DHAKA, Bangladesh – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday urged Bangladesh's feuding political leaders to work together and end their most recent bout of discord for the good of their impoverished country.
Clinton said that weeks of strikes and protests that have paralyzed the country and killed at least five people have undermined development and scared of foreign investors. The actions stem from the disappearance of an opposition leader last month.
She appealed to Bangladeshis to respect the rule of law and called for a robust government investigation of the missing politician and allegations by the opposition of a brutal crackdown on dissent.
"Violent demonstrations ... exact a heavy toll, especially on Bangladesh's poorest and most vulnerable citizens," Clinton said. "They also send a negative signal to the international community about the investment climate here."
"We strongly urge all sides to settle differences through constructive political dialogue," Clinton told reporters at a news conference with Foreign Minister Dipu Moni.
She said that in a strong democracy, "everybody has to be rowing in the same direction because you are all in the same boat. You are going to make progress together or you are going to run into very turbulent waters."
Clinton visited the county as first lady with her daughter, Chelsea, in 1995 and later worked with New York's Bangaldeshi community as a U.S. senator. She said she felt strongly about the country's success. "This is personal for me," she said.
In recent weeks, the situation in the capital has grown increasingly tense. General strikes have brought the country to a standstill, leading to the arrest of dozens of opposition activists, and homemade bombs have exploded across the city.
"It is important that in this country ... everybody take seriously any disappearance, any violence against activists, any oppression of civil society, any intimidation of the press," said Clinton, who arrived in Bangladesh from China where she was embroiled in the case of a blind Chinese activist who had fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. "That is just what is required in the 21st century if democracy (is to be) sustainable."
In advance of the visit by Clinton, the first secretary of state to stop in Dhaka since 2003, the opposition suspended protests in a goodwill gesture that reflects the importance Bangladeshis place on relations with the United States, one of their largest trading partners.
In talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, opposition leader Khaleda Zia and civic leaders, Clinton was stressing the importance of inclusive democracy and unity to improve living conditions in the country of 160 million that the U.S. sees as a potentially important voice for moderation among Muslim majority nations.
American officials said the trip was aimed at taking U.S.-Bangladesh ties to a new level by creating a new strategic dialogue and encouraging further cooperation on counterterrorism, health, environmental and educational issues.
Not everyone was pleased with the visit, though as dozens of students paraded through the campus of Dhaka University on Saturday to protest Clinton's visit, saying the U.S. cannot be a friend of Bangladesh and chanting, "Go, go Hillary."
At least 22 people, mostly politicians, have disappeared this year, according to a local human-rights group, Ain-o-Salish Kendra. Another Dhaka-based group, Odhikar, says more than 50 people have disappeared since 2010. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have blamed security agencies for the disappearances.
Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have been bitter rivals for decades but the latest anger over what the opposition says is political repression erupted into the streets after an opposition party leader, Elias Ali, went missing along with his driver April 17 from a street in Dhaka. His car was found later abandoned.
The opposition blamed the government and launched five days of general strikes over the past two weeks in protest. The government accused the opposition of hiding Ali to give it an excuse to create anarchy in the streets. He has still not been found.
The foreign minister said Bangladesh wanted the U.S. to eliminate its 15.3 percent tariff on Bangladesh's vital garment industry. Bangladesh exported $5.1 billion worth of goods — mainly garments — to the U.S. last year and imported $676 million worth in return.
Bangladeshi officials believe that dropping the duty will send exports soaring even further and boost the economy.
The countries are also expected to discuss an investment and trade framework agreement that would protect the huge investments of U.S. energy giants like Chevron and ConocoPhillips.
Chevron, one of the biggest foreign investors here, supplies half Bangladesh's natural gas needs, while ConocoPhillips is exploring for gas in the deep waters of the Bay of Bengal.
Clinton also was expected to raise the issue of Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus' ouster from his Grameen Bank, which pioneered providing small loans to the poor. Clinton on Sunday is to meet the 71-year-old Yunus, a family friend, who the government forced out last year, saying he was well past the retirement age of 60.
Yunus' allies said the ouster was political and pointed to Hasina's anger at his 2007 effort to form a political party backed by the army when the country was under a state of emergency and Hasina was behind bars.
Clinton did not mention Yunus by name on Saturday but said she thought it was imperative that the government find a new managing director for the Grameen Bank.
Bangladesh is also seeking the repatriation of Rashed Chowdhury, who is facing a death sentence for his role in the 1975 assassination of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina's father, during a military coup. The government says he lives in the United States, and the two nations have no extradition treaty.