US supports peaceful elections that reflect Bangladeshi people’s will, he says

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 on December 8.

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.

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 and 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. "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.

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.

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

Democracy and 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."

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.

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.

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."

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

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.

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."

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.

US Engagement in Indo-Pacific

Ambassador Miller has said their engagement in the Indo-Pacific is not against any country and it is not designed to make anyone to choose between countries, noting that the US is not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocks.

He said Bangladesh is a sovereign independent nation that decides itself what organization or partnership it chooses to join.

"The United States wants Bangladesh to succeed. We seek to grow the US-Bangladesh partnership because we believe it's in the best interest of both our people," said Ambassador Miller.

The Ambassador said their engagement in the Indo-Pacific is about advancing an optimistic vision that they have their participation and partnership in the region.

The envoy said they share the goal of building a more prosperous, secure and interconnected Indo-Pacific region.

The United States, he said, is ready to work with any nation that steps up and pursues peaceful resolution to address the challenges if they have intense disagreements in other areas.

"And we welcome the opportunity to work with our regional partners to create a prosperous path towards a shared future based on freedom, good governance, respect for international law and transparency," the US diplomat mentioned.

Enayetullah Khan said having had the opportunity to observe the relationship over the last 50 years, and seen it ebb and flow, or even at times standstill, "I myself remain convinced that the strongest tool we've in our combined armoury are the extensive people-to-people contacts."

He said direct government-to-government contact is of course helpful but these contacts over the years have always left something to be desired.

"Whether it's indifference on the part of some administrations in Washington, or Dhaka's inability to come to terms with the fact that Henry Kissinger is no longer crafting US foreign policy, governments I feel have always been confined in terms of how far they were willing to go," Khan said.

Former Ambassador Farooq Sobhan highlighted Washington's deep concern and preoccupation currently with its relations with China, which in a sense, feeds into the QUAD, the Indo Pacific Strategy and more recently AUKUS.

"Where does a country like Bangladesh fit into this?" he said, adding that this will certainly appear to be a challenge for Bangladesh's diplomacy, as indeed, Bangladesh's ability to leverage its strengths in Washington.

Strategic Neutrality

Maj Gen (Retd) Muniruzzaman said one of the cornerstones of the great relationship between Bangladesh and the USA, as the Ambassador has also mentioned, is the Indo-Pacific strategy, given by the United States and many of his allies around the world.

He said Bangladesh does believe in the key principles of the Indo-Pacific strategy, as it shares the vision of an open, free and secure Indo-Pacific.

"But at the same time, we'd also like to mention here that we want all our partners and friends to respect Bangladesh's position of strategic neutrality because we've got friends all around the world, in the regions and in other parts of the world, and we don't want any awful relationship which excludes others," said the analyst.

Strategically, Muniruzzaman said, Bangladesh is a key partner - not only on a regional scale but in the scale of the Indo-Pacific strategy and internationally.

"I would like to point out that very often we find that Bangladesh is viewed through the lens of India, and that's the approach that I strongly recommend should be avoided and Bangladesh should be viewed as all its own entity and on its all-geostrategic importance and its own position," he said.

Muniruzzaman said maritime cooperation is a key area for partnership as Bangladesh is a key strategic maritime nation. "We're a Bay of Bengal nation. We're an Indian Ocean nation. Bangladesh's strategic location provides a unique position and strength to Bangladesh as a key strategic access provider to the Bay of Bengal or access denial to the Bay of Bengal."

The security analyst said these are Bangladesh's strengths that must be fully explored and understood and therefore, joint cooperation should be brought around areas of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean area.

He said Bangladesh should be partnering more effectively with the United States in building capacity and meeting the non-traditional security challenges and laid emphasis on cooperation in the areas of energy security, science and technology, R and D and cyber security.

Stating that Bangladesh is a key partner in the Indo-Pacific region due to its geographical location, noted diplomat Tariq Karim said, "We're at the epicentre of an Indo-Pacific that pre-existed before the advent of British Colonialism, even before any of the present powers thought about it."

He said Bangladesh was the connector between the western and eastern civilizations. "We're at heart and epics of the Bay of Bengal. That's why, in a sense, we facilitated this connectivity between the West and East."

In a sense, Tariq said, Bangladesh has no problem with the Indo-Pacific as a concept. "We've problems if we're forced to take sides with anyone against any other."

He said Bangladesh needs to maintain a positive or strategic neutrality in this regard as Switzerland has been doing in Europe.

The seasoned diplomat recalled that Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had also said on some occasions that Bangladesh would be the Switzerland of the East.

Switzerland is surrounded by all big powers all around it, but it has been a neutral power or a neutral state and has maintained this neutrality for over 200 years.

"That's perhaps the secret for Switzerland's survival not being absorbed by any of the big powers and Switzerland is becoming a major player in the global relations today," Tariq Karim observed.

Therefore, he said, they are with the Indo-Pacific but not against the BRI or any other such groupings coming up where economic and human developments are the core areas defined.

"We're with the BRI, but not against the Indo-Pacific because we aren't taking sides with anyone against the other. In a sense, we're probably redefining or reimaging the non-alignment. I call it a positive non-alignment rather than abstaining completely from the hands of non-alignment," Tariq opined.

On security cooperation, Miller said the United States and Bangladesh have shared common interests that make them natural security partners.

"We want to build a flexible, resilient network of security partners to promote regional stability, advance maritime security and freedom of navigation and address shared challenges throughout the region," he said.

To that end, Miller said, they are expanding security cooperation with allies and partners like Bangladesh, mostly focused on maritime security, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, peacekeeping operations and countering transnational crime.

Won't lose focus on Rohingya crisis

Ambassador Miller who visited Rohingya camps many times said the United States will not lose focus on the Rohingya and they will continue to support Bangladesh and try to resolve it as soon as possible.

"We continue to call on the government of Burma (Myanmar) to create conditions for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of all refugees based on their informed consent," he said.

To ensure a high-level engagement, Miller said, they continue to urge all actors in Myanmar to play constructive roles in resolving the crisis, restoring the rule of law immediately.

He called for granting unhindered humanitarian and media access, guaranteeing those who voluntarily choose to return to their places of origin are able to do so in safety and dignity and addressing the root causes of conflict in Rakhine State.

"We also call for accountability for those responsible for crimes against this vulnerable population," Miller said.

He said, "One of my great regrets, as US Ambassador, is that not a single Rohingya refugee has had the chance to return home over the past years indeed, since the start of this great crisis."

Trade and Investment

Ambassador Miller said American businesses want to invest in countries that operate transparently, uphold the rule of law and protect individual rights, and they are watching developments in Bangladesh.

He said progress in these areas will protect the country's long-term growth and stability. "There's a growing list of very successful US investments in Bangladesh."

While significant progress has been made in improving the safety of garment factories in recent years, he said, several key issues, especially on labour rights remain unaddressed.

"The US government takes these seriously. We fund efforts to improve labour rights as well as occupational safety and health in the RMG sector, with international partners, civil society businesses, and the government of Bangladesh," Miller said.

He said they want to work together on trade, investment and commerce for sustainable and broadly shared economic prosperity that opens new markets for American businesses.

"We're your biggest economic fan," he said, adding that it is also important to remember that weak institutions and corruption and poor human rights conditions drive away private sector investment.

With inputs from Abdur Rahman Jahangir, Muhammad Syfullah, Anisul Islam and Md. Ishtiak Hossain.

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