<%-- Page Title--%> Interview <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 115 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

July 25, 2003

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Leaving Behind Positive Impressions

Recounting her days in Dhaka,
Mary Ann Peters leaves behind a legacy of love

She is suave, sophisticated and sincere. The departing US ambassador to Dhaka, Mary Ann Peters, is perhaps unlike many others preceding her in this vocation. While representing the US among 130 million Bangladeshis since September 2000, she made it a mission to know as much of the people as any enterprising foreign envoy would.

She traveled from Teknaf to Tatulia, dined bhuna fish and rasgollah, and befriended many to live with the legacy of her love, cordiality and candour for years to come.

Traversing the length and breadth of our social contours, Peters became from an envoy to a lover of our mainstream chores: attending local parties with local friends, bemusing with the ambience, hiking in the far flung and participating in matters of bilateral interests with a touch of closeness.

“ I will shed tears while flying out of Dhaka,” she said not being emotionally soaked as the editor and publisher (Mahfuz Anam) and senior assistant editor (M. Shahidul Islam) of The Daily Star met with her on July 8 for a chat meant to be informal, personal and devoid of hard-hitting political conundrums.

Reminiscences of days like 9/11, experiences of the 2001 general election, visit of Jimmy Carter, Colin Powel and her parents and family members to Dhaka were woven into a lucid narrative as she responded to every question through a parlor- like exchange of views.

Peters recollected how-- exactly a year after she arrived in Dhaka--the Twin towers got blown off in New York the Pentagon was hit by suicidal terrorists and the general election in Bangladesh enticed a voter turnover 'enviable to US'.

“I wish the turnout in my country were as good', she lamented.

What struck you most about life in Dhaka, we asked? She sighed and then narrated with graphic details of the hour immediately preceding the breaking of fasting during Ramadan.

“ Before iftari, those street vendors, jilapis, waiting (laugh), ....... Count down. I enjoyed those half an hour”.

The Star and Peters conversed over the ups and downs of Her Excellency as she so popularly discharged her assignments in Dhaka at one of the most volatile times in the US and global history. She complained of no trouble in the post 9/11 turbulence. “ We didn't have to close our mission as was done in many countries.”

We assured her in the beginning that the interview would be an informal one, matters political not being our focus. She grinned.

Yet, Peters did not fail to remind us of her deep appreciation for our tale of successes in eradicating polio, enhancing female literacy, and successes in a number of other socio-economic issues.

“ It sounds flat, but we really did broaden relationships”. Bilateral relationship is much better today in the economic, military and social fields," she claimed.
Peter recalls how three years before her arrival, she had had the inkling of this posting while being the deputy chief of mission at US embassy in Ottawa.

"Upon hearing the scoop, I did make my view known that I would like to be an ambassador to Bangladesh”, she said.

Bangladesh is a big country...130 million people'. As well, “there is a good American School here”. Myself and Tim (husband) knew things about Dhaka. The American school was an ideal place for Tim who teaches. We always heard that the people here were hospitable to the hilt.

At one point, she shared her experience of an earlier visit to Dhaka at the fag end of Ershad's regime. “I've had a soft spot for Bangladesh since”.

Always the optimist in personal life, Peters did not hesitate to exude her optimism about Bangladesh's future too. She was appreciative of our successes in micro credit, religious moderation, pluralistic democracy and homogeneity of things rarely seen in many countries.

She maintained that Bangladesh is not selling herself well in the international arena. “ It's a shame that international press focuses on those (negative), not on success stories like micro credit and women's education”.

Asked about what seems to be the downs of her time in Dhaka, she said, “ Headlines have been depressing at times. Violence and law and order situations... put you down.”

“During my brief stay in Dhaka in 1988, I saw the city full of rubbish as the floodwater receded. It's a different type of city now.”

Asked if she was surprised by the extent of our political divisiveness, she responded, “ Yes, it does”, adding, “look at countries where divisions are innate. My own country is held together by values, not by common cultural and ethnic heritage.”

The ambassador's depth of perception about the land and the people was indeed impressive. She uttered with observable body language, firmness, sanguinity and sincerity that “Communal relationship has not been as bad here as is the case in the subcontinent”.

Mary A. Peters predicted the arrival of moments in South Asian diplomatic history to be characterised more by engagement, visits and dialogue. She would like to see progress made in resolving the Kashmir issue.

“We're also working with Sri Lanka and Nepal. Some Maoist activities in Nepal are terroristic”, she claimed.
She candidly confessed of having expected tough questions as she met various religious groups, particularly the Muslim Imams. But that feared moment did not come to pass. “I also had several small gatherings at my residence. We don't agree with conservative Islamic polity, but dialogue is nice.”

Of all things that might entice her toward a nostalgic spell upon departing , mangoes are at the top of things she will miss the most. “Bangladeshi mangoes are best in the world”, she said.

She tried to learn the Bangla language, but had to give up at one point. “People here generally speak superb English”, said she.

The epilogue to the conversation included her liking of our rivers, recasting the memory of family cruises in the Sundarbans and the camping in Chittagong of the entire staffers from the embassy in September 2002.

She seemed in a haste to say good bye to our Prime Minister, with whom an appointment stood scheduled; but not until leaving with us a word of wisdom for her successor, Harry Thomas. “ He will also see the potential (of this nation)”, she affirmed.

To our politicians and leaders, her advice could not have been more poignant and appropriate: “Issues must be cleared up to reach the potential. Politics here being unnecessary divisive, I hope people will narrow down their differences.”

Mary Ann Peters' next assignment will be in Germany. But her love for Bangladesh will surely outlast her career. While in Dhaka, she seemed to have transmuted herself as one of us. Dhaka will certainly miss her charming presence.


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