Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wajed observes as U.S. Secretary… (Pavel Rahman / Associated…)
NEW DELHI — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday urgedBangladesh's squabbling political factions to resolve their differences as she arrived in the country, which has been beset by weeks of general strikes, demonstrations and violence since an opposition politician disappeared last month.
The government and the opposition declared a truce for Clinton's visit. Each side blames the other for the disappearance of Elias Ali, one of as many as 22 people, mostly politicians, who have gone missing this year, according to human rights groups.
"We strongly urge all sides to settle differences through constructive political dialogue," Clinton said at a news conference in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.
Chronic infighting in the impoverished Muslim-majority country with 160 million people has been a huge drag on much-needed development efforts driven by the country's ambition to be a middle-income nation by 2021, analysts say.
In her meeting with Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wajed, Clinton is expected to raise the issue of Ali's disappearance, which human rights groups have decried.
"We're calling for a full independent investigation, including looking into the government's own security forces," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch. "There is suspicion this could perhaps be security forces under pressure to reduce extrajudicial killings."
Clinton is also expected to encourage further cooperation between the United States and Bangladesh on counter-terrorism, environmental, health, food security and educational issues.
Washington views Bangladesh as a prospective voice for moderation and leadership among Muslim-majority nations and pledged in January to extend nearly $1 billion in aid to the country over the next five years.
Clinton had hoped to sign a long-discussed trade and investment deal that would safeguard large investments by U.S. energy giants such as Chevron and ConocoPhillips. But analysts say disagreements over labor standards and anti-corruption safeguards demanded by the U.S. side prevented a deal in time.
"It was expected there would be a signing, but there are still problems," said Zaid Bakht, research director with the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies based in Dhaka.
Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said her government would ask the U.S. to eliminate its 15% import tariff on the Bangladeshi garment industry. Bangladesh exported $5.1 billion worth of goods, mostly apparel, to the U.S. last year and imported $676 million worth in return.
Clinton is also expected to meet with Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, the founder of pioneering Grameen Bank, which focuses on giving very small loans to large numbers of poor people.
Yunus, a friend of the Clintons, was ousted from the bank last year by the government over what some analysts say was a fear he that was becoming too popular, representing a potential political threat. The government denied this, saying he was past his mandatory retirement age.