Bangladesh-Us Relations

Uncle Sam is not Happy

Farooque Chowdhury

Dan Mozena, the US ambassador in Bangladesh, has recently told Dhaka journalists: "The US relations with Bangladesh are not usual". He said : The US interaction with the present government is not business as usual. (, ''America's relations with Hasina govt not warm: Mozena", February 11, 2014)

No doubt, the publicly made observation is part of public diplomacy. Purpose of public diplomacy is known to all. However, at least a part of a reality has come out to public view.

It's difficult to recollect any such observation made by any diplomat, not only diplomats from the US, in Dhaka. Even, such observation was not made immediately after the emergence of Bangladesh.

During that period, the Bangladesh-US relation was not a happy one. Bangladesh, near-to-the USSR orbit during the period, was struggling hard to get membership in the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and the UN. Members of navy from the erstwhile USSR were assisting Bangladesh in making the Chittagong Port operational. They were salvaging ships sunk during the War for Liberation and clearing off sea mines set around the port.

At that time, the US role during the War for Liberation was fresh in the memory of the Bangladesh people: In the face of genocide being carried out by the occupying Pakistan Army, about 13 million of the Baangaalee people had to pass uncertain, hard time in the refugee camps in India, and millions were internally displaced while Nixon and Kissinger were extending their warm hearted support to the Pakistan regime. The US leaders were villains in the eyes of the Bangladesh people. Rather the people of Vietnam were heroes to them as the Vietnamese people were waging a heroic war against the US army and the US backed Saigon regime, and they were nearing to their historic victory, which was also a symbol of humanity's tenacity.

McNamara, the then WB president after his Vietnam phase of genocide, and Kissinger visited Bangladesh. Kissinger's definition of Bangladesh—basket case—stirred Bangladesh internal politics, especially Mujib-opponents, for a while. But the following days were of gradual improvement of relations between the US and its Bangladesh elite allies.

This background helps perceive the weight of the observation made publicly by the ambassador from the US, the biggest investor in Bangladesh. One can assume it was made to send a message to a broader audience, and the message comes from, according to the report, the ambassador of "the largest single country destination for Bangladeshi apparel, the country's largest export".

The observation reflects the state of the Bangladesh-US relationship, and signals a future scene. The state of the relationship and the future scene stands on certain other relations and interests, and their prevailing conditions. Interests, many faceted and having many roots, often give growth to contradictions. These are related to factions of the Bangladesh ruling elites and external factors and forces.

Almost the same time, an AFP report said : The US "will curtail aid that benefits Bangladeshi politicians... amid frustration over the country's prolonged political infighting." ("US to shift Bangladesh aid away from politicians")

The Washington datelined news report added: Nisha Biswal, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the US was "curtailing any programs that are providing any direct benefit to members of parliament." She informed the assistance that benefits politicians was already "fairly limited".

The curtailing assistance with limited benefit is symbolic, an expression of a dictation or displeasure.

She, according to another report, said : "Immediately after the election, we issued a strong statement... (calling) for immediate dialogue to agree on new elections as soon as possible." ("Bangladesh may find itself in an arc of flux: US", February 12, 2014)

Nisha termed Bangladesh, the seventh-largest country by population and third-largest Muslim-majority nation, "is a country of strategic importance to the United States" (ibid.)

The US position in Bangladesh, an increasingly important trading partner of the US, had, however, been called into question in Oct 2013, when Indian diplomats had suggested they were being pursued to back a certain party in Bangladesh. (ibid.)

Nisha's statement carried caution notice to all concerned: "Bangladesh... has too much to lose" and Bangladesh was at a critical juncture, (ibid.) It may be a warning too. And, it may be a signal of coming days.

After the Kissingerian pronouncement—basket case—Bangladesh was depicted, for years, as a humanitarian case. It was repeatedly told: All are humanitarian aid whatever is doled out to Bangladesh. Now, Bangladesh is being termed as "strategically important".

A lot is there in this change of imposed "identity": from "basket case" to "strategically important". The change is within Bangladesh, and around Bangladesh, in the Asia-Pacific in the changing reality of competition, and in imperial strategy.

Only a few days ago, according to a report, A M A Muhith, finance minister of Bangladesh, has made an observation: The US is committing "a mistake by pressuring Bangladesh on matters related to its internal politics and other issues." ("US making mistake by pressuring Bangladesh : Muhith", February 14, 2014)

Recent weeks and months found a direct or indirect criticism of the US, and the criticisms came from Awami League led government ministers and the party leaders. The views expressed appear unusual to a reader of Awami League history other than the period of the War for Liberation.

According to the already cited report, "The Awami League [a major political party] leaders had been criticising Mozena's activities before the elections. One Indian journalist who helped in Bangladesh's liberation efforts remarked that the ambassador was 'behaving like a Standing Committee member of BNP [another major political party].'" ("America's relations with...")

The report added: "Indian media published reports saying a gap had developed between India and the US over Jan 5 [Bangladesh] elections." (ibid.)

Recent media reports from Dhaka carry more startling information, observations and narration of acts and utterances related to super power-Bangladesh relations.

A few of these are a dominating faction's direct rejection of super power position on Bangladesh politics. A few of these are hard to swallow for the superpower. It's difficult to find a precedent of a few of these in mainstream politics since 1947 in this land. This reality raises questions related to the position taken by a faction of the Bangladesh dominating interests, or the factional dynamics of the dominating interests.

Cited parts of the news reports provide a background. But it's a part only. This may be a part of the present scene developing in Dhaka, and in concerned capital cities.

Moreover, one can say, the issue, the recently concluded election, is on the surface. There may be deeper issues involving wider interests, which are under the surface.

In imperialspeak, election, democracy, transparency, accountability, etc. carry their own connotation. State of democracy in imperial powers is evidence of its class character. External deals of these powers are more powerful evidence. These are separate stories; different from the ones the imperial powers propagate on democracy.

There are many instances of imperial powers claiming as champions of democracy have not only tolerated absolute undemocratic/authoritarian regimes, but patronized those also. Anyone can recollect General Ziaul Huq regime in Pakistan, Marcos in the Philippines, Mubarak in Egypt, Yeltsin in Russia and many more. Bankers initiated regime change and installed unelected governments in a number of European countries in the very recent past. These were not questioned. Imperialist capital's definition of democracy changes with evolving geostrategic requirements.

Post-election congratulations, greetings, messages to Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladesh PM, a sort of support, also say a part of the changing reality: The first messages came from heads of governments and states of India, Russia and China. The Bangladesh PM's reciprocal message to the Chinese leader emphasized BCIM, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar connectivity project, the initiative that carries far-reaching impact on not only trade, but also geostrategy in the region, a region of more than two billion consumers, a strategically important region, and a region rich in natural resources.

The region's economic potential and natural resources, especially energy have still not been publicly and specifically spelled out. There may be possibilities of startling facts. A far-reaching possibility emerges if BCIM is put along the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, increasing Sino-Russian trade and cooperation in areas of energy and military, and BRICS. Recent Russian support to the Sri Lanka government should not be missed.

A broader line, evident in recent internal and external incidents, is being drawn in the Bangladesh politics whatever the issues being raised by imperial capitals and wherever the issues are groomed. A trend of opposition to a part of imperial desires is emerging on the one side of the line. The other side is naturally opposed to the emerging trend; it's a closer one towing of imperial interests.

There are still possibilities of changing position of all concerned. Internal and external factors have a role there; and there is possibility of change in the roles of the factors.

Internally, two factors have a major role in this emerging scene: concerned capitals, which is overwhelmingly export dependent, and the people.

The concerned capitals are to reckon with the questions of dependence and collaboration, of space for existence and expansion, etc. Its level of maturity, capacity for manipulation and diversification, level of capitulation or efforts to defy, forming alliances, etc. will impact path of politics.

The people will face burning questions of politics, especially democracy while facing the emerging scene: national interest and control over national resources, external domination and plunder, way of life—diversity, tolerance, accommodating dissident view and different practices, wider world outlook, space for questioning, and national and people's honor and dignity.

People, despite their all ordinariness, never submit national honor and dignity. An increasing younger generation with increased interaction with modern education and people's history of struggle will gradually embolden claim for national honor and dignity and reject lackeys of external masters.

These are getting manifested in ideological issues rooted in the society and in political programs, and are drawing a new battle line in the society. Only an arrant in politics misses this.

This backdrop and the related history, a few of the recent incidents and utterances are unprecedented, make the present low in Bangladesh-US relations historic, which can write a new chapter of capitulation or pull the country distant from its present orbit. Such a charting of path is often shadowed by disturbances, plots and painful incidents initiated by prompters in wings, and the acts and incidents impact people's democratic struggle.

Vol. 46, No. 36, Mar 16 - 22, 2014