Bangladesh polls deemed most crucial in world
The US ambassador to Dhaka has said elections intended to restore democratic rule in Bangladesh will be a watershed which could produce either a model Muslim democracy or a new hotbed of extremism.
"There will be no more transformational election in the world this year than the parliamentary elections scheduled for Dec 29 in Bangladesh," James F Moriarty said Thursday.
He told a panel in Washington that according to reports available in websites, stakes for the United States in the December 29 parliamentary elections of Bangladesh, where 140 million people live, are enormous.
"The country could achieve a peaceful transition and become a model of a relatively prosperous Muslim majority democracy… Or it could return to the winner-take-all obstructionist politics of previous years," he said.
"If Bangladesh stumbles within the coming months, it could become a breeding ground for terrorists and groups wishing to operate in South and Southeast Asia," Moriarty told the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government-funded advisory body created in 1998 to monitor religious freedom around the world and make policy recommendations to the US government.
He said the US interest in Bangladesh revolve around three mutually reinforcing principles, which he referred to as the "three D's": democracy, development, and the denial of space to terrorism.
Moriarty said he had no information about any Al-Qaeda links to extremist Islamic groups in Bangladesh but there were "lots of accusations about the Pakistan-based groups" supporting and influencing Bangladeshi militants.
The US envoy said there were "warning signs that extremism could take root in Bangladesh" if militants took advantage of discontent with grinding poverty, weak governance and endemic corruption.
Moriarty said he met major players in this month's vote, former prime ministers whose bitter rivalry has defined recent politics in the country.
Both Khaleda Zia of BNP and Sheikh Hasina of Awami League assured him of understanding the need to improve the political environment in Bangladesh, he said.
Moriarty said corruption is estimated to cost Bangladesh almost $2 billion a year, food prices have risen more than 50 percent over the past year and 86 percent of Bangladeshis live on less than $2 a day.
The ambassador, however, expressed optimism saying that Bangladeshis "are deeply committed to democracy" as more than 90 percent have said they plan to vote in the elections.
The ambassador's elaborate testimony was apparently intended to convince the five commissioners led by Felice Gaer and ensure United States' support for Bangladesh's bid to strengthen its democratic process.
Felice Gaer, chair of the commission, said the military's role as top government backer and the severe restrictions placed on political activities "raise questions about the fairness" of the December 29 elections.
Congressman Joseph Crowley, co-chair of the Bangladesh Caucus, was encouraged by the ambassador's assessment.
Crowley in his brief remark said he would do his best to ensure that the US remains committed to Bangladesh's future progress by enhancing American development assistance and helping the country in its quest for better access to US market.
Other panelists who also testified before the Commission were Prof Ali Riaz of Illinois State University, Prof Shapan Adnan of Singapore National University, Sochi Dastidar of State University of New York, and Asif Saleh, executive director of Drishtipat, a US-based human-rights organisation.