Bangladesh Seeks US Investments in Energy

By Suryamurthy Ramachandran | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

New Delhi ( - Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed embarks on a three-day tour of United States on Monday seeking to attract American investment in the country's energy sector.

"Prime Minister Wajed would seek American investment in the energy sector during her talks with the US President Bill Clinton," Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shafi Sami told reporters on Sunday.

Hasina's three-day tour, beginning October 16, is in response to an invitation extended by Clinton during the first-ever visit by a US president to the poverty-stricken South Asian country in March.

Bangladesh, which won its independence from Pakistan in 1971, has 15 trillion cubic feet of natural gas ready for production. Foreign oil companies are drilling wells to find more gas. According to estimates, Dhaka's gas reserve could reach 50-to-60 trillion cubic feet.

The US embassy estimates American investment in Bangladesh could rise from 700 million dollars now to 2.3 billion dollars within two to four years if the projects in the pipeline and those under proposal were completed.

"The American business community considering the potential in this sector would put pressure on Clinton to make concessions to Dhaka," one analyst said.

Wahiduddin Mahmud, professor of economics at Dhaka University, said, "The oil crisis faced globally could act in the advantage of Bangladesh to garner maximum benefit now."

However, the government defaulting to pay gas prices to international firms has irked many global businesses who have threatened to withdraw from Bangladesh.

Media reports said that the state-owned oil and gas company, Petrobangla, would soon make partial payment to Unocal Bangladesh Limited, a unit of Unocal Corporation and the Royal/Dutch Shell Group.

Dhaka had delayed payment because of a resource crunch caused by non-payment of gas bills by domestic users.

Seeks Quota-Free Garment Import Status

Hased also would seek quota-free access for Bangladeshi ready-made garments to US markets during her 45-minute meeting with Clinton.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Association has expressed the optimism that Hased, during her talks with Clinton, would find a solution and save the industry from collapsing.

Thousands of garment factories, employing a workforce of more than 1.5 million, could face closure by 2005 when the Multi-Fiber Agreement, under which European nations and the United States have fixed quotas for each garment manufacturing country, goes into effect.

Dhaka is seeking to obtain duty-free access to the US marketplace that would boost the economic growth of Bangladesh.

American investment in Bangladesh is highest in the garment sector. The US is one of the biggest buyers of Bangladeshi garments, with American sales accounting for 75 percent of the total income in the sector.

Bangladesh Finance Minister S A M S Kibra said, "I personally think that the proposal of free-trade arrangements is worth (asking)...for the greater benefit of the two countries, especially Bangladesh.''

The move would raise the country's exports and boost prospects of export-oriented industries whose products were mostly destined for American and European markets, Kibra said. He added that foreign investments would rise in the country under such an arrangement.

Analysts said Washington could accede to the demands of Dhaka if the non-nuclear South Asian nation agrees to grant rights of workers to organize unions in export processing zones which have, so far, been denied to them.

Seeks Extradition of Coup Leaders

Another key issue, an emotional one to Hased, would be the extradition of the three 1975 coup leaders now living in the US. The coup led to the murder of her father, then Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur.

In 1998, a court handed down death sentences to 15 of the 19 people accused in the murder of Bangladesh's founding father Mujibur in the coup in August of that year.

The trial took place after Sheikh Hased's Awami League returned to power after 21 years in opposition in 1996 and scrapped a law that prohibited the trial of the coup leaders.

Soon after the verdicts were announced, Hased appealed to countries around the globe to cooperate in extraditing those found guilty in their absence.

Only Thailand complied, extraditing retired major Bazlul Huda after lengthy proceedings.

Nine convicted in absentia at the 1998 trial remain at large with three believed to be residents of the United States.

Seeks $700 Million in Debt Relief from US

Bangladesh also would seek a debt relief of more than $700 million it owes to United States under PL (Public Law) 480, a food aid program, during Hased's brief visit with Clinton. Under PL-480, Bangladesh receives food aid used for food for needy workers and for other related programs.

The relief is being sought under the provisions of the US Tropical Forests Act of 1990, reports said. The Act provides for compensation for destruction of tropical forests across the globe caused by the activities of US-based companies.

Dhaka has sent a letter pointing out the relevant sections of the US law and advised that the debt relief could be sought under the criteria of the 1990 Act.