I remember visiting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1980, it was directly after I had earned my major in international relations from Dhaka University. It was a time when the ministry was graced by high profile diplomats such as Ambassador Faruq Ahmed Choudhury, Ambassador Humayun Kabir, Ambassador Farooq Sobhan, and Ambassador Mohiuddin Ahmed, to name a few. Meeting them was always an honour.
At the time I was pursuing my passion for journalism as a reporter for the weekly Holiday under one of my icons, the late Enayetullah Khan, as the paper’s university correspondent.
Then came the 14th Islamic Foreign Minister’s Conference (ICFM) and I was recruited as the first ever conference aide by Ambassador Humayun Kabir -- a sophisticated man who wore a lungi and a punjabi while presenting his credentials to Ayotollah Khomeini in Iran. It was an era when the ministry wasn’t plagued by a culture of cliques, misuse of power, and the personal agendas of a few superseding the interests of the nation.
Despite a difficult and turbulent period post-independence and the successive military regimes, most of these diplomats from the Pakistan Civil Service were in a class of their own in every way. Their demanour, behaviour, intellect, and, above all, diplomatic skills helped the governments of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, General Ziaur Rahman, and General Hussain Muhammad Ershad build their respective legacies, for better or worse.
Those were the days.
However, it appears that our current slate of diplomats is completely different from its forebears -- with strong divisions amongst themselves, blessed with the favour of some of their seniors (both in terms of impunity and in getting the job in the first place).
And this fall in quality is reflected in their performance.
Is Bangladesh doomed to bear the burden of nearly a million Rohingya refugees due to our ineffective, elitist diplomats?
In my two-and-a-half-year stint at the London High Commission, I almost never had any good news to send home.
When I got the job all the way back in 2015, it took me a month to get my visa stamped on my red diplomatic passport.
Quite recently, Bangladesh lost in the elections to the top post of the London-based International Maritime Organization because of our over-confident diplomats overestimating their capacity for negotiation and diplomacy.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was in Dhaka recently, just a day after the Bangladesh High Commission in London was ransacked by BNP activists. And what did we achieve? Nothing more than hyped-up comments by ministry higher-ups.
Boris Johnson has expressed his opinion that it would be a better idea to keep the Rohingya in Bangladesh until Myanmar ensures their safety upon return.
On that same breath, it is alleged that, instead of sending an experienced diplomat to Myanmar, a rather inexperienced “junior,” who managed to supersede the more experienced people, was sent to the neighbouring country in the midst of a major crisis.
It remains to be seen if sending this gentleman was indeed the right call.
But now, with funds shrinking as aid donors are losing interest over the Rohingya, is Bangladesh doomed to bear the burden of nearly a million Rohingya refugees due to our ineffective, elitist diplomats?
The much-awaited announcement of the ban on direct air cargo shipments by Biman from Dhaka to London being lifted was never brought up during Johnson’s visit.
We were too subservient to bring up the issue, it seems.
Imagine if that happened to the British High Commission in Dhaka, our diplomats would have been running around seeking forgiveness from their foreign overlords, as “our largest bilateral donor” must always be kept happy.
The situation is clear: We need a comprehensive clean-up in the top political and bureaucratic positions within the ministry.
Bangladesh needs a more pro-active diplomacy, and the need has never been felt greater than it is now.
Any success we have witnessed so far regarding the Rohingya crisis has been due to the personality, charisma, and leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, traits which world leaders are now well aware of.
But we cannot keep relying on our leader alone to solve the problems of our nation.
Nadeem Qadir is a UN Dag Hammarskjold Fellow in journalism.