NEW DELHI -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived Saturday in Bangladesh for meetings with senior officials in which she is expected to stress democracy, development and the benefits of getting along politically.
Bangladesh, an impoverished Muslim-majority country with 160 million people, has witnessed weeks of general strikes, demonstrations and violence after regional opposition politician Elias Ali disappeared in April, a topic Clinton was expected to raise in her meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The government and the opposition declared a temporary truce for Clinton’s visit. Each side blames the other for Ali’s disappearance, one of as many as 22 people, mostly politicians, who have gone missing this year, according to human rights groups.
“We’re calling for a full independent investigation, including looking into the government’s own security forces,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch. “There is suspicion this could perhaps be security forces under pressure to reduce extra-judicial killings.”
Bangladesh’s chronic infighting has been a huge drag on much-needed development efforts driven by the country's ambition to be a middle-income nation by 2021, analysts say, a theme Clinton is also expected to focus on in her meetings.
Clinton is also expected to discuss a strategic dialogue with Bangladesh and encourage further cooperation on counterterrorism, environmental, health, food security and educational issues. Washington views Bangladesh as a prospective voice for moderation and leadership among Muslim-majority nations and vowed in January to extend close to $1 billion in aid to the country over the next five years.
Clinton had hoped to sign a long-discussed trade and investment deal that would safeguard large investments by such U.S. energy giants as Chevron and ConocoPhillips, but analysts say disagreements over labor standards and anti-corruption safeguards demanded by the U.S. side prevented a deal in time. “It was expected there would be a signing, but there are still problems,” said Zaid Bakht, research director with the Bangladesh Institute of Developmental Studies based in Dhaka.
Clinton is also expected to meet with Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, founder of pioneering Grumeen Bank, which focuses on giving very small loans to large numbers of poor people. Yunus, a personal friend of the Clintons, was ousted from the bank last year by the government over what some analysts say was a fear he was becoming too popular, representing a potential political threat. The government denied this, saying he was past his mandatory retirement age.
Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said Dhaka will ask the U.S. to eliminate its 15% import tariff on the Bangladesh garment industry. Bangladesh exported $5.1 billion worth of goods, mostly apparel, to the U.S. last year and imported $676 million worth in return.
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: A police officer stands guard as protesters march during Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's visit to Dhaka. The banner says, "Go back Hillary, we condemn her visit." Credit: Pavel Rahman / Associated Press