BANGLADESH: ‘The people we produce are tolerant’
What good is there to say about Bangladesh? Is it not a land of widespread poverty, annual floods and endemic corruption? After all, when America’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger famously called it a “basket-case.”
But for someone for whom Bangladesh is home, there are many good things to say and many positive images to communicate about this Indian Subcontinent nation.
An excellent advocate for the good side of Bangladesh is Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury. He says, "Bangladesh has an image problem in the USA, largely due to ignorance about the positives of our society and the country."
In many ways he personally embodies the best his country has to offer. He walks with a slight limp from a wound he suffered fighting in the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. And he speaks of his country in eloquent defense of its values and virtues. He has even edited a fine coffee-table volume, “Mosaic in Green”, featuring a wonderful selection of color images of his country, from fields of rice and colorful markets to historic temples and mosques as well as modern buildings.
The ambassador refers to Kissinger’s famous but distasteful comment and is eager to underline the good news about his country. For starters, he points out that not a single Bangladeshi has been associated with a terrorist attack outside the country, even though 83 percent of the 144 million people in his homeland are Muslims. The reason for this, the ambassador says, is that, “The people we produce are tolerant.”
Naturally, the August 17 nationwide bombing in Bangladesh is of great concern to the government, although there is evidence to indicate that the 434 bombs, which were exploded in all but one of the country’s cities and towns, were designed to minimize harm to people and intended, rather, to underline the ideological opposition to the secular government of the Islamists who are suspected of organizing them. Two people were killed and 100 injured in the attacks.
Commenting on the bombing, Ambassador Chowdhury says, “I can say with full confidence that this does not alter the fact that we are a peace-loving people who abhor all forms of extremism and violence. These were events created by a group of people bent on tarnishing the country's image and creating fear among the populace.” He adds: “Prime Minister Khaleda Zia called these actions ‘acts against mankind.’” He also notes that, “The fact that we remain firm on preserving our pluralistic character was evident from the manner in which the country observed a major Hindu religious festival with all fervor and without a single untoward incident so soon after the bombing incidents of 17th August.”
Bangladesh is a peace-loving nation in part because of its history. Its people, who are primarily Bengalis, were the lowest of the low in the Indian caste system. They embraced Islam as a religion of equality, in which rich and poor, master and servant, prayed side-by-side. Furthermore, they were won to the new faith by peaceful practitioners of Sufism, and not by sword-wielding conquerors.
Ambassador Chowdhury misses no opportunity to remind other Bangladeshis of their deeply tolerant traditions. In meetings with members of the Bangladeshi community in the United States, he advises his listeners to stay away from any religious leaders preaching hatred. He tells them that they should bring out the best of their own tradition and find ways to harmonize that with what is good in their new home.
“We are seriously committed to tolerance, moderation and mutual understanding,” he says. “We are a Muslim majority country with a difference.”
And, as the title of his book on Bangladesh indicates, the ambassador likes the imagery of a mosaic of human diversity within a harmonious cultural whole. He believes that in a country of people from mixed ethnic and religious backgrounds, such as America, tolerant individuals, families and groups can form a cultural mosaic in which all live at peace with all others, while maintaining their core beliefs and traditions.
Bangladesh started life as an independent state in 1972, after a war of independence from Pakistan. Its leaders were aligned with the communist/socialist camp of the time, and the new country took a name suited to that political orientation: The People’s Republic of Bangladesh. It also adopted the ways of socialist economies, holding the bulk of assets in government hands.
But, as with most socialist systems, time has shown that a state-controlled economy cannot do well. Nowadays, the government is focused on developing a market economy and attracting foreign investment. It is privatizing some banks and public companies, and closing loss-making public ventures. At the same time, it offers foreign investors 100 percent ownership of an enterprise registered in Bangladesh, and 100 percent repatriation of capital and profits.
But, the ambassador notes, the overall image of Bangladesh is so negative that attracting investors has proved difficult. He disputes some of the international criticism, including Transparency International’s ranking of Bangladesh as the most corrupt state in the world. He points to the government’s creation of an Anti-Corruption Commission that is empowered to go after corrupt individuals and organizations. He says that in July this year a powerful government minister was fired for corrupt practices.
The most promising industry in Bangladesh today is textiles and clothing manufacture. For 20 years the textile industry has been the fastest-growing in the country, and exports are lead by this sector. Currently, Bangladesh exports $3-4 billion a year in ready-made clothing to the United States alone. America is Bangladesh’s leading trade partner.
The textile industry has created two million jobs, 90 percent of them held by women. Thus it has served as “an agent of social change,” the ambassador points out. By having jobs, women are empowered at home and in society, and they are less likely to have large families.
Bangladesh has joined 14 other low-income countries in seeking relief from 18 percent customs duties on its exports to the United States. (Other low-income countries already enjoy exemptions through AGOA and the Trade Act of 2000.) The argument they put forward is that it makes no sense to tax imports to the US from low-income countries while providing financial assistance to those countries through other channels, in particular USAID.
In the case of Bangladesh, Ambassador Chowdhury points out that, "An increase in exports of clothing from Bangladesh to the US means a commensurate increase in imports of American cotton by Bangladesh." Thus increased exports of clothing to the US will benefit American exporters. They will also reduce what is shaping up to be an overwhelming flow of apparel imports from China.
For Bangladesh, its clothing industry is absolutely vital. With few natural resources, a tiny tourism sector and weak industrial base, it has few options for wealth-creation.
Asked about the prominence of women in Bangladeshi politics, the ambassador says, “We are rightfully proud…” of the fact that both the prime minister and opposition leader are women, and between them have lead Bangladesh for the past 15 years. And although recent studies have shown that as many as a third of Bangladeshi women are victims of domestic violence, the ambassador notes that a study by the World Economic Forum, based in Davos, Switzerland, rated Bangladesh at a level similar to some industrialized countries, such as Japan, in terms of the opportunities it affords women.
The ambassador would like Washington and other Western countries to note the developments in his country, and engage more fully in its economic development as a peace-loving Muslim-majority state. He says, “We are a great partner of the United States in the War on Terror,” and “We contribute to the peace and stability of the world.”
Biography of Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury
Shamsher M. Chowdhury, BB, graduated with Bachelor of Arts degree from the Pakistan Military Academy and was commissioned in the erstwhile Pakistan Army in 1969. He served in Jessore and Chittagong during his career with the Pakistan Army.
Mr. Chowdhury actively participated in the War of Liberation of Bangladesh in1971 and, for his bravery, was awarded the Gallantry Award "Bir Bikram" (BB). He was promoted to the rank of Major in September1973.
Shamsher M. Chowdhury joined the Bangladesh Civil Service (Foreign Affairs) in January 1975. After serving as Deputy Chief of Protocol and Director (West Europe) in the Foreign Ministry from 1975 to 1977 he was posted to Bangladesh Embassy in Rome from 1977 to 1981. He served as Counsellor in the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington from 1981 to 1983 and as Counsellor and Minister in the Bangladesh High Commission in Ottawa from 1983 to 1986. He served as Deputy Chief of Mission/Minister in the Bangladesh Embassy in Beijing from 1986 to 1988.
Mr. Chowdhury was Director General, SAARC Division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from November 1988 to September 1991. During this period he also attended the Senior Staff Course in the Public Administrative Training Centre in Savar and passed with distinction.
Mr. Chowdhury served as the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to Sri Lanka from 1991 to1995; as Ambassador of Bangladesh to the Federal Republic of Germany from 1995 to 1998; and as Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam from 1998 to 2001.
Mr. Shamsher M. Chowdhury, BB, represented Bangladesh in International Conferences in the FAO, WFP & Non-Aligned meetings. He was also member of the Bangladesh Delegation to several Commonwealth Summits and SAARC Summits. He also represented Bangladesh in ICPE Assembly meetings in Slovenia.
He served as the Foreign Secretary to the Government of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh from 24 October 2001 to 17 March 2005.
Mr. Shamsher M. Chowdhury, BB, speaks German and Italian, and has working knowledge of French.
He assumed charge of the Ambassador of Bangladesh to USA on 29 March 2005.