Diplomatic Pouch / April 3, 2012
By Larry Luxner
Bangladesh, which bills itself as one of Washington’s staunchest allies in South Asia, has kicked off a series of events over the next several weeks marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties with the United States.
These events include an Apr. 4 reception at the University Club; an Apr. 7 concert at the Embassy of Bangladesh by internationally acclaimed sitar player Alif Laila, and a film festival showcasing the best of Bangladeshi cinema. The celebration ends with an Apr. 15 group performance — “Mohajoner Nao” — depicting the life and works of legendary mystic poet Shah Abdul Karim, to be held at Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center.
On Mar. 26, more than 300 people, including ambassadors from India, Nepal and 10 other countries, gathered to celebrate the day 41 years ago when the people of East Pakistan declared their independence from West Pakistan and renamed their country Bangladesh, following a civil war that killed at least three million people and turned millions more into refugees.
During a reception at the Embassy of Bangladesh, Ambassador Akramul Qadera paid homage to national hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as well as the many “martyrs of 1971” who died in the war of liberation.
“Let me recall the contributions of the extraordinary people of the United States who stood by our side during those troubled times of our national history. Our country remains grateful to you,” Qader said, as guests enjoyed a traditional Bangladeshi buffet dinner of mutton biryani (rice), naan roti, chicken rezala, fish kebobs, mixed vegetables, rice pudding and a sweet milky dessert known as golap jaman.
“Since independence, we have traversed a long path,” he declared. “It is heartening that this new era of democracy and development in Bangladesh reflects our strong conviction in the ethos of democratic governance and institutional justice.”
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said Qader, Bangladesh aims to become a middle-income country by 2021, the 50th anniversary of independence.
“It is my firm belief that our friends and development partners, particularly in the United States, will continue their wholehearted support in pursuing that goal,” he said. “Development is essential for making our democracy sustainable. Therefore, we must not falter in doing our job.”
By any measure, that job won’t be easy.
Ranked by population, Bangladesh is now the seventh-largest country on Earth, surpassed only by China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan. With nearly 160 million people squeezed into an area smaller than Wisconsin, population density is already the highest in the world, at 2,600 people per square mile. As if that’s not bad enough, the Population Reference Bureau says that if current demographic trends continue, density will rise to an unimaginable 4,500 people per square mile by 2050.
At the same time, a 1.5-degree Celsius rise in average global temperature by 2050 could melt glaciers as nearby as the Himalayas and as far away as the polar ice caps — causing sea levels to rise by one meter and submerging a third of Bangladesh. That would create 20 million environmental refugees and cause 40 million more to lose their livelihoods. With nowhere to go, vast numbers of desperate Bangladeshis could cross into India, ending up in squatters’ camps or crowding the already fetid slums of Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta.
Yet climate change and overpopulation were hardly on the minds of those gathered at the embassy Mar. 26. Instead, the buzzwords were development, foreign investment and strategic partnership.
Qader noted that Bangladesh is one of the few countries in the world that actively promotes four U.S. policy goals, namely global health, food security, global climate change and engagement with Muslim communities.
Despite the fact that Bangladesh is 89.5 percent Muslim, the current government is doing its best to promote the country as an Indonesia-style secular democracy. Case in point: for the first time ever, the embassy’s press minister — Swapan Kumar Saha — is Hindu, as are two other top Bangladeshi Embassy officials in Washington.
Representing the U.S. government was Geoffrey R. Pyatt, principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.
“When I was in Dhaka about a year ago, I made the point that Bangladesh sits on some incredibly significant geography, straddling the land bridge connecting India to Southeast Asia. Bangladesh is poised to capitalize on that geography perhaps now more than ever before,” he said. “For all of us involved in the U.S.-Bangladesh affairs, this is an enormously auspicious moment.”
Pyatt, standing in for his boss —Assistant Secretary of State Bob Blake, who was on a mission in Tajikistan — said “the U.S. stake in the success of Bangladesh as a modern, secular Muslim country is greater” than at any time since the country’s independence in 1971.
“Bangladesh is a strong supporter of the vision of regional integration, and we are also enormously grateful for the contributions Bangladesh has made to United Nations peacekeeping, with more than 10,000 men and women deployed in some of the most dangerous countries in the world,” he said, also praising Bangladesh for its efforts toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals.