Clinton visit a respite to Bangladesh turmoil

May 4, 2012 

China US

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, listens to an unidentified U.S. Embassy staff as she attends the third annual U.S. China High Level Consultation on People to People Exchange Meeting at the National Museum in Beijing Friday, May 4, 2012.

AP PHOTO/ VINCENT THIAN — AP

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) - Just by visiting Bangladesh, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will be bringing a wary peace to the increasingly tense streets here, at least for now.

Over the past two weeks, general strikes protesting the disappearance of an opposition leader have paralyzed the country. Homemade bombs exploded around Dhaka last weekend. Police responded by arresting dozens of opposition activists.

But, in a sign of how important the United States is to this South Asian country, the main opposition said it was suspending protests during Clinton's two-day visit beginning Saturday.

"We won't hold any programs that could hamper the country's image," opposition spokesman Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said.

The U.S. is a major trading partner for Bangladesh, and no one wants to jeopardize that relationship.

The Prothom Alo newspaper published a front-page cartoon showing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia jointly rolling out a red carpet for Clinton, who is meeting with both politicians and will almost certainly address the tensions roiling the country.

Bangladeshis are hoping the visit might lead to a resolution.

"This is going to be a great moment in a difficult time," said Ataul Gani, who works for a development agency. "We are waiting for something very, very good."

At least 22 people, mostly politicians, have disappeared this year, according to local human rights group Ain-o-Salish Kendra. Another Dhaka-based group, Odhikar, says more than 50 people have disappeared since 2010. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch blamed security agencies for the disappearances.

The anger over what the opposition says is political repression erupted into the streets after an opposition party leader, Elias Ali, went missing along with his driver April 17 from a street in Dhaka. His car was found later abandoned.

The opposition blamed the government and launched five days of general strikes over the past two weeks in protest. The government accused the opposition of hiding Ali to give it an excuse to create anarchy in the streets. He has still not been found.

The violence casts a pall over the first visit by a U.S. Secretary of State here in nine years, a trip the government hopes to use to strengthen economic ties.

Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said Bangladesh will press the U.S. to eliminate its 15.3 percent tariff on Bangladesh's vital garment industry. Bangladesh exported $5.1 billion worth of goods - mainly garments - to the U.S. last year and imported $676 million worth in return. But officials here feel that dropping the duty will send exports soaring even further and help lift up the impoverished nation.

The countries are also expected to discuss an investment and trade framework agreement that would protect the huge investments of U.S. energy giants like Chevron and ConocoPhillips.

Chevron, one of the biggest foreign investors here, supplies half Bangladesh's natural gas needs, while ConocoPhillips is exploring for gas in the deep waters of the Bay of Bengal.

Delwar Hossain, head of the Department of International Relations at Dhaka University, said Clinton's visit could be a milestone for Bangladesh.

"If Bangladesh can get duty free access of garment products and push for a better relationship for future security cooperation, that will be a big achievement," he said.

Clinton is also expected to raise the issue of Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus' ouster from his Grameen Bank, which pioneered providing small loans to the poor. The government said the 71-year-old Yunus, a friend of the Clinton family, was well past the retirement age of 60 and forced him out last year.

As he fought unsuccessfully to keep his job, Yunus spoke to Clinton on the phone and later met with her in Washington to discuss the future of Bangladeshi civil society, according to the State Department.

Yunus' allies said the ouster was political and pointed to Hasina's anger at his 2007 effort to form a political party backed by the powerful army when the country was under a state of emergency and Hasina herself was behind bars.

Bangladesh is also seeking the repatriation of Rashed Chowdhury, who is facing a death sentence for his role in the 1975 assassination of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina's father, during a military coup. The government says he lives in the United States, and the two nations have no extradition treaty.

As Bangladesh modernizes its military, the U.S. also is trying to persuade it to buy military surplus from Washington instead of weapons from China and Russia.

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