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Stronger democratic institutions, governing structures to fuel Bangladesh’s future success:US envoy Miller

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Ambassador Miller said Bangladesh is a nation on the move with great resilience, promise and opportunity but economic development needs to go forward with democratic development

Describing Bangladesh as a young nation of hope and promise with significant achievements in the last 50 years, US Ambassador to Bangladesh Earl R Miller has said Bangladesh’s future success will be fueled by strengthening of democratic institutions and governing structures with a plural and democratic electoral process in place.

“Democracy can only function when all people are fully included, their rights are protected, their voices are heard, and their votes are counted,” he said while delivering a keynote speech at a dialogue held virtually.

Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, hosted the dialogue titled “Bangladesh-US Relations: Prognosis for the Future” as part of its ongoing Ambassadors’ Lecture Series.

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The opening remarks were delivered by Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan. The session was chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a renowned scholar-diplomat and former Advisor on Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Caretaker Government.

Distinguished Fellow & Board Member at Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI) Ambassador Farooq Sobhan, President of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) Major Gen (Retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, Honorary Advisor Emeritus, Cosmos Foundation Ambassador (Retd) Tariq A Karim and former Principal Secretary to PM Md Nojibur Rahman comprised the panel of discussants.

After a difficult start, Enayetullah Khan said, the relationship between Bangladesh and the USA has largely prospered over the better part of five decades now.

It has prospered on the basis of strong economic ties and people-to-people links, apart from the shared value of freedom and pluralism that is revered by the people of both countries, he said. “In a conflicted world, Bangladesh appears to have no enemies.”

Khan said if a Bangladesh-US relationship can be forged that will advance Bangladesh’s quest for development, and the US aspirations for peace and stability, it can become a model for similar sets of bilateral relations between the US and others.

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He said this can be best achieved through deepening the direct links between Dhaka and Washington, and display a strategic dimension of the partnership, one where both see each other as partners in search of peace, stability and growth.

Dr Iftekhar Chowdhury highlighted the importance and significance of reviewing Bangladesh-US bilateral relations with a view to discussing how these could be widened and deepened further to mutual advantage.

With regard to the US, he said, Bangladesh is very much in that country’s radar as a friend and partner.

As Bangladesh graduates out of the list of LDCs, Dr Iftekhar said, American support in obtaining market access will be critical in helping it grow and progress economically.

Bangladesh also must be able to learn to handle the complexities of dealing with America, he said, noting that the US is a unique system globally with many elements within that system both coordinate and compete with one another to contribute to policy making.

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The challenge for Bangladeshi diplomacy is to be able to identify appropriate elements of desired outcome and engage them, Dr Iftekhar said.

Democracy & Human Rights

Ambassador Miller said Bangladesh is a nation on the move with great resilience, promise and opportunity but economic development needs to go forward with democratic development; and respect for democracy and human rights are “mutually reinforcing”.

The US envoy, who is at the fag-end of his tenure in Dhaka, said every vibrant democracy must work constantly to live up to its founding ideals and commitment to human rights and social justice for all citizens.

As a friend, Miller said, he raised the issues of concern over human rights at the highest levels as he finds it an important part of his job to promote accountability and strengthen human rights and democracy in Bangladesh. “And those conversations are always honest, direct and respectful.”

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The US envoy said the United States supports “free, fair, credible, participatory and peaceful elections” that reflect the will of the Bangladeshi people.

He said they support a plural and democratic electoral process with protections for voters and participants set out so admirably in Bangladesh’s constitution.

In every country, the US diplomat said, it is important that all political parties, voices and all voters can participate and have confidence in the electoral process.

Miller said freedom of the press and expression is vital for any healthy democracy while media, civil society members, opposition groups, and peaceful protesters must be able to express their views and advocate for change without fear of retribution. “Voices of dissent and disagreement need to be heard and respected.”

The US envoy said he believes that the strongest democracies flourish from frequent and lively debate and the two countries can have these candid conversations and disagreements over these concerns while maintaining close partnership.

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Summit for Democracy

About the Summit for Democracy that began on Thursday, the Ambassador said the Summit is a two-part process and the second one will be an in-person meeting at about this time next year.

To get invited, he said, participants will need to show a commitment to the Summit’s areas of focus, strengthening democracy, defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption and promoting respect for human rights.

Miller said not all democracies are able to attend the Summit but all who value democracy can support the tenets of the Summit and strive for progress in advancing democratic principles.

“And I obviously hope we’ll have continued engagement on this topic with government officials in the coming weeks. But in the long run, the US is seeking to engage any and all countries that show a genuine willingness and making commitments that support the Summit’s goals,” he said.

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Former Ambassador Farooq Sobhan said this is an issue which obviously has caused some measure of concern in Dhaka as people seek to know why Bangladesh has not been invited to the Democracy Summit.

“So, perhaps some people see this as a way of conveying a message that maybe we need to make some improvements in Bangladesh,” he said.

The veteran diplomat said they have been told, within quotes from reliable sources, that Bangladesh will be invited to the next democracy Summit, which hopefully will be an in-person one.

One of the issues which featured prominently in his many conversations is how Bangladesh with its remarkable achievements takes this relationship to the next level.

“If you look back over the last 50 years, there have been different issues which have in a sense, dominated the relationship in the early years, ” Farooq Sobhan said, adding that “how do we handle these complexities in the relationship, I think, that’s going to be a major challenge.”

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But he sees enormous opportunities in the relationship and said Bangladesh and the US have a very diverse relationship.

BIPSS President Muniruzzaman said, “Our relationships are enduring, and they grow from strength to strength. We need to nurture them, and fundamental to everything as Ambassador did mention in his remarks, is the growth, sustenance and development of democracy in Bangladesh.”

He said, “Bangladesh needs a greater presence in US media if it wants to increase its profile and increase understanding of our positions there.”

Therefore, the security analyst said, media engagement has to be effective between the two countries.

Digital Security Act 

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Ambassador Miller said the Digital Security Act can be used to suppress and criminalize free speech and it is important not to confuse digital security with cyber security.

A focus on control of digital media can distract from much needed efforts to protect against malicious cyber security threats, he said.

Miller said they are concerned about arrests and arbitrary detention of journalists and civil society activists under the DSA and encouraged the government of Bangladesh to revise the law to bring it into conformity with Bangladesh’s international commitments on human, civil and political rights and to ensure it provides for checks and balances against arbitrary arrest and other undue restrictions on the right to legitimate exercises a freedom of expression.

He said the US values freedom of expression, including online expression, as a key component of democratic governance.

“And I really appreciate the dialogue we’ve been able to have with the government of Bangladesh on how to improve legislation to ensure Bangladesh’s security is addressed. But not at the cost of its own democratic principles,” said the US envoy.

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Former Principal Secretary Nojibur Rahman said the current leadership of Bangladesh is fully committed to the issues of governance and human rights.

He said the constitution is enshrined on the values of good governance and human rights, which was formulated by Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

“So, when the ambassadors meet the leadership, the head of the government –the Prime Minister– makes it unequivocally clear that her government is fully committed to the high standard of good governance and human rights,” said the former Principal Secretary. 

Former diplomat Tariq Karim recalled that the administration of the US was hostile to Bangladesh in 1971, but people were very fond. “Ultimately, the relationship that was established even during the Liberation War was between the people of Bangladesh and the people of the United States.”

As the US Ambassador talked about democracy and good governance in Bangladesh, he said, “We’re a fiercely proud nation and I think our history and our reactions to major pressures on us in history have shown how we can stiffener back and take on powers superior to us, if necessary, even at our own cost but we won’t bend to that.”

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Therefore, Tariq Karim said, when big powers or anyone external tries to force them into a direction, they probably come up with some sort of an opposing force either seen or unseen.

The foreign affairs analyst thinks everyone in such dealing should keep in mind that ultimately citizen to citizen, people-to-people relations, and human nature and human reactions on the ground level will translate into politics and will reconfigure the shape of politics if push comes to shove.

“Every democracy is still working and in progress. No one can give a lecture to other democracies about how to do it as each nation has its own way of doing it. I think the focus should be more on helping those countries build up resilience and capacities in the areas they are lacking,” he said.

When nations are confident, most of the other things come into play automatically and they will do so organically in a natural way, Tariq Karim observed.

“But if we try to force it, those countries have their own egos, their own self-respect and their own identities, they’ll stand up and push back. It won’t help achieve the larger goals that we’ve in our minds,” the diplomat mentioned.

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Politics

Vast majority of Bangladeshis want good relations with neighbours: FM tells South Asia Correspondents

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Foreign Minister Dr Hasan Mahmud has said the vast majority of the people of Bangladesh now understand that it should have good relations with neighbours – for its own prosperity as well as that of the region.

He said his party (Bangladesh Awami League) is painted as a ‘pro-Indian’ party but AL is a pro-Bangladeshi party.

“There are anti-Indian elements. We specifically see this issue during elections. But the anti-Indian sentiment is gradually diminishing in Bangladesh,” he told the members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of South Asia during an interaction in New Delhi on February 9.

The Foreign Minister said the tablet or capsule of blaming Awami League as a pro-India party does not work anymore like the past.

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“Today, the vast majority of the people understand that for the prosperity of Bangladesh and the region, neighbours should have good relations,” he said while responding to a question.

Asked about balancing relations, the Foreign Minister said Bangladesh-India relationship is not comparable to any other relations.

“Bangladesh’s relations with India are bonded by blood and shared sacrifice during the War of Liberation in 1971,” Hasan said.

He said although China is not Bangladesh’s immediate neighbor but it is a neighbor and a development partner of Bangladesh.

The Foreign Minister said they face a lot of challenges due to the wave of fake news. He said this is a problem even in Europe and shared how fake news was spread during Covid-19.

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He mentioned that this is an area where all need to work together. “We can work together to fight against fake news.”

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Last national election was open for all AL members for sake of democracy: PM Hasina

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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Saturday (9 Februay) said if she did not allow her party members to take part in last month’s election as independent candidates the democracy of the country would have been snatched away.

“If the election was not open for all (AL members), then not only the election would have been stained, the democracy of the country would have been hijacked too,” she said.

The prime minister was delivering her introductory speech at the extended meeting of Awami League at her official residence Ganabhaban.

This election was important to maintain the country’s status as a developing country, she said.

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“We should not forget the election manifesto that we announced before the election to retain this achievement. Every year during the budget formulation we follow the election manifesto,” she said.

Hasina, also the chief of ruling Awami League, said that her party has also opened the upcoming upazila elections for all her party members to make it participatory.

“It will also be scrutinised how much work has been done for the common people in the last 15 years while in power, and who could not deliver. Through it we will see who is accepted by the people,” she said.

She issued warning against any sort of confrontation in the upcoming local government elections.

“We do not want any kind of confrontation. Stern actions will be taken against the individuals responsible for it no matter who they are,” she said.

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Claiming that the 12th parliamentary election was free, fair and impartial, Hasina said that those who want to dispute the election, they must give clear evidence.

She said that elections have been held in many developed countries of the world, but these are yet to be accepted by their opponents.

“Even the post-election violence has resulted in murders. But the election in Bangladesh was very fair. Public administration, the armed forces, law and order enforcement and all those involved in the election have performed their duties impartially,” she claimed

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Political crisis nearing climax: Rizvi

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The BNP today said the country’s long-standing political crisis is now nearing its climax as people are taking to the streets risking their lives to resist a one-sided election.

“The chief election commissioner surrendered to Sheikh Hasina instead of protecting the interests of the people and taking proper steps to ensure a free, fair, and participatory election,” Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, senior joint secretary general of the party, said in a virtual press conference.

The BNP leader alleged that the EC announced the schedule for the next election ignoring the continuous movement for free and fair elections.

Rizvi also alleged that the commission announced the election schedule on the instruction of the government, ignoring the appeals of the country’s civil society, the international community, and foreign diplomats.

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“When the CEC announced the schedule, he should have also mentioned the time of voting, whether it will be at night, or during the daytime, or early morning.”

The BNP leader said the government has established a regime where those who demand free and fair elections are being attacked.

He said their ongoing movement to restore the power and rights of the people will be a warning for all the autocrats.

Rizvi said the BNP leaders and activists are being arrested indiscriminately. “If they [law enforcers] can’t detain them, they are arresting their fathers, fathers-in-law, younger brothers, and even women in the house.”

He said law enforcers arrested more than 12,900 leaders and activists in 289 cases across the country since October 28.

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