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South Asia through the looking glass: an interview with Ambassador E. Ashley Wills (Part 2)

Here, we continue our interview with former Ambassador to Sri Lanka and retired Foreign Service Officer, Ashley Wills.

Simon Everett: At Embassy Colombo, you were also accredited as the U.S. Ambassador to the Maldives. Did being “dual-hatted” present any particular challenges?

Ashley Wills: No. In fact, it was a very good thing from my point of view because of the situation in Sri Lanka – a civil war was going on; the cease-fire began in the spring of 2001 – things were still very tense there. The stakes were high. There had been bombings, a lot of people killed, and there were checkpoints throughout Colombo. I made it a point to go to the Maldives at least once per quarter, and it was a release for me to get away from the tension of Sri Lanka and deal with a country that was more stable. I found it an outlet. There were more difficult moments with our relationship with the Maldives, but it’s a small country and although its problems are not small from their perspective, they’re small compared to those of Sri Lanka. So I was able to carry on a good relationship with the government of the Maldives without having to spend a lot of time there. The time I spent was relatively relaxing.

SE: Bhutan is one of only three countries with which the United States doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations. But, informally, contact is managed through Embassy New Delhi. You’re among a small but growing number of Americans who have visited the mountain kingdom. Can you tell us about your time there?

AW: As the Deputy Chief of Mission in New Delhi, I was nominally responsible for our relationship with Bhutan, such as it was. I went there two or three times. It’s a gorgeous little country with a royal family that is pretty enlightened by any standard, but it’s also a country with a long past living in isolation from the rest of the world. Bhutan was just beginning to open up when I started going there. I remember on the second visit, I happened to be there when the first television broadcast was made in the country. This was 1997 or 1998 – so not that long ago. I learned a lot from my time in Bhutan because the government there wanted to move away from royal rule and towards a real democracy. And it’s started to happen. There is a legislature, there’s a constitution, there’s growing voter participation. It’s an impressive place. They have an unusual standard for their country, they call it a “gross happiness index.” They try to measure factors that aren’t measured in other countries – the environmental situation, the health of the average person, literacy – it’s an impressive idea.

SE: The United States is filling a vital role in helping Nepal recover from last year’s earthquake and aftershocks, which have caused one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in recent memory. Can you describe the criticality of USAID and American charities in disaster relief efforts like this one?

AW: I think it’s absolutely vital. They’ve suffered a cataclysmic disaster. The country’s infrastructure was not advanced to begin with, and now much of it has been damaged or destroyed. The U.S. has been a leading support to Nepal and that has continued through this earthquake. USAID has been putting forth a tremendous amount of resources to help the country rebuild, and to provide temporary shelter. Nepal, unlike Bhutan, had a very unfortunate past with a royal family, and it is trying to move out from that unhappy overhang. But the earthquake is going to challenge this country to move toward democracy (or to improve its democracy) because so many resources are going to have to go to recovery. Nepal has a great advantage: it’s a country that is greatly admired around the world for its beauty, for the positive nature of its people, and for its ecology. It’s a very attractive place for a certain kind of traveler, and these people are going to keep going to Nepal and providing the kind of earnings that can help Nepal in the decades to come.

SE: In Bangladesh, the booming ready-made garment (RMG) industry is a major employer and a key source of foreign currency. In fact, many of the clothes Americans wear are made there. What should the American consumer know about the RMG industry?

AW: The RMG industry is a huge factor in Bangladesh’s economic health. It provides a tremendous amount of foreign exchange earnings to the country. Bangladesh produces textiles of all sorts for the U.S. market, various European markets, and major Asian markets like Japan. As is the case with poor countries around the world, its fidelity to modern labor standards is uneven. There have been some shocking accidents in Bangladesh, factories that are producing exports, to include to the U.S. We have been working with NGOs in Bangladesh to improve the standards of safety in these garment factories. Progress is being made, but it’s slow. It faces so many environmental challenges because of flooding. Its government is not yet a well-developed democracy – it’s prone to corruption. It is also, I’m afraid, facing a period of growing intolerance. Generally speaking, Bangladesh is not prone to embracing radical Islamic ideas, but there are – in a country this populous – a lot of people who aren’t in the majority, but still feel that Bangladesh should be rigidly Islamic. Until these people can be set to the margins, it’ll be difficult for the government of Bangladesh to move ahead.

SE: Let’s stay on the subject of trade for a minute. Among your many accomplishments, you were also the first Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for South, Southwest, and Central Asia. What role does trade play in American policy across South Asia?

AW: It’s of growing importance. It’s always been important with our relationship with India and with Pakistan as well, and as I mentioned, with Bangladesh. We don’t trade as much with the region as we do with other regions, but the rate of growth is very positive. Our trade relationship with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal has been very positive over the last decade; we have a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) in place with Sri Lanka. In the case of Bangladesh and Nepal, we have regular consultations, and some day we may have TIFAs with them, as well. The big success is with India. When I left there in 2000, our two-way trade totaled $25B, and now it’s surpassing $100B. It’s likely to grow even faster in the years ahead. That’s a good thing; the U.S. relationship with another country usually improves in association with trade. We’re a business-minded country. We want to do business overseas. We don’t have a traditional relationship that goes back decades with any country in South Asia. But that’s changing, and it’s altogether a good thing.

SE: You speak fondly of your time in South Asia. Can you share any anecdotes about life in the region?

AW: I said India was the most astonishing country I ever lived in. I’d have to say Asia more broadly is going to open people’s minds perhaps like they’ve never experienced before. Every country in South Asia – although very different from its neighbors -- is complex. The culture is very old. So many world religions were founded in South Asia, and they clash or get along in ways that we can’t understand very easily because our culture has been predominantly Christian. Maybe we’re beginning to get a sense of it because Islam is growing in the U.S., and so are other religions. Now perhaps we’ll have a better sense of how religion in South Asia can be a unifying factor, sometimes a divisive one, which makes the culture so arresting for a diplomat who is trying to understand which forces are important in the country, and how influence is meted out in a country. In South Asia, it takes a while to learn that. The other thing that helps in South Asia is that so many educated people speak English. It helps if you can speak Hindi, Tamil, Sinhala, Bangla…but you can get reasonably well along in English, so it makes things more accessible.

SE: Last but not least, college basketball season is only a few months away. Any predictions for your Virginia Cavaliers?          

AW: I think they’re going to be good again, but not as good as last year. What I’m sad about is the football team, which has been lousy for several years, and maybe will be lousy again. I’m always optimistic, but it’s hard to be. I’m sure you noticed, but the baseball team won the national championship last year. And there’s something called the Capital One Cup, which is awarded to the university with the strongest athletic teams in all sports combined over the course of the year. Virginia won last year, edging out Stanford.

SE: Thanks for your time, Ashley. It’s a pleasure, as always.

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