DHAKA: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Bangladesh Saturday to pull out of a spiral of political turmoil, saying the impoverished nation’s democratic credentials were at stake.
“We urge all political actors in Bangladesh to work together for the good of the country,” Clinton told reporters following talks in Dhaka with Foreign Minister Dipu Moni.
“In a strong democracy, everybody has to be rowing in the same direction because you’re all in the same boat,” she said. “We want to see Bangladesh succeed.”
Clinton arrived in Bangladesh earlier Saturday for a brief visit shadowed by rallies and strikes over the disappearance of regional opposition figure Ilias Ali in April.
Supporters say that he was seized by security forces. Four people have died in the unrest and rights groups say dozens more have “disappeared” — most of them politicians.
Clinton raised the issue of the disappearances during her talks with Moni and stressed the need for political parties to settle their differences in parliament and not on the streets.
“It’s important that in this country which has such unlimited potential and has proven its ability to sustain the democratic path… that everybody take seriously any disappearance, any violence against activists, any oppression of civil society,” she said at a joint press conference.
She also called for an end to the recent spate of violent strikes saying they “exact a heavy toll, especially on Bangladesh’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.”
Clinton is the first US secretary of state to visit Bangladesh since Colin Powell in 2003.
In unusually large crowds even for Clinton, thousands of Bangladeshis lined the streets for a glimpse of her motorcade. One well-wisher held a sign, “Heartiest welcome to Forgain (sic) Minister Clinton.”
After the press conference, Clinton held talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and later signed a joint statement that stressed the two countries’ “shared values” and “respect for human rights and the rule of law.”
The statement sets up a so-called “dialogue on partnership” that will include annual talks.
Later, Clinton was scheduled to meet opposition leader Khaleda Zia.
Sheikh Hasina and Zia have dominated Bangladesh’s politics for decades and their mutual dislike is as intense as it is personal.
Following a rally in the capital last weekend and a series of explosions at a government building complex, police charged and arrested a number of senior figures from the Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Despite the unrest, the United States views Bangladesh as a moderate, democratic Muslim-majority nation that is a US partner in counter-terrorism efforts and the world’s largest contributor to UN peacekeeping.
But one thorny issue Clinton will address involves recent problems for Muhammad Yunus, Bangladesh’s only Nobel peace prize winner and a personal friend of Clinton and her husband Bill.
Yunus was forced out of his ground-breaking micro-credit Grameen bank last year and has since claimed to be the victim of a vendetta that will result in the government seizing his empire of social businesses aimed at alleviating poverty.
Clinton was scheduled to meet Yunus on Sunday.
In Dhaka, the government had talked up Clinton’s visit as an event that would take ties to “a new height”.
Moni said relations had “matured” over the years, but said trade ties could be improved as she pushed for greater access to US markets and lower tariffs for Bangladeshi exports.
Clinton leaves Sunday for India where her visit will coincide with that of a large Iranian trade mission, seeking commercial opportunities to mitigate the impact of US economic sanctions.
Washington has been pressuring India to reduce its oil purchases from Iran in a bid to coax the Islamic republic to abandon its disputed nuclear programme.
India has publicly opposed the US sanctions while quietly diversifying oil sources and cutting shipments from the Persian Gulf nation in the hope, observers say, of being granted a US waiver for remaining Iranian oil imports.