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John Kerry’s nine hours in Dhaka

  • Published at 12:03 am September 1st, 2016
John Kerry’s nine hours in Dhaka

The busiest secretary of state (foreign minister in most other countries) in the world spent a precious nine hours of his time in Dhaka on Monday, calling on the prime minister, his counterpart in Bangladesh, and other top officials.

This was no social call, nor an appearance to attend any special event. It was to deliver a message on US concern on the terror threat that Bangladesh faces, and to offer a helping hand to meet the threat.

The whole trip was unknown to the world, including the US, until about two weeks before it actually happened. Not that the planning of the trip was shrouded in secrecy, it was revealed well in advance.

But the trip has obviously taken some of the observers by surprise, as much for the fact that this is the first official trip by John Kerry to Bangladesh as for its suddenness.

To many observers in Bangladesh including our foreign policy experts, this visit has cleared some opaqueness in US-Bangladesh relationship that developed in the last few years over several issues, including reported US comments on violation of democratic processes, human rights, and holding of last elections in Bangladesh.

For understandable reasons, our government has viewed these comments with some amount of dismay and apprehension, and has responded coldly to the comments. In the not too distant a past, US overtures for a collaborative dialogue with the main opposition, when emissaries from US government were sent to the country, did not gain much favour with the government.

In this background, a visit by a US secretary of state to Bangladesh, however sudden and short it may be, definitely would raise many eyebrows. Is this a sign of opening of a new chapter of goodwill from the US to Bangladesh?

Does this augur a change in the US view of politics in the country and acceptance of status quo? Or is the visit designed to convey US concern on the radical Islamic militancy that has been developing in the country and its nexus with global terrorism and other radical affiliates, especially those spawned by IS that US is fighting?

Fortunately the questions have been answered by John Kerry himself at the end of his short visit.

Yes, the visit was to renew ties with a friendly country, but more importantly it was to forge an understanding with the government on the need to fight radicalism and terrorism, have mutual cooperation in combating the threat, and offer US help to Bangladesh in equipping the country with training and technology to put down the growing threat.

The recognition by our government of foreign inspiration and linkage of the terrorist groups operating in the country is probably the single best outcome of Kerry visit

His remarks did not reveal any lack of trust or confidence in Bangladesh and its willingness to combat terrorism. He in fact dismissed a suggestion from an international correspondent (from VOA) that Bangladesh could be “hiding its head in the sands” on terrorism in the country and its nexus with foreign militants.

He was confident that Bangladesh was well aware of the threat and its foreign implications.

The reasons for such confident and reassuring comments from John Kerry apparently came from the assurances that he received from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who, according to him, agreed with the need for stemming the growth of terrorism domestically as well as internationally.

She also agreed to cooperate with the US on measures that both countries need to take to fight terrorism and radicalism. This is good news for us, who have been weary of the radical threat looming in the country after waves of attacks.

This is also good news that the prime minister agreed with John Kerry (as reported in the press) that the country’s terrorism is no work in isolation; its link goes well beyond our borders.

The recognition by our government of foreign inspiration and foreign linkages of the terrorist groups operating in the country is probably the single best outcome of Kerry visit. Heretofore, quite a few ministers in the government have been constantly harping on the theory of home-grown terrorism aided and abetted by the opposition parties whenever a terror attack took place.

This catchphrase has been repeated in the face of compelling evidence of terror work being launched by militants and radicals who have been inspired or trained by external elements.

In fact, the denial of foreign influence and foreign trained radical presence in the country, and attribution of terrorist work only to opposition party by the government became so characteristic that the foreign press described these as a ploy to suppress all opposition in the country.

It is conceivable that the Kerry visit was warranted by repeated terror attacks in Bangladesh and apparent government attempts to tamp these down as handiwork of homegrown terrorism aided and abetted by opposition parties.

A good evidence of this blinder-driven view of terrorism was the launching of anti-terrorism campaign in the country which led police to haul thousands of people suspected of terrorism, who later transpired to be mostly workers of the opposition parties.

Most ironically, two of the most deadly terror attacks (Gulshan and Sholakia) happened immediately after the conclusion of the anti-terror campaign.

John Kerry has termed his visit as successful. For any dignitary who undertakes a foreign visit at his country’s interest, a mission has to be termed as successful unless the host seriously botches the visit.

No such thing happened in this visit. To the contrary, John Kerry was received very well, he visited the country’s founder’s ex residence (now a museum) to pay his respects, and he earned our respect by recalling his own stance during our liberation war.

It does not matter if his visit did not entail other subjects dear to Bangladesh (such as trade, lifting of GSP embargo, etc). What matters is that he was able to get the ears of those who matter in Bangladesh to the nexus of terrorism in the country with foreign forces and foreign ideology, and make our leaders agree to fight this menace with greater determination and will.

The success of Kerry’s visit cannot be simply determined by what we heard from him or the government statement on mutual co-operation and getting US help in combatting terrorism alone.

The success will be determined by what follows next.

We do not want to see a repeat of the catchphrase “home-grown terrorism” or “opposition hand” next time a terrorist strikes. What we want to see is an end to any terrorism or militancy in the country, and an end to rhetoric.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the USA.

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