Sunday, May 6, 2012

Dhaka May 5-6

We left Beijing around noon. Following all of the hectic behind-closed-doors activity over the dissident Chen, Clinton and her team were in complete radio silence. It was a bizarre few days, and I didn't come away feeling that they were 100 pct sure the new deal they had for his U.S. studies would actually hold.

It was strange that one guy had essentially held the U.S.-China relationship hostage, and that all of the interchanges between Americans and Chinese -- which is what, about 1.7 billion people -- were riding on the outcome of this one thing. Of course it wasn't entirely true. The whole point of the episode, or at least the point that the State Department wanted to emphasize, was that the relationship was "broader" than any one single issue, and would keep chugging along. But Chen certainly managed to complicate things, and I think it goes to the broader frictions that are going to keep popping up inevitably between the two political cultures.

After all of that, it was a relief to get to Bangladesh and a somewhat more straightforward story. Bangladesh has been dominated for decades by two political parties which are each run by feisty old ladies, who naturally hate each other. So the "battling begums" was the theme, underscored by a rash of general strikes and new political disappearances that has everyone on edge. Clinton met them both, and tried to make some public pronouncements about how important it is to uphold rule of law, civil discourse etc. But they've been at it so long, and the hatreds are so deep, the State people didn't have much hope she'd make an impact.

We sat in the prime minister's office (flanked by the sort of sad metal tigers pictured above) for a while while they met, and then got in the bus back to the hotel. It was hard at nighttime to get any sense of Dhaka, but it didn't look quite as desperate as I'd imagined. Not pretty, but also not a favela. In daylight you couldn't see much more: lots of five or six story concrete buildings, lots of street life, lots of traffic. And HOT. Clinton had few events in the morning, including one of her "townterview" sessions (see picture). These sometimes work and sometimes don't, and in this case it didn't chiefly because the lady who was MC'ing was both tongue tied and dominating..she wouldn't let anybody else get a word in, but she could hardly get a sentence out herself. So..sort of a waste.

We went back out to the airport and took the 35 minute flight to Calcutta. They let me sit in the cockpit for the landing, which really was something. It is strange to be at the very front of the plane, looking forward -- you can start making out the air strip, and the pilots are conversing non-stop with the control tower (how they understood what the control tower guys were saying, in their rapid Indian accented English, was beyond me). Then they point the nose of the plane DOWN, a much sharper angle than you get a feel for sitting in the back cabin. You really feel like the whole thing is a controlled crash -- but thankfully well controlled. At about 200 feet the automatic voice starts counting down the altitude, and at about 100 feet it announces "DECISION HEIGHT" which I guess is the last point they might be able to pull up. It was also interesting to see how much they actually use the controls -- I had sort of assumed the whole thing was automatic. But these pilots (all regular Air Force) had their hands on the wheel, and you could see them push and prod the plane into the right trajectory.

We obviously made it down ok. Because I was up front I had to wait a bit to back, and when I did Clinton and all her staff were standing around in their cabin talking. I told her I had just landed the plane and she thanked me...(I got the feeling she'd heard that one before). We're in Calcutta now, where it is also ferociously hot. The rest of the day is pretty much down time: she goes out to a couple of small civil society events, and then a look at the Victoria Monument which is the big sight to see her. Should be interesting to see what Calcutta looks like. More on that next time.