Biden's letter: Vibes of ease and unease
It is nothing exceptional for the president to send a letter to the head of government at the start of the new term after the election. In fact, it would be a deviation from diplomatic norms if no letter was sent. However the statement of the US state department issued around three weeks ago made it clear that while the US did not reject the elections, it did not accept the election as free and fair either
In a letter written to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on 4 February, US President Joe Biden expressed his country's commitment to supporting Bangladesh's ambitious economic goals and partnering with Bangladesh on their shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
For over a year before the 7 January election, the US had openly been calling for a transparent, inclusive and democratic election in Bangladesh. They even declared visa restrictions on any persons responsible for impeding democracy. This created tensions with the government and allegations arose that the US aimed at changing power in this country. Given this backdrop, President Biden's letter came as a surprise to many, both of the government camp and otherwise.
Many have seen this letter as a start of normalising relations. Then again, others see this as a sort of compulsion due to geopolitical circumstances. Yet another group has termed this as US spurning the aspirations and hopes of the democracy-loving people of Bangladesh for the sake of its commercial interests. What they all seem to be overlooking is that bilateral relations are not unilinear.
Take the 2018 election for example. Donald Trump, who was the US president at the time, may have been disinterested and unenthusiastic about international affairs, but even so US diplomatic activities were not negligible when it came to the question of free and fair elections in Bangladesh.
Many of us may have forgotten about the attack on the vehicle of the US ambassador at the time, Marcia Bernicat. She too had incurred the displeasure of the ruling party by speaking openly and bluntly about democracy and human rights.
The election of 30 December 2018 leaves no room for defence or debate. It was termed as "voting of the night before", and 19 days after that election, President Trump sent a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Biden's letter this time took an additional 10 days.
So it is nothing exceptional for the president to send a letter to the head of government at the start of the new term after the election. In fact, it would be a deviation from diplomatic norms if no letter came. However the statement of the US state department issued around three weeks ago made it clear that while the US did not reject the elections, it did not accept the election as free and fair either.
Trump also commented in his letter that if peaceful expression of dissent is suppressed, there is a risk some will turn into violence, which undermines the stability and economic prosperity that the Bangladesh government had worked so hard to create
In the instances of Belarus, Venezuela or Nicaragua, the US directly rejected the elections and so their relations with those countries are not good. Transactions with those countries have come to an almost total halt.
It would be pertinent to compare the letter of President Biden with that of Trump. President Trump wished success for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's third term in power. Thrilled, the foreign ministry published the letter in the media, describing it as a congratulatory message.
However, Trump had written in the letter that "ongoing reports of attacks on the political opposition and their supporters and repression of journalists are tainting the national election and Bangladesh's international reputation." He also wrote that commitment was “particularly important in light of international calls for an independent investigation into the 30 December 2018 national election."
Mentioning that both the United States and Bangladesh were founded on democratic principles, Trump wrote, "There is a strong link between Bangladesh's democratic development and its continued economic growth and prosperity.
He wrote, "I hope that you [Hasina] will focus on expanding Bangladesh's economic growth -- including by taking steps to promote fair and reciprocal trade and investment -- and on renewing your commitment to protecting human rights, individual freedom of expression, and democratic institutions."
Trump also commented in his letter that if peaceful expression of dissent is suppressed, there is a risk some will turn into violence, which undermines the stability and economic prosperity that the Bangladesh government had worked so hard to create.
Mentioning that the US was deeply invested in the future of Bangladesh, the letter also said that the US was grateful to the government of Bangladesh for its generous hosting of the Rohingya refugees expelled from Myanmar.
It would not be judicious to ignore the fact that the risks have not been eliminated. Quite to the contrary, the threats have risen
President Biden's letter has some repetitions. Additionally, it has mention of establishing a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Biden wrote, "The United States is committed to supporting Bangladesh’s ambitious economic goals and partnering with Bangladesh on our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific."
President Biden also wrote, "As we embark on the next chapter of the U.S.-Bangladesh partnership, I want to convey the sincere desire of my Administration to continue our work together on regional and global security, economic development, climate change and energy, global health, humanitarian support, especially for Rohingya refugees, and more."
Both the letters talk about the desire to expand economic relations, that is, investment and trade. There is also mention of humanitarian assistance including the Rohingya refugee issue. The additional factors this time include global security and climate change. While President Trump spoke of Bangladesh's reputation being tainted by irregularities in the election and attacks on the opposition, President Biden totally sidestepped the issues of democracy, human rights and the election issues. This may be a relief for the Bangladesh government.
However, there is also scope of interpreting this letter as a reflection of Bangladesh not being considered a democracy in the light of the Biden administration upholding democracy and human rights as the mainstay of its foreign policy for the past three years.
As the Biden administration had failed to steer Bangladesh back to the path of democracy, perhaps it felt it unnecessary to bring up the issue. This certainly is a matter is disappointment for those who had aspired a revival of multiparty democracy. But it also may be a foreboding omen for Bangladesh.
The issues which are dependent on the values of democracy and human rights, may be dropped from the list of factors to be taken into consideration regarding bilateral relations. It may be noted here that two days after President Biden's letter, the US state department spokesperson mentioned that the visa restriction policy has not been changed. There has not been any change in the US policy concerning labour rights either.
And on 5 February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the implementation of visa restrictions against the use of spyware technology to suppress dissenting voices. It is meaningless to speculate about when or whether these sanctions will be applied. But at the same time it would not be judicious to ignore the fact that the risks have not been eliminated. Quite to the contrary, the threats have risen.
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir