Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Our Expatriates and Politics: The case in USA

Published in The Daily Sun
M. Serajul Islam

The Awami League supporters gathered in the Kennedy Airport in New York to welcome Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her recent visit to New York. Things went out of hand as the Awami Leaguers broke into groups and there was altercation between them that caused quite a deal of embarrassment. Our expatriates ended up giving a bad impression about the country to the hosts.

It is a very heartening matter that our expatriates show enthusiasm in receiving our Prime Ministers or Ministers on their overseas visits. However what is not so heartening is the partisanship in the way they show their enthusiasm in receiving these political leaders. In 2005, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was on an official visit to Japan. On that visit, s a historic event took place. In the heart of Tokyo, the local authorities offered Bangladesh a place for a permanent Shahid Manner that then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia inaugurated. This was a major concession made by the Japanese who are not accustomed to such an overture to a foreign culture. For Bangladesh, this was recognition of its language because this gave it the opportunity to inscribe in the heart of Tokyo, the story of the glorious Language Movement.

Unfortunately, the supporters of the Awami League did not see it that way. They made attempts of a black flag demonstration to spoil the occasion on the plea that the BNP was hobnobbing with Islamic fundamentalists and for a series of other alleged misdeeds in governance. It was with great efforts that the black flag demonstration was avoided with the help of the Japanese security. The BNP expatriates are also equally capable of doing what the AL expatriates had attempted during the visit of Khaleda Zia.

The nation owes great debt to our expatriates for their contribution to the national economy through remittance. That notwithstanding, the expatriates also do something that expatriates from other nations do not do. They establish branches of the parties in Bangladesh in their adopted countries. They also bring the conflicts and partisanship of these political politics and keep themselves divided just as the political parties at home keep the nation divided.

Thus there are branches of the AL, the BNP and the other smaller parties in every country to which Bangladeshis have migrated. In countries like the USA and UK, the mainstream parties have their branches in the cities where Bangladeshis live in a large number. The Bangladeshi private TV channels that can be viewed in the USA often carry advertisements from parties and candidates seeking support to get elected to the committees of these overseas branches of the political parties of Bangladesh. There are also other types of associations of Bangladeshi expatriates and in New York alone there are over 100 associations representing just not the political parties but districts and thanas reflecting the narrow parochialism of the community. The expatriates of other countries do not show even the hint of the division and disunity that the Bangladeshi community does. They are united for common benefit and also to unitedly represent their country. The Bangladesh community is divided on political and narrow self interests and in the process fail to make the impact that other expatriate communities achieve in the USA.

There was discussion during the Caretaker Government to ban the political parties from having overseas branches. The question of banning is a redundant one. These overseas branches need no formal sanction from the mainstream parties for opening overseas branches. These overseas branches however have to get approval of local authorities to function that control their activities. The call for banning these overseas branches nevertheless resonated in the minds of many in the country for a different reason. Many felt that by organizing as branches of parties in Bangladesh, Bangladeshi expatriates just assist in washing the dirty linen of Bangladesh’s politics abroad and thus enhances the negative image from which the country suffers.

Bangladeshis in the United States in the last two decades have increased in a substantial way. There is no reliable statistics on how many Bangladeshis live in the United States. It could be well in excess of a quarter million. Wikipedia mentions that between 1990 and 2000, the Bangladesh community was the fastest growing one in the US. It has now reached a position in cities such as New York, LA, Chicago, Greater Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Houston and Dallas where by their numbers they can act as a lobby to influence the country’s policies in areas of interest to Bangladesh. This year, a politician of Bangladeshi origin Hansen Clarke has been elected as a Member of Congress from Michigan.

Unfortunately, the achievement of the Bangladeshi Congressman seems to be a surprising exception as most Bangladeshis who can lead the community dissipate their energy in fighting the partisan politics of Bangladesh in the USA. The Federation of Bangladesh Associations of North America (FOBANA) that could have emerged as an apex organization of Bangladeshis in the USA for achieving not just social and cultural needs of the Bangladeshi community but also as an organization of political strength has now broken into a few splinter groups. Although the groups do not accept that they have been divided on politics of the country, there is enough reason to believe politics to a large extent as well as personalities have created the splinters.

The mainstream parties really do not gain anything through these branches established in their names. The branches gain even less in such a connection. Yet for some strange reasons, they keep the connection and as a consequence, the expatriates keep themselves divided as the nation keeps itself is divided at home. One reason why our expatriates love organizing themselves in line with politics at home is because they have been involved in politics as students or in their professional lives as activists of one or the other of the political parties before they migrated. By force of habbit, they do the same in the States. The fact that none of them would ever come home to do politics makes this attitude of the expatriates so hard to understand.

It is time that the Bangladeshis take a look at what other expatriate communities do and achieve in the USA. The Indians for instance organize themselves in the USA for furthering their social, economic, cultural and political lives in the USA. They do not try to get involved with politics in India that they leave to those in the country. They nevertheless love their country as much as Bangladeshis in the USA love theirs; most importantly their Indian identity. When it comes to furthering India’s interests in the USA, they thus have no problem in backing to the hilt the Government in power and in return, act as a powerful lobby for furthering India’s interest. All other expatriate communities in USA do the same because that is the logical thing to do. Unfortunately, in case of Bangladeshis in the USA, the community remains divided on politics of Bangladesh and have seldom been united in making Bangladesh’s interests a common cause with the power structure in the USA.

It is time for the expatriates of Bangladesh to unite. That will allow them not just to serve the interests of the community in USA but also help build a positive image for the country. They could even do better. They could create pressure on the politicians in Bangladesh given the love they have so clearly demonstrated for the motherland to end the “politics of hatred”, to take a quote out of the damning coverage by The Economist in its issue on 18th November, that is destroying Bangladesh. The expatriates in USA have the potential given the talent they have to send such a message but only if they unite and rise above politics.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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