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On Bangladesh and Democracy, America’s Approach Is Undermined By History

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Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | South Asia

On Bangladesh and Democracy, America’s Approach Is Undermined By History

Washington’s avowed commitment to democracy is consistent, but its actions – toward Bangladesh and other nations – have not been.

On Bangladesh and Democracy, America’s Approach Is Undermined By History
Credit: Depositphotos

In September 2023, the United States began imposing visa restrictions on Bangladeshi officials found culpable in “undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.” While these sanctions apply to members of the opposition, law enforcement, judiciary, security services, as well as the ruling party, the latter has viewed itself as the principal target

Meanwhile, the opposition has intensified its demands for a neutral caretaker government to oversee the elections, scheduled for January 2024. The Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL), as the ruling party, has yielded little and even increased its crackdown on the opposition to maintain its iron grip, eager to secure a fourth consecutive term. 

Among Hasina’s recent retorts to the United States was a quip that she was willing to engage the opposition (led by the ailing Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party), only if U.S. President Joe Biden sat down to talk to Donald Trump. The nature of her recent jibes at the U.S. is revealing. Besides taunting Biden for his antipathy toward his rival candidate, Hasina had earlier categorically asserted that the United States has been seeking regime change in Dhaka. 

For its part, the Biden administration has left Bangladesh out of the two “Summit for Democracy” events in 2021 and 2023, even as it invited Pakistan (which ranks lower than Bangladesh on various democracy indices, including Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index). Washington has also been pressing New Delhi to lean on the AL to make greater concessions to the opposition, especially during the G-20 Summit. 

While the Narendra Modi-led government in India has softly probed Hasina as a result, it has concurrently communicated to Washington that the latter should not press Dhaka too hard, for the election is Bangladesh’s “domestic matter.” India made it a point to explicitly convey this to the United States at the fifth India-U.S. 2+2 meeting. 

Consistency in Complaints, Inconsistency in Enforcement

The nature of U.S. responses to electoral violence in Bangladesh has been consistent. However, the scale of the response and the punitive measures Washington is willing to impose this time around are different. 

For instance, in Bangladesh’s 2014 general elections, most seats went uncontested due to the BNP’s boycott. The AL won a resounding victory as a result, claiming 232 out of 300 seats. In the immediate aftermath of the January 6, 2014, elections, the U.S. State Department openly called for fresh elections, stating that it was “disappointed by the recent Parliamentary elections.” The U.S. also called on Dhaka to “provide political space to all citizens to freely express their political views.” In 2014, as now, Hasina expressly refused all talks with the BNP until it renounced violence. However, the United States at the time asserted that it would continue to work with the Hasina government, despite its concerns with the elections. 

Similarly, in 2018 when another violence-ridden election returned the incumbent AL to power with 90 percent of the seats, the United States, along with the European Union, categorically expressed concern with election-day irregularities, voter intimidation, harassment, among others. Even this, however, did not prevent the Bangladesh-U.S. relationship from maintaining a largely positive trajectory. 

Indeed, the United States’ economic relationship with Bangladesh has only gone from strength to strength. The U.S. is the largest foreign investor in Bangladesh, its third largest trading partner, the largest market for Bangladesh’s ready-made garments, and the biggest investor in Bangladesh’s energy sector. USAID’s largest program in Asia is in Bangladesh, which puts an emphasis on “Democracy, Human Rights and Governance.” 

Both states also celebrated 50 years of the bilateral relationship in late 2022, which recent U.S. State Department statements took care to mention even while expressing concern with democratic backsliding. While reiterating its call for free and fair elections on November 9, the State Department stated that the United States is “looking to continue to deepen relationships and partnerships within a number of areas including trade, cooperation in the climate space, cooperation in the security space, and otherwise where that potential exists.” 

Essentially, over a decade of burgeoning economic ties (with a parallel rise in Hasina’s ties with India) has shown Dhaka that enforcing democratic norms was among Washington’s priorities, but not high enough to trigger instability in the bilateral relationship – until now. While this improvement in ties boosted Dhaka’s comfort in dealing with the United States, other aspects of U.S. policy catalyzed it.

First is an inconsistency in how the United States’ focus on counterterrorism measures against its priority of enforcing other norms, even within Bangladesh. In December 2021, the United States imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite paramilitary counter-terror force that often acts as the AL’s shock troops to suppress street-led resistance. The RAB’s brutal harassment of the political opposition, as well as serious human rights violations, brought it into the Treasury Department’s sanctions list. 

However, Washington had long been willing to cooperate with the RAB, since its inception as a distinct force (ironically, under Zia of the BNP in 2004). Even as the U.S. sought to encourage the force to be more transparent in 2008, State Department officials were actively engaging with RAB leadership in efforts to boost cooperation. In 2010 British officials confirmed WikiLeaks reports of both the U.K. and U.S. having trained the RAB in key tactics – part of US efforts at strengthening regional counterterror forces. Even then, the RAB had gained a reputation as a “death squad,” but the United States was willing to gloss over the force’s unenviable human rights record when its own counter-terror focus across the world was high.

Second – a fact burnished in South Asian political memory – is that in Pakistan, the United States has famously blessed successive military regimes, as it held on to the Huntingtonian belief that military rule provides more stability in so-called Third World countries than fractured, democratically elected civilian governments. This was even more convenient in light of the fact that two military regimes in Pakistan have directly facilitated the furtherance of American military and geopolitical aims (Zia-ul-Haq in the Afghan jihad; Pervez Musharraf in the Global War on Terror). Even in 2015, Pakistan’s former foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, categorically asserted that the U.S. government preferred dealing with military regimes in Pakistan. 

More recently, the State Department reiterated that it favors democracy in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, Washington’s statements pertaining to fair electoral practices continue to be generic for Pakistan – a stark contrast to the specific measures taken by Washington regarding Bangladeshi democracy today. This is even as several members of the U.S. Congress wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging him to safeguard democracy in Pakistan. Other lawmakers have similarly urged the suspension of U.S. assistance to Pakistan until the latter restores constitutional order and holds free and fair elections. 

Furthermore, even in Bangladesh, the United States is known to have had a soft spot for Zia-ur-Rehman, Bangladesh’s first military dictator and the BNP’s founder, as laid out by a former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty. 

The “authoritarianism-stability” nexus that the United States has encouraged in Pakistan through its support for military regimes has generated its own sets of lessons for other South Asian states. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that Washington’s differential treatment of Pakistan – of which Bangladesh was once part – as well as its willingness to sacrifice “democracy promotion” at the altar of greater geopolitical gains has provided Hasina with an increased measure of confidence in resisting U.S. pressure across the past decade, and even today. 

What Are the Implications of the Current U.S. Policy Toward Bangladesh? 

Among Washington’s principal contemporary geopolitical objectives, is curbing China’s influence globally by keeping states outside of Beijing’s political circle of influence, even if they remain integrally tied to China economically. The enforcement of harsh punitive measures against Bangladesh as part of U.S. democracy promotion efforts bears the risk of Dhaka pulling closer to China – working against Washington’s own geopolitical aims. 

Admittedly, despite Bangladesh’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative, Dhaka has had its own reasons for caution in its engagement with Beijing. However, for its part, China has been consistently maneuvering to increase its appeal. Amid increasing Bangladesh-U.S. friction, Beijing has not missed the opportunity to expressly reassure Dhaka of its support for Bangladesh’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independent domestic and foreign policies. This provides China with an opportune moment to prove itself as a more reliable partner for Bangladesh. India, mindful of an increasingly assertive China in its neighborhood, has also been cognizant of these concerns while cautioning the United States on its Bangladesh policy. 

Moreover, at a time when the India-U.S. bilateral relationship is reaching unprecedented heights – centered around cooperation in the Indo-Pacific – a divergence of interests with Washington in South Asia does not augur well for New Delhi. Already, India is forced to undertake a delicate balancing act of placating two important allies. 

For its part, Bangladesh’s own Indo-Pacific Outlook from April of this year has an unmissable independence of character. The phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific,” which is a common feature of most Western Indo-Pacific documents, finds no mention in Dhaka’s outlook. Rather, it tellingly reiterates Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s “friendship towards all, malice toward none” dictum as a “guiding principle.”

The United States should necessarily play its part to support the democratic aspirations of the Bangladeshi population, key among which is the right to free and fair elections. Although to a limited degree, its current punitive measures against Dhaka have had the effect of norm enforcement – the government allowing the Jamaat-e-Islami to conduct a political rally, announcement of the election date, and extending an invite to international election observers for monitoring the upcoming election are all indicative of Hasina’s nods to Washington. 

However, the puzzle in the U.S. approach remains an old one: democracy promotion versus furtherance of geopolitical objectives. The fact that Washington has historically compromised on one or the other, depending on its own national interests, continues to undercut its own authority. Hence, the United States needs to decide between a focus on “shared democratic values” in Bangladesh, in a true neo-Wilsonian spirit, or on shared geopolitical interests at a time when both old and new fault-lines across Europe and Asia are testing its writ as a great power.