BNP spokesperson Maruf Kamal Shoel informed the media in Dhaka (May 31) that the party’s Chairperson Ms. Khaleda Zia, who had just returned from the USA, was told by US officials that unless the issue of Nobel Laureate Dr. Muhhamad Yunus was resolved honourably, Washington will suspend its Millennium Development Accounts (MDA) contribution to Bangladesh.
This is not the first time that the Americans have held out this threat to the Awami-League (AL) led government in the country. Earlier, the US ambassador to Dhaka, Jaames F. Moriarty, and visiting high ranking State Department officials held out the threat that removal of Dr. Md. Yunus from the head of the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh would adversely impact the relationship between the two countries.
Dr. Yunus is an eminent person and Bangladesh’s first Nobel Prize winner. That is a great achievement, and the US voted for him. Dr. Yunus’s micro-financing project brought millions of poor Bangladeshis out of deep poverty, especially women. In fact, this scheme really helped empower women in rural Bangladesh something which the conservative Islamists in the country like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) and the Islami Oikyo Jote (IOJ) are riling against. A case in point is their opposition to the women’s development legislation. The Islamists argue that this would lead to an explosion of “immoral” activities. Their main objective is to keep women subjugated, a distortion of Islamic social laws and practise.
True, micro-financing has a high cumulative interest rate, but no one has complained, least of all the present government. The point on which Dr. Yunus lost his case was that he had crossed the legal age limit for holding the post of Director of the Grameen Bank.
For an outside observer, the government’s move on Dr. Yunus may have been immature and hasty. There appears to be political considerations involved and wrong advice from the AL advisors. Yunus had risen to fame during the BNP-JEI government and would have been close to the BNP. But that does not appear to be the whole story.
A cable from the US consulate from Kolkata, India, to the State Department more than a year ago revealed by the Wikileaks, shows that the US was considering promoting Dr. Yunus as a third alternative in Bangladesh to sideline the two competing leaders, Sk. Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia. It is not known whether Prime Minister and President of the AL, Sk. Hasina had any inkling of this plan. Given that Washington was not supporting Khaleda Zia, the US strategy was certainly against the interests of Sk. Hasina and the Awami League. No political party, especially the AL, which has returned to power with a sweeping majority would let such a plan be executed, especially when Dr. Yunus had agreed to it as the American Consulate cable said.
First, the US state department thought to build Yunus up as a strong political contender based on his popularity among the huge numbers at the lower end of the food chain population in Bangladesh. Unlike some banana republics of Africa and Latin America, the people of Bangladesh are highly astute politically. Dr. Yunus and his Grameen bank combine is just one institution in the country which had done good, but it is as much as a corporation which also had a high profit motif. It does not have an ideology, and is not a political party which enjoys the reputation of leading the nation.
Even the JEI, which has an ideology and a committed vote bank, and has sunk deep roots even before the liberation of the country, failed to get enough parliamentary seats to make a major impact. Unless, of course, plans had already been made to break the BNP and the AL to form a new party under Dr. Yunus. Even that would not be a stable party but in US interest; it would be under Washington’s firm control. Even that has a question mark, if the Americans know Bangladesh’s society and politics. The grass-roots memory of the USA in Bangladesh is their support to Pakistan during the war of liberation.
Of course, the BNP appears to rejoicing over the US stand on Md. Yunus. But Khaleda Zia and her acolytes in the BNP are pursuing a one-point programme to oust the AL from the government. Then, they also do not know when the Americans will drop a hot potato. And the BNP is a hot potato given its record of corruption, support to terrorism including international terrorists and high handedness during their rule.
The US must realise that a regime change or even trying to put a brand new regime in Bangladesh is fraught with danger. The AL-led government can be faulted on many real, imaginary and concocted counts. But under the conditions it has done well to rejuvenate the country, fight terrorism as a very high priority is not the highest, and is trying to stabilise the region.
American interference in changing the politics of Bangladesh can only destroy whatever has been consolidated. It will take the country backwards, and the US may suffer from some of the fall outs. One thing to consider is that foreign Islamic anti-American jihadists are still trying to get a foot-hold in Bangladesh in collaboration with the JEI and other Islamist groups, and the AL-led government is fighting them on a regular basis. Certainly, Washington would not like a new terrorist haven to emerge?
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New Delhi.Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)