Remarks at the National Press Club
Assistant Secretary Blake: Good afternoon. I’m so pleased to be back here in Bangladesh. I always enjoy coming to Dhaka to see the dynamic changes that are underway. I thank the people of Bangladesh for their warm welcome and hospitality.
I began my trip by participating in ceremonies commemorating the 40th anniversary of Senator Kennedy’s historic 1972 visit. Ambassador Mozena announced our intention to establish a new center for public service and the arts in downtown Dhaka to serve as a gathering place for young Bangladeshis.
We heard about how Senator Kennedy’s example of public service has inspired many Bangladeshis.
Korvi Rakshand, for example, created JAAGO to bring education to children in slums and then launched Volunteer for Bangladesh in 2011.
Already 7,000 young Bangladeshis are volunteering to bring solutions to problems in their communities throughout Bangladeshis are volunteering to bring solutions to problems in their communities throughout Bangladesh. Likewise, Ejaj Ahmad, a Harvard graduate, founded the Bangladeshi Youth Leadership Center with assistance from the American Center to formulate innovative solutions to local problems such as water and sanitation.
Yesterday I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit the Asian University for Women that is doing so much to strengthen Bangladesh’s already impressive record of women’s empowerment.
Earlier today I was privileged to participate in the 21st Annual Trade Show. Bilateral trade between the United States and Bangladesh now tops $6 billion. I also witnessed the signing of a $250 million deal between General Electric and the Summit Group to develop the Meghnaghat power plant project.
I appreciated the honor of meeting the Honorable Prime Minister as well as the Honorable Foreign Minister and the Honorable Leader of the Opposition. In my meetings with the government I welcomed the progress that we’re making in other parts of our multi-faceted agenda: our strong cooperation on counter-terrorism; our development partnership that has helped Bangladesh reduce maternal and child mortality, and improved access to family planning; and Bangladesh’s participation in all four of President Obama’s global initiatives on food security, improving global health, combating the effects of climate change and expanding engagement with the Muslim world.
I was pleased that the Prime Minister welcomed our suggestion that the Peace Corps send an assessment team to Bangladesh to explore the possibility of returning the Peace Corps to your country.
In all my meetings I emphasized the importance of Bangladesh’s finding an eminently qualified successor to Dr. Yunus as Managing Director of Grameen Bank; someone who can preserve the integrity and effectiveness of the bank and the interests of its shareholders.
Last, I urged our friends in government to ensure continued space for free media and vigorous non-governmental organizations. Civil society representatives expressed concern to me that the draft NGO Law could shrink that space. We are pleased that the NGO Affairs Bureau is soliciting views from civil society on the legislation and has welcomed the visit of an independent American expert to provide his views on the draft legislation.
Before closing I want to thank our wonderful Ambassador Dan Mozena and his great team here for the marvelous job that they’re doing representing the United States here in this important country for the United States.
In conclusion, let me say that I’ve enjoyed another stimulating and productive visit. I’d be happy to take a few questions. Thank you very much.
Question: Mr. Blake, when you are visiting Bangladesh, Bangladesh is at the very crossroads of [inaudible] because of [inaudible] of the election. Recently known some army officers tried to [inaudible} a coup of government. How do you look at the situation in Bangladesh? What’s your position regarding the attempt to [inaudible] the government? And secondly, the [inaudible] the election. Thank you very much.
Assistant Secretary Blake: Obviously we condemn any attempt at a coup here in Bangladesh and we support the current government.
With respect to your question about the upcoming elections, we believe that it is incumbent upon the two parties, the Awami League and the BNP, to reach an agreement between them on a mechanism that can ensure a free, fair, credible and participatory election.
Question: My name is Bhuiyan, I work for the Independent newspaper, it’s an English newspaper.
During your last press conference I can remember in March 2011 at the American Recreation Center you said to us that if there was not an amicable honorable solution to the problem of Yunus the bilateral relations between Bangladesh and the United States would be affected. Do you think there has been an honorable solution to this issue? If not, how it has affected the relationship between these two countries?
Assistant Secretary Blake: I had a wonderful visit today to one of the Grameen villages outside of Dhaka and I had a chance to see first-hand the wonderful impact that Grameen Bank has had on the lives of millions of Bangladeshis and how it has given them health care, education and livelihood opportunities that are really a model not only for the rest of Bangladesh, but for other countries. So I really salute Grameen Bank.
With respect to your question, I think that all of us have an interest in seeing that the most eminently qualified person is chosen as the successor to Dr. Yunus. We all hope to see somebody who will ensure the continued integrity and effectiveness of Grameen Bank and ensure that the interests of all of its shareholders, particularly all of the women that we saw today, are protected.
Question: I work for the daily Amar Desh.
Mr. Blake, as you know, the space for media, civil society, as well as NGOs and human rights activists here in Bangladesh is shrinking at this moment. What is the U.S. position on this issue? Thank you very much.
Assistant Secretary Blake: Well, again, I had the chance to meet with some civil society representatives and they shared that same assessment, that the space is shrinking for the media and for non-governmental organizations. And they expressed particular concern about this draft NGO Law that I mentioned in my remarks.
So I welcome the commitment of the government to undertake consultations with all stakeholders about that law and I urge the government to talk to civil society about their other concerns regarding again, civil society’s concerns about the shrinking space that they face.
Question: My name is Massud Karim, I work for Daily Shokhaler Khabor newspaper.
Mr. Blake, I would like to know that what we were hearing that your Ambassador is heartily trying to bring the Secretary of State into Bangladesh to resolve all the outstanding problems and to bring all of these issues like terrorism, trade, and bilateral issues. Is there any development regarding this? Thanks.
Assistant Secretary Blake: I have nothing to announce right now about Secretary Clinton’s potential travel.
Question: This is [inaudible], I work for the English daily News Today.
You have been discussing with both the Prime Minister and opposition. I think you discussed all the political issues. What are their [inaudible]? Did they agree to sit across the table?
Assistant Secretary Blake: I think I’ll leave it to the Honorable Prime Minister and the Honorable Leader of the Opposition to characterize their own views which they’re very capable of. But I think I’ve expressed our views already.
Question: Mr. Blake, my name is Raheed Ejaz, I work for Prothom Alo.
In your opening remarks you mention about some of the [inaudible] response getting the [inaudible] two parties. Can you also give some [inaudible] in regards to Professor Yunus, then shrinking space for media as well as civil society. If I’m not wrong, probably you have raised the issue in your discussions while you meet with Honorable Prime Minister, and she may have described her position. But [inaudible] position of the government regarding these particular issues. Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, I’ll let the government make its own characterizations of their positions. I’ve already expressed what our views are on that.
Question: My name is Asam. I work for the Financial Express.
My question is, for about the last eight to nine years both Bangladesh and U.S. have been in negotiations to strike a deal, TIFA. Most recently, maybe in the last year, U.S. scrapped the proposed draft deal of TIFA and proposed another deal, some sort of quota. What the prospect of this can be?
Assistant Secretary Blake: The question is about the Trade and Investment Cooperation Framework Agreement, so-called TICFA agreement. I think that our two countries are very close to being able to conclude a TICFA agreement and I’m excited by that because trade is growing very rapidly between our two countries. It touched $6 billion last year. And I expect that to continue to grow quite rapidly. As I said, there was a very important signing ceremony today between General Electric and Summit, and that’s just one of many deals and other kinds of discussions that are on the table. So it’s high time that our two governments have a more formal structure to talk about what some of the impediments might be to even further expanding our trade and investment between our two countries.
So I’m very excited about this. I think it’s going to be a big important new opportunity. These are the kind of framework agreements that we have with very important trade partners like India and others and that’s very befitting. Again, I think there are quite a lot of opportunities now for the United States and Bangladesh to do more together on the trade and investment front.
Amb Mozena: I’d like to offer just a note of clarification. You made reference to a forum suggesting that there were two proposals out there. In fact there is only one proposal, only has been one proposal. But along the way some people started using the word forum. I think they forgot the F in TICFA means Framework Agreement, not forum. So please don’t be confused. There is only the one agreement.
Question: Are you [inaudible] trade and investment framework agreement? Is it?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Yes.
Question: My name is [Uslam], I work for the BSS News Agency.
Just now India, you’re coming from Maldives where you have proposed for a compromising formula with the new government and President Waheed. And [inaudible] might be [inaudible] unconstitutional forces in the region -- India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries to [inaudible] either directly or indirectly. So my question to you, if something happens like that in Bangladesh, will you ask the unconstitutional forces to make a compromise in the democratic process? What’s your position?
Assistant Secretary Blake: I don’t want to ever comment about hypothetical questions like that. Again, we never want to support coups anywhere, and in the case of the Maldives what we’ve called for is an independent Maldivian investigation into the circumstances surrounding the transfer of power from President Nasheed to Vice President Waheed, now President Waheed, because there are two diametrically opposed accounts of what happened. None of us know what happened.
So that’s why we’ve called for such an investigation. We welcome the fact that President Waheed has himself welcomed such an investigation. So we hope that can be undertaken as soon as possible to clear that up.
Question: This is Mainul Alam from Daily Ittefaq.
I want to ask you regarding human rights situation. Every year U.S. releases human rights report and that [inaudible]. The relative question, this year, right now, how U.S. is the human rights situation and do you [inaudible]?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, I think last year our assessment was that the situation was poor and I think there are still many many challenges here in Bangladesh. I think I’ve already discussed some of those already. Again, I think this is something that’s in the interest of the government and the people of Bangladesh to improve their relations and again, your country is becoming more and more of a leader and beginning to exert its influence far beyond your own borders so it’s also important to take steps to improve the human rights situation and the situation with respect to the media and NGOs. Again, the United States will be a friend and partner in that exercise.
Question: This is [inaudible] from Daily Shomokal.
What is the [inaudible] years? The United States of America is encouraging to maintain good relations between Bangladesh and India. Our [Prime Minister] is [inaudible] and Bangladesh, but we see that the outstanding problems in India are [remaining]. So now I want to comment from you.
Assistant Secretary Blake: From where I sit there’s been a great deal of progress in relations between India and Bangladesh. Starting with Sheikh Hasina’s very important visit and then Prime Minister’s Singh’s return visit here. So we’re very encouraged with the progress between India and Bangladesh. We think that, again, those can have such an important impact not just for your two countries but for the wider region as well. We’d like to strongly encourage that progress to continue and I think again, the more that regional integration can take place not only between India and Bangladesh but also with Nepal and the other neighboring countries, that will be of benefit to all the peoples of the region. So again, I want to commend the governments of your two countries for the progress that’s been made.
Question: Honorable Assistant Secretary, this is Daily Bhorer Kagoj.
I want to know that after each visit you are coming, you are talking with our two main leaders, and you are talking about state to resolve all the particular problems. Our election is coming closer and two main parties [inaudible]. What is your observation among the three visits between the two leaders, their distance is increasing or is decreasing?
Assistant Secretary Blake: It’s difficult for me to answer that question. Our position remains that we want to see the two leaders and their two parties work together for the interests of the country and to put aside partisan differences, and again think of the interests of the people. And we think that if they can work together, both in parliament but also to figure out an agreement on how to ensure free, fair, credible and participatory elections, the people of Bangladesh will be the beneficiaries of that and that’s what we all want.
Question: This is [inaudible] Abdul. I work private TV channel Diganta.
The [inaudible] America we see very high up, in case of human rights issue, but in the border we still have observing frequently killing of innocent Bangladeshi people by the border security force of India. Even Indian [inaudible] chief some days back did an interview with BBC. He said that firing will not to be stopped. What do we see after that announcement? Innocent people are being tortured severely. Innocent people are being killed frequently. What’s the American position in this case?
Assistant Secretary Blake: First of all I’d like to say that I know the Indian government at the highest levels regrets these kinds of incidents and I’d also like to point out that the overall trend is positive. The number of these kinds of incidents is going down year by year. So I think that, again, reflects the goodwill that exists on both sides to try to minimize these kinds of problems and again, to seize the opportunities that exist between these two countries. Again, I’d just say what I said before, that there’s been quite a lot of progress because of the two high-level visits and we would welcome that progress continuing.
Question: [Inaudible] from Daily New Age.
India has emerged as one of the biggest purchasers of arms across the globe. Bangladesh is in the process of striking a big deal with Russia on arms purchase. How do you see the proliferation of arms in this region and its consequence?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Every country around the world has got to provide for its own security, and we’re certainly, our American companies are more than prepared to compete for those important contracts. But at the same time, every country in the world wants to provide for the needs of its people as well. So there needs to obviously be a balance, and to ensure that, first of all, the economic and development needs of the people are assured; and again, I think your country has a commendable record in that regard. There’s been a tremendous effort on the part of the government and on the part of institutions like Grameen Bank to reduce poverty in this country, to raise living standards, to reduce infant and child mortality. All of those make a very great difference.
There are wonderful statistics that show that a lot of progress has been made to lift large numbers of people out of poverty in recent years, and I see that trend continuing. So again, I think the overall trends are very very encouraging here.
Thank you so much. It’s nice to see you.