Posted on / by Srijan Sharma / in Short

USA Combating Waning Leverage in Bangladesh

Amid upcoming elections and increased scrutiny from American media, Bangladesh navigates a complex political landscape fraught with internal and external pressures.

As the political landscape in Bangladesh gears up for the general elections set for early 2024, the current administration led by the Awami League is closely scrutinizing domestic political dynamics, especially as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) intensifies its political and grassroots campaigns. Although Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is in a relatively secure position regarding internal challenges, external pressures are mounting for the Awami League. 

Notably, the United States recently introduced a stringent visa policy for Dhaka that could impose bans on individuals attempting to compromise the integrity of free and fair elections in Bangladesh. This policy applies to current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of both ruling and opposition parties, law enforcement agencies, the judiciary, security services, and their family members.

USA – Bangladesh relations and contributing factors

Historically, the United States has had a complex relationship with the Awami League, particularly with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Various historical events lend context to this strained relationship, such as the 1975 coup that resulted in the assassination of Mujibur Rahman. Orchestrated by BNP founder and military dictator Zia-ur Rahman, this event is rumored to have received backing from a U.S.-Pakistan alliance. Although allegations surfaced in 2020 suggesting CIA involvement, the agency’s former Dhaka station chief, Phillip Cherry, vehemently denied these claims, attributing them to the U.S.’s Cold War stance and its role in the 1971 war. Moreover, the United States’ reluctance to extradite those involved in Rahman’s assassination has perpetuated mistrust between the two nations.

From the U.S. standpoint, concerns also exist about Prime Minister Hasina’s governance, particularly regarding her actions against the opposition and corruption charges against Zia-ur Rahman. Washington D.C. perceives that Sheikh Hasina leverages Bangladesh’s relationship with China to counterbalance U.S. influence, particularly in the economic arena.

Currently, the U.S. is the largest market for Bangladesh’s garment exports, making Bangladesh the third-largest exporter of garments to the U.S., following China and Vietnam. This industry is vital to Bangladesh’s economy, which, according to a Boston Consultancy Group (BCG) report, is performing quite well. Moreover, Bangladesh is actively lobbying for Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) Plus status with both the U.S. and the EU, which would eliminate import duties. Economic diplomacy could offer a means for the U.S. to recalibrate its relationship with Bangladesh. Early signs of this recalibration may have emerged when Prime Minister Hasina recently outlined Bangladesh’s inaugural perspective on the Indo-Pacific region, a viewpoint seemingly well-received by the United States. Nevertheless, the absence of political transparency remains an obstacle for the U.S. in exerting its full political influence over Dhaka.

Sanctions and complex narratives on Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism efforts

The upper tiers of Western media have begun to shift their focus toward Bangladesh, frequently fueling narratives of sanctions against Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism force, RAB (Rapid Action Battalion), as well as discussions on political and extrajudicial killings. Western outlets have claimed that before these sanctions, gunfights led to 466 deaths in 2018, followed by 388 deaths in 2019 and 188 in 2020. However, post-sanction numbers have plummeted to a historic low of 15. Such narratives aim to scrutinize the state of democracy in Bangladesh, which, according to the ruling Awami League, is functioning well. This focus serves not only to tarnish the reputation of Bangladesh’s political leadership but also to bolster the opposition party, BNP, in capitalizing on these issues in upcoming elections. Double standards of the US were evidently visible when Donald Lu, the United States assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs highlighted  “tremendous progress” made by Bangladesh in reducing alleged extrajudicial killings by its elite RAB security force. 

This narrative, however, was robustly challenged by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her recent visit to the UK. She questioned the authenticity of the data presented by U.S. media and admonished the United States to address its own rising instances of shootings and murders. 

“In the last 14 years alone, we have witnessed the emergence of a robust democratic system, enabling us to drive positive change,” she said. 

When asked to comment on the sanctions imposed on RAB, she said that the special force, which had been established in 2004 following the USA’s advice, had received training and equipment from the North American country. She believes that RAB operated in a manner taught by the USA. Hence, she found the sanctions puzzling.

The oscillation in the Western media toward Bangladesh suggests a recurrence of psychological tactics that the U.S. often deploys through its media channels to influence politically sensitive nations. The well-known color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, aimed at overthrowing Russian-leaning leadership, exemplify the weaponization of media, or, in strategic terms, psychological and information warfare.

Regarding Bangladesh, where U.S. media appears to be baiting the BNP by highlighting RAB’s actions, it is crucial to note that terrorism and insurgency have seen a sudden uptick in the country. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal’s 2023 assessment report, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has been resurgent since January 2023, alongside unlawful activities in Rohingya refugee camps. 

This escalation of security threats amidst impending elections necessitates swift action by Bangladesh’s law enforcement agencies, including RAB. Contrary to American media reports alleging human rights violations, the instances cited involve “justified” use of force. 

In 2022 alone, a total of 263 Islamist terrorists and radicals were arrested, including 200 members of the Jamaat-e-Islami outfit. Furthermore, the BNP has been implicated in creating unrest through political bombings, only to later blame law enforcement agencies as part of an anti-establishment narrative.

The heightened security concerns in Bangladesh have made it imperative for law enforcement agencies, including RAB, to escalate their operations, which are primarily focused on combating terrorism rather than achieving political gains. The rationale behind the U.S. sanctions against RAB remains unclear. 

The Bangladesh Foreign Minister maintains that “RAB is a disciplined organization that has been securing human rights for the people of Bangladesh,” a sentiment echoed more assertively by the RAB chief. M Khurshid Hossain, director general of the Rapid Action Battalion, said that his force had no reason to be worried about sanctions. Such statements certainly do carry some weight because Bangaldesh’s Sunderbans region which was a hub of piracy was freed by RAB

Notably, Bangladesh has not experienced any large-scale terror attacks since 2016, and RAB has been credited with successful deradicalization programs. It also must be argued that RAB does not always resort to hard power as alleged by the US, RAB often uses soft power to tackle Islamic radicalization, the BSS, the national daily of Bangladesh reports that RAB’s deradicalization program showed success in curbing “crimes with humanity” where  421 terrorists (pirates and militants) were added to a rehabilitation process initially and this number has continued to rise. 

Therefore, the objectives behind the U.S. sanctions against RAB appear to be ambiguous and unfounded, especially when one considers the lack of clear evidence to substantiate the reasons for these sanctions. The American media’s stance is ironic, particularly when juxtaposed with its earlier support for U.S. military interventions in Iraq and its acceptance of Israel’s ‘self-defense’ narrative against Palestinian terror organizations.

The intricacies of U.S. visa policy and media narratives

The United States visa policy towards Bangladesh, which includes threats of sanctions against anyone attempting to undermine the democratic process, serves as a compelling illustration. This policy seems designed to pressure the Awami League government on multiple fronts. On one hand, it opens the door for the opposition to challenge the government; on the other, it enables the United States to closely monitor any efforts by the Awami League to quell or counter opposition activities. This visa policy provides a lens through which the U.S. can scrutinize Bangladesh’s political landscape.

It is not merely the strategic circles within the U.S. government that are deploying these tactics; the Western media, particularly American outlets, are also amplifying the U.S. stance against Bangladesh, thereby tarnishing the image of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. For example, The Economist has been at the forefront of advancing an anti-government narrative. According to The Dhaka Tribune, this publication has frequently displayed bias against Sheikh Hasina, often amplifying the voices of the opposition. 

Nadim Qadir, a former Press Minister at the Bangladesh High Commission in London, has publicly criticized The Economist for its prejudiced reporting. The Economist reported, “Bangladesh’s supposedly secular government seems keener to denounce the dead than to catch their killers. The government accuses opposition parties of being behind the campaign of terror but offers little evidence to support this charge”. Qadir replies “The government has proven many times that all those who were arrested and were convicted, mostly belonged to the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami or its partner BNP of Khaleda Zia. The Economist looks at Khaleda Zia’s corruption cases as if it was Sheikh Hasina’s twisted plot for revenge. What an utterly non-journalistic observation”

Similarly, the UK’s Financial Times recently published an editorial discussing what it termed a “vendetta” led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, while also questioning the strength of Bangladesh’s growing economy. Such reporting can be seen as an effort to overshadow positive economic assessments of Bangladesh. The article alleges that remittances from Bangladeshis working overseas were slowing and impacting the economy of the country. In contrast, China’s Xinhua reports that Bangladesh has seen a robust rise in overseas employment.

Western media’s influence extends beyond mere economic aspects; they also focus on human rights and democracy. For instance, a recent New York Times editorial accused the Bangladeshi government of suppressing democracy by piling up cases against opposition parties as elections approach. Foreign Affairs also reported similar issues in a report headlined “Bangladesh’s Quiet Slide Into Autocracy The End of a Democratic Success Story”.

Conversely, the Economist Intelligence Group has reported that Bangladesh has improved in its Democracy Index rankings, revealing a glaring inconsistency in Western media reports.

Moreover, the BBC has reported on alleged human rights violations and judicial inefficiencies in Bangladesh, without acknowledging the country’s efforts to expedite trials through legislative measures such as the Speedy Trial Act of 2002, which was amended in 2019.

In the realm of foreign policy, certain narratives have been notably explosive. For example, a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine claimed that Sheikh Hasina’s electoral victories were the result of rigged elections, a claim that is both vague and unsubstantiated. The conduct of Ito Naoki, the outgoing Japanese Ambassador to Bangladesh, was criticized by the Bangladesh government for his alleged comments on election rigging, a clear breach of diplomatic protocol as outlined in the Vienna Convention.

Furthermore, while the European Union cited budgetary constraints as the reason for not sending electoral observers to Bangladesh, it is simultaneously considering passing a resolution to ensure free and fair elections in the country. This is a perplexing stance, given that Bangladesh and the EU are significant trade partners. Also, the fact they will not send observers but will sit on a fence to critique a nation that they know little about. 

To add another layer of bias, a report by The Economist, published shortly after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, focused on Bangladesh at a time when America’s role in pulling out of Afghanistan had to be questioned. Such actions by American media seem to solidify accusations of bias against Bangladesh.

The Western media often serves as an instrument of information or psychological warfare for the United States, especially when there is an opportunity to counter adversaries or expand American strategic interests. Despite numerous attempts to embolden Ukraine and show weaknesses in the Russian armed forces, even if it meant to prop up a make-believe rival for Putin in the form of Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russia has continued to levy heavy damage to Ukraine and its forces. This is something WeThePress has reported in the past, quite prophetically. 

As for Bangladesh, the growing trust deficit with the U.S., coupled with its close economic ties with China, seems to be inviting the coercive tactics of the United States, including narrative-building and the imposition of sanctions.

Bangladesh as a new geopolitical chessboard

The United States’ sphere of influence appears to be waning in the South Asian region, particularly following the situation in Afghanistan. Concurrently, New Delhi’s strategic autonomy and its growing rapport with Russia, along with China’s expanding maritime influence and aggressive posturing towards Taiwan, are complicating the United States’ strategic options in the area. While the formation of the Indo-Pacific Alliance (AUKUS) serves as a potential counterweight to China, it will take time to mature. In the interim, the U.S. needs a geopolitical arena in South Asia to tilt the current balance of power in its favor.

Historically, during the Cold War, Washington, D.C., utilized Dhaka as a geopolitical stage to implement the Truman Doctrine, aimed at containing the spread of Soviet Communism, and thereby challenging the robust strategic Indo-Soviet alliance. In the current landscape, it is conceivable that Washington’s strategic calculus may again involve Bangladesh, specifically targeting the Awami League for regime change. Such a shift would indeed provide the United States with an opportunity to influence the geopolitical balance in South Asia.

If the Awami League were to lose power, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia—a pro-Pakistan and China supporter—would likely assume the helm. This would pose some challenges for India, as a Zia regime would likely facilitate the rise of terrorism and anti-India activities. Intriguingly, a regime change would also offer the U.S. a new geopolitical stage for keeping China under surveillance, while nudging New Delhi into its containment strategy aimed at countering Russia’s growing influence in Central and Southern Asia. Although New Delhi’s well-crafted strategic autonomy would remain intact, a regime change in Bangladesh would undoubtedly place India in a precarious situation from a national security standpoint.

This is something that Sheikh Hasina is also wary of. Perhaps politics has come in the way of allowing the wheelchair-bound 78-year-old Khaleda Zia from going abroad for healthcare— due to the terms of her effective house arrest. Many have claimed this as an act of “political vengeance” even though Minister for Law Anisul Huq told reporters on Sunday they had rejected the plea, saying the executive order for her release from prison barred her from both taking part in politics and going abroad for medical care.

The existing executive order would have to be canceled before the government could reconsider a new directive allowing her to go abroad, meaning Zia would have to return to prison first and then apply, Huq said.

It is worth noting that a Zia-led regime could also pose challenges for the United States in terms of its relations with China. However, given the likely political openness under Zia’s leadership, these challenges would be less insurmountable than those encountered by the Awami League. Given these potential shifts, it is imperative for New Delhi to remain vigilant, monitoring developments closely to ensure that its traditional sphere of influence remains unaltered.

The thoughts and opinions expressed in this are those of the author and not necessarily WeThePress.


  • Srijan Sharma

    Srijan Sharma is a national security analyst. He is working as Research Assistant at the United Service Institution of India (USI)- India’s premier and oldest strategic and national security think tank. He has extensively written on matters of security and strategic affairs for various institutions, journals, and newspapers. Currently, he is a guest contributor to the JNU School of International Studies. He has also served as Defence Editor for Woodward journal.


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