US visa: Who needs it and why

As an internal matter, it is entirely up to any country as to whom it will grant a visa or not. We are aware that many people apply for visas to travel to the US, but not everyone gets a visa. In addition to this normal process, on Thursday the US government added a new policy regarding visas for citizens of Bangladesh. The new US policy says, those involved or responsible for undermining Bangladesh’s democratic election process, will not be granted US visas.

We are well aware that the US and countries of the West are critical of the shrinking of democracy in Bangladesh, the conscious eroding of the election process and system, the deterioration of the state of human rights and the shrinking space for freedom of expression. There have been apprehensions for quite some time now that US 'sanctions' will be clamped down in Bangladesh over these issues. The sanctions didn't come, but a 'mere' visa policy was enacted instead. The policy considers it an offence to mar democracy or the election process and states that visas would not be issued to those complicit in such actions.

The actions that are considered to undermine the democratic election process are: vote rigging, voter intimidation and the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedoms of association and peaceful assembly.

Also, the use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from disseminating their views, will also be considered as actions to impede the election.

Anyone can fall under the jurisdiction of this visa policy, including current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and opposition political parties, and members of law enforcement, the judiciary, and security services. Even the spouses and children of the concerned persons can be refused visas.

The question is, are such actions also considered to be offences or wrongdoings according to our own laws and in our social and political considerations? So why has this visa policy emerged as so important to all quarters in our country? What is there to be so perturbed about?

It has become quite clear that the impact of the US visa policy is far stronger than any sort of sanction the US may impose against Bangladesh. It is also clear that the US quite knowingly took this strategic measure. If the US imposed sanctions on certain individuals, institutions or any other area, there would be scope to criticise the US over the matter. But as they did not choose to use sanctions, that could not be done. Quite to the contrary, the two major political parties of the country are both endeavouring to portray the US visa policy as going in their respective favour. The US seems to have quite adroitly pleased both sides!

The question may be raised as to why the new US visa policy is stronger than any sanction or why it means so much pressure for Bangladesh. The answer is, the reach of this policy is extensive. The announcement of the policy makes it clear that Bangladesh's political leaders, officials of the administration, law enforcement authorities, the judiciary and even social leaders, can all fall under this visa policy.

The US has taken up this policy in a quite calculative manner. They are well aware that this section of society wants the most to go to the US, their interests lie there, they want to educate their children there, some have accumulated assets and amassed their wealth there. In other words, the political, administrative, judicial and social leadership that runs our country, that determines our policies, have a sort of dependence on the US. They need US visas. They need the visas for themselves, for their families and children, for the security of the assets they have accumulated there. If that was not so, there would be no reason to be so perturbed.

For some time, top levels of Awami League have been spewing out anti-US speech. So when the visa policy was announced, there was naturally public curiosity about what reaction would come from the government or the party. It is clear that they no longer hold on to their previous stance. Or perhaps they are mulling over just how deep the implications of this visa policy are, and hence are taking time. For instance, the foreign minister AK Abdul Momen said the US has always issued visas according to their own considerations and this continues.

Awami League has taken up the strategy of portraying the visa policy as going in its favour, saying that this was not enacted against them, but primarily against BNP. They point out that members of the 'opposition political parties' are also covered by this visa policy. And if BNP tries to resist the election, this will be considered as obstructing the democratic election process. Obaidul Quader said, the new American visa policy is stuck in BNP's throat, their demeanour is downcast.

Of course, the speeches made by leaders at public meetings or their formal statements do not always reflect reality. Off-the-record statements and circumstances must be taken into consideration. Questions must be raised. BNP will try to step up its movement before the election. Will it be possible to use the administration, the law enforcement agencies or the party leaders and activists to tackle BNP as in the past? Will those in the government, party and administration, who sorely need US visas, be as active as before? Or will they pull back? As the reach of the visa policy is very extensive, many will be apprehensive about doing anything that will prevent them from getting visas. This will naturally have an impact on the government.

It is most unfortunate that we have to depend on persons who are desperate to get US visas, to uphold our democracy and ensure free and fair elections

Meanwhile, BNP might be pleased, considering the visa policy as an anti-government initiative. But the US has come up with this policy is a very balanced manner. They have opposed the 'undermining of the democratic election process' in Bangladesh, but have not said anything about the elections not be 'inclusive'. Possibly, as a strategy, they won't say this. They have also refrained from saying anything about Awami League insistence of holding the election 'in keeping with the constitution'.

BNP will be in a dilemma over participating in the election or not. If they decide to remain adamant about not joining the election, what strategy will BNP adopt? Will they launch a movement? Will they try to resist the election? If there is an outbreak of violence, will the party be able to avoid taking liability? It is evident that the coming days will be difficult for BNP too.

Much depends on how and under what process the US puts its visa policy into effect. In a densely populated country like Bangladesh with the political parties expert at wily manipulations, it will be a difficult task to monitor who is undermining the election process and how, what election rigging plans are being hatched, who is impeding democracy and how freedom of expression is being curbed. However, it can be assumed that the US will have its own and additional monitoring during this time, in context of putting its visa policy into effect. In the meantime, we will just have to wait and see how and upon whom the visa sword falls.

It is most unfortunate that we have to depend on persons who are desperate to get US visas, to uphold our democracy and ensure free and fair elections. If those who need to go to America for their children's education or to look after the wealth they have accumulated there, are scared, will that pave the way to a fair election? Who is to blame for bringing the country to such a predicament?

* AKM Zakaria is deputy editor of Prothom Alo and can be reached at [email protected]

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