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Why Bangladesh now? The Excelsior 17 Nov 2023
On 02 Nov, TIME magazine placed Sheikh Hasina on its cover with the words, ‘Hard Power; Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the fate of democracy in Bangladesh.’ She was accused of undermining democracy in Bangladesh. TIME had attempted a similar anti-Modi campaign prior to the 2019 elections, which failed. It will attempt the same again in 2024.
The article was published just days after US ambassador to Dacca, Peter Haas, called for the ruling party and opposition in Bangladesh `to have a dialogue ‘without preconditions.’ To this suggestion, Sheikh Hasina responded, ‘Is Biden holding dialogue with Trump? If Biden sits with Trump for dialogue, then I will hold a dialogue (with the opposition).’
Clashes between the opposition and police in Bangladesh, on appointing a caretaker government, led to the US mentioning, ‘We call for calm and restraint on all sides and will review all violent incidents for possible visa restrictions.’ The US interest in the internal affairs of Bangladesh has increased in recent months.
Media reports mention that Peter Haas has been meetings members of Bangladesh’s political parties and government officials over the past few months. These are increasing as elections, due in Jan next year, draw close.
In May, Washington issued a new visa policy placing restrictions on people attempting to undermine democracy in Bangladesh, intended at the ruling Bangladesh Awami League. The US defended its actions, mentioning, ‘Our message today to the people of Bangladesh is that we stand behind you.’
It was also viewed that this was in retaliation to Bangladesh withdrawing additional police escorts to foreign mission heads in Dacca, including the US, as the security scenario had improved. Bangladesh claims its diplomats in other countries also do not get the same privilege. The US appears to be sending a signal of desiring a regime change.
In Apr this year, Sheikh Hasina had stated in parliament, ‘They (US) are trying to eliminate democracy and introduce a government that will not have a democratic existence. It’ll be an undemocratic action.’ Such a comment, on a public platform, by the head of a government, is never without sufficient cause.
In August, the US ambassador met the Chief Election Commissioner of Bangladesh, Kazi Awal. The US embassy announced that the ambassador conveyed that the US desires an election through which ‘Bangladeshi citizens can freely choose their leadership.’ Last week the ambassador interacted with the Bangladeshi foreign secretary, presumably conveying US concerns on elections.
In Dec 2021, post the ‘Virtual Democracy Summit,’ to which Bangladesh was not invited (considered undemocratic by the US), Washington imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion and its former and current heads for human rights violations.
Mathew Miller, the US state department spokesperson mentioned in a press statement in Sept that the US has also imposed sanctions on Bangladeshi individuals ‘responsible for or complicit in undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.’ The US has regularly been applying pressure on Bangladesh assuming that the elections are unlikely to be fair and free.
To defend its actions, the US spokesperson stated, ‘We do not support one political party over the other; we support a genuine democratic process.’ The Bangladesh PM meeting the US president informally on the sidelines of the G20 summit had no impact on US views.
In Feb, visiting Bangladesh, the US state department representative mentioned that weakening democracy is a limiting factor in cooperation. This does not appear to be the case with the Middle East, where US cooperation is rising even in the absence of democracy.
India has verbally raised the issue of interference in Bangladesh in its conversations with US officials, though it has refrained from issuing any statement. India is aware that any change in Bangladesh leadership could be detrimental to its security.
Another neighbour of India, Myanmar has faced a magnitude of sanctions from the US, pushing it closer to China. There is no doubt that the Myanmar military, also known as Tatmadaw, has eroded democracy in the nation and must be held accountable. However, imposing crippling sanctions has made it dependant on China.
The security environment in Myanmar is weakening, adding to India’s concerns. This results in provision of bases and weapons to anti-India groups based in Myanmar. India has been compelled to maintain its own ties with Myanmar, ignoring US sanctions, where it deems fit.
Simultaneously, the US terms India a close ally. In such a scenario, it should have considered India’s concerns and acted accordingly. Ignoring Indian suggestions only adds credence to the belief that the US determines its actions selfishly.
The reality is that the US seeks to enforce its own concept of democracy. All nations are not alike. US democracy exercises failed in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq. In Pakistan, it compelled the army to remove Imran Khan, thereby proving that there are nations where it supports quasi-democracies. It has backed monarchies in the middle east and dictators in Africa, turning a blind eye to human rights violations only because it suits US interests. US actions can simplistically be termed as ‘selective, selfish and based on geopolitical considerations.’
Interestingly, Pakistan is considered more democratic than Bangladesh as it was invited to both the virtual democracy summits, though it attended none, in deference to China. The world is aware that democracy in Pak is rigged while Sheikh Hasina has provided stability to Bangladesh, which at one point did witness a spurt in economic growth.
US actions will push Dacca closer to Beijing despite its close ties with India. Chinese foothold, once established, will be difficult to remove and will impact security in South Asia. In case there is a regime change, India will face enhanced security concerns as was experienced during the tenure of Khalida Zia. Hasina, a non-fundamentalist, has been reigning in fundamentalist elements which could undergo a change under a new regime.
Dacca should be entitled to its own form of democracy, which may not be as per US standards, as with many other countries. The US must realize that it is not the global guardian of democracy and its model is also not flawless. US interference in Bangladesh is possibly a trailer of what India can expect in early 2024.