At the end of 2021, when the Biden administration sanctioned Bangladesh's elite paramilitary unit RAB and seven current and former officials, citing human rights violations, it set the stage for what would be a pretty rocky relationship on certain fronts in the months to follow. However, it is important to note that the move did not prevent the relationship between the two countries from moving forward on a number of other fronts.
Just a year later, in December 2022, a senior US official called Bangladesh a "truly important strategic partner"-words the United States more commonly uses "to describe India", as noted by Michael Kugelman, the country's leading commentator on South Asian affairs.
Last weekend, Donald Lu, the deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, visited Dhaka. Lu has been involved in controversy in Pakistan, where Khan accused him-without evidence-of helping to orchestrate his ouster; and in Nepal, where he reportedly threatened to review US relations with the country if it did not ratify a Millennium Challenge Corporation infrastructure package. But he offered effusive praise of Bangladesh during his trip and pledged future cooperation on several fronts.
Lu committed the US administration's continuous support and cooperation for all future endeavours of Bangladesh and referred to the tremendous socio-economic development of the country since its independence. Both sides acknowledged the current trajectory of "excellent" bilateral relations and wished to explore new avenues and approaches to increase their economic cooperation and trade.
During his visit, Lu had separate meetings with Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Md Shahriar Alam and Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen. He also met separately with Law Minister Anisul Huq, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan and Prime Minister's Private Industry and Investment Adviser Salman Fazlur Rahman. During the meetings, they discussed the entire gamut of bilateral and political issues of mutual priorities between Bangladesh and the US.
They discussed a wide range of bilateral issues of mutual interests, including trade and investment, development cooperation, defence, security, how Bangladesh fits in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, labour, human rights and democracy.
Both sides also discussed the issue of forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals, including their repatriation and resettlement. Lu deeply appreciated Bangladesh's humanitarian gesture extended towards over a million Rohingyas, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He also lauded Bangladesh's success in vaccinating the "entire targeted population." And Bangladesh thanked the US for providing more than 100 million vaccines. The US expressed its interest to work collectively in case of any such future crisis.
The visit took place amid a flurry of contacts between officials of the countries. During her visit to Bangladesh last week, the senior director for South Asia in President Biden's National Security Council, Eileen Laubacher, may actually have offered more details on the relationship, when she noted as a large portion of the Indo-Pacific region, the Bay of Bengal contains vital shipping lanes and undersea cables that power the region's economies by moving food, fuel, goods, and data.
Ensuring these lanes remain free and open is imperative for the economic health and national security of the United States, Bangladesh, and all countries in the region, she said, while in Dhaka.
The Bay is also a vital ecosystem and a microcosm for many of the shared non-traditional security issues "we face across the globe, from stemming the effects of climate change, countering illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing that can devastate food sources, and combating the trafficking of people, arms, and narcotics" Laubacher said.
"These challenges cannot be overcome alone, they require cooperation," she said, adding that the United States and Bangladesh are working hard to address these challenges. "This is part of our shared vision for a free and open, connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient Indo-Pacific region," she said.
Bangladesh is facing various security risks, including human trafficking, drug smuggling and illegal fishing in the sea. The issue of US cooperation in tackling each of these was also discussed between the two sides during the visit of Lubacher. Dhaka also raised the issue of the Rohingyas being subjected to human trafficking by sea and getting involved in various types of drug smuggling.
The US can help with training or various security equipment to combat drug smuggling and provide ships to prevent illegal immigration by sea. Earlier, the US had given several fast-moving Shark speedboats to Bangladesh.
Lu, who arrived in Dhaka in the evening of January 14, directly went to the foreign minister's residence accompanied by US Ambassador Peter Haas. Key issues of bilateral relations were discussed during Lu's over one-hour stay at the official residence of the foreign minister, a diplomatic source told our sister newsagency UNB.
Sanctions not coming off yet
Prior to the visit, the biggest prospective prize for Bangladesh was viewed as some good news, including possibly the lifting of the sanctions imposed on RAB. Momen said Bangladesh would request the US to reconsider the sanctions and withdraw them considering the force's 'positive role in the country'.
Talking to reporters at the Foreign Ministry, Lu said they had "quite a good discussion" about the RAB. "If you have seen the statement this week by the Human Rights Watch, they recognized and we recognized tremendous progress in the area of reducing extrajudicial killings by the Rab," he said.
"We recognize this. This is amazing work. It shows that RAB is able to carry out its counterterrorism efforts and important functions while respecting human rights," he said.
Law Minister Anisul Haque said: "Donald Lu has said that they would have imposed more sanctions against RAB, but did not do so as Bangladesh's human rights situation has improved."
"We (the US) have seen RAB has done much good. We also understand the necessity of RAB. Since human rights situation has significantly improved, we have not imposed new sanctions. He (Lu) has told me so very clearly," the law minister added.
The law minister added that he did not ask Lu for lifting the existing sanctions against RAB because it must be done in accordance with legal procedures. "We are following those procedures," he said, adding: "We will take action against RAB members if they commit crimes."
Regarding the elite force's reforms, he said: "The reform process is ongoing. It takes time."
The US embassy had to issue a clarification however, after Lu left, on what exactly he had intimated to his counterparts, after the home minister was quoted as saying Lu had said the sanctions on RAB may be lifted 'soon'.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan had said that the US sanctions on the RAB would be lifted soon as the US assistant secretary Donald Lu expressed his satisfaction over the RAB's recent activities.
"I have discussed some issues with the US assistant secretary Donald Lu in a cordial atmosphere yesterday and informed him about dealing of terrorism, militancy and Islamist extremism," the home minister told reporters at his secretariat office, according to UNB.
Quoting the US assistant secretary, Asaduzzaman said that he (Donald Lu) assured Bangladesh that sanctions on RAB would be lifted soon through a process.
The embassy said in the statement two days later that Donald Lu, during his visit to Dhaka, did not give any timeframe for removal of sanctions on RAB. "During his meetings in Dhaka, assistant secretary Lu did not indicate a timeframe for the removal of RAB sanctions," the US embassy's spokesperson Jeff Ridenour said in the statement.
He said that assistant secretary Lu praised the Bangladesh government for the dramatic reduction last year in the number of allegations of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances by the RAB.
"We applaud the Government of Bangladesh's efforts in these continued reforms and encourage the Bangladesh government to conduct independent investigations of alleged extrajudicial killings."
No bad blood over Dec. 14
On the security of diplomats in light of the situation last December 14, when the US ambassador was put in a tight spot while visiting a human rights organisation working on enforced disappearances, Lu said they take the security of Bangladeshi diplomats in the US very seriously, and expect reciprocation.
"We spend a lot of time making sure that they are safe. We expect the same treatment from Bangladesh," he said, adding that he was given assurance from every meeting he attended during his Bangladesh visit.
He also said civil society voices in every country are crucial to upholding people's right to freedom and dignity. On the eve of his departure, the ambassador hosted a dinner and listened to the work of human rights advocates in Bangladesh.
After Lu left, Momen said Dhaka is happy with Ambassador Peter Haas because he is an expert on economic issues. "We are on a higher economic trajectory. Our main focus is on economic development. He (Peter) can help us."
He said Lu came to Bangladesh to "help improve the relationship" between the two countries.
"We had a very good discussion. We had a very positive and constructive discussion. They are very happy with us. We are also very happy," he told reporters, adding that President Biden wants to improve relations with Bangladesh in the next 50 years.
What about elections?
As mentioned earlier, Lu's reputation preceded him, and the role played by the US embassy in recent months had fed the expectation - together with Lu's reputation - that some major development may take place during his visit, although this was always unrealistic.
In the end, Lu's comments on the election extended only as far as hoping to see a process that was participatory, free of violence, and transparent. As for his takeaways, he could only come away with a second hand pledge on the part of the prime minister, with whom he didn't have any meetings, of having a fair election. The Bangladesh side kept insisting this would be in line with the constitution, i.e. under an Awami League-led government, in 2024.
"As Americans, we'll condemn violence where we see it -- if it's on the part of opposition or the part of government and security forces. At the same time, we are going to focus on whether there's intimidation during these elections, and if either side attempts to intimidate the voters or the leaders, we will say so publicly," he told reporters at the Foreign Ministry.
Apart from that, participatory elections, overall election process and Chittagong Hill Tracts issues were briefly discussed during a lunch at the Foreign Service Academy. Awami League International Affairs Secretary Dr. Shammi Ahmed, Prof. Imtiaz Ahmed, Dr. Lailufar Yasmin, Dr. Delwar Hossain and Chief Executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) Syeda Rizwana Hasan were some of the participants at this meeting.
"They (US side) said, we don't speak on behalf of any political party; we talk about certain processes and the rights of the people," said Syeda Rizwana while talking to the reporters after the meeting.
She said only participation of the BNP and other parties and the election process were discussed and there was no further discussion on any other aspects of the election scenario in Bangladesh. She mentioned that no BNP leader was present at the meeting. In fact, the BNP appeared completely shut out of Lu's 36-hour visit, something that became a major talking point in the aftermath of the trip.
Perhaps that is why the BNP was left singing a slightly different tune once Lu's visit wrapped up. Mirza Fakhrul, the party's secretary general, who actually checked into a hospital on January 15, addressed the US senior official's visit a few days later.
Regarding Lu's visit, he said democracy can never be established depending on foreign powers, and that it had always been restored here based on the people's power.
"This time too you have noticed that the people are fuming against this government, the people are protesting in a peaceful manner, ignoring all obstacles," he said. "So the US, China or Russia or India whatever they say, there is definitely a geo-political situation. But what we have noticed is that the US commitment to democracy has been expressed very strongly during the visit."
"They have made the commitments regarding a fair election, an acceptable election, a participatory election," he added. "Lu didn't say anything about lifting the sanctions on Rab. How the ministers could say the sanction will be lifted."
Fakhrul said, "These sanctions should be imposed on the government. All these wrongs have been committed on the instruction of the government....This is not a matter of whether the US imposes it or not. The people are imposing sanctions on the government now."
Asked whether Lu had any programme to meet with BNP, he said, "No, he did not have any programme with us. This time, however, they did not have any meeting with any political party."
According to many analysts, Lu's visit was expected to mount pressure on Bangladesh to allow more political space for the opposition and hold free and fair general elections, less than a year ahead of the polls scheduled for December 2023 or January 2024. They noted some of the difficult exchanges that had taken place between officials of the two countries, even if you leave aside the December 14 incident centring the ambassador in Dhaka.
Bangladesh authorities, on more than one occasion, had recently criticised the US for what they said amounted to backing the opposition parties, who have been in the streets since August holding protests seeking the ouster of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government.
Given that context, the trip can be said to have gone fairly smoothly for the government. Clearly, the US recognises that the Awami League retains a "significant level of support" and there is still a lot for the government to point to as a success story amid current challenges, according to Kugelman, director of the newly created South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
"We have to keep in mind that the ruling party Awami League has been in power since 2009 and it retains a significant level of support," he said in a Foreign Policy podcast recently, noting that the party has been able to bring success stories on the economic front and in countering terrorism.
Kugelman said that even if someone talks about all the bad things happening in Bangladesh, the bottom line is that there is still a lot for the government in Bangladesh which helps it sustain a significant level of success and there are people who see reasons to support it.
Responding to a question, Kugelman said Bangladesh has been more than a regional success story for its economic growth. "It's a global success story."
He described what had happened over the last few months, including consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war, high level of inflation, rising fuel cost and responses from the government like rationing electricity amid power shortages.
Kugelman said disruption in electricity supply was a major strain on the economy and sudden fall in economic productivity was an opportunity for the opposition to take to the street. Corruption, which he described as "one of the realities in Bangladesh", scandals in the financial sector could be another trigger for the opposition, he said, and an opportunity to draw more attention.
Kugelman said Bangladesh has demonstrated success in the area of counterterrorism and noted that there was a period when it was a significant problem in the country which had experienced a series of deadly attacks. He said the Awami League government took initiatives to crackdown really hard on the militants, and terrorism has not been a problem in Bangladesh over the last few years. "That's another success story."
Bangladesh has become a much bigger player on the global stage, including its role in peacekeeping operations and with its non-aligned and balanced foreign policy, he observed.
Responding to a question on "democratic backsliding" he said it is important to look back at the broader history of Bangladesh. In the past, he said, the BNP (when it was in power) was resorting to similar types of tactics and there were crackdowns as well as reports of enforced disappearances. Kugelman said many things that are happening today were also happening when BNP was in power, and generally brushed aside most of the concerns surrounding the country as typical of hybrid democracies.
And that may well be the view from Washington at the moment.
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