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US-Bangladesh relations: Should we be concerned?


Dec 31, 2010

US-Bangladesh relations: Should we be concerned?​

Is it symptomatic of the US' unwarranted interference in Bangladesh's internal affairs?

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File photo of Bangladesh Ambassador to the United States M Shahidul Islam meets US President Joe Biden UNB

Ashraf ud Doula
January 19, 2023 4:23 PM

People who follow the roller-coaster relationship between the US and Bangladesh are familiar with the switching of gears by our foreign policy makers to define our relationship with the US -- from its role in 1971 to an important economic and strategic partner when it suits the situation.

Of late, there has been an array of verbal spats between the two countries over a host of issues. These include:

  • The imposition of US sanctions on several former and serving senior security officials of Bangladesh
  • The non-invitation to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the Democracy Summit hosted by President Joe Biden in December last year
  • Repeated lecturing by the US on the upcoming national election as to how and in which manner it should be held
  • Condemnation of the human rights conditions in the country
In addition, there is also the visit by Ambassador Hass to a private house at a suburb in Dhaka to meet with the relatives of the victims of the human rights violations when he was ambushed by a parallel-group, apparently threatening his security, as claimed by the Dhaka based US Embassy and the US State Department.

The vollies of cross accusations have reached such a level that it signals an atmosphere that's fraught with further escalating the already sour relationship, notwithstanding the contrary claims by both governments -- which is a good sign manifesting their desire not to allow the relationship experience a downward slide. More visits are slated to take place shortly and in the near future.

The reality, however, provides a different picture without any opacity, as demonstrated by the several visits of a number of senior White House and State Department officials over the past few months believed to be conveying serious messages laced with positivity and negativity. Though I am not privy to what went behind the curtain, intelligent guesswork can be pieced together with hindsight. The visiting officials' statements to the media could also serve as guidance.

The time has therefore come for both nations to take a step back from their grandstanding and bring our relationship on an even keel, which is beneficial for both countries. It's no good to contemplate otherwise.

When relationships warmed

I served as Director General (Americas & Pacific) at our foreign office from May 1995 to August 1998. It was truly a period, especially after Sheikh Hasina took over as prime minister, which saw a marked rise and warming up of US-Bangladesh bilateral relations.

Sheikh Hasina, without hesitation, became the cynosure of the Western/ democratic nations, receiving several international awards and recognition all for her positive approach and contributions. It may be mentioned that in 1997, while on a visit to Washington to co-chair a microcredit summit, she was invited to the White House by Hillary Clinton.

When President Clinton learned that the Bangladesh prime minister was having a parley with the First Lady at the White House, he dropped in unannounced to greet her, showing his affection and admiration for her. There had also been visits by several US Congressmen and Senators to meet and befriend her during that time.

Upon her return to power in 2009, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina started on a strong footing, however, faced several domestic and security challenges within months of assuming office. But she didn't deter and forged ahead with greater vigour.

Following the BDR mutiny in February 2009, when innocent officers were murdered in cold blood by the mutineers, ensnaring the officers' corps in the army, she decided to face the latter group alone to assuage their feelings and high emotions by coming to the cantonment, despite the dissuasion by her close advisers. The then US Ambassador in Dhaka while reporting the incident to the State Department mentioned that the display was “inherent to her strong character.”

However, I can not speak with such assertiveness that our current bilateral relations with the US are as boisterous and strong, encompassing the entire gamut now as it was before, especially after President Biden entered the White House.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's tenure has seen unprecedented economic growth and eye-catching infrastructural developments, making Bangladesh a success story and a role model in the developing world albeit not without stigmas of alleged corruption and cronyism.

There's no gainsaying that the US, despite its reservation on the democratic and human rights fronts, have been a critical partner in this journey of ours. The US undoubtedly is a well-wisher of Bangladesh and it means good for us. It also recognizes the potential economic and strategic importance of Bangladesh, which is not only vital to its interest but also to the region and the world at large.

Recently, while receiving the letter of credentials from our new Ambassador in DC, President Joe Biden expressed hope and desire to strengthen the ties between our two countries.

Paradoxically, there seems to be a gathering of dark clouds on the political horizon of Bangladesh, likely to bring a torrential storm.

There's nothing impossible that can't be resolved. Every problem has its solution and we the Bengalis are inherently creative and capable of resolving our problems “collectively,” without outside interference.

We are among the few nations in the world that can take much pride in snatching our independence by fighting a War of Liberation and at a huge human cost. We also surmounted the political quagmire in 1990, 1996 and 2007.

So, there is great optimism that this storm too will ride out. What's needed is for everyone to understand and realize that nothing will be gained by being stubborn or intransigent, for the future of the nation will depend on what course of action is taken by our leaders -- compromise or confrontation? Leaders are supposed to lead the nation to prosperity and not the opposite.

The key to the future growth and developments of Bangladesh's interactions with the US essentially lies in how we handle impending crises in the country. We do not have many chips to bargain with the US. On the contrary, there is much to lose.

Ashraf ud Doula is a former Secretary to the Government of Bangladesh and served as Bangladesh's Ambassador to several countries.


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