Press Briefing During Visit to Bangladesh

Press Availability
Nisha Desai Biswal
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Dhaka, Bangladesh
November 18, 2013

Ambassador Mozena: Good afternoon, everybody.

This is a big day for me because I’ve got my new boss here, and I know everybody’s on their very best behavior because you don’t want me to get fired. [Laughter].

I cannot tell you how proud I am to introduce to you for the first time, but not for the last time as she will be back, Nisha Biswal. Nisha Desai Biswal. She’s been Assistant Secretary of State for about three weeks, but she is not new to the region. She worked Asia from her posting at USAID where she was the Assistant Administrator for Asia. And she also was heavily engaged on issues of the region from her time on Capitol Hill where she served in a variety of posts, and I knew her when she was with the Senior Staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Nisha is in Bangladesh as her very first venture to the region. It’s only proper that she would make her first stop the best stop in all of South Asia as all of you know.

With that, I’d like to introduce to you Nisha Desai Biswal.

Assistant Secretary Biswal: Thank you Ambassador Mozena. Asalaam Alaikum.

It is such a pleasure for me to be here. This is my second trip to Dhaka. I was here in 2010 as the Assistant Administrator for USAID. I have very fond memories from that trip, but let me tell you, I have been so impressed with the progress even since that short time that I’ve seen across Bangladesh as we look at the economic growth, as we look at the development indicators. We’ve seen what incredible, incredible gains Bangladesh has sustained, certainly in the last three years since my last visit, but really in the past decade and a half.

I’ve been very impressed in the three days that I’ve been able to be here in Dhaka with the meetings that I’ve been able to have across a wide range of civil society, business community, labor community, political leaders, government officials, and opposition parties. It’s been really just a tremendous opportunity for me to hear from Bangladeshis and to be able to engage across the wide spectrum, the broad and the deep and the comprehensive partnership that the United States has with Bangladesh.

I also had the opportunity to have some fabulous Bangladeshi cuisine, so I have to tell you it’s been just wonderful, and particularly the sweets. I have a little bit of a sweet tooth, so I was able to experience some amazing Bangladeshi sweets.

But let me just say that the United States and Bangladesh have a decades-old friendship, and it’s based on shared interests and shared values. Bangladesh’s vibrant civil society, its development achievements, its successes in women’s empowerment are models for the world.

These past few days have been busy and productive for me. Throughout all of my engagements we have been able to explore the many facets of the strong partnership between America and Bangladesh, and to celebrate the relationship between our two countries, which has never been stronger, broader or deeper.

We’ve been able to discuss how only Bangladesh is a focus country of all four of President Obama’s signature initiatives: The Global Climate Change Initiative, the Global Health Initiative, the Feed the Future Initiative, and the Engagement with the Muslim World Initiative.

I’m so proud of that broad partnership, and I’m so proud to be able to expand it and carry it forward into the future in my new role.

We’ve also had an opportunity to discuss the challenges that Bangladesh’s emerging democracy is confronting as the nation approaches the next parliamentary elections. I have made clear America’s strong conviction that violence of any kind by any of the participants in the political process is not part of a democratic process, cannot be tolerated, and must stop immediately.

I have stressed the importance that all political parties should have the right to political space, to freely and peacefully express their views through rallies, marches and other peaceful manifestations of political expression.

I have called on the leaders of both major political parties to empower their lieutenants so they can undertake a constructive dialogue to find a way forward to hold free, fair and credible elections … credible in the eyes of the Bangladeshi people.

Developments over the recent hours make even more urgent the need for the major political parties to engage immediately in earnest dialogue to chart a course of action that will result in elections that the people of Bangladesh can find credible and reflecting their will. While it is for the major political parties to determine what on election-time government should look like, we believe that the contours of a compromise on such a government are evident to political party officials, but it requires political leaders to empower their party secretaries general to negotiate such an agreement. We have called on both leaders to enable such a dialogue to take place.

I share Ambassador Mozena’s view that Bangladesh could be and should be Asia’s next economic tiger. I’ve had an opportunity to discuss Bangladesh’s growing economy on so many different fronts including, as I mentioned earlier, the impressive gains that Bangladesh has made and the economic growth that Bangladesh has sustained.

We’ve also talked about Bangladesh in the context of President Obama’s policy of the rebalance to Asia. That policy is fundamentally a recognition of the importance that Asian economies and Asian societies will play.

There are some estimates, including the Asian Development Bank’s, that say in the coming decades Asia will comprise 50 percent of global GDP. Now that’s a possibility; that’s not yet a probability.

The constraints that must be addressed are constraints of good governance, of fighting corruption, of creating inclusive and sustainable economic growth. These are all issues that the United States and Bangladesh can address together. These are all areas that our partnership can tackle and Bangladesh is firmly on the path to being able to realize such a future.

Furthermore, we see an Asian landscape with the political transition that is underway in Myanmar. We see the potential for an Asian landscape that is linked in trade as South Asia and Southeast Asia can connect. And Bangladesh, again, is at the nexus of where South Asia meets Southeast Asia.

Secretary Kerry has talked about his support for the vision of an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor and, again, I believe Bangladesh is well positioned to be the lynchpin and the connective tissue that bring South Asia and Southeast Asia together. That is the future that hangs in the balance and that is the possibility for Bangladesh and for the people of Bangladesh.

We’ve had an opportunity to discuss some of the challenges facing the Bangladeshi economy including in the ready-made garment sector. I had an opportunity to meet with the International Labor Organization, to meet with Bangladeshi labor unions and labor leaders, and to meet with garment manufacturers, and to meet with government officials.

To this end we’ve been able to exchange views on how the GSP Action Plan and the Sustainability Compact are providing a road map for bringing Bangladesh’s RMG sector to international standards with respect to workers’ rights and with respect to safety.

We’ve acknowledged that the successful first steps have been taken to establish agreed minimum standards on fire safety and factory structural soundness, and that already established international standards for labor rights provide the basis for bringing the RMG sector in Bangladesh into international compliance.

I applaud the steps that have been taken, but we’ve also discussed the fact that in many ways this is a race against time. That while incredibly important steps have been taken and policies have been put forward, that the true test is in the implementation, and this is an area where there’s been unprecedented coming together of business and labor, of government and civil society, and of the international community and the Bangladeshi community. And that gives me great hope that that kind of a partnership and that kind of a collaboration can truly transform, transform the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh.

Finally, I wish to conclude by underscoring Bangladesh’s continuing great success in growing its economy, in lifting its citizens out of poverty, in countering terrorism and violent extremism, in progressing towards achieving the millennium development goals, and in strengthening its ability to secure its maritime and land borders as it confronts successfully the scourge of trafficking in people, arms, drugs, terrorism, piracy and theft of national assets such as fish.

I hope that Bangladesh will make similar impressive progress in strengthening its democratic institutions so the nation’s political processes will enable and facilitate Bangladesh’s impressive advances on so many economic, health, agricultural and other fronts. I’m committed on behalf of my government, working both in Washington and through our excellent representation here through Ambassador Mozena and his incredible team at the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka, to support the people and the government of Bangladesh as they undertake to strengthen the nation’s democratic institutions, as they seek to bring the RMG and other sectors up to international standards, so Bangladesh can continue to play a role on the global stage that is commensurate with its status as the world’s 7th largest country, and so the people of Bangladesh can achieve middle income status where all have the means to provide their families with safe, secure housing, ample, nutritious food, good healthcare, quality education. Indeed, so the people of Bangladesh can achieve their dream of Golden Bangladesh … Shonar Bangla.

Before I take questions, because I am in the region on my first trip to the region, and we have had a momentous development, I would like to make a comment and offer my congratulations to the Maldives and to President Abdulla Yameen for his election on November 16th.

Just as importantly, I want to congratulate the people of the Maldives for their commitment to the democratic process. Their extraordinary participation in the election was a tribute to their dedication to upholding democratic values.

I also want to recognize the positive participation in that election by all of the political parties, and particularly former President Nasheed. The successful election in the Maldives shows the fundamental importance of a democratic process that peacefully, credibly and fairly manifests the will of the people.

Thank you so much, and I’m ready to take questions.

Moderator: Thank you, Assistant Secretary.

I would like to ask Kashur from the Voice of America to open with the first question.

Press: I am allowed to ask you just one question for the reason I am just starting with A and B. [Laughter].

My question is: Ambassador Mozena had visited Delhi very recently. My first question is do you have any difference with India regarding solving the Bangladeshi political crisis? A. And number two, the All Party government has been formed by taking the oath of the ministers just a couple of minutes ago or just half an hour ago. Do you think this is an impediment to go for an election by all participation of all parties? Do you think this is an impediment?

Assistant Secretary Biswal: Thank you for that two-part one question. [Laughter]. I’ll take your second part first, and I’ll just repeat and underscore what I said, which is that the announcement of the interim cabinet simply underscores the urgency for a dialogue to take place immediately to determine a way forward for peaceful, free, fair and credible elections to take place.

With respect to your question on the differences between the United States and other countries, let me reiterate that the position of the United States has been very clear, which is that we are not invested in any particular outcome, but we strongly support a democratic process that leads to peaceful, free, fair and credible elections. We think that position is very consistent with the position of the international community, and I would leave it to others to clarify or define what their positions may be, but I’m not aware of any differences.

Moderator: Kabir [Bhuyian] from The Independent.

Press: Madame Assistant Secretary, welcome to our country. We were quite familiar with Mr. Blake, so we hope to see more of you in the coming days.

Kashur, Amir Kashur is the most senior guy here, so I’ll follow his pattern, A/B.

Assistant Secretary Biswal: Lots of two-part questions.

Press: A is: what you have just said in your opening statement you call for dialogue to go forward. We have been listening to this for a long time from Ambassador Mozena and State Department statements, but nothing is happening as of now.

My question is, that you have met both the leaders, the two movers and shakers. What is your assessment after your talks with them? Are they ready to initiate a dialogue between them or between their lieutenants? That’s the first part of my question, A.

B is, do you think, ahead of elections in two months, is there a level playing field in Bangladesh for all parties? Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Biswal: Thank you for those two very important questions. Let me reiterate that in the meetings that we had with the Prime Minister and with Begum Zia, we underscored our call for a dialogue. We are hopeful that such a dialogue can and will take place. We think that the party lieutenants, the party secretaries general can and should meet, and we believe that if the leadership can empower those secretaries general to meet and to have a negotiation, the contours of an agreement could be reached.

With respect to your second part, we believe that it is for the political parties to come together and to make a determination of what is required to establish a level playing field and to create confidence for elections to move forward.

Moderator: Can I ask Akbor from BBC to ask the next question please.

Press: Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity.

You have talked about the necessity of a credible election in the eyes of Bangladeshi people, but the government is saying they are following the constitution. So whatever the constitution process is, do you think an election without major political party, I mean the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, BNP, an election without BNP would be acceptable to the international community? Number one.

Number two, you have talked about the necessity of secretary level talks between the two parties. Why don’t you say that the talks should be held with the political leadership, the top level? We all know it’s a one-person show in both the political parties. Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Biswal: Sorry, repeat your first part again?

Press: The first part is you have talked about the necessity of a credible election in the eyes of Bangladeshi people. What about the international community?

Assistant Secretary Biswal: I think that fundamentally the question is credibility for the Bangladeshi people. I think the international community will be making a determination based on the assessment of the Bangladeshi people, and that’s the bottom line, that’s what matters, what’s important is do the citizens of this country feel like the process is credible?

In terms of calling for dialogue, I would say dialogue, whether it’s at the leadership level or whether it’s at the secretaries general level, that the dialogue is what’s important. Sometimes it’s easier to make progress, particularly at the technical level, when it’s not at the leadership level, but I would say what’s most important right now is dialogue.

Press: [Off-mike].

Assistant Secretary Biswal: Is it going to be acceptable to the Bangladeshi people? I don’t know. It’s not for me to determine. That’s the point that I’m trying to make.

Moderator: Zain [Mahmood] from the Wall Street Journal. Do you still have a question?

Press: Does the U.S. have any concerns that civil liberties might be eroded in the current political climate?

Assistant Secretary Biswal: The United States has expressed its very strong conviction that political rights must be respected. Freedom of association and freedom of assembly, the ability to have peaceful rallies and peaceful demonstrations are an important aspect of any democratic society. We have reiterated that to all parties.

There is equally an obligation by all parties to provide for peaceful means of assembly and expression. We have also underscored that violence of any kind is not acceptable in a democratic process. We have called for a cessation of hartals that lead to violence.

Moderator: I’m looking at Mainul because you had flagged earlier. Do you still have a question?

Press: Thank you. This is Mainul Alum from Daily Ittefaq. I think my question is already asked, but I want to know the more clear view from your side, just this afternoon the interim government, election time government was formed. U.S. reaction on the formation of this government, as BNP is not in this government. And you might have discussed this issue, the leaders by Sheikh Hasina and the opposition leader. In the last few days this government is rejected by BNP and BNP has mentioned this government is a farce. So your observation on this issue.

Assistant Secretary Biswal: Again, I’m going to reiterate that we think the time is nigh for an urgent dialogue to take place. There must be some means for parties to come together and discuss their differences, to discuss their expectations, and to find the way forward.

We do believe that there is a way forward, but it requires people to get in a room and have a conversation and come together around what may possibly work. We have not seen that dialogue heretofore, and we believe that dialogue needs to happen.

Moderator: Shahariarar [Zaman] from Dhaka Tribune.

Press: Thank you. Indian High Commissioner to Dhaka, Pankaj Saran on the record said that New Delhi and Washington are discussing about the issues in Bangladesh. What are the issues Washington is discussing with New Delhi about Bangladesh?

Second part is, are you going to New Delhi or are you going back to Washington from here?

Assistant Secretary Biswal: Let me take your second question. I’m actually going back to Washington. I had this trip before I’ve actually had my ceremonial swearing-in, so while I’m official, I’m not yet fully ceremonially in my job, so I need to go back to Washington so the Secretary of State can swear me in on Thursday.

Let me just say, we are in conversation and consultation with all of our colleagues in the international community including the Indians and we certainly discuss with them a range of bilateral issues, but we also discuss with them our desire, our support and our conviction on a democratic process and our interest in supporting that democratic process. Fundamentally what the United States would like to see is a peaceful, free, fair and credible election, and we will work with the United Nations, with the international community in whatever support we can lend for that to take place.

Moderator: We’re going to go over to BSS in the back.

Press: I’m Anisur [Rahman], I represent the national news agency BSS.

In your opening statement you have said you met both the top leaders of the two parties and conveyed Washington’s willingness for their engagement in a constructive dialogue, but what impression you have got from them? Are they willing to be engaged in the dialogue or settle their disputes?

Assistant Secretary Biswal: I’m hopeful. I’m an optimist by nature and I always see the glass as half full. I am hopeful that we will see a dialogue take place. Let me just leave it at that, and I have reason to have hope.

Moderator: Can I ask ATN News to ask one more question? This will be our last question.

Press: My name is Gani Adam. I work for a private television channel that is ATN News.

I just need a clarification that how to determine the Bangladeshi people are thinking an election credible and acceptable if the opposition party, I mean the BNP, doesn’t take participation to the elections? How do you think the people are thinking credible and acceptable?

Assistant Secretary Biswal: We’re going to have to cross that bridge when we come to it, but frankly what we’re working feverishly towards and what we’re supporting and what we’re urging is that we have an election process that can be deemed credible and legitimate to the Bangladeshi people, that we are pushing for a dialogue that allows the major political parties to come together around a process.

That’s where I want us to focus our efforts and our attention. Then we can cross the other bridges when we come to them.

Can I just conclude by saying that I really have appreciated the opportunity to be here. This has been incredibly important. This relationship is incredibly important, and this is a very, very critical time. Frankly, that’s why I made it such a priority to get here, even before I had been able to get my ceremonial swearing-in done. So I just wanted to convey again the priority that the United States places and that I personally place on this relationship. Thank you.