Despite election concerns, US moves ahead with Bangladesh

Despite election concerns, US moves ahead with Bangladesh

WASHINGTON: Despite forceful criticism of Bangladesh’s election, the United States largely plans to maintain cooperation with a Muslim-majority country it sees as a force for moderation, policymakers say.
The United States and European Union voiced disappointment over Bangladesh’s January 5 election, which was marred by deadly violence and an opposition boycott. 
A US official said Washington had been “relentless” over the past year in pressing Bangladesh’s notoriously bitter political rivals for a fair and competitive election.
But, while the United States said it did not consider the election credible, it also indicated it would still work with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, privately concluding that outsiders had limited ability to ease decades of intense, personal enmity between her and arch-enemy Khaleda Zia.
A US official said Washington’s key priority was to encourage new elections but that it would not suspend assistance, which is largely routed through non-governmental groups.
“I don’t think we advance our strategic interests by curtailing that. You don’t end up punishing anybody but the recipients, who are the people on the ground,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The World Bank, where the United States holds the most voting power, on Thursday approved $410 million to improve basic urban services for some 3.4 million Bangladeshis.
The US official saw hopeful signs despite visible problems, saying the world’s eighth most populous nation has been making progress on US-backed development goals and women’s empowerment and has consistently posted solid economic growth.
The US official contrasted Bangladesh’s treatment of minorities with the wave of religious violence in recent years in Pakistan, from which Bangladesh won independence in a bloody 1971 war.
“Of the two Muslim-majority countries in South Asia, one has problems that everybody is aware of, and the other over the past 20 years — despite its very difficult circumstances of independence — has achieved... a very pluralistic, democratic tradition,” he said.
Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said he thought “the US will essentially hold its nose and hope for the best.” 
“The US is not going to renounce its relationship with Bangladesh,” he added.
The United States had an interest in maintaining stability in the region as it prepares to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan and also tries to increase clout in Asia faced with the rise of China, he noted.
China has taken an interest in Bangladesh, but Kugelman doubted Dhaka would tilt significantly to Beijing, because Hasina enjoys warm ties with giant neighbor India.
The United States has been more active on raising labor concerns in Bangladesh after a string of factory disasters horrified the world, especially the April collapse of the Rana Plaza complex that killed 1,135 people.
The United States responded by suspending Bangladesh’s trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences, although the suspension does not affect ready-made garments — by far the top good in Bangladesh’s $5 billion in annual exports to the United States.
Akramul Qader, Bangladesh’s ambassador to Washington, voiced hope the country would achieve labor reform benchmarks set by the United States in mid-2014.
But on relations with the United States, “it’s business as usual,” he told AFP.
In the election, Hasina’s government banned the main Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, which has never polled well but has been allied with Zia’s opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. A special tribunal has been prosecuting Jamaat leaders, with one of them recently hanged, over crimes during the 1971 war in which Islamists backed Pakistan.
A congressional aide said US policymakers were genuinely concerned about Bangladesh but were heartened by Hasina’s enthusiasm in fighting Islamists, along with the country’s progress on development benchmarks such as expanding childhood education.
“I think that’s why you have seen a muted response both here and in the neighborhood,” the aide said on condition of anonymity. “This government has been seen to be cooperative.” 

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