Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Whither Bangladesh’s Economic Diplomacy?

Daily Sun
Anniversary issue
October, 22, 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

A major thrust of the AL Government in foreign policy in its last term in office (1996-2001) was emphasizing upon the importance of economic diplomacy. In fact, economic diplomacy was the cornerstone of the Government’s foreign policy goals in that term.  On her official visits to China soon after assuming office in July, 1996 and to Japan a year after, economic diplomacy was the key element of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s foreign policy initiatives. Wherever she went abroad on that term, the Foreign Ministry and its Embassies/High Commissions were mandatorily required to arrange investment seminars, meeting business people and investors, etc, to allow the Prime Minister to pursue economic diplomacy. 

In that term, the AL had come to power through a democratic election held under a caretaker government that it had forced upon the BNP led government that introduced the amendment to incorporate the Caretaker Government (CG)  system in the constitution. It went before the world to claim that the CG system was its contribution to democracy; to help developing countries hold free and fair elections to reflect popular will in the change of government. In that term, Sheikh Hasina went to the World Summit on Micro-credit in Washington in 1997 holding the hands of Dr. Mohammad Yunus claiming with him credit for establishing micro-credit on the world stage that was then beginning to capture the imagination of the western world.  

The Prime Minister was also able to push Bangladesh-India relations ahead achieving an agreement on the Ganges Water Sharing and the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord in that term.  She was under no external pressures. In the country she was in control of domestic politics except for the usual pressure from the opposition.. Thus she was able to lead the government with a sense of direction and purpose where pursuit of economic diplomacy fitted into foreign policy and governance like the hand into the glove. 

In her current term in office, the performance of her government in economic diplomacy has become a victim of the government’s over-all failure in governance.  The mess made by the government with the funding for the Padma Bridge is in everybody’s mind and the major subject of discussion in the country at present. Its failure to deal with the World Bank diplomatically on the latter’s concerns over allegations of corruption led to Bank to postpone its loan of US$ 1.2 billion and later cancel it altogether. With the World Bank actions, the two other co-financiers, the ADB and JICA, also withheld their contributions for the US 2.7 billion project. 

The government went on media campaign against the WB after the cancellation instead of negotiating with it to meet the latter’s concerns. The Prime Minister, her ministers and party leaders accused the World Bank in undignified languages that insulted an international financial institution that has so far contributed over U$ 16 billion to Bangladesh’s development efforts and with over US$ 4 billion in the pipeline without accounting for the amount for the Padma Bridge, all at highly concessional rates. The Prime Minister promised to build the PB from domestic resources to raise nationalistic passion against the WB that led to frenzy for collecting money resulting in the death of a student in Rajshahi. The Prime Minister was hailed for her courage and the WB projected as a corrupt, oppressive financial institution by the government and AL leaders. 

In the end, however, the government went back to the WB and submitted itself totally to the conditions of the Bank to reactivate the loan, conditions that are so humiliating that the Bank never dared to impose such conditions on any other country before. The government sacked a Minister; sent an Adviser and a Secretary on leave and cancelled the contractual appointment of another senior bureaucrat to convince the Bank that it was ready to accept all its demands for reactivating the loan. The Prime Minister’s Adviser Dr. Gowhar Rizvi was sent to Washington to personally inform the WB that the Government was ready to accept the three remaining demands that the Bank had made many months earlier to provide the loan.  

One demand included the creation of an international panel of experts that will decide on the “progress, adequacy and fairness” of the ACC’s investigations on the Bank’s allegations of corruption. Under this demand, the Bank’s representatives will be a part of the ACC’s investigation team and the ACC will have no power to withhold anything. This demand has not just taken away the ACC’s independence; it has taken away a little of the country’s sovereignty. Another demand will put the Bank and its co-financiers in control of procurement that has led some analysts to call the project as a turnkey one. The Bank also mentioned categorically that the funds will be released only after these conditions are fulfilled no doubt openly flagging its distrust of the government. 

The government’s handling of the PB loan will stand out as an example of economic diplomacy at its worst. It messed up negotiations by dismissing the Bank’s allegations on corruption outright when made at first and going on the offensive. Its cardinal error was to fight the Bank in the media instead of negotiations; allowing party and government leaders to abuse the Bank at will and then meekly surrendering to all the demands of the  Bank to get the loan. Once the Bank agreed to return conditionally, it went to the media to claim victory for the government! In fact the Prime Minister said that the Bank activated the loan because it did not find any proof of corruption. This led the Bank had to issue a harsh statement accusing the government of “misrepresenting” facts and reminded it that loan will not be activated till its concerns about corruption are resolved.  

The government’s failure in economic diplomacy has been visible in many other instances as well. Its dealing with Japan is an excellent case study for assessing the government’s disappointing performance in economic diplomacy. When the Finance Minister was making frantic efforts to pull off a positive reaction from the WB after accepting most of its demands before the government’s most recent capitulation, he had said that the President of JICA will talk on Bangladesh’s behalf with the President of the WB. In fact, the way the news was given to the media, the Minister tried to give the impression that the President of JICA had gone to Washington mainly to plead Bangladesh’s case. In expecting Japan to take up Bangladesh’s cause with the WB, the Finance Minister was blissfully unaware about the way the government has handled its bilateral relations with Japan. 

Japan has been Bangladesh’s most important development partner since Bangladesh’s independence.  In the past four decades, Japan has contributed to most of the major economic infrastructure projects of the country. In addition, Japan has also contributed to critical areas of socio-economic development of Bangladesh. Yet this government treated Japan like Japan should be grateful to Bangladesh and not the other way round. For instance, Bangladesh kept the Ambassador’s post in Tokyo vacant for over a year and a new Ambassador has been sent to the post just recently. The previous Ambassador was withdrawn under embarrassing circumstances. He was accused by a Japanese woman who worked in the Bangladesh Embassy of sexual harassment, a charge that in the Japanese context is as demeaning and offensive as it can get.  

The Ambassador was kept in his post while the Bangladesh government conducted its investigation!  Common sense should have dictated the Bangladesh Government to withdraw him using one of the many options that are available in conduct of diplomatic relations to take care of Japanese sensitivities. The Ambassador was withdrawn after a delay on many months for investigations to be completed that found him guilty as charged. On return, he has been allowed to carry on with his job in the Foreign Ministry as a Director-General like business as usual. 

Other countries send their best senior career diplomats   or in case of political appointments, individuals of highest distinction, as Ambassador to Japan.  Vice President Walter Mondale was US Ambassador to Japan. It is common place in Japan’s diplomatic circles to come across many ex-ministers as Ambassadors representing their countries. Yet for some unknown reason, the government chose a junior Joint Secreteray who turned out to be an embarrassment for the Government as its Ambassador to Japan. His appointment must have made Japan unhappy; the failure to withdraw him immediately after the accusation of sexual harassment and to have allowed him to join MFA as Director-General without any action against him must have seriously offended Japan. 

It is a wonder of sorts that after such faux pas, the government lacked the sense to keep the post vacant for over a year!  In the diplomatic parlance, a post at Ambassador’s level is kept vacant this long to send a negative message. One wonders what message the Bangladesh Government was trying to send to Japan. After a year of dementia (there is no other way to explain why Tokyo was kept vacant for a year), the Ambassador to Italy has been sent to Japan. Unfortunately, the new appointment has come too late to undo the diplomatic damages already done. The insensitivity over the issue of recalling the last Ambassador and the long delay in sending the new one no doubt are examples of poor conduct of diplomatic relations in general and economic diplomacy in general given Japan’s unquestioned importance to Bangladesh. 

The Finance Minister’s briefing to the media about JICA President’s offer to plead the case of Bangladesh to the WB to reactivate the PB loan after it was cancelled last June is another example that showed little awareness of Japanese sensitivities. For those who understand Japan and the WB know that on the cancellation of the PB loan, the WB must have consulted JICA in a professional manner, outside the media where both were on the same page before the WB made its announcement.  Even if there was a possibility of Japan requesting the WB for reactivating the loan after Bangladesh government submitted to the demands of the WB, it was another diplomatic faux pas to have revealed it in the media as the  Finance Minister had done. Diplomacy does not work that way.  

The Finance Minister and other Ministers of this government unfortunately seem unaware that the conduct of diplomacy is delicate where confidentiality and discretion are matters of essence.  People at WB/JICA do not conduct diplomacy through the media because it is the surest way to kill diplomatic initiatives. In this term, it is not just diplomatic sensitivities that this government has forgotten; it has even forgotten how Japan conducts its aid relations.  The way it handled another mega project, namely the   22 km metro rail project in Dhaka is an example where those conducting economic relations have shown a sudden lack of awareness about Japan’s way of conducting aid relations that they should have known like the back of their hands from nearly 4 decades’ experience of aid relations with Japan. 

Japan agreed to fund through JICA, 80% of the estimated cost of US$ 2.7 billion for the project. Four aid missions came to Dhaka to negotiate the details of the project and its funding. After everything was in place and the agreement was ready for signing, the Air Force objected to allow the metro rail project through the old airport. The cabinet decided to change the route expecting Japan to agree. Japan did not because it is unimaginable in the way Japan conducts its aid reactions that changes will be made when an agreement is at the signing stage. What our negotiators failed to realize is that once the negotiations were complete, authorities in Tokyo went ahead and made the necessary provisions in the budget.  Once the funding fell through, the authorities had nearly US$ 2 billion in its hand that it did not know where to reimburse. Unlike our system, Japan’s parliament that keeps a strict handle on Japanese ODA is very harsh on bureaucrats when something like this happens. 

Somehow this government seems to have an attitude of self-righteousness that is hard to explain, that if a decision is taken by the Prime Minister or at her instruction at the Cabinet; it simply cannot be wrong.  Thus when the Prime Minister decided to go after Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank, no one in government dared remind her that she was pursuing both on reasons that are not correct and that she was ending up on the wrong side on the most important country, namely the United States, for Bangladesh in pursuing its international goals and goals of economic diplomacy. Powerful development partners in the developed world have also openly expressed their annoyance with the Bangladesh Government on Dr. Yunus and the Grameen Bank. 

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, former US Ambassador to Bangladesh William Milam asked the US Government and the other development partners   to withhold its aid to Bangladesh to impose some sense upon the government to stop it from destroying the Grameen Bank. Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Airways, in a column in the Times asked the British Government to use its US$ 1.6 billion aid package over the next 3 years to bring some sense upon the Bangladesh government on the GB issue. 

The mindset of self-righteousness that the Prime Minister can do no wrong when dealing with nations and institutions abroad  is what has messed up with the way this government has pursued diplomacy in general and economic diplomacy in particular. It is therefore hardly surprising that the term economic diplomacy that was the heartbeat of the AL government in pursuing its foreign policy goals on issues of economic aid , trade and  foreign investment in its last term is hardly heard or spoken in this term. 

The mindset that the Prime Minister can do no wrong has also made it impossible to build the team work necessary for economic diplomacy to succeed. There is apparently no coordinating mechanism for conducting economic diplomacy.  Ministers and party leaders take upon themselves the responsibility of giving views on issues of economic diplomacy in the media caring little that expressing such views are detrimental to the country’s interests. The way these Ministers and party leaders have gone to the media on PB loan has highlighted this free for all style of conducting the country’s economic diplomacy where the cardinal principle is to guess the Prime Minister’s mind and make every attempt to please her right or wrong caring little for the country's interests. 

As a consequence countries and financial institutions that are important for our economic development are distancing themselves from Bangladesh. Dark clouds are thus gathering over the RMG that contributes 60% of Bangladesh’s export earnings where the country has fallen at odds with powerful labour groups of the US on issues of human rights that the government refuses to acknowledge, let alone address; again because the Prime Minister does not see any merit in the allegations.  Remittance has shown growth but it has been largely as a result of huge amount of black money that was siphoned off from the share market being whitened through the remittance system. New markets have not opened for the country while traditional and huge markets like the one in Saudi Arabia are shrinking, partly on issues of foreign policy where the government again is pursuing this self-defeating policy of self-righteousness. Most recently, UAE, the second largest manpower market, has stopped renewing and issuing new work visas.  

The poor handling of the government over the Padma Bridge loan, a major focus in economic diplomacy for the country, continues. The WB postponed sending two scheduled teams to Dhaka to start negotiations with the Bangladesh Government from 1st of October. When rumours came out in the local media that the postponement has been due to the WB’s annoyance with the irresponsible statements of the leaders of the Bangladesh Government, the local office of the WB issued a statement in which it stated that the two teams will come “within October”. It the statement, the local office underlined that the teams will come only after the WB completes finalizing a 3-5 member team of international experts in corruption that will study the findings of the WB/ACC team on the allegations of corruption and funding for the bridge will start only after the Bank receives a favourable report from this international panel. Poor handling by Bangladesh has thus once again made the much needed loan from the WB uncertain again. 

The AL came to office in its current term with a massive mandate of the people of Bangladesh and support from abroad. It is a tragedy that it wasted great opportunities that came its way and that of the nation on issues that it created for reasons that beg rational explanations. When history reflects upon this AL government , this period will no doubt be described as one when reason and common sense had taken leave of those who ran the government. It is little wonder therefore that economic diplomacy that was so important for the AL in its last term has all but been forgotten in its current term. .  In fact in the totally personalized style of governance based upon the belief that the Prime Minister cannot err that highlights the AL’s current term there is little scope for economic diplomacy or for that matter professional governance. 

The writer is a retired Secretary and former Ambassador to Japan.







Friday, October 26, 2012

Khaleda Zia’s upcoming visit to India: New realities and interesting possibilities

Holiday, Friday, October 26, 2012

M. Serajul Islam

The Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies (CFAS) and the Independent had jointly held a Round Table soon after the “state visit” of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India in January 2010. Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni presented the keynote address at the RT. She was  upset  by  the remark of  Ambassador Reaz Rahman,  an Adviser to the BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia  at the RT that the relations the Government was building was between the Awami League and India and hence would not be sustainable. He made the remark because Sheikh Hasina had gone on that extremely important visit without even a word with the opposition and on that trip she committed Bangladesh to provide India land transit on a trial basis; gave India complete assurance to meet its security concerns and made other promises/concessions with long term repercussions without seeking reciprocity.  

In fact, the AL led government carried out negotiations with India up to the ill fated visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Dhaka in September 2011 believing there was no opposition in the country. India also did not help in this regard.  It was too happy that Sheikh Hasina was in the “giving and pleasing India” mood and side tracked the realities of Bangladesh’s politics.  Indian negotiators failed to realize that more than half of the people of Bangladesh, and perhaps much more, are suspicious of India because of its past failures to keep promises and commitments and its unfair and condescending attitude towards Bangladesh. They thought they could accept and sustain concessions from Bangladesh on issues critical to it, namely security and land transit, from just the AL led government alone with the opposition not even consulted let alone being taken into confidence. They also thought they could accept these vital concessions without reciprocity particularly on the issue of sharing of waters of the common rivers that is a bipartisan concern in Bangladesh against India.   

For nearly 3 years, New Delhi and Dhaka heralded that a new era of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations was emerging where Bangladesh would become the regional connectivity hub with major economic prospects in the offing. It was Mamata Banarjee who sent the high hopes stumbling and forced the two sides to come to grip on reality, in particular on the Indian side by refusing to allow the Indian Prime Minister to sign the Teesta deal during his Dhaka visit.  The BJP also joined  later to destroy the prospects of Bangladesh-India relations moving towards the paradigm shift that Sheikh Hasina wanted and India supported. Although Mamata Banarjee was the immediate cause why Bangladesh-India relations failed to move forward; the relations floundered because the AL carried less than half the nation and India failed to take the necessary political risks. 

Mamata Banarjee/ BJP thus combined to deny Bangladesh-India relations from “living happily ever after”. They forced the Congress led government to rethink, first, that it cannot build sustainable relations with Bangladesh just with one political party given the country’s highly partisan politics and, second, sustainable relations cannot also be developed without consensus in India on the issues. These realizations dawned on India by the way the Teesta deal was taken off the table and Bangladesh’s refusal to sign the long term agreement on the land transit in retaliation and the sudden pall of gloom that descended over the development of relations after initially raising high hopes. The Congress led government also realized that India had never come so close to getting from Bangladesh two concessions that are critic to its national interests, namely the land transit from its mainland to its fragile but strategically important Northeast and a commitment from Bangladesh on its security interests, considered by India to be the soft underbelly of its security concerns. If domestic politics had not interfered, this time, India would have given Bangladesh the Teesta deal and ratified the land boundary agreement (LBA) for its own sake.  

India’s frustrations notwithstanding, it realized that the three years of conducting negotiations with Bangladesh were not completely wasted. India watched positive changes in the BNP; that it believed India was serious about assisting Bangladesh to become the regional connectivity hub in exchange for the land transit and security cooperation/commitment. The BNP expressed support for both the Indian needs but also demanded that New Delhi would do its fair share on critical issues of water sharing, trade and demarcation of the LBA. New Delhi also watched the AL wasting its massive electoral victory and felt that as it entered into its fourth year in office, it was hardly in a position to deliver to India the promises and commitments it had made. In fact, in New Delhi, the view was that even if India would have delivered the Teesta and LBA deals, the AL was no longer popular enough to give India the land transit and total security assurance/commitment without the support of the opposition. In fact, Indian intelligence agencies advised the political leadership that the AL would lose the next elections and India should not “put all its eggs in one basket” and should look beyond the AL for building long term and sustainable relations with Bangladesh. 

This new thinking in New Delhi was un-mistakenly underlined when Pranab Mukherjee came to Dhaka in May this year as India’s Finance Minister. After a meeting with Khaleda Zia, he said in a press conference that India was interested in building relations with Bangladesh and not with just a political party. The official visit that Begum Khaleda Zia would be undertaking later this month flagged that new line of thinking in New Delhi because it was not easy for the Congress led government to have extended the invitation to Khaleda Zia knowing how upset and unhappy it must have  made Sheikh Hasina. New Delhi has been forced to this new line of thinking for sake of its national interests because it now accepts that without support of the BNP on Bangladesh-India relations, it would not be able to develop long term sustainable relations with Bangladesh where it would also be happy to deal with the party even if it formed the next government in Bangladesh.   

Begum Zia would therefore be meeting an Indian leadership eager for BNP’s support for sustainable relations with Bangladesh. She would be visiting India when international politics in the region has changed fundamentally. Myanmar’s willingness to come out of the cold and USA’s overtures towards it has suddenly made Bangladesh’s geopolitical location of immense importance to the United States. The flurry of visits to Dhaka by top US diplomats including Hillary Clinton in recent times flagged this newly acquired strategic geopolitical importance of Bangladesh to the United States. The US Ambassador in Dhaka has also left no secret of this now focus of the US on Bangladesh. Interestingly, India and the US are together on the newly acquired strategic geopolitical location of Bangladesh because of the strategic partnership pact they recently signed to deal with China in the Asia and the Pacific. For their own interests, the two countries would also seek political stability in Bangladesh and would like the next government to reflect popular will. 

The BNP leader would therefore find New Delhi  receptive for her  to state the case of Bangladesh for a new era of mutually reciprocal and  beneficial relations that the AL failed to achieve partly because of  over eagerness to please India and partly because of India’s failure to deliver. She would do her party a great service if she would state clearly whether in power or in opposition, her party would support India on its security concerns and provide it land transit but only in exchange for resolving Bangladesh’s concerns on water sharing, trade, land boundary and Tippaimukh together with the commitment to make Bangladesh the regional connectivity hub. She should ask for a package deal on a quid pro quo basis and not allow India concessions for promises. Begum Zia should also impress upon India the need of supporting in Bangladesh her party’s move for national elections where the BNP would be able to participate and not one where these would be conducted by an interim government headed by the AL that were likely neither to be free nor fair.  She should convey her fear that without her party participating, the country would slide into a dangerous political situation where not just Bangladesh would suffer the consequences; such a situation would also affect India directly. 

The Indians are likely to treat her visit with added importance because she would be visiting India after her visit to China where she would be holding discussions with the new leadership soon to take power In Beijing. India is aware that in China President Zia is regarded with respect because of his role in laying the foundations of Bangladesh-China relations that has withstood the test of time. New Delhi is also likely to view a BNP government friendly with it, should it win the next elections, and also close to China as an advantage worth exploring.  

New Delhi’s invitation to Begum Zia points to a policy shift that it explained during the visit of HM Ershad to India; that it would like to reach out to the “multi party democratic polity of Bangladesh” instead of just one political party. In truth however, Begum Zia scheduled visit to India suggests that New Delhi is in no position to deliver the Teesta and LBA deals to the AL before the next elections in Bangladesh. Its policy of reaching out for Bangladesh’s multi-party polity also reflects its suspicion that the AL would not be able to return to power and that India’s interests would be better protected by extending a hand of friendship to the BNP, particularly as the latter has significantly toned down its anti-Indian rhetoric, as a sort of insurance policy in the event it came to power.  It would be wise for Begum Zia and her team to keep in mind that New Delhi has invited her risking offending the Awami League because it has taken due note of new realities in Bangladesh-India relations and regional politics.  If Begum Zia and her team work within these new and emerging realities, the visit would be useful for future of Bangladesh-India bilateral relations no matter which party would form the next government in Bangladesh.

The writer is a former career Ambassador to Japan and retired Secretary



Tuesday, October 23, 2012

On dream of owning a private TV channel

As I See It Column
The Independent, October 20, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

For all of us who studied in Dhaka University to earn a degree in the social sciences or the humanities in the 1960s, the dream job was to join the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) or the Pakistan Foreign Service (PFS) or any of the Central Class One services. My dream too was to take the CSS Examination and enter one of these central government services. The jobs paid enough for a young man to have a decent life and social prestige. In fact if anyone made to the CSP or the PFS cadres, he did not just gain a decent job but became instantly the most eligible bachelor around. 

The government services no longer pay enough. The prestige that went to the central services of Pakistan days became matters of distant past almost immediately after our independence. In the three years I worked in a leading private bank and sat on the bank’s recruiting team, I was at first surprised and then frustrated at the perception of those coming out of the university these days about government service. They pitied those who joined government service. Many who I interviewed were engineers , a lot of them coming out of BUET with first class degrees, who all studied BBA and MBA after their BUET degrees to join the private banks! When we went to the university, no one who was even average academically, would join a bank even if one was offered to him on a silver platter. 

This rush towards a career in the bank among the youth leaving all else is beginning to affect the future of the country. In a study conducted recently, it has been revealed that these days, students are showing little inclination to study the science subjects in the university. In fact, it is now the dream of most of the students going to the university to study for a BBA and an MBA and join a private bank. If not already, we would soon have a country of bankers or university graduates all seeking jobs in the private banks! There is no doubt that the banking sector is an important one but this one track pursuit of a dream of a job in the private bank cannot be the signs of a healthy country.

Nevertheless, making  to the top level of the management in anyone of the 50 or more private banks in the country gives one a life style immensely better than that of a secretary to the government if   the latter is honest. Compared to Taka 40,000 a Secretary is paid, a Managing Director of a private bank is paid 15 to 20 times more. The differences in perks are also significant. But a banking job is monotonous and requires making many other concessions that we who joined services when the services carried prestige did not have to make. For instance, the private banks unless they are politically connected, literally shiver at the authority of the Bangladesh Bank whose officials even at the low levels liberally use their regulatory power to pull these banks by their ears and for personal advantages galore! 

Hence, the pay or the perks of the bankers never made a banking job seem worthwhile to me. However these days, I would like to dream that if I had a second chance, I would go into business to earn enough money to own a private television channel or perhaps an owner-editor of a newspaper. When we had just one TV channel, the official BTV, it was in such high demand of the President and the Prime Minister, that many people detested watching it. During Ershad’s long stint in power in the 1980s, he monopolized the news programmes where a major part of the time for telecasts was reserved to show him on the TV screen. He was the butt of sarcastic jokes for his love to see himself on the small screen. His love for the small screen also reflected a narcissist mindset.

HM Ershad was the President and despite the jokes, there was very good reason for him to appear in the national news and news programmes. In fact, whatever he did as President deserved to be a subject of a news programme on a TV channel and hence if he monopolized the news programmes, he was entitled to do so. These days, with an unusually large number of private channels and with no one inclined to waste his/her time watching BTV, the head of government, unfortunately for her, does not have the sort of exposure on the private TV channels as President Ershad took for granted on the BTV where he was also able to impose his narcissist mindset upon the people who had no choice but to watch him.  

In fact, a major competition for a head of government these days for TV coverage is coming from those who own the TV channels. Just recently, a private TV station distributed computers to its correspondent in the district level. The TV devoted a good part of its national news to this event and its Managing Director gave a self-glorifying speech on this computer distribution! He competed with the Prime Minister who was in New York and out distanced her on the time devoted to his event as compared to hers. No wonder the Prime Minister was unable to keep her contempt for these TV stations and her Information Minister has asked TV journalists to “follow protocol” to cover PM’s news! 

One private TV channel in particular is now into many events of social/entertainment nature as a “media partner” of those who organize these events. The channel on its own also organizes many such events. In these events, its Managing Director and his colleagues are regularly cutting ribbons or delivering speeches related to these events at home and abroad. These ribbon cutting or opening ceremonies then become “national” news and receive liberal coverage in their TV stations. No one in this station ever asks himself one simple question which is if their ribbon cutting or opening ceremonies are such important national events, why it is in the other TV stations; these events are not even mentioned? 

The case of one TV station is strange and mysterious that sets it apart from all other private TV stations. The Managing Director of this channel  openly uses his station to promote himself and in the process has become controversial where he does not even realize his own station in life and thinks it fit to question the Prime Minister! To believe in his TV station, one has to believe that he is a “friend, philosopher and guide!” to the people of Bangladesh. The fact is, if you take away his TV station away from him, and he still does all his “great” work, no would know about any of it because there is no reason to do so.

The TV stations and their owners manifest what is the problem with us Bangladeshis. We have no sense of proportion. When we head any organization and that organization becomes powerful, we cannot help using it for personal gratification. Our political leaders when they reach the top do it; the big private sector companies do it and the private TV stations are no exception. The problem is when the private persons use the public media to project themselves the way they do it in Bangladesh and do not know their limits, then they project a shamelessness that does not do credit to our society. Can laws be enacted to keep some insensible owners of private TV channel owners in rein?  I am not so sure but the time has come to ask for it as a suffering public. But one thing is sure that  though I sometimes dream of owning a private TV channel; when I wake up I let that dream  vanish into thin air for I would not ever like to project myself shamelessly. No sensible person should.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan


Free speech and its consequences: Time for US to reflect

Holiday, Friday, 19 October 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

President Obama has drawn the line. He has said that the 1st amendment of the US Constitution that enshrines the right of free speech is non- negotiable. He chose the UN as the platform to reiterate the commitment of the American nation for free speech including even the right to “blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs.” It was a message to the world leaders gathered at the opening of the 67th session of the UN General Assembly that although the United States regrets the anti-Islam video that has enraged Muslims round the world that led to the death of the US Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi; the US Government cannot do anything because the right to make the video is protected by the 1st amendment! 

In an election year, the stand the President has taken is an expected one. The faith in the United States in the 1st amendment is bipartisan. It is in fact the American way of life. Nevertheless, the abiding faith of Americans in the 1st amendment  would have been understandable if the if the United States was still living in the period when the amendment was incorporated into the US constitution over 2 hundred years ago and in the subsequent period when it took roots in the US society. Those were the times when the United States was insular; not the leader of the world as it is now where it is trying to spread its influence not just in international politics but also in areas of culture and more importantly in ways of lives of peoples everywhere. Such attempts by the US cannot be useful or meaningful unless it is willing to understand and appreciate the cultures of those upon whom it attempts to spread its values. That is only rational and logical. 

It this era of globalization whatever takes place in the United States or other parts of the world travel instantly to the rest of the world. The internet, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and their positive and negative powers must be brought into the equation. Hence the justification that what happens in the US outside the government fall in the court of its people and hence inalienable and protected by the 1st amendment cannot be tenable when such actions affect adversely peoples outside the US if it wants to co-exist with peoples, and nations peacefully in mutual respect. It is time for the United States to consider restraining its right of free speech when it provokes the emotions, beliefs and religious sentiments of peoples elsewhere. In fact, the necessity for such restraint arises more importantly from the fact that groups and individuals in the United States are taking advantage of the 1st amendment to intentionally attack and humiliate in words and actions the Muslims to provoke them and then blame them for their reactions. 

There is another very strong reason to seek restraint in the US stand on free speech that the President has articulated. In a world integrated as it is today for better or for worse, those on whom the US seeks understanding in the name of upholding free speech have not had the same historical experiences as it has. Nor are many parts of the world as advanced in education and socio-economic development that are necessary pre-conditions for the tolerance that is necessary to deal with the type of onslaught that the actions of 1st amendment can cause. Even education; socio-economic and political development often does not prepare a nation to deal with emotions from allowing unrestricted freedom of speech to individuals. In fact, the US itself is not the type of society that has the tolerance needed for allowing others the same freedom of speech when it is at the receiving end. 

Incensed by 9/11, certain sections of the people in the United States targeted the American Muslims and showed them intolerance extending to hate campaigns and paranoia no worse than what the President condemned in his speech at the UN while speaking on the attacks on Americans worldwide following the anti-Islamic video. The lack of tolerance for American Muslims has been shown at all levels in the United States, in the government and the same public who are such strong adherents of the 1st amendment. In such intolerance for Muslims, they killed Sikhs mistaking them to be Muslims. These men had no knowledge that all Sikh men are bearded while most Muslim men are not! Ignorance about Muslims shown in the height of anti-Muslim wave by many Americans was unbelievable and was not confined to the issue of beard alone. Those days, the US simply threw the 1st amendment to the winds when it came to Muslims in general and American Muslims in particular. 

Muslims of different nationalities and cultures share many common names. Abu happens to be one such common first name. In the height of anti-Muslim sentiments in the USA, many Muslims with this first name went through nightmares in airports and public places simply because some of those accused of 9/11 also had this first name! Muslims were under surveillance everywhere in the US, in their houses and even inside mosques. In fact, many innocent Muslims were routinely interrogated and harassed for what they said or suspected to have said even in private. It is only in recent times that American Muslims  are coming out of their nightmares for something that some individuals have been alleged to have committed; individuals with whom they had no connections even by the most absurd stretch of imagination. Thus in defending free speech, the US has clearly shown a double standard; defending it even when it offends billions of Muslims, the overwhelming majority of whom are as peace loving and perhaps more than the Americans and trashing freedom of speech when its own emotions are offended.   

A strong argument for the need to restrain free speech under the 1st amendment has been made when a society called American Freedom Defense Initiative put up an ad in the New York sub-way recently that read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The Society was allowed to put up the ad after a Judge permitted allowed it under the First Amendment after the NY Subway authorities had refused it. The Society is seeking a similar ruling from a Judge in the greater Washington area after the Washington Metro refused to allow the advertisement. The ads are provocative; hurts the sentiments of millions of American Muslims and are gross misrepresentation of Islam as practiced by over a billion of Muslims around the world.      

A recent New York Times article on this subject regretted that although the ads are legal under the First Amendment, “they are wrong and repugnant.” The writer Rick Jacobs also wrote in the same article about the sadness of a Muslim woman as she looked up a billboard in a train station in Scarsdale, NY that read: “19,250 deadly Islamic attacks since 9/11” and  beneath it :“It is not Islamophobia; it’s Islamorealism” to pre-empt those who might dispute the claim. Attempts such as these are hate campaigns; deeply provocative and hurtful that is anathema to peace, the President’s defense of these under the 1st amendment notwithstanding. Allowing these in the name of freedom of speech is not even rational. In fact, it is time for the United States to realize that individuals and groups are using freedom of speech as enshrined in the 1st amendment that was created and defended over decades and centuries by individuals whose objective was to create the perfect world, for their ulterior motives. Unless, leaders of the United States are willing to take up the challenge of these individuals and groups with crooked interests, it will be the likes of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and hundreds and thousands of other innocent people who will continue to be victims of collateral damage for establishing the perfect world and get away with murder!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan





Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The driver returns from the cold and rekindles “Railwaygate”

"As I See It" column
The Independent, October 13, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

It was a great relief to see Ali Azam Khan, the driver of the former Assistant Private Secretary to the former Minister of Communications Suranjit Sen Gupta, alive and talking. His emergence from the cold however is not good news for the Minister or the government. For whatever it is worth, the driver has spilled some serious beans. He said quite a few things that would need serious investigation to clear the good name of the Minister and credibility of the government. 

Azam Khan was very clear where the car with the bagful of money was going that night; Taka 74 lakhs in total, all counted by the Border Guard. It was going to the Minister’s house. The driver also said that it was not the first time that such a bagful of money was off loaded at the Minister’s residence. He also said that there was a nexus working between the Minister and Yusuf Ali Mridha, the General Manager over collection of money from selling jobs in the railways. These are very serious accusations that just cannot be pushed under the table. The Minister projects himself as a strict moralist always critical and sarcastic about corruption in the BNP leadership. He therefore cannot afford even a rumour about his good name let alone the type of accusations made by Azam Khan. The accusations are so serious that  simply saying that there is a “national and an international conspiracy” against him will not give him back the moral authority for his favourite role that “Railwaygate” and now Azam Khan have dented; he will need to prove that accusations of Azam Khan are wrong and do so convincingly.  

The AL led government has some serious cases of corruption confronting it to which Azam Khan’s whistle blowing has added another. The AL had made corruption against the last BNP government as the main issue to reach the voters and succeeded by promising zero tolerance on corruption, if elected. The corruption issue is back again but it is the AL at the receiving end and the corruption charges against it are massive. The allegations of corruption in the share marked ripped off poor people of thousands of crores of Taka. A government sponsored investigation traced individuals close to the government who ripped these poor people of their investments. The Hall Mark scam has siphoned off close to Taka 4000 crores from the nationalized Sonali Bank which could have paid for 2 bridges over the Padma.  

The Destiny Group where a former Army Chief is a Director has also been involved in scams worth thousands of crores of Taka. That former Army Chief, before the allegation, used to be in the media regularly flagging the corruption in the last BNP government and the need of bringing those he thought perpetuated that corruption, to face the law. The Padma Bridge and allegations of corruption have involved the good name of the government not just in the country but also abroad. In fact, the World Bank has agreed to refinance the Padma Bridge only after the Government removed a Minister, send an Adviser and a Secretary on leave and cancelled the contractual appointment of another senior bureaucrat, on allegations of corruption. 

In fact, it is the first time that the World Bank has dared to demand a sovereign country to make such changes for a loan. This has humiliated Bangladesh. To make matters worse, the government has agreed to allow WB representatives to be a part of the ACC team to investigate the Bank’s allegations of corruption to revive the loan agreement. The government has also agreed that an international panel of experts will examine the ACC/WB report and the WB and its co-financiers will release fund for the construction of the PB only after they are satisfied by the report of the expert panel. The revised agreement with the WB has not just  cast a dark shadow on the image of Bangladesh; it has taken with it a little of its sovereignty as well. 

The allegations by the WB against the Bangladesh government on the PB and by Azam Khan against Suranjit Sen Gupta are accusations that have not been proven yet.  No one can accept these accusations and pass a final judgment either on this government or on the Minister. The government has challenged the WB on the charges and the Minister has forcefully dismissed all that Azam Khan has said.  Nevertheless, the accusations of corruption in the share market and the humungous scams involving the Hall Mark and Destiny Group are more than allegations. The money involved has been siphoned off for real and the amount is in thousands of crores of Takas making allegations that the AL had brought against the last BNP government appear insignificant. The whistle blowing by Ali Azam is also serious and cannot be dismissed without proper investigation. 

Corruption in Bangladesh is a serious problem and has always been that way. It has never been party specific; nor has it been related to which type of government the country has or had.  There has been corruption in Bangladesh under elected governments as much as under military governments. All political parties that have formed the government have tolerated corruption. The reasons are as much as in the character of those who run the government as in existing conditions in the country that encourage and sustain corruption. Public servants, both elected and career are paid meagerly. In fact, Bangladesh is one of the rare countries where there is no rational relationship between the pay public servants receive and the price line in the market. Hence they easily fall prey to the lures of money and become corrupt before they realize it. This is why Bangladesh figures poorly in the Corruption Perceptions Index. 

Nevertheless, the present AL government has stated it is different from the past BNP government because of its zero tolerance for corruption. Its pursuit of the BNP on corruption bordering on paranoia and its emphasis on zero tolerance are now turning into a political liability as Hall Mark and Destiny Scams, share market scam, PB loan debacle and now the re-emergence of Railwaygate combine to show the present government to be more corruption friendly than the past BNP regime, in fact compared to all past governments. Meanwhile the WB has formed the 3 member international panel for investigating alleged corruption in the PB loan headed by former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno Ocampo. Thus though the government is in a state of denial over the massive corruption cases that are taunting it, it does not seem like the WB and its partners are going to let it push aside their concerns over corruption that easily.   

It is therefore time for the AL led government to stop talking on corruption of the past governments and start acting on the huge corruption cases facing it. It could do itself some good taking up the whistle blowing efforts of Azam Khan to carry out some serious investigations. In doing so, it should keep in mind that while Obaidul Qader was in charge of the Railways Ministry, he too had spoken of the type of corruption in the Ministry that Azam Khan made after returning from the cold.

The writer is a  former career Ambassador.




Monday, October 8, 2012

The Presidential debates: First round to Mitt Romney

Published in The Daily Sun
Sunday, 7th October, 2012

The first presidential debate at the University of Denver has clearly gone by approval of the pollsters and analysts to Mitt Romney by a wide margin. The spin doctors in the Mitt Romney team were in broad smiles because their candidate not just held against the President; they thought Mitt Romney was more relaxed and did most of the attacking that put the President on the defensive and lose out in making the case against the candidate as a protector of the top 2% Americans against the poor and the middle class.   

In a way, what Mitt Romney succeeded in doing in the first of the three Presidential debates on schedule was to turn the table on the President on what was becoming the major liability of his campaign; that he is against the middle class; a “Richie Rich.”. He in fact succeeded in turning his liability to his advantage; a liability that has pegged his campaign that worsened when his views about the middle class became known to the public following the release of a video taken in secret. In that video, Mitt Romney was caught making disparaging remarks about 47% middle class Americans who depend on the Government.  

The Obama supporters were surprised at the failure of the President to bring the 47% issue into his debate right at the beginning. They were aghast when the President remained silent on it even when Mitt Romney projected himself repeatedly on health care, taxation, job creation, as the champion of the middle class. Some analysts suggested that the President must have been under instruction from his team to be presidential. They felt that as a result, he decided before starting the first debate that he would not bring the 47% issue. Nevertheless, analysts sympathetic to the President failed to understand why the President chose to remain presidential when right before everyone’s eyes, the candidate scored points on the middle class where his campaign was on the defensive till right before the debate. President Obama allowed his opponent to hijack his campaign’s trump card with the nation watching.   

Mitt Romney’s strategy was simple and clear. He attacked the President for running an administration that has been high spending that has inflated the federal deficit, an issue that is of serious concern to the voters. He also attacked the President for failure to create jobs that has placed all Americans, particularly the middle class and the poor in dire economic plight. He defended tax cuts across the board and no new taxes for the rich but stated that the tax cuts and no new taxes for the rich will bring more revenue to the government and will have no adverse impact on the deficit. He explained this by stating that the rich 2% Americans will use the tax breaks to invest more that will create more jobs and with more people getting jobs, the government will earn more revenue from income tax. 

The President failed to expose the weaknesses and the vagueness in the Romney plan. The figures Mitt Romney gave simply did not add up and in some instances like his proposal for tax cuts, he changed figures in the debate from previously stated ones. The President incredibly failed to flag the arithmetic that Bill Clinton had used so effectively to successfully criticize the challenger at the NDC.  He allowed Mitt Romney to describe his administration as one engaged in wasteful government programmes. When Mitt Romney accused the President of spending US$ 90 billion in wasteful projects in developing green energy where the beneficiaries were party supporters where some projects have failed, the President did not defend the attack. It was in healthcare that the President’s performance disappointed his supporters the most. In a turnaround from what he had said before, that he would repeal Obamacare on his very first day in office, Mitt Romney embraced the policy; mentioned that he had succeeded with such a policy while Governor of Massachusetts and promised that he will  improve upon it if he became President. Mitt Romney said that he will also ensure that in his health policy, the elderly who are under Medicare will face no problem; instead they will be entitled better benefits.  

Mitt Romney argued in his debate for an America where the people will see the power of the federal government significantly diminished and that of the private sector significantly enhanced. He said that the private sector creates the overwhelming majority of the jobs in America and provides the major portion of the federal government’s revenue. He therefore argued that the federal government should facilitate the private sector instead of taxing and regulating it more. While arguing against a powerful federal government, Mitt Romney’s proposed strengthening the state governments instead, allowing them more powers and finance in critical areas such as  health care for instance. He did not explain how people will be benefitted when it is the state government holding the powers instead of the federal government. The President did not ask any question to the candidate about it. The President also did not question when the candidate stated that people will be better off negotiating with insurance companies about  their healthcare issues as against the board in Obamacare  although everybody in USA agrees that the insurance companies are the major reason of the prohibitive prices of healthcare as well and the major cause of people’s  sufferings.   

Mitt Romney reiterated the conservative agenda; against big government and more private enterprise although he did not give any clear picture about how less government and more private enterprise will tackle USA’s current economic predicament, the worst in many decades. He also blamed the policies of the Obama administration for miseries of the people without explaining how or what he will do different. President Obama failed to expose the vagueness of Mitt Romney’s case for America. He defended his policies instead but went into facts and figures to maintain that his administration is on right track on governance and on the economy making him look “listless”; “professorial” and under prepared for the debate. In contrast, Mitt Romney was animated, left no one in doubt he was well prepared and appeared like he enjoyed the debate. 

The polls showed that  Mitt Romney won the debate 67% to 25%; a major achievement for him having entered it as the underdog. Nevertheless, in USA’s complex voting dynamics and voters’ mindset; the debate has affected mostly those who have already made up their minds. Despite his impressive performance, Mitt Romney did not say anything new to change the minds of the undecided or the trend that has been building in favour of the President since the Democratic National Convention and particularly his 47% faux pas. The President could have helped his candidature by a solid performance to put more sail into his candidature. In that he failed. With 2 more debates to come, the President must show his worth lest the undecided voters begin to take serious notice of Mitt Romney. 

The writer is a retired Secretary and a former Ambassador.

Good-bye to caretaker system: The possible consequences

"As I See It" Column
The Independent
6th October, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The Prime Minister's statement during her recent trip to New York that the door for the Caretaker Government is closed is not good news for those who are praying that for the sake of the country, she would relent. Before this statement, she had said in the parliament that after the completion of the term of the current parliament, she will ask the President to announce the date of the elections and name a head of the interim administration. 

That statement had raised hope that she might meet the opposition on neutral ground for its participation in the next general elections. That hope has been dashed by the Prime Minister’s statement in New York enhancing fears in the public mind for a number of reasons. The political situation is now more conflict ridden than what it was in the final days of the first BNP government when the AL had brought the country to a standstill with the lagatar hartals and civil disturbances to make the CG system a part of the constitution. Further, the present AL led government has made a mess of governance leading to a great deal of dissatisfaction among the people. The Awami League is now not the main dominant political force in the country. Therefore if it attempts to impose its will upon the country on the issue of the next general elections, it will only succeed in pushing the country into civil disturbances that will be dangerous and destructive. 

The Prime Minister has stressed on the need for holding the next elections under elected government for sake of democracy. She has said that an unelected government cannot bring democracy; that it paves the way for extra constitutional forces into politics instead. These arguments do not stand to scrutiny. Once the parliament is dissolved as the Prime Minister has now said it will, there will in fact be no elected politicians in the country. Therefore, whatever the shape of the interim government, it will be comprised of and led by unelected people. Even if Sheikh Hasina herself heads the interim government, she too will be an unelected person once the parliament is dissolved. 

Her argument that holding elections her way will help democracy is also fallacious. It will, for instance, not bring the opposition to the polls. The opposition’s strength among the people is by no means any less than that of the ruling party. With the failure of the government in delivering on the key electoral promises, independent analysts feel that the position and popularity of the ruling party has weakened substantially. Even when the ruling party won its massive victory in the last elections, it had polled less than the majority of the votes. Therefore an election boycotted by the opposition will simply not bring democracy no matter what the ruling party thinks of their reasons of the boycott. 

The Awami League should also look a little more carefully at the last caretaker government and beyond to see how  justified it is to raise the fear of the extra-constitutional powers as a threat to democracy particularly at what the Prime Minister had said about the extra-constitutional forces that were the real power during the last caretaker government. She had said once in power she will legitimize all the actions of the military. In fact, she had also said that 1/11 that ushered the military into politics, was the fruit of their democratic struggle! Further, the Awami League has already brought amendments into the constitution to put the fear necessary for the military to refrain from any thoughts of taking over political power. 

To make matters worse for the ruling party, the Supreme Court's judgment on the annulment of the 13th amendment upon which the Prime Minister is bidding good bye to the caretaker government did not have a smooth entry into politics. That judgment took a long time in the making. Justice Khairul Huq, who chaired the 7 judges' bench for hearing the 13th amendment case, signed the final judgment 16 months after he retired as the Chief Justice just a  day after writing the short judgment that annulled the 13th  amendment that set the issue against the CG rolling. The ruling party used the short judgment and its 3/4th majority in parliament to end the caretaker system. A simple but very legal question has been raised whether a retired Chief Justice who has the legal authority to write the full judgment. Further, there are other issues that are also troubling the minds of the public. 

One troubling issue is whether a divided judgment with 4 judges in favour and three against on a fundamental constitutional issue should be implemented where the two mainstream parties are sharply divided. The dissenting judges did not see anything unconstitutional or undemocratic in the unelected Caretaker system. They said that existing constitutional provision  even without the 13th amendment allows the outgoing cabinet to remain in power for 90 days as the unelected body to run the country  till a new elected government is formed after dissolution of the outgoing parliament and election of the new parliament. They also referred to the constitutional provision for 10% unelected Ministers in the Cabinet to argue against the majority decision that, first, unelected members cannot be a part of a democratic process; and, second, there is anything wrong constitutionally in the 13t amendment. Also, when the detailed judgment came out, discrepancies between the detailed one and the short one 16 months ago also came to light, rendering further controversy into the judgment.

The Supreme Court’s judgment, instead of resolving the darkening clouds over the political canvas of the country, has enhanced it. Many had hoped that while writing the final judgment, the Court will consider the darkening clouds and write in the judgment that the next two elections must be held under that caretaker system that in the short judgment it had recommended to the parliament. It is a pity that they have not done so, more because the dissenting judges have clearly shown that they could have done it easily by using existing provisions of the constitution and the conflict between the ruling party and the opposition has sharpened.

Therefore, the darkening clouds must be dispersed politically which now throws the country into great uncertainty. Barrister Rafiqul Huq’s offer to head the caretaker government had raised people’s hopes but the Prime Minister was quick to pour cold water on it. Thus, the future is not just uncertain but one with dangerous forebodings. If the Prime Minister wants democracy to win and the country to survive, she will have no other alternative but to read the writing clearly on the wall; that the only to save the country is, first, to hold the next general elections in a manner where it will be free, fair and neutral and, second, where the opposition will be encouraged to participate. She will have to decide how to do it. Meanwhile, the nation can only bend on its knees and pray to the Almighty to show her the light and give her the wisdom to find answers to the onerous responsibilities that destiny has placed on her shoulder.

The writer is a retired Secretary and former  Ambassador