Diplomats are taught one big lesson in training academies – learn to respect national sensitivities in countries of posting. No wonder, the US Consul-General in Kolkata, Melinda Pavek, is found pandal-hopping during Durga Puja in a saree and photographed with folded hands before Goddess Durga.
Perhaps, this diplomatic grace is something US Ambassador in Dhaka, Peter Haas, could learn.
One would expect him to join senior diplomats in paying homage to Bangladesh’s martyrs on December 14 and 16 – at least to overcome the national guilt and make up for the Nixon-Kissinger backing of the 1971 genocide by Yahya Khan’s Pakistani military junta.
The US never sounded enthusiastic over Bangladesh’s demand for UN recognition of the 1971 genocide, despite unthinkable casualties and brutalities on record. Former Bangladeshi minister and a renowned cultural personality, Tarana Halim, has recently said that the US and western reluctance over UN recognition of the 1971 genocide, perhaps, stems from considering Pakistan as a “strategic asset” and not intending to upset its military.
Be that as it may, many US voices like former Consul General in Dhaka Archer Blood came out strongly to condemn the 1971 genocide and also pull up the Nixon-Kissinger duo for being on “the wrong side of history”. Bangladesh’s friends include renowned Democrat senator Edward Kennedy as well.
If Peter Haas was out to win hearts and minds in Bangladesh, the least he could do would be to pay his respects to the martyrs at the memorial. But ironically, not even a single post honouring the martyrs from US embassy’s Facebook page appeared on December 14.
For a country like US that respects and values merit and talent, the assassination of the brightest minds of Bangladesh should be particularly abhorrent. Just two days before the public surrender on December 16, 1971, the Pakistan army – with active assistance from Jamaat-e-Islami and other local collaborators – abducted and killed more than 1,000 top Bengali academics, writers, cultural personalities, and celebrated professionals to leave the new nation with a brain deficit.
Peter Haas apparently had no time for national mourning on December 14 or Victory Day celebrations on December 16. He, however, found time to visit the house of a BNP activist who had reportedly disappeared. Then, he set out to stir a diplomatic storm by alleging his security had been compromised due to a crowd of justice-seekers whose near and dear ones were executed under BNP founder General Ziaur Rahman’s administration.
After Gen Zia’s rise to power – months after the assassination of Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, over 1000 armed forces officials, many of whom were freedom fights, were victims of extrajudicial killings during Zia’s violent purges within the military.
Broad hints were dropped that Haas’ plan to visit the BNP activist’s home was leaked and that the government had “organized the heckling”.
An explanation from the victim families cleared the air about their hurried gathering outside the house the US ambassador was visiting on that morning. Turning out after hearing of the presence of the US ambassador, these victim families – under the platform of ‘Mayer Kanna’ (tears of mothers) – attempted to draw attention to their long pending calls for justice before Haas. They were not terrorists, and ignoring their call was a display of bias.
Its role in favour of the Pakistani army that carried out the 1971 genocide and sheltering killers of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, have done little to improve the US public image in Bangladesh.
The presence of someone as important as the US ambassador is likely to attract attention whenever his convoy moves into a densely populated Dhaka area. Families of victims of disappearance may seek intervention since the US embassy announced that human rights are “at the center” of US foreign policy.
If one knows Bangladesh and Bengalis, some cross-shouting is entirely expected. It could also be an effort to pass the blame onto Awami League.
Can Haas win hearts and minds in Bangladesh by demonstrating a bias towards a coalition whose last government (2001-06) was seen as responsible for the huge spurt in terrorism?
Writer: Kolkata-based commentator and author of “Midnight Massacre” on the 15 August 1975 coup.