Earl R Miller took up his office as US ambassador to Bangladesh in November last year. Speaking to Prothom Alo, in his first interview with the media in Bangladesh, Ambassador Miller talks about various aspects of US-Bangladesh relations, democracy in Bangladesh, freedom of expression, the 30 December election, Indo-Pacific geopolitics, the Rohingya issue and more.
Prothom Alo: You arrived here as US ambassador last November and have frequently traveled outside Dhaka since then. What is your first impression of Bangladesh?
Ambassador Miller: The first thing that comes to mind is Bangladesh’s hospitality. Everywhere I travel I encounter a wonderful courtesy and warmth that seems uniquely Bangladeshi.
I’ve visited all eight divisions during my first eight months in this remarkable country. Wherever I go I meet someone with a strong personal connection to the United States. That’s the enduring strength of the US-Bangladesh relationship. As senator Ted Kennedy said at Dhaka University in 1972, the real foreign policy of America is citizen to citizen, friend to friend, people to people.
The partnership between our great nations is powerful and indispensable. I look forward to working with Bangladeshi friends in government, civil society, the business community, the press, to further strengthen that partnership.
Prothom Alo: What is your priority for deepening the bilateral ties between Dhaka and Washington?
Ambassador Miller: I can boil my top priorities down to what I call my Big Five. My embassy team and I work with our Bangladeshi counterparts on Indo-Pacific and global security. We work together on trade, investment and commerce for sustainable and shared economic prosperity. We promote democracy, good governance, and respect for human rights. We partner on health, education, food security and climate resilience. And we help Bangladesh address the Rohingya refugee crisis.
Prothom Alo: In his message to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on her re-election, president Trump referred to Bangladesh's democratic growth with its continued economic growth. What is the White House’s plan to engage Bangladesh's sustained growth and development?
Ambassador Miller: Bangladesh is one of the world’s great development success stories. The United States wants to partner with Bangladesh on even greater economic growth and success.
The United States has contributed over seven billion dollars in development assistance to Bangladesh since 1971. We are one of your largest export markets and sources of foreign direct investment. In 2018 we had more than $8.2 billion in two-way trade, double what it was only a few years ago. American commercial aircraft now hoists the green and red into skies across the world. American companies produce more than half of Bangladesh’s natural gas, build power plants, supply locomotives, dredge your mighty rivers, and train thousands of Bangladeshi workers to the highest international standards.
Prothom Alo: A large portion of Bangladesh population is youth. Do you have anything in mind for investing in youth to further deepening the ties in the days ahead?
Ambassador Miller: One of our best known exchange programmes is the International Visitor Leadership Program – the IVLP – where young professionals can explore their particular fields of interest in the US. Did you know Father of the Nation Bangabangdhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman went to America on an IVLP in 1952?
I am especially fond of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program where students live with an American family and attend an American high school for a year. More than 350 young Bangladeshis have benefited from YES scholarships since 2003.
I also encourage Bangladeshi students to consider studying in America. Last year, 7,500 Bangladeshi students studied in the United States, doubling the number since 2013. That puts Bangladesh among the top 25 countries in the world sending students to the United States and top nine sending students to US graduate schools.
We also bring the United States to Bangladesh with the American Center at our embassy and the Edward M Kennedy (EMK) Center in Dhanmondi. We have American Corners in Chattogram, Khulna, Sylhet, and Rajshahi that are great resources for learning about the United States including educational opportunities.
Prothom Alo: What is the outcome of the recent US delegation visits to Dhaka, particularly about possible US investment in the fields of energy and IT?
Ambassador Miller: The recent Trade Winds Indo-Pacific Forum and Mission in Dhaka was attended by a dozen US companies that met with potential Bangladeshi partners on joint commercial ventures. There have been a number of very successful American investments in the energy and IT sectors. Chevron is now the largest producer of natural gas in Bangladesh and accounts for over half of market production. GE and Summit Power just held a signing ceremony for the construction of a major power plant. And last year Excelerate Energy commissioned its Floating Storage and Regasification Unit in the Bay of Bengal with a second unit entering operation this year.
I spend much of my time advocating for increased trade and investment between our two countries. The United States is heavily invested, literally, in the economic success of Bangladesh.
Prothom Alo: Since the Rana Plaza disaster, Bangladesh has undertaken a lot of initiatives but the country has yet to get back its GSP rights in the US. Can we expect to get back GSP soon?
Ambassador Miller: In the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, the US government suspended Bangladesh’s access to the US General System of Preferences. Significant progress has been made in improving the safety of garment factories and we are working together to address other key issues, particularly labour rights. We look forward to Bangladesh fulfilling all requirements under US trade law so the United States can consider reviewing access to GSP.
Prothom Alo: Security and defence cooperation between the two countries are key features of the relationship. Can you shed some light on future cooperation on these two issues?
Ambassador Miller: The United States and Bangladesh have shared interests that make us natural security partners. Our defence cooperation has never been stronger. We work closely on maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping operations, and countering transnational crime.
We also work together on counterterrorism and law enforcement programmes and with community leaders on conflict mitigation. All of our joint security programmes emphasise the need to respect and protect human rights.
Prothom Alo: What is your initial observation about human rights, individual freedom as well as democratic?
Ambassador Miller: We’ve talked about economic development. Economic development and democratic development are mutually reinforcing. Bangladesh’s future economic success can be further enhanced by strengthening democratic institutions and governing structures. Media, civil society, members of opposition groups, and peaceful protesters need to be able to express their views and advocate for change. Voices of dissent and disagreement need to be heard and respected. The strongest democracies flourish from frequent and lively debate.
Prothom Alo: The digital security act creates much concern among the media, with at least nine controversial points in the newly enacted law. What is your observation about the law?
While the United States recognises the importance of cybersecurity, we share the concern of many in the international community the Digital Security Act could be used to suppress free speech. The United States values freedom of expression, including online expression, as a key component of democratic governance. I hope there can be a dialogue between the government and civil society on how to improve the legislation to ensure Bangladesh’s digital security is properly protected but not at a cost to democratic institutions.
Prothom Alo: In his message to the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, President Trump referred to an independent investigation into the December 30 election. What is your observation over the issue?
Ambassador Miller: We endorse international calls for an impartial and independent investigation of election-related complaints. President Trump wished prime minister Hasina a successful third term and expressed his hope Bangladesh will renew its commitment to protecting human rights, individual freedom of expression, and democratic institutions.
Prothom Alo: The Trump administration propagates the Indo Pacific Strategy and urges Bangladesh to join. Some argue it is a counter move to China's Belt and Road initiative. What are your thoughts on that? What is Bangladesh’s response to IPS?
Ambassador Miller: We are not asking anyone to choose between the United States and China. Like the United States, China is an Indo-Pacific country. We welcome its constructive contribution to regional development provided it adheres to high standards and international best practices on transparency, the rule of law, national sovereignty, labour rights, environmental concerns and sustainable financing.
Bangladesh’s response to our vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific has been very positive. Both our nations benefit from an Indo-Pacific that has peaceful resolutions of disputes, strong and responsible governing institutions, and open and transparent investment environments. Both our nations benefit from trade and investment deals that are transparent and made on the basis of their inherent advantages for both parties. The US economy is the largest and most innovative in the world because of our private sector. Our focus in the Indo-Pacific is helping the private sector do what it does best: spark economic growth, innovation, and long-lasting prosperity.
Prothom Alo: What is the best way forward towards a tangible solution for the seemingly intractable Rohingya crisis?
Ambassador Miller: The United States is deeply appreciative of the Bangladesh government and people who have opened their borders and hearts to one million Rohingya refugees.
The United States continues to call on the Myanmar government to create conditions for the safe, voluntary, dignified return of refugees by restoring the rule of law, granting unhindered humanitarian and media access, and addressing the root causes of conflict in Rakhine State. We also call for accountability for those responsible for widespread atrocities.
I am proud the United States, through the generosity and compassion of the American taxpayer, is the leading contributor of humanitarian assistance in response to the Rohingya refugee crisis. The United States has provided nearly $542 million since August 2017 supporting both Rohingya and Bangladeshi host communities.
Prothom Alo: Thank you.
Ambassador Miller: Thank you.