My Travels with AHM Kamaruzzaman
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 honour 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 sightseeing, and visit relatives. All I had was a glimpse of the Buckingham Palace from a running car while travelling 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.
To be continued…
(The author worked as Private Secretary to A H M Kamaruzzaman from 1972-75 and a member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan)