Maarch 17, 2013
M. Serajul Islam
The US Ambassador broke the long silence of the foreign Ambassadors on commenting on the current political situation in Bangladesh. Ambassador Dan Mozena called a “Meet the Press” at the American Center in Dhaka recently and interacted with the media at length on Shahabag and the related issues of politics in the country. The Ambassador’s media briefing was significant because it was undertaken after he returned to Dhaka from a visit to the United States.
The Ambassador spoke about Shahabag, Jamat and banning it, the ICT, violence and political instability and the coming elections in the context what he had told people who had asked him questions on these issues when he was in the United States. Nevertheless, an Ambassador does not provide views in a public forum that are not his government’s especially when he has just returned from his country while a political turmoil was raging in the country of his accreditation. Therefore Ambassador Mozena in fact did public diplomacy with his “Meet the Press” event; informing Bangladeshis what in reality is his government’s views on the current situation in the country.
Ambassadors have openly spoken on our politics in the past, often critically, in violation of specific provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that strictly prohibits diplomats from speaking on the internal affairs of the host country. In Bangladesh, Ambassadors in the past have not just openly talked about our internal affairs; they have often taken sides in our politics. In 2007, their interference assured emergency in the country. This time, the Ambassadors have acted differently; almost all of them have remained quiet. Before leaving for his US visit, Ambassador Mozena had briefly said he was impressed with the peaceful nature of the Shahabag movement as a democratic right of the youth but little else while all of his colleagues kept uncharacteristically silent.
The correctness or otherwise of Ambassadors speaking on our internal affairs notwithstanding, Ambassador Mozena was careful in what he said in his “Meet the Press” event. Clearly he did not want to ruffle feathers by becoming controversial with what he said. He took the emotions running high in the country seriously without making any value judgment on any of the issues or overtly taking sides over these. His description of Shahabag as a peaceful and democratic movement of the youth highlighted its strength. Indirectly, it can even be interpreted as an endorsement of the Shahabag movement.
However, he did not give Shahabag the type of whole hearted endorsement that the Indians gave in his “Meet the Press” event. He focussed on the entire range of issues that have been thrown into the political arena as a result of the Shahabag movement. The most important one upon which he focussed was the demand for banning the Jamat that came out of Shahabag. He stated that the matter of banning Jamat rested on “appropriate authorities”. He nevertheless described Jamat as a “recognized political party with members in Parliament.” The Ambassador also declined to say anything when a journalist asked him if the USA viewed Jamat as a moderate Islamic party that is significant. Reading between the lines about what he said about Jamat, the Ambassador did not back the demand from Shahabag and moves from the ruling party to ban Jamat.
The Ambassador said that the United States government supported the need to bring to justice those who committed crimes against humanity in 1971. He however made it clear that his government expected that the trials “must be fair, must be transparent and must be consistent with domestic and international standards, including international covenants for civil and political rights”. The Ambassador also left no one in doubt that his government did not support the demand from Shahabag backed by a section of the ruling party for death of the accused under any circumstances for which laws have been changed so that no accused would escape the gallows. Ambassador Mozena also expressed sorrow for the death of over a “100 people and loss of property” and concern at the attacks on Hindu temples and Hindu homes. He called upon all Bangladeshis across the political spectrum to express their views peacefully and to shun violence that was an oblique reference to the Jamat and the BNP. Nevertheless, he placed the responsibility upon the government “to continue to endeavor to ensure the safety of its people.”
Ambassador Mozena expressed the most important message from the Government of the United States to Bangladesh when he touched upon the issue of elections. He said that the way out of the current dangerous predicament in which Bangladesh finds itself, aggravated by the Shahabag youth, is for all political parties to “find a way forward to hold free, fair and credible elections.” In expressing such a view the Ambassador also said that in such an endeavor, “the friends of Bangladesh” would join hands to assist the election process. Thus, what the Ambassador said in his “Meet the Press” were just not the views of Washington; there is reason to believe that before he addressed the media, Ambassador Dan Mozena must have discussed what he would say with his colleagues from the western nations in Dhaka. In fact, after his media briefing, the Canadian Ambassador in Dhaka also urged all concerned to seek a negotiated way out of the current dangerous situation facing Bangladesh.
On balance, Ambassador Mozena’s media briefing was an implicit critique of the government’s handling of the current political problems facing the country. Apart from pointing at Jamat and BNP for choosing the path of violence, his views backed the opposition BNP’s two main demands in politics; namely to ensure an election in which it would be able to participate and to conduct the trials of those accused of crimes against humanity in accordance with “domestic and international standards” including international covenants for civil and political rights. Aware that his views would not final favour with the ruling party, the Ambassador stated that Washington-Bangladesh relations have never been as good as it is now in an attempt to make his other views sugar coated. He referred to the US-Bangladesh partnership dialogue and few other positive developments in bilateral relations to substantiate his comment on the excellence of these relations.
Ambassador Mozena’s media meeting touched the right chord in the minds of many in the country who are praying on their knees for a negotiated way out of the dangerous situation in the country. Those who followed what he said have also been encouraged that a negotiated way out is also the desire of other “friends of Bangladesh.” The recent postponement of the visit of the Amir of Kuwait is a signal that the international actors are beginning to take serious note of the political situation in the country as the United States has with Ambassador’s media briefing. The ball is now in the court of the Prime Minister to decide between peace and protracted civil disturbances that would ruin the economy. She could decide in favour of peace if she just listened to the advice of the US Government and “friends of Bangladesh” on holding elections that would allow all parties to participate.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador