Three days in Dhaka, February 11-13, gave me a powerful impression of the mighty challenges and awesome opportunities that face this country of 160 million. Following a short stop in Singapore, where I was able to discuss that country's bridging role between South Asia and ASEAN, I was fascinated to hear Bangladesh's complementary vision for regional economic integration, and its strong support for greater U.S. efforts to foster collaboration under the umbrella of SAARC.
Eighty percent of Bangladesh's population is under the age of 40 and their rise to power, demographically and politically, will change the landscape of the country and the region. During my visit, I met several civil society leaders who represent this youth majority. I was immediately struck by their energy and talent. They believe wholeheartedly in the promise and potential of Bangladesh as a pluralist, tolerant and democratic society that is rich in its talented and resilient human capital. At the same time, these young people, and many others that I met, registered well-founded concern over recent attacks on civil society. I was honored to meet one of their national heroes, Grameen Bank Managing Director and Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, over lunch. I was glad to express the widespread support of my government for the ongoing work of an independent Grameen Bank.
Bangladesh's vibrant business community, well-represented by the American Chamber of Commerce, informed me that Bangladesh boasts the third-largest, Ready-Made Garments (RMG) industry in the world, and noted the strong Bangladeshi affinity for American brands and American companies.
In addition to meetings with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Opposition Leader Khaleda Zia, I was also welcomed to the Jatiyo Sangsad Parliament building. The building was designed by American architect Louis Kahn. Those familiar with my hometown of La Jolla, California, will recognize the architectural vocabulary shared by the Salk Institute and Bangladesh's beautiful National Assembly.
My first visit to Bangladesh certainly won't be my last.