US Congressman Steve Chabot blogs about his recent visit to ‪Bangladesh‬

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In my capacity as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, I spent the last two days in Bangladesh.  This moderate, secular, Muslim nation is strategically located between the first and second most populous nations on earth, China and India. It is a very poor country.  80% of its people live on less than $2 per day.  And it is incredibly densely populated.  It has slightly more than one-half the population of the United States, 163 million people, crammed into a country that is smaller than Iowa! If you’re of a certain age, when you hear “Bangladesh” one of the first things which may come to mind is former Beatle George Harrison’s “Concert for Bangladesh.”  Back in 1971, Bangladesh had been hit by a powerful cyclone, and was experiencing a horrendous civil war.  George Harrison and Ravi Shankar wanted to help, so they organized two benefit concerts in New York’s Madison Square Garden, featuring besides Harrison and Shankar, fellow former-Beatle Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, and the band Badfinger.  It resulted in the bestselling live album called “Concert for Bangladesh”, and paved the way for future benefit concerts such as Live Aid, Farm Aid, etc.  But I digress. Bangladesh has been in the news recently, due to several horrific tragedies which occurred there.  The most tragic was the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory, resulting in the deaths of over 1,100 workers, mostly women, and injuries to an additional estimated 2,500 workers. The other tragedy was the Tazreen Fashion factory fire, which killed 117, and injured another 200, again mostly women.  Unfortunately, these two tragedies were but the latest in a series of arguably preventable occurrences over recent years.  American companies, the most prominent being Wal-Mart, have done business with these Bangladeshi companies for years now, principally because the price is right.  Bangladesh has the second cheapest labor costs in the garment industry in the world; only Burma (Myanmar) being cheaper. One of the many things which I discussed with Bangladeshi officials during my time there, was what is being done to improve safety conditions, so as to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.  They have a long way to go.  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t make the point that American, and other Western businesses, have a moral responsibility, if not a legal one, to ensure that workers’ conditions are safe, even if it’s outside the United States. The political situation in Bangladesh is quite interesting.  Bangladesh is a parliamentary democracy, and therefore the leader of Bangladesh is the Prime Minister, not a President, as is the case in America.  For the past 22 years, two powerful women have fought each other, just about to the death, to hold that position.  The current Prime Minister is Sheik Hasina of the Awami League political party.  Sheik Hasina’s father, who also headed Bangladesh, her mother, and her three brothers, were all assassinated in 1975.  She was out of the country at the time, so she survived.  She has been Prime Minister about half of the last 22 years. Her great rival, Khaleda Zia, has been Prime Minister the other 11 years, and is likely to defeat Sheik Hasina, and again take over in a few months, if the polls are correct.  Her husband, who also headed Bangladesh, was assassinated in 1981.  So both of these powerful Bangladeshi leaders have known great tragedy in their lives.  It brings to mind the saying “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” I met with both Prime Minister Sheik Hasina, and probably soon-to-be-again Prime Minister Khaleda Zia (separately of course!) while I was in Bangladesh.  I had met each of them when I was first in Bangladesh back in 2006 (Khaleda Zia was Prime Minister then, and Sheik Hasina was leader of the opposition.)  They are both very intelligent, very impressive people; it’s just too bad they can’t get along better, for the benefit of the people of Bangladesh.  Of course I guess you could say that about Barack Obama and John Boehner, or a lot of other people in Washington. One other interesting thing I’ll briefly discuss; there are war crimes tribunals underway in Bangladesh, and a half dozen now-elderly Bangladeshis have been sentenced to hang (although none of these sentences have actually been carried out yet.) Here’s the deal.  India and West Pakistan (today just Pakistan), and East Pakistan (today Bangladesh) were all part of the British Empire until they gained independence from Great Britain back in 1947 (Gandhi and all that).  Because Hindus and Muslims almost immediately began killing each other, most Muslims fled India, either heading west into West Pakistan, or East into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).  The Hindus in West and East Pakistan fled into India.  Got it? West and East Pakistan were one country, until 1971, when an independence movement gained strength in East Pakistan, and a civil war lasting nine months took place, and an estimated 3 million people, mostly civilians, in East Pakistan, lost their lives. Now Sheik Hasina’s government is attempting to prosecute the perpetrators of the atrocities, which took place 42 year ago.   Oh yeah, and all the alleged perpetrators are now leaders of Khaleda Zia’s party, or members of Zia’s allied party, Jamaat-e-Islami.  Now those who commit atrocities should be held accountable for their crimes.  But the tribunals have not met internationally recognized fair trial standards.  And many in Pakistan believe that the current government is rushing the tribunal to find the defendants guilty, so as to weaken the opposition in the upcoming election. There’s so much more that could be said about the volatile political situation in Bangladesh, and its effect on U.S. interests, but in the interests of time, I’ll leave it there. I get back to the United States tomorrow, and Friday I’ll be participating in a series of veteran’s events across our congressional district.  Next Monday, November 11th, is Veterans Day.  Please remember to thank a veteran for securing the freedoms we enjoy in our great nation every day. See you next week.

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