Op-Ed by Ambassador Earl Miller
For weeks I have been working on this article. I couldn’t get it right. What is the best way to congratulate the people of Bangladesh on the 50th anniversary of the founding of this remarkable country and the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman? I couldn’t capture the magnitude, the improbability, the significance of the victory for freedom and the birth of a new nation. So, I am going to turn to the words of another far more eloquent American, the late Senator Edward Kennedy.
Before I do, let me highlight just a few of the innumerable bonds forged between the people of the United States and Bangladesh over the past five decades.
The United States has contributed over eight billion dollars in assistance to Bangladesh, including 73 million dollars in support of Bangladesh’s Covid-19 response.
Our economic partnership grows every year with two-way trade reaching a record nine billion dollars in 2019. The United States is the largest single-country export destination for Bangladeshi products, and remains the largest source of stock foreign direct investment. American companies built Bangladesh’s first liquefied natural gas import facility, helped dredge the nation’s mighty rivers, shared technology that transformed Bangladesh into a digital nation, and now provide world-class airplanes and locomotives to facilitate travel and trade. Next month we will launch together the US-Bangladesh Business Council to inspire even greater economic prosperity for the American and Bangladeshi people.
Bangladesh’s generosity and humanity in responding to the Rohingya refugee crisis is an example to the world. The United States is the largest international donor of humanitarian assistance to Bangladeshi host communities and Rohingya refugees. Working with Bangladesh on a durable solution to the crisis is one of my top priorities at the US Embassy.
We work together on climate change, peacekeeping, regional security, educational and cultural exchanges and so much more. The friendship between the United States and Bangladesh grows stronger and deeper every year.
On February 14, 1972, on the campus of Dhaka University, Senator Edward Kennedy spoke before thousands of jubilant students on the similarities between the birth of the United States and that of Bangladesh. He spoke of how so many had predicted that America would collapse after independence and how many predicted the same for Bangladesh. Senator Kennedy helped plant a new banyan tree on the university campus, replacing the famous tree destroyed by Pakistani security forces where student independence leaders had once gathered. That tree thrives, a living symbol of the indomitable spirit of Bangladesh and the enduring friendship and ever-growing partnership between our great nations.
I have come to Bangladesh to bring you the prayers and hopes of millions of people of the United States of America, and I’m proud to stand here at Dacca University, long the symbol and focus of the Bengali struggle for self-determination, and the first target of those who have sought to repress that freedom.
It is in the finest tradition of America to embrace the cause of freedom, wherever it may be found.
The American people are proud to stand with those who struggle for liberty, for human dignity and for the noblest aspirations of man.
You know while some governments do not yet recognise you, the people of the world do recognise you, and they recognise all you have accomplished here in the name of freedom from tyranny and oppression.
We are brothers in liberty, and no man, no policy, no government can change that fact. I have come to Bangladesh as one who has tried to be with you in your struggle. A few months ago, in August, I walked among the living and the dying in your refugee camps in India. I saw children starving and families destroyed by the ravages of war.
I hoped to come to Bangladesh as well, but I was turned away by the government of West Pakistan, a military government afraid for the world to see inside its borders. I was troubled, as the world was troubled, by the suffering of your people, and now I rejoice, as the world rejoices, at the bright new chapter you have written in the history of liberty on earth. The prayer of Bengal’s great poet and philosopher has been answered: “Where the mind is without fear”, said Tagore, “and the head is held high”, “Where knowledge is free, into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.”
Freedom is yours and the future belongs to the people of a new Bengali nation. For generations to come, the story of Bangladesh will be a lesson to the world. The birth of the Bengali nation will be an inspiration to other people in other lands, a symbol to all who share your love of life and the spirit of your courage, but who do not yet share your freedom.
There are many parallels between the United States and Bangladesh. Two hundred years ago, in America, ten thousand miles from where we are today, there were other people who followed the star of freedom; our beginning was no more auspicious than your ones. Like you, a powerful and established government was determined to deny us freedom. Like you, once the new American nation was born, there were those who said such a weak and impoverished country could not survive in the modern world. They thought our great experiment in freedom would surely fail.
And yet we confounded all their wisdom. We were poor in everything but hope and courage.
We had no wealth, but we had resources far more valuable and important. We had people with the energy and commitment to make our nation strong, and leaders with the vision to see the way, and help the people build their future.
The revolution in America did not end in 1776. It did not die with Washington and Jefferson. It lives today in our efforts to fulfil the goal of liberty and equality for all our citizens, black and white alike. And it lives as well in the hopes we share for those who are oppressed in other nations.
That is why the struggle of the people of Bangladesh has deeply touched the conscience of America. It evokes the greatest memories of our past and demonstrates that our love of freedom transcends all thought of race or colour or religion or nationality.
The people of America were with you in recent months, although our government was not. We are with you now in spirit, and the leaders of America will not be far behind.
The real foreign policy of America is citizen to citizen, friend to friend, people to people, foreign bonds of brotherhood that no tyranny can diminish. For in a sense, we are all Bengalis, we are all Americans, and we all share the great alliance of humanity. For those who doubt that freedom and self-determination are the most powerful forces at work in the world today, let them come to Bangladesh.
I have come here to say that America cares. I have come to learn from the father of your country, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I have come to talk again with those who suffered so much in the refugee camps and to ask what my fellow countrymen and I can do to cease the pain of those who have survived and have done so much to preserve freedom.
If any words of an American can help to heal the wounds you have endured, to reconcile those who live among you and who now must live together, they are the words that Abraham Lincoln spoke a century ago as we neared the end of our own great Civil War.
“With malice toward none”, said President Lincoln, “with charity for all: with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and for his orphan; to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
In the spirit of the best in America, in the spirit of our constitution, and our declaration of independence, I salute your great new birth of freedom, and I say Joy Bangla, victory for the nation of Bangladesh.
On behalf of the American and Bangladeshi team at the United States Embassy in Dhaka: Happy 50th birthday, Bangladesh! We celebrate and rejoice with you. We honour the vision of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and salute the extraordinary journey of the Bangladeshi people. We send our best wishes for a bright prosperous future for all Bangladeshis that honours the sacrifices and democratic principles of the nation’s founding. As Tagore wrote in one of my favourite poems, Closed Path, let “new melodies break forth from the heart” as every hopeful day for the next fifty years and beyond a “new country is revealed with its wonders.”