Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Time for a New U.S. Policy in Bangladesh

ARAFAT KABIR

Although situated in close proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bangladesh has to this point somehow avoided becoming a major headache for Washington. Yet, given recent developments, Bangladesh could soon cause U.S. officials a migraine.

Bangladesh is currently suffering some of the worst political unrest in its history. After several months of unprecedented levels of political violence, a deeply flawed election took place on January 5, the ruling party and opposition are at loggerheads today. With no end in sight to this political crisis, street violence and other unrest is bound to continue—particularly in the wake of heavily politicized trials for war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war. Washington needs to wake up before the powder keg of this country spirals out of control.

However, first it is important to understand what is at stake. Over the years, Bangladesh has transformed itself in marvelous ways, serving as an example to other developing nations. The Bangladesh Bank (equivalent to the Federal Reserve) has the second highest foreign currency deposits in South Asia after India, while the country’s garment industry has become the world’s second largest. Significantly, this multi-billion-dollar industry—housed in the third largest Muslim country in the world—is largely driven by women. In Bangladesh, many more girls are in school than boys.

Furthermore, Bangladesh demonstrates an array of human development successes, ranging from decreased mortality rates to increased average incomes and less poverty. A Bangladeshi institution, Grameen Bank, has pioneered microcredit financing. Additionally, the world’s largest non-governmental organization, BRAC, has become a globally active entity whose latest tasks include helping rebuild Afghanistan. Corruption notwithstanding, some state institutions—including the Bangladesh army—have an impressive record as well. Some may associate Bangladesh’s army with mutinies and coups, but in fact it has also been lauded for its extraordinary contribution to U.N. peacekeeping missions. In honor of the great services provided by Bangladeshi forces, the African nation of Sierra Leone has declared Bangla its second language.

Meanwhile, Dhaka shelters half-a-million registered Rohingya minorities in its territory. Similarly, ghettoes inhabited by people of Pakistani origin still dwell in the heart of Dhaka. Neither Islamabad nor Naypyidaw is willing to take back these descendants—making Bangladesh the de facto safe haven for these displaced people.

To be sure, Bangladesh is also accused of providing havens for more unsavory populations. Delhi thinks Bangladesh is a potential sanctuary for separatists fighting for the independence of the northeastern states of India. Bangladesh has also been accused of harboring militants sponsored by the Pakistani intelligence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some in Washington are concerned that Bangladesh could fall into the hands of terrorists. This is a highly misplaced concern, however.

Bangladesh has significantly curbed religious-based terrorism in recent years. Furthermore, it has helped India by arresting some of its wanted extremists. Recently, Dhaka has signed a long-awaited extradition pact with India. India appears convinced that Dhaka will continue to clamp down on anti-India activities if Sheikh Hasina remains in power. Her administration’s demonstrated willingness to support Indian interests significantly reduces Indian security worries on its Eastern flank. This helps explain why India has supported Hasina’s recent controversial reelection.

Since human rights and promoting democracy have been cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy, it is understandable that America is unable to applaud the deeply flawed election of late that returned Hasina to power. Washington’s cautious efforts in recent weeks to help bring the government and opposition together—so that they can come to an agreement to hold a fresh election—are welcome. Nevertheless, much more needs to be done.

Belatedly, U.S. policymakers seem to have realized Bangladesh’s overall importance in a number of sectors. Although President Obama has suspended GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) benefits for Bangladeshi garment manufactures, “Made in Bangladesh” still remains a trusted brand among American retailers and consumers. American conglomerates now consider Bangladesh a lucrative destination with the rise of a strong middle-class population. What is less clear is whether Washington has recognized Bangladesh’s strategic importance. Thanks to geography, the country lies somewhat equidistant from three nuclear powers. It sits along an important channel that transports massive amount of freight every year.

Washington, which has already wisely increased its military aid to Bangladesh, would be wise to build a strategic partnership with Bangladesh in order to help protect American interests in the vast Indian ocean—a region that stretches from Eastern Africa to Southeast Asia, with Bangladesh right in the middle.

Unfortunately, none of this can happen if Bangladesh’s political deadlock continues to grind on. Ongoing political clashes can end up in lawlessness, which could enable indigenous vigilante groups to proliferate. This in turn could provide an environment ripe for foreign insurgent groups.

What this all suggests it that despite Bangladesh’s many success stories—it faces many impending dangers ahead. Therefore, it is time that Washington adopts a more robust policy on Bangladesh. A prime focus of a revamped policy should be trade. Washington should pursue a bilateral trade partnership that emphasizes not only commerce, but also the importance of labor rights, transparency, and countercorruption measures within Bangladesh’s economy.

In addition, American cooperation, whether technological or financial, to bolster Bangladesh’s energy sector would come as a great relief to DhakaBangladesh’s economy is performing as projected due to acute scarcities of power. With a steady growth of urbanization and dwindling indigenous energy sources (mainly in the form of natural gas), Bangladesh thus is badly in need energy assistance—an area Washington can be of great help. The U.S. has a strong interest in greater energy security throughout South Asia, and has advocated for cross-regional pipelines and financed energy projects in Pakistan. Therefore, Bangladesh is a logical next step.

On the political side, Washington should exert pressure on both the ruling party and opposition to take disputes off the streets and on to the negotiating table. Both parties should be encouraged to explore new avenues for peaceful dialogue—such as social media—and other nonviolent means to engage with the masses. If democracy is for the people, then it is virtually absent in Bangladesh where political parties show little interest in being accountable to their constituents.

Democracy in Bangladesh—the embodiment of a moderate Muslim nation—is now imperiled. The United States can no longer be complacent about the nation a famous American secretary of State once notoriously referred to as a “basket case”—yet has now become, despite its economic and democratic achievements, one of the biggest tinderboxes in Asia.

First published in The National Interest, January 27, 2014

Arafat Kabir is a regional politics analyst based in Bangladesh. Follow him @ArafatKabirUpol.