As Honorary Consul representing Finland and Bangladesh
A couple of years upon having moved back to Finland with my family from my working in Australia, where I had been engaged with the Finnish paper export, and also acted as Honorary Vice-Consul for Finland in Sydney, I received a call from the Foreign Ministry in Helsinki. It was in 1972, my old school friend Matti Kahiluoto, later Ambassador in Stockholm. He inquired whether I was interested to represent the newly independent state, Bangladesh, as Honorary Consul. I replied that it seemed a very tempting proposal, so I gave an affirmative answer to the request about a nomination, which would depend on the sending country’s approval to choose me for the position. This materialized in March 1974.
My work as consul in Australia in the 1960’s was very different from what it was to be in Finland representing the densely populated country of Bangladesh. In Sydney the Consul’s main job was to give a helping hand to Finnish migrants, who came in great numbers in those years to Australia in order to settle down there. One of the few problems that some of them met in their new surroundings and circumstances, and living amongst new customs and manners by the Australians, was the lack of sufficient English by a large number of the arriving Finns. Most of them, however, quite soon learned enough to get along with the work that they were offered. The need for additional work force was so notable in Australia at that time that the government paid the fair for the settlers from their homelands including their whole families, and employment and dwelling arrangements had been arranged in advance.
If some of the immigrants were not happy with the job they had obtained, it was easy for me to find another employer and a work which suited better the newcomer. Some of them joined earlier Finnish immigrants now living e.g. in Queensland as sugar farmers, or in Mount Isa mining territory.
For the Bengalis moving to Finland, it was, generally speaking, a similar situation. But in this case the differences were, in fact, larger. Language, climate, culture, customs etc. constituted really many deviations from what the Bangladeshis were used to. And work permit was not a matter of getting it easily. For those who arrived in winter time, the circumstances must have been felt quite difficult to match. At the time of my appointment, there was only one person from former East Pakistan, who now had become a Bangladeshi citizen. But gradually many students arrived, most of them for studying, and some of them have completed their doctorate. There are presently five Bangladeshis who work as lecturer in Finnish universities. Quite a few Bengalis are running restaurants of their own, or by means of a franchise agreement with some restaurant chain.
Without delay upon my consular nomination I let establish a Finland – Bangladesh Friendship Association. We were very active and helpful minded. We organized meetings in which respected persons gave presentations about South Asia and the prevailing situation in Bangladesh, and the association arranged Bazaars where Bangladeshi handicraft products that my company had imported from Dhaka were at sale. We contacted competent authorities and charity organizations when natural calamities hit my sending country, and aid donations were of great need.
In the 1970’s Bangladesh had a lot of difficulties to overcome, as this newcomer amongst nations of the world, although old as a country, having been part of India since centuries, then an English colony and then a region of Pakistan, but now an independent state, had gone through a nine month severe independence war, followed by several natural disasters. Cyclones, floods and draughts at turns took place just during those years when so many things had to be put in order. The economy was rather one-sided at that stage, the infrastructure had been damaged by the war, administrative matters had to be made more efficient and care had to be taken for the wounded. Women who had been dishonored and ill-treated by the enemy, had to be aided and employed in order to get along within the society.
Few years after I had started my work as consul I was offered by the then Dean of the Consular Corps of Helsinki, CG Pentti Pajari, the role of secretary to the Corps. This engagement I held for 30 years, the whole period when Consul General Harry Berner acted as Dean. The Corps organized many kinds of activities; amongst others we made group visits to Leningrad and Tallinn. Soviet-Estonia was twice our destination, and the second visit was particularly interesting, because at that time, in 1987, there was already a clear feeling amongst people that something special about the future was in the makings. A good omen was that some Estonian officials told us Consuls from Finland in the presence of our tour leader, Consul Stuigujev from the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki, that Tallinn is looking forward to Tallinn becoming a market economy city like “Hong Kong” within the Soviet Union.
Furthermore the Consular Corps of Helsinki extended its activities to include more closely the Honorary Consuls of the other cities in Finland, and started with regular cooperation with the Consular Corps of Stockholm.
In 2017 I was chosen the Dean of the Consular Corps in Finland after CG Gaius Gyllenbögel. This interesting position became a short phase in my Consular career, but it was not possible to continue acting as a Dean after that I had decided to relinquish my duties as Honorary Consul General of Bangladesh after 44 years of service. This short period as Head of the Consular Corps was a very attractive time for me, and the work together with our Consular Leadership Team was most fruitful. I hereby wish to thank all the members of the Board for their active and sincere cooperation.
A very interesting Consular appointment was when I was a member of the Executive Commission of FICAC, Federation Internationale des Corps et Associations Consulaires, or World Federation of Consuls, as it is called today. During those years 1995 – 2000 there was a large number of board meetings in European capitals, and they gave a clear picture of how various Consular Corps in other countries were operating, and how many different kinds of activities Honorary Consuls could face as representatives of their sending countries.
Harry Berner and I were at the inaugurating meeting of FICAC in Copenhagen in 1982, and together with representatives from Sweden, Norway, Greece and Italy, with Danish Consul General Vagn Jespersen as chairman, who had taken the initiative to establish the Federation, and who acted as the first President 1982 – 1995, we signed a resolution on the 2ndOctober 1982, which was to be called the Copenhagen Statutes. The first International Congress, agreed to be organized every three years, was held in Vienna in 1988, the place where Consuls throughout the world had been assembled at the Hofburg Palace to sign one of the most important United Nations conventions: The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The FICAC Conference in 1988 was attended by 132 Honorary Consuls avec from 21 countries. Finland was well represented, numbering 30 participants plus companions. Altogether 52 states were represented through the Consuls attending.
Gala Dinner was celebrated in the same “Zeremoniensaal” at the Hofburg Palace where the Vienna Congress of 1815 was gathered for its “Dancing Peace Conference” after the Napoleonic Wars, when it was decided that there should never ever anymore be war on the Old Continent. Reasons such as during the 30 year’s war in the 17thcentury, when Roman Catholics and Protestants were fighting about whose belief was the right one, were not used in the Napoleonic wars as a pretext for capturing lands and fields. Nor were they either an excuse for the Great War, which devastated Europe hundred years ago, and neither in the Second World War. Reasons were now other than spiritual in those cases.
The assurance given in Hofburg 200 years ago you could say became true for most parts of Europe during the last 70 years, in spite of the so called Cold War. And 30 years ago, in 1988, when we were happily dancing in Vienna, we did not know that only after one more year the Berlin Wall would fall. The continent would amongst others see a European Union of 28 states be established, plus Norway and Switzerland closely coordinated. But Great Britain having its Brexit problem. Only the very Eastern part of Europe still wishes to stay by itself.
My Consulate was of assistance to several trade delegations from Bangladesh. The first one came already in 1978. Jute products were the main exports, plus some leather goods, handicraft articles, tea and frozen shrimps. Development aid compensated a share for the insufficient exports, and also Finland made Bangladesh an aid receiver. Finland contributed to constructing electrification in rural areas, and took part in modernization of the port in Chittagong. Unfortunately, the 1990 economic slump in Finland resulted in reducing the volume of development aid, and Bangladesh was removed from the group of aid receiving countries. But instead increased trade between the two countries soon took the place of the development aid program. In 1991, when a delegation led by the Bangladesh Export Promotion Bureau visited Finland, a new export item, garments, had become many times more important than the traditional Jute production. This new Bangladeshi export item could be actively broadcast as an interesting article for all Finnish clothing goods importers. Ever since those days quite substantial quantities are shipped to Finland. Their worth in euro have been as much as around 140 million yearly.
GDP of Bangladesh was at the time when it became independent just a couple of hundred U.S. dollars per capita. The future did not look very bright in those days. But development has been a success story for this country with its graceful green fields, where rivers starting from the slopes of the Himalayan mountains and then flowing across world’s largest delta domain. According to the World Bank, in 2017 Bangladesh number 149 out of 233 countries with regard to per capita income. Most South Asian states are on the same level, except for Sri Lanka, which is number 109. The corresponding numeral for India is 142 and for Pakistan 146.
Women’s empowerment is advancing well, much due to the garment industry, and education for girls and women has reached an appreciated high level. Population growth is 1,36 percent. It is a moderate figure compared with many other populous countries. But although marriage by girls under 18 is not allowed anymore, it is still a problem not altogether eradicated.
It has been both interesting and rewarding to follow the development of this young nation, and I have appreciated how the Bangladeshi community in Finland has grown during the years. The Bengalis have proved to be hard working citizens also in their new homeland, and it would be right to ascertain that they have acclimatized themselves well into the Finnish society.
November 10, 2018
Honorary Consul General Emeritus, Former Dean and former Secretary of Consular Corps in Finland