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The many tales of our diplomats abroad

By Syed Badrul Ahsan ::

It is time to sit back and reflect on Bangladesh’s diplomacy and the men and women sent abroad to articulate such diplomacy. The degree to which our ambassadors and high commissioners have since the early 1970s been able to speak forcefully and persuasively for the country abroad calls for a serious and purposeful rethink.
The urgency of such a reassessment becomes necessary in light of the recent appointment of a former inspector general of police as the nation’s new ambassador to Spain. The appointment of Hassan Mahmood Khandker happens to be yet one more instance of a lateral entry into the diplomatic service that the country could have done without. In recent times, or relatively recent times, sending off such military officers as General Abdur Rahman to Paris in the Ershad era and General Masududdin in the period of the last caretaker government has certainly not been of any tangible benefit to the country. The Foreign Office ought not to be a place where individuals, either retired from their professions or needing to be kept at a safe distance by the government of the day, can be dumped before being sent out of the country, ostensibly to speak for the country. Such ‘diplomats’ generally end up not speaking for the country. In the process, it is the good professional diplomats who stay deprived of opportunities to serve the nation abroad.
In Bangabandhu’s time, the newly-returned General Khwaja Wasiudddin, lately of the Pakistan army, needed to be given a position commensurate with his rank and dignity. Obviously, he could not be expected to serve as chief of staff of the Bangladesh army given that throughout the War of Liberation in 1971, he was in the service of the Pakistan army. Bangabandhu packed him off as Bangladesh’s ambassador to Kuwait. Whether Wasiuddin was able to contribute to a reinforcing of Bangladesh’s links with Kuwait in his new avatar is for students of diplomacy to judge. And there are the other inconveniences that rulers at a given time are subject to. Having assumed power in late 1975, General Ziaur Rahman felt the need to have his one-time army superior, General K.M. Shafiullah, out of the way. Shafiullah would go on to serve as ambassador and high commissioner abroad, under Zia and General Ershad. Similar was the case with Air Vice Marshal (ret’d) A.K. Khandker, who served a long stint as ambassador and high commissioner abroad. The question, though, relates to the extent to which such appointments undermined the process of the shaping of a dynamic foreign policy for the country.
And the difficulty is not just an appointment of senior military and police officers, serving or retired, as Bangladesh’s top diplomats abroad. There are too the innumerable instances of bureaucrats not part of the diplomatic structure but closely linked to the political party in power at a given period in time being appointed ambassadors. Such appointments have by and large (with exceptions of course) yielded precious few results. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party government led by Begum Khaleda Zia sent former secretary S. Hasan Ahmed to Washington and then former bureaucrats Mufazzal Karim and Sabihuddin Ahmed and former Jatiyo Sangsad speaker Sheikh Razzaque Ali to London. None of these men made any lasting imprints on Bangladesh’s diplomacy and indeed, in the manner of so many others before and after them, do not appear to have made a forceful pitch for the nation’s foreign policy in the capitals where they have served.
To be fair to the military officers and bureaucrats who ended up serving as diplomats, there are the many instances of professional diplomats who have either been allowed to serve incredibly long years abroad as ambassadors or who have simply devised the perfect ways and means of persuading the government of the day of the necessity of their remaining abroad for years on end. Anwarul Karim, having served abroad in responsible positions for years, did not return home. Ismat Jahan, the current ambassador in Brussels, has been lucky as well. She has not served in a home posting for years. Obviously, such uninterrupted stay abroad, ostensibly in the interest of the state, has not sat well with diplomats who should have been going abroad and yet who have been cooling their heels in Dhaka. Add to that the instance of Giasuddin, the high commissioner in London who, once the BNP returned to power in 2001, was reassigned as ambassador to Vietnam. He declined to proceed to Hanoi and stayed back in London, albeit after resigning from the Foreign Service. There was a grave absence of professionalism here. Pakistan is one country where a strong, intellectually powerful Bangladesh high commissioner should speak for the nation. That has, unfortunately, never been the case.
The impediments to a proper exercise of Bangladesh’s diplomacy do not end here. The move by the present government to send to Delhi and Washington as ambassadors two of the nation’s diplomats who went into retirement at the beginning of this century has naturally dampened enthusiasm at the Foreign Office, especially in those who had quite properly been looking for advancement up the diplomatic ladder in line with established procedure. Of course it is all right to bring superannuated diplomats back into service, but only as a necessity that cannot be ignored. Subimal Dutta, India’s foreign secretary in Nehruvian times, was plucked from retirement and sent to Bangladesh as high commissioner by Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s. It was an exception. We certainly have had no such exceptional circumstances before us.
Dynamism in diplomacy is never the forte of retired generals or secretaries and not always of those who are part of the Foreign Office. All too often, relations between states are a happy outcome of the intellectual contributions of eminent citizens sent to serve a nation abroad. Bangabandhu’s three and a half years in office were certainly a period when Bangladesh proudly had some of its brightest citizens speak for it abroad. Khan Shamsur Rahman served as ambassador to Moscow and high commissioner in Delhi with distinction. The academic Azizur Rahman Mallick accomplished much as high commissioner in India before returning home to replace Tajuddin Ahmad as finance minister. Khan Sarwar Murshid, distinguished as an academic, a scholar and writer, served the country well as ambassador to Poland at a time when the Cold War was at its height.
In the times of General Hussein Muhammad Ershad, the scholar-bureaucrat Syed Najmuddin Hashim was charmingly symbolic of Bangladesh in such global capitals as Moscow and Yangon. Sheikh Hasina’s government sent the academic Saidur Rahman Khan to London as high commissioner.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a bdnews24.com columnist.