Bangladesh: What Next After Donald Lu?

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“Reading is important read between the lines. Don’t swallow everything.”

 By R Chowdhury     24 January 2023

Much hype was generated prior, during and after the visit of US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu to Bangladesh in mid-January 2023. Media is abuzz with juicy speculations drawing in various conjectures. Tangible results, if any, will be a long way off.

Meeting Bangladesh foreign ministry officials, an interview with Channel 24 and a joint press briefing were routine. State of human rights, political space for the opposition, fair and credible elections, GSP facilities etc. were also usual points of discussion. However, a few eyebrows were raised as to why the important US visitor did not see the Prime Minister and meet the opposition leaders, even though they were mentioned in the agenda prior to the visit.

The tete-a-tete with Salman F Rahman evoked considerable interest and speculation. Locally dubbed as “Darbesh ” (pious) for his unusual transformation from a western outlook to a “saint”-like Islamic one—full grown beard, now white, and white pajama-kurta—Rahman is an Adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and is known to be very close to the Sheikh family. The title Darbesh is perhaps to insinuate his reputation of being one of the top financial mischief mongers in the country. An image released to the public depicted the two in serious engagement. No detail has been revealed as to their seemingly private conversation, and the social media came up with many entertaining stories, right or wrong.

However, an important thing to note is that the Hasina administration didn’t seem very pleased with the visit. At the press briefing, foreign minister Momen looked somewhat pathetic. The lone issue of celebration was Lu’s assurance that there would not be an immediate (additional) sanction as feared, because they noted an improvement in the behavior of the notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) since the sanctions a year ago. But Lu also pointed at the latest Human Rights Watch reports that did not speak very kindly of Bangladesh.

Before arriving in Dhaka, Donald Lu was in New Delhi to attend an India-US Forum where he discussed cooperation in energy, trade, security and human rights. He was also believed to have talked with the Indian officials about the US concerns over Bangladesh and China.

(Bangladeshis blame India for being the partner in Hasina’s fascism. A recent case in point: When the opposition movement went out of control in early December (2022), the chief of the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) rushed to Dhaka to lend a helping hand to crush the opposition movement. On the other hand, India obliged the US by refusing its ports for delivery of equipment meant for a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh from a Russian ship under sanction, post Ukraine War. Earlier, a Bangladeshi port refused anchorage to the ship in compliance with the sanction).

Indo-Pacific Strategy

Some analysts thought solving political problems for Bangladesh was Lu’s secondary objective; forging an anti-China coalition in the Asia-Pacific was the primary (as part of the Joe Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). The Americans were not explicit on the subject, but the ambience and undertones were unmistakable.

Only days earlier, a delegation of the US National Security Council headed by Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher came to bind the South Asian country with two benign-looking defense arrangements: the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and the Acquisition Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA). RAW-aligned writer Subir Bhaumik, in an article in the Federal (India) on January 16, 2023, interpreted these US maneuvers as aiming for a “no-fly-zone” over Myanmar to force its military junta to return to democracy. Otherwise… a Bosnia style all-out attack! Understandably, Bhaumik was targeting the Indian think tanks.

Chinese Concerns

Visibly concerned, the new Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang decided to break his journey to Africa for a midnight halt in Dhaka on January 10/11 (2023). His Bangladeshi counterpart had to oblige for a two-hour impromptu parley at the airport. Earlier the same day, Gang’s envoy in Dhaka, Li Jiming, sternly warned if Bangladesh joined the US-led QUAD, it would cause “substantial damage” to their bilateral relations.

Obviously, Bangladesh is on a tightrope. It needs to make some hard choices between the US, China and India. It cannot annoy Washington, which provides cash, kind and market access for its garments that keeps the cash-starved country going. But it also needs hard cash from Beijing for its depleted coffer, as well as investments in Hasina’s showcase projects. Power sector and imports are seriously impacted by dollar shortage in the exchequer, consequently the gas prices are skyrocketing with various adverse side effects. The third player New Delhi’s job is to keep Sheikh Hasina in power, in exchange accruing considerable economic and geopolitical benefits from its protege, almost free.

The corridors of power in Dhaka seems to be shaking, if only the AT&T (Always Talking and Talking) opposition could take advantage of the situation and go for an all-out national movement to remove the detested 14-year-old illegal fascist regime. Fortune favors the brave. The Holy Quran also says so.

The CHRD Bangladesh Letter  

Meanwhile, The US-based Coalition of Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh (CHRD Bangladesh) issued on January 23 a follow up letter to Assistant Secretary Donald Lu explaining the scenario and expectations. Please see below:

The Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh (CHRD Bangladesh) would like to appreciate your sincere and commendable works during your visit to Bangladesh on January 14-15, 2023. You may kindly refer to our letter dated January 8, 2023. (Letter To U.S. Assistant Secretary Of State Donald Lu | ChrdBangladesh). In the letter, we emphasized the importance of your visit in view of the ongoing volatile political situation generated by the anti-democratic practices by the administration of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the face of people’s countrywide movements. The people are seeking the end of the fascist regime, which they call “illegal” because it continued to capture power since 2009 through massive election frauds and pave the way for a free and fair election under a neutral authority. We look forward to the materialization of your objectives soon.

The CHRD Bangladesh may take the opportunity to highlight a few core foreign policy objectives of the US administration: Human Rights, Freedom of Opposition Political Activities and Election Integrity.

Human Rights

Human rights still remain a far cry in Bangladesh. The regime though apparently maintained a slight pause in her repressing activities during your visit, it intensified them on the people and the opposition immediately afterwards, as if in retaliation of the pressure your visit might have brought on it. The human rights violations by the notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and police might have shown slight improvement since the US imposed sanctions in December 2021, but their routine abuses against the people continued unabated, much of which perhaps escaped the attention of the monitoring agencies. On January 21, 2023, a RAB member was caught trying to rob a car carrying passengers coming from overseas in Dhaka. (3 were arrested along with RAB members during robbery in Dhaka (tekdeeps.com). Few people can talk, much less criticize, the regime under the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA). They continue to be severely penalized for mild words against the Sheikh family and ruling elites.

Freedom of Political Activity

In Bangladesh today, only the ruling Awami League has the freedom of activities that include extortion, social crimes and attacks on the political opposition. The opposition parties have little, or restricted political activities lately as prescribed by the ruling authority. The RAB, police and the party thugs continue to flex their muscles against opposition and prevent or disrupt their peaceful gatherings and activities. Their attacks on the party gatherings of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) on December 7 and 8 (2022) sent many to graves, hospitals and jails. Even during your team’s presence in Dhaka on January 14-15 (2023), their terror acts continued on the peaceful gatherings of opposition in Mymensingh and Chittagong, sending many to hospitals and jails with multiple charges against each. Reportedly, 24,000 members of the BNP have been sent to custody since early December (2022). As of now, tens of thousands of them are in jails carrying about 3.5 millions fictitious charges.

Election

Please allow us to go into some details on this important but serious issue. With the scrapping of the election-time Caretaker Government (CTG) by Sheikh Hasina, immediately upon becoming the Prime Minister, the election system in Bangladesh totally collapsed. It became a symbol of heightened corruption. No national or local level election had an iota of fairness or honesty. Everything was controlled and managed by the ruling coterie to make its chosen candidates the winners. As such, as you may note, Sir, the representatives in the parliament, as well as the elected positions in the local bodies, almost entirely belong to the ruling class. In other words, the opposition has no say in any of these forums. Any future election to be free and fair, the existence of these fraudulently elected partisan elements will be a serious blockade.

The Election Commission and the election officials are carefully selected by the government to serve its purpose. With absolute control on the administration down to the local levels, including election apparatus, the opposition is either unable or not allowed to make any electioneering activities or make its presence at the polls. In many cases, suspected opposition voters were driven away by the Awami thugs, and their votes were proxied in favor of ruling candidates. In addition, rounding up and sending the opposition leaders and activists to jails prior to elections had been routine tasks of the loyal RAB and police. The results of the past 14 years are before anyone to examine and judge. Consequently, the country has fallen into a one-party fascist dictatorship since 2009.

Under the chosen Election Commission, election officials and its fraudulently elected local bodies, the general public have no chance to exercise their free franchise during the polls. As such, a fair and credible election under the present administration is a simple impossibility. The US may also note why the Hasina regime is vehemently opposed to elections under a CTG. According to most observers, it is so unpopular and detested by the people that it has no chance of winning even a comfortable number of seats, leave alone winning, in a fair election.

In view of the above situation, and with a view to ensuring a credible election in Bangladesh, the following steps are extremely essential:

  1. Elections must be held under a neutral Caretaker Government, members of which should not be allowed to seek any elected positions. Prior to that, the government should step down and the parliament be dissolved. They (immediate past government) should have no role in the CTG.

  2. Election Commission and other election related officials should be reconstituted with neutral and non-partisan elements.

  3. All controversial and partisan officials in the administration, including law enforcement agencies and the military should be removed. Even known partisan officials in the judiciary should also be either removed or suspended. This is needed to ensure the neutrality of the administration and the judiciary.

  4. All fascist tools, such as the RAB and DSA should be suspended during the elections.

Honorable Sir, it may be appreciated that if the people of Bangladesh can freely choose their representatives to run the government, most of the other burning issues like democracy, human rights, freedom, corruption etc. will be resolved automatically. In a corruption-free, accountable and good governance, the country will be expected to move forward to greater progress and security, both locally and globally. It is the unelected or fraudulently elected or illegal regime that causes problems for the people and the world; not the democratically elected one.

Finally, unless the future elections in Bangladesh could be credible, fair and participatory, all the sincere efforts of the US will end in futility. The CHRD Bangladesh certainly does not desire such an outcome from your visit, Honorable Lu.

Sincerely,

Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh (CHRD Bangladesh)