WikiLeaks: Hasina wanted to improve image with US in 1991


Hasina-Khaleda 1991-2 W MilamSoon after the BNP came to power on March 20, 1991, then opposition leader in parliament Sheikh Hasina alleged that the government had been turning authoritarian.

She was also against the BNP’s constitution amendment proposals, especially shackling the president.

She said that the BNP proposal contains a provision that the president is ‘bound’ to dissolve the parliament if the prime minister so requests. The Awami League, Sheikh Hasina said, is opposed to this shackling of presidential discretion on the matter of dissolution of the parliament,” then US ambassador in Dhaka William Bryant Milam wrote in a cable sent to Washington after a two-hour meeting with the AL chief on July 10 the same year.

She mentioned that the Awami League was very much opposed to the provision that would bar a party member who crossed the floor from running for reelection for five years.

Hasina pointed out that Khaleda Zia, the country’s first female prime minister, would end up with authoritarian powers over her party and over any dissenters in it through such provisions.

Currently, Milam is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC

Hasina appeared relaxed and much more friendly than usual…It is clear she wants to improve relations with the USG [we have heard this from another source also].

In previous meetings, she has appeared tense and somewhat on guard; in this meeting, she seemed much more open and willing to discuss a range of issues without the usual sloganeering. Her relaxed demeanour was also evidenced by her willingness to talk about her family and other personal items.”

Milam said: “She began the discussion by saying that she had just come from a meeting with upazila chairmen who were extremely upset because they were being dismissed by the BNP government.

As she pointed out, these chairmen were elected in the upazila elections of march 1990, and their terms are not yet completed. Sheikh Hasina raised the question of how elected upazila chairmen could be dismissed by the majority party in the parliament under the constitution.”

Hasina said the BNP was harassing Awami League members and workers in villages and upazilas throughout the country,” reads the cable.

She said that she was trying to lead her party in responsible opposition. She pointed out that there had been pressure within the Awami League for insisting that the “indemnity bill” be linked to the constitutional amendment. [the indemnity bill is a bill which authorises the prosecution of the assassins of her father, Sheikh Mujib.] She resisted these pressures and instead directed that the indemnity bill be put in as a separate bill, to be debated on its own merits.”

Milam said: “I mentioned that we had noted her responsible leadership over the past few months, and praised her for keeping opposition to the BNP government within the confines of parliament. I indicated that the roots of democracy must sink deep and take good hold, and that a responsible opposition, confining its opposition to legitimate parliamentary procedures, would have great bearing on the ability of democracy to flourish.”

Student violence

Milam said he had asked Hasina about the student violence at the university. “I indicated that in my view this issue had to be resolved quickly if it was not to spread and worsen. I went on to suggest that all parties would have to agree to refrain from backing their students in these universities power struggles, and indicate to their student factions that they would not support the use of arms or violence on the campus.”

Hasina replied that it is up to the government to stop violence on the campus. She blamed the prime minister for continuing to allow student violence to occur.

She said that if the government cracked down, the situation could be rectified in 30 minutes. These students only have weapons she said because the government looks the other way.

She would support the government in a general agreement to back away from student politicisation and on disarming the campus.

When pressed, she mentioned that the main reason she would support such a resolution is because arming the students is costly. “She said the Awami League can no longer afford to supply its students with arms,” the cable states.

The conversation shifted to US presence in Bangladesh, particularly after I broached the subject of the recent visit of the peace corps director, Paul Coverdell,” Molam said.

I mentioned that, in 1978, a peace corps agreement had been signed but that the then-government of Zia Rahman had never established a peace corps program because of the reaction of the opposition, including her party.

I went on to describe the peace corps as a volunteer, face-to-face organisation which essentially works at the micro level, usually under the direction of the government itself.”

Hasina did not respond directly to the points. “Instead she asked me whether the US opposes her and or her party. She said that one of the current rumours in Bangladesh, particularly among her own party workers, is that the US is strongly opposed either to her or to her party coming to power.

I responded immediately that there was no substance to this rumour and that we did not take sides among political parties in any country, and that we would work eagerly and positively with any government elected by the people of Bangladesh.

I mentioned that we did not agree with all of the aspects of the party programmes of most of the parties in Bangladesh. I said that the tendency on the part of some elements of the AL to think in terms of socialist solutions had always been troublesome to US.

I also mentioned that, as had been demonstrated over the past six months, there were small elements of her party and of the leftist parties with which the AL is aligned, towards a knee- jerk anti-Americanism.”

She responded that there is still the feeling among some members of her party’s cadre that the US was somehow implicated in the assassination of her father.

Hasina said that she had taken great risk when she visited the US for the first time in the middle 1980’s. She stated that she had been criticised loudly by many parts of her party as well as other parties for doing business with the Americans.

She went on to say that she does not think that most of the members of her party still hold this view, but that some do.

She said that perhaps the US should have worked harder to rebut these allegations in the early years after they occurred, and that the USG should still seek to assure people that it had no connection with Sheikh Mujib’s death, whenever the opportunity arises.

Sheikh Hasina spent a considerable amount of time explaining why the party’s call for socialism was really not/not a call for socialism. She said that she personally had no sympathy for socialism, that she knows that it is a failed system, everywhere. She said that the only prescription she wanted was how to help the Bangladesh people develop economically.”

Milam said: “I assured her again that we do not interfere in the internal affairs of countries and we work positively with freely elected governments. She mentioned that in part, the anti-American cast of some AL workers might also stem from our perceived proclivity to work with anti-democratic forces such as the previous regime.” (Note: Sheikh Hasina continually throws the regime of Ziaur Rahman into the anti-democratic forces.)

The meeting ended on a very friendly note. towards the end, I suggested that if Sheikh Hasina were prime minister we would be working closely and positively with her, as we would with most governments.

When I said that she might now be prime minister, she lifted her eyes to the ceiling and said “God help me,” implying very strongly that she was perfectly prepared at this point in Bangladesh history, with all the immense problems the new government faces, to sit in opposition.”

During this same part of the conversation, I had mentioned the tremendous task the government has in reforming the economy and she agreed with that, and understood that it would take very, very hard decisions on very difficult issues.

In his comment, the former ambassador said: “I am unable to judge whether Sheikh Hasina really believes that the US opposes her or her party. However, the length of the meeting, its warmth, and her relaxation clearly indicate that she wants to improve her ties to me, to this mission, and to the USG.”

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