I can hear champagne corks popping both in Dhaka and Washington in celebration of fifty years of Bangladesh-US relations. Last week the Foreign Ministers of the two countries, A K Momen and Anthony Blinken, formally met in Washington to mark the occasion. Holding hands and beaming, they pledged to strengthen their ties for the next fifty years. The tone was already set by President Biden, who in a letter to Prime Minister Hasina pronounced that the partnership between Dhaka-Washington would flourish further in the next 50 years and beyond.
This relationship has seen its ebbs and flows, admittedly more ebbs than flows in recent years. The frequent US criticism over Bangladesh's shrinking democratic space, election irregularities, and failure to uphold the human rights of the country's minorities has irked Dhaka and drawn loud protests. Things worsened last year in December when the US slapped sanctions on senior members of Bangladesh's security administration for human rights abuses, resulting in immediate denunciations by the Bangladesh leadership. The relationship further tripped after the US decided to exclude Bangladesh from its vaunted pre-Christmas Democracy Summit, a decision viewed by many as a little rubbing of Dhaka's ears. Clearly, that was a particularly low point in the relationship between the two countries. Then, several weeks later, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister flew to the US for the periodic dialogue between the two countries on security cooperation and everything seemed hunky-dory between the two countries. He even suggested that the rubbing has done RAB a favor, as there have been no complaints against the para-military group since the imposition of US sanctions.
It is within the context of this 'now high - now low' relationship between the two countries that the celebration has to be posited. Although the focus of the celebration is fifty years of diplomatic ties between the two countries, the history of our relationship is slightly longer, well, by another year. The most important year in this relationship was 1971, the year Bangladesh fought against Yahya Khan's genocidal regime, and the USA chose to side with him. President Nixon was so impressed by Yahya's tough talk that he confided to his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger that this was a man he could do business with. That business continued through the nine months of Bangladesh's liberation war, which resulted in the death of over three million people and the displacement of another 10 million. This was a genocide, premeditated and methodically executed, a hard fact conveniently suppressed by the Nixon Administration as it prioritized its geo-political goals of opening ties with China and marginalizing the Soviet Union.
Ironically, the first recognition of this 'genocide' came from an American. Archer Blood, then the US Consul General in Dhaka, who in his first telegram to the State Department sent within 48 hours of the beginning of the genocidal orgy expressed his outrage at the US failure to condemn a situation to which 'the overworked term genocide is applicable'.
'Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy, but we have chosen not to intervene, even morally,' he wrote.
Fifty-one years have passed and no one from the US government is yet to offer an apology for this gross failure. Today, as we celebrate fifty years of Bangladesh-US relations, it is necessary that this historical mistake is corrected and a sincere apology from the US government is offered to the people of Bangladesh.
Offering an apology for past mistakes or policy blunders is neither novel nor unprecedented. In the past four decades, the US has apologized numerous times for causing pain and harm to people, both at home and abroad.
One of the earliest of these apologies was addressed to the people of Hawaii, a country once independent and ruled by a Queen considered unfriendly to US corporate interest. To protect the interest of US investors who owned much of the Island's sugarcane industry, US marines invaded Hawaii in 1893 and secured the Queen's surrender. Exactly one hundred years later, in 1993, the United States Congress and Senate issued a joint resolution apologizing to the people of Hawaii for that military intervention.
There are at least three other occasions when the US apologized to its own people. During World War II, the United States sent a quarter of a million Americans of Japanese descent to concentration camps on suspicion of spying for Japan. In 1978, President Ronald Reagan apologized to all the interned Japanese-Americans and their descendent for that shameful act and announced $ 20,000 in compensation to each of the families.
The second such occasion was related to a secret experiment conducted by US government scientists on African-Americans about sexually transmitted diseases. Initiated in the thirties of the last century, the secret study, known as the Tuskegee Experiment, lasted for more than forty years and was conducted without the expressed consent or knowledge of those being experimented on. In 1996, President Bill Clinton formally apologized for this illegal and immoral act.
And in 2010, President Obama signed a resolution passed by US Congress that apologized 'on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native peoples by citizens of the United States.'
The most significant apology, one that is directly linked to the topic of our discussion, was the one offered to the people of Guatemala for the US support to successive murderous military regimes that lasted for over thirty years and resulted in the death of at least 200,000 Guatemalan indigenous people. In 1998, President Bill Clinton came to Guatemala and publicly apologized for the US role in that genocide.
There is no way to deny the similarity between the genocide in Guatemala and the genocide in Bangladesh. From 1970 to 1996, Guatemala's successive military-backed governments were engaged in one of the most brutal military operations to eradicate the country's Maya people. They were backed by the country's white landlords and capitalist groups of European descent who controlled the country's lucrative agro-business. Despite being in the majority, the local Maya tribes were treated as second-class citizens. They were denied ownership of land and any role in the formation of the national government. They did not even have the right to use their mother language. The Mayan uprising against the oppressive policies of the White minority rulers began in the 1970s and was quickly embraced by the country's political left. The political elite, basically a small group of oligarchs, backed by US-owned United Fruit Company, conspired with the Guatemalan military to deny not just the basic rights of the Mayan people but their minimum human dignity. Calling it a campaign against Soviet-led communists, the U.S. government and members of the US Congress, provided economic and military assistance to the Guatemalan military. No qualms, no moral outrage.
Three decades later, in 1999, after an official investigation in the US that recognized the historical injustice, President Bill Clinton met with a cross-section of people in Guatemala City and offered an unconditional apology. 'For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake,' he said.
Eerily similar was the US support for Pakistan's military administration in 1971. It not only chose to remain silent when reports of the mindless bloodletting reached Washington, it actively worked behind the scenes to prop up Yahya's military campaign. When State Department officials protested, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger argued, the President was against taking any action that would displease Yahya. Faced with an embargo imposed by US Congress, the Nixon-Kissinger duo bypassed the legislature and allowed Iran and Jordan to illegally ship US military jets to Pakistan. Later in Decembee, when the war entered its final phase, President Nixon sent the nuclear-armed Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal to threaten the Bengalis and their Indian allies.
This policy, later dubbed the Tilt, was legally wrong and morally corrupt. Among those who came to this conclusion was then-Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Van Hollen. In a lengthy rebuttal to Kissinger's wordy defense of the Tilt, Van Hollen said, the White House policy towards Bangladesh in 1971 was flawed and ill-served the interest of the United States.
As we celebrate the fifty years of US-Bangla relations, an appropriate step by the US Administration would be to acknowledge this mistake and to offer the people of Bangladesh a sincere apology. This will change nothing, no lives lost in the 1971 genocide would be regained. In fact, Bangladesh does not need such an apology; it has fully normalized its relations with the US and has moved on. It is for the USA's own cleansing that it should consider such an apology.
Clinton told Guatemalans 'sorry' for aiding the military to kill over 200,000 people in that country. That apology allowed the US to make a fresh start with the people of Guatemala. Saying 'sorry' to Bangladesh will help turn over a new leaf and to make a fresh start.
13 April 2022, New York
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