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Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina Goes for an Image Makeover Abroad

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Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina Goes for an Image Makeover Abroad

At the recent Munich Security Conference, Hasina sought to project herself as a champion of climate change action and a supporter of Ukraine.

Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina Goes for an Image Makeover Abroad

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at a bilateral meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in Germany, Feb. 7, 2024.

Credit: X/Awami League

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has formed the government in Bangladesh for the fifth term after a highly controversial general election held on January 7.

The election was boycotted by the opposition and voter turnout was low.  Firmly in the saddle, Hasina and her party, the Awami League (AL), are set to rule the country for the next five years.

The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is in disarray. In the run-up to the general election, Hasina’s government arrested and imprisoned over 20,000 opposition activists and almost all of its top-tier leaders through what human rights organizations have called a violent autocratic crackdown.

Having established full control over the country through the latest election, Hasina is now on a mission to improve her image and standing, and Bangladesh’s influence abroad.

Her immediate post-election challenge is to give herself and her government an image makeover. In recent years, Western academics and the international media have portrayed Hasina and her leadership in a negative light. She has been described as a “strongman,” an “iron lady” and an “autocratic leader.” An editorial in The Guardian newspaper described the recent election as “phony” and election day as “a bad day for democracy.” Her government is trying to reconstruct this negative perception.

Additionally, the post-election statements issued by Western governments, including the United States, European Union, Canada, and Australia, were critical of the conduct of the elections. These countries, which are among Bangladesh’s leading trade partners, were not convinced by the AL’s claims that the election was peaceful and fair. To liberal democracies, Bangladesh’s election was problematic, and the crackdown on the opposition was concerning.

In addition, the Bangladeshi government’s continuing judicial crackdown on Dr. Muhammad Yunus remains an area of concern to the United States.

A Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 2006 for his work in uplifting Bangladesh’s poor, Yunus, was also honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award, which was conferred on him by then-President Barack Obama in 2009.

But Bangladesh under Hasina has been harassing Yunus. He is facing 174 charges of labor law violations, money laundering, and corruption, all of which he has denied.

Earlier, Obama,  former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. senators, and around 100 Nobel Peace Prize winners penned a letter calling on the Bangladesh government to halt the judicial harassment of Yunus.

In January 2024, a Bangladeshi court found Yunus guilty of labor law violations and handed out a six-month jail sentence. An appeals court later granted him bail. On February 15, Yunus alleged at a press conference that a group of outsiders had forcefully taken over eight of his non-profit organizations. This reflects “a shocking breakdown of the rule of law,” he claimed.

Despite repeated calls from the international community to halt the harassment of Yunus, Hasina is not backing down on the matter, although it is adding to her negative image. This is because she has other diplomatic cards to play.

For instance, Hasina is trying to project herself as a champion of action against climate change. A little over a month after her controversial election victory, Hasina participated in the Munich Security Conference in Germany, where she was a co-panelist with U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, who is a former U.S. secretary of state.

In her speech, Hasina called for diverting war finance to climate finance. “Senseless arms race must be stopped and resources need to be diverted into mobilizing the much-needed funds for fighting climate change,” she said, pointing out that since “the existence of humanity is at stake, pursuing narrow interests will come to nothing.”

However, her biggest move was to hold meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the sidelines of the conference. Zelenskyy has become a poster boy for democracy and the West’s war against authoritarianism following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Zelenskyy thanked Hasina for supporting Ukraine and uploaded a short video of their meeting. This was a major PR victory for the Bangladeshi leader.

Although the Bangladeshi government abstained initially on a United Nations vote in March 2022 calling on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine, it shifted its position in April 2023 and signed a joint declaration with Japan denouncing Russia’s violation of international law.  Nevertheless, Russia has been a strong supporter of Hasina since Bangladesh’s independence war in 1971 when Russia supported Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur’s quest for independence. Since then, the two countries, especially Bangladesh under the AL government, have maintained, close cooperation in trade and other fields.

Hasina’s visible support for Zelenskyy in Munich would not have gone unnoticed by her critics in the West.

Additionally, at Munich, Hasina was very critical of Israel’s ongoing offensives against civilians in Gaza. Without naming Israel, she told reporters that the war in Gaza is an invasion and a genocide, and that a two-state solution should be implemented. Hasina’s statement will resonate with a range of countries and their leaders including Russia, Qatar, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and others.

Incidentally, although Bangladesh does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, the Israeli media reported last year that the AL government was purchasing Israeli spyware.

It remains to be seen, however, how effectively this post-election diplomacy will contribute to reshaping Bangladesh’s image. One significant advantage for Hasina is that external actors now widely acknowledge her as Bangladesh’s one and only leader, and one who is here to stay. Her rivals are weak. BNP leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is sick, and her son Tarique Rahman, the de facto opposition leader who has been living in exile in London since 2008, is hardly known in political and diplomatic circles abroad. Rahman has largely refrained from active diplomatic outreach despite residing in London, a key global capital.

This affords Hasina an unparalleled diplomatic edge, as she is becoming the primary figure associated with all aspects of Bangladesh, whether positive or negative, including economic growth, women empowerment, corruption, autocracy, and climate change action.