U.S.-Bangladesh Relations

Robert O. Blake
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Dhaka, Bangladesh
June 14, 2009


Let me first of all say good afternoon to all of you. I’m so happy to see so many of you here. I think that reflects the strong interest in relations between Bangladesh and the United States.

It’s a real pleasure for me to be here in Dhaka, in Bangladesh. This is my first visit to your beautiful country. I’m here in my capacity as the Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia at the State Department. I wanted to make an early visit to Bangladesh to show the importance that the United States attaches to good relations between our two countries.

I came to see first-hand how we can work with our friends in the new government and with the people of Bangladesh, to expand the good cooperation that we already enjoy together.

During my visit I had the chance to meet with members of the government, members of the opposition, members of the business community and civil society. I’ll be meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina later this evening.

Let me say that I appreciate very much the warm hospitality that everyone has accorded me so far. Although my visit has been short, I’ve learned a great deal about your country and I’m very impressed with the important changes that have taken place here and with the opportunities here for greater cooperation between us and the government of Bangladesh.

The United States and Bangladesh have been friends for more than half a century. We have worked together to build democracy here in this country. The United States welcomed the free, fair and transparent elections that occurred last December. We think that this election proved that Bangladeshis want democracy. Indeed, the United States is proud to have supported that effort. We will continue to support Bangladesh to extend and expand its democratic roots.

We’ve also been here to help you to expand your economy, expand opportunities for the people of Bangladesh, and also to help you to respond to natural disasters. We’re also here to help you to protect your people against terrorist threats and to help protect you from those who might wish to destabilize democracy here in Bangladesh.

President Obama is committed to expanding and improving the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world. In Cairo he called for a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world based on mutual interests and mutual respect. I think that his message resonated very well both here in Bangladesh and around the world.

In the countries of South and Central Asia which my bureau handles, there are more than half a billion Muslims. Audiences around this region responded very positively to the President’s speech and most appreciated the President’s desire for engagement and for dialogue with the Muslim world.

I know that many Bangladeshis paid very close attention to the President’s speech. We are pleased that so many of the media, so many of those who are represented here today, broadcast or printed the President’s speech. We continue to closely follow the reaction here in Bangladesh.

I told our friends in the government that the United States looks forward to working to expand on cooperation in some of the areas that the President mentioned.

In closing, let me say again how much I enjoyed the chance to meet such a wide range of Bangladeshis during my time here. I appreciated the opportunities to discuss our longstanding cooperation and explore future avenues for cooperation. And I look forward to continued discussions, continued dialogue, and continued friendship between the United States and Bangladesh.

Indeed, I see great potential for future expanded cooperation between our two countries, and as Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia I will do my part to realize that potential.

Before I take your questions I’d like to just thank our superb ambassador, Jim Moriarty, and his team here who have done a great job to work with our friends here in Bangladesh to consolidate and expand our relations. We appreciate the terrific work that they do.

With that, let me turn it over to my colleagues here and they’ll determine who can start the question and answer session.

QUESTION: You are basically focusing on future expanded cooperation, new areas of cooperation. Will you please elaborate. What can be the potential areas of cooperation? I mean the new areas of cooperation in the coming days. Thank you so much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you. As you know, the United States for many years has cooperated to help expand democracy here, to help improve development, and to help your country to counter extremism. I think there are other areas where we might be able to cooperate. We’ve just begun that dialogue today, but we discussed such areas as climate change and clean energy where I think there are some new opportunities. And also, as I said earlier, the possibilities for follow-up on the President’s speech.

There have been many many important changes that have taken place here. For example, in the priority that your country has attached to women’s literacy programs. I think that those are really quite noteworthy and something that could be emulated in other parts of the Arab world, so we’ll look for ways that we can expand cooperation in that area.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you have just said that you are looking for discuss on the democracy in Bangladesh. I think you were [worried] about the situation after the election. Last night you have met with the opposition leader and parliament at this moment is [not] functioning. In that sense that opposition is not participating because of the [inaudible] in the front line.

So how do you look at the future sustainability of the democracy?

And I have another question --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Let me take one question at a time.

As I said earlier, we welcome the very important elections that took place here in December which were the freest and fairest and most transparent in your history. At the same time, Bangladesh faces new challenges. The finance minister has just delivered the budget speech. And in many ways this now represents a new beginning. I think part of that new beginning is for the opposition and for the government to work together. So the United States very much hopes that the opposition will participate in the new parliament and work constructively with the government to not only exploit the new opportunities before Bangladesh, but also to address some of these challenges.

QUESTION: First of all, congratulations for your late assignment. I have two questions. One is domestic and another is international.

Voice: One question, please.

QUESTION: Domestic question is that you mentioned that you want to work for regarding all issues particularly in extremism. And one thing previously when Mr. Boucher visited here, he mentioned they will work for the security. Especially he mentioned that United States is going to protect the maritime boundary for the security reasons.

What specifically job you are doing regarding the security?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Let me just say in terms of our counterterrorism cooperation, that we have a wide range of programs that we are pursuing with our friends in the government here. Not only on the maritime security aspect, but helping to secure your borders. And more broadly, to make sure that terrorist groups like the JMB, but also transnational terrorist groups cannot use the territory of Bangladesh, cannot operate from Bangladesh to threaten either your own country or to threaten other countries.

QUESTION: Your Excellency, your visit is taking place in the backdrop of the new administration in Washington. I think that both administrations have some commonality. That is Obama government into power [inaudible], change the need. Government in Bangladesh also very [inaudible]. In this situation, are you carrying any special message from Washington to the new administration in Dhaka?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No message beyond what I’ve already said which is that I’m carrying a message of friendship to say that we appreciate the very long friendship and cooperation we’ve had with your country, and that now with the new government both here, and the new government in the United States, we believe there are opportunities for expanded cooperation. We are very excited about the chance to exploit some of those new opportunities.

QUESTION: You [inaudible] a new [inaudible] between Bangladesh and India over a planned [dam]. This is a new [inaudible] that has [inaudible] these two nations. So I am wondering whether the U.S. has any policy to mediate between this, what is called, disputed countries to solve this dispute.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Of course we welcome and always encourage good relations between India and Bangladesh, but we have no particular role to play in that. This is an issue for the Indians and the Bangladeshis to sort out between them.

QUESTION: Mr. Blake, just a supplement to my colleague’s question. You mentioned that you want to work with Bangladesh to protect our citizens from the militant state as well as the forces who try to destabilize the democracy, sustaining development of the country.

So during your discussion with the officials here did you raise any precise issue or precise mechanism to work on those particular areas of [inaudible] issues of militants as well as the forces who now time and again in the region act for destabilizing the democracy here?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think I really need to go beyond what I’ve already said which is we discussed a wide range of areas that we are already cooperating in and I think we’re very satisfied with that cooperation. And I don’t think I want to go into too many more details on that. Thank you.

QUESTION: Mr. Blake, thank you very much. My question is to you that you just have had talks on cooperation and climate change. I think do you have any plan or program to help Bangladesh in mitigating and/or lifting climate change issues in Bangladesh? Thank you very much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you. Let me be clear. We’re just beginning our discussions on this. I would characterize these as exploratory talks. I am myself not the person responsible for climate change policy in the United States. We have a special negotiator, Todd Stern. So I will be going back to talk with my colleagues about some of the possibilities. So we’re still at a very exploratory stage in what we might be able to do. But this is one of many areas that we thought we might try to think about new areas of cooperation.

QUESTION: Under Secretary of State Bill Burns just visited India. And there are so many issues [inaudible] discussing [inaudible].


QUESTION: And [inaudible]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Really the focus of Under Secretary Burns’ visit and my visit to India was bilateral, where we were talking with our friends in the Indian government about ways to advance the strategic partnership between the United States and India and as you know, we’ve already made a great deal of progress in our bilateral relations and again, I think we feel there’s great new opportunities to strengthen that cooperation.

Secretary Clinton will be visiting India in the second half of July. So Under Secretary Burns’ visit and my visit was really to prepare for that visit. That was the focus of our talks there.

QUESTION: I have one question. You met our Madame Home Minister and you discussed regarding the trial of [inaudible] in Bangladesh. I just want to know what’s the [inaudible] of America regarding the trial of [inaudible]? You know that Bangladesh had liberation war in [inaudible] which was fought between Pakistani [inaudible] forces. Where do you stand? Do you support the trial of [inaudible] in Bangladesh?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Let me say on the question of war crimes that the United States believes strongly in the importance of accountability, but in my discussions with our friends here in the government we also urge that this not become a politicized issue. Certainly it’s important to establish accountability, but now that your country has just had the freest and fairest elections in your history, and democracy has been strengthened, it’s important that no actions be taken that would be considered by the people of Bangladesh as mechanisms to weaken democracy and to undermine the progress that has been made. So it’s a very fine line and a fine balance that your government will have to follow in this respect.

QUESTION: You said that Secretary Clinton is planning to visit India next month. Is there any chance of Clinton’s visit to Bangladesh at that time? And when, after Cairo speech by President Obama in the past there is a lot of mistrust and distrust between West and the Islamic world. Do you think that speech [inaudible] steps to remove that distrust and mistrust? And what [inaudible] in the Muslim world?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think with respect to the first question, Secretary Clinton is going to be traveling to India. She already has a very full schedule for that visit because she’s making a number of other stops outside of the region. So she won’t be stopping in Bangladesh or any other parts of the region during her next visit, but we’ll certainly let her know of your interest and we certainly hope that members of the government of Bangladesh will come to visit the United States as well.

As I already said, I think the President’s speech was received very warmly and enthusiastically in most parts of the Muslim world, and we’re particularly pleased with the reception and welcome that it received here in Bangladesh. So we do hope to try to follow up. One of the things that I will be taking back with me to Washington is concrete ways that we might try to work more closely with you.

As I said, one of the ideas that we have is some of the unique things that you have attempted to do here like improving women’s literacy and also madrasa reform, updating the curriculum of some of the madrasas here which I think is also something that would be of wider interest in the Muslim world.

QUESTION: You had a meeting with our Home Minister just before this briefing, and we just heard our Home Minister say that you have offered U.S. assistance for strengthening of our border security force. May I know what kind of assistance you want to offer in these regards? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: As I said earlier, we talked about a wide range of areas that we can cooperate on the counterterrorism front, not only on border but perhaps on maritime security and several other areas. And so I don’t really gave much more to add to that. I think that we’re very satisfied with the cooperation that we have and we’ll continue to look for ways that we can continue to improve that cooperation.

I will say one of the issues that came up as we talked about the BDR, the Bangladeshi Rifles, is the issue of accountability. That’s certainly something that is of importance to your government and it’s important to my government. There’s been a serious investigation of what occurred with the Bangladeshi Rifles. But we also discussed the issue of deaths in custody, and we talked about how it’s very important for the government to investigate those, to carry out a credible investigation, and to bring those who might have been responsible for those deaths in custody to justice. Those kind of actions will help provide the basis for increased cooperation with the Bangladeshi Rifles as they reconstitute themselves after the incidents that took place.

QUESTION: In your [inaudible] crisis. Regarding this I want to know [inaudible] opposition leader [inaudible]. So did you [forge] any kind of [inaudible] for the opposition parties to return back to the parliament to make the democracy strong? [Inaudible], what [inaudible]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: As I said earlier, I encouraged the leader of the opposition to work in parliament, to engage constructively in the new parliament, to work with the government, because only through that kind of cooperation can you maximize prospects for not only addressing some of the challenges that Bangladesh faces, but also to help take advantage of the opportunities that you now have.

QUESTION: Amnesty International has expressed their concern on the growing number of extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh. Although the Bangladeshi government has promised zero tolerance on this kind of incident. Where the U.S. government stand on this issue?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: As most of you know, we publish an annual human rights report in which we have discussed the issue of extrajudicial killings here. In all of our discussions with our friends in the government of Bangladesh we emphasized the importance of investigating those extrajudicial killings and of bringing those who are responsible for those killings to justice. That will ensure accountability and help reassure the people of Bangladesh that they have a responsible government.

QUESTION: You know that numerous [inaudible] in custody.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’m sorry, I didn’t understand the question.

QUESTION: Lots of [inaudible] in custody. Where the U.S. government stands on this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well I already addressed that. There have been, as you say, there were some deaths in custody. Again, it’s important for those to be addressed and investigated in a forthright manner and those who may have been responsible brought to justice.

QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, you know that in Iran they are [inaudible] election and [inaudible] Achmadinejad. But we noticed that most of the Western media thought it a disputed election. What is the U.S. government position on that? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t really have anything to say about that. I’ve been traveling in Nepal and in Bangladesh so I haven’t really been following the elections in Iran. I’m sure that the spokesman in Washington will have more to say about that on Monday.

QUESTION: Excellency, at the [west] side of [inaudible] there are some stories on country profiles like Bangladesh that mention that on the relations between Bangladesh and India, they mentioned that there are some [inaudible] or terrorist groups who are using Bangladesh territory and there are some [inaudible] or terrorist groups who are using Indian territory. So they are playing game. But at the [west] side you will [inaudible] Bangladesh and India should have a mechanism to protect [inaudible] counterterrorism.

So I want to know from you, are you suggesting that Bangladesh government work to [inaudible] make mechanism to counter terrorists? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s really not for the United States to make suggestions about how the two countries manage their relations on sensitive issues like that. But as I said earlier, we’re working very closely here in Bangladesh with your Home Ministry and with other ministries to ensure that both domestic terrorist groups like the JMB, but also transnational groups cannot use the territory of Bangladesh to threaten either the people of Bangladesh or to threaten other countries. That is an important priority for us.

I know there are proposals here in Bangladesh to establish a South Asia Task Force and that certainly might be one mechanism to increase cooperation between countries not only in the SAARC region but in the wider region, and certainly that’s a good possibility. We don’t have any particular role to play in that. But I think we would welcome as a general rule any efforts to try to expand counterterrorism cooperation in the region.

QUESTION: Ambassador Blake, our State Minister for Foreign Affairs said that Bangladesh sought cooperation from the Obama administration about NPDA appeal. So do you foresee any positive development related to NPDA? Because we [inaudible] disparately [inaudible] --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sorry, I didn’t understand the question. What appeal?

QUESTION: The garment bill which was introduced in the Congress, 2007. The garment bill. New Partnership Development Act.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes. On the question of the garment bill, we talked a lot about that in several of our meetings. What I said to our friends in the government is that this is a sensitive time on Capitol Hill in the United States House of Representatives and in the Senate for any kind of new trade legislation that would provide increased duty-free access for products from any country, not just from Bangladesh. So I really encouraged them to look at new ways to expand exports to the United States. Your garment exports have already enjoyed great success, in fact there’s been an increase of garment exports into the United States, but I think there’s a potential for other lines. So I encouraged the government of Bangladesh and the private sector to look at new avenues of exports, perhaps in other areas of light manufacturing, where there probably are underexploited tariff lines and GSP lines. So I think that would be the way to go for now.

In terms of the legislation, that’s really up to Congress to decide when they’re going to pass that kind of legislation.

Again, let me thank you all so much for coming. I can assure you this will not be my last visit. I look forward to many more visits. And as I said earlier, to doing everything I can to try to expand the already good relations and the good cooperation between the United States and Bangladesh.