If he gets over his disenchantment with the nuclear daredevils of South Asia, Bill Clinton is slated to swing by Bangladesh, too, this October. Expect photo opportunities with cute street children, destitute women and select NGO barons.
Expect unctuous statements about human rights, democracy, poverty alleviation, economic development and bilateral trade. But when it comes to the rub, expect the bottom line to be about energy, and the access of American corporations to the massive gas reserves that have been discovered under Bangla soil and sea.
The visit, some months back, by Bill Richardson, special envoy of the president and the US Ambassador to the United Nations gave us a taste of things to come. As he came and went, the Dhaka media and intelligentsia cooed with appreciation and amity. As we all know, the task of mature journalism and pragmatic scholarship is to keep the truth beyond the reach of the general public.
Bangladesh claims to have a nominally free press, but Clinton´s visit will demonstrate how much intellectual freedom and social responsibility is exhibited in the local media. With loan-defaulting, land-encroaching newspaper proprietors among those manoeuvring for their slice of the gas fields, it is unlikely that this part of the ‘free press’ will ever be any more autonomous than the print media operating under the direct patronage of the state. More liberal, less unscrupulous editors will be too flattered by the thought of meeting the US president, too concerned about social standing; under such circumstances there will be no serious departure from mainstream ululations of welcome and cooperation. There will be long post-editorials by people invited to official functions who will pass off overheard reception banter as “intelligence” and “insight” on the state of bilateral relations.
So, what will be missing? When Bill Clinton comes to Bangladesh, what will we not hear? We already know about American interest in human rights, responsive governance, increased transparency, and the “commitment of up to USD 600,000 to projects in this area”. To hear them say it, human rights and advancing democracy are subjects which will carry equal weight as energy at the forthcoming bilateral talks. However, truth be told, support for human rights and democracy is but the public relations counterpoint to the real business of energy.
After all, how would it look if Clinton came to Bangladesh to discuss only energy? The investment in human rights and democracy represents negligible sums, made to distract public attention from the hundreds of millions of dollars that American corporations stand to gain in the gas fields. It makes you look progressive. It serves to legitimise your presence. It’s damn good business.
The United States of America has no substantial interest in advancing human rights or democracy in Bangladesh. Its main interest is to use its power to overwhelm Bangladesh with ‘goodwill’ and pressure so as to get at the booty. In its strategy, the United States is using what they have learnt from that matron of all imperial powers, Great Britain.
Britain was extolling the virtues of free trade in the 1860s, the time of its imperial pre-eminence. The British global presence then was somewhat akin to that of the Americans today. All Britain had to do to fend off any military threats was to instigate proprietary laws in its vast colonies and to utilise appropriated resources. For example, the 1865 and 1878 Indian Forest Acts were used to exclude local people and give the British monopoly stakes in the teak forests of the Mysore Presidency; this teak was used to build warships to fight the Germans. These Acts were accompanied by far more progressive but lightweight forest policies, which spoke dreamily of local people’s rights to access.
Note the parallels. The British promulgated proprietary forest laws to secure resources for themselves while offering the local people meaningless liberal forest policies that suggested progress and change. The British got their teak but the people of South Asia didn’t get their land back. The Americans today are lobbying to secure a deciding and lucrative gas-mining contract while offering token project support for human rights and democratic progress. Sounds like a fair swap.
Still, the Americans do not have the distinguished pedigree of gentrified theft and polite intimidation perfected by the British for over two centuries. To make up for these inadequacies, American administrations past and present have resorted to laughable moral arguments to defend their transgressions. These embarrassing, soft focus and holier-than-thou iterations about the greater good of mankind of course feature the USA in the role of Guardian. And why not? If you write the script, you can be the leading actor.
“The 20th century has been charac-terised by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy,” says Australian social scientist Alex Carey.
The propaganda of foreign oil companies in Bangladesh has already begun. Half- and full-page advertisements over the past year in many of the national dailies testify to this. Democracy and market access are frequently clumped together with public statements from the Americans in a way that is confusing. The following is a guess as to what the actual relationship could be.
The concept of ‘democracy’, American-style, is understood to mean acceptance of market discipline favoured by Western transnationals. This ‘democracy’ is not locally generated and self-articulated, and is actually threatened if you or I feel concern for basic human needs such as education, health, jobs and food for our children. This ‘democracy’ is about safeguarding economic rationality with its shops full of goods we cannot afford, profits flowing to Western investors and a detached, capitalist class of Bangladeshis happy with their jobs with transnationals because of status, good pay and offices that have air conditioners and Pentium computers.
Frontline of pillage
It may be too late. Even as Bangladesh struggles to establish a responsive democratic system of national and local government with literate elected representatives who value public service in the national interest, it just may be too late. The transformation of our economic and political system into one that serves the market, or rather serves those in the market with purchasing power, will make a profound impact on the worldview of the typical Bangladeshi.
This is a country still searching for its soul. There is little sense of nationhood, except for those exaggerated expressions we see on the memorial days of 16 December, 21 February and 26 March. Most Bangladeshis today, whether small entrepreneurs or day labourers, work alone. Those of us not worried about where the next meal is coming from are at most concerned about our families. Thoughts about where the country is going leave us feeling numb and overwhelmed.
As actors in a market, we are dependent on our own initiatives on expanding the economy. Social capital – the resources of a community – is gradually being eroded as patterns of social organisation realign around economic imperatives. The country’s celebrity loan-defaulters and frauds are just taking the quick way out of this nexus.
As lifestyles change, we have little contact with other workers or with our neighbours in the representation of public interest. Our exposure to political or labour organisations is minimal, except at election time when candidates come knocking. We, as a people, have yet to make full use of our human resources and our disposition is weak when approaching or confronting the institutions of state. We are economically fragile and insecure. We also want jobs with transnationals because of status, good pay and offices that have air conditioners and Pentium computers.
The fragmentation of communities is being accomplished by the free market and its free riders, making society easier to govern and exploit. This is an end that past autocratic regimes in Bangladesh could only have fantasised about. Unless we are fully aware of what is happening, oil companies from America and elsewhere will loot Bangladesh. And we won’t even know it is happening.
Some cynics will see this as part of a historical continuum, the latest link in a chain where Marwari, British, Pakistani and then our own elites have expropriated the resources of this country. Multinational energy companies have already set up shop, creating as a frontline a class of Bangladeshis, sophisticated and cosmopolitan, who will defend this potential pillage. Nowhere to date has there been a serious discussion on the redistributive potential of the wealth to be generated by these foreign investments.
Behind the diplomatic lies of political delegations and business representations, Bangladesh is at risk of falling apart, both culturally and politically. And this at a time when we are trying to deepen the roots of human rights and democracy. American promises are a meaningless distraction. This is simply not where their concerns are. That is why American oil companies complained to the US State Department after Madeleine Albright cancelled her visit to Bangladesh in November 1997, feeling it had harmed their interests in the country. That is why the US Energy Secretary planned a visit to Bangladesh this year.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh is already a land of disconnected people less able to participate in the institutions of power. A majority of the urban cosmopolitan elite has little knowledge and no empathy with the rest of the country, except as a place where they can make money more easily than if they were in Britain or America. The cumulative impact of this is that we are unlikely to see any concerted challenge to the current ideology of the market and the will of transnational energy corporations in the near future.
So, there it is. Welcome to the Willing Fields of Bangladesh. What is mine is yours and what is yours is…yours.