Free, fair polls possible in December: Bernicat

Raheed Ejaz and Ayesha Kabir | Update:

US ambassador in Dhaka Marcia Bernicat. Photo: Prothom AloThe world does not need any more countries to be unstable, outgoing US ambassador in Dhaka Marcia Bernicat has said emphasising that Bangladesh was a particularly vital country to remain stable.

Appreciating Bangladesh as a partner in Washington's new initiative styled 'Indo-Pacific Strategy' engaging more than half of the global economy and population, the diplomat observed that free navigation is important for the country's external trade including export of readymade garments.

"If that trade becomes restricted as the sea lanes themselves become restricted, that’s a problem," she said in an exclusive interview with Prothom Alo.

Despite progress in Bangladesh, the ambassador pointed out, the country is not doing well in some indicators such as the ease of doing business, the level of corruption, and shrinking democratic space.

"Development and democracy go hand in hand, they are absolutely dependent on each other," she insists.

Recognising the public concern about free and fair elections in Bangladesh, ambassador Bernicat, however, expressed optimism about possibility of credible polls in December if everyone plays a positive role.

"The government of Bangladesh, the prime minister and many of her ministers, have all made the point that they want to see free and fair elections. I don’t think there is any disagreement about that," she said.

The full text of the interview is given below:

Prothom Alo: Welcome to Prothom Alo. Your have been serving as US ambassador during a sort of transitional time. Initially Barrack Obama was the US president and half way through your assignment here, Donald Trump took over as the US president. So in between the two, do you think the changeover in Washington has influenced bilateral relations between the US and Bangladesh?

Marcia Bernicat: First of all, thank you for inviting me back to Prothom Alo. It’s always a delight to be here and I am a great admirer of the work that you do and your integrity.

I would say that from administration to administration in the United States, there is relatively very little change. Our values are our values, so our adherence to principles and international standards for human rights, the robust pursuit of good economic relations with governments, these things do not change from administration to administration. I am pleased to say that the new administration in the US has put a very strong emphasis on the Indo-Pacific Strategy and in our perspective that has been very welcome. We see Bangladesh, I think as Bangladesh sees itself, as being in the strategic middle of the Indo Pacific in many ways. You bridge southern Asia with the rest of Asia and so our interest is in seeing all the principles of free trade and a transparent and level-playing field are very much in the interest of Bangladesh as it is in the interest of the US.

Prothom Alo: In the second half of 2017 president Trump and his administration came up with the idea of the Indo-Pacific Strategy or IPS, as you mentioned, and we are very importantly located in between Asia and Southeast Asia. Some important countries like India, Japan and Australia are already engaged in this. Over the last year you have been in Bangladesh, so what is the latest stance on Bangladesh joining in this initiative?

Marcia Bernicat: I don’t think of it as a kind of pact that countries sign on to. It’s much more profound in the sense that it is much more action-oriented than that. It involves a viewpoint gathering the bureaucratic, commercial and other interests towards building a stronger Indo-Pacific. So, for example, a key part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy is hoping to support infrastructure. Secretary of state Pompeo, while speaking about recent the Indo-Pacific Strategy not too long ago, talked about investments that the US government intends to help encourage, to build infrastructure, particularly digital infrastructure and key physical infrastructure, again that’s important to trade and economic growth. But our private sector hasn’t waited for the government. There’s a major project that an MoU (memorandum of understanding) was signed on not too long ago, that is an energy producing project between Summit Group, the Bangladeshi company that has a really impressive track record of bringing power projects online quickly, partnering with GE which builds the most energy effective gas turbines in the world today. So GE will provide about 500 million dollars of equipment including the turbines that help run the plant and they have partnered with a third firm, Mitsubishi from Japan who is building the onshore LNG facility that will help bring fuel to the power plant. That's a perfect example of an Indo-Pacific Strategy where not one, but companies from three different countries, with the support of their governments, are working together to help enhance Bangladesh’s energy needs. We are also looking to work very closely with our Indian counterparts, again both in the government and private sector, to see what other projects we can bring. I speak specifically on Bangladesh, but my counterparts throughout the Indo-Pacific are looking for ways in which activities can enhance this strategy.

Prothom Alo: We have been noticing the growing presence of China in this region of Asia, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. They’ve come up very strongly with their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). There is a perception that IPS is somewhat about containing China in the region...

Marcia Bernicat: IPS is not an anti-China strategy at all. Our goal is to make sure that this region gets everything that it needs to lift that part of its population out of poverty and for the country to progress. There is widespread agreement that Bangladesh has so much potential and has already done so much in this direction. Can the US do it alone? Can Japan do it alone? Can China do it alone? Absolutely not. We welcome China’s participation. What we hope and expect of China is what you hope and expect of China and that is that they will participate in this grand enterprise with transparent processes, with sustainable financing, and following the rules-based system that governs trade and transport.

The Indo-Pacific is home to more than half of the world’s economy and more than half of the world’s people. And if there is not free navigation, how will Bangladesh’s major exports leave the country? RMG (readymade garment) relies largely of raw materials coming in by ship and finished product leaving by ship. If that trade becomes restricted as the sea lanes themselves become restricted, that’s a problem. So, IPS is meant to ensure that we are all playing by the same rules and that those rules are benifitting all of us, not just any one country.

Prothom Alo: In recent years we have noticed a mammoth growth in the socio-economic aspect of our country. In the UN HDI (human development index), we have done very well. So we are moving towards the MIC (middle income country) status in 2021; what are the prospects or the miracles, the elements to take us to this goal and, at the same time, what are the challenges to be faced when we are elevated to that status?

Marcia Bernicat: Let me start with history because not only am I a history major but my time here in Bangladesh has taught me that you have such a strong sense of history. We can first point to the honourable prime minister’s efforts. She deserves so much credit, not just for her own vision, but for carrying out the vision of her father. For Bangladesh’s founding father to have had the vision, to think ahead and want to launch a telecommunication satellite even as Bangladesh was struggling out of a period of utter devastation, it speaks a lot. It’s not just of the founding father and his daughter, but of Bangladeshis themselves and it is critical to understand that your development has been driven from the ground up. Great leadership inevitably makes a huge difference, but that leadership also had the insight to let the market economy work and so you have an RMG sector that is second in the world, that is driving your exports. What got you to this point, can’t get you to full middle income status, so everyone is looking to see other industries develop - agro business, IT, light electronic manufacturing and ship building, pharmaceuticals - all of these will need to be part of Bangladesh’s economic future.

But the fact that you put faith in the private sector to build you economy, is key. The partner that doesn’t get as much credit sometimes is the agricultural sector. That was the other quiet miracle that Bangladesh achieved. There are innovations and I give the honourable (agriculture) minister Matia Chowdhury a lot of credit again for strong leadership and innovation that developed not only a sector that not only feeds Bangladesh, but is beginning to feed the rest of us too. Mangoes, vegetables and fish grown here are available in the US markets. So, what about the future?

There are many indicators, including the famous Economist article in 2012 that documented your socio-economic progress to be the fastest in all of recorded history. That is no little thing. But how do you get to that brilliant future that you’ve so well laid the ground work for? The indicators that are not helping you are the ease of doing business, the level of corruption, shrinking democratic space. These are all key indicators for attracting the one element that you need a lot more of, and that’s foreign direct investment. The US, as big as our economy is, actively seeks and promotes foreign direct investment on our shores. Why? Because it’s an important engine of growth.

For foreign direct investors to come to Bangladesh, they need to know they can make money here and that they can take that money out when they need to and that they can bring more in when they need to and that they won’t be overly overburdened by a bureaucracy or a taxation scheme or other issues. So they want to make sure there are good labour laws here and that they are followed as well and that when they come, and I know there are really good people working on this, to get to that one-stop shop. You want to make it easy for people to come here. You don’t want them to skirt your laws, but you want it to be easier from them to come here and to all of those countries, literally every country in the world, that is competing for foreign direct investment. I was at the Vietnamese National Day and the ambassador mentioned that last year they had 34 billion dollars in foreign direct investment. Bangladesh’s foreign direct investment was less than 3 billion dollars last year, and that was down from the year before. So, how to get that money here? Make it easier to come here.

US companies, by the way, are your single largest source of foreign direct investment. We are proud of that. We make up 23 per cent of your FDI right now. And that is largely in the energy sector. Chevron is your single largest foreign direct investor. We want to get in more investors here and I can tell you, we have 16 billion dollars worth of projects waiting to be approved here in Bangladesh that we are actively advocating for in a number of different sectors. We want to build cell phone towers, we want to build power plants. We want to do so many different things.

Many companies come to us asking about doing business here and the first thing they ask is, where are Bangladeshi businesses putting their money? There is a fair amount of leakage of money offshore. A lot of this has to do with not being able to legally take it offshore. To become a full middle income country, you have to be prepared to allow your companies to invest in what they call the vertical supply chain. If an RMG manufacturer here wants to buy US cotton and spin it in the US and then bring that fabric to Bangladesh, they should be allowed to do that. It’s cheaper to spin it there. Our electricity costs are less and our labour costs while are higher, you don’t require so much labour. You can gain that financial advantage of that. So we are urging the government to encourage Bangladesh investors as well as foreign investors.

Prothom Alo: During your stay in Bangladesh, you’ve experienced a number of human rights issues including forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, shrinking space of dissent and so on. What is your observation about the state of human rights in the country as well as the law and order situation?

Marcia Bernicat: Let me start with two basics that I really want to emphasise. One is that we see Bangladesh as a like nation, a like partner. We both fought for our independence at a great cost to ourselves. We fought for the rights of freedom of speech, freedom of movement, the right to be governed by the rule of law and those democratic principles bind us at the most fundamental level of our relationship.

The second point I want to make is that when we speak out about human rights conditions, we never do so from a position on high. We are not saying, Bangladesh, you are doing these things wrong, we do everything perfectly. I am the first to say that we have many human rights challenges in the US. What we ask of you is exactly what we ask of ourselves, that when these things happen, and as long as there are human beings I fear these things will happen, we ask that they be acted upon, that they be investigated, that laws be changed or that the implementation of those laws be done in a different way and that the investigations be done in a rules-based transparent manner and that the results are published so that citizens know that the government is protecting their rights. That’s the fundamental responsibility of each of our governments. You know from the statements that my embassy and I have personally made, we have concerns about all the points you just made, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, unlawful detention, and what happens in detention, torture, and death. These are all things that reduce the confidence of the people in their government and work against the very principles that this government and your constitution stand for. Again, when those things happen, what is the response? In many cases, there have been responses and there have been corrective action taken. But these conditions remain.
The other element of your socio-economic success has been the outstanding role of your civil society and the media. Development and democracy go hand in hand, they are absolutely dependent on each other. One can’t take precedence over the other. If you expect to build a solid economy and a solid society that is stable and, trust me, regardless of our different ideologies, all of your friends want the same thing, a stable Bangladesh, a prosperous Bangladesh. We don’t need any more countries that are unstable in the world and Bangladesh, with its population size, with its geostrategic location, is a particularly vital country to remain stable. Prosperity has to do with stability, our ability to do business with one another, to Bangladesh being able to take its rightful place in the world as a leading country. And so, to the extent that human rights violations are detracting from that stability and prosperity, it’s most important that is on this and most of your friends are speaking out about human rights concerns.

Prothom Alo: The recent controversial Digital Security Act has created concern in the media and the editors have specifically mentioned nine controversial points of this newly enacted law. What is your observation about this law?

Marcia Bernicat: Again, the US has stood with many of your other friends for two years, talking with various government representatives, submitting our concerns in writing about the digital security act. We share the concerns that the editors have expressed, the concerns across the entire political spectra. In democracies we have particularly tricky challenges before us. On the one hand, there is freedom of speech. On the other hand, there is need to protect people from excesses of comment in the public space. In the worst case we saw how comments on Facebook were used to fuel the ethnic cleansing that took place in Burma (Myanmar). No society should want that to happen. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to cyber bullying.
On the other hand, if the people aren’t able to criticise the government, if they aren’t able to express hopes about what they want to see happen, even if it runs counter to a government that is working very hard in its people’s favour, then the harm is done. The chief concerns surrounding the Digital Security Act are all about the degree in which that act is put into force. Do we want people who issue threats in the public space to be stopped from doing that? Everyone will say ‘yes’. Do we want someone to be able to stand up and say ‘I don’t like this government,’ 'I don’t think this government is being fair’? Yes, we want them to be able to say that. If this law is enacted in a way that preserves both those goals, then it will be welcome. But people are worried about excesses, about this law being applied in an unfair and excessive way and we implore the government, all of us along with Bangladeshis themselves, do not let that happen.

Prothom Alo: Do you think the current political scenario is conducive to holding free, fair and credible elections?

Marcia Bernicat: I will make three quick points about the elections. The prevalent practice that has occurred has made many people nervous about the prospects for a free and fair election. There is no denying that. On the other hand, the second point I want to make is, the government of Bangladesh, the prime minister and many of her ministers, have all made the point that they want to see free and fair elections. I don’t think there is any disagreement about that.

The third point is, how will those free and fair elections happen? And here, everyone in a democracy has a responsibility. The election commission which has all the laws they need, has to be able to exercise their responsibilities under those laws. The government is responsible for creating a conducive environment. All parties, opposition and ruling, have to be able to hold peaceful demonstrations, protests, meetings in large numbers and in small numbers, and to be able to campaign, their polls workers, their candidates, can’t be harassed, and there are plenty of stories of those things occurring. Every citizen has the responsibility to get out and vote. If they are fearful of the conditions, they need to get out in numbers, they need to demand security from the local law enforcement. Every party has the responsibility to avoid violence, to condemn violence, to not use violence. When their candidates call for violence, when their supporters call for violence, and anyone associated with in them conducts violence, there has to be a swift countering by party officials to condemn that and to prevent that from happening again.

Can there be free and fair elections in Bangladesh in December? Absolutely. But it can’t be just verbiage. Everybody has a role to play to make sure that the conditions prevail for those elections.

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