May 5 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began a series of meetings in Bangladesh today to boost cooperation over security and trade and press concerns about political unrest and the harassment of opposition activists.
Clinton’s visit, the first by a top U.S. diplomat since 2003, comes at a sensitive moment in the polarized politics of the south Asian nation. More than 20 opposition leaders have disappeared this year, according to local human rights groups. In the last two weeks, the capital Dhaka has been rocked by protests, explosions and a police roundup of activists.
Clinton is meeting both Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed and opposition leader Khaleda Zia, archrivals who have alternated in power over the last two decades. The opposition Bangladesh National Party and ruling Awami League party have accused each other of abducting former BNP lawmaker Ilyas Ali, who disappeared April 17. Five people have died in clashes between protesters and police since then, though the opposition suspended its strikes during Clinton’s visit.
In talks with Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, Clinton discussed the killing of a prominent labor organizer and disappearance of a former opposition lawmaker, calling for "thorough, independent" investigations. “In a strong democracy everybody has to be rowing in the same direction. You’re going to make progress together or you’re going to run into very turbulent waters,” she said.
Clinton signed an agreement to establish regular dialogue on strategic cooperation, and her visit is intended to underscore U.S. commitment to security and counterterrorism cooperation with Bangladesh, which is strategically located between China and India.
In her talks with officials and civil society activists, Clinton is expected to raise concerns about the disappearance of opposition leaders and press for tolerance and civil rights. State Department officials said Clinton’s visit is an opportunity to show the government and the 160 million Bangladeshis that the U.S. is a reliable partner in efforts to build a peaceful, prosperous democracy.
Tomorrow, Clinton will meet with Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to signal support for the development pioneer who last year was forced by his government to retire from Grameen Bank, the microcredit lending institution he founded.
Bangladesh, which Goldman Sachs has named among the “Next 11” countries with high potential to become one of the world’s largest economies this century, will be seeking better terms for trade to help pull its struggling economy out of poverty. Moni urged Clinton to help lower U.S. tariffs and quotas on Bangladeshi apparel imports as the two countries negotiate a trade and investment framework agreement.
The U.S. grants duty-free access for African and Caribbean garments to its market and has low tariffs on Chinese apparel. Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest apparel-maker after China and an important apparel supplier to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Tommy Hilfiger Corp., pays an average 15.3 percent tariff on its garment exports to the U.S. Bangladesh exported $5.1 billion in goods, mostly apparel, to the U.S. last year.
The two sides are also discussing a framework to improve legal protections for U.S. companies investing in Bangladesh, such as Chevron Corp., which supplies about half of the country’s natural gas and ConocoPhillips, which is exploring for gas in the Bay of Bengal.
The U.S. announced in January it would offer nearly $1 billion in aid to Bangladesh over the next five years.
Clinton’s visit tomorrow to Yunus, the 71-year-old Nobel Peace laureate and a longtime friend of Clinton and former President Bill Clinton, will cast a spotlight on his ouster from Grameen Bank, which his supporters say was politically motivated. Yunus had tried to form a political party in 2007.
Clinton will conclude her visit with a town-hall style meeting with youth leaders and civil society groups.
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