Thursday, April 19, 2012

Visit of US Under-Secretary of State: Underlying messages
M. Serajul Islam
The Holiday, April 13, 2012

At the US Department of State, the affairs of Bangladesh are usually decided at the level of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. It was so when I was posted there in the early 1990s. It was only once in a while that the Ambassador used to call on the Assistant Secretary for South Asia and seldom if ever on the Under Secretary of State. During my stint at the Washington Embassy as a Political Counsellor, I used to accompany the Ambassador in his meetings at the US State Department. It was Ambassador Tereshita Schaffer who was the Deputy Assistant Secretary and she used to be enough to deal with whatever issues we had with the US Government. 

Things however changed once we decided to commit troops for the first Gulf War. The US Government, desperate at that time to make the coalition troops to deal with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait as broad based as possible, was particularly grateful to President Ershad for committing troops. The fact that Bangladesh was the third largest Muslim country made our decision all the more welcome to the United States.  After that decision of President Ershad, the Ambassador’s access was upgraded to the level of the Assistant Secretary and the Under Secretary. However, as soon as the Gulf War ended, the level of access of our Ambassador was again pushed down to the level of the Deputy Assistant Secretary. 

That was nothing unusual. In fact that is the way the US does its diplomacy. When the US has an interest in any country, the level is raised at their instance. A good example of this style of US diplomacy was the treatment that was given to President Pervez Moshraff after Pakistan joined the war on terror. Pakistan that was a pariah just before 9/11 for usurping the democratic government of Nawaz Sheriff became US’s closest ally after joining the war on terror. In fact, in those days, Present Pervez Moshraff could claim to be in the US President’s closest list of buddies.

It was therefore a pleasant surprise that the third highest ranking diplomat at the US Department of State paid a two day official visit to Bangladesh. Under Secretary for Political and Military Affairs Wendy Sherman’s visit was billed as a familiarization trip as she assumed the office only recently, in September last year. It is a usual practice in the US system for an officer to undertake a visit to the countries under his/her watch after taking office. However for countries such as Bangladesh, such a practice is restricted to the mid-level and junior level officers. The visit was therefore more than an usual familiarization trip;   in fact it was undertaken because the US had messages for the Bangladesh Government just as it had when it sent Assistant Secretary Robert Blake to Bangladesh during the ousting Dr. Yunus from the Grameen Bank.

On the surface, there is nothing unusually important in Bangladesh-US affairs at present to warrant such a high ranking officer of the US Department of State to undertake a visit to Bangladesh. In fact, in her talks with the Foreign Minister, the issues that the two sides discussed were routine. The issue of security figured prominently in the talks. The Under Secretary informed journalists after the talks that the Assistant Secretary for Political and Military Affairs would be visiting Bangladesh on April 19 for a security dialogue. She noted with satisfaction about Bangladesh’s initiatives in tackling terrorism after the Government of Sheikh Hasina assured office in early 2009. 

In her talks with the Prime Minister also the issue of security figured prominently. Ms Sherman welcomed the various actions of the Bangladesh Government in tackling terrorism, particularly its zero-tolerance to terrorism. She nevertheless expressed the view that the task of battling terrorism is a tough one and the Government would need to keep its focus against terrorism all the time. The Prime Minister briefed the visitor about the 5000 plus elections held by the EEC that has recently been strengthened. She assured the Under-Secretary that the next general elections would be free and fair. She requested the US for including Bangladesh in the Millennium Challenge Account to receive assistance from the fund. 

The Under Secretary also assured that Bangladesh would receive US 1 billion in assistance from the US in health, food security, and climate change and disaster management. In her official talks with the Foreign Minister and in her courtesy call on the Prime Minister, the US did not raise anything related to the Grameen Bank nor with the current political stalemate in the country over the system under which the next general elections in Bangladesh would be held. On the latter issue, she just underscored US expectations that it would be free and fair. 

In fact, the importance  of this important visit was revealed not in her official meetings but in what the Under-Secretary said outside these meetings, in her press conference and in the TV interview that she gave to a local TV station for instance. It was also revealed in her visit to the Grameen Bank. It was of course also revealed in what the Government of Bangladesh failed or did not raise with her in the official meeting with the FM and in the courtesy call on the Prime Minister. In her press conference and the TV interview, the Under-Secretary underscored the US view regarding the next elections. She said the US would like to see an election that would be free and fair in which all the parties, big and small would attend. 

Quite clearly that was a hint that the US would be disappointed if the next general elections are held with the BNP and its allies not participating. The Prime Minister true to her form did not lose anytime and responded immediately to such a desire of the US Government. She used the Leader of the Opposition and her usual sarcasm to dismiss any possibility of accepting the BNP’s demand for holding the next elections under the caretaker government. The US would have to be dumb to miss the direction at which the Prime Minister’s sarcastic dismissal of the CG was hurled. 

The Under-Secretary’s visit to the Grameen Bank was also an unmistakable pointer at what the US thinking is about Bangladesh. The Under-Secretary took considerable time out of her short visit to Bangladesh to make a trip to a GB location at Manikgang, not a particularly easy place to access. She made strong points for the future of the GB and the commitment of the international community to its future. Quite clearly, the audience for her strong words for the GB was not the people of Bangladesh but the Prime Minister and her associates who encouraged her to pursue the case against Dr. Yunus. 

The Bangladesh Government is clearly stuck in diplomatic quicksand as a consequence of the differences that have emerged between the two countries over the Grameen Bank and the Dr. Muhammad Yunus episode. The Prime Minister and her aides have publicly spoken in the media that Dr. Yunus has used his influence with the US Secretary of State to stop the WB funding for the Padma Bridge. The Under-Secretary’s visit was the right opportunity for Bangladesh to discuss this perception and find out whether it is correct and to ask the US Government to use its influence over the WB that is obviously has, to remove misunderstanding, if any.   

The Prime Minister did not although it is as its wits end over the mess it has made in dealing with GB and Dr. Yunus. It has found no evidence against Dr. Yunus to sustain its charges with which it had snubbed the US Secretary of State and the US President who had both requested our Prime Minister to deal with the Noble Laureate honoruably that she did not. The Prime Minister then made a strange gesture when she asked the EU to nominate Dr. Yunus for the post of President of the WB that was dismissed without even an attention at the right quarters, although at least two of the Prime Minister’s Advisers stated in the media that the Prime Minister was serious about her request. 

While the Communications Minister is in KL signing a MOU with the Government of Malaysia on funding the Padma Bridge, the Finance Minister has stated that the Government has not given up its hopes that the WB would in the end fund the PB project. He is no doubt worried that it is not just the PB loan that is stuck in the Prime Minister’s dislike for Dr. Yunus; funds from leading financial institutions/donors crucial to Bangladesh’s development are also stuck. His worries notwithstanding, his colleagues are projecting the Malaysian option as a success of the Prime Minister’s leadership for bringing funding for the PB over the WB/JICA/ADB denial and by inference,  US objection. No one in Government seems concerned that a MOU is not even a serious commitment and may never even see the light of day as eventually happens to most MOUs.  

In drumming up the Malaysian option as a success of the Prime Minister’s leadership, the Government is not telling the people what would be the Malaysian take on the funding. Surely, the Malaysian would not provide the funds at the less than 1% interest rate and the generous repayment period of the WB. Malaysia has no reason to do such a huge favour to Bangladesh. It is the same country that is giving our expatriates such an unfair deal. The Malaysians, if they go through the deal, would be eventually doing business with the PB and not providing humanitarian assistance to Bangladesh where the costs could double and the people tied for decades paying tolls for the bridge. In going for the Malaysian offer, the Prime Minister has literally kicked a gift horse in the mouth for pursuing a personal agenda. 

The US Under-Secretary left clear suggestions where US-Bangladesh relations stand at the moment. The US has not forgotten the affront of the Prime Minister made to the US Secretary of State and the US President over the GB issue that has now become almost an obsession for this US administration. She has also left with the distinct hint that the US  would  use its power and influence to see that the next general elections in Bangladesh are held in a manner that would be participated not just by the ruling party but by the opposition BNP as well.  

By irony, the AL today finds itself in the same predicament as the BNP found itself before the last general elections. At that time, the BNP as the ruling party had incurred the displeasure of the United States over the issues of terrorism and corruption and paid the price. This time, over the issue of the GB, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, corruption and refusal to make the playing ground even for all parties to participate in the next general elections, the AL as the ruling party is again facing the displeasure of the United States. 

The BNP made the mistake in its last term by refusing to heed to the US displeasures and paid the price. The AL led government should not take the US displeasures too lightly as the Prime Minister seems to be doing and ending up displeasing the US much more than the BNP. When the last Prime Minister did not take US concerns seriously not only did she lose power;  the people of Bangladesh also suffered  badly with a military rule that set back Bangladesh decades back in its development efforts. That is the message that Ms. Wendy Sherman left to the Prime Minister and her team. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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