Internet Edition. May 23, 2008, Updated: Bangladesh Time 12:00 AM 
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Congressional briefing on Bangladesh

Dr. Richard L. Benkin

If the Bangladeshi representatives to the recent Congressional briefing on Bangladesh were listening closely, they would have noted that the session contained two distinct but related messages for them and the leadership in Dhaka.

The first is that of growing momentum in Washington to link tens of millions of dollars in US aid with progress on issues of human rights; that's concrete actions and not merely words. The Bangladeshi leadership has often provided the United States with effusive assurances that it was ending the admittedly false persecution of journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, putting a halt to the oppression of minorities, and taking action on other human rights issues; only to fail miserably in going beyond their words. Mere words no longer mollify an increasingly frustrated United States.

The second message in the briefing was that there is real opportunity for Bangladeshi leaders to make what had heretofore been elusive progress on trade, aid, and other issues with the United States-but only if they recognized that their opportunities exist only if they take action and forego their reliance on the duplicity of the past.

Tina Ramirez, Foreign Policy Advisor to Republican Congressman Trent Franks from Arizona, organized the briefing, which was held in the Rayburn House Office Building directly across from where House Foreign Relations Committee meets on Capitol Hill.

She and I discussed the pitfalls of these sessions in the weeks leading up to it. We both were determined to prevent this one from becoming little more than a bash-Bangladesh session; although we wanted it to be clear about American concerns regarding the Shoaib Choudhury case, persecution of religious minorities, and the question of elections. The question of linkage between aid and human rights arose early and often. Richard Sacks, of the Bangladesh Desk of the US State Department, offered a litany of the many US aid programs that funnel millions into Bangladesh then explained that US policy was based on "the three D's: Democracy, Development, and the Denial of space to terrorists." He also stated the US position that democratic elections should take place before the end of 2008, noting that America and Bangladesh have had continuous discussions about the matter; adding, "The Bangladeshi government has provided the US with assurances that the elections will be held by the end of December."

"Wow!" I responded. "All those programs. That's really impressive. And as an American taxpayer, I feel like I'm participating in them. But tell me, Mr. Sacks," who mentioned that we had spoken previously, "in exchange for all of that, what have we demanded, especially in the area of human rights, in exchange for all of my hard-earned tax dollars? And, Mr. Sacks, what have we gotten in return for all of that-not in assurances, but in concrete action, especially in the area of human rights?"

Then State Department's man replied by re-stating the US position, its "three D's" and "assurances."

"Ah," I then said. "Do we ever make aid contingent on specific actions?"

Sacks looked down and responded, "No," at which point the program moved on; but the point had been made. And in my subsequent discussions with specific Congressional offices that day, it was clear that the idea is gaining traction among lawmakers. Too often, however, Bangladeshi officials have reacted hostilely to that, suggesting that the US is "meddling in Bangladesh's internal affairs." Those who do, however, miss the point-which begins with this. The US imports nearly 70 percent of Bangladeshi ready-made garments. Like anyone else, Americans have a choice with whom they can trade. There is no obligation to give business to any particular individual or nation. It is also significant that those trade dollars have been dropping of late; and not incidentally because of the government's continued refusal to take action on human rights or to drop it's admittedly false prosecution of journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. Economies are getting tighter, and it will become ever more difficult to justify imports from Bangladesh while other nations (such as India and China) can offer lower prices because of their size; and while good from other nations (such as Guatemala and Honduras) do nor carry the tariffs that Bangladeshi goods still do because of the Choudhury case. Similarly, those aid programs that Richard Sacks detailed all come from the hard-earned dollars of US taxpayers like me. We have an absolute right to question how that money is spent; and we will not like to see it go to a nation that refuses to act against Islamist radicals whose ideology envisions a defeated and dependent United States.

There is precedent for that, too. In 1959, when Fidel Castro declared Cuba communist, the US stopped all trade. Castro responded by going to the Soviet Union for aid and support; and the people of Cuba have suffered for it. The nation lags behind the rest of the Western Hemisphere in a variety of measures. The nation has survived; its choice, but also its consequences.

Similarly, the US cut off the junta in Myanmar. Those leaders then aligned itself with China and has done without US aid or trade.

Do Bangladeshi leaders aspire for their people to live under the same conditions as the Burmese? Neither of those two nations complained. Their people simply bore the brunt of their leaders' reactions. On the other hand, we have the spectacle of the Palestinian Arab's Hamas government. There, too, the Palestinians chose to elect a government with a history of terrorist acts against innocent civilians, that refuses to renounce those acts or pledge to abandon them in the future, and has as its stated purpose the eradication of Israel. Yet, instead of accepting the consequences of its positions, Hamas cries and complains because Israel will not lay its neck on the chopping block for it; that the US will not give it aid. How could I countenance supporting that anti-Semitic and terrorist organization with my tax dollars? But whether the consequences are accepted as the price for one's position (ala Cuba) or are the subject of a perpetual international whine (ala Hamas); there is precedent for the actions applying to Bangladesh.

In fact, between Richard Sacks and me, there were four other speakers. Selig Harrison, a journalist with long term involvement with Bangladesh spoke of the "basis for democracy built in Bangladesh," but wondered if its current leaders were following the "Musarraf model," which suppressed democracy for years. Maneeza Hossain, Senior Fellow at the well-respected think tank, the Hudson Institute also addressed the elections issue. "Democracy is not a gift that the military can at some time bestow on the Bangladeshis, but a right." She also pointed out the fact that while the restriction on political assemblies remains, radical Islamist groups alone can defy it with impunity.

"All the Islamists have to do is take off their political hats and put on their religious hats" to hold what amount to political rallies. Others brought reports of minority oppression. At one point, Bridget Kustin of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and Bangladesh expert asked why we do not make aid contingent progress on human rights. Because, I said, "sometimes we Americans confuse assurances of progress with actual progress." If we believe that our enemies are wrong and that we stand for some sort of moral leadership in this world, then we cannot treat lightly those moral principles that we say are important to us;

"and accepting words when actions are needed is abandoning those moral principle."

It was frustrating, I said, "seeing the same people shaking the same ineffective fists at the same governments, whether they are BNP, Awami, or the current military-backed leaders…Has the ethnic cleansing of Bangladeshi Hindus stopped? Is the racist Vested Property Act still in force?

Has the oppression of minorities slowed? And is not Bangladesh still one of the most dangerous countries on earth for journalist?" That is the only measure of effectiveness we can use; and by that measure, we fall short. But I added that there is some hope. At the most recent court appearance for Shoaib Choudhury, the assistant public prosecutor frustrated the judge's attempt to start the trial even though to have done so would have violated Bangladeshi law.

Contrasting previous collusion between the judge and prosecution, suggests some movement away from an admittedly false prosecution designed-again admittedly-only to appease Islamist radical. It is important, I noted, to recognize that there are some "very good people in the Bangladeshi government" as well as "a lot of mendacious and frustrating ones." If we recognize "the opportunities" that the former group offers and similarly do not accept the false assurances of the second group, then real progress is possible, as is increased prosperity for the people of Bangladesh.

(Source: Human Rights Forum, 24/A, Joar Shahara (Olipara) Dhaka-1229)

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