Yunus felt that Muslim fundamentalists represented a fringe and that while the dominant parties had developed ties with fundamentalists for political gain, most Bangladeshis did not favor the extremism.

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E.O. 12958: N/A TAGS: PGOV, PHUM, SOCI, IN, BG

SUBJECT: NOBEL PRIZE WINNER DR. MUHAMMAD YUNUS CONSIDERS ENTERING BANGLADESH POLITICS

1. (SBU) Summary. On February 12, ConGen spoke with Nobel Prize winner Dr. Muhammad Yunus about his plans to enter Bangladesh politics. Yunus, on a two-day visit to Kolkata, expressed a strong interest to enter the political fray and said that he was reviewing his options. He expressed support of the present Caretaker Government and its decision to declare a "State of Emergency," saying it had averted a possible civil war. Yunus felt that Muslim fundamentalists represented a fringe and that while the dominant parties had developed ties with fundamentalists for political gain, most Bangladeshis did not favor the extremism. Yunus was also receptive to closer commercial and trade relations with India. Yunus recognized the risk of entering politics and its potential to tarnish his exemplary image. However, even as he professed that he was still considering his options, he indicated a strong intent to plunge into the maelstrom of Bangladesh politics. End Summary.

2. (SBU) As a fellow Bengali, Prof. Muhammad Yunus, received a hero's welcome while participating in two days of programs in Kolkata, West Bengal, from Feb. 11-12. During a lunch hosted by the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce (CCC) for its 175 th anniversary, ConGen spoke with Dr. Yunus about the present political situation in Bangladesh. On February 11, Yunus had issued an open letter saying that he was seeking support from Bangladeshis to launch a political party to reform the violence and corruption in Bangladesh. In the letter, Yunus asked people to send him their opinions on forming a political party focusing on good governance. ConGen asked Yunus was he was intent on entering politics as recently reported. Yunus confirmed that he was interested, having supposedly been asked by many people to step-in and overcome the political impasse between the two strongest political leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. Yunus added, though, that he was still discussing the merits of becoming a political figure. CCC President Manoj Mohanka questioned the advisability of Yunus joining the messy world of Bangladesh politics and noted the likelihood of Yunus' reputation being tarnished. Yunus quickly responded that he understood the dangers of entering politics but felt that responsible people had to step into the political field to make a real change in Bangladesh, which was wracked by corruption and poor governance.

3. (SBU) ConGen asked Yunus for his views on a recent "Economist" magazine article that described the present Bangladesh Caretaker Government's state of emergency and its support by the Bangladesh military as "The Coup That Dare Not Say Its Name." Yunus was supportive of the imposition of the state of emergency, saying that it had averted a possible civil war. He did not believe that the military's support was significant and added that the Caretaker Government's role was clearly defined under the constitution.

4. (SBU) When asked about the perception in India of the rising fundamentalism in Bangladesh, Yunus said that he saw the Muslim fundamentalists as a fringe not accepted by the Bangladeshi mainstream. ConGen noted, however, that even the Awami League (AL), which had been the primary advocate of a socialist, secular nation, in December had signed an agreement with fundamentalist group Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish (BKM). The agreement with BKM would recognize fatwas issued by Imams and block the introduction of laws contrary to sharia law. Yunus responded that the agreement was a reflection of the AL's moral bankruptcy and was based on pure political calculus to garner a few additional votes and another example of the need for a new political party.

5. (SBU) ConGen asked Yunus about his views on India and whether better trade relations could be developed. Yunus was positive about expanding economic ties with India and within the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He felt that Bangladesh would be receptive to better relations with

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India but that often it became a divisive political issue, with Bangladeshi politicians stoking resentment against India for political gain. However, he recognized that the GOI maintained significant non-tariff barriers restricting Bangladeshi goods from India's markets. He was favorable to opening Chittagong Port to regional trade with India, Burma, Bhutan and China; but said that the port was presently too small and at full capacity. He added Grameen Bank was considering the possibility of financing a new "mega-port" project in Chittagong to meet the regional demand.

6. (SBU) Comment: Although Dr. Yunus limited himself to saying he was still considering his options, the tenor of his comments indicated a strong to desire to jump into the maelstrom of Bangladeshi politics. He recognized that he would face a potentially bruising response from the "two ladies" and other established political figures, but he felt that the situation in Bangladesh had reached a critical juncture as "civil war" had only just been averted. As a person of great moral stature and strong organizational skills, Yunus' candidacy could offer a possible out from the present Hasina-Zia zero-sum game that cripples Bangladesh's democratic process.

7. (U) This message was cleared with AmEmbassy Dhaka.

JARDINE