Ashraf remarks may hurt US relations


US diplomats have expressed their shock at the remarks local government, rural development and cooperatives minister Syed Ashraful Islam made about Nisha Desai Biswal, US secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs.

They fear that the uncalled for remarks from Dhaka towards Washington could hurt relations between the two countries.

Nisha Biswal arrived in Dhaka on 27 November on a three-day visit. The enxt day she met BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia and leader of the opposition Rowshan Ershad. At these two “routine” meetings, the US minister enquired about the next election. On 29 November, before leaving Dhaka, she said at a press conference that the US wanted to see the growth of inclusive democracy in Bangladesh and will work towards that end.

On the same day, almost at the same time, Ashraf, also Awami League general secretary, was speaking at the Khulna city Awami League’s triennial council at the Khulna Circuit House. In his speech, he made derogatory remarks about Nisha Desai, calling her a “two-bit minister”. He also made fun of the US Ambassador to Bangladesh Dan Mozena, calling him “maid Marzina”. “Bangladesh is not in such a state that maid Marzina can change powers in the country,” Ashraf said.

No one can quite grasp why a minister of Bangladesh would suddenly make such comments. When the US foreign office was asked about these remarks, this correspondent was told to contact the minister concerned (Syed Ashraf) about this. Instead of the minister, this correspondent contacted the Bangladesh embassy in Washington, but they said they had nothing to say about the matter. They said the foreign ministry in Dhaka or the ministry concerned might be able to explain the matter.

Speaking to a number of people in the government, it was learnt that a sense of unease had been prevailing at a top level in the government during this visit of Nisha Desai. The government feels that she had come to Dhaka as part of BNP’s international lobbying. The government was also not happy that she met Khaleda Zia as Khaleda was no longer the opposition leader. The government was also discomforted by Nisha Desai’s remarks about the next election.

However, a senior government official told Prothom Alo, such comments were detrimental to Bangladesh’s efforts to improve relations with the US. Washington recently informed Bangladesh that is was displeased with these comments. The US expressed its disappointment with the remarks of four senior ministers. Syed Ashraful Islam is the latest on this list, with his barbs aimed at Nisha Desai and Dan Mozena.

This correspondent spoke to several former US diplomats about the matter. All of them expressed their shock at the remarks. Certain officials of the state department there said that if Dhaka continues to sling mud at Washington, this will inevitably have a detrimental effect on relations between the two countries.

At the moment the US is one of the main importers of Bangladeshi goods. After Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bangladesh receives the largest volume of US foreign aid in Asia. According to the US state department, the US considers Bangladesh to be an “important strategic ally”. Both sides stressed on strengthening ties at the foreign secretary level partnership dialogue held in Washington between the two countries last month.

A senior official of Bangladesh’s foreign ministry, on condition of anonymity, said that their priority at the moment was foreign minister AH Mahmud Ali’s Washington visit in the first half of next year. Both sides have agreed to the visit on principle. The official expressed his fear that if such mud-slinging continued from Dhaka, this visit may be postponed. This would be a diplomatic defeat. The official felt that the comments against Nisha Desai and Mozena were probably not a part of any planned policy.

Certain US experts feel that the mud-slinging was more political than diplomatic and was more for the domestic audience. William B Milam, who had been US ambassador to Bangladesh in the nineties, spoke at length to this correspondent, saying that the political leadership in Bangladesh will not view any comment about the elections favourably. This government has no plans for a mid-term election. So any hint about the elections is a thorn in their flesh.

Milam, presently a senior policy scholar at the Washington-based Wilson Centre, said, “Awami League possibly feels they don’t need America. I read today (last Tuesday) that prime minister Sheikh Hasina said that the US had no choice but to import readymade garments from Bangladesh. If they stop importing from Bangladesh, America will face a crisis in readymade garments. Her words probably mean that the US needs Bangladesh more than Bangladesh needs the US. Needless to say, such an idea is ridiculous…. Following such a policy for long will have serious consequences. However, it does not look like this government is thinking in a long term sense.”

Referring to a comment by a Bangladesh minister that “Bangladesh was now looking East instead of West,” Milam said, “Bangladesh probably wants to let India, the US and European countries that China was an important card in its hand.” He reiterated his concern that Bangladesh was gradually heading towards a one-party system of government. Milam expressed his displeasure that the Obama government hadn’t taken a stern stance against the prevailing autocratic indications in Bangladesh’s.

Milam said that it was very unfortunate that the joint statement issued after the US-Bangladesh partnership dialogue made no mention of democracy. He said, Bangladesh requires multi-party democracy for its own needs, not for America’s needs.

Humayun Kabir, former Bangladesh ambassador to the US, yesterday told Prothom Alo that there has been a distance at a political level between Bangladesh and the US for quite some time over the election issue. There were no visible efforts to lessen this gap. On the contrary, the negative remarks made from a senior level in the government would not be conducive at all to closing this distance.

Source: Prothom Alo