Leaving the drama surrounding Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng behind in China, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Bangladesh last week with plans to advocate trade, democracy, increased security, and human rights.
Clinton is the first Secretary of State to visit Bangladesh since 2003—a move that further underscores the U.S.’s priority for greater involvement in the Indo-Pacific region.
Clinton’s visit coincided with mounting unrest in Bangladesh surrounding the mysterious disappearance of politician Ilyas Ali in mid-April. Clinton met with both Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed and her opposition rival, Begum Khaleda Zia of the Awami League Party. Both have accused each other of involvement in Ali’s disappearance. Five people have been killed in subsequent riots between protestors and police. Clinton condemned the recent rioting and killing, adding that the unrest would lead to further unhappiness for Bangladesh by deterring investors and halting development.
Talks between Clinton and Foreign Minister Dipu Moni focused on Bangladesh’s potential to become an economic powerhouse. Goldman Sachs has listed Bangladesh among its “Next 11” countries that have potential to become major economies. Moni urged Clinton to assist them in lowering U.S. tariffs on Bangladeshi imports while they explored a long-term trade and investment agreement. Clinton expressed hope that this visit will illustrate the U.S.’s commitment to Bangladesh’s transition to a peaceful democracy.
Clinton’s meeting with Grameen Bank founder and Nobel Laureate Muhammed Yunus was not surprising, since Clinton has long been an admirer of Yunus and Grameen’s program of issuing small loans to the poor. Clinton called Yunus a “tremendous model for the developing world.” The Grameen model earned Yunus a Nobel Prize in 2006. The bank has lent money to more than 9 million people, the majority of them women.
Washington has been frustrated with the Hasina government’s treatment of Yunus and Grameen over the last 18 months. The Bangladeshi government forced Yunus to retire in 2011 on the grounds that he was beyond the legal retirement age. Some Yunus supporters accuse Hasina’s move as being politically motivated by her desire to bar him from challenging her in future elections. In 2007, when the country was under a state of emergency and Hasina herself was behind bars, Yunus attempted to form his own political party.
The Hasina administration has threatened investigations into Grameen to probe links with independent businesses. A government-appointed investigation last year deemed these affiliations a breach of the bank’s charter, since they were made without bank board approval. Yunus asserts that the government is trying to interfere with Grameen’s operations. Clinton waded into the issue and advocated for “non-interference,” urging the Bangladesh government not to hamper the internal operations of the bank.
According to Heritage’s Lisa Curtis:
The Grameen Bank issue has become somewhat of a thorn in the side of the U.S.–Bangladesh relationship despite cooperation across a broad range of other issues, such as on counterterrorism, trade and investment, and maritime issues. If the Grameen Bank issue had not arisen, it’s likely Clinton would have visited Bangladesh much earlier in her tenure and that she would have devoted much more of her time as Secretary of State to building the relationship. In some ways, it was a lost opportunity for Dhaka since the next Secretary of State is unlikely to have the same kind of personal ties to Bangladesh as Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s careful attention to the situation in Bangladesh illustrates the U.S.’s willingness to work with Bangladesh and assist in its transition to democracy. The Bangladeshi government should focus on bolstering the success of its institutions, such as the Grameen Bank, in order to pave the way for national stability and prosperity.