The Bangladesh government is under pressure from the U.S. to mend relations with Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus

Bangladesh’s next general election will come at the end of 2013, and is already taking up much political energy. But a recent claim in an Indian media outlet that the United States is in the process of deploying its Seventh Fleet in Bangladesh’s territorial waters in the Bay of Bengal has proved to be a major distraction.

Most people in Bangladesh may be unaware of the geo-political strategies of the world’s mightiest nation, or how many naval fleets or deadly warheads it employs to guard its interests across the globe, but the news about the Seventh Fleet has brought back memories of 1971, when the people of what was then East Pakistan fought and won a war of liberation against the Pakistan Army.

1971 and after

During that war, the U.S., under President Richard Nixon, ordered the Seventh Fleet to move to the Bay of Bengal, in a desperate move to protect Pakistani forces who were staring at defeat in the hands of the Bangladesh-India joint command in Dhaka on December 16, 1971.

It was the first week of December 1971, I recall, when a group of guerrilla fighters, with the Indian Mitra Bahini marching in columns side by side, began advancing towards Dhaka wresting back local townships from Pakistani control. A radio broadcast informed us that the Seventh Fleet was already in the Bay of Bengal. We fired shots in the air to express our anger at the shocking stand of the U.S. in support of a genocidal Pakistani Army and its Islamist agents, who had already killed and assaulted thousands of unarmed civilians.

We knew our protest would serve no purpose. Even so, it echoed the anguish of millions who did not accept Washington’s role in defiance of the call for justice and freedom.

Forty-one years have since elapsed and Bangladesh has emerged from much turmoil and trauma. And thanks to changed mindsets, Washington has quickly recognised the potential of the new country, assisting it in many ways. Bangladesh cannot afford to have strained relations with U.S., which is not only its key development partner but also a mass consumer and patron of its readymade garment industry. However, bilateral ties are not progressing well. Signs of this were evident during the rushed visit of the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Ms Clinton’s 20-hour trip saw her meeting Bangladesh’s Nobel laureate, Muhammad Yunus, and founder of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. They discussed the Grameen Bank issue and domestic politics. She made comments about Bangladesh’s persistent political row.

But she said nothing about the country’s crucial and ongoing trial of war criminals. Many expected moral backing from the U.S., because this trial, being opposed by the Islamist radicals and their patronisers, is fundamental to upholding secular democracy, the rule of law, and ending the trauma of some of the gravest crimes against humanity.

The government’s move to review the entire Grameen Bank set-up after removing Mr. Yunus last year on charge of flouting rules seems to have visibly irked the U.S.

Back in Washington, Ms Clinton once again expressed concern about Mr. Yunus and the Grameen Bank in a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She wanted the bank’s integrity to be protected and hoped the government would try to ensure the continuation of the “innovative governance system” of the bank and its “ownership structure.” She has also asked for a fair and transparent review of the status of the independent companies that the Nobel Laureate has set up, suggesting that they should not be undermined.

Readymade garment industry

During her visit, Ms Clinton made no attempt to conceal her concern for Mr. Yunus, a long-time friend of the Clintons, thus succeeding in annoying the government which responded by criticising her remarks on the Grameen Bank issue. The Finance Minister, A.M.A. Muhith, said her statement was “undue,” adding that the “Grameen Bank is a state-owned organisation and the government has been working for its progress.”

There have been other pressure points as well. U.S. Ambassador Den Mozina had warned readymade garment exporters that Bangladesh’s apparel exports to the U.S. and the European Union may face a “stormy situation” if abuses of labour and human rights are not halted. On the positive side, the U.S. envoy has promised to resolve the protracted tussle between Bangladesh and the World Bank. Last year the bank suspended funding for the $2.9 billion Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project, the biggest-ever in the country, over corruption allegations, forcing the government to find alternative sources of funding.

The continuing ripples over the report of the Seventh Fleet deployment, even though categorically denied by Washington and Dhaka, may be a manifestation of these irritants, many fear. Media reports suggested that Ms. Clinton’s visit to Dhaka could not have been without some more ominous purpose. As one commentator wrote: “Now that Leon Panetta, the U.S. Defence Secretary, has made it clear that in future as much as 60 per cent of American warships will be deployed in the Asia-Pacific region, one needs to take a second look at that Indian media report and wonder anew if anything of a disturbing note is indeed going on.”

The U.S. may use the Yunus and Grameen Bank issues as the critical talking points at the diplomatic high table. Understandably, the Sheikh Hasina government is now under pressure to reach an understanding with the Nobel Laureate, who lost a series of legal battles with the government, and the major opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a close ally of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamists, to hold elections, as scheduled, end-2013, under an interim or caretaker administration.

Political unrest in recent weeks has seen law enforcers assault journalists. To add to this, a few sensitive murder cases including the highly publicised murder of a journalist couple have already caused an image problem for the government, much to the distress of the media and civil society. The extra-judicial killings and the recent disappearance of an Opposition political leader including the abduction and killing of a labour union leader associated with the readymade garments industry have also been noted by the international community.

The Hasina government, which has taken a series of forward looking steps to improve ties with neighbouring countries, especially India, must concentrate on mending fences with the western world.

The government needs good relations with its development partners, to complete the tasks it has initiated. This in turn could have a bearing on how Sheikh Hasiná fares when she goes to the people for a fresh mandate next year.

(The writer is a Bangladesh journalist and writer. Email: hh1971@gmail.com)

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