by R Chowdhury 26 May 2023
United States Secretary of States Antony Blinken announced a fresh visa policy for Bangladesh in which defaulters of elections would be denied entry into the United States. It is believed that the new policy was imposed in view of the country’s past serious election irregularities and that the fresh national polls are due in a few months. Election integrity is a priority item in President Joe Biden’s foreign policy engagements. Please see the announcement in the following link:
The visa restrictions were said “to support Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair, and peaceful national elections.” The restrictions would apply to those involved in vote rigging, voter intimidation, use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, as well as the use of tactics aimed at preventing political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from discharging their duties and disseminating their views. “Political parties, the government, the security forces, civil society, and the media come under the purview of this restriction,” adds the US State Department announcement. The scope and implication are wide ranging!
In a follow up briefing the same day, the State Department, as well as in a virtual talk with presenter Zillur Rahman of the Tritiyo Matra at Dhaka’s Channel I, Donald Lu, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, offered further clarifications of the provisions. The US Embassy in Dhaka has also issued a statement in a Q & A format on the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). It says, close relatives of the offenders will also be affected. It applies to both government and opposition political parties. Not clear, however, if past election related offenses would be considered under the new policy. Please see the following link:
Frequently Asked Questions on New Visa Policy in Support of Bangladesh’s Elections – U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh (usembassy.gov)
The following day, on May 25, US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas paid a courtesy call on Foreign Minister A K Momen. After the meeting, both addressed the media separately. While Haas gave further clarifications on the new visa policy, Momen appeared somewhat disturbed and he challenged that it was they (Awami League) who created the situation for democracy in the country by disallowing military takeovers which the US didn’t. Not a very logical or relevant issue. Ambassador Haas also discussed the issue with the leaders of the Awami League (AL), Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jaiyo Party. Amir Khasru Chowdhury of BNP expressed happiness at the restrictions. Ruling party leaders have been trying to put up a brave front saying that the US measures reflected the determination of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to hold the national election in a free and fair manner, most of them however missing the enthusiasm that was displayed by their adversaries.
Terming it a Gift of God, Dr. Taj Hashmi, a writer and political analyst, thought the restrictions were aimed at the Hasina regime, which created rigging records, and it would definitely bring its fall. He also thought that the restrictions would have sympathetic detonation from other democratic countries. He extended his thought to imply that even an under-the-table seat-sharing arrangement with the ruling authority can be deemed as election fraud. Rashed Anam, a political analyst, thought that the visa restrictions were “more encompassing to democracy, freedom of speech and assembly.”
However, a few concerns are raised as to the effectiveness of this measure if the election were to be held under the administration of the ruling regime, illegally in power since 2009, whose extremely negative and dangerous track record on election integrity and other democratic and human rights issues are known to the world. Further reactions are expected in the coming days. Surprisingly, the largely regime-toeing media seems to prefer silence on implications and impact of restrictions. The Prime Minister hasn’t spoken yet on the issue.
The sanctions against the Rapid Action battalion (RAB) of Bangladesh for its proven serious human rights crimes, though produced very limited results, but unfortunately far from solved the crisis. The notorious RAB continued its crimes unabated. What was even surprising was that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appointed two top sanctioned officials in succession as the fearsome and powerful Police Chiefs, in defiance of the sanctions. One of them, Benazir Ahmed, even visited the United States and addressed public meetings. The world must have noted that the Hasina regime is incorrigible.
Once the election is rigged or defrauded in whatever way, the damage is already done. If the criminals are prevented from visiting the United States, that will not serve or save the election integrity as sought by the US administration. The election will remain tainted and the people and the country will continue to suffer.
The US and the world are aware that the elections in 2014 and 2018 in Bangladesh were totally farcical under the Hasina administration, and yet, they continued business “as usual” with the unelected and illegal regime, awarding it legitimacy. It is the people of the country who continue to suffer.
The ruling coterie already started propagating that the announced US visa restrictions are aimed at the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is campaigning not to go to polls under the ruling party and demanding elections under a Caretaker Government (CTG). The provision of an election-time CTG was in the constitution but the Hasina administration repealed it in 2011 (not following proper legislative procedure), ostensibly to manage the elections in its favor. The elections of 2014 and 2018 under it are glaring examples of massive frauds.
The question before Bangladesh is not only election frauds and irregularities but also how and under whom the election is held. The elections of 2014 and 2018 and thousands of local level elections demonstrate that the Hasina administration is incapable of holding a free and fair election, irrespective of its umpteen promises and assurances to those who pressurize her for a credible election.
The only answer is, an election under a non-partisan, neutral CTG. The illegal regime must immediately quit and a neutral CTG should take over. The CTG should then hold the election, watched by international observers, within a specified time, and pave the process for a democratic and patriotic governance in Bangladesh that it has not seen for decades.