Interview
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Dhaka, Bangladesh
March 22, 2011


QUESTION: Good evening, viewers, and welcome to “After Thoughts.” Today we have very special guest and you can understand that we are not in the regular studio. And he is the visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs His Excellency Ambassador Robert O. Blake. And you know that he has made some comments to the press after his arrival here, the issues that came up during his talk with the government leaders and opposition, and we’ll touch on them. But we also have a few other questions for him. So first, let us welcome him to the program. Welcome to the program.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you. I’m delighted to be with you.

QUESTION: And so this is your, of course this is not your first visit. Your second visit, I believe.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Second visit.

QUESTION: And what brings you to Bangladesh?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I’m here for a couple of reasons. First of all, we’re having a meeting of our regional ambassadors to talk about counter-terrorism issues primarily. Of course we have a very good counter-terrorism cooperation with Bangladesh, so it’s a logical place to host this important meeting. I’m also here to review the full range of our bilateral relations with the government. I haven’t been here in about two years, so it was about time to come. I’m very happy to be here.

QUESTION: Very interesting time to come to Bangladesh and to review the bilateral relations.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It is.

QUESTION: When you talk to counter terrorism, you went to Jessore to see what measures are being taken to, kind of, fight terrorism. And what is your assessment about Bangladesh’s efforts to fight international terrorism?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We’ve been very pleased with the cooperation that we have received. It’s extremely important to work very closely with partners like Bangladesh. We’re worried about terrorist attacks against India, in particular right now. We’ve been very encouraged by the progress that Bangladesh and India have made over the last two years under the leadership of the current government. And our own bilateral cooperation is very strong as well.

QUESTION: Right. And overall, with your, I know you have been in the Middle East and other places as an ambassador and all, what do you see as happening in Libya today, that part of the world, that there is a school of thought which thinks that this kind of military action in Libya might spark more terrorism in Bangladesh.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I don’t know. It’s difficult to draw parallels between the situation in Libya and the situation in a country like Bangladesh. I think, in Libya you have a leader who does not enjoy popular support and has been in power for far too long and allowed the various institutions of democracy to wither. And so you see as a result an uprising against him. I think the situation obviously in Bangladesh is quite different. You’ve enjoyed the freest and fairest elections in your history in 2008. You have a very open civil society, a very strong parliament, so obviously, I don’t want to make any parallels between those two examples.

QUESTION: Right. But overall, did you, because once, what happened in Afghanistan, still fighting the Taliban, and it’s still a problem for you and the rest of the world. And there is a fear that small, small pockets from this region might again be another threat alongside Taliban. Do you agree with that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Certainly. I think there are a lot of groups that are a threat not only to the United States but to our friends like Bangladesh and India and others. So this is very much part of the reason why South and Central Asia has become such an important strategic partner and priority for the United States. We are following very closely the activities of groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, JEM, and even groups here as well, like JMB. So again, that’s why we attach such priority to our counter terrorism cooperation with your government.

QUESTION: Right. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has taken a number of measures to fight terrorism and she has repeatedly said that her government has one policy: that it will not allow terrorism on its soil. But how do you think they are successful in their mission to see that there is no terrorist group inside Bangladesh? Because two, three months back, there were some arrests by the police on, about LeT, people suspected to be, not sure, but they are such arrests being made. How far do you think the government is successful? And Sheikh Hasina had proposed a long time back about forming a South Asia task force to fight terrorism. How do you look at that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, first of all, I think that your government has been successful in trying to address terrorism, through border security efforts, but also through kind of softer measures. I would stress things like your education system and giving young girls, for example, the right to education, which is really quite a striking and positive example for many other countries in the region. And so I think your country and your government are doing a lot of things right. Of course there are still many challenges. Bangladesh is still a poor country and there are people who will seek to exploit those kind of opportunities. But that’s why we’re working very closely with you and with your government. And that’s why Bangladesh has one of the largest assistance programs in our region from the United States.

QUESTION: Right. And what kind of assistance are you giving to Dhaka?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, it’s things like border security and counter terrorism cooperation. But also wider assistance programs, like food security, which is very, very important, climate change. One of the reasons why we value our relations with Bangladesh is that Bangladesh is one of the few countries in the world that is a partner of ours in all of President Obama’s signature initiatives -- food security, climate change, and health, in addition to being a very important moderate Muslim country that is, I think, seeking to play a wider role in enhancing peace and security through, for example, its peacekeeping operations around the world.

QUESTION: Right. But did you see a difference, when you call it a moderate Islamic state, do you see a difference between the regime now and the previous regime between 2001 and 2006, because we have seen the grow the of the JMB, Jamaati Mujahadeen in Bangladesh, which was literally threatening the democratic institutions of this country, in fact the courts and the people also, bombs and other things. What difference do you see?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I would say, the most significant difference is I think the cooperation with India, which has been extremely important. And I know one of the very first things that Sheikh Hasina did was to move to try to improve relations with India, and that included...

QUESTION: As far as regime is concerned, what difference do you really see between this regime of Sheikh Hasina and the one that was in power between 2001 and 2006? Because we saw the rise of militant groups like JMB, Jamaati Mujahadeen in Bangladesh. And there were other splinter groups also. But as far as the government claims that they are dealing with it. But what is your stand, because I know Washington follows this issue very closely.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think the most significant difference is the priority that Sheikh Hasina’s government has attached to greater cooperation with India. One of the very first steps she took after becoming prime minister was to re-establish close ties with India, and that included very close counter-terrorist ties. I think that has really borne considerable fruit. And again, that’s extremely important for us. We think that groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba are looking for opportunities and countries through which they can infiltrate into India. So having strong partnerships between India’s neighbors is a very important priority for us as well.

QUESTION: And as I mention, counter-terrorism task force, why haven’t South Asian nations responded? I thought that would be something, an area of great cooperation, because your government has interest there, and India also has interest there as far as Lashkar-e-Taiba is concerned. Why do you think that the proposal has not met with the kind of attention that people expected in Dhaka?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think you’ll have to ask the other governments that question. But I think from our perspective, the bilateral cooperation between all these countries has been pretty good, with the possible exception of Pakistan, where, again, I think that’s a very high priority for India and for Pakistan. We’re very encouraged that the two home ministers are going to meet on the 28th of March. And we hope that that can get counter-terrorism cooperation back on a more solid footing.

QUESTION: Well, Ambassador, what I was thinking of is the issue that I was telling you about before the start of this programs, the politics here and [garbled]. What is your overall assessment of the change in the democratic system in Bangladesh after the fair and free elections of 2008?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, I think there has been progress in Bangladesh and also progress in the wider region. I might start with that, which is that we’re very encouraged that, for the very first time in South Asia’s history, all of the governments are democratically elected governments, including Bhutan and the Maldives, the two most recent examples of that. So I think that’s a very positive trend and also a very positive example for other regions of the world where, frankly, independent groups like Freedom House have assessed that freedom is on the decline in many parts of the world. So again, I think South Asia is a positive example, and Bangladesh also is a positive example. As I said earlier, you had your freest and fairest elections in your history, in 2008. And you obviously have a very vigorous and open civil society, a very free media, and all of that is extremely important. I do still think there are, there’s room for progress. I would point to things like governance, where I think everybody agrees there needs to be further progress against corruption, and that that would benefit a lot your efforts to attract foreign investment. There are also continued concerns about some of the activities of the security forces here. But again, I think there’s a determination to try to address those.

QUESTION: The extrajudicial killings, you mean.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Exactly. And I think that we’re working with your government to help to address those as well.

QUESTION: And how did your talks go with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the main opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia? And if you had discussed the issue of extrajudicial killings with the government side?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, it’s a concern...

QUESTION: A concern for the media here also.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes, well, most of our meeting talked about other things. First, with respect to Khaleda Zia, obviously we don’t talk in so much detail about things because she’s not in power right now. But I just expressed to her our continued interest in having strong relations with the BNP and we always had good relations in the past with them and we value their opinions and we value their judgments. So again, that was another valuable opportunity to react with her and react, interact with her advisors. With Sheikh Hasina, again, we’ve had very strong relations with Sheikh Hasina and her government for the last two years. Bangladesh has been a strong partner on many, many issues that I already described to you. But we also very frankly discussed our concerns with respect to the Yunus matter. Where Professor Yunus enjoys wide respect in the United States. Not just in the Administration, from President Obama and Secretary Clinton, but from Bangladesh’s many friends in Congress. There’s a very strong Bangladesh caucus. Twenty-six members of the Bangladesh Caucus have sent a letter to Sheikh Hasina expressing their concerns about the government’s handling of the Yunus case, as have five senators. So again, I think this is quite a widespread concern in the United States. And it’s very much our hope that this can be resolved in a mutually satisfactory way and in a manner that ensures the continued integrity and effectiveness of Grameen Bank. And, you know, helps to ensure the rights of all the shareholders who still depend on it.

QUESTION: Professor Yunus is definitely respected here in Bangladesh. But isn’t this a matter, the two questions that generally people in Bangladesh ask about the issue. One is, we do respect him, he’s a Nobel laureate, there’s no doubt about it. He did wonders with microcredit [garbled]. But when a government takes a decision as per law and there’s a feeling that there’s a pressure being built on the government to use the word for talking to the media about coming to a compromise. Isn’t it a kind of, something that can be said of Washington is giving pressure on Dhaka to change things the way it wants.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, Professor Yunus enjoys wide respect in the United States. As you rightly point out, he’s a Nobel laureate. He’s also somebody who’s been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as a Congressional award as well. So we respect very much his viewpoint. And I think he has expressed concern that he has been forced out. We are interested in ensuring the future integrity and effectiveness of Grameen Bank, and ensuring that it will have leadership that will ensure that integrity and effectiveness. I think Professor Yunus is concerned right now that there isn’t that leadership there. He himself is not confident about the future of Grameen Bank. We very much respect his view, and I think we understand that many of Grameen Bank’s shareholders share his view.

QUESTION: But as far as the government position is on Professor Yunus, is that there’s a law in this country and they are just trying to go by the law. So does Professor Yunus in a position that just being a Nobel laureate, does it men he is above the law?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, that’s really for Professor Yunus and the government to discuss between them. And we really hope that there can be...

QUESTION: It’s before the court.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I know. But again, we hope that a mutually satisfactory agreement can be found, a compromise can be found, that will satisfy all parties to this and doesn’t necessarily need to be decided by a court. Much better if there could be a mutually...

QUESTION: Alternative dispute resolution. [laughs]

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Perhaps. [laughs]

QUESTION: Well, I just want to quote a comment that you made to the media. “Such a compromise would allow us to continue the very good progress that we made in our bilateral relations.”

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right.

QUESTION: Now, why is it so important? Some school of thought in Bangladesh feel that Professor Yunus is the point man for Washington, and relations between Dhaka and Washington, which is very good and very cordial, could be affected if the government does not go by the wishes of what the Secretary is proposing.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right.

QUESTION: So...

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: That’s a very good question, and let me try to answer that question. And I think the answer is that, as I said earlier, Bangladesh receives approximately one-third of the assistance we provide to the South and Central Asian countries that are under my responsibility. The reason for that is that, precisely that Bangladesh has made a lot of progress in its democracy, and that Bangladesh is really something of a model in its free and fair elections, its open civil society. We are concerned, in fact, that the Grameen Bank matter perhaps foreshadows a more widespread limitation on civil society and on NGOs. I know that several people have expressed concern about that. And obviously that would have an impact on our relations, because we do see Bangladesh as a bit of a model in this respect. So we don’t just see it narrowly in terms of Muhammad Yunus. This is about Grameen Bank and its integrity, and the continued independence and vigor of civil society here in Bangladesh.

QUESTION: If there’s a equally able change or head of Grameen Bank, Professor Yunus, will that be...

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Certainly. Certainly. I think there are many, many qualified candidates out there who would do an outstanding job. But it’s not for the United States to say who those might be. Again, we hope that can be done in a very collaborative manner to ensure the outcome that I described.

QUESTION: Right. Last question. The government here has been trying to hunt down those who were accused or convicted in the murder case of founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and have sought help from all the countries of the world, including Washington. Do you want to comment on that and your position on that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, that gets into judicial matters that I am really not permitted to comment on. So I prefer not to say anything about that.

QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary, for joining us this evening, and I do hope you go back with good memories of Bangladesh and your mission is successful. And Dhaka [Washington] relations will definitely take off even better after your visit.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I hope so, too.

QUESTION: If you want to say anything to the viewers, you can make a statement if you want.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, I just want to express my thanks to you and to all of your viewers. It’s a pleasure to have the chance to talk to you. And again, I always appreciate the friendship and hospitality of the Bangladeshi people. And your country has many admirers in mine. So again, I thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. Viewers, we have come to the end of the program. But definitely we hope that the visit of the Assistant Secretary, the issues that have been discussed, that Bangladesh and Washington will see a new era of relationship. It will be good. It will progress in the coming days without being hurt for any reason. Thank you for watching.

[This is a mobile copy of Interview with ATN News]