Thursday, May 10, 2012


Short-term prospects and long term consequences
The Holiday, May 10th., 2012

M. Serajul Islam
There were no surprises with the way the visit of the US Secretary of State ended.  The government’s efforts to give the visit a positive spin were misplaced. No TICFA agreement was signed or any security pact for the region.  The request for duty free access of Bangladeshi RMG products to the US market was ignored. The partnership agreement that was signed was on the cards as it was offered to Bangladesh during the discussions of the US Assistant Secretary Andrew Shapiro last month.
Nevertheless, the Government that was apprehensive that the Secretary would take a hard-line for the snubbing on the twin issues of Dr. Mohammad Yunus and Grameen Bank was relieved that these issues were not raised in the Secretary’s meeting with the Bangladesh Prime Minister or at her media briefing. Instead, there were some warm statements on Bangladesh’s performance on crucial issues of social and economic indicators of growth. The Government also received high marks for its zero tolerance on terrorism.  It was happy also that the Secretary expressed some harsh words against opposition led hartal that has placed it in a very difficult predicament in governance.

Although the BNP was admonished for hartal, it was nevertheless happy because the Secretary made it clear that the US wanted the next elections in Bangladesh to be held in a manner where all parties would participate. She also urged the ruling party to hold consultations with the opposition both in the parliament and outside on the issue. The BNP has been demanding this from the ruling party and its current political agitation is to pressure the AL to do this precisely. She strongly urged the Government to ensure an end to extra-judicial killings and disappearances, issues that are now concerns of not just the BNP but the nation. The presence of Ilyas Ali’s daughter at the meeting of the Secretary with Begum Khaleda Zia was therefore significant.
Govt. worried
On balance, however, the Secretary left the ruling party much more worried than the opposition. Notwithstanding what she said to the government and the opposition, she visited Bangladesh in pursuance of her country’s regional and global interests. If she made any party happy or worried, it has resulted as collateral advantage or disadvantage in pursuing US’ new security strategy for Asia and the Pacific which was the real reason for her visit to Bangladesh.
That was evident from observations that the Secretary made about India while addressing the press and media after her official talks with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh. She encouraged Bangladesh to tread a regional path in company with India to assure its future. To play that role, she urged Bangladesh to strengthen and consolidate its democratic roots. It was also in this context that she urged both the ruling party and the opposition to negotiate a democratic way out of their present impasse and hold the next general elections so that all parties would be able to participate. It was also in this context that she strongly advised the opposition to shun the hartals and return to the parliament for peaceful resolution of their current problems with the ruling party.
Powerful leaders like Hillary Clinton do not do anything without any reason. Their visits overseas are all undertaken in pursuance of the objectives of their foreign policy. These leaders, in pursuance of their goals, are constantly in touch with one another across national boundaries both formally and informally all the time. Hence the fact that the US Secretary of State landed in Dhaka two days after the Japanese Deputy Prime Minister and was in Dhaka at the same time as the Indian Finance Minister were not  simple coincidences. 
Corruption core issue
The Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Matsuya Okada offered to Bangladesh the promise of investment and economic assistance. He did not, however, do so without preconditions.  He urged the government to enter into dialogue with the opposition to resolve the political impasse and encouraged the BNP to participate in the next general elections. He also did not fail to underscore the issue of corruption and urged the Government for showing no tolerance on the issue, underscoring the fact that Japanese laws related to overseas aid make it imperative that the process is free of corruption and is transparent.
In other words, he urged the Government in unequivocal terms that the democratic process in Bangladesh must be allowed to function unhindered. The US Secretary in her discussions with the Bangladesh leaders re-stated the same views as those of the Japanese DPM. Her words were in fact more focused. After expressing US’ choice on “betting on Bangladesh”, she said that it “must make the hard decisions necessary for the rule of law, for transparency.” She added: “We do not want to see Bangladesh flagging or faltering. We want to see democracy flourish in Bangladesh.”
The Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee also followed the same line on the need to ensure the democratic way to function in Bangladesh without obstacles. In this context, he made two significant departures from India’s stance in Bangladesh’s politics under the present government so far. He met the opposition leader after mysteriously failing to do so when he visited Dhaka as a Special Envoy in February, 2009. Second, he said that India has no favourites in Bangladesh; that it would be willing to work with any government that is elected by the people of Bangladesh.
The main underlying message of all the three visitors has thus been the same. They have asked the ruling party and the opposition to patch up their differences and shun the path of conflict in favour of the path of discussion and consultation for resolution of political conflicts.  It is this common message that leaves little doubt that there has been prior coordination for the three visits.
The interest of these 3 countries for ensuring success of democracy of Bangladesh has nevertheless a serious underlying message. It is not that these countries have in the past encouraged Bangladesh’s democratic process.  They have done so in the past. The fact that their top leaders have come to Dhaka to deliver the message at about the same time is what suggests that they have their own common interest in seeing democracy thrive in Bangladesh and that there is an important message in their common support for the democratic political process in the country.
Geopolitical location
US officials depicted the US Secretary’s trip to Bangladesh that has been taken together with China and India as part of a larger US “pivot” for greater US engagement in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The main reason for this engagement which is in fact a new security strategy is the containment of China. Towards this policy of containment, the US and India have already entered into a strategic alliance whose details are being worked out. Recent changes in Myanmar have encouraged both the US and India to try and cut off China across the land connecting South Asia with Southeast Asia. In this scheme, Bangladesh’s importance has enhanced because of its geopolitical location.
Additional factors that have encouraged US, India and Japan to take a joint stand on democracy in Bangladesh have been the prospect of Bangladesh emerging as a regional connectivity hub as a consequence of India’s offer to help Bangladesh  to become such a hub in exchange of land transit and security assurances. The recent gains of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal as a result of the ITLOS verdict have opened for Bangladesh promises of discovering hydrocarbons  that have also enhanced the sudden importance of Bangladesh to the US, Japan and India.
Nevertheless, on the face of it, the Secretary’s visit should make the people of Bangladesh happy for she has impressed upon the ruling party and the BNP what they expect them to do for the sake of the country. The Secretary has not given the ruling party any assurance that it would use its influence in any way to help the Bangladesh government with its current problem with the WB over the Padma Bridge funding although it is not unknown in Bangladesh that the US Secretary could help Bangladesh on this count even without lifting a finger. She has thus clearly underlines US’ zero tolerance on corruption that is what the people of Bangladesh want. At the same time, she has sent a firm message to the BNP that it must shun the path of hartal which is equally another major demand of all Bangladeshis.
In the short term, the visit of the US Secretary of State therefore promises good omen for Bangladesh provided the ruling party listens to her. The fact that the Government would be seen to be accepting the demands of the opposition if it listens to the US Secretary of State however make such a prospect somewhat uncertain. The Prime Minister has shown zero tolerance to any demand of the Opposition thus far in her second term. There is however one good reason to hope that it would be different this time because the US has India on its side. The government would find it difficult to refuse India.
Dhaka’s concern
In the long term, there is however good reason for Bangladesh to be concerned. The eventual game plan here is to isolate China in the region and Southeast Asia. In such a containment policy, US have its global interests, India its regional and Japan its defence and historical reasons to get together. Bangladesh has none of these reasons.
Bangladesh has painstakingly built excellent relations with China that began when the country was just another developing country to one where it is today, though not yet given the Super Power status, more than one for it is showing all the potentials to overtake the only Super Power, the US, in not that distant a future. China has proven a very dependable ally to Bangladesh. By moving to the US-India security axis, Bangladesh would be wasting all the good work of its diplomacy and getting caught in power play involving super and major powers that would put our interests at risk.
It was not without significance that the US Secretary met Dr Yunus and Sir Fazle Hasan Abed after she had set aside the politicians. She wanted their views on our politics that she could depend upon that was no doubt a poor assessment of our politicians. Both clearly told the Secretary that the country’s future depended on holding the next general elections under a system of caretaker government. That is also what the US wants and with India with it, the chances of the Prime Minister acceding to hold the next elections in way that would bring the BNP to the polls is betting better.
The Secretary departed Dhaka reminding everyone that she “highly respects” Dr. Yunus and that she hopes “to see it (GB) continue without being affected or undermined by any government action.” Clearly, she did not abandon her friend Dr. Yunus or forgot the actions of the Bangladesh Government to humiliate him and discredit the GB.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt. 

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