By Ashis Biswas
Even a spell of sustained economic growth in recent years has not helped Bangladesh in resolving its problematic image-related issues effectively in the larger international arena. One indication of this according to observers, can be found in the gratuitous advice occasionally showered upon Dhaka by serving diplomats representing major countries.
A few days ago, it was the turn of Japanese Ambassador to Bangladesh Mr Ito Naoki to be summoned by Bangladesh Foreign Ministry circles to receive an earful over his contentious comments about the country’s last General Elections in end-2018. The ruling Awami League (AL) had won the polls by a runaway margin that had sent its domestic supporters into raptures. But the flagrantly one-sided polls had largely been condemned abroad as being ‘rigged and unfair.’
Frantic endeavours made by victorious Awami league leaders over the years to undo the consequential diplomatic damage did not work, especially in advanced Western democracies.
Interestingly, the Japanese, who have been among the biggest investors in Bangladesh in recent times, helping finance 9 mega projects costing over $3 billion, had never joined the critical Western media-based moaning about the AL’s election victory. But Mr Naoki, for unknown reasons, took the path less travelled, as he called for an acceptably free and fair elections in Bangladesh, scheduled for Dec 2023.
Addressing a distinguished gathering organised by the Centre for Governance Studies in Dhaka, Mr Naoki recalled allegations he had heard about how some policemen had filled ballot boxes with fraudulent papers at places to ensure the victory of the eventually winning party, the night before the polls (December 29) in 2018. This was not how democracy was supposed to work and such tactics were unheard of, he said.
These remarks brought no pleasure to his high-profile audience, nor to the top tiers of the administration and the political establishment. There were angry rumblings in the Dhaka-based media about diplomats plunging headlong into areas where angels feared to tread, violating recognised Vienna-defined diplomatic protocols. The dreaded call from Dhaka’s foreign ministry was seen as par for the course.
However, with only a year left for the impending elections and keen to ensure continuing Japanese financial support at a time of financial torment in the post Ukraine war period, Dhaka foreign policy mandarins chose, according to reports, not to be ‘over censorious’. Mr, Shahriyar Alam, Minister of state for Foreign Affairs, said on social media that a meeting had indeed been held with the diplomat concerned — and that was all.
In one sense, Mr Naoki was in good, if somewhat incongruous, company in urging upon Bangladesh to ensure reasonably fair elections. His advice delivered in a foreign capital was generally perceived as being a tad ‘supervisory’ for the local ruling Government. But then, he was not the first envoy to cross the diplomatic red line in this respect.
Some time ago it may be recalled, Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh Mr. Li Jiming had done exactly the same thing. Commenting upon the emergent QUAD tie-up in the Indian Ocean region as a strategic initiative aiming to keep China out geo-politically, he had praised Bangladesh for not opting to join it. Doing so, he had hinted, would have brought major unwelcome consequences for Bangladesh and South Asia.
On that occasion a few months ago, Bangladeshi media reaction had been sharper and more strident. China was by far the biggest investor in Bangladesh in mega infra-related projects. Bangladesh had agreed to become a partner in some of the projects that formed part of the ambitious Belt and Roads Initiative (BRI) sponsored by Beijing. GOB had adopted a more pro-China position than its bigger neighbour, India had done, let alone Japan.
Over the next few years, top Chinese leaders from President Xi Jinping downwards had pledged investments over $22 billion in various infra-related projects in Bangladesh during the present decade.
Yet, not only the Bangladeshi media, but the ruling AL-run government lost little time in pulling up Mr Jiming. Bangladesh, he was reminded by Foreign office spokesmen, was mature enough as a sovereign independent nation to take responsible decisions suiting its regional priorities on international issues. It needed neither advice nor guidance from other countries.
Mr Jiming in contrast with Mr Naoki’s present silence, had walked the diplomatic step back, not keen to add fresh twigs to a raging controversy. He issued a conciliatory message to the media saying he fully understood and respected the position taken by the Bangladesh government.
While he stood by his assessment of the QUAD as an initiative intended to isolate China in the region, a misunderstanding had resulted from media persons quoting words attributed to him out of context.
Further, he was not quite at home while communicating in English, which was not exactly his mother tongue, he added, bringing the matter to an end.
As with most things, political perceptions differ widely in Bangladesh about such diplomatic mix-ups. The opposition outfits led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) maintain that often, through the apparently cavalier remarks made by serving diplomats from time to time, different countries indicate their awareness that they were dealing with a weak government led by the AL– a discredited party. , that may not win the next elections.
Contrarily, ruling AL leaders insist that the GOB had always resisted apparently patronizing behaviour of even powerful countries with due firmness and dignity. However, such issues in the long run hardly mattered. Bangladesh had warm economic ties with China, India and Japan — it is perhaps the only country in South Asia which has been maintaining a close balance with all major nations. Surely major credit, not brickbats, was due to the ruling AL for this, (IPA Service)