What will Bangladesh get out of Donald Lu's visit?
The recent visit of US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, in my opinion, was a type of stock-taking visit since, over the past few years, the relationship between the US and Bangladesh has been a source of some worry.
Prior to this, a senior director from the national security council also came to Bangladesh.
Lu's trip looked at how the two nations interact generally. If we focus on the visit's particulars, there were discussions that took place on governance, economic governance, strategy, and other economic concerns. Donald Lu said that the conversation was open and honest. The meeting was productive from that standpoint since it allowed the two countries to better grasp one another's viewpoints and assess the state of our relationship.
In terms of the outcome, we can focus on the exchange and understanding. It is positive that the exchange is maintained and the understanding between the countries has been improved. This visit has ensured that the relationship between the two countries still stands on firm ground, despite some earlier concerns about human rights abuses by law enforcement agencies. There was a concern regarding whether or not there would be sanctions from Bangladesh's side. These issues have now been resolved.
Another thing to note is that Donald Lu has clearly stated the expectations of his country regarding Bangladesh. He gave an indication as to what should be done to meet these expectations, too. For example, he has given an update about the sanction on Rab and indicated that the agency has improved in terms of human rights abuses and dropped hints about what more the agency should do. Lu has also expressed his expectations about the upcoming national election. He has said that the US wants to see a peaceful environment and that he wants participation and expects a credible election. Citing the prime minister's promise to hold a free and fair election, Lu has expressed his expectation that the premier will deliver on her promise.
Donald Lu also raised issues about labour rights and has advised on what the government should do in order to improve the labour conditions. Our country currently does not enjoy GSP privileges and we have appealed to the US in order to receive GSP status. Lu has given an indication as to what the government should do in terms of enacting better labour laws to meet the requirements for regaining the GSP status. There were discussions about regional strategic issues as well.
Though these discussions have not been made public, my guess is that the US wants Bangladesh to be a part of its regional strategy. Bangladesh could be a productive partner in that process. If we become a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy and calibrate that to explore our interests, especially in the economic domain, and also to protect other national security issues from our side (such as resolving the Rohingya crisis) that would be useful to Bangladesh.
Overall, the three main dimensions which were discussed are governance issues (from elections to human rights), economic issues and bilateral business, and strategic issues. This is part of an ongoing discussion, and any discussion is welcome as it clears the air. But the US' expectation is very clear. They want the promotion of human rights and democracy, and they will continue to push for reforms in that regard.
Donald Lu has also met the law minister and home minister. And I presume that the Digital Security Act was an issue of discussion at the meeting with the law minister. It is possible that there may be some updates and amendments to the law as a result of the US and European interest in reforming the law.
Also, the labour rights issue has been central and has been discussed under governance issues. Labour rights are human rights and the US is concerned about these. This is an urgent issue for us, as many of our future opportunities will be contingent on the issue. In terms of sanctions, there need to be more reforms in the systems for the existing sanctions to be considered for withdrawal.
Finally, we can say that Lu's was a positive one as there was an exchange of ideas and expression of appreciation of each other's position for both countries concerned. But the visit did not bear much concrete fruit besides this.
M Humayun Kabir is president of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI) and a former ambassador of Bangladesh to the US.