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A Bangladeshi Diplomat in the Land Down Under
Ambassador M. Serajul Islam
I started my career as a professional diplomat in the Pakistan Foreign Service (ex-PFS cadre) before joining the Bangladesh Foreign Service. I went to Canberra in April, 1979 for training in International Relations and Diplomacy, a programme of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for its foreign service probationers.
The training programme was of a very high standard, comparable to any such training programme anywhere. The Australian probationers were brilliant young graduates from Australia's top universities. Peter Varghese, one of the Australian probationers, later became the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. There were 12 Australians and 8 others from the developing countries of their respective countries’ foreign service cadre.
We visited all the Australian states as part of the training programme. We thus saw all the important places of Australia that most Australians do not see in their lifetime, in fact never at all. Australia is a fascinating and beautiful continent worthwhile to spend any amount of money for tourism. Australian federal government officials who were residents with us in Brassey House in Canberra called us “the lucky blokes” because we were shown Australia in a manner that they could not hope to see even in their dreams!
There was racism under the surface in Australia although, in our training programme, we saw no traces of it. A Ghanaian diplomat in our training course was denied a drink in a pub in the small Western Australian town of Broome that we visited. The bartender told him that the pub did not sell drinks to “darkies.” A fellow trainee from one of the Pacific Islands, a mountain of a man, poured the drink on the bartender’s head and walked out! There were significant anti-Asian and anti-South Asian feelings in Sydney those days about which we read in the newspapers.
The Australians made every effort to arrange a successful training course to suit their probationers as well as the foreign trainees. They unwittingly nevertheless caused eyebrows to be raised by the foreign trainees on a few occasions. In Townsville, we visited a zinc-mine deep underground. We were led to have a shower on coming out of the mine. It was a community shower. The Australian trainees undressed and showered. We were left standing like fools. We had an official lunch to attend. Hence, we had to shower, the Australian way!
Soon after I returned home from the training that lasted four months and worked in the Foreign Ministry for a few months more, I was posted to Canberra as Second Secretary. Our High Commissioner in Australia at the time was Air Vice Marshal AK Khandker. I had met him a few times during my training. He requested the Ministry for the posting to replace Mr Ruhul Amin who was a Counsellor.
I was very happy with my posting for many reasons. I loved the country from what I saw during my training. As a cricket fan, I knew a lot about Australia from following Australian cricket and cricketers. A diplomat on his first posting could not have asked for a better High Commissioner than Air Vice Marshal (Retired) AK Khandker. He was the Deputy Chief of our Liberation Forces during our glorious war of liberation and a gentleman of the highest quality. He was at the airport that morning in May 1980 with his wife to receive me, my wife and our 7-year-old daughter, a truly unexpected and noble gesture. A career head of mission would have sent a staff instead!
The High Commissioner picked us up for lunch at the Residence the same day. He himself drove the Flag Car, a Mercedes 280 that was majestic in appearance those days unlike the compact types these days. I was overawed by the fact that the High Commissioner was driving and the way he prepared himself before he started the car that told me that he was a perfectionist. And he looked like a twin of the famous actor Omar Sheriff!
The Bangladesh High Commission in Canberra had a Counsellor, Mrs Enayet Karim, the widow of Mr Enayet Karim, one of our most distinguished foreign service officers, a freedom fighter and a Foreign Secretary and myself beside the High Commissioner. There were two home-based staff, the High Commissioner's Personal Assistant and an Accountant. The PA, a stenographer, was expected to type for the Counsellor and me. He was never enthusiastic to type for me. I had picked typing while a graduate student in Canada in 1975-77. I used to do my official typing with a personal manual typewriter.
Report writing for the headquarters was a major work of the Mission in the days I was a career diplomat. A great deal of the responsibility of writing reports of the Mission in Canberra fell on me. Representing issues of bilateral interests to the Australian government, particularly to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, the contact point for all foreign Embassies/High Commissions, was carried out largely by the High Commissioner. Only occasionally, the High Commissioner asked the Counsellor or me to pursue such cases.
We were pursuing with the Australian Government the candidature of Mr Shafiul Azam, then the Cabinet Secretary of Bangladesh, for the post of Executive Director of ESCAP. One day, the High Commissioner returned from the Australian Foreign Ministry with a piece of news that should have made him extremely happy. It did not. The Australians informed him that the UN Secretary-General Mr. Kurt Waldheim had chosen a Bangladeshi to the ESCAP post but it was not Mr Shafilul Azam. The Secretary General chose Mr SAMS Kibria, the Foreign Secretary!
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in their joy that the Foreign Secretary had become the ESCAP Executive Director had perhaps forgotten to inform the High Commissioner that there was no need to pursue Mr Shafiul Azam's candidature anymore. The story behind AK Khandker's embarrassment about learning of Mr Kibria selection from the Australians while representing Mr Shafiul Azam’s candidature was an intriguing story that I later learnt from my contacts in our Foreign Ministry.
Mr Kurt Waldheim had gone on a visit to Dhaka before the choice of the new Executive Director was made. He met Mr Shafiul Azam and was not impressed. He also met Mr Kibria who was a career diplomat of the highest excellence and was instantly impressed. The swap was suggested to the Secretary-General who agreed readily. The Foreign Ministry failed to inform the High Commissioner about it, an inexcusable faux pas undoubtedly!
Australians were extremely supportive of the Bangladesh War of Liberation. Thus, after our liberation when diplomatic relations were established, Australia placed Bangladesh after Papua New Guinea towards which it had a special interest being its former colonial master, as an Australian ODA receiving country. Australian ODA was given after very careful consideration of Bangladesh’s socio-economic needs and went to quality projects.
Aid relations was a major bilateral subject of relations between Bangladesh and Australia during my tenure in Canberra. The issues of aid were largely dealt with and decided between the External Resources Division and the Australian High Commission in Dhaka. The Bangladesh High Commission acted mainly as a mailbox. Bilateral trade was also negligible. There were few other contexts of our bilateral relations to keep the High Commission working overtime.
Thus, I had a lot of time to interact in the diplomatic community. We formed a group that we named the Press, Information, and Cultural Cooperation Association (PICCA) of diplomats from developing countries. The group was very active. We invited the Australian Prime Minister to one of our events and he attended. Dinners and receptions within the diplomatic community were part of the routine. Australians, particularly their news media, used to be fascinated with the sari of our women. There were many occasions when my wife and I were photographed by Canberra's only newspaper, The Canberra Times simply because my wife was wearing the sari!
A good number of Bangladeshis including few prominent civil servants of the ex-CSP cadre; Mr AKM Jalaluddin, Mr Ezazul Huq, Mr Abdullah Haroon Pasha, and Mr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury (PhD), who later became the Foreign Affairs Adviser attended the Australian National University in Canberra with Australian Government Scholarship. Engineering recruits of Bangladesh Biman were trained in Sydney under an agreement with Qantas.
There were only a handful of Bangladeshi families in Canberra. A much larger number lived in Sydney and Melbourne. They were much more dependent on the Embassy then than these days. Therefore, there was a steady and close connection between the Embassy and the Bangladeshis. Two sons of a close friend of my father lived in Sydney. One of them, Dr Mahbubur Rahman was a very successful doctor. We visited them a few times in Sydney. They took us to see all the sights of Sydney and among them were the Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Blue Mountains.
I was the only male diplomat other than the High Commissioner in the High Commission. We used to spend long hours talking about many issues outside the official ones. He narrated his experience in our liberation war during these conversations and I listened, often mesmerized. Later when I retired from service, he gave me his book “১৯৭১: ভেতরে বাইরে” (1971: Bhitore Bairey) that he wrote in 2014 and asked me to translate to English, I discovered that he had told me everything he wrote in the book during our conversations in Canberra. The book is perhaps one of the few authentic books on our liberation war written by someone who saw the war as close as possible. He was the Deputy Chief of the Bangladesh Liberation Forces.
Air Vice-Marshal Khandker did not publish the translation because of the controversy that the original book had raised. My translation of the book is in the care of his wife, a lady of the highest...
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...integrity and personality who treated us like family. The High Commissioner is now very sick and his memory has mostly failed him, sadly. Air Vice-Marshal AK Khandker is one of the very few legends of our liberation war, a patriot in the truest sense of the term.
I arrived in Canberra at a time when the relations between the High Commission and the Bangladeshis in Canberra was unpleasant. It centred around a staff member who wanted to stay in Australia after he was recalled to Dhaka. He had a handicapped son. Some members of the Bangladesh Association took the side of the staff member and embarrassed the High Commissioner who was a stickler for rules. He ensured that the staff went back that upset the Bangladeshis. The matter received bad publicity in the media with some Bangladeshis actively collaborating against the High Commissioner.
My interactions with the Bangladeshi community in Australia was mixed. Our expatriates have the notion that the main responsibility of a Bangladeshi Embassy or a High Commission abroad is to provide them with consular services. The notion is not true because only a small part of an Embassy or a High Commission’s functions and responsibilities is consular or related to the welfare of the expatriates or Bangladeshis who live and work abroad. Their main responsibility is to further Bangladesh's bilateral relations with the host country. The expatriates fail to distinguish between diplomatic and consular responsibilities.
Remittance is one of the main pillars of our economic development. That nevertheless should not encourage our expatriates to think, as many of them do, that an Embassy/ High Commission exists primarily for their welfare. Unknown to most of them, it is our Home Ministry and the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare that is responsible for our expatriates’ consular and welfare functions, not the Foreign Ministry. The Home or the Expat Ministry however cannot send officers/staff to all the Embassies and High Commissions and in most of them, diplomatic officers/staff in addition to their diplomatic duties, carry out the consular functions.
All countries have a large number of expatriates, their nationals working or living abroad. The expatriates of other countries do not hold an Ambassador or a High Commissioner responsible for their consular needs. Our expatriates however do so routinely as I learnt from my experience in Australia and later in my postings in Washington and Tokyo. Their bottom line is that the Embassy runs on taxpayers' money that they claim to be theirs. Therefore, it is assumed that it is the Ambassador or the High Commissioner’s prime duty is to look after their interests ahead of his/her other duties and responsibilities!
We had a Consul-General in Sydney. Brigadier Nuruzzaman was the Consul-General. He was an extremely decent man. We talked a few times a week. The conversation started with some official issue and ended in a host of other matters. The Brigadier was the first head of the Rakhi Bahini. I asked him many a time during those long conversations how did he land in the Rakhi Bahini, a paramilitary with such an ill reputation. He would laugh without saying much. The Consulate-General closed down in 1982. The High Commissioner sent me to Sydney to close the Consulate General. The task was easy because the Consul General managed the office meticulously without any loose ends to tie.
Australia was an exciting posting for me in many ways. I was awed by the vastness of Australia and its sparse population. Going from Dhaka, it was a wonder that I could drive through the Canberra city centre at mid-day and still not lose a single second on traffic. The city was like a garden, beautiful and soothing to the eye. Winter arrived soon after we arrived in Canberra. We saw snow for the first time in a place not far from Canberra where snow never fell. The High Commissioner, his family, Mrs Enayet Karim, her two daughters and my wife and my daughter had a most delightful outing that day!
I attended two multilateral conferences during my tenure in Australia. The first was the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Melbourne in 1981. The other was the Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting (CHOGM) in Suva, Fiji in 1982. Mr Malcolm Fraser was the Australian Prime Minister during the CHOGM. Bangladesh delegation was headed by then Prime Minister Shah Azizur Rahman as the President Justice Sattar was unwell to participate. Mrs Karim and I drove to Melbourne. Though the roads weren’t as good in those days, but it gave us a good opportunity to have a good look of the country.
Prime Minister Shah Azizur Rahman had little experience in international conferences that was evident. Mrs Indira Gandhi led the Indian delegation. I saw her in person for the first time. A security guard stopped her from entering the conference venue as she was not wearing the security pin. Australian Prime Minister Mr Malcolm Fraser waited with her as an aide brought her the pin and only then she was allowed to enter!
The CHOGM in Suva was General Ershad's first international conference as the Head of State. On the way back, the president and his entourage transited through Sydney. Mrs Karim who did not go to Fiji arranged a meeting for the Bangladeshi expatriates in Sydney with him with the High Commissioner and the Bangladesh delegation. She was not aware that the president had a very bad experience with Bangladeshis in Singapore on way to Suva. The last thing he wanted was to meet expatriate Bangladeshis.
The foreign minister Mr ARS Doha was furious but the Counsellor was blissfully unaware of what was happening. Mr Harunur Rashid who meanwhile had replaced AVM Khandker as High Commissioner and Mr Abul Ahsan, the Additional Foreign Secretary and Mr Mahbubul Alam, the Director-General of External Publicity who were members of the president's entourage calmed the Foreign Minister. The expatriates met the president and all ended well.
AVM Khandker was transferred to New Delhi in the middle of 1982. I knew the new High Commissioner Mr Harunur Rashid from my stint at the Headquarters. He was a very friendly person and developed very good relations with the Australian hosts and the Bangladeshis. As the High Commissioner, he had a high standard to follow as his predecessor was held in very high esteem by the hosts. In his final year in Australia, AVM Khandker was the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps. In that capacity, he hosted on behalf of Canberra's diplomatic corps, Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their official visit to the Australian capital and did a splendid job.
The narrative of my days in the land down under would be incomplete without talking about the visits of General Manzur Ahmed and Professor Talukdar Muniruzzaman, an outstanding professor of Political Science at Dhaka University, to Canberra. The General visited Canberra officially soon after my arrival. He called on the High Commissioner at his office and I was present in their meeting. The General who held a command in the army and was not its chief, spoke in a manner like he could do anything in Bangladesh.
He told the High Commissioner that the Bangladesh Army was doing the same in the Hill Districts as the Pakistan Army had done in Bangladesh during the War of Liberation! The day President Zia was assassinated, Dr Talukdar Muniruzzaman who was doing a Fellowship at the Australian National University, was called to the High Commissioner's Residence. As we were discussing the tragedy, the Professor, upon hearing that the assassination had occurred in Chittagong, uttered spontaneously that it was the General's men who had shot the President. That was what happened as we learnt afterwards!
In May 1983, I was transferred to New Delhi as a First Secretary, a position to which I was promoted in my final year in Australia. We were sad to leave Australia that we all learnt to love very much. For my daughter, it was a sea change. She would wake at night in our house in New Delhi, sit up and cry quietly. Her tears told us what Australia was to her and us. It was quite a while before we were adjusted to life in New Delhi.
Postscript: Diplomatic bags between Dhaka and Canberra, exchanged once a week, was our life line. Australia then was literally the land down under. It is no longer so with WhatsApp, Viber, and a host of other free modes of instant communication available these days!