By Dr. Richard L. Benkin
Washington, 15 May, (Asiantribune.com): One has to feel sorry for Bangladeshâ€™s leaders these days. Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia and her Ministers have set an ambitious agenda for themselves. They have made strides in press freedom, womenâ€™s status, minority rights, and judicial reforms; and know that they have to continue progress in those areas. Corruption remains a problem for their country, which they must root out. And the Prime Minister and others have gone out of their way to mend previously fractured relationships with some of Bangladeshâ€™s neighbors.
This government is trying to improve the nationâ€™s infrastructure and the condition of the populace. Under the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), poverty has been ameliorated, though a great deal of work remains. The key to success lies in international economic ties such that even while China was surpassing India as Bangladeshâ€™s largest trading partner last year, the government realized that economic viability requires enhanced trade with Europe and the United States. The apparent jewel in that desired economic crown is a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001, US officials tend to judge potential partners around the world by where they stand in the global war on terror and therein lies the rub for Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is fighting a war on terror and point to their Rapid Action Battalion and successes in arresting domestic terrorist leaders; but the problem is political, and Bangladeshi politicians are no different than their counterparts elsewhere. Bangladesh has two major parties: the Center-Right BNP and the leftist Awami League (AL). Although the AL has been out of power for 15 years, they remain the BNPâ€™s focus. Though the largest party, the BNP retains power through coalition with a third force, the growing Islamic Fundamentalists, most notably Jamaat-e-Islami, which â€œaims at bringing about changes in all phases and spheres of human activities on the basis of the guidance revealed by Allah and exemplified by his Prophet Mohammed.â€ With an election looming in January, the BNP is concerned about alienating them even though its agenda contains some alienating land mines. This Dhaka conundrum explains the bizarre events that took place in Washington the first week of May.
On February 6, 2006, Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury informed his government that the American Jewish Committee (AJC) asked him to come to the United States in May to receive its 2006 Moral Courage Award, along with co-recipient Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali has been given 24-hour security by her Dutch government after Islamists threatened her life for speaking out against them. Choudhury was imprisoned for 17 months after his articles warning Bangladeshis about Islamists and urging recognition of Israel. Ever since his 2003 arrest, however, the Bangladesh government had been holding Choudhuryâ€™s passport; even though it told US Congressman Mark Kirk and others that it would be returned. After months of appeals and assurances, Choudhury remained without a passport. With time growing short, it was made clear that should Choudhury not appearâ€”should the Bangladeshis fail to make good on their promisesâ€”the event could be a disaster for Bangladeshâ€™s image at a critical juncture. In particular, attending international and US dignitaries, lawmakers, and heads of stateâ€”including President George W. Bushâ€”would want to know who was restricting the rights of an individual they came to honor. That sparked a round of frenetic activity.
Extensive telephone calls between Dhaka and Washington were apparently intended to get Choudhury to Washington. On April 30, four days before the event, Choudhury has his passport. But it had expired while in government custody. Complicating matters, the office that could renew it was closed and the following day was a public holiday in Bangladesh. It seemed impossible for Choudhury to renew his passport, get a visa, and fly to Washington in time for the ceremony. He was discouraged but determined to do everything he could to make it work. There was another round of late-night phone calls between Dhaka and Washington and with various Americans; and on the night of May 2, Dhaka time, the government agreed to renew Choudhuryâ€™s passport â€œfirst thing in the morning.â€ Kirkâ€™s office prevailed upon the US embassy to process the visa immediately, rather than taking the usual six to nine weeks.
But at 10:30am on May 3, Choudhury told this reporter and that he still was waiting for the renewed passport. Eventually, he got the passport then the visa. But with all the delays, there were no more seats on the flight that would take him to America in time for the event. Everyone was ready to give up, with the exception of the AJCâ€™s Yehudit Barsky who continued searching for any flight that would get Choudhury to Washington, even offering to delay the ceremony by a day. When she informed Choudhury that she had found one, he said he first would speak to Bangladeshâ€™s Home Minister, Lutfuzzamen Babar, since it would involve a change in his schedule. Here is where the governmentâ€™s and Choudhuryâ€™s stories differ. According to Choudhury, Babar told him that it would not be good for him to go, especially with his sedition trial beginning on May 23. Asked several times about it, Choudhury has maintained this same position and the details to support it.
Initially, Bangladesh Ambassador Shamsher Chowdhury called Choudhuryâ€™s claim â€œabsolutely false,â€ saying Choudhury sent Babar a note explaining his decion not to attend. Despite two requests, Chowdhury has not produced the alleged note. Subsequently, Babar claimed that Choudhuryâ€™s wife said her husband had decided not to go, but given the series of events, she was with Choudhury at the only possible times for the conversation. The following week, Chowdhury told this reporter that Choudhury sent an email to Kirkâ€™s office explaining his decision not to come. Kirkâ€™s office states it never received such an email.
While it is difficult at first to fathom why either side would prevent the trip, politics might provide the missing link. One might ask if the government ever intended to allow Choudhury to go given that it could have acted in February and avoided the last minute activity. They passport had expired in their custody, but they proceeded as if it was valid. These delays could show the Americans a desire to help but ultimately insure that Choudhury never left Bangladesh. That would provide the cover they needed with the Islamists and placate the Americans. But the government failed to count on the AJCâ€™s seriousness in honoring Choudhury or on this reporterâ€™s efforts to uncover inconsistencies in the governmentâ€™s story. Finally, it appeared to miscalculate Kirkâ€™s and othersâ€™ stand as political, when in fact it was moral. The apparent duplicity has left a sour taste in some influential mouths in Washington.
Bangladeshisâ€”and the BNPâ€”should understand that Americans truly desire to help them achieve their goals and defeat the Islamist terrorists who set off bombs in their country in 2005. The same angry American leaders consider themselves friends of Bangladesh. But progress will be less likely while Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury and others remain oppressed; while antiquated sedition laws are used to silence journalists; and so long as they refuse to deal in a forthright and direct manner. It will also help their case if they do not miscalculate the moral resolve of American lawmakers and others.
- Asian Tribune -