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Analog policy in a digital age

  • Published at 03:23 pm October 12th, 2014

AH Mahmud Ali’s deliberations echoed the words used by a foreign minister from the 1950s. The prime minister’s visit has been “fruitful” – this is what we read in old printed matters on the then premier of Pakistan, Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy’s visit to the United States. It really was so back then. Suhrawardy, who dismissed alliances with poorer nations, saying 0+0+0=0, favoured making Pakistan the most allied ally of Washington.

Suhrawardy’s countrymen had little scope to know about up-to-date news of the outcome of any state-level visits abroad. Today’s Bangladeshi foreign minister, however, couldn’t foresee that information travelling from New York to Dhaka within moments, thanks to the internet, the cellphone, and satellite television.

So Ali was trying to glorify Premier Sheikh Hasina’s visit to America – the UN headquarters to be precise – days after his cabinet colleague and a member of the entourage, Abdul Latif Siddique, had already earned public wrath for his controversial remarks. At the JFK airport earlier, Team Hasina, numbering 180, was greeted by angry protesters, all expatriate Bangladeshis.

In Dhaka, newsmen were presented with an “earthshaking” story, carried by the government-run BSS news agency, “Bangladesh's image has been brightened further in the international arena following the successful and fruitful participation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the just-concluded 69th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York.”

How does a single visit brighten the national image worldwide, and so easily at that? We’ve witnessed some people losing their sense of proportion while serving a dictatorial regime to survive the competition of appeasement. Only a report without attribution and objectivity can substantiate Ali’s claim lacking concrete evidence. Barring rhetoric on the Facebook pages of the ruling party men, we didn’t see any reflections of “brightening image” in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, or Al-Jazeera.

The state-run radio and television, during the Ershad regime, called each and every foreign visit by the military dictator “fruitful.” Many years later, when we were covering a bilateral meeting, one of our humourous colleagues had said, “Now I understand what it (fruitful) means. If the meeting room is full of fruits, it becomes fruitful.”

The foreign minister was all praises about the premier’s UNGA speech, customarily drafted by his ministry. Hasina spoke of many things – global peace, security, militancy, secularism, and war crimes – but not the state of democracy back home. Anyway, she had at least managed to meet the world leaders when her government’s only target was to attain indirect recognition from them.

Washington, London, and even the UN have yet to change their positions on having reservations about the January 5 elections. But Ali claimed that the UN chief thanked Hasina for restoring a “stable environment” after that manipulated election. Let me contrast Ban Ki-moon’s latest message his ministry had omitted: “Political dialogue is essential for solving differences peacefully and reaching a broad-based agreement on the future of the country.” Why and how is the issue of dialogue relevant to us and our friends if everything is okay?

Our diplomats are so sensitive (or shy) that they refrained from publishing that message, though not such a strongly worded one, in the official supplement on 40 years of Dhaka’s joining the UN. It was “prepared for a book that will be published by the Bangladeshi Mission to the United Nations,” the Secretary-General’s office informed me. I was also advised to contact the Bangladesh mission for further information but no reply came.

In a 1999 episode of the BBC’s Hardtalk, Tim Sebastian asked a Myanmar ambassador if he was ashamed of representing an undemocratic regime overseas. I understand our foreign office is embarrassed, not at having the disease of democratic deficiency, but at reading the prescription for its remedy. What message did you seek from the UN Secretary-General when you know he might talk about democracy and politics and you don’t have the guts to print it?

Ali, a career diplomat who took charge during the political crisis leading up to (and beyond) the 2014 elections, is bearing the legacy of not giving priority to national interests over the regime’s interests. His predecessor, Dipu Moni, was so focused on increasing the number of her foreign tours that she could not bear the huge burden of Bangladesh’s interests elsewhere.

Otherwise, our performance in areas such as manpower exports, remittance-earning, foreign direct investment into the country, and attracting foreign tourists would have been far better. Relations with America and Europe – the two main export destinations – and the Middle East – the main manpower receiving region – had reportedly soured. The Hasina regime failed to secure reciprocity from India, and prospective investing countries like China and Japan too mostly found a non-serious mood in Dhaka.

The foreign ministry’s website doesn’t define what its economic diplomacy is. Rather, the very introduction of the ministry contains a grammatical error: “The Ministry’s goals is to develop and maintain friendly relations …”

In its official site, Kuala Lumpur states: “Malaysia's foreign policy is basically an extension of Malaysia’s domestic policy.” Our foreign policy, often delinked from our domestic realities and the people’s needs and aspirations, is practically hidden in the pockets of a few leaders. Therefore, quite naturally, that can’t be seen and read online. 

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