Leaders meet if Haas calls, why not on their own accord?

US ambassador Peter Haas at the ‘Youth Talk: Citizen Expectations’ conference organised by Democracy International. Also on state as Awami League’s Kazi Zafrullah, BNP’s Selima Rahman and Jatiya Party’s Fakhrul Imam. 13 September at Sheraton Hotel in the capital city
Prothom Alo

If Awami League leaders are asked to sit with BNP to discuss and resolve the election-related crisis, they angrily retort, why should we talk to BNP? The election will be held in keeping with the constitution. It is not our lookout as to who joins the election or who doesn’t.

And the BNP leaders, when asked to hold talks with Awami League, sing the same tune. They say, the Awami League government must resign, only then we can hold talks with them.

From these sternly opposing stands of the two parties, it would seem they are completely off talking terms. But that is not true. When any foreign ambassador or development partner calls them, they happily go forward, talk and listen too.

In May this year, the US announced a new visa policy for Bangladesh. The bottom line of the policy is that no visa will be issued to anyone, or their family, who obstructs the holding of free and fair elections in Bangladesh. This created considerable concern not only among the politicians, but among the members of the administration and the law enforcement agencies too. Around two years ago the US slapped sanctions on seven officers of RAB on charges of violating human rights. The government lobbied hard, but failed to get those sanctions lifted. Then came along the visa policy.

While the visa policy has certainly been a cause of concern for the ruling party leaders, they do not want to let their concern be visible. They claim that Awami League wants a free and fair election and so the visa policy does not apply to them. The policy will go against BNP if they try to obstruct the election with programmes like hartals (general strikes) and blockades.

In the meantime, BNP maintains that the US had come up with this visa policy due to the farcical elections of 2014 and 2018 which snatched away people’s voting rights. BNP’s movement aims at free and fair elections and so this visa policy certainly does not target them.

In the backdrop of these contentions, US ambassador Peter Haas invited leaders of Awami League, BNP and Jatiya Party to his residence in May. He held a meeting that lasted almost two hours with these leaders. Joining the meeting on behalf of Awami League were the party’s information and research secretary Selim Mahmud and central leader Md A Arafat. The leaders from BNP joining the meeting were the party’s standing committee member Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury and member of the international affairs committee Shama Obaid. Representing Jatiya Party were the party’s secretary general Mujibul Haque and presidium member Maj. Rana Mohammad Sohel (retd).

At the end of the meeting, the US embassy in Dhaka posted Peter Haas’ message on their Facebook page. He said that they supported free and fair elections and that the new policy for visa restrictions applied to anyone who weakened the democratic process.

This means that the US is not only concerned about the election, but is keeping a sharp watch on the democratic process too. Their visa policy was imposed in certain countries of Africa and in Cambodia too, but only after the elections. In Bangladesh, this announcement came a few months prior to the election.

I do not recall Awami League and BNP leaders meeting together on any occasion outside of this meeting with the US ambassador.  Then on Wednesday, two influential leaders of Awami League and BNP, Kazi Zafrullah and Selima Rahman respectively, were both seen at the ‘Youth Talk: Citizen Expectations’ conference. The key speaker at the conference was the US ambassador Peter Haas. The Prothom Alo picture of the event shows Peter Haas sitting in the middle, flanked by Awami League’s Kazi Zafrullah and BNP’s Selima Rahman. Also present was Jatiya Party’s presidium member Fakhrul Imam.

Awami League and Jatiya Party leaders may not share the same platform for public meetings, but they do meet in parliament. Jatiya Party members also criticise various policies and programmes of the government, not that the government policymakers pay any heed. They count Jatiya Party as they ‘pet’ opposition. Even Jatiya Party leaders have said so at various times.

The aim of the youth conference was to increase the interest of youth in politics. But our political policy makers do not want that. If they did, they would have ensured that the student union elections took place in colleges and universities. Our political leaders love to criticise and berate the military rulers, but at least during those rules, the student union elections would be held. Conversely, after 1991 no such student election was held other than a one-off DUCSU election. Neither Awami League nor BNP can shrug off responsibility for this. They do not hold student union elections as they are scared of youth. But when they are in power or in the opposition, they use youth as they will.

No matter how they may castigate America in public, they certainly keep up relations behind the scenes. This is just another example of the double standards of our politicians.

Speaking at that conference, Awami League’s presidium member Kazi Zafrullah said, many of those who would ride cycle-vans as students 10 years ago, now as politicians drive around in Pajeros. This creates questions in the minds of the youth concerning politics. They wonder how to enter politics and apprehend that they will not be able to leave politics once they enter. BNP standing committee member Selima Rahman said that the situation that prevails in the country is a deterrent for youth to join politics. They question why they could not cast their votes in 2014 and 2018.

The remark made by Kazi Zafrullah about students who rode cycle-vans now ride in Pajeros, points to the crux of power politics. Politics is no longer about serving the nation or about ideology, it has become a tool to make money.

Awami League leaders do not sit with BNP leaders. BNP leaders do not talk to Awami League leaders either. But they have no objection to attending and talking at events attended by the US ambassador.

In the past we had seen that even though Awami League and BNP leaders did not hold meetings with each other within the country, they would attend invitations by the British House of Commons. Perhaps no such call comes from outside now, and so they turn up when called to the house of the US ambassador or at any special event. No matter how they may castigate America in public, they certainly keep up relations behind the scenes. This is just another example of the double standards of our politicians.

* Sohrab Hassan is the joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at [email protected]

* 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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