation. The snub from the new President came within hours.

The government nevertheless continued to accuse the WB of corruption while absolving itself of the charges brought against it by the Bank. Throughout, the WB refused to be drawn into one sided vilification of it by senior leaders of the Government including the Prime Minister. Perhaps emboldened by the silence of the Bank to answer the allegations, the Finance Minister suggested that the WB could go ahead and elaborate the charges of corruption against the government to back the Prime Minister who said that there was no corruption in her government over PB and that instead the WB should answer charges of corruption against it.

On another level, the Foreign Minister, after a meeting with the Japanese Deputy Prime Minister in Tokyo where she had gone to attend an international conference on Afghanistan, said that she was assured that the PB loan could be “under a new framework of donor arrangement”.  A Foreign Ministry statement issued on her meeting went on to state that “Japan would pursue the donor groups, including the ADB, to embark on a negotiated settlement in respect of the project”.  Clearly, the Ministry was in a hurry to convey the good news to the Prime Minister that the Japanese are with the Government of Bangladesh and not the World Bank on the PB issue. The Ministry did not wait to consider that a public announcement that Japan would follow a different path than the WB would embarrass it.  

Both the statements have turned out to be diplomatic faux pas. The Resident Director of the WB Ellen Goldstein tactfully underlined the Finance Minister’s faux pas in an interview with a leading English Daily. In the interview she said that the WB would not release anything about the PB to the media on principle. She suggested that Bangladesh could disclose all evidence it submitted to it on all aspects of the charges of corruption, including names thus putting the Finance Minister in a spot who said earlier that the Government would not disclose those evidences to protect the WB’s confidentiality.  She nevertheless did not lose the opportunity to mention that the WB contacted the Bangladesh Government only after it was given credible evidence of corruption verified through multiple sources that the Canadian Company SNC Lavalin had given bribes aimed at winning contracts for constructing the PB with funds from WB/ABD/JICA..

 In her written interview, she refrained from answering names of those charged with corruption concerning the US35 million paid by the Canadian company to win contracts. Nevertheless, she left little doubts that the Bank’s case has been based on clear evidence that the Bangladesh government sidetracked. She also said that although the cancellation would not affect WB’s aid programme for Bangladesh, nevertheless she added that  “ the government's weak response to evidence of corruption in a flagship operation adds to mounting concerns about a deteriorating governance environment in Bangladesh, and this will be reflected in our programme going forward.” Thus by some bad diplomatic moves, the Finance Minister has put the government where the opposition wants it; a demand to make public the WB’s correspondences. 

Like the World Bank Country Director, the Japanese Ambassador Shiro Sadoshima spoke to underline the faux pas of the Foreign Ministry. He chose to do so in a seminar arranged by the Diplomatic Correspondents’ Association of Bangladesh. What he said destroyed the hopes that the Foreign Ministry had built based on the Foreign Minister’s visit to Tokyo. He said that Japan would wait for the government’s investigations of the WB’s allegations of corruption to end before deciding on its involvement in the PB. The Ambassador also said that the construction of the PB is theoretically possible from domestic sources but highly unlikely to happen. 

The Foreign Ministry failed to consider what is obvious to those who know Japan and its foreign policy goals and objectives in building hopes that it would come on Bangladesh’s side parting with the World Bank.  Japan would never cut links with WB where the latter has walked away from a mega project because of corruption. Further, the Ministry also seemed unaware that in Japan’s aid diplomacy, the question of funding any project where there is even the slightest suspicion of corruption is absolutely impossible. Among the aid providing countries, Japan has the highest ethical standards and its parliament is the most effective watch dog against corruption. It is no doubt that the Ambassador addressed the seminar to dispel the wrong impressions that the Foreign Ministry had raised about his country in the statement it released to the media. 

The Ministers, by some poor diplomacy, and the leaders of the ruling party by some insensible and mindless statements have pushed the government into unchartered waters. It is time they shut up and deal with the PB issues outside the media to avoid more serious disaster that is lurking in the corner for the government. They would do themselves, their party, the government and their leader a great service if they cared to wait and see what would happen to the case in the Canadian court and the US$35 million that SNC Lavalin has allegedly paid to officials in the Bangladesh Government based on which  the World Bank has cancelled the loan.

The World Bank Country Director and the Japanese Ambassador, in particular the latter, have shown what diplomacy is about. They have made some very strong statements about this government without use of any undiplomatic or unparliamentarily language.  There are also sugar coated warnings in their statements like the case in the Canadian court to which the government is not even focusing, like it did not exist. Our negotiators and those conducting diplomacy on behalf of this government would do very well to study their style of diplomacy and their statements dispassionately to see the mess they have made and the dangers that they have alluded to. The most perplexing aspect of this government’s negotiations is after all the abuse that this government’s leaders have heaped on the WB; the Finance Minister is still expecting the WB to fund the PB.

If this is not perplexing enough, the Malaysians have on their own said that they would start the project by October while a Chinese company based in Australia has offered to build the bridge with a financial option better than the World Bank! In the midst of the air of surrealism created wittingly or otherwise by leaders of this government over the Padma Bridge, the only sensible statements that have found their way to the media so far have been those of the Japanese Ambassador and the World Bank Country Director.  

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

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pakistan – USA relations on track: An example for Bangladesh to emulate
Daily Sun
July 15, 2012
M. Serajul Islam. 

Pakistan-USA relations seemed headed for the worst after the action of the US led NATO forces in Pakistan’s northwest that killed 24 Pakistanis in Salala on 26  November, last year, when a drone attack aimed at Al Qaeda terrorists hit a civilian outpost. The Pakistanis were simmering with discontent ever since the unilateral operation by the US Navy Seals that killed OBL that left Pakistan Government, particularly its military, utterly humiliated to its own people and the world. The Salala killings were the nails in the coffin. 

The Pakistanis demanded unqualified apology for the Salala incident. The Americans declined and claimed that the Pakistanis could not be trusted. In retaliation, the Pakistanis cut off the critical land link to Afghanistan through Pakistan for NATO and US troops that are locked in the final thrust to neutralize the Taliban/Al Qaeda combine so that they could leave the country in 2014 and security in the hands on President Hamid Karzai or his successor (Presidential elections are due in 2014) with the terrorists no longer a threat to either Afghanistan’s civilian government or to US/western security. 

The Pakistanis offered to open the critical supply route if the Americans were prepared to raise charge from US$ 250 per container truck to US$ 5000! The Pakistanis knew they had the US where they wanted after the humiliation with the killing of OBL and did not bother that what they were asking from the US and NATO was blackmail. Instead of relenting, the US went ahead and dilly dallied with Pakistan’s nemesis India and opened opportunities for it to get a better foothold in Afghanistan that it had wanted for long time and that the Pakistanis did not want. In fact, when the going was good between the Pakistan and US, one of the demands that Pakistan made on the USA that the latter accepted was to keep India out of Afghanistan. 

While the two sides played their hands out, they did not push relations to a breaking point. In the end, it was the US that made the first move. The US Secretary of State at first expressed “sincere condolences” for the deaths in Salala. She  then   personally conveyed the apology to the Foreign Minister of Pakistan Hina Rabbani  Khar when she her at the Conference on Afghanistan held last week in Tokyo. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister conveyed her country’s approval to open the transit routes “in the larger interest of peace and security in Afghanistan and the region” without additional charges that  ended a serious diplomatic standoff between the two countries. 

In fact, the two countries demonstrated what matured diplomacy is. The Pakistanis need the USA because it is their major development partner and provides large amount of aid to its military. The USA needs Pakistan to bring the war on terror started by President Bush to a successful conclusion. Therefore after making their points that needed to be made, the two sides have come together putting aside recent differences and agreed to carry forward their relations. 

In case of Pakistan, it was a way of conducting relations that was preached by late President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In the tumultuous period of Pakistan after the liberation of Bangladesh, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had said  that in politics and diplomacy , there is never a point of no return. Of course, the late President of Pakistan later became a victim of over indulgence in this belief; nevertheless he underscored what is fundamental in conducting successful negotiations which is never to take a position from where there is no scope of retracting. In fact what Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto practiced is common sense in the art of successful negotiations.  

In Bangladesh, we need to take a dispassionate look at the recent turn around in Pakistan-USA relations to learn about the mistakes we made that has placed a huge burden on the nation now as it tries to raise fund from domestic sources to build the Padma Bridge instead of having the WB/ABD/JICA/Islamic Bank fund this US$ 2.9 billion mega project in a way that is a dream of the developing nations. In raising the huge sum from domestic sources, the government will have to put on hold many development projects that are critical to the welfare of millions in the country. For the 30 million people who would benefit from the Padma Bridge, millions more would be deprived of their development needs that would now be put on hold to build the Padma Bridge.  

Then there is of course the million dollar question, whether jeopardizing the needs of millions to help those who would benefit from the PB would in the end be a successful venture or not. Raising the huge amount of money from domestic sources would be a humungous effort that would need more than rhetoric to achieve. We are already reeling from another fond wish of this government, the decision to go for quick power rentals to ease the energy crisis. To pay for the power rentals, the economy has been turned upside down but the power supposed to be delivered to the people has simply vanished. 

The government has ventured into dangerous waters with the PB where by negotiating in a matured way, it would have had this mega project started and completed by the cheapest and best source of financing that all developing countries dream of. All it needed to do was to negotiate with the WB behind the scene instead of fighting a verbal war with it in public. Even if the government’s contention that the WB has accused it wrongly of corruption is accepted, there is no way to support the way the leaders of the government accused and abused the WB. In abusing the WB, these leaders have shown poor knowledge of diplomacy and negotiation that has harmed the image of the government and the interests of the country.   

Nevertheless, there is even after the cancelation and the bad blood caused by some of the government leaders, strong support for negotiating with the WB under the new administration to reactivate the loan. The Finance Minister is holding out that hope. So is Japan that is yet to follow WB and ADB in cancelling the PB loan. Bangladesh should give diplomacy a chance by taking cue from the way Pakistan has succeeded in bringing its relations with USA back on track  after relations had hit rock bottom; in fact worse than where relations are between Bangladesh and the WB. .  Nevertheless to achieve what Pakistan has, it would need to end the rhetoric, stop using the media for negotiating and form a professional team to re-open negotiations with the WB.  

The WB is in the business of giving loans to developing countries like Bangladesh. The PB could be a dream project for the WB as it is for Bangladesh because it has the potentials of turning around the economic future of 30 million impoverished Bangladeshis. It is never too late for diplomacy as it has been lately proven in Pakistan-US relations. In fact, the Bangladesh-WB case would be much easier to resolve if diplomacy is given a chance. If rhetoric and personal issues are taken out of the equation and WB’s concerns of corruption are considered honestly, there is no reason why Bangladesh and the WB cannot be partners in building the PB.  

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

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Poor negotiations on Padma Bridge  embarrasses Bangladesh
"As I See It" column
The Independent
July 14, 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

I am surprised at the hue and cry from government circles after the World Bank cancelled the Padma Bridge loan.  The government should in fact be happy with it because by its own claims this would allow Malaysia to give us the loan at costs lesser than the World Bank. The Minister of Communications who publicized this claim said that the project would be started by February next year. 

The Finance Minister led the government’s attack on the WB for the cancellation. In parliament, he blamed the outgoing President of the WB Robert Zoellick personally for the cancellation.  He said that the Government would write to the new President of the WB Jim Young Kim detailing all the steps taken by the Government to answer the WB’s concerns to revive the project. 

The response from the Bank was faster than expected. Within literally hours after the Finance Minister had spoken, the new President said that his predecessor had kept him fully aware of the negotiations between the Bangladesh Government and the Bank and that he backed the decision as an “appropriate” one. He expressed support for the 3 crores people of Bangladesh who would be affected by the cancellation but added that the Bank’s policy of zero tolerance on corruption was not a matter for compromise. 

One wonders what made the Finance Minister come up with the statement against the Bank’s outgoing President. The speed with which the new President reacted left no doubt that the Finance Minister’s claim must have irked him and his colleagues. Perhaps the Finance Minister was misled into thinking that institutions and governments abroad work the same way as in Bangladesh where the culture is for a new administration to throw overboard all the decisions of the outgoing one based on its  civilized culture for institutional behaviour.  Even if the Finance Minister had irrefutable intelligence that the former President had acted out of grudge, he should not have made the statement on it in parliament. The reaction of the new President left little doubt that his intelligence source, if he had any, was highly flawed.  By his statement against the outgoing President, he has lowered his own credibility and that of the government with the WB.  

The way the government negotiated with the WB on the Padma Bridge since the initial postponement many months ago has been anything but professional; in fact in made a fiasco in dealing with the WB on the Padma Bridge. The former Minister of Communications treated the WB accusation against him as a joke. He wrote a letter to the ACC to investigate him so that he could, with an ACC certificate, answer WB on charges against him. By doing so, he acted like the proverbial intruder in the temple who, when he heard someone asking to know who was in the temple, responded by saying that he had not eaten the bananas. In fact, if the government had taken the WB’s first contact with the government on its concerns over funding seriously and negotiated professionally, the matter could have been resolved behind the scene. The government eventually changed the Minister but in a manner that failed to give it any advantage in resolving the conflict. 

The new Communications Minister was more interested in pleasing the Prime Minister who was angry and upset with the WB for postponing the funding for a project that is politically of the highest significance to the ruling party. Her anger was enhanced by the fact that individuals named by the WB are close to her. The new Minister gave the country false hopes a number of times on dates when t the PB project would start with Malaysian funds. He promised the country that Malaysian funding would be cheaper! The Minister had to be alerted that Bangladesh would first have to cancel the agreement with WB to sign a new contract with the Malaysians! 

Nevertheless, in the end, it is this government’s style of negotiations that has been responsible for the PB fiasco. It is this style that has landed Bangladesh at serious odds with the United States. It is the same style that has now landed it with serious problem with the WB. In this style, the underlying belief is that the government led by Sheikh Hasina cannot make mistakes. It is time that those advising the Prime Minister tell her without fear that sometimes she could be wrong, that to err is human  and that she would be better off listening to them, sometimes. Unfortunately, this did not happen when the WB postponed the loan that made the Prime Minister angry. 

The Ministers and party leaders became angrier instead of calming the anger of the Prime Minister and advising her to negotiate with the WB to resolve its concerns.   They forgot the stature of the WB and the fact that so far it has contributed over US$ 16 billion for development of Bangladesh with over US$ 4 billion in the pipeline. They accused the WB of corruption and absolved those named by the WB of the charges.  Simultaneously, they said that the country would build the PB from domestic sources after the Prime Minister had hinted at that; that Malaysia would fund it; and even China was named as a possible source. Clearly, they were not sure what would make the Prime Minister happy and went about contradicting one another on where funds would come for the PB. 

The WB cancellation of PB loan put the government in an embarrassing situation.  International media reported widely that the cancellation would affect adversely the flow of much needed foreign investment. The BNP took advantage of the media reports and put its own negative spin on the issue. All these made the Prime Minister angrier and more upset than she was with the postponement that encouraged her Ministers and senior political leaders to go overboard in attacking the WB. One Minister said that the WB action and the recent Human Rights Watch’s critical report on human rights in Bangladesh are all a part of US conspiracy instigated by Dr. Yunus! Another revived memory of 1971 to highlight USA’s dislike for Bangladesh!!  

When the Prime Minister “finally” declared that her government would build the PB from domestic resources and not go to WB for a review, the Ministers and political leaders praised her decision like she had led the country to a big victory. No one cared to answer what would happen to the cheaper Malaysian proposal and future funding from WB. The ministers/leaders side tracked more important issues. First, whether it is practical for this government at its fag end to take such an important mega project on its hands. Second, what would be the impact of such a huge sum of money being diverted from critical areas of development upon the economy and the country? Finally, whether the Prime Minister can sanction/divert such a huge amount by an executive decision when only recently, the parliament adopted the 2012-2013 budget without any mention of the PB. 

At the time of filing this piece, the Finance Minister has again said that the government would go to WB after review with its development partners a day after the Prime Minister announced that the government would not do so!  In between its confused reactions whether to go to WB or not, the Government has failed to establish its case that the Bank has been unfair or that the WB itself is not above corruption. It also failed to address to the alleged payment of US$ 35 million by Canadian engineering firm SNC Lavalin to officials of the Bangladesh Communications Ministry for securing lucrative contracts from the WB that is the basis of WB’s concerns.  The case is being tried currently in a Canadian court with clear evidence to prove the charges. 

Clearly, the government has lost its direction over the PB having badly messed up its negotiations with the WB. A senior leader close to the Prime Minister suggested that the Chaatra League should raise money for the bridge underscoring the extent to which confusion has taken hold of the government over the proposed Padma Bridge. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan