PM Hasina in Washington: Election Commission is free to hold fair polls

Bangladesh media is free to criticize the government, she says

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said the Election Commission in Bangladesh is completely free and independent, and a system has been established through an independent EC to hold free and fair elections in the country.

“Now the Election Commission is completely free. We have made the EC completely independent,” she told the Bengali service of the Voice of America (VoA) in an interview aired on Tuesday.

The prime minister, now on a visit to the US, responded to a number of questions on democracy, human rights, the Rohingya crisis, Digital Security Act, and other issues.

Sheikh Hasina dismissed allegations of limiting freedom of the press, saying the Bangladesh media were free to criticize her government if they wished.

She said that Bangladesh had only a few TV and radio stations before she came to power in 1996 and they were all controlled by the government. Since then, she has made an opening for the private sector to run media houses freely.

Of the 44 approved TV channels, 32 are privately owned, she added. 

Mentioning that Bangladesh has progressed significantly during her three consecutive tenures as prime minister, Sheikh Hasina said: “The country didn’t see a downtrend, but rather witnessed advancement.”

The premier said the rate of poverty had decreased, and people are getting food, education, and healthcare. 

“We are fulfilling all their basic needs,” she added. 

There was military rule before Awami League

Responding to a question, PM Hasina described how political parties like the BNP and the Jatiya Party were born under the leadership of military dictators.

She said parties which are born under military dictators are not used to developing relations with the common people, rather they are used to snatching votes and power by force or at gunpoint. “Parties like this might not like the trend of democracy,” she reiterated. 

Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, during her visit to Bangladesh, encouraged the government to create an “independent, specialized mechanism” that works closely with victims, families and civil society to investigate allegations of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

When asked about the matter, the prime minister said there is a National Human Rights Commission in Bangladesh which always takes steps. 

Sheikh Hasina said wherever any injustice takes place, steps are taken immediately as per the law. 

“We are not abusing human rights, we are protecting human rights,” she said, adding that her government has made the people aware of their rights and ensured that they can exercise them. 

Referring to the killings and disappearances of hundreds of army and air force members, as well as Awami League leaders and activists, during the rule of military dictator Ziaur Rahman, Sheikh Hasina said: “Their families did not even get their bodies and have not been able to know why they were killed.”

1 million families get free homes under Ashrayan project

PM Hasina said over a million families have so far been given homes under the Ashrayan project as she wants to make sure that everyone in Bangladesh has their own home, land and address.

“My aim is to see that not a single person remains homeless, landless, or without an address in Bangladesh,” she told VoA.

She said they are not just giving the homeless people homes, but also providing them with cash support and necessary training so they can generate an income and grab opportunities to sell products on the market.

She recalled how she saw the need for homes when she toured the country in 1981 and when she visited St Martin's Island after a cyclone in 1997.

Prolonged stay of Rohingyas turning into burden

Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh is not in a position to take any more people from Myanmar, emphasizing the need for swift and safe repatriation of Rohingya refugees to their homeland in Rakhine State.

The burden of hosting the Rohingya refugees has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia-Ukraine war, sanctions and counter-sanctions. 

Bangladesh is now hosting over 1.1 million Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar and Bhashan Char and not a single person was repatriated over the last five years.

The prime minister described how the prolonged stay of the Rohingyas in Bangladesh destroyed forests in Cox’s Bazar area, caused suffering for locals, and how some Rohingyas became involved in drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and human trafficking, apart from getting involved in internal conflicts inside the camps.

Bangladesh recently sought support and necessary steps from the international community to stop the violence in Myanmar, as Myanmar has been using the instability to avoid repatriating the Rohingyas.