Erosion of democracy to limit US cooperation
If democracy in any country, including Bangladesh, erodes, it limits the US's ability to cooperate with that country, US State Department Counsellor Derek Chollet has said.
"It doesn't mean we won't cooperate. It doesn't mean our relationship won't be important. But it just will be a limiting factor when it comes to business investment," he said during a meeting in Dhaka yesterday.
Chollet, an official of the rank of undersecretary who led a high-level seven-member delegation to Dhaka, said US companies want transparency, rule of law, and accountability when comes to investing in a country.
In general, US-Bangladesh relationship has great potential and that is why there has been a consistent stream of officials visiting Bangladesh, he said in the meeting with a group of senior journalists at the American Centre in Dhaka.
Chollet arrived in Dhaka on Tuesday evening and called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen, and other officials. In the afternoon, he interacted with senior journalists.
He said Bangladesh is a development success story from the region and has done a great job by sheltering more than a million Rohingyas. The US is committed to strengthening the ties with Bangladesh as with other countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
At meetings with the top leaders of Bangladesh, he stressed the importance of democracy, free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and a strong civil society.
Asked what may happen if there were no free and fair elections in Bangladesh, Chollet said he does not want to speculate.
"I have confidence there can be a free and fair election. The government has said they want to have a free and fair election. We've made no secret of the concerns we have had about the treatment of certain advocates in civil society, particularly in human rights, concerns about previous elections," he said.
He added, "The US will continue to voice those concerns in the months to come. But sure, we have confidence and we have heard from the government today their commitment to hold a free and fair election. And we'll hold into that."
During his courtesy call on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the Gono Bhaban yesterday, the premier said, "The next election will be fair and free. I fought for democracy throughout my life."
She reiterated that the Election Commission is completely independent.
Prime Minister's speechwriter Md Nazrul Islam briefed reporters afterwards.
Hasina said if the people vote for the Awami League in the next general election, her party will govern the country.
"I never want to come to power through vote-rigging," she said, adding that she always struggled for the people's rights to food and vote.
She said the first-ever EC reconstitution law was passed in parliament and then a neutral EC was constituted based on the law.
The PM said that apart from the Awami League, no other political party in the country had any base at the grassroots. The BNP and the Jatiya Party were born in the cantonment.
Hasina said the transformation of Bangladesh has become visible over the last 14 years of her government.
The Russia-Ukraine war and the Rohingya issues also came up for discussion during her meeting with Chollet.
She said the world should stop this war as it has caused high inflation and commodity prices throughout the globe.
Mentioning that the US is the most powerful country, she said it can take steps to stop the war. The disputes can be settled through negotiations, she said.
About the Rohingyas, the premier said they have become a burden on Bangladesh and some of them are getting involved in criminal activities like drug and human trafficking, militancy, and infightings.
She asked the international community to assist the initiative in Bhashanchar and try their best for quick and amicable repatriation of the Rohingyas.
Chollet said the US would try their best for the repatriation of the displaced people but added that the repatriation will be possible when a democratic government assumes power in Myanmar again.
PM's Private Industry and Investment Adviser Salman F Rahman, PM's Principal Secretary M Tofazzel Hossain Miah, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen, and US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas were present.
Chollet's tour comes high on the heels of a series of visits by high-profile US officials in recent months.
The US is Bangladesh's biggest foreign direct investor, and donor for the Rohingya crisis. It wants Bangladesh on its side under its Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Dhaka's relations with Washington saw some strains following the sanctions on Rab and some of its officials and for not inviting Bangladesh to Biden's Summit for Democracy in 2021.
Dhaka is eager to have the sanctions withdrawn. It also wants more support for the Rohingya crisis, climate change adaptation, and reinstatement of the GSP facilities that were suspended after Rana Plaza collapse in 2013.
Asked when will the sanctions on the Rab be lifted, Chollet, at the meeting with senior journalists, said it was good that there has been a decline in extrajudicial killings over the last one year.
"Nevertheless, in order to really turn the page on this issue, we are going to need to see sustained reforms as well as accountability [of the Rab]," he said.
"Quite frankly, I don't think we're there yet on these fronts …We are committed to continuing to help Bangladesh strengthen the rule of law and security. But until we see accountability, until we see sustained reforms, we are not going to be able to turn the page on that."
Asked why Bangladesh was not invited to the second summit for democracy, scheduled for March 29-30, Chollet said after the first summit for democracy, the US asked all the countries to come up with a plan of action for the coming year.
"Many of them came up with their own plan of action, but Bangladesh chose not to … That's its decision to make. We're looking forward to, perhaps in the future, them [Bangladesh] coming up with their own plan of action to be able to contribute to this important effort," he said.
Chollet said part of the reason why he came to Bangladesh is to send the message that the US will continue to support Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue despite many challenges around the world.
While the US continues to work for improving conditions in Myanmar, it will also work with Bangladesh to ease the sufferings of the people inside the camps.
US Ambassador Peter Haas, The Daily Star Editor Mahfuz Anam, Samakal acting editor Muzammil Husain, The Daily Ittefaq Editor Tasmima Hossain, The Business Standard Editor Inam Ahmed, AFP Bureau Chief Shafiqul Alam, Jamuna TV CEO Fahim Ahmed, and Channel 24 Executive Director Talat Mahmud were present at the event.
Chollet left Dhaka last night.