Remembering Syed Muazzem Ali on the first anniversary of his death
Muazzem signed my posting order, appointing me a second secretary to the Bangladesh Embassy in Bangkok. He called me on the intercom and asked me to come to his room. After handing over the appointment letter, Muazzem remarked with a serious look: “You are not giving me much attention at the headquarters, but once in the embassy you will find that the director (personnel) is more important than your ambassador. You can’t escape from me!” Leg pulling was common between us.
Muazzem Ali, senior to me in service, advised me in earnest: “Do not pin yourself down to chancery, go out to meet people in all walks of life. That would be rewarding for a diplomat.”
His elder brother, Syed Mohammed Ali -- the famous SM Ali, a star in journalism in South and Southeast Asia -- was the managing editor of The Bangkok Post. Syed Muazzem Ali told me that although he had moved out to Manila, I would still find a cordial reception in that influential newspaper in his name. Indeed!
Once diplomats are posted to embassies, they need strong support and an understanding of the administration at the headquarters for the success of their missions abroad. Any innovative initiative involving financial and political matters needed consent of the headquarters.
My visit to The Bangkok Post with password “SM Ali” opened all doors. The foreign editor, supplement editor, photo editor, news editor -- all opened their respective cabinets to show me what they had in the Bangladesh archives. Sorry to say, all they were holding were disaster news and photographs.
The paper advised me to provide positive news, photographs, materials on a regular basis. We had good coverage of events in the missions and visits of high dignitaries. The Bangkok Post helped us to bring out supplements free of cost by raising advertisements. So far so good for the two SM Ali brothers! Later in life, SM Ali returned to Bangladesh and became the founder-editor of The Daily Star.
Syed Muazzem had an eventful diplomatic career. His achievements were many. Just to single out one which is associated with the very soul of Bangladesh: During his tenure as Bangladesh ambassador to Paris, the application came up in Unesco for the recognition of February 21 as the International Mother Language Day. Muazzem Ali made very effective lobbying with the high delegations accredited to Unesco, ambassadors based in Paris, and the high officials of the world body, to make the Bangladesh bid go through.
He very ably assisted the Bangladesh delegation headed by the education minister and coordinated with the Bangladeshi-Canadians who made the first unofficial application for recognition. Bangladesh achieved the objective largely because of the congenial environment created by Ambassador Syed Muazzem Ali.
During her first term, Sheikh Hasina appointed Muazzem, a freedom fighter, as the foreign secretary. In the course of discharging his duties, Syed Muazzem earned the trust and confidence of the prime minister. He became a confidante, which later on landed him in trouble with the caretaker government of Justice Latifur Rahman. Justice Rahman even made certain observations about the foreign secretary in his memoir. Muazzem Ali went on to his normal retirement.
During the 2001 general elections, when BNP came to power, Syed Ali spent most of his time in America with his sons. In 2008, AL returned to power and it was the expectation of his colleagues that Muazzem would be vindicated. But there was no word from Dhaka.
By sheer coincidence, we were in the adjacent suburb with our daughter’s family in the US. Both families met on a regular basis. One day, Muazzem asked me to come. When we met, he said: “Be witness that Dipu Moni called me to take up the chairmanship of Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS). What do you think?” A very tricky matter indeed! Muazzem informed the minister that since he was spending six months in the US every year, he would not be able to do justice to the assignment.
Muazzem maintained his contact with policy-makers in AL. As AL was re-elected in 2014, it became clear to him that an ambassadorial offer was round the corner. I asked: “Are you going to London? Among other prerequisites, you are a Sylheti.” He laughed and said the centrepiece of Bangladesh diplomacy was in New Delhi. His dream came true.
From Delhi, whenever Muazzem came to Dhaka, we used to meet. His wife Tuhfa received me and my wife Rebeka cordially, and after serving delicacies, the wives would disappear, allowing us uninterrupted talking. When his assignment in Delhi was about to be completed, he came to Dhaka. He handed me a pack and asked to open it. Oh! It was a Pierre Cardin pen which, in his absence now, I cherish most. His plan was to visit his sons, come back to Delhi to make farewell calls, and return to Dhaka to share a basketful of reminiscences.
From Delhi, Muazzem returned to his motherland -- for whose cause he had defected from the Pakistan Embassy in Washington in 1971 -- only for 10 days to say eternal farewell to innumerable dear ones on December 30, 2019. The Foreign Office celebrated his contribution in a memorial meeting. Muazzem was buried with state honours befitting a freedom fighter. Rest in peace, dear friend.
Ambassador Shafiullah was a close associate of Syed Muazzem Ali for over 40 years.