New York-based Bloomberg news agency has described the recently imposed US visa restrictions on Bangladesh a “sort of open bullying” and called the action “neither fair nor sensible”.
The financial-biased major international media outlet carried an article titled “Biden’s Democracy Crusade Goes Astray in Bangladesh” on its October 9 issue where it also called the last month’s US announcement relating to the visa restrictions on certain unnamed Bangladeshis “a rather vague statement”.
Bloomberg Opinion columnist and a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi Mihir Sharma wrote the article, which also harshly criticized incumbent Bangladesh government’s political policies and actions saying “politically, the country is not quite as exemplary”.
“You don’t need to support coups or praise a stolen election. At the same time, you need not always insert yourself into what are often very domestic disputes,” the article commented in an oblique reference to the US stance on Bangladesh.
The article said the US restrictions “aren’t fair because they make it look like Bangladesh is being singled out,” and added that the policy was not “sensible because it makes the US look partisan”.
It also warned that the “costs of alienating Bangladesh are remarkably high”
Following the full text of the article:
Economically, Bangladesh has been a success story for the past decade. Growth has steadily topped 6% and on average, between 2016 and 2021, outpaced countries such as India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Bangladesh will soon “graduate” from the ranks of poorer nations, relinquishing various trade and development assistance prerogatives it no longer needs.
Politically, the country is not quite as exemplary. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League has been in power since 2009. While the party notched a landslide victory in 2018 polls, that election was widely condemned as being insufficiently free and fair.
It’s hard to be optimistic that the country’s upcoming vote, due in a few months, will be much freer. Even so, it is equally hard to see why the US has decided to make Bangladesh a focus of attention in President Joe Biden’s otherwise forgotten “democracy first” foreign-policy agenda.
In a rather vague statement last month, the US State Department announced that it had “taken steps” to impose visa restrictions on at least three Bangladeshis, including “members of law enforcement, the ruling party, and the political opposition” for “undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.” The statement suggested other names could soon be added to the list.
This sort of open bullying is neither fair nor sensible. True, under the Awami League’s watch, the police and other state institutions have been increasingly politicized. Last month, the leaders of a well-known human rights group were jailed after publishing a report alleging excessive use of force against a protest in 2013.
A new Cyber Security Act gives the police unprecedented powers of search and arrest that could easily be misused. Freedom House describes Bangladesh today as only “partly free,” ranking the country only slightly above Pakistan and just below Nigeria, Lebanon, and Singapore.
Nevertheless, the US restrictions aren’t fair because they make it look like Bangladesh is being singled out. While the State Department has imposed similar curbs on other countries, including Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, it’s refrained from targeting others, including US partners where the military has openly meddled in elections recently such as Thailand and Pakistan.
And the policy isn’t sensible because it makes the US look partisan. Bangladeshi politicians already accuse each other of “waking up in the morning and going to the US embassy to complain.” Sheikh Hasina groused to the BBC earlier this year that the US “may not want me in power.” Any real attempts to shore up democratic institutions will now be tainted.
Perhaps someone in Washington thinks that Bangladesh is of minimal importance compared to democratic backsliders such as India and Turkey. If so, that would be remarkably short-sighted.
The costs of alienating Bangladesh are remarkably high. This is the world’s eighth-largest country, a Muslim-majority nation that has in recent years fought a bruising internal battle over secularism that, for a change, the fundamentalists might well lose.
It’s also a swing state in the Indo-Pacific. China has spent time and money to try and win over Bangladesh, including through investments in energy and transport. In 2022, almost 90% of Bangladesh’s pipeline of energy projects depended upon Chinese finance, according to the Asian Development Bank. Bangladesh’s foreign minister described China as arriving with a “basket of money” and “aggressive and affordable proposals.”
Friends and allies of the US, from India to France to Japan, have been left trying to make up for Washington’s missteps. In August, Japan announced that Bangladesh was one of only four nations that would receive defense assistance under a new program designed to “enhance the security and deterrence capabilities of like-minded countries.”
French President Emmanuel Macron visited Dhaka last month to promise infrastructure, satellites, and more defense co-operation. The Chinese, meanwhile, have happily capitalized on resentment about US pressure, with President Xi Jinping promising Sheikh Hasina in August that he stood ready to “oppose external interference” on Bangladesh’s behalf.
Bangladeshi politics have been dominated for decades by a very personal battle between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. But Sheikh Hasina is 76; her principal opponent, former prime minister Khaleda Zia, is 78. I’d like to think that democracy in Bangladesh has strong enough roots for the next generation of leaders to craft a new direction for the country.
That won’t happen, however, if democratic institutions are seen as instruments of US foreign policy. This is the risk that Biden’s approach runs, especially if it is inconsistently applied. A more realpolitik view of US interests — and those of Bangladesh — would suggest taking a subtler, more flexible approach.
You don’t need to support coups or praise a stolen election. At the same time, you need not always insert yourself into what are often very domestic disputes.