Industry Desk: On May 24, the US government announced, ‘Visa restrictions will be imposed on individuals and their immediate family members responsible for or involved in undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.’
The announcement is the latest in a series of moves by the United States to pressure Bangladesh’s Awami League government to ensure free and fair elections.
Bangladesh will hold general elections on January 7. For several months now, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been leading street protests calling on the Awami League to step down, demanding elections under a neutral caretaker government. However, the A.League government could not accept this demand. Instead, BNP intensified repression against leaders.
As Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of the non-governmental organization Sujan, pointed out, “The international community is putting pressure on the undemocratic or autocratic government of Bangladesh for not responding to the demands of the citizens. In 2018, the Prime Minister promised a fair election. But in reality, the voting was done the night before.”
‘Election rigging’ is not uncommon today, a result of the government’s consistent failure to build a strong framework for the rule of law. Institutions do not operate independently.
The Election Commission, police and other law enforcement agencies and the judiciary are functioning under the ruling Awami League government. During the last 15 years of rule of Awami League, the institutions are crowded with party loyalists and recruits. Due to the autocratic rule of Awami League, media rights, civil liberties and labor rights are limited today.
According to the Hong Kong-based Asian Commission on Human Rights, between 2009 and June 2022, 623 people were victims of enforced disappearance in Bangladesh, while at least 2,658 were victims of extrajudicial killings.
Although the restoration of democracy should be an internal task of the country, still in this dark situation, Bangladeshis look to the United States for the hope of restoring democracy in their country. Many Bangladeshis believe that the United States can play an important role in sustaining democracy in the country. The United States has leverage over Dhaka as Bangladesh’s most important trading partner and export destination.
It is a leading collaborator in education, research and intellectual property. Bangladesh is an important partner in natural disaster prevention and the United States has an important contribution on the ground in social development initiatives in the country.
The United States played a key role in brokering a compromise in 2007 that led to the removal of the pro-BNP caretaker government, facilitating Sheikh Hasina’s rise to power in 2009. His government oversaw two flawed elections in 2014 and 2018, both of which he won.
In December 2021, the United States imposed sanctions on several officers of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) for gross human rights abuses. Many feel that this move has had a positive impact. Because there have been significant improvements in democratic rights and civic spaces and a significant reduction in extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
However, the visa restriction policy may fail to achieve its goal of pressuring Bangladesh to ensure free and fair elections. Although the Awami League government removed some officials under the pressure of such policies, the whole system is so full of party loyalists that many others are ready to rig the election in favor of the Awami League.
Despite sanctions and other pressure from foreign governments, Sheikh Hasina has refused to budge from her stance on various issues. He has refused to sign important agreements such as the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA).
Awami League government refuses to change information localization policy; Major repressive provisions remain under laws such as the Digital Security Act (DSA) and the Data Protection Act (DPA). In addition, its approach to Rohingya repatriation has at times excluded the involvement of the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States, with Bangladesh opting instead to work with China on the issue.
Also, media freedom has been curtailed under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership, with neutral outlets facing obstacles in generating corporate revenue. Most of the media has become pro-government. Bangladesh has now become such a state, even if the prime minister wants it, fair elections will not be possible under this government. In fact, Sheikh Hasina’s retention of power involves the illegal interests of everyone, including the law and order forces.
As a result, the chances of a truly free, fair and inclusive electoral process are slim. A look at the contemporary history of Bangladesh shows that a free and fair election cannot be held under a party government. Elections that were recognized as fair were held under an interim government. As a result, it is essential to establish an interim government excluding Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
China and Russia have come together to limit US political influence in Bangladesh. Russia has described US efforts to pressure Sheikh Hasina for fair elections as “shameless interference” and “another attempt at neo-colonialism and shameless interference in an independent country”. Yao Wen, the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, said, “China supports Bangladesh in defending national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity and opposing external interference.”
India does not seem to change from its pro-Awami League position. In fact, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen admitted that he had urged India to “do whatever it takes to keep Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh”. Moreover, constructive dialogue will not be possible if almost all senior leaders of BNP are arrested or imprisoned. The opposition has called for nationwide protests and has received overwhelming support from a public grappling with rising inflation and rising food prices.
This impasse raises several questions. Why is the United States delaying its action to pressure the Awami League regime? Is the United States really committed to strengthening democracy in Bangladesh? Are they really interested in changing the democratic regime? Or are they just trying to get concessions from the current government by applying pressure? Translator: Faiz Ahmad Tayyab.
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