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US is low key about alleged Bangladeshi crackdown

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FOSTER KLUG | June 14, 2008 07:06 AM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — When Bangladesh's military-backed government arrested more than 10,000 people, human rights activists denounced it as a political crackdown six months ahead of elections at the end of this year meant to restore elected government. In Washington, the Bush administration was largely silent.

In contrast to its loud and repeated criticism of the governments of Myanmar and Zimbabwe, which the United States believes are subverting democracy, the Bush administration says little about a makeshift government in Bangladesh that has curtailed citizens' democratic rights since taking power in January 2007.

That may be because the new leaders have brought a measure of stability to the poor, Muslim-majority nation, cracked down on corruption and, perhaps most importantly for the United States, acted tough against terrorism.

As long as Bangladesh's government is doing the things the U.S. wants it to do, "I don't think (the U.S.) is going to be terribly upset" about other issues, said Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist at the RAND Corp.

Human Rights Watch says many of those arrested in recent weeks are local-level political party leaders and activists. Bangladesh's police chief has denied accusations the arrests are politically motivated.

Asked shortly after the rights group issued its criticism whether the United States had any comment on the roundup, the State Department's chief spokesman, Sean McCormack, had a one-word answer: No.

Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, later said President Bush's government was making its concerns known in Bangladesh, but Washington needs "to understand it a little better before we say more" about whether the arrests are evidence of backsliding on democracy.

"With so many arrests being carried out, we wonder if they're really being done in accordance with due process and protections of law," Boucher said. He has said that the United States will not accept deviation from the establishment of democracy in Bangladesh.

The measured U.S. comments stand in contrast to the vigor with which Washington has condemned events in Zimbabwe and Myanmar.

Myanmar's military leaders have turned the army against pro-democracy protesters and kept aid groups from reaching cyclone victims. In Zimbabwe, opposition groups accuse President Robert Mugabe of orchestrating violence and intimidation in the run-up to elections. Bush and other senior U.S. officials, as well as other world leaders, have criticized these countries repeatedly.

Henrik Alffram, a Human Rights Watch consultant, said he had seen very little reaction from any country about the crackdown. "This is a concern of the international community, but, obviously, they haven't decided how to react yet," he said.

Another reason for the Bush administration's response to events in Bangladesh is that it could be waiting to see how the promised December elections turn out.

Ali Riaz, a specialist on Bangladesh and professor at Illinois State University, said the United States, mindful of Bangladesh's shaky political situation, is being very careful about what it says. The fear is that U.S. interference could lead to something even more chaotic.

Terrorism is a major worry for the United States, especially after a string of bombings in Bangladesh blamed on a banned Islamic group. The army has taken "a zero-tolerance policy" against extremism, Fair said, something that "really played to the international community."

Similarly, in Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf overcame criticism over his seizing power in a 1999 coup when, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, the Bush administration embraced him as "indispensable" to the U.S.-led fight against extremists in South Asia.

Another explanation for the U.S. response to events in Bangladesh, Fair said, is "really thin" resources for South Asia within the U.S. government, with most devoted to Afghanistan, Pakistan and a Bush administration push for a civilian nuclear cooperation accord with India.

"Bangladesh is not ever going to sustain the interest," Fair said. "It's a mess, and not enough attention is given to 160 million people who used to have, albeit a problematic democracy, a democracy nonetheless."