1. Start us off by giving a brief background of yourself (education, hobbies)
I was born in a remote village in Narshingdi. From 1963-67, I lived in a very rural area in then Rangpur, now Nilphamari District, before moving to Rajshahi Cadet College in 1967. I was then a boy of 12 years and it was my first time away from my family. I was there for 7 years till my HSC in 1974, it took an extra year because of the Liberation War. My father, a customs official, was transferred to Chittagong. So four times a year, I used to travel between Rajshahi and Chittagong to spend the vacations with my family. The long train journeys with co-students was quite fascinating. I then did my Honours and Master’s from Dhaka University. While still a student, I sat for the BCS exams, and by the time I got my Master’s degree, I already knew that I had qualified for government service.
Outside of my profession, I am passionate about travelling and so is my wife. We have travelled around the world and have been privileged to have visited more than 90 countries. While travelling, we do pick up some ethnic artifacts, mostly wood and stone carvings. I have pieces from as diverse places as Argentina and South Africa, Peru and Vietnam. I used to be a voracious reader much of my life, but now I’m much more selective. I love music, particularly old songs.
2. You have served as Bangladesh Foreign Secretary for 2 ½ years. Can you tell us about how your path down a career in Civil Service started?
Initially, it took me some time to become accustomed to the work of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I had never thought of entering the diplomatic service. Being a teacher at a university was a dream for me and having been placed first class first in my Masters, it would have been possible. I even once considered leaving the Service to pursue an academic career. However, as I look back, I do not regret my decision. The idealism that attracted me to the academic career is quite different from the hard reality.
Unlike ‘normal’ Foreign Service officers, I stayed on mostly in Dhaka as my wife, who is a classmate and batch mate, was in another Service and we were determined not to stay separate. We had good times and bad times. Particularly painful was seeing the unwanted from the military being thrust above brilliant and professional officers of the diplomatic service. When I went on my first posting to Delhi, I was closing in on 9 years of service. Fortunately my wife was also posted there on deputation, we being the first ever couple to be posted together to a mission. After returning to Bangladesh from Delhi, we stayed for close to 8 years in Dhaka before being posted together to Kolkata. I was there the Deputy High Commissioner, and she a Counsellor.
My appointment as Foreign Secretary in December 2006 was, in my opinion, circumstantial. It is difficult to say if I was at the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time that led to this elevation. It was the fag end of the BNP government in 2006 and a caretaker government was soon to take over. Back from Kolkata the year before, I was then an Additional Foreign Secretary and all my batch mates were out as Ambassadors long time back. The post for Ambassador in Belgium had fallen vacant and I wanted to go there since National Board of Revenue was willing to post my wife as Minister (Customs) in that mission. When I came to know that an officer senior to me was chosen for the post, I went to him and made a proposal. Going by the tradition, I predicted that the caretaker government was unlikely to keep the current Foreign Secretary and would surely appoint a new one. At that point they would have only him and me as two options among officers available at the Headquarters. I told him that he was sure to become the Foreign Secretary if he would take a chance. He did not, and as my prediction came true, I was asked to take over as acting Foreign Secretary. Subsequently I was promoted and continued in the job through the 2 years term of the caretaker government and 6 months beyond.
3. What impression does the world have of Bangladesh? What can we do to bolster a more dynamic and vibrant image?
I was on a course in Hawaii for 3 months at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) back in 1998. I and a co-trainee were waiting at a bus station after some shopping at the Navy Exchange. A young man from the US Marine was also waiting with us. We had some small talks and he asked us where we were from. As I replied that we are from Bangladesh, he seemed lost, and responded “never heard of”. He knew Cambodia and Vietnam because he had served there, but had not heard about Bangladesh. A common impression of majority of persons in the West was to confuse Bangladesh with India. This however, has somewhat changed in the following decades. Many more people now at least know that there is such a country, mostly because, in my opinion, of the labels on the apparels that they buy. Still, many in the western world can barely locate us on a map.
The policymakers and businesses in the west and elsewhere, however, are well aware of Bangladesh. To them it is a country with a large population that has sustained economic growth and therefore, is a large and emerging market. We began seeing this change particularly in the early 2000’s. That’s when Bangladesh started gaining importance. In the strategic thinking of the great powers, however, Bangladesh is still a peripheral country and we do not feature prominently, notwithstanding their occasional overtures. Many analysts do not agree with this view of mine. The fact that none of the powers stood solidly beside us on the Rohingya issue, further convinced me about my conviction. Unfortunately, Bangladesh also finds herself on the world media often for the wrong reasons, such as political violence, corruption, human rights violations, human trafficking or rigged elections. In this age of real time communication, it is difficult to hide anything that is actually taking place.
About bolstering image, there is no short cut. We have to highlight our achievements in economic and social sectors, and at the same time take steps to remedy our shortcomings in the fields of transparency, governance, human rights, and maybe democracy.
4. You have served as Deputy High Commissioner and First Secretary in India and an Ambassador in South Africa and adjourning countries. Can you share your cultural and social experiences from those postings?
In India, we mingled with the society very well both in Delhi and Kolkata. I still have close friends there. Interactions with the literary and cultural milieu in Kolkata were more intense as my wife is a writer. She had 22 books published by prominent houses in Calcutta. We also enjoyed close relations with politicians across the spectrum. I still count some of the Left Front leaders among friends.
South Africa in my opinion is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It is somewhat dry but otherwise gorgeous. For 8 months out of the year, the weather is extremely comfortable with only 2 months of real summer and 2 months winter. In spring the whole country blooms with flowers. The land feature is gently undulating stretching for hundreds of kilometers. Apartheid has been abolished decades back, but residual impacts still remain. Many of the cities are still inhabited mostly by those of Caucasian and Indian descent, while most native Africans find themselves in much poorer shantytowns called ‘Location’. Beautiful bungalows surrounded by trees and gardens on one side of the highway inhabited by those of Caucasian descent are in sharp contrast to small tin-roofed homes glistening in the sunlight on the other side. Most people are simple and friendly although violent crimes abound. Socialization, however, is still restricted to race and class, another reminder of the apartheid era.
5. Bangladesh must maintain relationships with great powers such as China and India. How do you think the dynamics of our relationships with these countries has evolved since Bangladesh’s independence?
The relationship with India has always been intense ever since our war of liberation. There have been some hiccups and issues but never to the point where the relation could turn antagonistic. As very close neighbors there would always be issues all of which cannot be solved overnight. In recent years some long standing issues, such as that of enclaves, have been resolved. Bangladesh has by and large taken care of Indian concerns. There is however a credible perception that these have not been reciprocated. It is now the responsibility of India to address Bangladesh’s concerns. Besides, some powerful politicians and the mainstream media in India often demonstrate a condescending attitude towards Bangladesh, sometimes verging on insults. This is deeply resented by the people here. They need to learn to show more respect to a country of 165 million that is committed to maintain a close and friendly relation.
Relations with China was established after it recognized Bangladesh following the killing of Bangabandhu in 1975. Since then relations have continued to grow and China has become the largest trading partner of Bangladesh. She is also the main supplier of military hardware to our forces. The two countries are committed not to interfere in each others’ internal affairs. China is also the largest source of infrastructure investment vital to Bangladesh. The ultimate test for Bangladesh will be balancing her relations with India and China as the two countries have long standing adverse relations that have recently flared up into lethal confrontation. Bangladesh cannot take sides in this situation and must remain steadfast in her resolve to maintain positive relations with both powers.
6. Tell us about the different dimensions a Foreign Secretary must consider when dealing with complex socio-economic and strategic issues like the Rohingya refugee situation in Bangladesh.
On the vital issue regarding Rohingyas, we have not received from the international community the support needed to resolve the issue. Bangladesh has not created this issue and it cannot solve it. It has been a problem thrust upon us. The only way to resolution is for the Rohingyas to return to their country with dignity, security and rights. The refugees will only agree to return to their homes when the situation there is better than what they have fled from. The genocidal Myanmar military who exercise real power, will not allow creation of such congenial atmosphere unless such international pressure is created on them that would be painful to bear. The regional power equation is not conducive to creation of such pressure. Our constitution tells us to resolves all issues peacefully and definitely that is what we want. I am however, worried that the problem will be long drawn and could create a situation where peaceful resolution may not be possible.
7. What have been some major challenges you’ve faced during your time serving as Foreign Secretary? How did you handle those situations?
As I mentioned, most of my tenure as Foreign Secretary was during the so called Military-backed Civilian Caretaker Government. To say the least, the job was difficult. It was a strange structure of government in which those who were running the system had little real power, and those who were wielding the power was not visible to the public. Often we had to encounter uninformed and irrational decisions that could just be conveyed verbally. I could somehow navigate through the mess as I knew many of the Generals thanks to my Cadet College and National Defense College background. Many of my colleagues in the secretariat had more difficult times. The other challenge was that the embassies of some powerful countries were involved in the creation, running and demise of this regime. The ambassadors in those missions became another center of power and they often bypassed the visible government communicating directly with the power behind the curtain. This made proper co-ordination difficult.
That said, I had otherwise an enjoyable experience. I had some solid officers in the Ministry who were of immense help. Unlike most Foreign Service officers, I stayed mostly in Dhaka and so had the opportunity to connect regularly with colleagues in other Ministries. They were also of great help and I tried to reciprocate whenever the occasion arose.
8. Many of Bangladesh’s best and brightest young minds end up pursuing careers and futures in countries abroad. Why do you think Bangladesh faces difficulty in retaining its’ youthful resources? And what can be done to encourage youth to stay back and contribute to economic growth?
There are two factors that determine where the youth will want to be. One is opportunity and the other is hope. How many of our political, bureaucratic and business elite have chosen to keep their children in Bangladesh? If the elite have no trust in the future of the country how can the others? As for the other factor, opportunities that do exist are also often restrained by ground realities. In my opinion there are again two things that determine exercise of such opportunities. One is rule of law and the other is governance (the two are intertwined). I could have spoken about democracy also, but there are instances of countries where democracy is weak or non-existent, but they are doing extremely well. I believe that if we could improve rule of law and have good governance, opportunities for our extremely enterprising youth would greatly increase. Not only the urge in our youth to leave the country would diminish, many of our expatriates with diverse expertise would come back to contribute to the march forward. He or she will want to be assured that if (s) he sets up a shop, (s) he should not be required to pay “rent” to “rent-seekers”, face any threat for a legitimate pursuit, or would not have to pay kickbacks to get anything done.
All said and done, I am not pessimistic about Bangladesh. People in this country are resilient and enterprising, and in spite of the odds, they will prevail. Some enterprising expatriates are returning and making significant contributions. I believe Bangladesh will flourish and will surely become a trillion dollar economy by 2035 if not earlier.
9. We recently saw the U.S. elected a new president. What barriers to foreign policy do you think the previous president created and how can the new president remove those barriers? In what ways will that impact Bangladesh?
The first positive, I believe will be in the case of immigration. Many who have been waiting a long time for citizenship or legitimate documentation will hopefully see a quicker process to reach their dreams. A return of the US to the Paris climate agreement will augment the mitigation funds and the US clearing its dues to the UN will indirectly help Bangladesh through better resource allocation in different areas. The U.S., by re-establishing connection with WHO, can also help countries like Bangladesh with matters like vaccine prioritization and distribution.
On the bi-lateral plane, I do not think much will change and we will continue a similar path as we are on now. In terms of trade, our relationship will be determined by Bangladesh’s management of its capacities in factories and production processes.
10. With the rapid evolution of technology and an even faster pace of generational gap, how are you keeping up with the changes?
Our generation is not particularly tech-savvy but I feel like we are adapting just fine. Our country as a whole has the potential to adjust to changes. Even though there are wide technological gaps, people like me are still managing to take classes and examinations online, being on the television from home with zoom and so on. I am also in regular touch with my daughters through WhatsApp. We have a good number of contact groups on WhatsApp, and email. We have an email circle of about 2,500 members all from my Cadet College. There are also groups of batch mates in BCS, former colleagues from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and friends from university days. I have avoided platforms like Facebook and Instagram as I felt that for me, at my age email and the occasional WhatsApp are more than enough.
I am aware that cyber-security is extremely important. Often we find that hackers from Myanmar are taking hold of our official websites. I believe that we have the capacity in human resource not only to counter this but also to retaliate. I was quite disheartened when I learnt that even Myanmar’s internet speed is 3 times that of Bangladesh. This is not acceptable. We desperately need to improve our internet. In a densely populated country like Bangladesh, (density in Melbourne city is less than that of Bangladesh. Our country, that way, is like a mega-city) connecting high-speed internet should be easier than in other countries.
11. Do you think encouraging more youth to become involved with Foreign Service and Policy related careers is beneficial? How would their involvement and perspectives assist in enriching the decision making process in Bangladesh in a changing global context?
First of all let us look into the decision making process in place in our country. We do not have a system of interface between bureaucracy and the academia, and that between business and universities is also very weak. An interface between bureaucracy and academia would have strengthened both. In the political system, due to extreme polarization of views, opponents are treated like enemies and there is very little avenue for broader participation in decision making. The process is also ultra-centralized. For the smallest of approval of a remote village road, one has to look to Dhaka. I personally believe that we should have a number of provinces and many of the subjects could be devolved to those entities.
The youth in Bangladesh are interested in joining the Foreign Service and other government departments and there is tremendous competition there. However, the decision making process is so convoluted that it is difficult for them to participate effectively. We need to come out of the culture that demands conformity, and encourage flowering of ideas. We need to trust our youth, make our system more inclusive and forward looking. Simultaneously, we must also look for ways to keep them out of corrupt practices. For the first time in Bangladesh government jobs now entail a living wage. What is now needed is to ensure that the corrupt do not get the patronage and no functionary is punished for not helping corruption. The youth are capable of bringing in fresh and unique perspectives. They can help solve issues we have been stuck on and even propose policy that can open up new horizons. The future is bright, but only if we can find a way to usefully accommodate them.
12. Can you share some words of wisdom for those who are passionate about serving their country and pursuing a career in Foreign Service? What can they do to prepare and adapt to a constantly changing world?
In my BCS viva I was asked why I chose Foreign Service. I replied that I wanted the opportunity to travel to distant countries with diverse cultures. The board was not happy, and asked me if I was not considering serving my country. I said, I surely do, but could do that being in any of the services. I am still convinced that I gave the right answer. Wisdom or not, what I want to say is that wherever they end up, the youth can contribute to the forward movement of the country. Foreign Service offers a great opportunity to serve the motherland. I would wish the passionate and the deserving young women and men to make endeavor to achieve this opportunity to serve, not for the supposed ‘glamour’ attached to it.