Foreign influence in politics of other countries is not something new. This has been a reality for post-colonial countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. As the military and economic powers of colonial Europe shrank after the end of Second World War it was only left to US to wield such influence and often intervene in the local politics of third countries. This began with the overthrow of an elected government of Dr. Mosaddegh of Iran. Mosaddegh and his Tudeh Party that opposed the corrupt and repressive regime of the Shah of Iran was voted to power by the people of Iran in 1951 only to be overthrown by a CIA engineered coup in 1953. Since then there were similar cases in countries of South America, Africa, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cyprus, Iraq, and Egypt to name a few. The country that produced great statesmen like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Fredrick D. Roosevelt also saw people like Richard Nixon, George Bush jr., and Donald Trump become that country’s President. Bush Jr. saw the entire Middle East dismantle perhaps never to emerge as a peaceful region. John Kennedy took the world to the brink of the Third World War over the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962. Commentators and analysts even those from US like Noam Chomsky often were critical of US Foreign Policy which they termed as key to ‘American Hegemony’. Renowned New York Times journalist and author Stephen Kinzer wrote on coup in Iran andthe roots of Middle East Terror in his best seller ‘All the Shah’s Men’. Once Far Eastern Review (now defunct) South Asia’s Bureau Chief Lawrence Lifschultz wrote about the military coup in Bangladesh in 1975 in his book ‘Bangladesh, the Unfinished Revolution’ detailing the plans made and executed for the assassination of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In his book he mentioned about the involvement of CIA in the happenings of 15 August 1975 along with General Zia’s role in the killings and all this within the knowledge of the US Embassy in Dhaka. The role of the then US Ambassador in Dhaka Davis Eugene Booster and the CIA Station Chief Phillip Cherry were not left out. All these happenings and the names of people are on record.
During the Bangladesh War of Liberation two superpowers, US and China, opposed openly the cause of Bangladesh and supported the military junta for their petty political interest. As the War of Liberation was coming to an end the then Nixon administration sent ‘USS Enterprise’, a nuclear powered battle ship of the Seventh Fleet in the second week of December of 1971 to Indian Ocean to pressurize India to stop the hostilities in Bangladesh. However, most Americans stood beside the cause and the people of Bangladesh. The role of Edward Kennedy and few others like him played to uphold the cause of Bangladesh in 1971 both in US senate and outside will always be remembered by the people of this country.
Within first few years of independence of Bangladesh China judiciously mended the fences and took steps to normalize the relationships between Bangladesh and China. Since then China has always been a good development partner of Bangladesh. This unfortunately did not happen in the case of US till the killing of Bangabandhu. On the contrary, US administration of Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger never missed a chance to rebuke Bangladesh and its leadership. They saw no hope for this country and Kissinger went a step farther and said Bangladesh will always be a ‘Basket Case’ (Bottomless Case). Later Henry Kissinger being a witness to the rise of Bangladesh as a regional economic power called the stance “a case history of misjudgment”.
Kissinger made a whirlwind visit to Bangladesh on October 1974, met Bangabandhu and before he left for the airport had a three-minute press conference. A few months later Bangabandhu was assassinated along with his entire family except his two daughters, the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her younger sister Sheikh Hasina.
It is obvious that when Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation in 1971 it was not taken in good earnest by the then US administration or its key people ranging from Nixon to Kissinger. Virtually all countries of the free world came together to help the war devastated Bangladesh to rebuild its completely destroyed infrastructures and feed the hungry people and build shelters for returning millions of refugees from India. US administration was a silent spectator. In October of 1974 Bangabandhu met the US President Gerald Ford at the White House. By that time Nixon had to resign from US Presidency following the Watergate Scandal. Gerald Ford, Nixon’s Vice-President took over as the new President and served as the US President for three years when he was defeated by Jimmy Carter. Kissinger avoided this meeting at the White House between Ford and Mujib which was unprecedented. Ford asked Mujib how he could help Bangladesh. During this period Bangladesh was going through acute food crisis due to successive floods and crop failures. The two sea ports, Chittagong and Mongla were yet to become operational as the retreating Pakistan army destroyed all the facilities and laid few thousands floating mines at the entrance of the harbours. The case in northern part of the country was quite precarious and to ease the situation hundreds of free feeding centres were opened to feed the hungry. Bangabandhu requested Ford for food and edible oil. Soon 2.2 million tons of wheat and rice were shipped from US. This was a food aid under US Public Law-480. While the shipload of food grains was nearing the Chittagong Port suddenly the Captains received orders from Washington to return. Bangladesh had committed a ‘crime’ as they sold 40 thousands bales of jute bags to US’s ‘enemy’ country Cuba. Bangabandhu on receiving the news ordered the Navy Commandant Abdur Rouf at Chittagong to stop the ships. Rouf had only couple of gun boats and they were not able to do anything. The ships returned and the death due to non-availability of food only increased. It was one of the most inhuman and tragic cases when food was used as a weapon to punish a starving nation. This was the first case of sanction against Bangladesh by US.
Over the last four decades, the relationship between Bangladesh and US government saw many ups and downs though the relationship amongst its people continued to get stronger. During natural calamities US supported the Bangladesh government by supplying logistics. The number of students going to US from Bangladesh has continued to rise and US has played a very important role in rural electrification and made its visa processing much easier. Both countries have hosted quite a few international events and facilitated the participation of participants from each other’s countries. The supply of vaccine at no price during the Covid-19 was a big help to Bangladesh. Many Bangladeshi has chosen US as their first or second home and still US remains a big source of foreign exchange remittance for Bangladesh.
All these are signs that things have moved in the right direction but unfortunately it seems that some decisions taken by US at regular intervals intervene in this smooth going. One such decision was slamming sanctions against few senior officials of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), both serving and retired on the ground that they were involved in violating human rights and extra judicial killings. There are some so called human rights organizations operating in Bangladesh funded by shady outside sources who regularly feed international bodies like UN or countries like US with false, half-truth and fabricated news related to human rights in Bangladesh. Some of these organizations discovered that few thousand people were killed by law enforcing agencies when they flushed out the Hefazati goons on 5 May 2013 from Shapla Chattar in Mothijheel. The Hefazati goons set fire virtually to the entire downtown of the Capital.
During the reign of Sheikh Hasina number of members for law enforcing agencies, including few from RAB were tried in the court of law and sentenced if found guilty for stepping out of their limits. Currently a son-in-law of an important member of Awami League Presidium and a former minister has been sentenced and serving his prison terms. RAB was formed with the help of US Administration in 2004. They were trained and equipped by US. During Begum Zia’s rule at least 50 people were killed while in custody of RAB but no such sanction came at that time. To make things even worse Begum Zia’s government passed an Indemnity Law in the Parliament to indemnify RAB for such killings. Even then there was no sanction either from US or visible protest from any international Human Rights bodies. Such selective actions give a wrong signal.
RAB over the years have gained extraordinary acceptance and trust from the general people of the country for their efficiency in curbing crime and uprooting militancy from Bangladesh. Today Bangladesh is much safer than it was ten years back and in the Global Terrorism Index prepared by Sydney based Institute for Economic & Peace ranked Bangladesh way above all countries in South and South East Asia or even US. Afghanistan was ranked First in the table while Bangladesh 43rd with US claiming 39th and UK 42nd position.
Coming to extrajudicial killing not even a single person should be denied justice before he is given any punishment leave aside the curse of extrajudicial killing. But this crime against humanity happens in most countries including US the country which is seen as guardian angel of democracy. The country has a record of more than one thousand extrajudicial killing per year on an average and of these most are blacks. The result is a survey done by The Guardian of London which also in a major breaking story disclosed the news of inhuman torture of prisoners by US forces in Guantanamo Bay Prison (“The forever prisoner”: Abu Zubaydah’s drawings expose the US’s depraved torture policy.” 11 May 2023). According to ABC News published on 2 May 2023, more than 13,900 people were killed in gun violence so far in 2023. Issues like slamming a sanction on elite crime busting forces like RAB may sour the relationship between the two countries. Bangladesh has time and again said it is willing to accept all sorts of co-operation and assistance from US to improve the efficiency of law enforcing agencies including RAB.
There is no denying the fact that the relationship between Bangladesh and US has only to improve in near future for the benefit of both countries and its people. Not only both countries are strong trade partners but because of geo-strategic location of Bangladesh, it has managed to emerge as one of the most important nations in this region. Bangladesh, a country of rising middle class and being one of the fastest growing economies in the world, was able to attract attention of economic powers including US. Today with about US$ 6 trillion international trade of US, its exports to Bangladesh stands only about US$ 3.00 billion while it imports goods and services worth US$ 8.00 billion. The figures fluctuate from year to year. Still China remains the largest trade partner of US and continues to grow. EU is the largest destination for Bangladesh RMG and other exportable items followed by US. Economics apart, Bangladesh – due to its locational advantage – also has an enviable position when it comes to regional security of nations along with the countries of West including US. Bulk of Middle Eastern Oil and goods and commodities exported to US and other countries passes through this region.
In a recent development when Bangladesh’s Home and Foreign Ministry announced that it is withdrawing extra security measures provided to only six diplomatic missions operating in Bangladesh, some political pundits tried to kick some dust and gain some extra mileage from it announcing that Bangladesh is compromising with the security of diplomats working in the country which is far from truth. Only six countries received some extra police protection and that too only to give protocol to diplomats of these countries when they were on the street. This was provided only after the Holey Artisan incident and that was seen as a move in the right direction. There are missions from about seventy countries operating in Bangladesh. When asked about this in a regular press briefing by the State Department Spokesperson Vedanta Patel, he simply said what had to be said, ‘according to Vienna Convention it is the duty of the host countries to provide security to all foreign diplomats and the mission premises,’ and Bangladesh is doing exactly the same. Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave in Baridhara enjoys a grade one security status and there is separate police station to ensure the safety of the area at any given time. Vienna Convention also mentions in its Article 41 ‘Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.’ In a recently released figure by Home Ministry, the number of security forces removed from mission’s protocol duties ranges from 5 (Saudi Arabia) to 8 (USA). There is no cause to raise any alarm over it. In its fifty years of history independent Bangladesh there were no cases or incidents of security of diplomats breached excepting the case of JSD militants trying to kidnap the Indian High Commissioner on 25 November 1975 which was foiled by security forces and four out of six hostage takers killed. In 2018 after the arrest of Begum Zia a group of thugs vandalized the Bangladesh High Commission in London but as of now nothing has been heard about any action being taken against the perpetrators. By any count Bangladesh today can claim, it is able to provide international standard security to its foreign guests than many countries in the world.
In the current day globalized world, relations between and amongst counties can only get warm and better for the benefit of the people and global peace and harmony which currently is becoming somewhat difficult due to some superpowers’ race to gain a political and economic supremacy over the others. Such behaviour of big powers only inflicts harm to others. The on-going war in Europe is an example. US still is the largest economic power in the world and happens to be the driving engine of global economy as it still has the largest consumer class. Bangladesh is a rising economy, presently being the 35th largest economy in the world slated to become the 24th by 2036 if the current political status quo is not disturbed. Bangladesh with all its friends only has to look forward and burry the past for a prosperous future of posterity. Bangladesh still adheres to its time proven foreign policy ‘Friendship towards all malice towards none.’
The writer is an analyst and a commentator