Remarks to the Heritage FoundationJohn Gastright, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs
September 28, 2007
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY GASTRIGHT: Thanks a lot. I don’t have a Power Point presentation, so I’m going to be a little -- I’m just going to have to wing it.
I see lots of friends in the audience, in the crowd. So I wanted to say hello to everybody that’s here, and let you know I’m really pleased to be here today to talk about the United States views and our interests in Bangladesh. Obviously since January 11 there’s been lots to talk about.
I’m not going to rehash how we got here from January 11* or up to January 11. Congressman Crowley* went into some of that and I have a feeling most of the people in the room have pretty set opinions about that. But what I’d rather talk about is, just as Lisa* said, my recent trip -- I was in Bangladesh last week; and what I see as the way forward.
As I said, I was in Bangladesh last week. I wanted to get a first-hand view of things. I wanted to talk to the government, to the Election Commissioner, to civil society, the Chief of Army Staff, other members of the Bangladesh Government, and get a sense of where we were and where I thought we could be going. So I have to say that my impression, my bottom line, is that I’m encouraged by the Caretaker Government’s determination to move Bangladesh back to full democracy, to eliminate cronyism, to establish anti-corruption measures, to build up government infrastructure, to clean up voter lists so that the country moves to an open, transparent, fair, peaceful, free election and builds -- and this is the important part -- builds foundations for sustainable democracy in the future. That’s what I believe is in the interest of the United States, the international community, and most importantly the interest of the Bangladeshi people.
My assessment of things on the ground can be summed up in three letters. It’s actually one letter repeated three times: the three Rs. Now to most of us, we think of reading, writing and arithmetic. The three R’s key to our education. In the case of Bangladesh I’m going to suggest that the three R’s mean three different things.
Specifically: roadmap, reform, resign. The roadmap issued several months ago by the Caretaker was a step-by-step guide of what the government can and should do to take Bangladesh back to fully democratic government. Thus far, since I’m in the academic mode here, I give them a B-* on their steps thus far. I have given them a higher grade because there’s real progress that the Election Commission is making to develop a comprehensive voter list, and it’s moving forward at a really impressive rate. Furthermore, as the Election Commission noted to me, they’re well on schedule to begin local body elections as early as January of next year in the areas where the voter lists are already accomplished.
But the recent announcement lifting the ban on political activities was, in my view, a half step; and I said so. In fact, I echoed the words of the Election Commissioner himself who publicly said we should do -- we should lift the ban fully. So I hope this will be achieved soon, and I said as much to the Bangladeshi media last week as well as to the Caretaker.
Our second R is reform. The Caretaker Government has initiated a series of reforms designed to build and enhance what I call the foundations of sustainable democracy. We’re all very well aware of the Anti-Corruption Commission. That Commissioner, when he took on the daunting job of revitalizing this Commission, which was previously a shell of an institution, he said that in Bangladesh today corruption is a way of life. He concluded that his job would be a success if he could make corruption no longer a way of life, but merely a fact of life. A pretty deep statement when you think about it.
That Commission has identified several hundred cases already -- I believe the number is 222, historical cases that include political leadership, former government officials. And I said last week that our position, and I reiterated this directly to the Caretaker Government, to the Chief Advisor, to the Bangladeshi media, is that every accused deserves his day in court and that those trials must proceed in adherence of international standards and due process and human rights, and transparency.
Additionally the Caretaker Government told me that the time had come to stop looking historically, to stop looking back, and to start looking forward to impact the opportunities for future corruption. I agree with this focus, and support efforts to eliminate corruption in Bangladesh as a way of life.
There are certainly more greater – there are certainly additional needed reforms and the Caretaker Government has identified several, such as separation of the Judiciary from the Executive. Lisa, you remember when you were in the South Asia Bureau, we were talking about eliminating the Executive from the Judiciary. We’ve been talking about that for a long time. It was done in a day.
There are additional steps to promote judicial independence. The next step in the government’s plan is to promote the independence of the Judiciary. It begins on October 1, when a new Criminal Procedural Code comes into effect.
The Caretaker Government has established a Better Business Commission to hear first-hand from business leaders what needs to be done to harness the creativity and productivity of the Bangladeshi people.
They’re planning comprehensive reforms in a Public Service Commission including reconstitution of the body to make it independent, effective, and autonomous. The intent here is to depoliticize what a lot of people believe is a politicized bureaucracy. I support that goal.
Finally, while I was in Bangladesh the Caretaker Government acknowledged that they would very soon create an independent Human Rights Commission that included members of the civil society. We support this, and we’re eager to see the establishment of such an institution.
My assessment is that the Caretaker views these reforms as an historic opportunity to change the way business and government is executed on behalf of the people in Bangladesh. Given the way that history is played out there, the United States fully supports these reforms and views them as an opportunity to build enduring foundations for truly representative democracy. I give this R a B+ and will consider upgrading that, pending the outcome of the court cases and whether they meet international standards as I’ve outlined previously.
My final R will be the last official act of the Caretaker administration, and proof that it’s kept its word to the Bangladeshi people and to the international community. When elections have been completed, the roadmap concluded, the Caretaker’s constitutional responsibility is to resign.
While I was in Bangladesh, the Chief Advisor reiterated directly to me as a representative of the United States Government that it was his intention to restore, not replace, Bangladesh’s democracy; as did the Chief of Army Staff who said definitively that the Army has no -- I repeat, the Army has no desire to get into politics and neither did he. I’m going to pocket those commitments.
The United States agrees with the Caretaker Government that this is their responsibility, and again encourages the Caretaker Government to follow the roadmap to elections as soon as possible and resign.
I found that even after seven months the Interim Government still has the strong support of Bangladeshi civil society, yet the passing of time can foster doubts and concerns. In August you all know that the country erupted in violent protests. The Caretaker Government with the support of the military imposed a curfew throughout the country, and the quick action restored order. But the violence that precipitated the curfew served as a wakeup call for the regime and its supporters. The August demonstrations showed what could happen when legitimate means of expressing grievances are unable – are unavailable to a population worried about price increases of basic commodities, energy shortages, and the effects of devastating floods. I’m heartened by the indicators of progress since the August demonstrations and the increased outreach by the Caretaker to the Bangladeshi population.
The United States Government believes that the Bangladeshi people have a bright future ahead. The United States will continue working with the Bangladeshi people and the Caretaker Government as they move through this important transition. Free, credible, transparent, and non-violent elections that happen as soon as possible are critical to strengthening democracy and promoting prosperity, and in making the Caretaker Government’s vision of a strengthened and prosperous Bangladesh a reality.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY GASTRIGHT: Shall I take them? Right down in front.
QUESTION: My name is (Inaudible). I’m an expatriate, American, Bangladeshi American. I have very difficult to understand. My question to you, sir, do you think that we Americans should be meddling in the internal affairs of Bangladesh? I.e., election or the timetable of election or the Caretaker Government? I do not, as an American, -- I came 45 years back when it was Pakistan. I was the first one to organize the demonstration against Pakistan in 1971 in front of the capital building. I was the first one working with Senator Kennedy in charge, nine months to creating Bangladesh, not to create Bangladesh the colony of the United States. So do you think we should be that bold enough to tell (inaudible) government when they should have election or when they should not have elections?
Secondly, do you think Bangladesh Government should come to America and tell election (inaudible) election debacle and say you need to have a next election because this election is not good in Florida?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY GASTRIGHT: As I said in my comments, the United States supports the roadmap that the Caretaker Government outlined. That’s what the United States supports. That’s what the Bangladeshi people have asked for. We strong --let me say it clearly to you, okay? We strongly support the Caretaker Government’s roadmap and we want them to have elections as soon as possible. That’s what the Caretaker said it’s going to do. We support that. Thank you.
QUESTION: Yes, my name is (inaudible). Last year former U.S. Ambassador, Patricia Butenis, referred to Jamaat-e-Islami as a democratic party. While Jamaat’s constitution denounced any form of humanly devised, (inaudible) materialism like immigration --
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY GASTRIGHT: Can you hold the mike to your mouth? I can’t --
QUESTION: Jamaat denounced democracy, capitalism, socialism, any form of humanly devised ideology.
My question is how do you justify this statement and what is the stand of the State Department on Jamaat political ideology?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY GASTRIGHT: My understanding is that the Jamaat Party receives about five to seven percent of the vote in Bangladesh. Those are citizens of Bangladesh and therefore they are representing the interests of those who voted for that party.
There are parts of the ideology that we don’t support. We’ve been public about that. We urge the party to moderate its views, to be part of the world community. Those leaders of that party, who I’ve had the opportunity to speak with, have indicated it is their desire to be part of the democratic process. Thank you.
QUESTION: I was wondering if you think that the Caretaker Government can hold onto power? Because the day after the internal politics bans were lifted there was a maximum of 50 people out at the party headquarters and hundreds showed up. And then there was a protest against the cartoons, student protests. With inflation rising at ten percent, do you think the government can hold on to 2008 and hold the emergency role until then?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY GASTRIGHT: Thanks. I appreciate the question.
There’s no doubt that the Caretaker’s popularity has slipped. My understanding from polling was that after 1/11 it was about 96 percent. It’s clearly slipped since then and that’s reality.
One of the things that I think the caretaker needs to do a better job of, something that the Caretaker Government said they were going to do when I spoke to them, was I think they desperately need an aggressive strategic communication strategy to communicate directly to the Bangladeshi people what their vision is for the future. Those members of civil society that I spoke to while I was there commented frequently, we support what they’re trying to do, we just wish they’d talk about it so others would understand it, others would appreciate it.
So I think they need a strategic communications capacity. I suggested as much to the Caretaker Government.
I further think that such a strategic communications/public diplomacy strategy would be useful for the international community. Basically they need to have the space to do the things that they want to do -- namely, the roadmap, the reforms, and the resignation. So, that’s what I think; they need to create that space in order to achieve that; and absolutely, the declining popularity should be something that they need to address. The fact that there were protests on campuses certainly woke them up and they’ve begun to take steps.
One of the steps that I noticed just by driving around, and this doesn’t take a genius to see this, is I didn’t see a single troop on the street. I saw policemen. I saw Bangladeshi policemen all over the place. They’ve pulled the troops to the barracks where they belong, unless they’re doing things such as supporting the Election Commission, and they are supporting the Election Commission; unless they’re involved in disaster relief as they were in the floods. That’s the right role for the army in those situations, but not policing the people.
QUESTION: You made several trips to Bangladesh in the last --
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY GASTRIGHT: Five.
QUESTION: Yes. And you must have noticed and have spoken with many people, what Bangladesh needs today is not much of American aid because that’s really what gets corruption.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY GASTRIGHT: Right.
QUESTION: What the country really needs is certain institutions that can sustain a stable democracy. That is independent Judiciary, independent Election Commission, independent Anti-Corruption Commission. What the United States can do to help Bangladesh build these institutions in a real solid way?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY GASTRIGHT: Thank you. I absolutely agree, concur 100 percent. I’m going to write that down and include that in my next set of talking points. We are providing support to the Election Commission. We are providing some support to the Anti-Corruption Commission. And we have been pressing for separating the Judiciary from the Executive since before even Lisa* served as my colleague at the State Department. So those are exactly the things we recognize. And while I was there, our USAID* Administrator had the follow-on appointment with the Election Commissioner where they came to talk about how we could further support the development of that institution as a completely independent organization.
I would comment that one of the steps that the Caretaker Government took while I was there was moving the Secretariat of the Election Commission, which previously had been under the Prime Minister’s office, into the Election Commission, so it’s completely insulated, completely independent. They need to have the resources to actually accomplish their job, though. So I was very encouraged by that sign. But yes, sir. We agree with you. We are looking at ways to support those institutions so that they flourish as you suggested.
QUESTION: Any concrete ideas of how you can do that, the United States government?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY GASTRIGHT: Well, our job isn’t to go in and preach ideas. Our job is to explore possibilities with the Caretaker Government, with the Election Commission, and that’s what I know they’re doing on the ground. Again, the follow-on meeting with our AID Administrator coming in to say, you know, how can we provide resources, support, to what you’re trying to accomplish so this institution is sustainable. Thank you.
In the back. I saw Lisa standing up on that one.
QUESTION: Thank you. In August you were testifying in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Congressman Ackerman had asked you what the constitutional basis was for this government to continue in power beyond the 90 days and also to extend the state of emergency beyond 120 days. I was -- at the time you didn’t have an answer readily available and you said you’d get back to them. I was wondering if you had been able to find the answer.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY GASTRIGHT: Congressman Ackerman* was a very persistent questioner that day. You know -- my staff has explored the constitutional basis. The Caretaker has the 90 days -- It appears to rest on the Emergency Powers, so that’s the best I can give you right now. Again, my staff has the full details on that, though, which we have replied in writing to Congressman Ackerman as quickly as we could so that I didn’t get in trouble with him.
QUESTION: May I be of any help to you, sir?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY GASTRIGHT: Please.
QUESTION: (inaudible) his question. They must, (inaudible). (inaudible) Article 12 or Article 58C. Now, Article 12 says that non-party Caretaker Governments shall stand dissolved on the date on which the Prime Minister enters upon his office, after the constitution of the new Parliament. Agree that 90 days limitation, but then this Articles, Article 12 of 58C, gives them the constitutional right, gives the constitutional right to the Caretaker Government to continue until they have the election and hand over power to the next Parliament.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY GASTRIGHT: Thank you. I can take one more, then I regret I have to depart. Unless there are none.
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* On January 11, 2007, the Caretaker or Interim Government was established in Bangladesh
* Congressman Joseph Crowley, D-NY, served as the keynote speaker at this Heritage Foundation event
* Lisa Curtis, Host of the Event, Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center
* In the American academic system A is the highest letter grade possible a student can achieve, and F is the lowest.
* Lisa Curtis served at the State Department from September 2001 to July 2003, and met Deputy Assistant Secretary Gastright in 2003, when he was working as a Special Assistant to Deputy Secretary Armitage.
* United States Agency for International Development
* Congressman Gary Ackerman, D-NY