The nation’s foreign office has said not a word in response to recent remarks by the Indian army chief of staff implicating Bangladesh in what he saw as a conspiracy by China and Pakistan to have people from Bangladesh pushed into India’s north east.
Ethics and the norms of diplomacy dictated that Bangladesh, through its foreign policy establishment, speak out on the issue and serve the necessary reprimand to a foreign individual over a statement that had little basis or logic.
That the government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is certainly not an administration to be in league with Pakistan against India is an incontrovertible truth. Apparently, our mandarins of diplomacy quite missed this point.
And they have kept their silence. That Bangladesh cannot and will not agree to be part of any scheme by China to destabilize India is again a truism which the foreign office thought were best handled through silence.
The truth about diplomacy is that it is served best when it is put forth boldly and unequivocally. It ought to have been for the foreign office to inform Bangladesh’s people that it did not take General Bipin Rawat’s remarks lightly, that indeed it registered its displeasure and protest over the insinuation which was directed at Dhaka through his condemnation of how Islamabad and Beijing have been ganging up, as he sees it, against Delhi.
The eerie silence of the nation’s diplomatic establishment on the Rawat remarks is stupefying. It is more, which is that it raises the spectre of a country, ours, which has no foreign policy at all; or indeed if it has one, it is too enervated to be taken seriously.
One remembers only too well the circumstances in which Bangladesh declined to be part of the summit of Saarc nations scheduled to be held in Islamabad. There was a very legitimate reason why Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina could not and would not go to Islamabad: The Pakistan government had muddied the waters through its interference in the war crimes trials in Bangladesh.
Our diplomatic establishment stayed quiet, until the Indians let it be known that they were staying away from the summit. Their reason was simple: As long as Pakistan kept pushing its terrorist groups into action against India, Delhi could not go to Islamabad.
It was only after the Indians had stated their clear position on the issue of their participation or otherwise at the Saarc summit that the Bangladesh authorities decided to get moving, finally. It did not help much, though, for obvious reasons. Dhaka made it known, only after Delhi had spoken, that it would not attend the summit as a consequence of Islamabad’s blatant interference in matters relating to Bangladesh.
That Bangladesh cannot and will not agree to be part of any scheme by China to destabilize India is again a truism which the foreign office thought were best handled through silence
The statement made little visible impression on people. The impact it would have had on the country and on the South Asian region had it been made earlier, before the Indians acted for their own reason, would be enormous. Because Dhaka stayed quiet until Delhi spoke up, Bangladesh’s decision on the summit issue was ignored. The fire had been stolen by the Indians, and our diplomats did not have a clue as to how they had lost it.
When diplomacy fails to live up to national aspirations, it is the state which loses respect in the international community. And diplomacy for Bangladesh has more often than not been an embarrassing affair.
Back in the late 1990s, it was given out that Farooq Sobhan would be Bangladesh’s nominee for the office of Commonwealth secretary general. He was pitted against New Zealand’s Don McKinnon. The expectation in Dhaka was that the foreign office would plunge into an assertive campaign for Sobhan through lobbying the member-nations of the Commonwealth.
That did not happen. The worst was when the nation’s High Commission in London demonstrated its indifference to the Sobhan candidacy rather than campaign extensively for him. The candidate was left to fend for himself.
McKinnon carried the day when the Bangladesh government, without the courtesy of informing Farooq Sobhan, decided at the last minute to withdraw his candidacy in favour of the nominee from New Zealand.
Bangladesh’s diplomacy has faltered over the Rohingya crisis. The foreign office proved quite inadequate to the task of engaging the Myanmar government in purposeful talks over the issue. The inadequacy in Bangladesh’s policy toward Myanmar came to be revealed in bigger detail when it reached a deal on the Rohingya with the Naypyitaw authorities that patently was shrouded in confusion.
Had people like Antonio Guterres not stepped in, to make it clear that the Bangladesh-Myanmar agreement had too many holes in it, it is quite possible that the Rohingya refugees would now be on their way back to a future of repression in their country. For Bangladesh, the agreement with Myanmar was not its edifying moment.
Diplomacy does not work in an atmosphere of embarrassing silence. Nor does it work through means half-hearted or timid or both. The failure of our diplomats in the Middle East to speak up for our own citizens eking out a bare existence there, particularly when the latter are badly treated by natives and by governments in the region, is glaring. What point is there having diplomatic missions abroad when they are disinclined to protecting the rights and dignity of their own citizens compelled to be away from home in the interest of a good future for themselves and their families?
The foreign office at Shegun Bagicha needs a shot in the arm through a change across the board. Professionalism must be brought back into an exercise of Bangladesh’s diplomacy. It can either assert itself abroad or it can atrophy into pointlessness. The latter truth is, sadly enough, at work in these present times.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.