Remarks at the Annual Federation of Bangladeshi Associations of North America

Robert O. Blake
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Alexandria, VA
July 3, 2009

As Prepared

Good evening. It is a pleasure to join the Bangladeshi-American community that has contributed greatly, not only to American society but to the world. I bring you the greetings of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and all of my colleagues at the State Department.

I am here on this special night not only because I want to work with all of you to expand America’s engagement with Bangladesh, but also to recognize the accomplishments of the Bangladeshi Diaspora. Citizens of the Bangladeshi Diaspora have led the world as writers, entrepreneurs, scholars, activists and so much more.

Take Muhammud Yunus, Nobel peace prize winner and inventor of microcredit and loans that have effectively strengthened women’s economic rights and allowed millions of women to escape from poverty. These women have effected change and used their economic power to lift up their communities.

Take Jawed Karim, the co-founder of YouTube. YouTube has done so much to share information, further globalizing the world and promoting individual freedom and expression. It also helped a U.S. Senator by the name of Barack Obama get elected President of the United States!

Take architect Fazlur Rahman Khan, who is considered “the greatest structural engineer of the second half of the 20th century" for buildings such as the Sears Tower and the John Hancock building in Chicago.

These people and so many more are why the United States is so interested in seeing the success of Bangladesh and of the Bangladeshi people. We know that your potential is unsurpassed when you have the resources and the tools you need.

I see that same potential for America’s relations with Bangladesh. That’s why not long after being sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State, I made Bangladesh one of my very first overseas visits on June 13 and 14. I had the opportunity to meet with people in government, political parties and civil society, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Leader of the Opposition Begum Zia. I greatly appreciated the warm hospitality with which I was received. Although my visit was short, I learned a great deal about Bangladesh and I hope to go back soon.

Ladies and gentlemen, Bangladesh is transitioning to a new and more democratic government which is good news, most of all to its citizens. As you may know, I was in Sri Lanka prior to becoming Assistant Secretary. Like many in the region, I closely followed the Bangladeshi elections in December. All of us in the region were cheered at how free, fair and transparent the polling was. I heard stories of people waiting for hours to cast their votes because they did not want to miss their chance. I heard about people in wheelchairs being carried into polling centers by their fellow citizens. These stories demonstrated the passion Bangladeshis have for democracy. In many ways, the elections set a high standard which we hope will be emulated in other countries in South Asia. The United States is proud to have supported this effort. We will continue to support Bangladesh as it extends its democratic roots.

While in Bangladesh I encouraged Prime Minister Hasina and the leader of the opposition to work together constructively in the new parliament and elsewhere. It is only through effective cooperation that Bangladesh can maximize prospects not only for addressing some of the challenges that Bangladesh faces, but also to help take advantage of the opportunities that you now have.

One such opportunity is to continue Bangladesh’s progress to lift its people out of poverty. Annual economic growth rates in Bangladesh have averaged 5-6 percent over the last fifteen years. The U.S. has been a key development partner since Bangladesh’s independence. This year alone, we will provide more than $150 million in assistance to Bangladesh. The U.S. is also the largest market for Bangladesh’s exports.

Bangladeshi-Americans have contributed to the growth of Bangladesh’s economy directly, making the U.S. the second-largest source of remittances to Bangladesh. We believe that the key to further economic empowerment lies in the potential Bangladesh has to attract foreign investment and increase domestic production. Garments exported to the United States from Bangladesh have been extremely successful. I encouraged Bangladeshis I met with to duplicate that success by diversifying its light manufactured exports.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am sure you all know that President Obama is committed to 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 interest and mutual respect. He said this must include a sustained effort to listen to each other, learn from each other and respect one another. President Obama’s message resonated very well around the world. People everywhere applauded the President’s desire for engagement and dialogue.

I know that many Bangladeshis in particular paid close attention to the President’s address. We think we have several opportunities to working with Bangladesh as the President continues building bridges to the Muslim world. During my trip I learned, for example, of Bangladesh’s efforts to improve women’s literacy and update madrassa curriculums.

Such programs are important bulwarks in confronting extremism. The United States is working with the Government of Bangladesh on a wide range of other counter-terrorism programs. We aim to make sure that the terrorist groups like the JMB and transnational terrorist groups cannot operate from Bangladesh to threaten Bangladesh or other countries.

To sustain and enhance that cooperation, I told those I spoke with during my trip that it will be important for the Government to address human rights abuses in some elements of the security forces. Such measures would also reassure the people of Bangladesh that they have a responsible government committed to accountability. I also encouraged everyone I met to work together to address challenges such endemic corruption and political violence.

Let me conclude by returning to the important role of the Bangladeshi-American community. You have come to the FOBANA Convention to celebrate your heritage, to teach your children about Bangladeshi culture, to meet and interact with others with common roots.

But there is much more you can do. We in the State Department see you as key partners in our quest to expand engagement at all levels with Bangladesh. After all, it is the people-to-people ties that sustain and catalyze our efforts in Government. All of you here tonight have succeeded in the opportunity society that is America. You have taken advantage of the chances that were given to you.

Living in America, you also understand the importance of giving back and helping those who have had fewer opportunities than you. All of you are uniquely placed to bridge the societies of America and Bangladesh. You can help someone start a business in Bangladesh. You can start a library in a village or donate computers. You can go back for a few weeks and teach others the skills you have learned here. You know that a stable, prosperous, and democratic Bangladesh is good for everyone—for the global community, for the region, and, most importantly, for the people of Bangladesh.

You must also help tell the story of Bangladesh’s potential to the people of America. Contribute to discussions online and in the media. Write to your elected representatives about issues of interest to you. Organize a Bangladesh festival of food and culture in your town.

As America prepares to celebrate its independence tomorrow, all of you can help us to help the people of Bangladesh have a brighter tomorrow. There is so much we can do together. I hope this is the beginning of an active partnership with the Bangladesh Diaspora. Happy 4th of July everyone! Thank you, and good evening.