Aid - Bangladesh / CORPORATE POWER
WHEN US PRESIDENT Bill Clinton started his subcontinental tour in Bangladesh last year, naïve nationalists suggested he was paying homage to the Grameen Bank’s microcredit programme, which both Hillary and Bill had praised at international events.
A slightly bigger incentive may have been the bidding war by US oil companies – primarily Occidental and Unocal – over massive untapped gas reserves in Bangladesh. US oil is the big player in the ongoing auction of key Bangladeshi gas licences. In 1996 American investment in Bangladeshi oil and gas exploration was $20 million; by 1999 it had rocketed to $700 million.
Central to the negotiations is the US demand that oil companies be allowed to start exporting gas immediately. This is vehemently opposed by local economists who argue that Bangladesh must be allowed to use the gas reserves to fulfil its own development needs first. American lobbyists and a compliant local press have argued that the export of gas will give Bangladesh valuable foreign currency. But critics point to Nigeria as proof that cash coming in from gas exports would only enrich a tiny, corrupt élite and further strengthen any government’s anti-democratic impulses.
In addition to the gas bonanza, there are other items of US interest. First, the Americans want to establish a private terminal in the port city of Chittagong, a proposal aggressively opposed by neighboring India. Second, Unocal is pushing a plan to run a 150-kilometre gas pipeline through southern Bangladesh. Third, the US Government is trying to establish a military presence in Bangladesh. In 1998 a treaty was proposed which would have allowed US soldiers free access to Bangladesh. The treaty was eventually defeated by angry protests that erupted throughout the country but military ‘co-operation’ continues to be an American objective, especially in the light of its worsening relationship with former client states like Pakistan.
Leftist activists in Bangladesh were clearly aware of and apprehensive about the real reasons for Clinton’s visit. But the aggressively pro-market Awami League Government didn’t share these concerns. Nothing could be too perfect for this visit. For the last two years, the Government has been rocked by continual street protests by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). In preparation for Clinton’s trip, Home Minister Mohammad Nasim, Grameen Bank head Dr Mohammed Yunus and US Ambassador John Holzman were separately dispatched to ‘talk sense’ to the BNP. Awed by the impending royal visit, even the obstinate BNP agreed to a temporary truce.
Despite all this preparation, the US security team was under the impression that Dhaka is a city in the midst of civil war and a haven for international terrorists. In the two months leading up to Clinton’s trip, Dhaka was visited by a ‘US Site Survey Team’, a ‘Pre-Advance Team’ and finally an ‘Advance Team’. White House officials talked openly about their lack of confidence in the Bangladeshi Government’s ability to manage security. Alarmist US press reports (later discredited) about Afghanistan-based terrorist Osama Bin Laden possibly extending his training camp into Bangladesh fuelled this paranoia.
The Americans demanded and received: a five-hour block on all flights into the airport; barricades preventing any trucks from entering Dhaka; and a special force of 12,000 Bangladeshi police and soldiers deployed through the city. Instead of attacking this conversion of Dhaka into a US garrison, the mainstream press treated its readers to drooling write-ups about the high-security infrastructure of Air Force One.
While the Government prostrated itself, students and leftist parties actively opposed the trip – and protest grew as the US presence became heavier and more disruptive. Parties such as the Left Democratic Front and the Democratic Revolutionary Front held demonstrations in front of the US Embassy and Dhaka University. These protests were attacked by police and members of the ruling party’s student branch, Chatra League, which formed a ‘Clinton Fan Club’. Newspapers carried photographs of students being beaten by riot police in front of the High Court.
Joipura had been designated as the centrepiece of the Clinton visit. Formerly a quiet village, Joipura was ruined in the madness of preparation. The entire village was remade, including the construction of a ‘royal toilet’. The village was also kept under strict armed guard. Even though the Eid holiday came and went, no-one was allowed to leave the village – just in case they managed somehow to connect with an international cabal of Muslim terrorists!
On the night of 19 March, village organizers had just gone to sleep after hours of preparing the dances for the next day. At 11pm the White House Security Chief abruptly announced that Clinton’s visit to the village would have to be cancelled. The White House felt the forest that Clinton would have to fly over was not adequately secured. Terrorists could use it to launch a rocket attack.
In the tumult of the next few hours, no official worked up the courage to ask: why was quiet Bangladesh, which has never been linked to any act of terrorism, suddenly such an object of fear? The answer lies in the Number One source of American paranoia: Islam. Local journalist Farida Akhtar explains: ‘Bangladesh is 83-per-cent Muslim. And when the US President comes calling, Muslims are a problem. They can’t be trusted at all. The American idea is that every house here is training Osama Bin Ladens!’
By the time Clinton’s plane touched down on 20 March, Dhaka was a ghost town. City dwellers were trapped at home for the entire day, all major roads were barricaded and the steel boots of local police kept protesters off the streets. What was left to greet Clinton were streets empty but for hundreds of carefully placed flag-waving schoolchildren.
Well, said officials, if Clinton can’t go to the village, bring the village to Clinton! Joipura village girl Kamla, who had been practising her dance for months, was bussed to Dhaka along with 100 other villagers. Inside the embassy compound, Kamla was finally able to dance for Bill Clinton. An angry Chinta reporter reflected on the scene: ‘We are so lacking in self-respect that even after the Americans give a loud slap in our collective face, our PM smiles meekly and trots over to the US Embassy to watch this farce of a state visit!’
Ironically, it was not the fiasco of terrorist accusations that finally angered the Government. Rather, it was the cancellation of another part of the trip – a visit to Bangladesh’s 1971 war monument. The perceived insult was severe enough to cause the US Embassy to issue an official statement offering ‘regrets’. What was unspoken amid this hubbub was that if Clinton had visited the monument but offered no apology for the US role in 1971, that would have been the bigger insult.
In 1971, the Pakistan army waged a brutal, genocidal war against the people of what was then East Pakistan. The Nixon White House stood alone among world governments in support of the Pakistani military junta and continued to supply arms. Nixon’s point-man at the UN, a young George Bush, blocked UN resolutions condemning Pakistan. After the war was over, Henry Kissinger counselled withholding US recognition of Bangladesh for as long as possible. With the devastated new socialist-leaning nation facing an acute food shortage, Kissinger withheld a vital US grain shipment which might have helped prevent the 1974 famine.
But in the rush to curry favour with American oil, all past sins are forgiven. Neither the Government nor the opposition party has demanded that the US apologize for its role in 1971.
After Clinton left, the reprisals began. Newspaper reports claimed the total costs to Bangladesh of the visit ran anywhere from $30 to $100 million. All this for a trip that lasted 10 hours and was primarily spent sitting in the US Embassy compound. But the real costs to Bangladesh will be incurred when the US has its way over gas exploration. A myopic Awami League Government is still resisting US pressure, not out of principle, but in the hope of concessions that will line the pockets of its officials. Writer A Hannan, in describing the Government’s open-arms policy towards oil companies that have already ravaged other nations, summarized the Bangladeshi siren call: ‘Welcome to the Willing Fields of Bangladesh. What is mine is yours and what is yours is... yours.’
Meanwhile, emotions run high at Joipura, where villagers are still smarting from the snub. Local farmer Shamsher lost crops worth 10,000 taka when land was razed for the visit. He told the Bhorer Kagoj newspaper: ‘Since Clinton couldn’t be bothered to come to my village, he should personally pay me for the loss to my wheat fields.’
Now 10,000 taka amounts to $200 on a good exchange day. Bill Clinton, are you listening?
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7