The US assistant secretary of state for the bureau of south and central Asian affairs Donald Lu speaking to newsmen at the foreign ministry
Prothom Alo file photo

The issue of Bangladesh's election has been discussed at New Delhi, during the foreign secretary and defence secretary level meeting between India and the US. It has been learnt that both sides had remain firm in their original stances. Three questions arise in this regard. Firstly, why the discussions on Bangladesh elections in New Delhi? This was published in yesterday's column. The other two questions are, how and when did foreign interest in Bangladesh's politics become an 'intervention'? And what is the future of foreign involvement? Answers to these questions will be sought in today's concluding part of the discussion:      

There has been a sort of polarisation of international forces over the past one and a half years concerning Bangladesh's politics and elections. On one side the US and other countries of the West have been reiterating that they want a free, fair and inclusive election. On the other side, Russia and China term such statements as tantamount to intervention into Bangladesh's internal politics. They make no bones about wanting to maintain the existing status quo. And the US has declared that they will not issue visas to those who impede the election and democratic process. They have begun implementing this policy.

Over the past two years, the forthcoming election has featured prominently in talks held during the visits to Bangladesh by representatives of the US government or the official visits to Washington by representatives of the Bangladesh government.

From Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina down to everyone in the Bangladesh government, as well as leaders of the ruling party, have been saying time and again that the forthcoming election will be free and fair, but it is clear from their words that the US and the other countries of the West do not have faith in this.

Amid on the unfolding of these events, the ruling party leaders often complain that foreign powers, actually meaning western countries in particular, are interfering. And analysts in the Indian media are at the forefront in terming US statements and actions as 'direct interference'.

It seems that the discussions on foreign interest in Bangladesh's internal politics and so-called interference was sparked off in December 2022 by the presence of US Ambassador Peter Haas at the home of a victim of enforced disappearance. The government and leaders of the ruling party even termed this as a violation of the Vienna Convention. It was at that point of time that a decision was taken to withdraw much of the security measures for the ambassadors of certain countries including the US.

The Russian embassy in Dhaka criticised US actions through posts on Twitter (now X) and later the Russian foreign ministry in Moscow also criticised these steps. After the US declared its visa policy in May, the Chinese foreign ministry made indirect statements against this action and also declared it would remain by Bangladesh's side. In continuity of this, after a by-election on 17 July 2023, when diplomats of 13 countries issued a statement, they were summoned by the foreign ministry and reminded about diplomatic norms.

Members of the US Congress also sent letters to the US State Department and the White House regarding these incidents. Similar incidents took place in Europe. A resolution about Bangladesh was adopted in the European Parliament and a number of members called for an even stronger stance to be adopted. The US State Department spokesperson almost every day talks about Bangladesh's election.

Meanwhile, the Bangladesh government and leaders of the ruling party continue with their contradictory statements. On one hand they say that the foreigners have nothing to do, on the other hand they are effusive in their excitement over Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's selfie with the American president Joe Biden. At times they say that the US visa policy will help implementing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's commitment. Then again they say that this policy is interference into Bangladesh internal affairs.

There is a background to the interest and involvement of foreign diplomats on the issue of Bangladesh's politics and elections. It is not as if the foreign quarters have spoken out about this for the first time. After martial law was imposed in Bangladesh in 1982, Awami League and BNP regularly apprised the foreign diplomats about the repression and suppression they faced when the political parties took up a movement.

At the behest of anti-government parties in Bangladesh, in 1988 the US Congressman Stephen Solarz proposed that an amendment be added to the Foreign Assistance Act, so that establishing democracy was a precondition to receiving US assistance. The first of the five indicators of democracy that were mentioned was credible elections where the will of the people is reflected. A hearing took place in the Congress too on 14 July 1988 on this matter. Such initiatives were taken up in Europe too.

In 1994 when the opposition at the time, Awami League, took up a movement to establish the caretaker government system permanently in the constitution, a political stalemate emerged. In order to resolve this stalemate, the Commonwealth secretary general Emeka Anyaoku came to Bangladesh in September 1994 and initiated dialogue between the government and the opposition.

Later Sir Ninian Martin Stephen was made special envoy of the Commonwealth secretary general and came to Bangladesh in October 1994 as mediator. After dialogue between the two sides, Sir Ninian came up with a proposal where Khaleda Zia would remain as prime minister. Awami League rejected the proposal and the stalemate was not resolved. Many will recall that, angered by Sir Ninian's proposal, Shah AMS Kibria complained to the Commonwealth secretary general, saying that Sir Ninian had behaved in a biased manner.

Under such circumstances, in January 1996 the US ambassador in Dhaka, David Merrill, took initiative for dialogue. He was joined by the diplomats of six countries, according to a New York Times report. After a one-sided election was held by BNP in February, the opposition leader at the time called upon all democratic countries of the world not to recognise the government.

The less discussed but possibly the most successful effort at the time was made by the US Congressman Bill Richardson. On just a two-day visit he came and made a clear proposal to resolve the problem. While details of the proposal are not available, he has spoken to both the leaders and in continuity of his initiative, the diplomats of six countries held several rounds of talks with Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. As a consequence, on 3 March 1996, Khaleda Zia announced her acceptance of the opposition demand.

Pranab Mukherjee also admonished Awami League leaders for not standing by the side of their party leader Sheikh Hasina

There is talk that the mediators had assured Khaleda Zia that if she acquiesced to the opposition demand and resigned, there would be international pressure to ensure she or her party would not face any unjust repression after she resigned and also after the election.

Foreign involvement cropped up again in July 2001. Former US president Jimmy Carter had come to Bangladesh on a six-day visit, but that failed to create trust between the two sides. When BNP was in power, opposition leader Sheikh Hasina made 55 complaints to 50 diplomats, according to a report on 21 March 2006 published in a weekly.

Almost everyone knows about the much-discussed diplomatic efforts towards the end of 2006. Diplomats, concerned with the political crisis started to hold talks with leaders of Awami League, BNP and other parties. The main initiators were the US ambassador Patricia Butenis, British high commissioner Anwar Hossain and the UNDP resident director Renata Lok-Dessallien.

Interestingly, from October 2006 till 11 January 2007, no one termed these initiatives by the diplomats as 'interference in internal politics'. Quite to the contrary, the two major leaders and the leaders of their parties welcomed these initiatives. There are two examples that can be cited. The first is Sheikh Hasina's proposal for elections under UN supervision. Hasina had made this request in a letter in December 2006.

According to Wikileaks sources, on 7 January 2007, the US embassy in Dhaka sent a cable to Washington, saying that Sheikh Hasina had told the US ambassador that she was agreeable to elections directly under the UN.

The second example is, diplomats met with Awami League leaders on the afternoon of 11 January at the resident of the Canadian high commissioner. They said there that their efforts had failed. That very night, at the intervention of the military, the new caretaker government was established. Later it was alleged that the army had taken over power die to intervention by the diplomats.

The chapter that began with the intervention of the military in January 2007, came to a close with the elections in December 2008. To the apparent eye while the foreign powers did not see to have any role to play, India's former president Pranab Mukherjee's biography, 'Coalition Years 1996-2012' (Published 2017), reveals that he had promised the army chief at the time Moeen U Ahmed, that he would not face any backlash if Awami League came to power.

Not only that, Pranab Mukherjee also admonished Awami League leaders for not standing by the side of their party leader Sheikh Hasina. These statements in his biography reveal the role of a foreign country in politics and election in this country that is literally unprecedented.

But before this chapter of history was revealed in 2017, the people of Bangladesh did experience direct intervention of India. Towards the end of 2013 when BNP and other opposition parties were proceeding towards a boycott of the election in demand of a caretaker government, Indian foreign secretary Sujata Singh came to Bangladesh. On her two-day visit, Sujata Singh deftly managed to prevent General Ershad from boycotting the election. After remaining 22 hours in an unknown place, General Ershad met with Sujata Singh and announced that Jatiya Party would take part in the election.

There was a difference between the stance of India and that of the US at the time. The US ambassador at the time, Dan Mozena, visited Delhi several times in 2023 but failed to convince them to take a stance in favour of an election where everyone could participate. (For details, see Ali Riaz, Nikhoj Gonotantra, Dhaka: Prothoma, 2021, pages 197-205).

The Indian foreign secretary said she hadn't come on any mediation, and her stand regarding the election was that India wanted an election with the participation of the 'highest number' of parties. Voters did not even have to cast their votes in the 2014 election.

The UN had tried to mediate. The UN secretary general's envoy Oscar Fernadez-Taranco visited Dhaka in December 2012, May 2013 and December 2013. His efforts were unsuccessful. Yet Awami League was in power at the time, the party whose leader in December 2006 had written to the UN for the election to be held under UN supervision and later informed the US ambassador about her interest in the elections being held under director supervision of the UN.

Those who have been talking over the past one year about foreign intervention in Bangladesh's  politics and even remarking that the US ambassador is 'BNP's security secretary' (bdnews24, 3 November 2023), conveniently overlook these chapters of history of direct intervention.

Even more interestingly, the experiences of 1996, 2006 and 2013 indicate that it is Awami League that has benefitted from the involvement of outside forces. Experience also indicates that outside forces have been successful in influencing the election and politics when any party manages to take control of politics, street politics in particular.

The perceptions emerging from past experience tell us that the pressure of foreigners involved in the election issue, particularly those who insist upon free elections, is hardly in effect once the election is over. Then again, alongside this experience, there is also the matter of present day global and regional circumstances.

Taking Bangladesh’s prevailing geopolitical significance into consideration, it is important to keep in mind that the stand of foreign powers in 2023 is not just a matter related to conflict of interests. There is ideological conflict too. So if anyone expects changes in the stand of either side after the US-India talks in New Delhi, or that the US and other forces will take the assurances of the government and the stand of India into consideration, that will be a miscalculation.

The importance of Bangladesh forthcoming election is not just about who will be in power, but it involves the question of the internal system of governance as well as global politics. This election now revolves around the issue of whether there will be an effective multiparty system in the country or not. Also, it will indicate the stand Bangladesh will take in future regional and global politics.

It is not just the citizens of Bangladesh that are concerned about these matters, the regional and global powers are concerned too. So if an inclusive, free and fair election is not held, and if a government is not established with the mandate of the people, the involvement and pressure of the foreign powers may both increase. If Bangladesh economic crisis is taken into consideration, such a situation is a bad omen for the common people of the country.

* Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of the Department of Politics and Government at the Illinois State University in the US, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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