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Embassy Row

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2010

TOLERANT BANGLADESH

As Americans debate the wisdom of building a mosque near ground zero in New York, a former journalist at the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington shows that a Muslim nation can display religious tolerance.

Swapan Kumar Saha is the first Hindu to serve as the South Asian nation's official spokesman in the United States since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1972.

"I'm the reflection of secularism," Mr. Saha told Embassy Row on Thursday.

Mr. Saha also holds the high diplomatic position of minister, making him one of five with that status at the embassy. The minister rank is just below that of the ambassador.

Mr. Saha, 62, retired from Bangladesh's National News Agency in June to take up the spokesman's job in Washington, where his adult daughter and son live.

He is passionate about his country's tradition of religious freedom. Muslims make up nearly 90 percent of the population of 160 million people, with Hindus about 10 percent and Buddhists and Christians totaling less than 1 percent together.

The State Department recognizes Bangladesh as a country that protects religious minorities and notes an improvement in human rights since the return of democracy from a military-backed caretaker government in 2008.

Even before he became a diplomat, Mr. Saha admiredPrime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the eldest daughter of the founder of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

"She is always speaking about secularism and democracy," he said. "Sheikh Hasina is always trying to give all people human rights."

He called her a "people-oriented leader from the grass roots up."

"She is perusing a relentless effort to implement the dreams of the father of our nation," he added.

Mr. Saha was inspired by Sheikh Mujibur to take up arms against Pakistan in 1971, when Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur declared independence on March 26 of that year and was shortly arrested. A guerrilla war erupted during his nine-month detention, and India intervened to help Bangladesh rebels win their freedom.

"We fought together to create Bangladesh - Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians," Mr. Saha said.

KOREAN UPDATE

The U.S. ambassador in South Korea is urging Seoul to impose sanctions on Iran, while the South Korean ambassador to the United States has been hopscotching around the American heartland to promote a free-trade agreement.

"South Korea is a country that has its own interest in seeing a peaceful and stable Middle East," Ambassador Kathleen Stephens said this week.

"It's essential for responsible countries with global interests to send a unified message to the leaders of Iran that it must live up to its international obligations."

Iran is South Korea's biggest trading partner in the Middle East. The two nations racked up $10 billion in business last year.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Han Duk-soo spent much of August visiting Detroit, Peoria, Ill., and a suburb of Chicago to build support for the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which is tied up in Congress over Democratic objections to parts of the trade pact.

"The [trade agreement] would bring our alliance into the 21st century," he said last week in an address to the Naperville Chamber of Commerce, about 30 miles west of Chicago. "It will be a new bond that will hold our two countries closer together. I hope you will all join me in waving the flag for this agreement."

He will take his message to the West Coast next week when he talks to business leaders in Tacoma, Wash.

- Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or e-mail jmorrison@washington times.com.

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