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Choudhury Kamaruzzaman’s foreign tours would not begin until he became Minister of Commerce and Foreign Trade after the first Parliamentary elections in independent Bangladesh in 1973. As in his domestic tours I embarked on a succession of foreign tours with Kamaruzzaman in his first year as Minister of Foreign Trade. In seven months he would visit four Asian countries, six European countries, USA, and lastly the Soviet Union. Like the domestic tours, the minister showed an unending spirit of mind and body in all the countries he visited in a matter of months, some lasting over three weeks in one go. The Minister’s first trip was to New Delhi to sign a bilateral trade agreement with India with his counterpart D.P. Chottopadhaya. This was a historic event since the agreement was the first that Bangladesh would have with India as a sovereign country. The delegation consisted of the Minister, Joint Secretary of Foreign Trade, Shamim Ahsan, Chairman Trading Corporation of Bangladesh, Siddiqur Rahman, and myself. There was no direct flight to Delhi that time, so we flew first to Calcutta, and then to Delhi. In Delhi, we lodged as Government guests in the government owned Ashoka Hotel, which was one of the best hotels in early 70s. The official talks were held in the Central Government Secretariat, with the Minister’s counterpart. The trade agreement signing ceremony took place in the Indian Ministry of Commerce at the conclusion of the talks. Kamaruzzaman handled the event in his characteristic tact as a representative of a sovereign nation who was also fully cognizant of Indian support and friendship in our struggle for liberation. This he would state in his speech at the dinner in his honor in the Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi given by D.P Chottopadhaya. The dinner was a star studded one that was attended by most central ministers of India including Sardar Swaran Singh, the Foreign Minister, and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, who would later become the President of India. Kamaruzzaman had a prepared text for the occasion that he set aside during his speech and spoke extempore, a practice he followed in most of his speeches abroad. In a speech that lasted about half an hour, the Minister recognized India’s critical role in our independence, expressed gratitude for sheltering the Bangladesh government in exile, but emphasized that friendship between two countries was best when it was set on equal terms. I still remember the glowing tributes that were paid to him by the Indian ministers at the end of the speech. Mr. Kamaruzzaman thrived best when he spoke without any assist from a written script. The weekend we drove to Ajmer, Rajasthan, where the Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, who was also the local MP accompanied the minister to the shrine of Pir Mainuddin Chishti. The lunch there was also hosted by the Maharani. On way back we stopped at Jaipur for the afternoon tea with the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Barkatullah. Apparently, Kamaruzzaman knew Barkatullah from before as the two greeted each other as long lost friends. We had to drive back to New Delhi the same night as the Minister was due back in Dhaka the following day. It was a grueling trip covering more than six
hundred miles in one day in the hot summer of North India; but Kamaruzzaman was indefatigable all the way. He had seasoned himself with such arduous trips in his domestic travels. Bilateral trade agreement would be the driver of our next trip to Burma (now Myanmar) that was in August same year. This would be the first trip by a cabinet minister of Bangladesh to our only other neighbor connected by a common border. Besides the Minister, the delegation this time consisted of Secretary of Commerce, Mafizur Rahman, Joint Secretary Foreign Trade, Shamim Ahsan, and myself. There was no direct air link to Rangoon that time; we had to travel there via Bangkok. Rangoon in 1973 appeared to me to be frozen in time since the British days. Old massive buildings of concrete dominated the main section of the city on roads that were badly in need of repair. The buildings mostly housed government ministries. There were only two hotels in the city that foreigners mostly stayed in. The Strand Hotel was a throw back from early twentieth century, and the relatively modern Inya Lake Hotel was constructed in the sixties. Our delegation was put up in the State Guest House, which was actually the residence of the chief executive of now nationalized Burma Oil Company. It was an elegant bungalow with a huge lawn, equipped with fittings from the colonial days. Kamaruzzaman concluded his visit with the first ever bilateral trade agreement between Bangladesh and Burma on the fourth day. Each day he had a heavy schedule of meetings with ministers, almost of all of who were either serving or retired army officers—mostly of the ranks of Colonels and Brigadiers. The ministers were army officers, either serving or retired, understandably as the government in Burma, then as now, was run by the army. I recall a conversation that I had at a dinner with a retired colonel—a deputy minister in one of the ministries. Out of curiosity I asked him why the highest ranking among ministers that we had met was a brigadier and not above. The deputy minister jokingly replied that the President of Burma, General Ne Win, wanted to keep a minimum difference of three ranks between him and his ministers so that none of them had any ideas of replacing him! At Lunch and Dinner gatherings Kamaruzzaman gave all his speeches extempore in English that was easy to follow, very casual but effective. Time and again he would prove his oratorical skills that I would never cease to admire. In a profoundly moving speech that he gave at Inya Lake Hotel dinner hosted by his Burmese counterpart, the minister drew a lasting applause from the audience when he referred to trade agreement between Burma and Bangladesh as a symbol of peace and good neighborly relations. This statement was welcome to our hosts all the more as Burma was carrying a guilty conscience for not being exactly on our side during the war of liberation. Kamaruzzaman’s next important overseas visit was to Tokyo in September to attend GATT Ministerial Conference. The delegation was small, the Minister, a Joint Secretary (Ahmed Farid), and me. GATT meeting was the only time that the Minister would make his speech from a prepared text since it was an International Conference, and the speech was a policy statement that conveyed Bangladesh’s stand on the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff. We spent all week attending the conference sessions. The weekend we drove down to Kamakura—a sea resort about fifty miles from Tokyo. The Minister enjoyed his stay in Tokyo but what he could not endure was the bland Japanese food laid out before him by his hosts at lunch and dinner. I remember at lunch in Kamakura Kamaruzzaman writhed in great distaste when I ate before him a plate of raw fish and eggs. I understood why he would not like raw Japanese food such as Sushi or Sashami, but he dismayed his Japanese hosts greatly when
he would not touch the much sought after Kobe Beef steak at one of the official dinners. He simply dined on soups and vegetables. To relieve the Minister’s gastronomic crisis, sometimes Bengali food cooked at the Ambassador- Muntaqim Choudhury’s house was transported to his hotel room. The food ordeal of the Minister would come to an end seven days later when we would leave Tokyo for Dhaka via Hong Kong. He told us later that if there is one reason he would never like to visit Tokyo again, it would be food. Kamaruzzaman’s two-day stopover in Hong Kong was spent in meetings with some leading private sector agencies who had earlier operated in Bangladesh. He spoke to Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce to reassure the agencies that Bangladesh would not renege on its obligations to the private sector that operated in the country before. Hong Kong also gave some gastronomic relief to the Minister as he liked Chinese cuisine like other mortals. Kamaruzzaman’s next leg of foreign travel was to the west, to UK and four other European countries in October 1973. This by far was the longest and most arduous travel as it entailed frequent jaunts in the air, a model of travel that Kamaruzzaman was not very fond of. I myself was greatly excited as it was my first ever trip to London, and not to speak of other European cities that I had dreamt of. The Minister’s trip to UK was intended for bilateral trade discussion as also the visits to Germany (West Germany that time), Holland, and Denmark. The fifth destination, Brussels, would be for meetings with EEC officials at EEC headquarters in Brussels. The trip began in early October, and lasted about 18 days. The delegation once again small, comprising the Minister, Joint Secretary Foreign Trade, and me. The first stop in this three-week travel was London, where the Minister had meetings with the British Secretary of Trade (a cabinet minister), the British Chamber of Commerce, and leading MPs of the British Parliament. There were also meetings with expatriate Bangladeshi community, more famously our London Sylheti population. Our High Commissioner in UK that time, Sultan Ahmed, also arranged a dinner meeting for the Minister with leading MPs, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Trade, and few other diplomats from other countries. In three days Kamaruzzaman probably covered over a dozen meetings, three official lunches and dinners. This being my maiden visit to London, I thought I could take some time off for sight seeing, and visit relatives. All I had was a glimpse of the Buckingham Palace from a running car while traveling from our hotel to the meeting places. (In the latter part of this trip I was able to see London sights as we dropped visit to France from our travel schedule, and we had a couple of free days in London.) Countries next in the list of Kamruzzaman’s EEC visit, in order, were the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany (West Germany), and Belgium. Kamaruzzaman would cover the four countries in eight days with me and another Joint Secretary in tow. In all of these visits, the Minister would have meetings that would last all day ending in official dinners either by his counterparts or by our Ambassadors in those countries. In his meetings with his counterparts and other officials Kamaruzzaman impressed everyone with his affability and bonhomie, and the ease with which he carried himself. There are a few anecdotes that are worth recalling during this trip. Kamaruzzaman was addicted to “paan” that was almost like a drug obsession. His fear during this long EEC trip, however, was that he would not be his normal self without his daily dose of “paan”. In London, it was not a problem as “paan” chewing Bengali residents there had this exotic material imported almost daily from India or
Bangladesh. Sensing his fear and to make sure that the Minister had adequate supply of “paan” for the next eight days, our High Commission in London stuffed a bag with “paan” along with his luggage. Kamaruzzaman had already sufficient quantity of betel nuts and other condiments (including Zarda) in a separate bag. He also carried with him a silver box (paandan) in the pocket of his jacket. With such assurance of a good supply of “paan” Kamaruzzaman left London a happy customer. The first incident over “paan” happened after we reached the Netherlands. The Minister had his meeting in the day at Hague where he was driven from Amsterdam. Late at night in the hotel after I had retired to bed I got a frantic call from the Minister to come over to his suite. Fearing that perhaps Kamaruzzaman had had a heart attack or something I rushed to his suite. As I entered the room, I saw paan leaves strewn over his bed and a visibly upset Kamaruzzaman viewing the leaves like some dying relative about to leave his mortal body. “Look, what Farid (the Joint Secretary) has done to me”, the Minister said forlornly as he saw me pointing toward the bed, which was strewn with mostly brown wilted paan leaves. Ahmed Farid, the Joint Secretary, was asked by the minister to take care of his paan, which he did by putting all in a plastic bundle, in the refrigerator in the Minister’s suite. Either due to changes in temperature or because the leaves were packed tightly, most the leaves had browned and quite wilted. The exercise next was to rescue the still good leaves and keep the leaves somehow back in the frig. I called for help from Ahmed Farid who gallantly agreed to undo his mistake. It took us another hour to complete the task, and leave a somewhat satisfied Kamaruzzaman in his suite. The next incident was at the dinner given by the Danish Minister in a hotel in Copenhagen. Kamaruzzaman insisted on carrying the silver box wherever he went, but usually he would indulge in his paan after the official meetings, in the car. The dinner was long, full of speeches. Kamaruzzaman lost his patience; he was dying to have his dose of “paan”. At the end of one of the after-dinner speeches, he signaled me to approach him. He whispered to me that I bring to him his betel box from the pocket of his overcoat at the coat rack. I looked at him incredulously, but he insisted, and I brought his silver box. I was waiting for an embarrassing moment when the Minister would gulp down his favorite object in his mouth with his host looking with awe this display. But Kamaruzzaman knew better. He put the silver box in front of his Danish host with great flourish, and said “Excellency, I want to show you a typical Bengali, after-dinner, mouth freshener.” As the Danish Minister watched with great curiosity, Kamaruzzaman opened the box and showed him the contents. He took out first a green betel-leaf and proceeded to fill it with the other ingredients. One by one, he described the ingredient, after folding the “paan”, he held it up for every one to see, and said “this we call a Green Sandwich”, and offered the object to his host. The amused host looked at the Green Sandwich, and said “Excellency, I will pass this time”. Kamaruzzaman did not lose a moment. “In that case, I will eat it”, and immediately put it in his mouth. He left the dinner very satisfied. In Germany (West Germany that time), Kamaruzzaman met with his counter part in Bonn (Bad Gudesberg), and two days later drove to Frankfurt to meet with German Chamber of Commerce, which hosted a lunch for him. At the official dinner given in his honor by Ambassador Humayun Rashid Choudhury, the minister again relied on his superb skills at extempore speech to impress his German counter part and other officials. At Frankfurt he invited German private sector cooperation for building commerce and industry in a country devastated by a nine-month war, and decades of neglect.
Our next and final destination was the EEC headquarters in Brussels, where we drove from Frankfurt. This was my first ever experience of a modern highway—the famous German Autobahn. Our car sped through the night probably doing near 100 miles an hour in an inexplicably smooth surface. To me having just recently driven in Bangladesh over potholed roads stomaching jerks and bumps all the way, this was an unbelievable relief. The Minister slept through the entire trip that lasted about six hours, with Ambassador Chowdhury in tow, while I feasted my eyes on the cars and the scenery we passed by. The Minister planned the Brussels visit to lobby with EEC officials for easier trade relations of Bangladesh with EEC countries (such as granting of most favored nation priveleges as a newly sovereign developing country). The highlight of the meeting was a very successful meeting with the EEC Secretary General (whose name I forget, but I do remember that he was a son-in law of Sir Winston Churchill), followed by a formal lunch given by the EEC Chief in the Minister’s honor. In his speech at lunch Kamaruzzaman made an impassioned plea for support to Bangladesh, which the EEC chief acknowledged in his reply as one of the most memorable he had heard. . From Brussels we were scheduled to visit Paris, but the visit was canceled as the French Minister had to travel out of Paris at the last moment. We sojourned at London for a couple of days, which allowed me some free time to see London sights that I had missed earlier. We returned to Dhaka after a three-week of exhausting but thrilling visit for me spread over five countries that I had only heard of before. The author worked as Private Secretary to A.H.M. Kamaruzzaman from 1972-75.
My Travels with Minister Kamaruzzaman Part III ---Ziauddin M. Choudhury In November that year (1973) Kamaruzzman was asked by Prime Minister Sheikh Mujib to lead a delegation of trade and commerce to the United States. This mission was not contemplated at least until the completion of the EEC countries visit. The invitation was arranged by the State Department, and it would take place a few months before the historic visit of Bangabandhu to the US. The delegation was as usual small, but in addition to the three of us (Minister, Joint Secretary, myself), the Chairman of Jute Mills Corporation, Khurshid Anwar, joined the delegation. In a wintry November morning we all arrived at JFK Airport to be received by then Permanent Representative to the UN, Anwarul Karim. New York was not the first destination, it was a stop on our way to Washington DC where we landed the following day. The Embassy of Bangladesh in Washington DC was then located in a hotel near DuPont Circle where the Minister had his first meeting with the Ambassador, Hussain Ali, and other embassy officials including AMA Muhith, who was then our Economic Minister in the US. Next three days, Kamaruzzaman would meet with Senators, Congressmen, President of EXIMBANK, and President of OPIC, besides the resident Bangladesh community in Washington area. Kamaruzzman’s visit to the US was significant in many respects. He was the second senior minister in then Bangladesh cabinet to be invited by the US that would be followed by the historic visit by Bangabandhu. (The first senior minister to visit US was Tajuddin earlier in 1973.) The visit was not simply for advancing trade relations with the US, but more importantly to assess US attitude to the newly sovereign country, which the Nixon government had not supported during the war of liberation. To that end Kamaruzzaman had meetings with two US senators (Frank Church, and Stan Percy), and several Representatives of the House, including Congressman Poage, who was Chairman of House Agriculture Committee that period, all of which were fruitful. Senator Church, Democratic Senator from Illinois, was a staunch supporter of the Bangladesh liberation movement. He had raised the issue of Pakistan army atrocities in then East Pakistan in the Senate. In meeting with him Kamaruzzaman thanked him profusely for his support in our difficult times. Senator Percy, the Republican Senator from Illinois was a member the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (later becoming its Chairman). He was gracious in his meeting with Kamaruzzaman, and offered to support all efforts to mitigate the plights of the fledgling country. I have a special recollection of the meeting with Congressman Poage because of a remark by the Congressman. The meeting was mostly of a courteous nature, and it required a substantial amount of diplomatic tact on Kamaruzzaman’s part to avoid the sensitive side of the rather negative role that US had initially played in the war of our liberation. Bangladesh. The minister politely thanked the “people of the United States” for their support for Bangladesh, and hoped for US help for the country’s rehabilitation. Toward the end of the meeting in the Capitol, the Congressman asked the minister what were the chances that the newly independent Bangladesh could eventually merge with West Bengal
since both regions spoke Bengali. The minister politely replied there were no such chances. If language were to be the basis of nationhood, all English speaking countries would be one country, he would later remark. A major event of Kamaruzzaman’s later visit to New York City was a luncheon hosted by the New York Chamber of Commerce in the deluxe Plaza Hotel. In an eloquent speech, much like the one given by him in Brussels for the EEC lunch a month before, the Minister described the economic plight of the war ravaged country, and urged on his hosts the need for its rehabilitation with support from public as well as private sector. As in the speeches before Kamaruzzaman made an impression on his audience by his communication skills, be it in English or Bengali (for a domestic audience). My last foreign travel with Kamaruzzaman was to then Soviet Union in December of 1973. It was unforgettable for several reasons. First, it was the first and only Communist country that Kamaruzzaman would visit in his entire term as Foreign Trade Minister. Second, weather wise the timing could not have been worse—it was the dead of winter with temperatures never rising above zero. Third, the opulent reception given to the Minister and his entourage was nothing comparable to what we had witnessed in our other travels to the west. The Minister held meetings with his Soviet counterpart in the Kremlin, was feted to lunches and dinners by two other Cabinet ministers, was taken to Leningrad (now St Petersburg), and honored by the City Council. A major outcome of this travel was a forma trade agreement with the Soviet Union much like the one signed by Kamaruzzaman with India earlier that year. There are a few concluding points on my reflections on Kamaruzzaman’s foreign travels. Bangladesh in the early seventies was characterized by a bias toward the socialist block in its foreign policy. Indeed, socialism was one of the four state principles laid down in Bangladesh constitution that time. It is also believed that the top leadership of Awami League that time was largely inclined to building friendship and trade relations only with the socialist/communist block. Yet, out of the fourteen countries that Kamruzzaman visited in his entire term as Foreign Trade Minister, only one was Communist. From my association with Kamaruzzaman in the three-year period that I worked for him I had found little evidence that he was enamored of the socialist system. Despite the rather egregious reception given to him in USSR, in his dealings with Soviet Officials Kamaruzzaman was more restrained than he was with government and public sector individuals in the free enterprise countries. In a curious contradiction with then Bangladesh government policy on state ownership of major industrial enterprise, Kamaruzzaman was courting for private investment in his travels to the West. In personal comments abroad, he often expressed a desire for an economy that would have a blend of state controlled and privately owned enterprises. The reminiscences above are to commemorate a great Bangladeshi—Late AHM Kamaruzzaman, a leading figure of our national liberation struggle, and one of the top four statesmen that our country had lost in the darkest period of our history in 1975. We mourn the absence of political vision, leadership, and patriotism of these leaders today when our country is passing through another political crisis. Men like AHM Kamaruzzman and the other leaders we lost tragically are not borne every day. A greater lament is the legacy they left behind is forgotten easily. We could be a stronger nation, morally and politically, if we could only follow the examples of the leaders who brought this nation into being. The author worked as Private Secretary to A.H.M. Kamaruzzaman from 1972-75.