|Bangladesh Forum - Transcript|
THE UNITED STATES COMMISSION ON INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
BANGLADESH: USCIRF FORUM ON BANGLADESH'S UPCOMING NATIONAL ELECTIONS
AMBASSADOR A. TARIQ KARIM,
FORMER AMBASSADOR OF BANGLADESH
TO THE UNITED STATES
SELIG S. HARRISON, DIRECTOR, THE ASIA PROGRAM,
THE CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL POLICY
CYNTHIA R. BUNTON, REGIONAL PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR ASIA, THE INTERNATIONAL REPUBLICAN INSTITUTE
Patrick MERLOE, senior associate and director for Programs on Election Processes, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs
FELICE D. GAER, CHAIR, USCIRF
MICHAEL CROMARTIE, VICE CHAIR, USCIRF
PREETA BANSAL, COMMISSIONER, USCIRF
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 17, 2006, 3:00-5:00 PM
Federal News Service
FELICE GAER: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for joining us this afternoon. My name is Felice Gaer. I'm currently chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which, as you know, is an independent bipartisan federal agency. I'm welcoming you all here to our policy forum on the Bangladesh elections, promoting democracy and protecting rights. I'm very pleased to be joined today, not only by all of you on the panel and in the room, but also by two of my colleagues on the Commission, who traveled with me to Bangladesh earlier this year - to my left, unusually, Michael Cromartie, and to my right, even more unusually - (laughter) - Preeta Bansal, both of who of whom are former Commission chairs.
The three of us, joined by the Commission's executive director, Joseph Crapa - I'm looking for him now. Joe, just raise your hand. There he is, also, on my right. And our senior policy analyst for Bangladesh, Steve Snow, over there. We traveled at the invitation of the government of Bangladesh.
For those unfamiliar with the Commission, it was established in 1998 by Congress as an independent agency to monitor the status of religious freedom throughout the world and to make recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Congress, to ensure that the promotion of human rights, including religious freedom, is a key element of American foreign policy. The Commission is not a part of the Department of State or the executive branch. It is an independent body.
Now, to carry out its mandate, the Commission conducts fact-finding missions abroad and holds public events such as today's forum. With this forum, we mark the release of our Policy Focus on Bangladesh, which is available for you here. It's also available on our website: www.uscirf.gov. And the forum will continue the Commission's efforts to encourage greater attention by U.S. policymakers and the media to Bangladesh, the world's third-largest Muslim country in terms of population: 145 million when last estimated.
I should note that in the Commission's work regarding other predominately Muslim countries, we have regularly held up the constitution of Bangladesh as a positive example of guarantees of human rights, including the guarantee of freedom religion or belief and the equality of all persons before the law.
Now, in our assessment, there have been few functioning moderate democracies in the Muslim world. Bangladesh is still one of them. However, having recently visited Bangladesh, the Commission, very frankly, is concerned that this democracy is in peril because of religious militancy, chronic political violence, and growing intolerance towards religious minorities and towards those within the majority community who hold differing views about Islam and the role of Islam in Bangladeshi society.
Islamic influence has grown in politics and in society in the last few years. Some aspects of this development have troubling implications for human rights. Religious militants have attacked politicians, journalists, women, and other NGO leaders who oppose extremist interpretations of Islam or who try to empower women. Journalists cannot write freely about certain issues, for example, about the Jamaat Party, without facing death threats and assassination attempts. Eight journalists, at least, have been the victims of such attacks and some of you may have seen in the Wall Street Journal in the last week a report about a ninth journalist, Salah Choudhury.
The secular legal system in Bangladesh is under violent assault from extremists calling for the imposition of a form of Islamic law. Our Commission is also concerned that the upcoming elections in January 2007 could see the recurrence of the anti-minority violence and intimidation that occurred with the last national elections in 2001. How Bangladesh chooses to conduct the upcoming elections will either strengthen or erode the democratic institutions that protect religious freedom and other human rights.
Now, as most of you probably know, Bangladesh has a unique system of installing a non-partisan caretaker government for the three-month period before national elections, and that three-month period is about to begin. Our discussion today, therefore, presents a timely opportunity to focus on the issues involved in supporting Bangladesh's efforts to hold an election that is free, fair, and peaceful. This afternoon's program is divided into three segments. First, Commissioners Cromartie and Bansal will speak. Commissioner Michael Cromartie will address the Commission's recommendation relating to the upcoming elections. Commissioner Bansal will summarize the Commission's other recommendations for advancing human rights in Bangladesh and U.S. policy.
Then secondly, we will hear from our panel of distinguished speakers who I shall now introduce. First, Ambassador Tariq Karim, who is a former ambassador of Bangladesh to the United States and a former ambassador to a number of other prominent countries in the region, and currently a Harrison Fellow in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. His biography and his positions are extensive.
Now, that was my cell phone ringing. (Laughter.) But it reminds me to ask all of you to do what I'm going to do right now, which is to please turn off your cell phones if you have them, and any other electronic devices that make this kind of noise. So thank you for doing that.
Now, I was introducing the ambassador. And we're very grateful to him for coming. He's going to comment on the Policy Focus and offer remarks after the two Commissioners.
He will be followed by Selig Harrison, who is sitting next to me as well. Mr. Harrison, whose op-ed you may have seen in the Washington Post last month, is director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy, and he's a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here in Washington. He has predicted so many things that have gone wrong in the world, in that region, over the last 20 or 30 years. I can't list them all but he does remind us that his predictions have even caused people in this cynical town to refer to him as a prophet. I'm not saying that they follow his predictions, but after the fact, people have noted the saliency of his remarks and analysis.
The third speaker will be Ms. Cynthia Bunton, who is the regional program director for Asia at the International Republican Institute and also has a distinguished profile and, I gather, quite a vocation as a singer as well, so I thank you for joining us.
And finally, our final speaker will be Patrick Merloe, who's sitting here on the panel with me as well. Patrick is senior associate and director for Programs on Election Processes at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. The latter two speakers have considerable involvement with regards to America's funding and programming dealing with elections and dealing with the assistance of two parties and to enable them to compete in free and open and democratic elections. And we think that this will be an important addition to our discussion here.
Now, after everybody speaks and the speakers will each - other than the two Commissioners, the other speakers will speak for about 10 minutes each. The discussion will be open to the reaction and comments of guests seated around the table, whom I'm now asking to please identify yourself before you speak and your organizational affiliation when I recognize you during the discussion.
And finally, let me ask the members of the audience to refrain in the course of the discussion from applause or other interruptions. We know that emotions run high on these subjects but we request, please, if you could hold those until after the program. Now, without further ado, I turn the floor over to Commissioner Cromartie, who is a former chair of the Commission and was chair of the Commission when we visited Bangladesh. Thank you.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Thank you. Thank you for coming. As Felice said, I'm Michael Cromartie. I was privileged to be the chair of the Commission when we visited Bangladesh. On our visit, among my fellow Commissioners, I heard a lot of concern regarding Bangladesh's next national elections. These concerns were raised in part on what happened during and after Bangladesh's last election in October 2001, where there was intimidation and violence toward religious minority groups, particularly Hindus, because of their perceived political alliance to one of Bangladesh's two major parties. They were victims of violence and intimidation
In addition to human rights activists, minority group advocates expressed concern to us about repetition of this violence in the next national election, which as you know will be in January 2007. They also voiced serious concerns to our delegation that the current process of voter registration was being manipulated to disenfranchise many minority voters. Within the last few days, the Commission has received new reports that many eligible voters, particularly members of minority religious and ethnic groups, have not been registered.
It is argued that action must now be taken to address these well-founded concerns. To do otherwise will risk undermining the credibility of the democratic process in Bangladesh and will weaken political institutions and values that have been developed with such great effort by the Bangladeshi people.
The Commission believes that urgent measures are needed to safeguard the democratic process. The Commission's new Policy Focus on Bangladesh that you have on your chairs in front of you details our recommendations in this regard. Specifically regarding elections, the Commission recommends that the U.S. government urge the government in Bangladesh to safeguard voting rights of all Bangladeshis and ensure that the elections are free, that they are fair, and that they are peaceful.
And they do so by doing the following: Number one, they should restore public confidence in the nonpartisan and independent character of both the Election Commission and the caretaker government. Number two, by preventing violence before and after the election, including violence against religious minorities. Number three, instituting a voter registration process that will facilitate the enrollment of the maximum number of eligible voters in a manner that does not discriminate on the basis of perceived religious or political affiliation or ethnic background. Number four, using all practical technical means of ensuring the security of the ballot. And then number five, permitting and facilitating international and domestic monitoring of the entire electoral process.
Furthermore, the Commission calls on the government of the United States to prepare and publicize a comprehensive pre- and post-election analysis of the election process with recommendations for needed reform. Also, provide official U.S. government monitors in addition to those already planned by the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute for International affairs, both of which, by the way, are represented here today.
And finally, we call on the U.S. government to work with other interested states and international organizations to increase monitoring and other efforts to forestall election violence with the assistance of indigenous human rights and other civil society organizations. Thank you.
MS. GAER: Thank you very much, Michael. And now we turn to Commissioner Bansal.
MS. BANSAL: Thank you. I'm Preeta Bansal. I'm the other Commissioner on the Commission and also a former chair of the Commission.
I want to reiterate one of the comments that Commissioner Gaer mentioned in her remarks at the outset. And that's that Bangladesh is in many ways a very well-functioning democracy with a representative government chosen by the people with periodic elections that have allowed the peaceful changes of power.
Bangladesh has a very vibrant civil society and a vigorous press. We met outstanding representatives of both civil society and the press during our visit. We also met with government officials whose commitment to democracy and human rights seems very real.
With that said, we are very concerned about three separate areas of concern within Bangladesh. One is the growing societal violence against religious and ethnic minorities and the government's insufficient response to these acts of violence. Second is the growing Islamicization within the government of Bangladesh and the growing Islamicization of Bangladeshi society. So let me just briefly touch on each of them and address some of our recommendations in that regard.
First, in regards to societal violence, as radical Islamic influence is growing in politics, the economy, and the society, there's been a trend toward greater intolerance and violence toward religious minorities, especially Hindus, Ahmadis, and Christians. As previously mentioned, the Commission is concerned about attacks on politicians, journalists, and scholars who oppose extremist interpretations of Islam as well as members of religious minorities and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] that empower women.
Many of you know that the Hindu population in Bangladesh has severely declined in the last several decades and that the Christian population also is eroding rapidly. Courts and judges have been targeted in bombings linked to extremist calls for the imposition of Islamic Sharia law. Islamic extremists have also engaged in violent agitation against the small Ahmadi community with the avowed aim of pressuring the government to declare Ahmadis to be non-Muslims, as has already occurred in Pakistan.
In addition to this anti-minority violence, non-Muslims in Bangladesh face societal discrimination and are disadvantaged in access to government jobs, public services, and the legal system. During the past year, the government has acted more vigorously against violent extremists and has had a number of notable arrests including militant leaders and successful prosecutions of some of those found guilty and being sentenced to death. Yet much more in this area needs to be done.
Secondly, in terms of the growing Islamicization of government, we met with a number of government officials who talked about the need to engage the more extremist elements in society and bring them into the government. And in many ways our experience in Bangladesh was - it seemed to us that Bangladesh was probably the window on some of the issues facing the region as a whole, which is whether to engage with extremists and bring them into government or whether to leave them on the outside.
Our concern with the growing Islamicization of the government is that when brought in, they actually have the potential to use the government apparatus to further goals outside of the government's defined goals.
In this connection I just want to mention an anecdote. We met the minister - the Jamaat-e-Islami minister when we met with the Ministry [of Industry]. We asked him what his interpretation of jihad was. And oftentimes it's interesting because when we ask that question we often get an answer, well, it's not really about violence; it's about an internal struggle. And we were expecting something along those lines. Instead he told us that it meant, basically, using the peaceful means of government, including democracy, to bring about an Islamic world - you know, to bring about an Islamist state. So it was very much using democracy in order to have total control, and I think he used the terms "total control." So we're concerned about that, that by bringing the extremists into government, the effect that that might have on their ability to be influential.
And that leads to the third concern we had, which is the growing Islamicization of society. Some of the concerns we've heard were that, increasingly, certain key public functions such as education are now being handled not necessarily through government and public education, but through Islamic charities and religious-based charity, and that has potential - and reopened the possibility of growing Islamicization in those sections as well.
So to address these issues, the Commission recommends that urgent measures be taken to protect those threatened by religious extremism. To this end, we have urged the United States government to urge the government of Bangladesh to investigate and prosecute, to the fullest extent possible, perpetrators of violent acts against members of minority religious communities, against non-governmental organizations that promote women's rights, and against all of those who oppose religious extremism - so to investigate and prosecute violence. Secondly, to rescind its January 2004 order banning publications by the Ahmadi religious community and to continue to reject demands to declare Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. Third, to protect women from vigilante or anti-minority violence and combat claims of religious justification for violence against women. Fourth, repeal discriminatory legislation that has been used unjustly to seize Hindu-owned property. And finally - fifth I should say, to protect NGOs in the conduct of legitimate humanitarian and developmental activities.
Those are just a few of our recommendations. There's a more detailed list in the Policy Focus. We also address in the Policy Focus recommendations concerning promoting minority access to public employment and making government jobs more accessible to members of religious communities. And we also address issues concerning public funding for religious groups and some of the charities that we talked about.
MS. GAER: Thank you very much. We now turn to Ambassador Tariq Karim. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us.
AMBASSADOR TARIQ KARIM: Thank you, Madam Chair. Madam Chair, Ms. Felice Gaer, honorable Commissioners, distinguished fellow panelists, ladies and gentlemen, I'm pleased to be here this afternoon to share some of my thoughts with you on the forthcoming elections in Bangladesh. I thank you, Madam Chair and the USCIRF for inviting me and offering me the privilege to address today's forum.
I also congratulate you on your Policy Focus report on Bangladesh and the plight of its minorities that has just been released. The document is commendably comprehensive and insightful. It does give a detailed picture of the situation as was gleaned by you, Madame Chair, and your delegation to Bangladesh recently. The report introduces some very useful recommendations, which I do hope all concerned will consider seriously.
At the onset I must - and indeed all of us must acknowledge that despite widespread, gloomy prognosis, all is not rotten in the state of Bangladesh. The conferment of the Nobel Peace Price to Dr. Yunus, the banker to the poor of the world, is an affirmative to this fact and a matter for pride to all Bangladeshis at home and abroad.
Indeed, Bangladesh's various shortcomings notwithstanding, there are many good things in Bangladesh as well, as indeed your report acknowledges in its preface, which hold potential promise of better things to come in the future if they are addressed meaningfully - and my emphasis is on "if" - by the people of Bangladesh and its leaders. However, for a country that is in democratic transition and struggling hard to eradicate rampant poverty among its teeming millions, unless the challenges that it faces today are indeed looked squarely in the eye and addressed boldly and imaginatively, Bangladesh risks losing whatever it has worked so hard to achieve to date.
Given the challenges of the development and consolidation of its democracy that the country faces today, domestically, regionally, and globally, this is not a time for Bangladeshis today to try to cocoon themselves in a state of denial.
Considered as a possible role model for developing Muslim nations, Bangladesh's image as a secular and democratic Muslim country has been assailed in recent years by a resurgence of Islamist militancy, which I view as an aberration, given its legacy of tolerance, inclusiveness, and moderation. This has raised worrisome concerns about the future of this largely poor developing country that bridges South and Southeast Asia.
When Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign and free country in 1971, it could rightfully lay claim to being the most homogenous nation state in the South Asian region, with 98 percent of its people being ethnic Bengali, speaking the same language; with over 88 percent of them being Sunni Muslims; and over 10 percent Hindus; and the remaining comprising Christians, Hindus and followers of tribal faiths aspiring to coexist peacefully.
Despite this legacy of ethnic and even largely sectarian homogeneity, Bangladesh is today a deeply divided and polarized society, with the present political contestation pitting Bengalis against Bengalis. This contestation has been described by some observers within Bangladesh, hyperbolically I think, as verging on a state of civil war. The contestation will have an important bearing on the next elections in 2007 January.
I see this contestation as a struggle for the heart and soul of Bangladesh and how it defines itself. It is being played out on at least two levels. At one level is the struggle for defining its cultural identity: Are its people primarily Bengalis or primarily Muslims? At the second level, the contestation reflects the challenges being faced by the broad spectrum of its Sufi Islamic legacy by the creeping inroads and onslaughts on that tradition by the Wahhabi/Salafi/Deobandi interpretation of Islam. The first is exacerbated by the second.
Indeed, the history of post-independent Bangladesh, since 1975, in my humble view, is the story of these two levels of contestation being played out in the social and political metrics of the country. A dispassionate perusal of that history reads that the space for the creeping annexation of the moderate middle grounds by the increasingly radical forces of political Islam of various varieties was opened up increasingly, either deliberately or without understanding the long-term consequences, by the successive military or quasi-military regimes that ruled Bangladesh for the next 15 years.
Having said that, I must reaffirm that Bangladeshi Muslims are precisely that. They are Bengali and they are Muslims. These two aspects of their identity do not necessarily have to be in conflict. The conflict has been deliberately provoked and stoked by factors I consider extraneous to the culture.
Right now there are several major issues that have stirred vociferous public debate and galvanize civil society into action. The 14-party alliance headed by the Awami League has stated categorically that it will contest the polls if its demands are not met. And briefly capitulating the major points: the reform of the caretaker government; the revamping of the Election Commission and the resignation or replacement of the chief election commissioner and his commissioners; that the minister of defense should be under the head of the neutral caretaker government rather than under the president; and rescinding the powers of the magistracy, which in 2001 was given to non-civilians as well as to law enforcement.
What are the implications for stability and security? Accompanying the incidence of Islamist militantism, unfortunately, has also been a spate of criminal lawlessness that include kidnapping, attacks on journalists, political vendettas, and mafia-style protection tactics. The failure of successive administrations in meaningfully tackling this phenomenon has served to reduce respectful rule of law from the justice system in society in general. This phenomenon actually serves to strengthen the hands of Islamists, who variously look upon the existing structure as weak or lacking weight, or use it to assert that the secular system needs to be replaced by Sharia law. Any promise of utopia will find appeal amongst people who despair of getting law and order and justice in society from the existing order of things. The resulting contestation can only be conducive to more instability.
There are media reports from Bangladesh during the last few days - suggesting that these forces actually appear to be regrouping and reconsolidating by enlisting large numbers of fresh recruits to serve as cannon fodder in the war against the state.
A critically important fact worth noting here is this: Bangladesh is the fourth-largest concentration of Muslims in any single place in the world after Indonesia, Pakistan, India, in that order. If Bangladesh were to follow on the same route of militant Islamization as is evidenced in its proximal vicinity in the region, the Muslims in India will not escape being influenced by this two-pronged process and it will have repercussions and bearing and fallout on the plight of religious minorities in the country.
The next general elections may therefore well mark a new defining phase in the democratic transition of Bangladesh, determining whether the country will stay its course on further consolidating democracy and its secular tradition with governance of all faiths, or whether it will be sucked further into a vortex of increasing authoritarianism and religious intolerance.
What Bangladesh needs to address now: Firstly, the elections must be held freely, fairly, and peacefully. Obviously, that is the foremost order of the day. Bangladeshis, obviously, will have to resolve primarily themselves through a dialogue for achieving the broad consensus on the issues that divide them now. Without such a reaffirmation of the social contract, so to speak, the future of the democratic transition in Bangladesh is bound to be murky at best, with accompanied political violence and resultant social turmoil.
The two main protagonists, the BNP and the Awami League, are currently engaged in a dialogue to resolve these issues. There are some indications that they are on the verge of reaching a consensus. Friends of Bangladesh need to remain proactively engaged with Bangladesh in order to encourage and help the leaders of all parties to arrive at such a consensus.
The following would perhaps be the most important priorities to be established prior to the elections: the neutrality of the caretaker government. All sections of society must perceive the neutrality of this body as being palpably self-evident as a fair and trustworthy umpire in the political electoral match ahead. I might add here that the heads of the first two neutral caretaker governments by and large were persons who commanded respect and placed the interests of the nation above parties' interests. However, the jury came in with a strict verdict on the third national caretaker government. That situation needs to be avoided at all costs in the forthcoming elections.
While it would perhaps be unfair to prejudge the person now set to take over as head of the fourth NCG [national caretaker government] - that's Justice KM Hasan, who is an honorable person - as being innately partisan, the fact that he has become the center of such an unseemly controversy would behoove him to peacefully and voluntarily offer to step aside and recuse himself, which indeed he has done when facing a controversial case while sitting in judgment on it.
The second element would be restoring the credibility of the Election Commission. It is increasingly evident that the Election Commission, as constituted at present, enjoys zero credibility. To be able to perform its functions and duties as enjoined by the constitution, its credibility needs to be restored, particularly in the eyes of the voters who are going to cast their votes.
And the third thing, which perhaps is a precursor to this, the secretariat of the Election Commission must be detached completely from the stewardship of the prime minister's office now and forever to ensure complete independence of the party. Then, and only then, will it be largely perceived by society as a whole as being transparently independent and neutral.
The USCIRF's report on this has listed a number of measures as being necessary for ensuring that the next elections are held freely and fairly and that no segment of Bangladesh's eligible electorate, particularly its sizeable minority communities, are disenfranchised on account of their faith or gender, either in the process of pre-election registration or during the process of casting their votes on election day. Those are all commendable recommendations and should be taken seriously and acted upon with good faith.
As additional measures - and I wind up my remarks now - I would recommend the following: The base of election observers, domestic and international, should be significantly broadened and enlarged this time so that observers may meaningfully monitor a larger sweep of electoral territory. Secondly, election observers should do their homework in advance of identifying those electoral districts that are particularly vulnerable in respect of minority representation and focus their attention more closely on those constituencies. And thirdly, additional resources, in terms of funds, manpower, and technical equipment should be allocated for closely monitoring those areas identified as vulnerable areas with means of instantaneous feedback.
Whether Bangladeshis, together, on their own, will be able to address the above issues and resolve the current crisis or not will also largely determine whether Bangladesh will have come of age in its transition to a viable democracy or not. If the two mainstream parties do not act maturely now and instead plunge the nation into crisis, then neither of them nor the people of Bangladesh will be the winners.
Their inability to arrive at a consensus on the rules of the game that they should play by will plunge the country on the course to instability and turmoil and result in further vacation of the middle grounds. Such further vacation of the middle grounds will only translate into the further annexation by extremist forces to the detriment of Bangladesh, its neighbors, and indeed to the world.
I thank you, Madam Chair.
MS. GAER: I thank you and I welcome the remarks of Mr. Harrison.
SELIG HARRISON: Thank you very much, Madame Chairman, and I'd like to begin by echoing some of the things said in that excellent address by Ambassador Karim.
I, too, would like to congratulate the Commission on this excellent document, the Policy Focus, that you have with you. And I'd like to agree with Ambassador Karim that it's important, when one's talking about these difficult issues that we're talking about today, to bear in mind how many good things have been happening in Bangladesh and how much constructive leadership there has been, both at the civil-society level and in the government. I was extremely pleased when the Nobel Prize was given to Muhammad Yunus.
I'm going to add to the introduction about my relevance to this occasion by pointing out that in addition to what I'm doing now, I have been in the past a foreign correspondent and I had the pleasure of covering what is now Bangladesh before it was Bangladesh, going back to the early 1950s, first for the Associated Press; later for the Washington Post. So I first started going to Bangladesh as a journalist in 1951, when it was still East Pakistan, and I have been going there ever since.
I used to think I knew something about it. (Laughter.) When Islamic extremism developed in Pakistan, I was confident that it would not ever spread to Bangladesh. I assumed that the Sufi type of Islam that has existed for so long in Bengal was incompatible with fundamentalist ideologies that were being spread in Afghanistan and Pakistan with the help of oil money from the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, beginning, as you know, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But I underestimated three factors.
First, I underestimated what all that oil money could do to build organizational networks where there are millions of unemployed searching for meaning in their lives. Second, I underestimated what unprincipled opportunists in the Bangladesh political arena and in the bureaucracy and in the police would do to profit from alliances with the rising Islamic groups as that oil money started to pour in. And third, I underestimated what Pakistan and its intelligence agency, ISI, would and could do to help build up the Islamic extremist groups in Bangladesh as part of its strategy of using Bangladesh to harass India. So now we do have Islamic extremism in Bangladesh.
For the past five years we've had a government in Bangladesh openly and unashamedly allied with the Jamaat-e-Islami in a coalition that has pulled its punches in combating Islamic extremism and has now attempted to rig the elections to be held on January 24th. A caretaker government will take over on October 27th. It is supposed to be neutral, but as Ambassador Karim asked, will it be?
The outgoing BNP government changed the constitution to install its own choice as head of the caretaker government and it has made a farce of the Election Commission that will run the elections. The Election Commission has refused to publish the voter list, as in the past. But they have announced how many voters there will be, and it is truly astonishing. The number they've announced is 93 million. This exceeds, by 13 million, the number of people in the country over the age of 18, based on the number of 13-year-olds recorded in the last census in 2001 and the number of people who have died since then. This is according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. Thirteen million - that's a lot of ballot stuffing, even by the standards of West Texas and Cook County in earlier years. (Laughter.) The Supreme Court ruled that the list has to be amended, but this has, as you know, so far has been ignored.
The United States government has not said a word, that I've heard about this - if I'm wrong, please let me know - but the National Democratic Institute mission - headed by former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle - has spoken out clearly. I know we're going to hear from the NDI today, but I'd like to read to you something that I was very pleased and interested to see in the report of the mission. All of this is now a quote from the report of the NDI mission.
"A voters list containing two-thirds of the population strains credibility. The delegation was deeply concerned to hear from a broad cross-section of parties, civil society, media, and independent observers of the widespread lack of confidence in the Election Commission, and specifically in the chief election commissioner. The delegation has identified a perception of incompetence and bias as a serious problem that requires being addressed. In the absence of a strong, corrective and urgent response, confidence in the chief election commissioner will continue to deteriorate to the point that he should not continue his duties."
That's from the report of the delegation of NDI going to Bangladesh. One of the members of that delegation was Mike Moore, formerly the prime minister of New Zealand and formerly the head of the World Trade Organization. Mike Moore said in a press conference in Dhaka, quote, "Alarm bells are ringing here, and there's the possibility of things going very wrong during the elections. If things do go badly, there are people in other parliaments who will take appropriate action: sanctions, tariffs, garment exports. It's a political world. Confidence has to be built so there is no reason for the Awami League to boycott the election." From Mike Moore.
Now, that's tough talk. I wish we would hear that kind of talk from U.S. officials. The U.S. ambassador, on July 14th, called Bangladesh, quote, "an exceptional, moderate Muslim state," unquote. It's true that on September 16th the ambassador did try to get talks on election reforms going between the Awami League and the BNP-Jamaat coalition. But she did it in a way, a partisan way, it seems to me. She urged the Awami League to join in talks with the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami - put the burden on the Awami League. As you know, the Awami League has objected to sitting down with the Jamaat and wants the talks confined to the BNP. The ambassador seemed to be endorsing the BNP position on the turns for the talks, whatever her intention, by addressing her appeal only to the Awami League. She has offered to mediate, or rather she has said the United States is ready to mediate between the two parties, but now her objectivity has been called into question.
More active U.S. intervention to save the situation is urgently needed. I think that the resignation of the election commissioner, which the NDI commission talked about, should be backed by the American Embassy. I think that the suggestion by Ambassador Karim that Justice Hasan should step down and there should be a new head of the caretaker government strikes me as a very important one, which the U.S. government should be behind. And I think that placing the Ministry of Defense under the caretaker government, which I think is in the NDI report, should be pressed by the U.S. government.
Increasingly, it's clear that some units of the police in Bangladesh are being politicized by the Jamaat so they can be used for partisan ends during the election. Normal training period for the police is 18 months, and all of a sudden we're learning about crash courses of six months to train special police units for the elections, which are being explained, I understand, by saying, well, we need more police. But it all looks rather suspicious, and the past few weeks police personnel have been involved in attacks on Awami League leaders on four occasions to break up election rallies. Saber Choudhury, a top Awami League leader, was knocked unconscious. Mohammed Nasim, a former minister, ended up with two broken bones in his left arm.
Now, as has been mentioned - and to me as a former journalist, this is very important. I'm one who believes in the role that journalists have to play in situations like this. Journalists in Bangladesh cannot write freely about this whole situation, including just the fact of what Jamaat is doing and what its activities are, without facing death threats or assassination attempts or roughing up. The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists has published extensive dossiers documenting 68 death threats, dozens of bombing attacks that have injured at least eight journalists, as our chairman noted. Here is what the committee said, quote, "We are alarmed by the growing pattern of intimidation of journalists by Islamic groups in Bangladesh. As a result of its alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami, the government appears to lack the ability or will to protect journalists from this new and grave threat."
And in conclusion, I think it's important to place the topic we're talking about today, the rise of Islamic extremist groups in Bangladesh, in a larger regional, South Asian context. It's not just a threat to Bangladesh and especially to the minorities in Bangladesh. It's also important to recognize that Pakistan works with the Jamaat and its affiliated groups to harass India, which has a 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh. Until recently, this was focused mainly on supporting tribal separatist groups inside India. But in the past few years, there has been increasing evidence that Islamic extremists inside India have connections, orchestrated by Pakistan, with groups in Bangladesh and Nepal. And, as Ambassador Karim said, this isn't just a question of what Pakistan is doing. Just by the nature of the situation, if you get an incremental growth of Islamic groups in Bangladesh, you're going to have a spillover in various ways into surrounding parts of South Asia. So what we're talking about today is part of a subcontinental South Asia problem, which is in turn part of our global challenge in combating terrorism.
Thank you very much.
MS. GAER: Thank you very much, Mr. Harrison. And we now turn to our two speakers, one from the International Republican Institute and one from the National Democratic Institute. First we'll ask Cynthia to speak and then we'll ask Patrick.
CYNTHIA BUNTON: Thank you. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Commission Chair Gaer and the Commission on International Religious Freedom for this opportunity to address you today.
IRI has been working in Bangladesh since 2003. In developing our program, we determined that in a democracy, the five pillars of civil society - private industry, NGOs, trade unions, media, and political parties - form a cohesive matrix to influence government. Hence we named our program the Five Estates.
In Bangladesh's zero-sum political game, political parties focus strongly - some would say almost exclusively - on electoral success, but appear to place far less value and attention on meeting the needs of constituents and solving the critical problems facing the country. Organizations such as IRI face significant challenges dealing with political parties because party leaders seem unable or unwilling to alter the status quo, while lower-level leaders are powerless to promote change. The ongoing stalemate between the two principal parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, leave organizations such as IRI striving hard to find ways to bridge the gap between voters and politicians to ensure the government is accountable to all of its citizens.
To address the issue of political accountability, IRI focuses its programming efforts on the above-mentioned estates to particularly pressure political parties to be more responsive, honest and diligent. IRI hopes by strengthening those groups, a more informed and active citizenry will increasingly demand the political parties work for real and constant change.
I want to very briefly talk about a few of our programs that help to promote democracy and democratic reform, for democratic institutions provide the best safeguard to all citizens of Bangladesh, with regard to gender, religion, or political beliefs.
International and domestic interest in Bangladesh is naturally now focused on the upcoming parliamentary elections in January 2007. IRI believes in and supports democratic development for, during, and beyond election day, and our programming reflects that broad commitment. Bangladeshis are proud of their democracy and dedicated to maintaining it. Participation in the elections is high. There is a growing sense among them, however, that their elected representatives and political parties are not being sufficiently responsive to the real needs and concerns of the Bangladeshi people. Public concern is also growing that the electoral system may be subject to corruption. Public anger and disillusionment are unfortunately on the rise.
IRI has therefore undertaken a multi-faceted program that seeks to provide a wide cross-section of Bangladeshi citizens with the tools needed to accurately monitor the upcoming elections, particularly in the weeks leading up to election day.
First, we conducted a train-the-trainer session for domestic election monitoring organizations nationwide that began in March of this year. Over the course of this five-month program, IRI trained a total of 773 master trainers in 25 districts and six divisions. These master trainers are now busy training other observers. In August, IRI began training sessions for our election-observation partner, the National Election Observation Committee, or JANIPOP- which flew teams of observers throughout the country for 50 days prior to the election, on the election day itself, and post-election.
IRI - (inaudible) - confidence and trust that the political system can work effectively. For example, in 2005, together with that group, IRI observed two significant elections: the Chittagong City Corporation mayoral election and the (inaudible) parliamentary by-election. Both of these elections, deemed free and fair, demonstrated people can express their will in the political setting, and, particularly in the case of Chittagong, that opposition candidates can and do win elections based on popular vote.
These success stories cannot, however, overshadow concerns about the upcoming national election. There have already been an unacceptable number of instances of inter- and intra-party violence and the political rhetoric of both major parties has frequently been inflammatory. The process and the result of the recent voter registration list update have been the cause of widespread controversy that may erode confidence in the election. Moreover, the current government and the opposition remain at loggerheads over such crucial questions as who will lead the country's central election commission during the election period, and perhaps even more important, over who will head the constitutionally prescribed caretaker government that is scheduled to be seated this month.
Failure to reach a consensus on these and other critical issues could very well derail the election process and further drown the future of democracy in Bangladesh. To help provide the necessary monitoring in 2007 elections, IRI is working with JANIPOP and other election and human rights organizations to improve the skills of long-term observers by training them to shadow candidates through every stage of the election process, from the campaign, to candidate registration, to the counting of ballots, and all the while reporting all irregularities. IRI is training these observers to proactively control and identify the instances of electoral abuses, as well as election violence, particularly abuses targeted at vulnerable and minority groups. In addition, IRI will also directly sponsor 50 long-term observation teams, as well as provide training and support for other teams supported by other organizations.
The election-monitoring training focuses heavily on electoral rules and procedures, including the full language of possible election manipulation and fraud: voter registration, campaign finance, documentation and reporting, party polling, age at registration, dispute resolution and adjudication procedures, crisis management, and security issues including election-related violence. IRI produced a comprehensive manual containing these and other election-related topics that were printed and distributed to a wide range of domestic election observer organizations.
Believing that an uninformed media can undermine confidence in the electoral system and exacerbate electoral violence, our media program, funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of State, educates journalists and editors on the electoral process and how that process can be manipulated, as well as teaches basic journalism skills. Half of the training course covered the same topics as those taught in our long-term observation course. The other half focused on topics such as story corroboration, fact checking, investigative journalism, truthful photo journalism, and other topics designed to reinforce the need for objective, fact-based journalism.
Our program has other components as well. We work to educate youth to increase their understanding of and respect for the democratic process and democratic institutions. Indeed, approximately 10 million young Bangladeshis will go to the polls for the first time in 2007. This program focuses on youth advocacy councils, first-time voter quorums, and youth democracy fairs. We also work with females in the city commissions, who although they won their seats, are being denied the authority and funding to equally participate in development activities, thus preventing them from serving their constituents on an equal footing with their male counterparts. This occurred by a 2004 ruling by the high court, which decreed that female and male commissioners are to share fully in all of their duties. We also work with the labor union and the business community to encourage them to identify and advocate for those issues most important to their constituents.
In conclusion, Bangladesh is at a point of political gridlock. It can continue to follow the path of extreme politicization and deadlock, or it can take the path of more constructive and inclusive political discourse and more responsive government. The increase in domestic violence, which the Commission's policy brief has accurately described, is an indication that institutions of Bangladeshi democracy are weak. Weak democracies cannot provide the confidence-building measures, such as political stability, respect for rule of law, freedom of expression and religious belief. They're like the vanguard against colonization and extremism. IRI and other like-minded institutions will continue to work hard to help build that confidence so that Bangladeshis of all ages, genders, religions, ethnic groups, and political views can live the free, prosperous, and democratic life they so richly deserve.
MS. GAER: Thank you very much, and thank you for staying within the time limits. I'm particularly grateful to you and I hope that Patrick will be able to do the same.
Patrick, the floor is yours.
And if I may just say, for those of you came in late, we did ask if you would just turn off cell phones or other electronic devices please. Thank you.
PATRICK MERLOE: The chair has a long history in various kinds of human rights forums of reminding you to behave well, so this is nothing new.
Thank you, Madame Chairman, and distinguished members, former chairs of this Commission - thank you for this opportunity to speak about the vital issues of protecting rights in this time surrounding Bangladesh's upcoming elections. More importantly, thank you for calling this forum to offer exchange of ideas in what is now a relatively early juncture in the lead-up to the elections. It is an important time for those of us in Washington who have an interest to take note.
Forgive me for just taking one step backwards to broaden the picture a bit, and to remind ourselves that the connection between promoting democracy and protecting human rights is fundamental. This holds true for achieving democratic elections as well as for achieving democratic governance more broadly. And I don't have to quote to anyone in this room, certainly not to members of this Commission, the text of Article 21 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but it's enough to say that they have touched on democratic elections and for democratic governance more broadly.
Those articles state that every person in a country has the right to participate in governance and public affairs of their country, either directly by holding governmental office or indirectly by freely choosing representatives in genuine elections, elections that, among other things, are by universal and equal suffrage. And at that, the center of that precept, is often what I refer to as the nondiscrimination norm. That is to say that universal and equal suffrage, both as it pertains to the right to stand for office and to the right to vote, must be based, among other things, on the absence of discrimination that is based upon race, color, gender, language, religion, political and other thought.
Thus, the protection of the freedom of thought, conscious and religion, as well as the protection of the rights of religious and other minorities, are direct concerns, not just to Bangladesh, but in every country when we address democratic development. There are a wide range of issues, and my colleague from IRI touched upon them very well, that come into focus when we approach this kind of analysis.
At the core of protecting rights, including religious freedom, in the electoral context, is the issue of security as a person. If violence undermines that security, free choice is subverted and potentially negated. Violence directed at the populace, including the electorate, based on gender, religion, national minority status, political opinion, or other discriminatory basis, potentially negates the democratic nature or potentials of elections and undermines the legitimacy of the government.
So it's in this light that NDI welcomes the Commission's Policy Focus paper on Bangladesh. The paper targets politically motivated violence. It provides a depth of analysis and a significant number of recommendations that are useful in approaching the circumstances of Bangladesh. Some of those recommendations are beyond my areas of expertise, but certainly those that touch directly on electoral issues are highly constructive and useful, not just those addressed to the government of the United States, but also to Bangladeshis and those of us in the broader international community.
Last month, as has been already noted, NDI sent a pre-election assessment delegation to Bangladesh. The delegation included a new member of NDI's board of directors, former Senator Tom Daschle, and also the former prime minister of New Zealand, Mike Moore; the former Minister of Women's and Veteran's Affairs in Cambodia Mu Sochua, along with NDI staff. The delegation's report is appended to my comments, and that is available, I believe, on the table outside, and certainly on NDI's website along with our numerous other statements and reports on Bangladesh.
The delegation expressed NDI's concern about the rampant and escalating politically motivated violence in Bangladesh. The delegation's recommendations highlighted the urgent need to effectively address political violence. The delegation noted that it received reports of intimidation and violence directed against women, religious minorities, and ethnic minorities. And it emphasized that such actions undermine the reputation of Bangladesh as a tolerant society. The delegation noted that political violence in Bangladesh includes both inter-party and intra-party manifestations that subvert democratic politics. There are widespread complaints within the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League that the nominations process and the elections are dominated by what Bangladeshis call money and muscle. Politically influenced killings happen frequently within and between these parties. To quote the delegation: "The responsibility for reducing violence does not rest alone with the authorities. The leaders of the political parties themselves must exercise strong party discipline over members," unquote.
The authorities, of course, must act responsibly and in a politically neutral manner when it comes to dealing with violence and the potential for it. Unfortunately, however, there have been many reports, which have been noted here today, that the police have reacted violently and disproportionately to political demonstrations. We even have received reports that there have been mass detentions occurring before opposition rallies and marches. As noted by Ambassador Karim, it is important nonetheless to recognize that these problems are not new in Bangladesh.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Cambodian opposition leader Tioulong Samura, and I traveled to Bangladesh in a pre-election delegation in August of 2001, principally to address the threat to the election process posed by political violence. Our 2001 statement noted that, quote, "The single largest obstacle to ensuring a democratic environment is the hostility between the two major political parties that breeds politically motivated disharmony and violence." Last month's NDI delegation found that, quote, "The political climate of Bangladesh remains polarized, marked by inherent difficulties brought on by the lack of communication and cooperation among the parties and prone to both partisan and political violence."
This stands in stark contrast to the accomplishments of the Bangladeshi population, which has a longstanding reputation for tolerance and political participation. The electorate, with large voter turnouts, have alternated parties in government in each of the national elections since the military dictatorship ended in 1991. Bangladeshis take justified pride in this. Nonetheless, whether the BNP or the Awami League have been in government, they have not provided adequate opportunities or mechanisms for the development of constructive opposition. At the same time, whenever either of these parties has been in opposition, it has too often chosen destabilizing and polarizing tactics of parliamentary boycotts, street demonstrations; in "hartals," general strikes, backed up by muscle power to ensure that the population appears to go along with the strikes and street actions.
These approaches to inter-party conflicts are too often conducted at the expense of real-world needs of Bangladesh's 140 million people. The failure to adequately improve the conditions of the population due to the deep effects of corruption and the politics of confrontation creates a gulf between the political parties and the population. That gulf can be exploited by extremists, as has been noted here today.
A recent factor pointed out in the Policy Focus paper in this respect has emerged in Bangladesh. Beginning in the late 1990s, extremist groups have carried out an escalating series of bomb attacks. These have included grenade attacks on the Awami League rally that killed 24 people and injured Sheikh Hasina and other top leaders of the party. The Commission's policy paper notices the recent introduction of suicide bombings and the almost simultaneous detonations by extremists around the country on August 17th, 2005 of over 450 bombs. We note that the JMB has claimed responsibility for this and other attacks.
The point that I'd like to stress is that the rising threat of terrorist groups makes the need for responsible political conduct by the country's political leaders all the more urgent. This places an even greater pressure on the process and the political environment surrounding the upcoming 2007 elections. The corresponding obligation to pursue the broader national interest lies not just on the Awami League and the BNP, but on all parties participating in the election process, including those that are presently in the governing coalition, the partners of the BNP - that is, Jamaat-e-Islami, Jatiya Party Naziur, and of course, Islami Okiya Jote.
NDI's pre-election delegation noted significant problems and critical challenges to the integrity of Bangladesh's election process. Many of them have been noted this afternoon and I won't go into them in detail. It's enough to reiterate that the composition of the caretaker government should be formed in accordance with constitutional provisions and dialogue in consultation to ensure political impartiality and effectiveness so that the public confidence that is requisite is present in the caretaker government as it conducts its obligations. The Election Commission, as has been quoted already about our delegation statement, suffers from a lack of credibility and confidence, in particular the chief election commissioner.
Necessary steps to address the perceptions and what may be the reality of bias or incompetence have to be taken immediately in order to restore confidence in the election process as we move towards the January elections. All of the relevant actors must devise steps to curb rampant buyouts. The voter's list, which has been mentioned, must be addressed. I won't go into detail; it's already been described. But there must be a variety of verification testings employed, and it must be open for correction. Campaign conduct including spending and many other aspects must be brought into compliance with the law and international standards. There must be an impartial and effective electoral complaint mechanism in place for the party to turn to it rather than violence and self-help.
Violations of the law, including those of the past, must be prosecuted vigorously to break the impression of impunity. Sufficient polling booths in women's polling centers should be established to ensure a genuine opportunity to vote and other obstacles to women's participation should be addressed, and electoral transparency, including streamlined provisions for domestic and international observers, and there should be more specific safeguards put in place to ensure the accuracy and honesty of both counting and reporting.
I will close with a final quote from last month's NDI delegation, "The delegation believes that it is important that legitimate questions as to the fairness of the election process be fully investigated, discussed, and resolved. At the same time, the elections should not be held hostage by the intransigent positions held by either the government or any political party." Thank you.
MS. GAER: Thank you very much, Patrick.
Let me now describe the format. We're now going to open the program to discussion. And those of you seated at the table are invited to raise questions. Unfortunately, Mr. Harrison has to leave at 4:30, so I'm going to ask those of you who have specific questions related to his remarks or to the points he made to indicate so and I'll try to take one or two or three quick questions and see if he can offer a response before leaving, but then we'll open it more broadly than that. So the floor is now open.
Yes, Mr. Rao. And please identify yourself when you speak, those of you around the table.
RAMESH RAO: Dr. Ramesh Rao, a member of the Hindu American Foundation. First of all, I would like to thank the speakers and Commissioners who have spoken so perceptively, insightfully and sharply about the - (inaudible) - population. And surely, as noted, it's not just that South Asia has 90 percent-plus of the world's Hindus, but, people forget, also 40 percent of the world's Muslims. And therefore a mix - (inaudible) - cooperation, but also problems that can become really huge. Given that, a quick question. Ambassador, in terms of the U.S. - (inaudible) - the embassy of Bangladesh, or - (inaudible) - Bangladesh, is there attempt to get the two major parties to actually nominate a particular person - (inaudible)?
MS. GAER: I'm going to come back to that question because what I wanted to entertain was if there were any specific questions for Mr. Harrison before he has to leave. His presentation was a provocative and important one, and I'm sure you're all trying to figure out - (inaudible), go ahead.
(Unidentified speaker): I actually thought it was a really wonderful presentation, as were all of the ones that were here. I'm wondering - you mentioned the rise of outside influences breeding terror. You talked about the Pakistan-ISI connection. You talked about Wahhabism. In your experience or study, what is the influence or what is the reach of these kinds of external networks, whether it's the madrassas or - I'm wondering, how is Wahhabism coming into Bangladesh?
MR. HARRISON: You know, it's difficult to be sure about this. But there certainly is evidence that - (inaudible) - which is a well-known terror organization in Saudi Arabia has been typical of a number of such groups in the Gulf where you have many very legitimate relationships with madrassas and charitable organizations in rival Islamic countries that also use these legitimate relationships as a cover for funneling money into doing things of the kind we've been talking about. I can't present a white paper to back this up in the case of Bangladesh, and I don't know how extensive, how many madrassas have been affected. It doesn't take very many numerically to be significant as covers for the training of the jihadi cadres, as we have seen in the case of Pakistan. And so I can't really present a white paper on this, what kind of circumstantial evidence that money not only provided for charitable ends has been diverted to other ends.
MS. GAER: Yes, Kumar?
T. KUMAR: Yes, Kumar from Amnesty International. Mr. Harrison, you touched on one aspect of the problem, that being ISI of Pakistan. As you are aware, the - (inaudible) - Bangladesh can be traced to the creation of Bangladesh - India - (inaudible) - Pakistan - (inaudible). My question to you is, were you able to find any involvement of India in this, in any form of activities, to stir up something there? Thanks.
MR. HARRSION: To stir up what?
MR. KUMAR: To stir up any kind of trouble there because - (inaudible) - keeping quiet.
MR. HARRISON: In Bangladesh?
MR. KUMAR: In Bangladesh.
MR. HARRISON: I think they're spending most of their time trying to find out what ISI is doing.
MR. GAER: Well, I'm going to thank Mr. Harrison. I know you have to leave.
MR. HARRISON: I really apologize for having to leave. Something quite unexpected involving the nasty world of television journalism came up, unfortunately for me, and I have to leave.
MR. GAER: Thank you. Well, I hope we'll have an opportunity, even in his absence, to raise questions about what he said about U.S. policy. And I thought that part of the end of his presentation about being critical of the ambassador and suggesting that she is forcing one party to abandon its principles regarding not sitting down with the Jamaat is something that I would welcome if there are others who would have any information on that or thoughts on those points. Now, the ground rules for the meeting as I outlined was that we will be asking members around the roundtable to pose questions in this third segment of the discussion.
So the next person seeking the floor is Ambassador De Pree. And please identify yourself now that I've identified you. (Laughter.)
AMBASSADOR WILLARD DE PREE: Thank you very much. I want to commend the commission for what I consider a balanced, sharply focused - (inaudible) - the nation, which if carried out will contribute, I'm sure, to a fair, free, and hopefully violence-free election. But I do have one real question about one of the recommendations made by the Commission, and it involves U.S. policy. And let me read it. It's recommendation under Section 2. "The Commission recommends that the U.S. government should urge the government of Bangladesh to continue to reject extremists' demands to declare Ahmadis to be non-Muslims."
My feeling is that - I have no problem with people taking that position; it's just that I don't think that the United States government should be in a position of stating who it considers to be a Muslim or a non-Muslim. That, we should leave to the Muslim community. I would think for us to declare that the Ahmadis are bona fide Muslims may be fine, but it may be counterproductive, and it's something that moreover I don't think the United States government itself should play in trying to determine who is and who is not a good Muslim.
I would like also to make one observation too. I was impressed with the report about the attention devoted to the process. When I was ambassador of Bangladesh more than 15 years ago, I was called in by the president of the time to alert the United States to a concern that the Bangladeshis had that long ago to what was taking place inside some of the madrassas, that they were proving to be spawning grounds for people who engage in acts of terrorism. Fifteen years later, that's still very much the case. I would just call the panel's attention to - the commission's attention to - some wonderful work that's been done by the State Department on foreign exchanges, working with Indonesia addressing concerns about what was taking place in madrassas. So it's just something you might want to pursue.
But I thought the report was excellent, well-focused. I hope the United States government will fully back the commission's recommendations. Thank you.
MS. GAER: Thank you, Ambassador.
I'm going to turn also back to Mr. Rao's question, and we'll get an answer to that. I just want to comment to the point with regard to the demands that Ahmadis be declared to be non-Muslims.
First of all, in looking at this, the Commission looked very closely at what has been the tradition in Bangladesh, and the reluctance of the government and others in the country to make such a declaration. Secondly, the nature of that accusation is such as it would create various distinctions and create problems for such persons who constitute a substantial number of people who live well and comfortably in the country until now. Third of all, it supports the position of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion as well. And finally, the Commission was established to put a special lens on issues of religious discrimination, and these are issues that didn't necessarily always bubble to the top in U.S. policymaking in the past, and we think they are important in order to prevent the violence, discrimination, and measures that create severe abuses of human rights for any member of the population. I don't know if there are other points you might want to add to that, Commissioner Bansal.
MS. BANSAL: I just want to add a few sentences to that, which is I don't think it is our position - our view is not that the United States will declare who is a Muslim and who is not Muslim. The point, I think under international legal standards of freedom of conscience, I believe, is that it's up to the individual to identify how they choose to identify and not for another community to tell them that they are something or they aren't in terms of their belief. It's their freedom of belief, and to focus on the individual I think.
MS. GAER: Yeah, and Mr. Stahnke, you might want to add to that?
MR. STAHNKE: Only to say that in this case it's not a concern of the Commission how Muslims view the Ahmadis, but the Bangladesh government. The government should not be declaring one group to be Muslim or not.
AMBASSADOR DU PREE: You might want to look at the wording of the
MS. GAER: Well, we appreciate that, yeah. Thank you for that.
Now, I had promised Mr. Rao that we would respond. And I'm going to ask you to just repeat again the question that you had.
MR. RAO: The question is whether the two major parties, BNP and Awami League, have allocated some portion of those seats for minorities, because while we may talk about free elections and so on, if they have not guaranteed some kind, some portion of those seats for minorities, that they may not be acting really on - (inaudible).
MS. GAER: This is a complicated issue. You may recall a few years back the Commission and many others were critical, for example, of Pakistan, which did have assigned seats because the communities that were part of those assigned seats felt that they were out of the game in terms of politics and nobody cared what they said because they had assigned seats. Now, we flip to another country in the region and you're raising the question from the other perspective.
Mr. Merloe, you might want to respond.
MR. MERLOE: In a way, you've given half of my response for me. It's perfect. It's been about 15 years since NDI began its work with Bangladeshi democratic reform. Of course, we've been on the ground constantly the past few years. So the society, working with the government in all of the cities, working with parties, beyond, parliaments - and this topic is one that has been addressed in a variety of fora. And the answer that I can give you is that we - and I'm sure this is true for IRI and the others that have worked in the European arena as well - having the dialogue about how to be inclusive within each of the major parties, of religious minorities and to address their concerns more broadly, is a critical part of party-building, emphasis placed on dialogue. The government stands between the parties and among them as well. The particular formula that surrounds them as agreed to in any particular country always has pluses and minuses.
And the chair addressed the problem in Pakistan where there were advantages in the early day in the Pakistani Constitution, raised divisions that were proven to ossify and be somewhat hollow to the Pakistani circumstances. So the real issue - how does a party reach out, remove the barriers to participation and leadership including women and religious and ethnic minorities, youth, and so on. And how does the party address this in this program manifesto, real policy issues that address their concerns and needs? More than a rigid allocation of quotas or something like that; and that's the position that we've taken in our work in Bangladesh and other countries.
MS. GAER: Thank you.
Mr. Masmoudi had a question, then Dr. Benkin.
RADWAN MASMOUDI: Good afternoon. My name is Radwan Masmoudi. I am president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. I have to admit first of all that I am not an expert on Bangladesh, but I am an expert on Islam and democracy, and we have done a lot of work on the subject of Islam and democracy. And I am concerned by some of the tone in this report that seems to be strained from Islam or be afraid of Islamization or be afraid of Islamic movements in general. I'm really concerned about that because secularism does not mean you're against other religions. Secularism does not mean you are minimizing the role of tradition. And I think that there is a big image problem for secularism in the Muslim world in general, that it is portrayed as against religion, against Islam.
And my advice to all the secular groups in Bangladesh is it's important that they are not seen as irreligious or even less religious than the other movements. The discussion has to be about what kind of Islam; not whether you're for Islam or against Islam. Because if the question is whether you are for Islam or against Islam, the secondary groups have no chance. They will lose elections no matter what we say or what we do. So what they have to fight for is what does Islam mean in the 21st century? They have to take back Islam. They have to speak in the name of Islam.
And don't be afraid of these Islamist movements or Islamization movements. Even - (inaudible) - that they have to contend and contest the definition to figure out what does Sharia mean; what does interpretation of Sharia mean? Even - (inaudible) - for example. So I am really very - (inaudible) - but you can be secular and religious at the same time. You can be deeply religious and secular at the same time.
My second comment, or question, is I'm surprised that very few people mentioned the problem of corruption in Bangladesh. I know very little about Bangladesh, but I know that Bangladesh has been ranked number one in corruption for the last, you know, decade or more. And - (inaudible) - is that that's probably the number-one reason for the rising Islamic movement or the - (inaudible) - Islam or whatever it is, is that people are tired of corruption, which is basically what's happened in Palestine, you know, when people voted for Hamas. The number-one reason was they were tired of corruption of the - (inaudible) - groups that were stealing all of the money that was coming in supposedly to help the Palestinians and was going into their private bank accounts.
And then - (inaudible) - find a solution to this corruption problem - (inaudible) - not have a really stable democracy.
MS. GAER: Thank you very much. I think that was more on the order of a comment than a question, but if anyone wants to comment on it substantively, we'll have a final round on that. I saw Dr. Benkin taking the floor.
DR. RICHARD BENKIN: Thank you. I'm Dr. Richard Benkin. I have no affiliation. I'm not a journalist, I'm not a government official, I'm a member of no NGO, and I took off work to come here today. I'm here because I'm the defender - no, excuse me, I'm a brother of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, who, by the way, asked me just before I came in to please once again thank the Commission. Your visit to Bangladesh and your chat with him meant so much that he's still - (inaudible). And as his brother, I too appreciate that so very much, as well as that wonderful, excellent letter you sent recently to Richard Boucher. And you've done so much for this individual right now, and so thank you so much.
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, for those of you who don't know, is a Muslim journalist in Bangladesh who is currently on trial possibly for his life. Why? Because in 2003 as a journalist he warned his country about the rise of radical Islam. Why? Because he urged Bangladesh to recognize Israel, and in fact to travel there. And why? Because he supports real inter-faith dialogue, not the phony inter-faith dialogue that a lot of people say they're having, but true inter-faith dialogue based on religious equality. And for those reasons, the Bangladesh government imprisoned him and tortured him. And for 17 months I struggled to free him, and finally, with the help of Congressman Mark Kirk, we did get him out in April of 2005.
But the government has now decided to try him for sedition. And that does carry a death sentence. And certainly I appreciate so much the erudition and knowledge of the people who spoke here before. I could never come close to that, but I might like to change perspective a little bit in terms of recommendations.
My own experience with the Bangladesh government - which has unfortunately been rather extensive, including their denying me entry three times in the last six months - but my experience with the Bangladesh government is that we're dealing with what can only be described as a culture of mendacity. I sat in a room when their ambassador to the United States stated two bald-faced lies to a U.S. congressman. I listened as their - (inaudible) - minister has given empty assurances again and again, which were violated again and again.
So for all the correctness - and I do say this very respectfully and humbly - all the correctness of the recommendations, I believe what needs to be added is what we might call teeth, because I have no faith in the Bangladesh government's ability to be trusted to carry out these recommendations. And we have found that the only thing they will react to sometimes is teeth. And I have some recommendations for that.
But before I -
MS. GAER: Dr. Benkin, if you could get to your recommendations so we can turn to others -
DR. BENKIN: Okay, the first recommendation - first recommendation: The government said that they were going to drop the charges against Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury but were afraid to do it for fear of angering the radicals, and so it went through a convoluted process, but in the end - in the end we're thwarted by the actions of a JMB [Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh], a radical Islamist judge.
Yesterday the Bangladesh Minority Lawyers' Association filed suit with the high court to disqualify judges who were affiliated with radical groups like the JMB, and I think a strong message that says, we expect the Bangladesh government to see that that suit is given a fair hearing, is one important thing.
I think another indication of their veracity would be to demand that they drop these false sedition charges, which they have said are false, against Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. And in fact, I do not see the teeth coming from, unfortunately, from the State Department or from our embassy, which we now - now information is telling us some of the locals they use have ties to some of these radical groups like the JMB, but in fact, the teeth are probably going to have to come from Congress, whether it's appropriations or some other form. I believe that the recommendations should in fact have some language involving those items.
MS. GAER: Thank you very much.
Do we have anybody who wants to comment from the congressional perspective around the table, or do we have other questions?
Ms. Martin? Could you just for everybody identify yourself?
ANDREA MARTIN: Andrea Martin with Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City. I've been listening to try to identify the markings for this escalation of violence that there seems to be consensus on, and I haven't heard a clear - (inaudible). If I could get your - (inaudible).
MS. GAER: I'm wondering, Ambassador, if you might want to take that question. That's a tough one.
AMB. KARIM: If you're asking about the reason for the escalation of violence, I think certain speakers have said that this election is looked upon as a zero-sum game by the - (inaudible) - activists. Each party has a lot to do with - (inaudible). And despite what the high command in the party wants - (inaudible).
I mentioned in my own talk that there are - there's rampant crime - mafia-like activities and others - and they take advantage of the situation, just as parties also take advantage of some of these unsavory organizations - (inaudible). Sometimes they're at the local level; sometimes they - (inaudible) - level.
The violence usually is feared at every election, and there is sporadic violence, but the last three elections have been, thankfully, marked by an absence of any remarkable degree of violence. However, it is feared that given the sharp polarization in the divisions that now exist, and the zero-sum view - zero-sum paradigm in which it is viewed, this violence might become uncontainable if a consensus is not reached among the parties to resolve the issues.
MS. GAER: Thank you. Kumar, and then I'm going to open the floor to the hands I see around the room.
MR. KUMAR: Coming back to the - (inaudible) - mentioned here - (inaudible) - election, what should be done after the polls have been cast and - (inaudible). The last election - (inaudible) - after the election a particular group was - (inaudible) - or what steps should be taken to prevent that from happening this time? That's my main question. It's a very difficult situation because after the election - (inaudible). So any particular ideas that can come out to - (inaudible).
MS. GAER: I'll take advantage of the power of the chair to point out - and I believe Mr. Harrison referred to it - that in the Commission's recommendations under item one, "urgent measures to prevent anti-minority violence in the upcoming elections," our second or third bullet point proposes the following: "to make every effort to prevent violence before and after the election, including ensuring that the caretaker government is provided with authority over the Ministry of Defense and the power to instruct law enforcement bodies to ensure the security of all Bangladeshi citizens throughout the voting process."
If there is that authority, then one can at least prevent the worst violence, or at least instruct that people not stand idly by or actively participate in the violence. The evidence from the 2001 elections unfortunately does not give a great deal of confidence, and there was no real inquiry into the perpetrators of it. Perhaps had there been, or if there still were - there really isn't time for that - those measures could have been - the real problem spots could have been identified publicly for everyone to see. That hasn't happened. Something has to be done now that's proactive and protected. And I wonder, Cynthia, if you might want to comment on that because I see you're nodding vigorously.
MS. BUNTON: Oh, I agree. I definitively agree. And for what it's worth - and I know that my colleagues at NDI and others have looked at it and will continue to look at the results of the 2001 elections. And I think, you know, of course we are the panacea for all things, but I think the fact that we are all going to be particularly present in those communities may help. I mean, I think because the public eye is on a lot of these regions, it might help. It won't prevent all violence, but I think it might do something to help.
MS. GAER: Now, we have here with us at the table Brian Joseph from the National Endowment for Democracy. We have the National Democratic and International Republican Institutes here speaking, so Mr. Joseph has asked for the floor on this point and I'd like to give it to him, to be followed by Ms. Hossain.
BRIAN JOSEPH: Thank you very much. I'm Brian Joseph from the National Endowment for Democracy. I wanted to ask you a question - much of the writing, both from the Commission and others, including Mr. Harrison's piece in the [Washington] Post, touched upon the junior partners in the BNP government. One of the Commissioners early on mentioned whether you try to keep bringing extremists into government to moderate the behavior or whether you try to keep them on the outside. The question for the panelists is, in the Bangladesh context, where do you draw the line between these parties that should be allowed to participate in the democratic political process and what are the markers of the key parties out of the political process?
And the second question for the Commission - and Preeta Bansal raised the question - was how do you effectively exclude somebody from participating in politics in Bangladesh?
MS. GAER: Before Ms. Bansal takes the floor, I'd just like to suggest that in a whole variety of situations, demanding that a party, first of all, eschew violence is usually the first step in terms of electoral politics: Play by the rules of the game, the rules of the constitution and eschew violence as a means of either exerting influence or settling disputes. That's usually number one.
Number two should be - and the Commission has taken this position in other situations - number two should be respect for the basic human rights of religious minorities, other minorities, men and women, as well as the basic human rights necessary to conduct elections, which are things like freedom of expression, freedom of association, and respect for the rule of law.
That's just the beginning, but I think if you set those out there you will eliminate a certain number of parties right off the bat. And I think those are minimal conditions.
Ms. Bansal, did you want to comment?
MS. BANSAL: I think it's not so much a question - I mean, our concern is not with excluding people from the political process, by any means; it's with ensuring that they agree and abide by international legal standards and human rights instruments. And the concern is not with - the concern is the policies that result and what policies seem to come about within certain governments. And the question I raised was more a question and not a statement. It's do we - you know, with the growing Islamicization of the Bangladeshi government - we heard about that; we didn't really articulate it fully in our brief remarks but we heard about it in many different respects - what are the ways in which to deal with the policies that result from that? And there I'm talking about like increasing education through private madrassas rather than public education, and other ways like that.
So it is addressing the policies and not the actors.
MS. GAER: Ms. Hossain, and if you'd identify yourself for everyone.
MANEEZA HOSSAIN: Maneeza Hossain with the Hudson Institute. You know, I think there is a lot of appreciation in Bangladesh for the gravity of the situation that we're dealing with. I was just wondering if the Commission, by any chance, got to look into the army's role - what role the army would be playing this year in the elections. And that the Islamization - to what extent it influences the army in Bangladesh.
MS. GAER: I think the short answer is we did not, although you heard today from some of our panelists the concern that some of the key members of the military have been associated with or supportive of some of the extremist parties, or they claim that that is the case. But the Commission itself did not examine that issue. Thank you.
And then Ms. Choudhury, and then I'm going to open it up to the - I saw other hands but I haven't been seeing them lately.
MS. GAER: Oh, I'm sorry, and Mr. Merloe. You can speak right now.
MR. MERLOE: I want to go back to Brian's question, and I think it relates to Mr. Masmoudi's question as well, really, and deserves a little bit more teasing out, at the risk of being controversial.
On the one hand, I fully agree with the chair, who has a longer standing in the international rights community than I have in my years prior to NDI.
The basic threshold for the renunciation of violence and the embracing of respect for the rights of others and to engage in a political, pluralist competition are touchstones for the legal recognition of political parties. If we take this into Bangladesh, however, the junior parties in the government coalition meet that threshold just as well as do the two major traditional political parties. The problem becomes one of implementation - what do you actually do on the ground? And a big problem in Bangladesh, however, is that both the BNP as well as the Awami League are guilty of using violence internally for internal party struggles as well as against one another and against other parties in the population.
And part of the problem that exists in Bangladesh is the lack of confidence of the population in the two major parties as a consequence. Another part of the problem is, as Mr. Masmoudi alluded, the deep impact of corruption in this country, the failure of these parties to address the real-world concerns of the 140 million Bangladeshis, as I said earlier, which leads to the kind of alienation between the political elite and their organized party forums. And Bangladesh, as it does in Latin America and other places - Bangladesh is not unique in this respect - does nonetheless create the breeding ground for which people turn to other answers, including political extremism. Political extremism 20 years ago we would discuss in a Marxist or other version. Today we're discussing it in the version of politicized Islam and extremism - (inaudible) - what we are now calling terrorism - (inaudible).
So it's a very complicated process, and I do believe, and I think that I should say, that it's important to engage with those Islamist parties that embrace pluralism, democratic processes, and are willing to work within these political and electoral contexts to work with what NDI has said over and over again - (inaudible) - and others, the middle ground to try to build that, and it's a murky area. We can't be naïve. Move to another country, in Yemen - to talk about the parties in Yemen for example, there are those who are within them have extreme elements that are participating in the electoral process. This leads to an interesting question about how to engage, which is a whole other forum, but I do think it needs to be a bit more nuanced as we approach the particulars in any particular country.
MS. GAER: Now, the clock on the wall says it's 5:00, and I understand from the police and the people in charge of the building that we can go on for about another five minutes. Five minutes isn't going to solve these issues or even allow us to really air them, but I'm going to try to do what we can. So those of you that do have to leave, please feel free to go. I'm going to go around and ask for questions. I'll ask you to make them very brief, and then if there's a chance for a final round after that I'll be amazed, but we'll try to do it in those five minutes.
So I had Ms. Choudhury was next.
ISHANI CHOUDHURY: My name is Ishani Choudhury, and I am the executive director of the Hindu American Foundation. One of the comments that was passed around that there was no pre-election violence last time the election had occurred in Bangladesh, I think there have been sufficient reports in the media, in newspapers and as well as television reports, along with Shahriar Kabir who was arrested because he had decided to document the plight of Hindus who had fled Bangladesh because of the fact that they were being intimidated.
Intimidation ranges anywhere from rape of women to burning of their houses and so on and so forth, and my organization continues to document the plight of Hindus in Bangladesh. The question is, how is it that we can make sure that the rights of Hindus are protected even after the elections are over? Because economic - (inaudible) - the Hindu population declined from 30 percent in 1947 to about 9.6 percent now.
MS. GAER: Those are really important questions, and we'll hold that for later.
FAY JOHNSON: Thank you. I want to just ask -
MS. GAER: Could you identify yourself?
MS. JOHNSON: Yes, Fay Johnson with the Congressional Human Rights Caucus for Frank Wolf. I want to ask the Commission, having put so much work into research on this, and wanting to also address the concern that Dr. Benkin - (inaudible) - the recommendations. As the Commission sees it, how would you like to continue to engage those in Congress as well as the NGO Committee about having these recommendations enforced as we look at having - (inaudible) - be represented in hopefully peaceful elections in 2007? Would you like to kind of address that as far as asking us how we can actually engage with you?
MS. GAER: No doubt we'll follow up on that with you directly, but the short answer is this is the first of what must be several efforts to focus in on the situation. I think that Mr. Harrison made some terribly important points about U.S. policy right now on these issues, and I think the recommendations stand there on their own for any members who want to pick those up in an appropriate way.
Now, I promised others, and so the gentlemen here, yes, please. Just please identify yourself before you speak. (Cross talk.) I have both of you, but he was first.
MR. : (Inaudible.) A few of the speakers - (inaudible) - various political parties' reforms to promote and preserve democracy in Bangladesh. I don't think the BNP - (inaudible) - because they are interested in this democracy and - (inaudible). I'll give you an example. When (inaudible) - the BNP government said that (inaudible). So clearly we know where the BNP government lies, and also to - this gentleman said that we need to understand Sharia or Islam. I don't understand why I have to understand Sharia or Islam. I find it difficult to understand what role Islam or Sharia or any kind of religious view should have in political discourse.
And also, a lot of people say that Bangladesh is a democratic Muslim country. Why do I have to identify my country as a Muslim country? Nobody calls America as a Christian country or India a Hindu country, so why I have to call myself a citizen of a Muslim country?
MS. GAER: Thank you.
MR. : Do we -
MS. GAER: We understand the question. I'm going to continue this and -
MR. : (Inaudible.) My question is that - (inaudible) - the system of Bangladesh. (Inaudible) - or after 1971, the name of socialization, the name of nationalism - (inaudible) - and the name of enemy property or vested property - (inaudible). Now we do not get any justice since 2001, the prosecution upheld the conviction. We are facing so much - (inaudible).
Somehow this Commission has to force the government to prosecute these people. Then we can - (inaudible) - on democracy in Bangladesh. (Inaudible.)
MS. GAER: Thank you very much.
Yes, sir. And please identify yourself.
MR. : My name is Abdul Latif Shamrat. I am chairman of the Bangladesh Interfaith Organization. And I - (inaudible). Bangladesh, Madame Chairman, the people of Bangladesh and the democratic government of Bangladesh - (inaudible) - appreciate the relationship between U.S. and Bangladesh. I appreciate while I was sitting and I was listening to the many - (inaudible) - from all these papers, I'm very grateful to say that none of the speakers said - (inaudible) - the government of Bangladesh has done. As Congressman Joseph Crowley said in a meeting in the Bangladeshi community that while the most powerful country - (inaudible) - could not apprehend the mastermind of 9/11 in this country - (inaudible) - government of Bangladesh was able to apprehend all the masterminds of those terrorist activities, and they're awaiting their death sentence in Bangladesh.
And as the - (inaudible) - in this country what we are saying now, there are people with religious ethnicity, and they are the political parties in - (inaudible). We cannot - (inaudible) - anybody as a - (inaudible) - in progress and prosperity only because their organization is named by Islam.
And also about the operations and all those things, we all - the government, the people - of Bangladesh convinced any religious official - (inaudible). I'll give you an example of - (inaudible) - Pakistan and India. If you go on record, the number of riots, pogroms and - (inaudible) - that happened around Bangladesh as - (inaudible).
Let me give you an example of the city - (inaudible) - who was elected in - (inaudible) - where 85 percent of people are Muslim. That shows people are not - (inaudible). And also, this year, as we speak, in Bangladesh - (inaudible) - Hindu community, there was 23,000 places where the temple - (inaudible) - without a single violence in the country.
Madame Chairman, why do we appreciate your reforms? I find some of the people - (inaudible). Why? Because if you ask anybody in this room, they would say - (inaudible) - represented by only one party who has members in the parliament and - (inaudible) - supporters in Bangladesh.
MS. GAER: Thank you, sir. I appreciate that.
Yes, sir. Please identify yourself.
MR. DWIJEN BHATTACHARJYA : (Off mike.) I teach at Columbia University, and this is a general question. I fail to understand how an - (inaudible) - conflict has anything to do with the following: A couple of months ago, the Honorable Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia issued - removed - (inaudible). Then moving the Ramna Kali Temple, which can be likened to - (inaudible) - or the Vatican or the Kaaba to me as a Hindu - the second-holiest shrine. She has issued an order removing a building - (inaudible).
Number two, how come - (inaudible)?
Third question, how come 2.5 million acres of land has been cinched from the minority Hindus in a county smaller than Wisconsin? This terrible anti-minority law was repealed in 2001 by the secularists. This government stopped it, blocked it. They continued to seize property. Two months ago they cinched nine properties. There is a supreme court advocate here, Subrata Chowdhury. He filed a written petition. It has been stopped. Now, there is a written petition filed for the - (inaudible) - on the removal of the Ramna Kaki Temple. This is the nature of wonderful harmony in Bangladesh, as supported by Prime Minister Begum Zia. She's an honorable person. Thank you.
MS. GAER: Well, I thank you also.
Now, I see more and more hands around the room, and we do have to conclude. And so I'm going - several of you have submitted questions to me. I'd like to call on you, but we do have to conclude. So I thank you. We are - our staff, Steve Snow, who is over here, will appreciate any further information you wish to provide. To our participants on the panel, thank you for coming. (Applause.) And to our speakers, a special thank you.