It appears that our foreign minister did not quite grasp the diplomatic fallout it would cause with the United States by the unceremonious sacking of Nobel winner Muhammad Yunus from the Grameen Bank.
“It’s not logical to affect the Dhaka-Washington ties over the issue of Prof Yunus”, Dipu Moni said at a press conference on March 4, while commenting on the visible discontent of the United States ambassador James F Moriarty, who expressed “deep concern” at the manner Yunus was ousted.
Diplomats normally work under very tight brief and they are well known for their reticence in making statements about the country they serve in.
So it was quite obvious the depth of anger the American administration felt when Moriarty told reporters about his government’s reaction over the sustained campaign spearheaded in recent days and his subsequent sacking by the government of Sheikh Hasina.
Moriarty’s public comment clearly indicates it would definitely have an impact on US-Bangladesh relations. Dipu Moni is right on one count though; the American reaction would not be swift and virulent. For instance, it is unlikely Washington would recall its ambassador or severe diplomatic ties with Dhaka. Nor is it going to put a travel ban on senior Bangladesh officials including prime minister Sheikh Hasina.
So how is the United States going to punish the Hasina government? My sources in Washington say the first impact would be felt by the Bangladesh diplomats serving in Washington who are most likely to face the music in their encounters with American officials.
Second, many bilateral issues including the most pressing one on getting duty-free access of Bangladeshi exports to the US market would simply languish and won’t make any headway in the near future.
Third, the positive image that Bangladesh is desperately trying to project as a country at the forefront of fighting poverty and women empowerment would come under serious scrutiny.
One might argue that the United States is too big a country to waste its precious time and energy on an insignificant country like Bangladesh, especially at a time when it’s deeply preoccupied with many immediate foreign policy concerns, particularly in the Middle East.
In a way that’s a valid argument. But the Grameen issue is far more serious, if not a national issue for the United States but because some very powerful people have taken a personal interest in the matter.
And the most important of them is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She’s just not another member of the Obama cabinet. She’s a real heavy weight and as president Obama remarked at the state dinner for Chinese president Hu Jintao at the White House recently, “Hillary is the most outstanding secretary of state in the history of the United States”.
So it is quite extraordinary for someone of that stature and influence in the US administration to make a personal phone call to prime minister Hasina expressing her concern about Yunus, who she said on many occasions is a long time family friend of the Clintons. And she did so despite the fact that she could squeeze some time out of her extremely busy schedule to make the phone call.
Moreover, Yunus is not just a close family friend of the Clintons; he is also a highly respected figure in America recognised by the fact that he was recently awarded the country’s highest civilian award.
What has especially endeared Yunus to Americans in particular and the rest of the world in general is his modest lifestyle and incorruptible reputation, especially in a country known to be one of the most corrupt in the world. Unlike many chief executives of microfinance institutions and nongovernmental organisation, Yunus never wears a suit and tie even when he’s meeting presidents, prime ministers and kings.
In one of my many interviews with him, I once asked why he doesn’t put on a suit, especially when meeting foreign dignitaries. “It would be hypocritical. I should project myself the way I live in my own country”, he told me. “I work with poor people and I should not wear anything that would make them feel I’m not one of them”.
When I first met him years ago, I was struck to see his modest office with ordinary furniture with no sofa and air conditioners, something highly unusual in a country known for sweltering summer heat. Yunus still lives in a modest apartment inside the Grameen Bank headquarter in Mirpur and moves about in a microbus.
All these qualities, besides his pioneering work in poverty alleviation have also made him a darling of the international media. The outpouring of sympathy generated by his ouster in the foreign media is simply extraordinary.
Here in the United States, The New York Times and The Washington Post — two most influential papers — have made quite a splash. So has the venerable British weekly magazine The Economist.
What’s most damaging for the Bangladesh government is the not so subtle message the international media has conveyed: That the whole campaign against Yunus has been the result of personal vendetta of prime minister Sheikh Hasina.
In its current issue The Economist bluntly put the blame on her.
Fourteen years ago, in Sheikh Hasina’s first term of office the situation could not have been more different. In February 1997, as co-chair of the Microcredit Summit Council of Heads of State and Government, she declared that “We in Bangladesh are proud of the outstanding work done by Professor Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he founded.”
He has demonstrated to the world that the poor have the capacity to productively use even a small credit and change their fate [sic]. The success of the Grameen Bank has created optimism about the viability of banks engaged in extending microcredit to the poor.
So one might have expected her to be pleased when, nine years later, Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel peace prize for those very achievements. But as Economist reports, Sheikh Hasina had long before come to think that she herself was due the prize: not for microcredit-anything but for signing the Chittagong Hill Tracts treaty, also in 1997, which brought an end to almost two decades of fighting. Egged on by sycophants, she sent senior civil servants around the world to lobby for her nomination, unsuccessfully.
Instead, suddenly, Mr Yunus had become by far the most famous Bangladeshi in the world, usurping even the prime minister’s late father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the country to Independence in 1971. According to those who know her personally, this was a bitter pill for Sheikh Hasina to swallow.
Given the reputation and credibility The Economist enjoys, Bangladesh government should be deeply concerned about its standing, especially in an interconnected world.
I’m not in a position to make a judgment whether Sheikh Hasina was personally responsible, but her public comment about Yunus as a “blood sucker of the poor” definitely conveyed her personal grudge against the Nobel winner.
It’s a pity that our leaders still do not get over the obsession with personal likes and dislikes and put the country’s interest above everything else.
I wonder why men like the finance minister AMA Muhith and her economic adviser Mashiur Rahman could not restrain her from making such derogatory comments and wait until the outcome of the ongoing investigation against the Grameen Bank was over.
But then what do you expect out of these bureaucrats-turned politicians, who have done nothing except parroting—Yes Sir (read madam) in their entire career.
Last but not least, I’m not suggesting Yunus is indispensable and he’s above the law. But there should have been a more dignified way to deal with the issue.
Moreover, I’ll fault Yunus for not stepping down on his own even before the controversy began and for not grooming a successor to replace him.
Arshad Mahmud is a senior editor and Washington Correspondent for bdnews24.com.