Dhaka examines sensitive deals with Washington, New Delhi

Bangladesh leaders on Thursday discussed two politically sensitive deals it will be negotiating with the United States and India on trade and investment, triggering strong reactions from domestic political and civic groups, reported dpa.

"The possible deals with United States and India will be tabled for discussion in parliament before their finalisation and the opposition parties should join the debates to reap maximum benefit for the country," Faruk Khan, the Bangladesh commerce minister, said Thursday in Dhaka.

The one-month-old government of Sheikh Hasina Wazed, whose Awami League-led alliance won a sweeping victory in late-December general elections, revived the issues of signing a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with the US, the number one destination of Bangladeshi exports, and transit facilities for India, the next door neighbour.

Discussion on a trade and investment framework was initiated in 2002 by the American authorities while India has long been pressing for allowing transportation of goods to its isolated and troubled north-eastern states through Bangladesh.

All the past governments in the Muslim-majority country were hesitant to sign the deals considering the domestic political dynamics - sentiments against hegemonic America and big-brotherly India.

"It is yet to be finalised. Nothing will be done against the interest of the country," State Minister for Foreign Affairs Hasan Mahmud said.

The minister said the drafts of the agreements will be prepared with the help of highest level experts, if they get final nod from the 38-member council of ministers headed by Hasina.

But the possible deals have already drawn strong reactions from the political and civic actors in the sharply polarised politics of Bangladesh.

They asked the government to refrain from inking any hasty deals that undermine national interests and threaten the national sovereignty.

"The government seems hell-bent on signing deals without regard for national interest at the instruction of their matters... Do not do anything which irks the people who will not tolerate any deals that harm our national interests," said Khandaker Delwar Hossain, secretary general of the mainstream opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

The debate over the possible deals emerged at a time when two senior officials from US and India are scheduled to visit Bangladesh for talks on issues of regional and international concerns.

US Assistant Secretary of States on South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher is expected to arrive in Dhaka on February 7, to be followed by Indian's external affairs minister Pranab Mukharjee, who is scheduled to arrive on February 8.

Bangladesh will face difficulties in the World Trade Organisation if it signs a TIFA with the United States, said Anannya Rayhan, a development economist who represented the private sector at past meetings.

Intellectual property rights, negotiation for climate change and environmental issues, export and the duty-free access of Bangladeshi products in the US are among the areas where Bangladesh will have difficulties in negotiation if the deal is signed, he added.

But the US says Bangladesh would benefit if the agreement comes into being. Under the proposed agreement, officials of the two countries will hold talks at least once a year on issues related to trade and investment facilities.

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