US-Bangladesh relationship heading to a turning point?

Is US-Bangladesh relationship heading to a turning point? Bangladesh watchers are pondering in the context of hectic diplomatic parleys of the United States in the past year, especially since the end of 2021, and excluding Bangladesh from the second democracy summit to be held in March 2023.The latest visit of the high-level US diplomats was in mid-February by Counsellor of the US Department of State Derek Chollet, who once again underscored the importance of “free and fair” elections and the protection of human rights and a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Mr. Cholllet said that “the United States’ strongest partnerships in the world are with strong democracies. And, to the extent democracy is weakening anywhere, it’s going to be a limiting factor in our ability to cooperate.” Chollet’s visit came within weeks of assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, Donald Lu’s two-day visit, when he conveyed similar messages to Sheikh Hasina’s government as well as civil society groups. While both emphasized the continued US-Bangladesh cooperation on different arenas, including US support for Rohingya refugees and mitigating climate change, the issue of human rights and a free and fair election have featured prominently, according to media reports.

Bangladesh, which has been experiencing slow and steady erosion of democracy since 2011, particularly since the opposition boycotted election in 2014, was under the radar of the international community for long. Sheikh Hasina’s government held a highly rigged election in 2018 which delivered a de facto one-party parliament for the second time and a third consecutive term in Prime Minister’s office for Hasina. She came to power in 2009 through a freely held election under a neutral non-partisan caretaker government, a provision she scrapped from the constitution in 2011. Considering the high-level of distrust among political parties, Bangladesh’s history of rigged elections under incumbents, and lack of independence of the electoral commission, the interim non-partisan government was the only guardrail against fraud in election. Bangladesh’s next election is scheduled to be held by January 2024.

International human rights organizations have documented widespread and gross violations of human rights including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and custodial deaths since the Awami League (AL) with Hasina at the helm came to power. Press freedom has dwindled and the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) has criminalized freedom of expression.  Until recently, opposition parties were not allowed to assembly and continue to face legal and extralegal intimidations.

The US treasury’s decision to impose sanctions on the elite law enforcement force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), in December 2021 demonstrated that the country is no longer escaping the scrutiny.  The RAB has been described by human rights groups as a death squad and documented cases where it has been used to abduct and kill opposition activists. The force enjoys impunity, observers insisted as the processes of holding them accountable are almost non-existent. Bangladesh government denies these allegations.

The action against the RAB came in the wake of the first Democratic Summit, where Bangladesh was not invited. The US has been underscoring the importance of democracy, respect for freedom of assembly and free election since 2013, but it has gained salience after Biden administration assumed the office. This is not only because democracy and human rights are the cornerstones of Biden administration’s foreign policy, but also because of the increasing slide of the country towards personalistic autocracy.

Bangladesh in recent years have seen growing influence of China and Russia. Bangladesh joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2016 and has received significant economic assistance since then. Several large-scale projects are being funded by China. In 2021, Chinese ambassador to Dhaka warned that Bangladesh-China relationship will suffer ‘substantial damage’ if it joins the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). Bangladesh government is yet to respond to the US request to join the IPS. Analysts believe that Hasina government’s continued lean towards China is also predicated by her penchant for an authoritarian system of government. Bangladesh’s relationship with Russia has also warmed up with the current government as the latter is building Bangladesh’s only nuclear power plant with an estimated cost of US$ 12.26 billion. Both countries had criticized the US ambassador Peter Hass for visiting the family of a victim of enforced disappearance on 14 December 2022. Ambassador Hass faced a security breach by a group of pro-government activists. Bangladesh foreign ministry attempted to underplay the incident until Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke on the phone with Bangladesh’s state minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam.

Secretary Sherman, like other US diplomats, emphasized the importance of holding free and fair elections, and the safety and security of US embassy personnel, a State Department release said. Worth noting that other senior US officials such as Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher, Senior Director for South Asia, National Security Council of the United States and Julieta Valls Noyes, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration who visited Dhaka in December and January also echoed the call of upholding democratic governance in Bangladesh.

The US position is quite clear from these visits and repeated calls for more space for democratic practices. NSC’s Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby, in an in-person and on-the-record briefing in Washington in February told the South Asia Perspectives said, “We support an inclusive, democratic Bangladesh in which all Bangladeshis can thrive, a prosperous future which will also be built on stronger democratic institutions and participation of all Bangladeshis in elections and governance of their country.”

The sanction against the RAB, exclusion of Bangladesh from Democracy Summit, high-level visits and repeated calls for creating an environment for inclusive and participatory democratic governance have brought some results in the past months as incidents of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances by state actors have slightly declined. The opposition parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have been provided some space for demonstrations. But these actions do not guarantee a fair election in 2014 as law enforcement agencies and the civil administration continued to be used by the ruling party for partisan goals. Besides, the government has rewarded some of the RAB officials with prized appointments. Many analysts believe that Bangladesh government is playing a long game and may arrange another ‘engineered election.’

In this background, many are pondering whether the US will ratchet up its pressure with more concrete steps. This will send a signal of a turning point. Alternatively, the US can continue to take small steps and essentially run into the risk of falling for the machinations of the Hasina government. Considering the importance of the next election, many analysts believe that the window of opportunity to reverse the current backsliding is small and it is necessary for the US to send a clearer signal on what specific steps it would like to see from the Bangladesh government. Coming months will tell us which direction the wind is blowing.

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