Deputy Chief of Mission Danilowicz: First, apologies for our running behind schedule today. Atul had a chance to experience Dhaka traffic firsthand. Also I send greeting from Ambassador Mozena who is continuing his effort to visit all 64 districts of Bangladesh, now on his first day of his visit to the Barisal Division. So I’m sure the Ambassador looks forward to speaking with you all in the near future.
It’s a great pleasure for me to welcome a good friend Atul Keshap who is out here in his first visit as our new Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs focusing on the South Asia region. Atul has followed Bangladesh for a number of years, has been here before, and it’s great to have him back in town. So without further ado, Atul, the floor is yours.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Keshap: Thank you very much, Jon.
I’ve had a wonderful visit to Dhaka. I’m heading back very shortly and I do apologize for starting late, although we had an excellent set of meetings today.
In the course of my visit I’ve of course met with the government including senior officials at the Prime Minister’s office, in the Foreign Ministry, also met the Minister of Commerce at an event, and also met with the opposition, met with business leaders, met with civil society, youth groups as well. In fact I had a wonderful visit to the Edward M. Kennedy Center and met with some of the young people who are the future of Bangladesh. So I’ve really appreciated the opportunity I’ve had to be here.
Obviously the people of the United States place the highest importance on their relationship with the people of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a very important country for the United States. It’s a country of great strategic and economic importance. It is the seventh largest country in the world in terms of population, the third largest Muslim majority country in the world. It’s a country with profound strategically important location. Bangladesh sits as the bridge between Southeast Asia and South Asia. It is a country with several years, in fact I would say decades of uninterrupted and steady economic growth, a country that has achieved great things in terms of social entrepreneurship, in terms of empowerment of women, in terms of growth of civil society. So this is a country for whom the American people have a great deal of regard.
We are working here so very heavily across all of the efforts of the U.S. Mission under the guidance and leadership of the very active and wonderful Ambassador, Ambassador Mozena, to work in partnership with the Bangladeshi people on issues of shared concern, shared objectives. We are working with the Bangladeshi people to address food security, working to address issues related to disaster resiliency, working to address the impacts of climate change.
So when you look at the interest of the American people, particularly through their elected representatives in Congress and through that of the United States government, we are invested very heavily in the success of Bangladesh. The economic success of Bangladesh.
For instance right now one of the big elements of our diplomacy is to work in partnership with the government of Bangladesh, with manufacturers here, with labor here, to try to improve worker safety and enhance the rights of workers so that Bangladesh’s garment manufacturing industry can continue to grow and can continue to attract investment and orders from all around the world while ensuring safe conditions and can help Bangladesh become an even bigger leader in the global textile industry.
So what the United States is doing with the people of Bangladesh in partnership with the government and with all of the people is to really invest deeply in a Bangladesh that one day hopefully very soon, can be a middle income country. A Bangladesh with very strong GDP growth. And most importantly, a Bangladesh that can truly be regionally economically integrated with all of its partners around the region. A Bangladesh that has free, open participatory political systems, where all people have an equal right to engage and participate peacefully in the political system. A Bangladesh where people of all ethnicities, religions, beliefs, can participate openly and freely. This is what Bangladesh stands for. It’s what the United States admires about Bangladesh, and it’s what we’re working in partnership with the Bangladeshi people to achieve.
So I’ve had a wonderful visit. I’m happy to take your questions. Thank you very much for coming. I really appreciate it.
Moderator: Our first question is with Kabir from The Independent.
Media: Deputy Assistant Secretary. I understand that during the course of your meetings with the government officials certainly the issue of the political situation in the country came up. We know in accordance with the statement that was put out right after the election on January 5, you called for new elections because you think the January 5 election did not reflect the will of the people.
My question is, that particular election was held in accordance with constitution and the mandate of the government is five years. As the election was held in accordance with the constitution for five years, how can the U.S. call for an early election? Thank you.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Keshap: I think it’s very important to keep in mind, and I referred to this in my opening and introductory remarks, that one of the things that the American people have admired about the people of Bangladesh is their passionate devotion to democracy and their passionate commitment to peaceful electoral politics. These are, of course, values that Americans also place an extremely high premium on. We attach so much importance to it in our own system and we admire and respect people all around the world who care deeply about their own democracies, care deeply about their own political systems, and ensure that they all have the ability to participate freely and completely in the democratic processes of their countries.
So we’ve made it very clear in our public statements in Dhaka and in Washington that we think that the use of violence in democratic political process is completely unacceptable and we reject the use of violence as a tactic in elections. We call on all parties to eschew the use of violence. I think we will continue to make that very clear in our engagement.
We have also said that we expect all political parties to work together to ensure that there is a political space, a safe and peaceful political space where all parties and all individuals can participate freely and that they can rely upon that political space and use it responsibly. And we also have said that we believe that it is important that there be a dialogue among and between all of the political parties to agree a way forward that can result in elections that can be deemed credible, free, and fair by the Bangladeshi people.
Moderator: The next question is from NTV, Ozair.
Media: Good afternoon. My name is Ozair. In the current situation that has been happening now, we are experiencing, but there is no evidence, that USA, Canada, Britain and European Union is one side and other side is India, China, and lately Japan, Russia. So what you think, is there any influence or is there division about the Bangladeshi matter? Two poles, you have been divided into two poles. Thank you.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Keshap: I’m an American diplomat. I’ll talk about what the United States is doing. How does that sound?
Look, we had a very good visit here in November by Assistant Secretary Nisha Biswal. She had very good meetings at the very top levels of leadership in this country. We had a visit by the Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh just last week to Washington where we had a very robust set of engagements for him across all of the various agencies including at our Ministry of Defense, the Pentagon, and also the State Department. I just was here this last couple of days and so we have had a very robust engagement with Bangladesh and we will continue to have a robust engagement.
We have a lot of things on our diplomatic planning calendar with Bangladesh. We are working on upcoming talks on trade issues, on security issues. There’s much business, important business to be done between the people of the United States and the people of Bangladesh through our two governments and we’re going to continue to do so.
So I can’t answer your question about what other countries are doing, I can only tell you what our country is doing. Thank you.
Moderator: Masud from Samakal.
Media: My name is Masud Karim. I work for daily Samakal newspaper. I would like to know about the trade issues. Are there any progress on the demand from Bangladesh for the duty-free access for the Bangladeshi product in the U.S. market? Also, can you give explanation how the suspension of GSP can be really beneficial for the Bangladeshi people as you have suspended the products which is not orange. You have suspended for out of RMG. So the problem is for RMG, but you have suspended the other products which directly affected the people of Bangladesh. So how the suspension of GSP can be useful for Bangladeshi people? Thank you.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Keshap: I appreciate the question very much. Obviously there’s been a lot of progress between the United States and Bangladesh on the trade front over the recent past. I think the conclusion of the TICFA was a big achievement for both of our countries. We obviously have a lot of work to do going forward, but this is a good basis for continuing to exchange views on a very broad range of issues related to trade, commerce, investment, labor standards, and so many other things besides. We look forward very much to the government of Bangladesh’s submission on the GSP processes, the submission of their answers on that in mid-April. I think it’s been a very constructive engagement with the government of Bangladesh. Obviously there are a few more things that need to be addressed. They’re important aspects that need to be addressed. And I won’t prejudge the process in any way, but I will say that we need to continue to have a very good dialogue and we have a good framework and basis for that dialogue.
What’s the ultimate objective? The ultimate objective is to see Bangladesh, I would argue, very rapidly achieve the kinds of standards of governance and of transparency, adopting global standards for trade and investment and for labor standards and so many other things besides, that can allow Bangladesh really to achieve its full potential.
Can you imagine if in ten years’ time Bangladesh has a trillion dollar economy? Can you intimate if in a decade Bangladesh has many millions of people, many more than are already in that sector, working in the textile and manufacturing sector? Can you imagine if Bangladesh could be potentially a middle income country within the next 10, 15, 20 years? These things are possible as long as we keep working together.
So the commitment of the United States government is that we are going to continue working through these processes with the government and people of Bangladesh in order to achieve good outcomes for the American people and for the Bangladeshi people with a view towards increased prosperity, increased stability, increased democracy for Bangladesh and frankly for the broader region as well.
Moderator: Monti from Vorer Kagoj.
Media: Thank you. This is Angur Nahar Monti working with daily Vorer Kagoj. You already mentioned that you have talked with government officials and opposition leaders. Did you talk with them about the dialogue? What was their response regarding this?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Keshap: We talked about a lot of things and I don’t want to get into private discussions in this forum, but I can say that one of the things that is really important to the United States is protection of human rights and really the ensuring that Bangladeshi’s vibrant democracy continues to be recognizably democratic, free, fair, open, credible, participatory.
At the bottom of all this is human rights, respect for human rights. It is so important. And I think that when Americans look at Bangladesh they look at a very pluralistic, diverse country that celebrates its diversity, cherishes what it has achieved, and I think in that sense Americans will always appeal to Bangladeshis to think about and pay attention to and devote resources toward jealously protecting fundamental human freedoms and human rights. Whether that’s the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of conscience, the right to freedom of religions. All of these rights are so important, particularly, of course, participatory democratic electoral rights.
These are American values. We talk about them with every government around the world and with political parties all around the world, but they really are the basis and the necessary ingredient in our opinion for the achievement of human potential. This is a country whose greatest resources is its human capital.
Having met these young adults at the Edward M. Kennedy Center, I can tell you they are bursting with ideas, creativity, vision. These people are the future leaders of Bangladesh. If they can be empowered to fulfill their vision, this country is unstoppable. I think that is the kind of message that we’ll always share in all of our meetings with Bangladeshis, is this ability to reach this potential is within your grasp. It requires sound decision-making, it requires principled leadership, and it requires the politics of accommodation, of reasonable compromise in order to create a way forward.
Moderator: Our next question is with Boishakhi Television Abdul?
Media: Excellency, this is Abdul Mazid, working at the private center Boishakhi TV. My question is, there was an initiative to sign an agreement and that is called agreement regarding the status of United States forces visiting Bangladesh in 1998, in August was the exchange of notes in Dhaka. So I don’t know actually this agreement was signed or not? So if it did not sign what is the present situation, status? And if it is signed, how this treaty is functioning to reduce extremism activities in Bangladesh? Thank you.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Keshap: That’s a very detailed and technical question. You’re going back to something that happened or may have happened in 1998. I’ll have to defer to my good friend Jon Danilowicz on that.
But let me say that with regard to our cooperation in that space, we have found that having a good relationship, military to military, is so important for, for instance, disaster resilience, disaster response. It is so important for being able to ensure maritime domain awareness which is also important for your fisherman, for instance, and your people who rely on the sea for their living. There are many different areas where we can cooperate in this space that is good for the people of Bangladesh and good for the American people as well. So we have a very robust cooperation with the military here and we’ll continue to do so. It is dedicated very much to working together in ways that are to our mutual benefit, and particularly for the benefit of our people.
Moderator: Hasib from BD News24.
Media: Thank you. First, will you please say from whom you met specifically in the PM Office and to the opposition? Number one.
Number two, as you say at the bottom of everything is human rights. So what is the current assessment of U.S.?
The third part is that as the GSP restoration process is on and the government said they already achieve 13 of the 16 points, so some say there is a political part behind this process. What do you think? That if Bangladesh completes all of the 16 process they will get it back or what do you think?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Keshap: Your quota was one question and you’re asking three, so all your colleagues will be unhappy.
Let me say that with regard to who I met with, I think the embassy can offer that information afterward.
With regard to human rights, look, as I said earlier, freedom of speech is so important, freedom to participate in democratic processes, the ability of minorities and particularly religious minorities to live freely and without fear of oppression. The importance of ensuring that forces do not engage in activities with impunity, frankly. That there is accountability, that there is law and order, rule of law, judicial oversight, fair processes, transparency. These are the keys to creating a successful, open entrepreneurial free market system. Right?
The big question in the 21st Century is can countries prosper as open societies and open markets? I would argue that the United States is a champion for open markets, open societies, and it’s what we’re doing in all of our relations around the world. We’re explaining that this is our view and that you can’t have one without the other. The two are completely and inextricably linked. They support each other. And we appeal to all of our friends around the world to look very much at this model of open markets and open societies as a key to prosperity and as a key to diminishing tension, as a key to making politics an everyday, normal, peaceful activity and not something that can disrupt daily activity, disrupt economic output, and frankly result in losses of life that are wholly deplorable and unnecessary.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Keshap: I’m not going to divulge here anything because these are obviously very very complex issues and we obviously don’t even have the full information yet, so I can’t tell you now what we’re going to decide. We still need to talk to the government of Bangladesh. There are still processes at play. But we obviously want everything to move in the right direction and we’re going to put full effort in, I can assure you.
Moderator: Our next question is from Ittefaz from Mainul Alam.
Media: Thank you. You were mentioning about the participatory election and participation of all parties after dialogue. When do you expect that the election should take place? What is your expectation about the next election?
The other part of my question, regarding the January 5 election and last few months situation here, India and U.S. have differences of opinion and there are reports in many media, local and global media. Can you update on this issue? Thank you.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Keshap: As regards the questions that you’ve asked, I think what’s important is not to lose opportunities. When opportunities present themselves, seize them. That is the essential ingredient of leadership. Leadership can see opportunities and take them, right? So there is a moment that has come in the political life of Bangladesh and in the political life of the Bangladesh people. And I would just urge as a friend, and America is urging as a friend of all Bangladeshis, seize the moment. Find the opportunity.
Work together, all parties, to create and to reinforce an open political participatory process where all parties can engage freely and peacefully, and then chart the way forward.
It is not for the United States to dictate exactly what needs to be done. That is for the Bangladeshi people. We’re just saying that there is an opportunity and you should use the opportunity, respectfully say seize the opportunity, find a good way forward, show the world that you are investing in your democracy and that you are perfecting your democracy.
These things aren’t easy. They certainly weren’t easy in my country. We have a very difficult history over our time of perfecting our democracy, but I feel like we’ve always put in the effort, we’ve always tried to move forward.
As regards your other question, sir, we obviously have regular discussions with friends all around the region. I’m not going to get into details about it. We have a strategic partnership with India in which we talk about the entire world. It has a global scope.
I will say that one of the things that we do look at very closely on a regional basis is the tendencies towards radicalism that can be found not just in any particular country but frankly around the entire region and throughout the entire world. There are always forces that will call for greater extremism. Greater radical agendas.
I think if you look anywhere in the region you can look and find people of any religion, any ideology, who are in some ways some of them are calling for some kind of greater response in some direction or another.
I think what’s important is to think about and appreciate the politics of moderation. Right? The politics of accommodation that diminish the chances of radicalization, diminish the chance of untoward incidents taking place. So we all need to work together, whether it’s Bangladesh, the United States, India, any country in the entire region, all around this entire region. We need to work toward moderating politics. Politics of accommodation, politics of compromise, peaceful discourse. That’s the key.
I think we will continue to work with all of the Bangladeshi people in partnership. We, as I said at the beginning, really want to see this country succeed. We have high hopes for its future. Our embassy is working every day with its ambassador, the DCM and everybody else to try to help the Bangladeshi people to achieve that vision, and we will continue to be friends of the people of Bangladesh. That is something I can assure you.
Thank you all very much. I think Kelly’s telling me that it’s time to go. But I really appreciate you all coming out and taking the time. And I hope that this will hopefully be a regular occurrence when I come back to Dhaka.