LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Responding to Begum Khaleda Zia: Bangladesh Ambassador’s rejoinder

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In “The thankless role in saving democracy in Bangladesh” (appearing online on 30 January 2013), Begum Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister of Bangladesh, places a laundry list of things surrounding Bangladesh’s political muck before the US administration seeking the latter’s intervention to “save” democracy. Ironically, the appeal comes from none other than a tarnished politician, as she probably is to Bangladesh and the rest of the world, whose immediate past regime was termed as a “brutal kleptocracy” by the Economist magazine. She may like to hide it but even the most oblivious sections of foreign press covering Bangladesh politics have not forgotten that since Bangladesh’s democratization in the early 1990s, it is she who presided over the holding of the just democratized nation’s most shameful one-party election (on 15 February 1996).

While her party and other allies have been terrorizing the country to bring back a non-elected caretaker government to hold the next parliamentary elections, the people of Bangladesh have good reasons to question her actual intention. Her government extended the retirement age of Supreme Court judges to ensure one particular retired chief justice runs the show. Her chosen chief election commissioner gifted the nation a voters list that carried 13 million of non-existing voters. The result was an unfortunate halt to Bangladesh’s democratic governance and an undemocratic army-backed regime clinging on to power for two long years.

Mrs. Zia’s prescription to the USA and other western allies includes economic sanctions, Bangladesh’s expulsion from trade preferences, targeted travel sanctions and so on. Her observation comes when Bangladesh features in all four presidential initiatives of the current Obama administration and the two nations have successfully held the first ever partnership dialogue. The two nations enjoy a flourishing bilateral trade. The USA is presently Bangladesh’s single largest source of overseas investment. Both nations expect a more robust economic presence of the US companies in Bangladesh in the near future. The US investments are likely to come in some of the less charted sectors including exploration of offshore oil and gas resources the scope of which has brightened with Bangladesh’s successful resolution of maritime disputes with Myanmar. Maritime boundary vis-à-vis India is also expected to be resolved through the verdict of an international arbitration panel soon. Mrs. Zia needs to realize that US-Bangladesh relations are founded on the time-tested principles of democracy and equality that have only been complemented by the similarities in both peoples’ democratic aspirations. The cheap narratives of local politics that she and her party would like to cultivate better be not tried in a relatively nuanced domain of foreign relations! Also her readiness to gain political edge at the cost of a surrender to foreign power/s would not surprise others when the ideology of her party and that of her allies are so deeply opposed to Bangladesh’s very independence.

Begum Zia was quite right to comment,” if Bangladesh succumbs to the rule of one family [emphasis added], it would be a major step backward for the region”. She cannot be more true. Only in case the readers are not just sure what family she actually meant by that phrasing; that must be hers. Bangladesh’s central bank with support from the FBI and anti-corruption bodies of several other countries could so far bring back only a small portion of the money her two sons had smuggled out. One of her sons has been fleeing justice since a Court has ordered his jail term. When she suggested targeted travel, her sympathizers might be slightly worried that her family members have a fair chance to top that list!

Begum Zia urges the US Congress and the British Parliament to penalize the Hasina government for not showing due respect to Professor Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel prize winning Managing Director of Grameen Bank. The conclusion she came up with –that Professor Yunus was ousted from the Bank because the Nobel prize was not awarded to the Bangladesh prime minister-is tantamount to the contempt of Bangladesh’s highest court. While it is not possible to make any comment on an issue settled through a legal procedure, her administration’s past track record of encouraging religious fundamentalism would befool none what harm those radical clerics stand to do to a Bank 95% of whose borrowers are poor women.

Like the British and US lawmakers, in case their German colleagues are also privy to Begum Zia’s memo, I cannot help quoting Goethe “It is in the half fools and half wise that the greatest danger lies”.

Akramul Qader 

Ambassador, Embassy of Bangladesh

 

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