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Heads up – Embassy 19 – October 2009

Diplomatic catalyst

Finding practical solutions to everyday problems is how Dr Sayeedur Rahman Khan, Bangladesh’s new High Commissioner to London, defines his career to date.

A professor of applied physics and a one-time Vice Chancellor of Rajshahi University, his research on microelectronic thin films has been used in everything from mobile phones to microchips.

After an academic career which spans four decades and four continents, the High Commissioner now finds himself in pursuit of diplomatic solutions.

Rahman Khan arrives in London after the opposition Awami League-led Grand Alliance, under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, was swept to power in a landslide election, pronounced free and fair by independent observers. The High Commissioner hopes the new political climate will enable Bangladesh to make a break from its turbulent past.

Part of that is the key manifesto pledge to bring war criminals from the independence war with Pakistan in 1971 to justice and to root out endemic corruption.

It is also hoped that the poisonous rivalry between the two main political parties, which in the past has led to paralysing political strikes and parliamentary boycotts, will be detoxified.

“Sentiment has grown against political strikes,” remarks the High Commissioner. “I think good sense will prevail because unless the opposition is in the parliament it cannot hold the government to account.”

The new government has embarked on what it calls ‘2021 Vision’, an ambitious programme of short, medium and long-term goals to be achieved by the nation’s 50th anniversary of independence in 2021.

Short-term goals include bringing down the inflation of essential goods; achieving self-sufficiency in food; and reaching full enrolment for primary education by 2011.

A special education programme has been put in place for young girls, adds the High Commissioner. “This government is particularly interested in female empowerment.” In addition to free primary and secondary education, poor families in rural areas are given cash and food incentives to send their daughters to school.

Over the medium term, a target of 8 per cent GDP growth has been set for 2013, which is ambitious in a global recession.

Although Bangladesh is blessed with gas reserves, unreliable power supply has hampered development so the Government aims to generate and additional 5000MW of energy by 2013 as well.

Long-term goals include of political stability, building strong democratic institutions and improved security, linked to which is the the lingering problem of terrorism.

“Bangladesh is a secular, liberal and democratic country but unfortunately there are extremist groups who were against our liberation from Pakistan,” says Rahman Khan, adding: “They are abusing the name of Islam for their political ends. But the government is determined to tackle this terrorism.”

Bangladesh has made great strides in tackling poverty and insecurity, yet the solution to the most serious threat facing the country, climate change, remains largely out of its hands.

“Bangladesh will be worst affected by climate change and yet ironically we have not contributed to this problem. This was created by the industrialised nations and they have a moral responsibility to protect the Least Developed Countries who are the victims,” he says, warning that 20 million Bangladeshis will be made homeless by rising sea levels.

The Government of Bangladesh has put in place a disaster relief fund and scheme to deal with the consequences of climate change. But the High Commissioner says these will prove pointless unless there is urgent action from the global community to tackle the causes of climate change.

Sitting at his desk, a stone’s throw from Imperial College, one of the UK’s top scientific institutions, he believes scientific exchange is key to arresting climate change.

Britain and Bangladesh cooperate in a range of other areas, from development assistance to the recent establishment of a joint anti-terrorism task force.

Much of the High Commissioner’s time will also be devoted to the sizable Bangladeshi community in the UK, whose remittances support families back home and are a valuable source of foreign exchange.

Moreover, the 10,000 restaurants run by Bangladeshis contribute £3.5bn to the UK economy, he points out. “One of my tasks is to motivate second and third generation Bangladeshis to invest in Bangladesh, not just money, but skills and expertise too.”

However, the newly-introduced points- based immigration system poses a problem for business, student and family visits. “This is a great concern to the community, so this is something I am also working on with the authorities.”

The community also forms an important cultural bridge between the UK and Bangladesh. The High Commissioner is passionate about Bengali culture, particularly the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore who inspired him, at the age of six, to rise up during the Bengali language protests of 1952.

He was later part of the delegation to UNESCO in 1999 that successfully lobbied for the adoption of ‘International Mother Language Day’ on 21 February in memory of the young people who died to defend their mother tongue.

Whether as a scientist or a diplomat, High Commissioner Rahman Khan has always tried to be a catalyst for change.

HE Dr Sayeedur Rahman Khan

“The industrialised nations have a moral responsibility to protect the Least Developed Countries who are the victims of climate change”

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