Clinton Touts Ties With Bangladesh

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton on Monday became the first American head of state to visit Bangladesh, and he lavishly praised the political and economic progress that this impoverished nation has made since winning its war of independence from Pakistan 29 years ago.

"You have come together to build a nation that has won the respect of the world," Clinton declared during a daylong visit filled with pageantry and mutual admiration.

After meeting with Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wajed, the president participated in a series of events to highlight not only Bangladesh's achievements but also its growing ties with the United States.

"Our nations grow closer every day--through expanding trade, through the Internet revolution, and through our shared interest in building a world more peaceful, more tolerant, more prosperous and more free," Clinton said. "Today marks only the beginning of a stronger partnership."

Large and friendly crowds lined the dusty streets of this steamy capital to see Clinton's motorcade. Many of the flag-waving schoolchildren were dressed in colorful uniforms.

"Bangladesh is a country that, by traditional economic measurement, is still poor," Clinton said. "But as I saw today, in terms of the spirit and the ability of the people, it is full of riches."

The president's trip here came at the start of a weeklong visit to South Asia, during which peace is very much on his mind, especially because of escalating tensions between India and Pakistan over the disputed region of Kashmir.

Clinton arrived in New Delhi on Sunday night but flew here early Monday. After a state dinner in Dhaka, the capital, he returned to New Delhi and will remain in India until Saturday.

En route home, Clinton will stop in Islamabad, Pakistan, to meet with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who took power from a democratically elected government in a coup in October.

A central mission of Clinton's visit to the region is to promote contacts between Islamabad and New Delhi in hopes that that will help ease tensions.

Clinton also announced Monday that he will fly to Geneva and meet with Syrian President Hafez Assad on Sunday to encourage Syria to enter into direct peace negotiations with Israel.

During his visit to Bangladesh, Clinton was to have helicoptered to Joypura, a village about 20 miles from Dhaka with about 150 mud and corrugated-iron houses. But the trip was canceled at the behest of the U.S. Secret Service for reasons that senior White House officials would not discuss.

Instead, several hundred villagers from Joypura were brought to the U.S. Embassy for a meeting with the president.

In remarks to the media after a bilateral meeting with Wajed, Clinton evoked memories of Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence and said Bangladesh "did not receive the support it deserved from many countries around the world."

In their private meeting, Wajed also urged the United States to deport three men now in America who have been implicated in the 1975 assassination of her father, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh.

Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, the president's national security advisor, said Clinton declined to act, noting that the matter was in the courts. Clinton suggested that Washington and Dhaka negotiate an extradition treaty.

Wajed said she was "touched by President Clinton's sympathetic response."

A nation roughly the size of Wisconsin with about 127 million people, Bangladesh has made great strides since the early 1970s. Clinton energetically touted them during his visit.

The literacy rate is up to 65%, and the country--once described by a senior U.S. official as an international "basket case"--is self-sufficient in food production.

Bilateral trade between the U.S. and Bangladesh has risen from $653 million in 1991 to $2.2 billion last year. With vast reserves of natural gas, Bangladesh is playing host to an ever-growing number of international energy companies.

In the diplomatic arena, Bangladesh has played increasingly visible peacekeeping roles around the world. It recently ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty--action that Clinton hopes India and Pakistan will emulate.

Clinton did not come empty-handed. He announced that the U.S. Agency for International Development will provide $50 million to Bangladesh and other nations in South Asia to harness clean energy resources. The agency also will provide an additional $97 million in food assistance.

The president committed the U.S. to give $8.6 million to help 30,000 children move from work, often in hazardous industries, to schools. And he said several more millions of dollars will be given to help develop solar energy programs in villages.

Among the programs that Clinton highlighted was a pet project of Wajed's, called Asrayon, which means "shelter" in Bengali. The prime minister launched the program, modeled after one that her father had started, in 1997 following a devastating cyclone that left nearly 300,000 people homeless.

Clinton also mingled with 32 fourth-graders, who sang folk songs for him and read from their textbooks. The students attend a school that stresses primary education as an alternative to child labor.

Throughout Bangladesh, such programs have taken about 9,000 children out of garment factories and put them into classrooms, Clinton noted. Still, nearly 30% of children 10 to 14 work regular jobs, according to a World Bank report last year. And 4 out of 5 do not finish elementary school.

The president also had a warm meeting with Mohammed Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank here and pioneered so-called microcredit loans that help individuals start small businesses.

Among the beneficiaries was Anjumar Ara from Joypura. She started a cellular telephone business from her home and now earns as much as $600 a month from villagers who use her phones to call friends and relatives around the world.

The microcredit initiative has been duplicated in 60 nations, helping 2.4 million people in 39,000 villages start businesses with loans of as little as several hundred dollars.

"Ninety-four percent of the borrowers are women, and 98% of the loans are repaid," Clinton said.

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