Remarks to the Press in BangladeshRichard A. Boucher, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Affairs
August 3, 2006
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Good afternoon, everybody. Iíve had an excellent visit here in Bangladesh. I came to listen, to learn, to hear from people here about the issues facing the people of Bangladesh and the role that the United States can play in helping the people of Bangladesh.
I appreciate the chance to meet with people from all walks of society. Iíve met with the government, Iíve met with politicians, Iíve met with civil society leaders, professors, economists, and even the group of imams that I was able to see yesterday. I really appreciate the fact that everybodyís been very forthcoming with their views. Iíve heard a lot about the political discussions here. Iíve tried not to take positions on political issues here, but I found it very interesting to hear about the issues that are facing people here and how they are trying to deal with them. I also am glad to have enjoyed the gracious hospitality of the people of Bangladesh. I really appreciate the welcome that I have received here.
Bangladesh is important to us as a moderate society, as a democratic society, and as an example to others of how to proceed with democracy in an Islamic society. I think we and others in the world care very much about Bangladesh. Itís an area that we follow very closely in Washington, and Iím sure that many others around the world do for the reasons that we do. We want to make sure the people here get the best opportunity that they can to develop, the best opportunity to make their choices, and the best opportunity to decide their future.
Naturally weíve talked a lot about the elections. Bangladesh has had three successful elections and we all want to make sure that Bangladesh has a fourth successful election. Our interest is in the process of the elections, not in the outcome of the elections. Weíve expressed before, and Iíll say it again: what weíre looking for here is a free election, a fair election, a peaceful election and a credible election that all the people of Bangladesh can be proud of. As a friend weíre trying to offer our support. The United States has been involved here in many different ways Ė with training, weíve helped journalists get training, weíve helped political party workers get training, weíve helped election observers get training, so that everybody can play their own role in a free society and their own role in the upcoming elections.
Weíve also talked a lot today about counterterrorism cooperation. Bangladesh and the United States have an excellent record of counterterrorism cooperation. Itís an area where our relationships are growing. Weíve talked today with the government leaders in particular about how we can continue to expand that cooperation. Bangladesh has made some important strides against terrorism by catching the leaders of the [Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh or JMB] - thatís a very important step forward, one that we all recognize. We also know, and Iíve heard today from leaders in Bangladesh, how important it is to them to follow up on these arrests to make sure that everybody whoís responsible for the violence of last summer and of previous attacks is found, that the networks are uprooted, and that this phenomenon is not allowed to hurt more people in Bangladesh as it has already.
Weíre also very interested in the economic prospects of the people of Bangladesh Ė quite good growth rates. Thatís much to your credit, to the credit of the hard work of the entrepreneurs and to the people of Bangladesh. But I have to say in some ways this growth has not been as good as it could have been because of the problem of corruption. Weíve talked a lot about corruption today, about how it steals several percentage points from economic growth, it denies opportunity to people, it makes it harder to start a business, it makes it harder for poor people to get ahead in society, and weíve tried in our own programs to promote efforts against corruption and to promote transparency, and thatís one of the things Iíve been doing today.
The U.S. is a good friend of Bangladesh. Weíre a partner in democracy, weíre a partner in economic growth and weíre a partner in the well-being of the Bangladeshi people. We wish you every success as you go forward. Weíre always interested in hearing your views; weíre always interested in hearing how we can play a positive role in the society, and how the United States can be an even better friend to you in the future. So with that opening, Iíd be glad to take your questions.
QUESTION: Good afternoon, Mr. Boucher. Thank you very much. My name is Shamim Ahmed of United News of Bangladesh, itís a private news agency. After your meetings with [leaders] of political parties on both sides of the divide, and civil society, what information do you have Ė particularly on the point of the election? Do you think that all political parties are going to take part in the election, including the opposition? You are coming from the opposition leaderís house. Do you think that some reforms will increase the confidence of the opposition parties to take part in the election? Do you think that the United States has a role to play in ensuring violence free and fair elections? Thank you very much.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Iíll try to remember all the questions. (laughter). I think the first thing to say is: Iím going to let the opposition leaders, indeed all the political leaders, speak for themselves and not try to predict what they will do. I certainly think that itís important that all the political parties to participate in the elections. We think the wider the choice given to the people of Bangladesh, the better the election can be.
On the issue of election reforms and how to go about it, I think itís always better if the major parties can sit down and work out some of these things. That enhances the credibility of the election; that enhances the ability of the parties to participate. So we certainly continue to encourage them to work together as much as possible and to look for opportunities to resolve some of these issues between them. At the same time, I think itís important to remember that Bangladesh does have traditions. It does have certain constitutional provisions. And we hope that those constitutional provisions can be followed and that these issues can be settled as we head towards the elections.
Our view is not to really take a view on any particular issue, but rather to hope that through a combination of political good will, the constitutional processes, and the guarantees of the rights of the people of Bangladesh that they can be given a fair choice. Thatís what weíll continue to encourage. I donít think the United States has a role in these particular issues. These are not for us to decide, but rather for the people of Bangladesh to decide, though we can certainly continue to encourage people to resolve them, and to find the best possible arrangements for the future elections.
QUESTION: Your Excellency, I am Fazrul Alam. I am working with the English daily the News Today. You are here and you have talked about democracy, you are here at a time when the U.S.-aided Zionist forces committed genocide in both Palestine and Lebanon. Donít you think this is the double standard of the Bush administration?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I donít think thereís any double standard. I think we want the Palestinian people to be able to exercise their democracy. We want the Palestinian people to be able to develop in a safe atmosphere, to have the same rights for their children as everybody else deserves. The issue in Lebanon has been the Lebanese peopleís ability to control their own territory. Thatís what the UN resolutions call for and thatís what we continue to press for. Weíve made very clear we feel very deeply the suffering of the Lebanese people at this moment. Weíve worked very hard to ensure the 48-hour cease-fire, and the bombing halt. Weíve worked very hard to work on humanitarian corridors. Weíve worked very hard to get humanitarian assistance and relief to the people of Lebanon. Weíve also pushed very hard for a political solution, for a UN resolution that can guarantee that this kind of war canít be started again by an outside power or an armed violent political group thatís trying to take away choice from the Lebanese people and the Palestinians by violently interfering in the peace process. So we will continue to press for a UN resolution on an urgent basis to try to stop the fighting in a way that settles the issues on a long-lasting basis, on a sustainable basis and that allows the Lebanese government, the Lebanese people, to control their own territory.
QUESTION: Iím Anis Alamgir representing Boishaki broadcasting. Donít you think after the Iraq War and the recent Lebanon crisis, (inaudible). So the U.S. image you have got (inaudible) of progress and you are a giver of justice. Donít you think that the U.S. image has been damaged? It seems the U.S. has given license to Israel to kill innocent Lebanese. What do you think about these issues?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: First of all, the United States has not given license to anyone, to violence. The United States has tried to ensure that peace is found, that people are able to resolve these conflicts in a way that prevents further bombings and attacks, further rockets being launched against Israel, or further intervention by Israel in Lebanon. Weíre trying to achieve a solution thatís lasting -- not a temporary one -- one that gives peace to the people of Lebanon and to the people of Israel. Thatís a very difficult process, but itís one that weíre engaged in on an urgent basis. Youíve seen the Secretary of State out there working with the parties. You see the Secretary of State now back in Washington working towards the UN resolution in New York. Thatís the task right now. I should say thatís one of the tasks. One of the tasks is the humanitarian assistance that weíre providing in the humanitarian corridors and things like that to take care of the people of Lebanon, and the other task is to find a sustainable solution that will let the people of Lebanon and the people of Israel live in peace.
QUESTION: As you know, our Prime Minister is now at an extraordinary meeting of the [Organization of the Islamic Conference or OIC] and she Ė they - said that if Israeli aggression on Lebanon is not stopped Islam and Muslims around the globe will be more radicalized. How do you respond to the position of the Bangladeshi Prime Minister?
And the second question: donít you think that if the secular forces in Bangladesh are not strengthened enough, the fight against terrorism and the militant forces will remain a far cry?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: On the first question, on the observation of the Prime Minister about people being radicalized: I donít know. Itís an observation. It may be a fact. It may come about. I think itís important to recognize that the interest of the United States is on both sides of the equation, itís the welfare of the people of Lebanon and the welfare of the people of Israel, itís trying to create a situation where no more rockets and no more bombs will fall. And so, I think if the United States is able to achieve that, weíll probably get some credit for it. Thatís what weíre working to achieve. Weíll have to see if we can make it. Itís a difficult problem. Weíve tried to do first things first in terms of the humanitarian intervention, but weíre also trying to achieve a long-lasting solution that can let people live in peace.
As far as Bangladesh and secular forces and things like that, I guess some of these things are critical buzz words, but again I want to stress that our interest is in seeing the people of Bangladesh have a real choice and have a fair choice so that they can decide the future of the country. I find people here to be very committed to moderation, to building a moderate democratic society, to being good Muslims but also being good democrats, and to respect the ideals of this society Ė the religious ideals and the democratic ideals of tolerance and peace. Thatís a very sound basis to build a democracy. As Iíve said, youíve had three successful elections already and we look forward to a fourth one.
QUESTION: Several months back when your predecessor Christina Rocca visited Bangladesh she promised that the political crisis in Bangladesh would be solved through the dialogue of the major political parties, and only after that did the [Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP], the ruling party, invite the opposition to a dialogue on the issue of the caretaker government, but for the last few months there has been a stalemate in the discussions. So your visit [takes place] in the heat of the lead up to the general elections. The media in Bangladesh has been saying that you are coming here only to solve the crisis and that your visit to this country will lead to a breakthrough in the discussions. So how do you respond to this?
Another question. You met with civil society leaders today. What did you discuss with those leaders? What did they tell you and what did you tell them?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: First of all, Iíve tried to make clear in my own remarks and in the remarks that we made at the State Department before I arrived that the purpose of my visit here was much broader than any single issue involved in the election process. My goal here is to support a free and fair election in every way possible, to enhance and encourage our cooperation against terrorism, to look at the issues of economic growth that are facing the people of Bangladesh, to make sure that the United States is playing a positive role in society here in terms of what weíre trying to help the people of Bangladesh achieve. So certainly we discussed the political issues involved in the election and as Iíve said Iíve tried to encourage people to resolve these issues whether by sitting down or whether by using the constitutional process, and to move forward to an election thatís completely free and fair. Thatís one goal we have, but Iím not a political actor here. Iím not able to come in and play politics and resolve issues between parties. So I think itís important that we encourage them to work these things out. Whether they do or not, weíll just have to see.
As far as civil society goes, Iím not going to violate my rule about not talking for others, but what I said to them was our interest in a free and fair election. What I wanted to hear from them were their observations on what are the important issues, what are the chances of resolving them, what are the likely outcomes, and to get a better perspective on how some of these issues have been handled in the past. So I found these sessions very interesting, very illuminating. Itís always good to sit down with professors, and doctors and economists and people who really understand some of these issues in great detail. And to listen to them as we try to understand whatís going on here.
QUESTION: You met with the Kibria family today, this morning. What was your message to that family? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: My message to Mrs. Kibria and her family was that we still feel for her loss. We have great respect for her husband and for his achievements during his lifetime and great concern about the loss that she suffered and that other people have suffered from political violence in Bangladesh, and that we have made clear our hope that as we work towards a new election, as the political process takes place here that it will take place with as little violence as possible and that all members of society and all political parties do everything they can to avoid violence in every way possible.
QUESTION: My question is on terrorism in Bangladesh. Despite the recent success of capturing some JMB leaders by the present government, the opposition is saying that the junior partner of the current government, Jamaat Islami, is involved with these bombings. How do you feel? And do you think that that JMB has links with international terrorists like Al Qaeda or any other group?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think we all recognize that after the success of capturing the leaders itís still very important to continue to fight terrorism in Bangladesh. Four or five hundred bombs cannot be set off by half a dozen people. The networks, the other people involved in this process need to be found out, they need to be caught, they need to be stopped, if Bangladesh is going to be safe in the future from similar acts. Thatís an effort that is underway. It will have to continue. Itís an effort that weíre helping with, in terms of the training that we provide, exchanges of information, the other cooperation that we have with the government of Bangladesh. So we want to see that process continued, we want to see all the elements of terrorism stopped here in Bangladesh.
As far as Islamic parties and their role in society here, I think itís important that good Muslims, Islamic believers, people who are committed to the Islamic cause, also adopt the democratic cause, also participate in democracy. Itís important that they have avenues to do so. I donít think weíve seen any evidence that Jamaat Islami is involved in the bombings or connected to the bombings. Iím sure that if anybody has such evidence they should come forward and it should be investigated, but at this point we see them acting as a democratic party in a tolerant and moderate society. I think itís important for all sectors of society to have access to the democratic process if theyíre willing to do so in a peaceful way.
As far as the international connections of the JMB, frankly Iím not much of an expert on that. Certainly you see common cause Ė sympathies Ė but whether there are direct links or not, I wouldnít be able to say at this point.
QUESTION: Mr. Assistant Secretary, after bombings in the whole country of Bangladesh you removed the Peace Corps Volunteers from Bangladesh. Now the top leaders of JMB have been arrested, you are giving training of our police force and you have already praised the efforts of our police force to capture these leaders. Do you have any plan to resume the activities of Peace Corps in Bangladesh?
Another question: there have been allegations that Peace Corps Members were involved in Bangladesh with the religious extremists. Do you think that there were any connections between the JMB group and Peace Corps?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Iím a former Peace Corps Volunteer. (laughter) I taught English in Senegal in West Africa for two years. Itís a very important part of my life. I believe in the mission; I think I did some good. I know that the kids I taught benefited from a better education. I know it made me a better person, as well. Iím an absolute and firm believer in Peace Corps, and I think itís one of the best forms of cooperation that we have with other countries.
We all very much regretted to have to make the decision for Peace Corps to leave Bangladesh. I think they did a good job here, that their mission was very important here, and that their relationships with Bangladeshi people were very good. Unfortunately, it was not safe to keep them there. As you know, (inaudible) our Embassy has a certain degree of security around it. Peace Corps Volunteers are scattered throughout a country. They donít have much security except for the warmth, and the hospitality, and the protection of the people that they live and work with, and, unfortunately, thatís not always enough. We regret we had to make the decision, but it was a necessary one to ensure the safety of these young people who were out around the country.
As you noted, thereís been some success against the leadership of the JMB, but also we know thereís more people out there, thereís networks out there that havenít been discovered and uprooted yet. Weíll keep the situation under advisement, but until weíre able to say itís completely safe for them to go back I just donít think itíd be a good idea. Iíd love to be able to make the decision to send them back, but at this point I couldnít say when that might be.
QUESTION: My name is Mamun, I work for ATN Bangla, itís a private television network. Iíd like to ask you about our politics. Youíve been talking about this dispute between the two major political parties Ė to resolve this dispute by discussion, by sitting together the two top leaders. But in our country, basically our political leaders donít sit together, I mean the two major political parties. They donít come together, never sit together, never discuss together. In 1991, maybe you already know, there was a third party involvement. The Commonwealth Secretary General, at that time in 1991 Ė Iím sorry, in 1996. In 1996, the Commonwealth Secretary General took part as a third party. Now this is what theyíre talking: I mean, thereís a group for third party involvement. Unless there is this type of involvement, nobody will come together or sit together to solve this type of problem. What is your impression about this kind of thing? Do you feel that there is a need for third party involvement of America or the American Embassy or the American Government has any intention to resolve this problem in that way or not?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: First, let me make clear I cited two possible ways of resolving these issues. The first was for the political parties to come together and agree on how to handle some of these sensitive issues involving the election. The second was just to use the regular constitutional processes and the precedents that have been established. So certainly I think there are ways of moving forward. If thereís another way of having some outsider come in and help Ė if thatís what the parties want, Iím sure it wouldnít be hard to find somebody to do that, but at this point I havenít seen that proposed by the parties themselves. Weíll see what happens. Iím not trying to push the United States into the middle of the politics of Bangladesh. We can certainly encourage people to resolve these issues either directly or by constitutional means, but if they start looking for somebody else, weíll see what happens.
QUESTION: This is Naim Karim. Iím from Financial Express. Corruption is one of the hardest challenges to the countryís development. So how do you assist?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We know that corruption is not unique to Bangladesh and there are examples from throughout the world, examples of international cooperation, examples of legislation, examples of steps that governments have taken to fight corruption. So I think the first thing that we can do is help the Bangladeshi government see those opportunities, see what others have done, certainly encourage them to talk to others who have beaten this problem or attacked this problem. There are certain common elements. The first is the determination of government. The second is the willingness to prosecute people no matter who they are. The third is to establish proper legal framework with money laundering laws and other instruments so that this can be done. There are other elements: transparency of government accounts, the transparency of the procurement process for government. So there are a lot of pieces to this. One can bring all those pieces together; one can get advisors and experts from other countries, World Bank, and elsewhere to help with these things. But first and foremost is the determination of the government to go after corruption wherever it exists and to prosecute it wherever they need to. If the government, or the political parties or the whole society decide itís time to end the problem, I think there are examples of ways to do this around the world. Weíve tried to encourage the kind of legislation; weíve tried to do training; weíve tried to provide expertise; weíll provide support to various people involved in this process as they go forward.
Released on August 16, 2006