Bangladesh Electionsby Senator Richard J. Durbin
Posted on 2013-12-20
DURBIN. Madam President, last week Senators Enzi, Murphy and I
introduced a resolution on the political tensions in Bangladesh as that
country prepares for a national election on January 5.
Since then, Senators Boxer, Boozman, Shaheen, Kaine, Blunt, and Menendez have also cosponsored and yesterday the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted unanimously in support of the measure.
The resolution calls for peaceful political dialogue between the country's various political factions in the hopes that the election will go forward in a credible and peaceful manner.
With so much else going on in the world from Ukraine to Iran, one might wonder why focus on elections in Bangladesh? My interest is in part due to the role of Nobel Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal winner Professor Mohammad Yunus, whom many may know from his pioneering work to help the world's poor through microfinance programs.
Professor Yunus has done so much to help the poor of Bangladesh and the world, particularly poor women, that former Senator Bob Bennett and I, as well as Congressman Rush Holt, led an effort several years ago to award him the Congressional Gold Medal. That bill passed both chambers of Congress in 2010, and earlier this year we gave him this award in the Capitol Rotunda.
It was a deeply moving event.
Sadly--and almost inexplicably--during the same period that Bangladesh was in such an international spotlight, its government pursued a mean-spirited and bewildering effort to undermine the Grameen Bank's independence and remove Professor Yunus from his leadership role.
I and others wrote repeatedly to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urging her to not take such destructive and counterproductive measures.
Last year, Senator Boxer led a letter with all 17 women of the Senate to Hasina that called on the Bangladeshi government to stop interfering in the management of Grameen Bank.
Those Senators pointed out that its 8.3 million borrowers are mostly [[Page S9094]] women who gain financial independence and help support their families through its important programs.
I am sorry to report that the Government of Bangladesh ignored all such calls and just last month essentially imposed state control over the bank.
Yunus responded by saying, ``Grameen Bank was created as a bank owned by poor women, and managed by poor women. Its legal structure did not allow any government interference of any kind, except for regulatory oversight.'' The government-imposed changes, ``fundamentally changing the character of the bank. With these amendments, the government has opened the door for its ultimate destruction. What a shame for the nation, and the whole world!'' So understandably this Senate resolution calls on the government of Bangladesh to restore the independence of the Grameen Bank.
There is more at stake in Bangladesh that should be of concern to the United States and the world.
You see, Bangladesh is a relatively stable, moderate, Muslim democracy with the world's seventh largest population and the world's fourth largest Muslim population.
And despite many difficult years since its independence from Pakistan in 1971, it has often stood out as an example of a moderate and diverse Muslim democracy--one that deserves the world's attention and support.
Yet, tragically, as Bangladesh nears another national election, it has experienced considerable political unrest with hundreds perishing in violent clashes.
The country's opposition coalition has called for numerous nationwide strikes and transportation blockades, resulting in further violence, instability, and the disruption of students' abilities to attend school.
Last week United Nations Assistant Secretary General Oscar Fernandez Taranco visited Bangladesh to try and foster political dialogue between Bangladesh's political parties and leaders to bring a halt to the violence and allow for a credible and peaceful election period.
His efforts are to be supported, and this resolution reaffirms his call for peaceful political dialogue.
The squabbles between Bangladesh's political parties distract from the real progress that has been made--and should continue to be made-- in alleviating the country's widespread poverty.
For example, between 2005 and 2010 Bangladesh reduced its poverty rate from 40 to 31 percent of the population.
This is where the country's political leadership should continue to focus, not on perpetuating personal animosity between the two main political parties.
So our resolution states the obvious: It condemns the political violence, It urges the country's political leaders to engage directly in a dialogue toward free, fair, and credible elections; it expresses great concern about the country's political deadlock that distracts from so many other pressing problems; and it urges the Government of Bangladesh to ensure judicial independence, end harassment of human rights activists, and restore the independence of the Grameen Bank.
The United States relationship with Bangladesh is strong and includes considerable trade and cooperation on such issues as counterterrorism, counter-piracy, food security, and regional stability.
Peaceful democratic elections and greater respect for the Grameen Bank will only further those ties.
I urge the full Senate to pass this resolution before we adjourn.