Saturday, November 30, 2013

India and the present crisis

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Saturday, 30 November 2013
Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam
Description: rintDescription: DF
The BNP finally said it. After remaining quiet on India’s role in the current political stalemate, BNP’s Acting General Secretary pointed at New Delhi for backing the ruling party in its current conflict with the opposition BNP. Another senior leader did not mince with words and directly accused India for backing the Awami League Government against a compromise for holding “inclusive” national election. Following the CEC’s declaration of election schedule that has apparently closed doors for negotiations unless some extraordinary initiatives are undertaken, India’s role has become a major subject of speculation.

The nation is now literally in prayers for that extraordinary initiative.  The dangers of an election without compromise have been graphically etched out on the country’s political canvass through the violence seen following the BNP’s blockade call after the election schedule was announced. Earlier, the people watched one after another their hopes dashed on the compromise. It was the UN Secretary General who had first raised hopes when he called both Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Leader of the Opposition Begum Khaleda Zia to encourage them to hold discussions for a compromise. Their hopes were raised again when the US Secretary of State John Kerry wrote letters on the same line to the two leaders. China and other friends of Bangladesh also joined the efforts of the UN Secretary General and the US Secretary of State.

The people watched in despair as the AL led government turned a deaf ear to these requests from friendly quarters. They were curious to find out the reason for such a stand from the government. As they asked questions of one another, they realized that India had remained as the only friendly government that had not joined the United States, China, the UN and other countries in urging the ruling party and the BNP to negotiate and find a way out because they felt the consequences of a failure to do so would be catastrophic for Bangladesh. In fact, when US Ambassador went to New Delhi for what was a very unusual visit, newspapers speculated that the Indians were not on the same page with the United States on the nature of election time government in Bangladesh meaning that while the US was backing a compromise, India was backing the AL for election without the BNP.

India joined in the concerns of the other friends of Bangladesh eventually. The Indian High Commissioner went to the media and stated that he was in consultation with the other Embassies over the political situation in Bangladesh. People were relieved to hear that from the Indian High Commissioner, as they believed that because of the closeness between New Delhi and the AL led Government, it was India that could encourage the AL led government to find the negotiated settlement out of the present crisis. The news that President Obama and Manmohon Singh had met and had agreed that the two countries would coordinate positions on Bangladesh raised people’s hopes even further.

The Prime Minister’s call to Begum Khaleda Zia further raised the hopes of the people.  Although that did not produce the result, the people next hoped that the coordination of position between USA and India would be visible when the US Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Desai Biswal visited Dhaka. That also did not happen. In fact, the Government ended the hopes of the people for a negotiated settlement right in the middle of her visit. The Prime Minister went to the President and recommended to him for election under the 15th Amendment or election without the BNP immediately after the Assistant Secretary in her meeting with her had requested her for  “inclusive” national election, a request that the US Secretary of State had earlier made to her and Begum Khaleda Zia in letters addressed to both.

The Prime Minister, while recommending to the President election under the 15th Amendment, maintained that she had made efforts to encourage the BNP for negotiations by her telephone call. The Prime Minister also maintained that her offer to BNP to join the All-Party government was further proof that she had tried to negotiate with the opposition.  Some people blamed the BNP for not taking up the offer for talks made through the phone call but the general feeling was that the effort was not genuine enough to bring the BNP to election. However, the formation of the All-Party Government and its nature left the people no other choice but to conclude that the ruling party was determined to hold elections without the BNP. The way former President HM Ershad and his party joined the controversial All-Party Government took away the little element of credibility that the All-Party Government was anything the government claimed.
The formation of the All-Party Government was followed by the announcement of the election schedule.

The conduct of the CEC in announcing the schedule added further suspicion in the opposition on the intent of the government.  The CEC came before the media and stated that the announcement of the schedule would be held back for the ruling party and the BNP to negotiate. The next day, he addressed the nation and announced the schedule without explaining what happened to the negotiations between the AL and the BNP with which he had raised people’s expectations. These developments left the people frustrated, disappointed and apprehensive. Quite naturally, the public wanted to know where the ruling party was getting the strength to go against countries of critical importance to Bangladesh and also public opinion in the country.  When the BNP leaders stated in public that the strength was coming from India, they only articulated what was in the minds of a great majority of the people of the country.

The conclusion that India’s backing has given the AL led Government the strength to turn a deaf ear to pleadings and urgings made sense because its interests in Bangladesh are quite different from those of other friends of Bangladesh. Bangladesh holds one of the major keys to India’s security interests. Bangladesh also holds the key to the future of India’s fragile seven provinces that border Bangladesh. India has succeeded in furthering its security concerns to a large extent but not entirely and has genuine hopes of getting land transit. But for that, New Delhi would need the AL to be in power for another term.

India’s desire for AL to return to power is therefore understandable. However, the choice for India is not that simple. There is also another dimension to India’s predicament. People are convinced that it is India alone that can encourage the AL led government to resolve the political stalemate and hold “inclusive” national election. Therefore, if the ruling party went ahead and held the one-party election, India that has become unpopular to almost the whole of Bangladesh over its failure to deliver the Teesta and the LBA deals and killings of innocent people on Bangladesh-India border would also be held responsible for the catastrophe that is sure to occur in Bangladesh as a consequence of holding elections without the BNP, the preview of which is already visible.

India has before it the same opportunity to befriend Bangladesh as it had done in 1971 by supporting the Bangladesh liberation war. By encouraging a one-party election, India would end up losing all the gains it had made with the AL government because the civil disturbances currently under way dangerously are certain to intensify manifold with AL’s attempt to return to power by elections without the BNP. These disturbances are likely to make the country fertile for terrorists and insurgents to regroup and cause India nightmarish security concerns. Therefore, India really has just one choice in Bangladesh as its High Commissioner has said let the people of Bangladesh decide. The people of Bangladesh would expect that India would not strengthen the hand of any of the political parties in the country.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

8th November 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Times of India carried an article by Subhir Bhaumik in its issue of November 1 on the turbulent politics in Bangladesh. He has urged New Delhi to militarily intervene in Bangladesh to keep the Awami League in power so that the BNP and its fundamentalist allies do not assume power! The article would have been trashed except for the paper that carried it. The Times of India is not just any newspaper; it is an opinion maker in New Delhi. Therefore it is unbelievable that it published this article. Democratic India’s leading newspaper has advocated New Delhi to intervene in a small neighbour militarily so that there would be no democratic elections there and a regime that serves its interests would retain power.

The card the writer used to encourage New Delhi to intervene in favour of the Awami League is the one the ruling party has played as its final one to deal with the opposition’s demand for election under the caretaker government (CTG), which would, as politics has emerged in Bangladesh, ensure the BNP to assume power.  Subhir Bhaumik’s argues: “As Bangladesh slides into a violent imbroglio, India appears nervous over the future of its east and northeast which are afflicted by violent statehood movements and insurgencies. It cannot afford a hostile government in Dhaka. This, in a way, revives the pre-1971 scenario where a similar situation forced India to back the Bengali insurrection and militarily intervene in East Pakistan, braving threats of a US naval intervention.” There is an eerie similarity between the fears that Subhir Bhaumik raises; the line that the ruling Awami League is taking to create misgivings in the minds of the people about the BNP and reports in Indian media and pro-AL media in the country. Something deceitful and calamitous is afoot that should wake up the people of Bangladesh because the sovereignty of the country is under threat.

Is it a kite flying?
Is The Times of India kite flying? The ruling party has made clear that it has little or no intention to give the BNP what it wants. It does not need a crystal ball to predict why. Public opinion polls, credible ones, have shown that the BNP’s acceptance among the people is on the rise, too dangerously for the ruling party’s comfort. A daily Prothom Alo poll in September had shown that 50.6% people supported the BNP. Another PA poll taken before the city corporation elections had predicted the humiliating defeats of the AL backed candidates. The poll conducted by Daily Star/Asia Foundation taken most recently has shown BNP’s acceptance rise to 55% against 28% of the AL. The DS/AF poll is alarming for the AL. A 55% support in Bangladesh’s once past the post system of election would mean over 250 seats in the parliament. The AL is also facing the elections as the incumbent where in the country’s history; incumbents have all failed to win. Therefore the AL has lately been playing its last card against the BNP which is an attempt to wrap the card of terrorist/Islamic fundamentalist on its back in order to explain to the people why the BNP could not be trusted and at the same time, convince the country’s foreign friends that they need to back the AL if they want to stop Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. The news appearing in Indian media that Islamic fundamentalism and ISI are active is therefore designed to help the AL in making its case with the people. 

Subhir Bhaumik is clearly a part of this effort, to create a scare to encourage people towards the AL. In the last five years, the AL led government has cooperated with India on security like no past Bangladesh government. Subhir Bhaumik has underlined this fact in his article correctly. As part of this security cooperation, Bangladesh and Indian security/intelligence agencies have carried out determined efforts to dismantle ISI footholds in Bangladesh. There is reason to believe that this Indian task is not yet complete. India needs another AL term to complete the task. Therefore, this sudden spate of news in the Indian media about rising Islamic fundamentalism together with Subhir Bhaumik’s article in the Times of India smells rat. 

BAKSAL-type elections

So far, the BNP has not stepped into the trap that has enhanced the ruling party’s insistence for BAKSAL type elections. It is afraid of facing the BNP in an “inclusive” election because it knows that it would lose such an election comprehensively as the opinion polls have clearly hinted. In India, a section backed by its intelligence that Subhir Bhaumik represents is also of the same opinion. Thus his article has been written with a myopic vision where he has gone into denial over the present political realities in Bangladesh. He therefore did a good job in undermining the efforts of the US Ambassador and his trip to New Delhi whose government is favouring “inclusive” election in Bangladesh. He gave the impression that Dan Mozena’s trip to New Delhi made the Indians unhappy and that he lied in the media when he said that India and the US were on the same page on the political situation in Bangladesh for which New Delhi took particular umbrage.

Washington’s page is clear to everyone. It wants a free, fair and inclusive national election. The US Secretary John Kerry has written letters to the two leaders to this effect. Therefore if Washington and New Delhi were on different pages, it would mean New Delhi supports a BAKSAL type of election in Bangladesh. However, an unnamed Indian External Affairs Ministry official had said after Dan Mozena’s meeting that the two sides agreed on “inclusive” national elections and the need for vigilance on terrorism and acts of insurgency that leads to conclude that there is difference of opinion in New Delhi between its political leaders and the intelligence sources. Subhir Bhaumik’s attempt to destroy the credibility of the US Ambassador by describing him as a member of the BNP Executive Committee was intended to pre-empt an US-India initiative for “inclusive” elections. His distortion of geo-politics underlines his ill intention, which is to ensure that the political impasse in Bangladesh should not be resolved by “inclusive” national elections that the overwhelming majority of the people of Bangladesh want. His article would thus find positive vibes only in a section of the ruling party that wants to remain in power by “hook or by crook.”

Facts distorted 

The article was not restricted to distortion of facts and geopolitics. Its theme is demeaning to Bangladeshis. Subhir Bhaumik wrote that if Washington is using all within its means to further its national interests (that is not borne out by facts), India should carve out its interests for which he thinks even military intervention is an Indian right! He thus concluded that Bangladesh is like Sikkim and foreign powers could play with it like a football!! Subhir Bhaumik has also gone into denial over US-India strategic partnership unveiled two years ago by President Obama for containing China in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. There are too many other elements of this strategic partnership that cannot be examined here but to think that New Delhi would go to denial over these to install AL by military intervention would be possible only if India’s political leadership too were in similar denial as Subhir Bhaumik. Then what about India’s case to be a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council? Would that be enhanced if India militarily intervened in a smaller neighbour to circumvent the democratic process and install a client to serve its narrow national interests?

Subhir Bhaumik’s reference to 1971 is the most absurd part of his article. The Awami League is in a political mess today where any comparison to what its position was in 1971 is ridiculous. The credible opinion polls have underlined that not to be the case with 70% and more of the people supporting “inclusive” national elections against the AL insistence of one-party BAKSAL type elections. Therefore if India intervened militarily now, it would be intervening in favour of an Awami League that is at opposite end to what its position in Bangladesh was in 1971. Today, the AL is determined upon retaining power by holding elections without the opposition whose demand for “inclusive” elections has the support of the majority of the people. The Awami League today is engaged in suppressing the will of the majority by force whereas in 1971 under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, it had united the country’s 75 million people. Therefore India’s intervention in Bangladesh now would be like India intervening in 1971 on behalf of the Pakistani military! 

Intelligence directs Delhi’s policy?

If the Awami League has a few friends like Subhir Bhaumik, it wouldn’t need as, the expression goes, enemies to destroy itself. The BNP could stand by the sideline and watch its demise. Subhir Bhaumik has written his piece in complete denial of everything except the single-minded devotion of seeing Indian military in Dhaka. He has forgotten how India has left the AL in the lurch with betrayal on the Teesta and LBA deals and unabated killings in the border that has left even those who support the Awami League disappointed and frustrated. If India were to now intervene for AL militarily and install it in power, it would be the end of India’s acceptance in Bangladesh in any form and the death knell of Awami League where the two could stay together, hand-in-hand, shoulder to shoulder, not by India’s military intervention alone but by that military stationed in Bangladesh permanently by making Bangladesh another Sikkim.

That of course is not going to happen although in the short term, if insanity grips New Delhi, Bangladesh would have to fight another liberation war all over again to defeat a possible Indian military invasion as it did with the Pakistani military invasion. That is the concern of many in Bangladesh who would like to remember India for its 1971 role because so far where all friends of Bangladesh have urged the AL led government to talk with the opposition to hold “inclusive” national elections, India has not yet entered into the equation. It appears that New Delhi is under pressure of its intelligence agencies who need another AL term for a permanent foothold in Bangladesh that cannot be realized because the AL’s chances of another term in power democratically has become impossible. The intelligence agencies are therefore urging their political leaders to see their way and place the AL in power “by hook or by crook”.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

CEC addresses the nation and disappoints it

29th November, 2013

M. Serajul Islam

Dr. Sadat Hossain, former Chairman of the Public Service Commission and former Cabinet Secretary in his matter of fact way perhaps articulated the current situation and the BNP’s predicament of election and level playing ground better than most Talk Show participants. Amidst claims by the government that it has done everything for holding free, fair and credible national election and that none should have any concerns to the contrary, he narrated his experience on the road the day the AL and its supporters were marching in processions to the party’s head office to collect election forms that gave a graphic picture to viewers of the type of level playing ground that the BNP could expect in elections held under the Awami League.

That day, there were umpteen processions, of various sizes proceeding to the party office. The police was working overtime, holding traffic to let these processions go by, some in tens, some more, but all accorded the courtesy of free passage at the expense of the people on the road and their immense sufferings After all, the processions were of those belonging to the ruling party and therefore deserved the courtesy, the sufferings of the people notwithstanding!

Level playing misnomer
The point the former Cabinet Secretary made was a simple one; that come the day of elections or in the days leading to it, the police, that would no doubt play a very critical role in whether the playing ground is level or otherwise, would no doubt give this courtesy to the ruling party and the people would have to watch and wonder where the level field the CEC promised in his address had vanished. In fact, Dr. Hossain made it a little bit easier for people not to go into denial. He said based on his lifelong experience in government that if a Minister or even the Prime Minister, were to ask the police out of sheer embarrassment not to extend such courtesy, the police would beg to be forgiven and tell them that they simply could not do anything else! If readers were to consider the extent of politicization that has gone into the police force, then they would be able to conclude that the BNP would not even have a field to play in election under the ruling party.

I wonder if the CEC had seen this particular Talk Show. I think he did not because there was no reason for him to watch this particular Talk Show or for that matter any other Talk Show these days because he surely knows too well what these Talk Shows discuss. He also knows as well that when he and the Election Commission are the subjects in the Talk Shows as they frequently are, the views of the participants are anything but complimentary. For once though since the current political situation became the bread and butter of the Talk Shows, there was a sudden change of heart among the people for the CEC and the EC. The day before his address, with the nation in prayers for an understanding between the AL and the BNP, the CEC went before the media and raised people’s expectations at a time when they were in the height of despair.

That evening, over-riding the statement that one of his Commissioners had made a couple of days before that coming Monday that the Commission would announce the election schedule, the CEC stated that efforts were underway to make the elections “inclusive”. In a voice full of affection and compassion and of course loaded with hope, he told journalists with the TV cameras glaring at him that like the nation, he too was waiting for the elections to be “inclusive” and asked people not to worry on the time factor, aware that there was great concern among them that time was running out fast. The CEC assured the people through the media that there was enough time in the hands of the Commission and it could wait for the two mainstream parties to negotiate and resolve their differences. That evening, the CEC had become a harbinger of hope to a nation in despair. 

Ershad’s antics
What happened next day was no less dramatic, perhaps more, than what former President had done. HM Ershad’s statements that if he joined the elections, people would spit with him and that he would not go with the AL even to heaven and then his volte face to join the controversial All-Party Government was perhaps less dramatic in the context of people’s hopes and expectations than the change in the CEC’s the day before and his address to the nation that punctured the nation’s optimism like a pin does to a balloon when pricked. The nation would have to wait till the sun sets on its current predicament and a new dawn begins to know what happened behind the scene for the CEC to have given his address to the nation in such questionable haste so soon after raising people’s expectations although this did not inhibit the people from concluding what prompted the CEC’s summersault in such indecent haste.

The address to the nation was not the end of the CEC’s predicament, which cannot be one that he is relishing. In the heat of the moment or to use a better expression, the height of disappointment, few considered the relevant facts about the CEC’s address. His address was billed as an address to the nation and the ambiance surrounding it had all that usually goes with an address by the President or the Prime Minister. The official BTV carried it and all private TV channels also carried the address live, courtesy the BTV. He was in fact given the same respect and importance that is reserved for the President and the Prime Minister. His post is a constitutional one. But he is not an elected representative and the warrant of precedence does not place him in the company of the President and the Prime Minister and the privilege to address the nation like these two top elected leaders of the country. Therefore those who arranged this address would have to answer for a major error; that of elevating the CEC to where he does not belong.

CEC’s major errors
This was not just what went wrong with the CEC’s address. There was another error that also escaped the attention of many; particularly the aides of the CEC who did not seem to have any clue of what they were dealing with. If it was an address to the nation that the CEC was making and if those who arranged it considered that the CEC came in the warrant of precedence after the President and the Prime Minister, they forgot a major issue of the picture. In a national address, it is imperative and also a constitutional requirement that such events must be accompanied with the picture of the Father of the Nation in the background. There was no picture of the leader and instead there was what appeared like a picture of a scene out of rural Bangladesh! There could indeed be a charge of disrespect for the constitution as demanded by the 15th Amendment that does take such violations lightly for anyone to be fooling with it!

There are just too many incongruities in the CEC address that to simply suggest that he disappointed the nation would be making light of an issue that is of the utmost importance to the nation; an issue that could make or break the country. His position in the warrant of precedence notwithstanding, he went to make the address with the government in the disposal of the Election Commission in matters of holding the national elections to ensure the passage of one elected government to another. Even if one was to be overtly partial in evaluating the performance of the CEC and the EC under his stewardship, there is precious little to write home about what he has done thus far to create the type of confidence in the people that he is up to such a task. When the government was trying to make the EC powerful, the CEC yielded powers to the government that caused dismay in the minds of the people. The way the EC dealt with the RPO and gave registration to a breakaway faction of the BNP raised genuine questions about its independence.

The CEC’s address to the nation had a similarity to Dr. Sadat Hosain’s experience with the police force in the context of mindset. It ended embarrassing the government because if anything, it helped create in the minds of the people the reverse of what the government is trying to do; convince people that the EC is independent and capable of delivering to the nation, a free, fair and transparent national election. All said, one must wonder why did the CEC raised peoples’ hope on Sunday evening and make the volte face the day after. If he had avoided the media on Sunday evening, he would at least have been able to save face. Perhaps, even that decision, when to appear before the media and when not to be is also not in his hands!

No leeway for EC
Nevertheless, to be fair to the CEC and the Election Commission, there is no reason to believe that this Commission has been given any leeway to exercise its powers and influence except act in the straight jacket set up set for it by the government. Therefore, it would be nothing more than a daydream for the people to bank any hopes on the EC of delivering the country from the slide of the country to the brink. This notwithstanding, the people had still hoped in what he had said the Sunday before his address to the nation because they are on the brink and like a nation drowning, could not help holding even the straw to keep from drowning. 

Nevertheless, the Chief Election Commissioner is a good man and has friends and well-wishers. They should now come together in prayer to the Almighty to give the Prime Minister the goodness of heart so that she would in turn give the CEC some powers to recover the face he has lost with the nation for no fault of his except one. He has thus far not revealed to the people what his real position is as the chief of the Commission; that although according to the constitution and the laws of the land he can still be powerful to deliver the nation what it wants; the right to choose from among the registered political parties the one to form the next government of Bangladesh; in reality his hands are tied behind his back by his political masters. This is the plain truth.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Is President Obama being subjected to racist attacks?
M. Serajul Islam
  Oprah Winfrey, the African-American celebrity, said recently in an interview to the BBC that President Barack Obama is the “victim of racism”. “There is a level of disrespect for the office that occurs,” said Oprah in her interview “and that occurs in some cases and maybe even in many cases because he’s African American. There’s no question about that, and it’s the kind of thing that nobody ever says but everybody is thinking it.” In particular, the African-American celebrity picked up the cry of “liar” from Republican Congressman Joe Wilson while the President was addressing the Congress in 2009.

America, the great land of democracy, has historically demonstrated prejudices where “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” though enshrined in the Constitution as “inalienable rights” have not been the same among the various races and ethnic groups that inhabit the country. In this context, the journey of the Blacks or African-Americans as they are politely referred to has been an epic one. When the US Constitution was scribed the African-Americans were slaves. It took the country a hundred years and a civil war to free them from slavery and yet another 100 years for them to have what the Whites always had for granted, equality under the law with the civil rights movement led by the likes of Martin Luther King in the 1960s.

Nevertheless, the African-Americans, who constitute 12.6 percent of the country’s population, still do not feel that they have been granted by their fellow Whites (72.4 percent of the population) respect and fair treatment. Therefore when Barack Obama emerged on the national scene of US politics as one likely to take the White House, it was an extremely unusual event. To make matters even more surprising, in the post 9/11 US when Muslims were on the dock to most Americans, Barack Obama had a Muslim middle name, being the son of a Kenyan Muslim married to an American white woman. Yet Barack Obama rose in the Democratic Party like a meteor. He came to national limelight after his brilliant performance at the National Convention of the Democratic Party in 2004 that nominated Senator John Kerry as the presidential candidate.

That speech was so exciting that he instantly attracted the attention of Americans. His colour was overlooked and people saw in him as a charismatic leader who could reach any heights. He was compared with one of the all-time stars in the list of US Presidents, John F Kennedy whose 50th death anniversary falls this week. In fact, what was wondrous was Barack Obama made it to the White House quicker than what it took JFK who went into the presidential race in 1960 riding on the back of being a war hero, a Congressman/Senator with significant standing and a family background that was the equivalent of royalty in the US context.

Therefore the question that naturally arises is what then had motivated the people in the 2008 presidential election to vote for Barack Obama by overlooking his colour and his otherwise short career as a politician at the national level? In an analysis to find reasons why Barack Obama was able to overcome what was apparently significant obstacles to the White House, the contribution of eight years of President Bush are undoubtedly of the essence. Had George W Bush not turned his country and the world upside down with his war on terror that resulted in US contributing US$ 2.2 trillions in Iraq alone that helped push the country into its worst economic depression in recent memory with 4486 lives of US men and women in uniform lost in Iraq and 2287 in Afghanistan in the process, USA would have had to wait much longer to send to the White House its first black President.

It was the impact of the two wars and Barack Obama’s promise of change that attracted Americans to vote him to office in the 2008 elections. Once there, America realised that an African-American had slipped past them. Two developments in post-Obama presidency brought out the racist nature of attacks on President Obama. First, was the emergence of the Tea Party phenomenon in the ranks of the Republican Party; and, second, the decision of President Obama, not just to remain satisfied at being the first Black President but to try and do something to keep his name in history through his healthcare reform. In the House, the Tea Party politicians now numbering 70 who have taken the President’s healthcare reform or the Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare as the object of their attacks on the President that smacks racism that Oprah Winfrey has underlined in her BBC address.

The dislike for President Obama was seen at its worst with the recent shutdown of the US federal government. The Tea Party group in Congress refused to fund the federal government to put pressure upon the President to abandon Obamacare and/or compromise on it according to their terms. These legislators refused to consider that the ACA was law (passed in 2010 before the Democrats lost their majority in the House) and they had no right to obstruct it. Nevertheless, they went ahead and shut down the federal government for 16 days and stopped short of embarrassing the United States defaulting for the first time ever in meeting its overseas financial obligations by refusing it the right to borrow, a routine request from the White House. For 16 nerve wracking days, the country and the world watched a political drama in which the country lost US$ 24 billions and achieved nothing except that it brought to surface the racial content of the dislike of the conservatives, in particular the Tea Party group, for President Obama that Oprah Winfrey has underlined by her bold interview to the BBC.

Despite America being the land of promise and the bastion of democracy, the darker side of the American saga keeps on surfacing on the US national scene regularly. That dark side was brought to the surface in the recent case, George Zimmermann versus Trayvon Martin. In that case, an all-white jury found George Zimmermann not guilty when all evidence proved that he killed an unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin purely on racial ground. Americans watched the case with rapt attention that brought African-Americans together on their perception that as a race; they are subjected to racial discrimination, the rule of law notwithstanding. Prominent American Blacks, including President Obama, and average blacks spoke in the media in the same vein about what it meant being a black in America. The common denominator of these concerns was that when a black moves among the whites, white Americans could not help looking over their shoulders with suspicion. Black American males are routinely the victims of racial profiling by the law enforcing agencies.

Oprah Winfrey however acceded that the United States has come a long way since the times of “Scottsboro Boys” when 9 young blacks in Scottsboro, Alabama were accused and tried for rape on fabricated charges, racially motivated and one that has become an example of miscarriage of justice in US judicial history. That happened in 1931. “It would be foolish to not recognise that we have evolved in that we’re not still facing the same kind of terrorism against black people en masse as was displayed with the Scottsboro boys. It’s gotten better.” Nevertheless, America has still to go some way in order to fulfil the commitment that “Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness” means the same for blacks as it does for whites. Oprah Winfrey feels that the prejudice against African-Americans will wither off but only when generations “who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism,” and dead and gone. That future for America is round the corner.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.
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The US Assistant Secretary’s visit

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Nisha Desai Biswal is more than an extremely accomplished individual. For someone who migrated at age 7 to the United States to reach the high office of the Assistant Secretary of the US State Department for South and Central Asia is a great achievement. The post of the Assistant Secretary in the US State Department is a political one, extremely important, and the equivalent of the Foreign Secretary/Additional Foreign Secretary in any country in South Asia . Prior to being nominated for the post of Assistant Secretary, Nisha Desai was the Assistant Administrator in USAid where the Administrator is Dr. Rajiv Shah, another American of Indian origin.

Nisha Desai Biswal was the super star where she was courting the Prime Minister and the former Prime Minister with the whole nation watching in rapt attention during her recent trip to Dhaka . She had apparently come to Dhaka on what was a familiarization trip that in the way the US State Department conducts its affair, is a very routine matter. A State Department official in the various rungs of the Department’s hierarchy do visit the countries he/she would be dealing in his/her official capacity as part of a routine familiarization trip. Nisha Desai Biswal’s Dhaka trip was part of that well-established system.

The US Embassy   that arranged the trip treated it as anything but routine.  It worked out a programme for the Assistant Secretary that gave the impression that she was coming on a mission to show Bangladesh the way out of its present dangerous political predicament. The Embassy did not restrict itself to arranging for her to meet the Prime Minister and the former Prime Minister only. It arranged for her to meet anybody and everybody who mattered in Bangladesh politically, economically and socially. There has not been any foreign dignitary who has visited Dhaka in recent times and has been given the importance that the Assistant Secretary has been given. In fact, if a list of whom she met was compiled and published, it could be an embarrassment for those who were not invited to meet her.

The Assistant Secretary came out as a dignified individual, soft spoken and amiable during the visit. Her official position entitles her; perhaps, courtesy calls on the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and given US’ importance to Bangladesh also perhaps to talk to the two leaders discreetly to resolve their differences. However, the way the trip was organized gave the impression explicitly that she was here to hold court not just with the two leaders but also with all the stakeholders as if she had the authority to tell them how to resolve their political problems. The way the stakeholders sang to the tune of the organizers also did not speak well of them or the country. The media acted as the cheerleader and helped turn the visit of the US Assistant Secretary into a media event of unusual political importance to Bangladesh .

No other country in South Asia– India , Pakistan , Nepal or Bhutan– would have given the Assistant Secretary’s visit the importance that Bangladesh has if she were to visit those countries on familiarization trips. Left to her to decide, the Assistant Secretary perhaps would not have asked for all the meetings that were arranged for her or the type of attention that she was shown because it was neither reasonable nor logical. There was one good reason for her to meet the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition though because her boss the US Secretary of State has already written to the two leaders on Bangladesh ’s current political stalemate and she needed to follow up on the letters. That follow up action should have been pursued discreetly and not under the glare of the media.

That did not happen and what happened with her visit was something that could happen only in Bangladesh . The organizers arranged these meetings with individuals and groups, including the military to allow the Assistant Secretary to hear from the stakeholders their views on the current political stalemate.  These meetings were also carried out in the glare of the media.  The organizers failed to consider the propriety of such meetings that were intended primarily to put pressure upon the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Not that in diplomacy a friendly power’s representative cannot or does not carry out such tasks but to be within diplomatic norms and propriety these should be carried out discreetly. The way the Assistant Secretary met civil society/business/­media/military groups were humiliating to the two top elected leaders of the country. Those who responded to the US Embassy also failed to consider that they allowed the US Embassy to take the country lightly.

The questionable way the trip was organized and implemented notwithstanding, it was the Prime Minister who expressed what she thought of the visit and also ensured its disappointing outcome. When Nisha Desai raised the issue of “inclusive” elections, the Prime Minister asked her to persuade the BNP to come to elections instead.  On credible elections, she dismissed her concerns by stating with over 5000 successful local government elections under the Election Commission such concerns were baseless. The Prime Minister went to the President immediately after the meeting and requested him to install an election time government that dismissed the Assistant Secretary’s request for “inclusive” election underlining the fact that she listened to Nisha Desai as a matter of courtesy and little else. In doing that, the Prime Minister also sent a message to the US Secretary of State that she was unable to pay heed to his request for holding elections after due consultation with the opposition.

A New York Times editorial  after Nisha Desai’s visit wrote: “If violations of rights continue, Bangladesh could face pressure, including perhaps sanctions, from the international community”. But then, this is not the first time Sheikh Hasina has chosen to upset the United States . The Leader of the Opposition received Nisha Desai within the bounds of decency and diplomatic norms. She discussed the current political situation with her assuming that she would carry her views to her boss on the current political impasse in response to his letter to her. Between the two political leaders, they clearly underscored that the objectives Nisha Desai Biswal tried to achieve with her routine familiarization trip was both wrong and demeaning to the country because of the manner in which it was pursued. The civil society and the groups/individuals who lose no chance to belittle the politicians were clearly on the wrong side by allowing themselves to be used by the organizers in a manner that was demeaning to the country.

Nisha Desai Biswal is new to her post but her Deputy Assistant Secretary for Bangladesh is Atul Keshyap, a career diplomat and a rising star in US State Department, must have briefed her before she came on this trip. Nevertheless, she showed inexperience about Bangladesh ’s complex politics. In her meeting with the Prime Minister, she was curtly rebuffed on the issue of “inclusive” elections that was the key element in the letter by her boss to Sheikh Hasina. Yet in her final programme in Dhaka with the media, she stated, when asked whether an elections without the BNP would be credible, that it was for the people to decide. A partisan media quickly interpreted the statement in conflicting ways.

Assistant Secretary Nisha Desai Biswal’s routine familiarization trip raised great hopes primarily because of the efforts of the organizers and as media hype and ended in humiliating the country because it was organized in disregard to diplomatic norms. The problem that the Assistant Secretary came to resolve is now in the hands of the President although people are not confident whether he will get anywhere with it.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Diplomats must follow norms


M. Serajul Islam

Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, while briefing the heads of diplomatic missions in Dhaka on October 30th on the political situation in Bangladesh, reminded them that they must follow diplomatic norms while on their tour of duty in the country. What the Foreign Minister said in the briefing held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not anything new. The norm the Foreign Minister was referring to have been scribed in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations under which countries conduct their diplomatic relations with each other worldwide.

The Vienna Convention was adopted in 1961.The Convention codifies the rules for the exchange and treatment of envoys between states, which have been firmly established in customary law for hundreds of years”. It has become an almost universally adopted Convention with 179 states party to it. Countries that have signed this Convention, and all independent states have, use it to conduct their diplomatic relations so that their diplomats are ensured that they can carry their duties without threat or influence in the host country. The Convention thus grants diplomats and diplomatic missions special privileges and immunities in a host country. Such privileges and immunities are granted by the host country in return for certain norms that diplomats are required to follow.

The Vienna Convention is not a large document. It has only 54 Articles. Nevertheless, it details the way countries establish diplomatic missions in each other’s counties, exchange diplomats, their rights and responsibilities; etc, etc. Article 41 of the Convention that is relevant to this article about norms diplomats must follow in the host country for the privileges and immunities they are given by the host country, reads as follows:

  1. “Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.
  2. All official business with the receiving State entrusted to the mission by the sending State shall be conducted with or through the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the receiving State or such other ministry as may be agreed. “

The paragraphs could not have been spelt in any manner more precise and more unambiguous. In the first sentence of Article 41 (1), diplomats are advised to respect the laws and regulations of the host country. There is a misconception in the public domain that as diplomats enjoys diplomatic immunity; they can act pretty much as they want in the host country. The sentence therefore states, to remove this confusion, that while in the host country, it is the duty of diplomats not to be disrespectful of their laws and regulations. Article 41(1) clearly links diplomatic immunity and privileges to the conduct of diplomats in the host country.

The second sentence of Article 41(1) completes the spirit of the Article. It forbids diplomats from interfering in the internal affairs of the host country. In fact, the sentence on this prohibition has been made sufficiently strong because it has mentioned the requirement that diplomats must not interfere in internal affairs of the host country in anyway as their duty. Article 41(2) is even more interesting and pertinent in the context of the advise of the Bangladesh Foreign Minister to the foreign envoys that they must follow norms while conducting their affairs in Bangladesh. This sub-para makes the Foreign Ministry the contact point between the foreign missions/diplomats and the host government. 

This provision, Article 41(2), states unambiguously that foreign missions must make the Foreign Ministry their main contact point for communicating with the host government. Thus diplomats/diplomatic missions are advised not to contact any other government ministry, agency, and department directly for their work in the host country. However, if the receiving and the sending states agree, the diplomats from the sending country may contact other Ministries/Departments/agencies in the receiving country. Nevertheless, the spirit of Article 41(2) is clear in interpretation. The diplomats of the sending country must keep the host country’s Foreign Ministry on the loop when they contact other Ministries/agencies/departments in the receiving country on the subject of such contacts.

In Bangladesh these days, while there are so many things that are happening in politics that may not be considered positive, one development that is unambiguously positive is the revolution in information. We know almost instantly anything and everything that is happening in our public life; in politics, economics, and society. The mushroom growth of newspapers/private TV channels and the Internet have allowed us to know things that happen in our public life almost the instant they happen. Therefore, we know that foreign Ambassadors/High Commissioners are active in our politics, sometimes more active than our politicians. They have a view on almost all aspects of our country and not at all shy in expressing it. The way they act leaves little doubt that either they have not heard of the Vienna Convention or if they have, they are not concerned about violating it.

Thus foreign envoys in Bangladesh call press conferences – like politicians -to tell the government and the political parties what they should do. They could not care less that by making such statements, they often cross the limits of simple decency like when they accuse the government as corrupt. The diplomats have not suddenly started their indulgence in our internal affairs. It is the country’s devastation during the war of liberation and the aid that Bangladesh’s development partners provided to rebuild a devastated Bangladesh that was used as the excuse by the Ambassadors/High Commissioners to act as Viceroys of our colonial days to become our self-appointed “guardians.” 

Subsequently, it has been the politics of conflict in the country that encouraged these High Commissioners and Ambassadors to institutionalize their role in our politics. As the ruling party became more and more interested to remain in power at any cost, it was the opposition that was largely responsible for giving the diplomats a dominant role in our politics. Aware that the aid card was a vital one, the opposition went to the envoys of the country’s development partners to put pressure on the government to relent on their demands. The envoys that the opposition contacted were encouraged by their capitals to respond because they wanted their aid to be utilized properly. Of course, these diplomats relished their roles in our politics as such roles gave them access to political leaders, like the President, the Prime Minister, Ministers, etc, that they would not have met in any other capital and that too to tell them what to do. They enjoyed the limelight.

The cold war politics was also another reason that paved the way for diplomats to eventually become our political guardians. It was the western powers that stood behind the regime of President HM Ershad the entire decade of the 80s that he was in office. In fact, during his time, it was the government that brought the diplomats to our politics and not the other way round. During the entire period of President Ershad, the foreign diplomats, particularly those from the United States, the Middle East; Pakistan and Iraq could very well get their ways on any issue they wanted with the Foreign Ministry in total darkness. President Ershad had this weakness for golf and there were many Ambassadors whose countries did not give Bangladesh a cent in aid but yet could dictate the Foreign Ministry because they were “golf buddies” of the President. With the fall of President Ershad, the diplomats did not lose any of their influence that he had largely helped institutionalize. The opposition came to their “rescue” and more than compensated.

Therefore while the Foreign Minister’s call to the diplomats to act according to norms was the right advice, she would need to consider her party’s role in the past in interacting and encouraging these diplomats to be involved in our politics. In fact, the role that the Ambassadors and High Commissioners played during the 2001-2006 BNP tenure and during the tenure of the 2007-2008 caretaker government should be the subject of research study of researchers in the Universities who deal with issues of diplomacy and conduct of diplomatic relations. During the BNP’s last term, an informal group of envoys of the developed countries, the Tuesday Club, had initiated an international conference in Dhaka to embarrass the government that eventually fell through because one of the members of the Club refused to go along. 

At times during that period, the High Commissioners/Ambassadors appeared as if they were the opposition. The generally accepted view in Bangladesh is that the 2007 emergency in Bangladesh that many in the country accepted had pushed Bangladesh back by at least two decades in terms of its development was the fruit of the efforts of a few diplomats and UN officials. This group acting in tandem “manufactured” a fax message from the UN headquarters in New York where it was stated that if the military assisted the BNP Government to hold one-party elections that the BNP wanted, the UN would stop taking pace keepers from Bangladesh. The fax when produced by General Moyeen in his historic encounter with President Yazuddin worked like magic with the latter signing the proclamation of emergency without a whimper.

The BNP in its role as opposition in 1996-2001 and under the present term of the Awami League has given the diplomats access to our politics. However, meanwhile there has been a paradigm shift in the way the diplomats have been accustomed to interfere in the country’s politics. In her present term, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has distanced herself from the Ambassadors/High Commissioners. Their access to her at will is no longer the norm at the PMO. Ambassadors/High Commissioners are now allowed to meet the Prime Minister as determined by protocol, namely upon assuming their posts or when leaving. Otherwise, these diplomats are allowed to meet the Prime Minister on a case-by-case basis where the PMO determines the appointments.

This change made at the PMO is no doubt the correct one. It should have been done long before because the honour and dignity of the country demanded it. The people of the country have silently faced humiliations, as envoys met our top government leaders at will and embarrassed them, including the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, while the PMO has set the right path, Ministers have not taken the cue. They have courted these diplomats and continue to do so for personal reasons. In fact, a recent news item carried by leading Dhaka English daily has stated that the Foreign Minister has become the subject of annoyance of many Embassies because of the frequent requests they receive from her office for grant of visas! The diplomats also received encouragement in meddling in our internal affairs from our civil society; business organizations and the media. Envoys wherever they serve seek and get forums to speak of their countries and on relations with the host countries. Dhaka is perhaps the only country where envoys are invited by media/civil society and business organizations to speak on our politics!  

Thus the FM’s call to the diplomats alone would not serve any purpose unless with the government, the opposition, the civil society, the business groups, the media all think the way the Foreign Minister has. Unfortunately, even the Foreign Minister’s way of reminding the diplomats about their duties under the Vienna Convention was not the correct way although the reason to do so was undoubtedly the right decision. In her meeting, the envoys were shown videos and photographs to discredit the opposition. She portrayed the BNP/Jamat as terrorists/fundamentalists to encourage them to support the government over its decision to hold elections in the country under the Interim Government. Therefore, she did not draw the line and direct the envoys to adhere to the Vienna Convention but encouraged them to look at the country’s domestic politics the government’s way.

The supporters of the ruling party in the media have accused the US Ambassador Dam Mozena in the present politics as pro-BNP. In 2006-2008, the British High Commissioner was accused by the BNP, as being pro-AL. Therein is the problem. As long as the ruling party and the opposition do not get over their mindless politics of conflict for political power, the envoys will continue to have the ground made for them to continue to play their political roles in our politics, the Vienna Convention notwithstanding. Now that the Foreign Minister has underlined that the envoys must follow diplomatic norms, albeit in a biased manner, perhaps the civil society, business groups, the media and business institutions that are not playing the power game or politics would stop allowing the envoy forums to humiliate Bangladesh and its people.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador, Chairman, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies and member, The Dhaka Forum