US charts careful course on Bangladesh

Shaun Tandon –

Bangladesh faced widespread international criticism over the conduct of recent elections, but the United States looks set for business as usual as it sees strong common interests with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
As the eighth most populous nation in the world, with a moderate Muslim population that largely welcomes cooperation with the West, Bangladesh has a warming relationship with the United States — yet not one so close as to give Washington significant leverage.
Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League won an incredible 288 seats in the 300-seat parliament in the December 30 election, with opposition leader Khaleda Zia in jail on charges her opponents say are politically motivated while the press faces draconian new restrictions.
The US State Department voiced concern ahead of the election, accusing Bangladesh of foot-dragging on letting in electoral observers and urging greater efforts to ensure a free vote.
The United States followed up after the election with a letter by President Donald Trump that wished Sheikh Hasina success but asked her to “renew her commitment to protecting human rights, individual freedom of expression and democratic institutions,” a US official said.
Sheikh Hasina has also earned widespread praise in Washington for taking in more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled from neighbouring Myanmar in a brutal campaign the United States has called ethnic cleansing.
Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Bangladesh was effectively becoming a one-party authoritarian state — but one whose orientation largely suits Washington.
“I think the bottom line is that the US sees Sheikh Hasina as a useful partner. She’s very tough on terror and she’s presided over a remarkable degree of economic growth,” he said.
Bangladesh’s government has shown no sign it takes seriously the concerns about the election, also voiced by the European Union.
Sajeeb Wazed, Sheikh Hasina’s US-based son who serves as her adviser on information and communications technology, said the pre-election US statement was “disappointing”.
But he saluted the relationship with the United States and voiced hope for further ties, saying a top priority was to draw greater US investment in an economy that has been growing by more than six per cent annually.
He said Bangladesh has been “phenomenally successful in combating terrorism,” calling it “one of the few Muslim countries that is considered relatively terrorism-free.”
Wazed added that the government felt a genuine empathy for fleeing Rohingyas in light of Bangladesh’s plight at independence and noted that the refugees have not seen the type of backlash experienced by migrants to Europe. The United States sees a friendly rapport with Bangladesh as vital to Washington’s goal of an open, US-friendly Indo-Pacific region. Unlike neighbours such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh has not drawn high-profile infrastructure deals with China.
Another country is even more critical to the US relationship with Bangladesh — regional power and emerging US ally India, which has staunchly supported Sheikh Hasina, limiting the scope for Washington to take another approach even if it so chose.
The opposition, however, is hopeful that US criticism can make headway.
Humaiun Kobir, the international affairs secretary of Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party who met policymakers in Washington ahead of the vote, said the United States should make clear that relations will be limited “unless you show us you are democratising.”
He said Sheikh Hasina had turned Bangladesh into a country like Cambodia or Venezuela, where the United States to varying degrees had criticised strongmen.
Kobir praised a US House of Representatives resolution that had urged free elections and noted the opposition’s concerns.
“The United States is the largest bilateral investor and largest trading market,” he said. “The US will need to show that it is not business as usual, or otherwise it sends a totally wrong signal.” — AFP