Sunday, July 22, 2012

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

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