A note of discontent and hope reflected in US secretary of state’s visitby Mohammad Amjad Hossain
As was expected, the 22 hour whirlwind visit to Bangladesh by US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, on May 5-May 6, touched on the strengthening of security dialogue between Bangladesh and America, and gave friendly advice to political actors to come to the table to discuss problems and resolve the political impasse, in the interest of democracy and prosperity of the country, instead of organizing violence in the name of strike (hartal). Bilateral talks between Bangladesh foreign minister, Dipu Moni, and US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, concluded with the signing of a memorandum of understanding for a joint declaration on Bangladesh-US dialogue on partnership. Details of the deal, however, were not disclosed.
A wide range of issues, including the law and order situation, secret killings and disappearances of activists of opposition political party, economic development, climate change, security issue, freedom of press and smooth functioning of non-government development organizations came up for discussion. From the Bangladeshi side, the issues raised included duty and quota free access of garment products to American markets, facility of generalized system of preference, inclusion of Bangladesh in the Millennium program and repatriation of the convicted killer of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from America. The volume of trade from Bangladesh to America and Europe stood at $18 billion last year, with export to America alone at over $4 billion. America turns out to be the largest export destination of Bangladeshi products. Bangladesh was disqualified from receiving a share of the cake from the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s earmarked $ 2.3 billion, because of the high rate of corruption in the country. I do not see any prospects for inclusion in the program because of the unbridled corruption at all levels of the country, which has in fact surpassed the corruption and nepotism of 1972--1975. Foreign assistance from America is also dwindling recently. Presently, America is contributing eighty million dollars annually as grants. Only twenty million goes to the government exchequer while rest goes to non-government organizations. Aid to Bangladesh includes food security, health, tropical forest and building good democratic processes. Over the next four years Bangladesh would receive $13 million for climate change resilience fund, as announced by the US secretary of state.
Hillary Clinton was critical of the unceremonious government action, to remove Nobel laureate Dr Muhammad Yunus from managing director position of Grameen Bank, as reflected in a joint press briefing and also while addressing students of International High School in Dhaka, wherein she spoke highly of Professor Yunus and founder-chairman of BRAC, Sir Fazley Hasan Abed. She said that both were ‘national treasures and that Bangladesh should treat them accordingly’. Their organizations, she added, are viewed as the best development organizations in the world. She expressed her hope that nothing would be done in any way to undermine the success of Grameen Bank. ‘Without being undermined or affected by any government action I hope Grameen Bank would continue’, Hillary Clinton added. Hillary Clinton availed the opportunity of meeting with both Professor Yunus and Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, at the residence of the US Ambassador in Dhaka. Such straight talk on Professor Yunus and Grameen Bank appears to be a direct slap in the face of the Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, who in fact has shown total disrespect towards Professor Yunus.
During her brief visit to Dhaka, on her way to Kolkata and Delhi, US secretary of state also made a courtesy call on parliamentary opposition leader and chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Khaleda Zia, and exchanged views on the present political situation of the country. The secretary of state urged both government and opposition political parties to resolve the political impasse amicably, without resorting to violence, which causes more misery to poor people and provides wrong signals to foreign investors to invest in Bangladesh. She urged them to shun violence. On the other hand, US secretary of state called on the government for maintaining the total rule of law, without impunity, and asked to form independent and transparent investigations for the enforced disappearance of opposition political activist M Elias Ali and killing of garment worker activist Aminul Islam. Hillary Clinton, however, praised the government for its zero tolerance policy on terrorism and for working with the US to ensure that extremists are not able to use Bangladesh as a transit or training ground to commit violence against Bangladeshis or people anywhere. By inference, the comment goes against Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which allowed terrorist groups to grow in Bangladesh. It has been made clear that the results of the election will not be recognized internationally if it’s not transparent and all political parties do not take part.
As stated in my article of May 4, the visit to Bangladesh by US secretary of state took place in view of China’s growing influence in South and East Asia region as an economic and military power. Further strategic interest was opened up by the verdict of the UN tribunal on demarcation of maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar, which provides Bangladesh with an additional 111000 square kilometre of exclusive economic zone in the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh was also awarded 12 square miles around St Martin Islands. The award of additional exclusive economic zone in Bay of Bengal attracts US ConocoPhillips Company, to seek 6 more deep sea blocks for exploration of gas and oil. ConocoPhillips was awarded four years back to work on two deep sea blocks. The Bay of Bengal economic zone that Bangladesh enjoys is full of gas and oil, apart from huge mineral resources. This was disclosed by a German naval research ship which was allowed to conduct a survey in cooperation with Bangladesh Geological Survey and the Navy in 1994, while I was director of both Western and Eastern Europe, in the ministry of foreign affairs. The report also indicated a large marshy land is emerging from the Bay of Bengal because of sediment it receives every year from upper riparian countries during monsoon period.
Therefore, it is strategic interests that influenced US secretary of state to undertake the visit to Bangladesh, not because of a love for the government or the country. Unfortunately, the country remains hostage to the two major political parties. Enough is enough. It is high time that civil society works out a modus operandi to get rid of the two political parties, in the interest of the country and its teeming millions -- whose per capita income never exceeded $ 800 dollars in the 41 years of existence, half of who live on less than one dollar a day.
The writer, a retired diplomat from Bangladesh and former President of Nova chapter of prestigious Toastmasters International club, writes from Virginia
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