Image credit: The author
(The guests appear happy, perhaps at the cost of the host!)
by R Chowdhury 25 July 2023
“Allowing Sheikh Hasina to host the next election will be better served than not to hold one at all. Her unilateral victory will save the people time, effort, resources, and insurmountable sufferings.”
She Came, She Talked, She Left
That was Uzra Zeya, US Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights. Accompanied by Donald Lu, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, she led a high-powered delegation to Dhaka on July 11-14, 2023. Enroute, she had a stopover in New Delhi for talks with officials there. It was Lu’s second trip to Dhaka in six months. Earlier in April, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a bilateral meeting with his Bangladeshi counterpart A K Abdul Momen in Washington.
From all indications, the post-mortem of the Zeya engagements, did not seem to be a happy one for the regime, even though some leaders tried to put up a brave front with such self-appeasing description as managed, no pressure on free and fair election or election-time neutral administration et al. Social media was busy for a few days entertaining the audience with largely speculative narratives, rightly or wrongly, including the various gaffes and self-serving information by the ministers and ruling leaders.
Biden’s Agenda Still in Place
Given the explosive political situation developed around the all-important national election scheduled in December or January next, these US-Bangladesh engagements were deemed to be very significant. The two sides of Bangladesh politics remain totally uncompromising on their respective positions. A volcanic eruption or a tsunami looms large on the political landscape of the South Asian nation.
The US has put a high stake on these diplomatic exchanges because of President Joe Biden’s commitment to human rights, democracy, election integrity and combating corruption and authoritarianism in its overseas policy.
Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a serious defaulter in all these areas. In fact, the US was a party to install Hasina in 2009 in the first place. It fell prey to the Chanakya’s mechanization to bail Bangladesh out of an imaginary Islamophobia. The Biden administration now appears to right the wrongs. In a first step, in December 2021, it clamped sanctions on Bangladesh’s notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and a few of its top officials, for their involvement in proven gross violations of human rights that included extrajudicial murders, enforced disappearances, unlawful arrests and tortures. Rights organizations dubbed this elite force as a “death squad with impunity” because of its extensive authority derived from the highest office.
The same month, Bangladesh failed to qualify for Biden’s favorite Democracy Summit in 2021, even though such regional countries as Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan and authoritarian Narendra Modi’s India did. Hasina’s Bangladesh failed for the next round as well a year later.
In May this year, Washington announced visa restrictions against those involved in election crimes in Bangladesh. Details of the mechanism of the policy is yet to be known but it sent shivers in the corridors of power, many of whom and their family members have great interests in the US.
After assuming office early last year, US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter D Haas continued to be vocal about human rights, democracy and election integrity and political freedom in the country, drawing ire and at times strong criticism from his hosts. He was accused of aligning himself with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that kept fighting against the misdeeds of the Hasina regime, including seeking resignation of the government and election under a neutral caretaker government (CTG). Haas even came under assault from the ruling thugs when he went to express sympathy with the relatives of the victims of enforced disappearances. The Prime Minister’s venomous wrath against the US became a routine exercise, both inside and outside the parliament. To the contrary, the US remains the strong bone for her country’s development and economy. One doesn’t twist the arm that feeds one. But Hasina cares little. Her priority is her throne, illegally occupied through repeated election frauds and exercising harsh fascism on the citizens. RAB and police keep the people silent under the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA), which punishes people for slightest criticism of the regime and the ruling family. Thousands, including minors, languish in jails under the DSA.
India, Hasina’s all-weather sponsor, continues to stand by her side. That posed an issue for Washington which had earlier given the regional power a free hand to deal with its neighbors in an effort to contain growing Chinese influence in South Asia. The strategy did not seem to work and Washington reset the policy. More so, of the US’ fresh Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS).
“We envision an Indo-Pacific that is open, connected, prosperous, resilient, and secure–and we are ready to work together with each of you to achieve it,” said President Joe Biden at the East Asia Summit on October 27, 2021.
Placed in a geo-politic hub, Bangladesh, was considered a significant partner in the IPS. The US, therefore, thought of dealing with the country directly, rather than the Indian prism. The message was said to have been conveyed to New Delhi through various channels, including talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his high-profile visit to the US capital last month. Analysts believe, Zeya also conveyed the message to the officials in New Delhi, much to her hosts’ dislikes, that they would no longer see Bangladesh through Indian eyes,
Pro-regime Indian writers’ outbursts against the US reset stance and pressure on Sheikh Hasina for human rights, democracy and credible election bear testimony. They continued to beat drums to the effect that their leaders could not abandon their protege Hasina who had been providing all the needed geo-strategic and economic benefits to her benefactor.
“The biggest priority of India’s foreign policy-cum-security establishment is to get Hasina re-elected in January 2024 for a fourth successive term at any cost,” wrote S N M Abdi, an Indian writer, on June 6, 2023 in the quint world. He insisted that New Delhi must ensure Hasina wins by any means, legal or illegal.
Concluding her visit, Uzra Zeya said the Prime Minister and her ministers assured the US team of “a free and fair election, which was encouraging.” As a diplomatic statement, it is fine. But there are few reasons to believe Hasina and her ministers, given their past records.
What is happening in the country is not unknown to the US. Its annual country reports reflect them in detail. The US and the democratic West have been insisting on political freedom in Bangladesh. But does the ruling regime listen? A few recent instances:
- The regime keeps intimidating the peaceful rallies of the opposition in various ways. Public transport is stopped so that the people cannot freely join the rallies. Scores of restrictions are imposed on the opposition rallies, including space control. Whereas, their own Awami rallies enjoy all the freedom.
- The Internet was reported to be closed so that opposition activities could not be instantly disseminated.
- The Awami League invariably holds simultaneous rallies close by to divert the public attention, of course, with miserable failure. Many incentives such as comfortable seating, snacks and food are provided to attract the public. Yet, those Awami gatherings were dwarfed by the huge multitude of attendees in the opposition venues nearby.
- In addition to other repressions, the regime canceled the operative license of the Odhikar, and indigenous rights organization, which recorded all the human right violations of the regime over the years. Sister organizations around the world protested but with no avail.
Fear of a Mujib Fate
When one is under pressure or fear, one tends to be loud. So is the Bangladesh regime today. It is forced to take hardline. For Hasina, losing power could entail huge problems in the backdrop of her 15-year long misdeeds and the unnecessary cult she developed around her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had fallen from grace under his own follies almost five decades ago. Sadly, the once popular leader failed to receive proper rituals in his final journey. Hasina perhaps fears a similar treatment if she falls. She is refusing to budge to the opposition demand for a free and fair election under a neutral authority. Past two elections under her in 2014 and 2018 were total farce. She is determined to stage a similar electoral farce, come what may, to stay in power.
Hero Alam: Latest Victim
Ashraful Alam, better known as Hero Alam, an independent candidate in the by-election of the Dhaka 17 Constituency, was criminally assaulted by Hasina’s thugs while he was visiting a polling center on July 17, 2023. The police and the election officials silently enjoyed the show. Alam had to be rushed for medical treatment. Earlier, he complained that his polling agents were beaten and driven away by the ruling thugs from a few centers.
It was a stark display of another terror-ridden farce by the administration of Hasina, in total defiance of the US punitive sanctions, visa restrictions and global call for free and fair elections in Bangladesh.
Foreign Missions Condemn the Attack
Thirteen diplomatic missions in Dhaka, including the United States and the European Union, issued a statement condemning the incident and demanded punitive action against the perpetrators. Other signatories are Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The statement also urged the authorities to ensure the coming election to be free, fair and peaceful. The United Nations, the Amnesty International and other rights organizations also protested the assault, demanding an urgent investigation into the incident and punishment to the criminals.
“This type of political violence has no place in democratic elections,” said Matthew Miller, spokesperson at the US State Department, on July 17, 2023 pointing at the assault on Alam.
Criminal Attacks on Opposition Rallies
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and other opposition parties have been staging peaceful rallies in Dhaka and outside the capital to press for their One Point demand for the resignation of the Hasina government, to be followed by the national polls under a neutral caretaker government (CTG). They remained adamant that they would neither participate in an election under Hasina nor will it be allowed, as they perceived that to be a replay of the heightened electoral farce that took place in 2014 and 2018.
The rally in Dhaka on July 12, 2023 was undisturbed, perhaps in honor of the presence of the high-level US team in Dhaka, even though there were reports of intimidations by the police and ruling elements of the opposition groups on their way to the venue. However, the subsequent rallies of the party’s youth wing in other parts of the country left two activists dead–a total of 19 since last October–when the police and ruling thugs attacked the opposition groups. In a statement on July 18, the BNP said that, in addition to the death, about 2000 of their party members were wounded, about 1000 receiving bullet injuries from police fires. More than 100 were arrested.
Coalition of Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh (CHRD Bangladesh), a US based non-profit organization, thinks that these criminal acts by the ruling coterie warrant immediate additional and stricter sanctions on the defiant and incorrigible regime. In addition, they also fall within the purview of US’ announced visa restrictions that also apply to the family members of the perpetrators, past and present.
No Election Without a Caretaker Administration
These unabated criminal acts also demonstrate that there could not be free and fair elections under the Hasina administration. To ensure a credible election, and combating authoritarianism and corruption in Bangladesh, the next election must be held under a neutral CTG at the earliest.
If the US and the democratic West fall for Hasina’s fake assurance of free and fair elections, it will amount to giving her a free pass. Allowing Sheikh Hasina to host the next election will be better served not to hold one at all. Her unilateral victory will save time, efforts, resources and insurmountable sufferings to the people. The people will await at least another five years of torture and suffering, while the rest of the world may continue doing “business as usual,” giving the fascists the legitimacy, as they did for the past 14 years.
But the people can make a difference. The fascists and their masters cannot stand the tsunami jointly created by all the opposition forces and the suffering people. As such, the ball is in the opposition’s court; to be specific, BNP’s court. They can play the ball right to oust the fascists. They cannot have a more favorable opportunity, both from outside and from within than the present time.
Writer is a democracy and human rights activist. Has a few publications to his credit.