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Dhaka Tribune

Contextualizing PM Hasina’s remarks on the US

Exploring the chequered past of US-Bangladesh relationship

Update : 13 Apr 2023, 08:21 AM

On April 10, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, while addressing a special session of the national parliament, came down heavily on US's foreign policy misadventures in the name of “democratization,” especially in Muslim-majority countries. She referred to the racism experienced by African-Americans and the failure of successive US administrations to extradite Rashed Chowdhury as examples of American hypocrisy on human rights and democracy. 

The remarks would not come as a surprise for those who follow Bangladeshi politics closely. But for those who do not, the remarks may come off as a bit too harsh or populist. For the latter, I will attempt to give the necessary background and context.

However, before we delve deep into the role of US vis-a-vis Bangladeshi politics, let us start with some empirical assessment of the PM's claims on “democratization” by, and racism in, the US. Gallup recently published the findings of a major survey conducted in 13 Muslim-majority countries regarding their perception of the US's sincerity in promoting democracy. They revealed that an overwhelming majority in these nations do not view the US as serious about encouraging the development of democracy in the region, nor about allowing people to fashion their own political future as they see fit (April 7, 2023).

A study by Pew Research Centre (August 22, 2022) revealed that about six-in-ten Black adults feel racism and police brutality are extremely big problems for their community in the US today. Furthermore, the majority of Black Americans feel little to no hope that changes to address racial inequality are likely in the future. Another PRC poll showed that 84% of Black adults feel that, in dealing with police, Blacks are generally treated less fairly than Whites (April 9, 2019). Black people are also twice as likely as White people to be fatally shot by the police (Mapping Police Violence, 2021).

Now that we have established that the Bangladeshi prime minister was not factually off-the-mark, let us now turn to the probable reasons for her remarks. The US has a long history with Bangladesh, including most importantly, in some of its darkest chapters. But in recent years, the US's missteps in Bangladesh started with their role during the military-backed government of 2007-08. Some diplomats from the global north stationed in Dhaka, including US diplomats, helped legitimize that regime, which was essentially engaging in a widespread depoliticization campaign by arresting politicians en masse. The regime arrested both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, and politics was virtually banned.

The ban on politics did not apply to Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus though. With the encouragement of the military regime, the diplomats backing the regime, and a particular media group which enthusiastically subscribed to the depoliticization agenda, Yunus shocked everyone by announcing his decision to form “Nagorik Shokti,” an alternative political platform beyond the two major political parties in Bangladesh. However, the initiative was ridiculed as a “King's Party” due to its close proximity with the regime, while politicians languished in jails on trumped up charges. Yunus, sensing the lack of popular support, discarded the initiative, and escaped the infamy of becoming Bangladesh's Iyad Alawi.  

In 2011, Muhammad Yunus was removed from Grameen Bank by Bangladesh's central bank due to his holding the position way past the retirement age for public sector officials. Yunus and his supporters, at home and abroad, would view this as a political vendetta. The prime minister, senior members of her party, have on multiple occasions claimed that powerful international friends of Yunus, including at the US State Department, lobbied for letting Yunus continue in his post. 

Hence, when the World Bank pulled out from funding the Padma Bridge project citing corruption allegations in June 2012 (subsequently found to be unsubstantiated by a Canadian court), charges vehemently denied by the Bangladesh Government, naturally fingers were pointed at the then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, known to be close with Yunus. 

The Observer reported that Yunus, through his non-profit Grameen America, donated between $100,000 and $250,000 to the Clinton Foundation and Grameen Research donated an additional $25,000 to $50,000 (May 17, 2017). The prime minister's US-based son and unpaid ICT Advisor, Sajeeb Wazed, claimed in an interview that senior State Department officials, between 2010 and 2012, repeatedly pressured him to influence his mother to drop the investigation on Yunus. He even claimed that he was threatened with an IRS audit (The Daily Caller, April, 25, 2017).   

The Padma Bridge was Sheikh Hasina's dream infrastructure project. Hence, the World Bank move came as more than a political blow for Sheikh Hasina. It became almost personal. Nonetheless, the PM decided to proceed with the project with own funds, and with Chinese financing, opened the country's largest development project in June 2022, to the jubilation of 30 million people living in the country's southwest.  

From 2010 onward, one of the most heated political topics in Bangladesh was the trial of those who committed genocide and crimes against humanity during the 1971 Liberation War. The US had been critical of the process from the outset, although at home, the trials were hugely popular. The youth in particular voted overwhelmingly for Awami League in the December 2008 election for, among others, their pledge to hold these trials.

A number of top Jamaat-E-Islami leaders were on the dock for their role during the 1971 genocide. It was widely reported in the mainstream media that the Islamist party was spending a lot of money in Washington, DC for lobbying the US government, politicians, and others to pressure the Bangladesh Government into backing off from the trials. The actual outcome of the costly lobbying efforts is not completely clear. However, it has been widely discussed, and even hinted by the prime minister herself that the US asked the Bangladeshi government to halt executions of top war criminals of Jamaat after they were duly convicted by the country's domestic tribunal.

This attitude from the Americans opened old wounds for Bangladesh, given the US's complicit role in the 1971 genocide by the Pakistan Army and their local collaborators. Although many now try to whitewash these episodes as “cold war realities,” nothing can relativize complicity in genocide. The optics were, unsurprisingly, very damaging: The US, which failed the people of Bangladesh in 1971 by siding with the genocidal Pakistani junta, was once again on the wrong side of history by not standing with the people of Bangladesh in their pursuit of accountability and closure for the crimes of 1971.

It should be noted that, just like Bangabandhu's convicted killer Rashed Chowdhury, one of the convicted masterminds of the mass-killing of Bengali intellectuals in 1971, Ashrafuzzaman, continues to hide in plain sight in the US. The US's advocacy for Yunus and Jamaat-E-Islami (essentially Bangladesh's Nazi Party) was unacceptable for the staunchly nationalist Awami League and its leader, and was viewed simply as unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country. 

It was in this context that the US, in July 2013, suspended the GSP facilities for Bangladesh, citing non-improvement of working conditions. While working conditions in Bangladesh factories, especially in the garments sector, were far from desirable at that time, it was also widely suspected that lobbying efforts in Washington and other political motivations on part of the US, may also have contributed to, if not caused, the suspension. The fact that just six months before the suspension, Khaleda Zia, then the main opposition leader, wrote an Op-Ed for Washington Times (January 30, 2013) urging the US and its allies to impose sanctions on Bangladesh, including GSP abolition, did not help with the impression either.

In the next few years, despite attempts on part of the US to intermittently comment on political issues of Bangladesh, the relations remained stable. Occasional rhetorics aside, the Awami League was also opening up to the prospects of having closer relations with the US. This is despite the unease which persisted among government and party high-ups regarding the US's lack of recognition and appreciation of the Awami League Government's success in combating transnational and domestic terrorist groups. Many felt that the US should have been more supportive of the stunning successes in the global war on terror delivered by the only female head of government of a Muslim-majority state. 

However, the imposition of sanctions on Bangladesh's elite security force, the Rapid Action Battalion, by the US Treasury Department on December 10, 2021 for alleged human rights abuses, renewed mistrust of the US and rolled back the progress made between 2015 and 2020. This was not taken well at all by the prime minister, her government, and her party. The RAB, which was formed during the BNP-Jamaat regime of 2001-06, and trained by, among others, the US, was the principal agency against terrorists and hardened criminals. It was strongly felt, wrongly or rightly, that the imposition of sanctions on RAB was motivated more by politics and geopolitics, as opposed to purely human rights concerns.

Since being elected to office for the second term in December 2008, Sheikh Hasina has followed in the footsteps of Bangladesh's founding father in regards to her foreign policy. Genuinely believing in the necessity of developing countries maintaining a non-aligned foreign policy, Sheikh Hasina has used the dictum of ‘Friendship to All, Malice to None', to deftly navigate relations with India, China, the US, and Russia.

While it has become fashionable these days to argue that a simple notion like “friendship not enmity” cannot be a “proper” foreign policy, Sheikh Hasina has used it to secure additional maritime territory from India and Myanmar using international institutions, resolving one of the most complex border challenges in the world by signing the Land Boundary Agreement with India, bolstered infrastructure development cooperation with China to build such mega projects as the Padma Bridge and Karnaphuli River Tunnel, cooperated with Russia to build the country's maiden nuclear power plant, and enhancing trade and investment relations and security cooperation with the US.

Many in Bangladesh feel that Bangladesh's refusal to act with contempt or hostility towards countries that America considers as threats has distanced Sheikh Hasina from the US's good books, and hence, the US is looking to discredit and/or undermine her government using human rights justifications. This theory has received more fuel in recent months from the flurry of statements and comments from visiting US officials, the current US ambassador, and the US Embassy, on elections, human rights, and freedom of press.

While there is no disagreement that the next elections in Bangladesh have to be free and fair and that the country needs to translate its development successes into governance achievements, the public and suo-moto nature of the US statements and comments have given the impression that the US is not being neutral by having a dog in the fight. Former diplomats, foreign policy analysts, and the academics of international relations, have all opined that some of those statements and comments breached diplomatic norms, and constituted interference in the internal political affairs of the host country.

Thus, before dismissing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's recent comments as anti-US populist rhetoric by the leader of a developing country, the background and contexts articulated must be taken into consideration. It is only with the proper appreciation of her sense of grievance, that the trajectory of US-Bangladesh relations in the last one decade can be assessed, and the future of US-Bangladesh relations can be discussed. While her sense of grievance may be subjective, it is undoubtedly sincerely held.

Shah Ali Farhad is a lawyer, policy-researcher, and political activist. He is the founder of The Confluence, a specialist political blog. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisations he is, or was, affiliated with.

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