As the December 30 general election in Bangladesh is getting nearer, international media has been regularly publishing disturbing news about pre-polls violence throughout the country.
Bangladesh government has come under international criticism for delaying in granting accreditation to international election observers. The US State Department on December 21 expressed “disappointment” over Bangladesh government’s “inability” to grant credentials and issue visas for monitors from Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL).
In response to the statement of the US State Department, Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry in a statement said it was “disheartened” at the US statement.
Commenting on this situation, Ali Riaz, a political science professor with Illinois State University told Al Jazeera, “I will not be surprised if it is read by the US policymakers, including the Congress, as an unwillingness of the Bangladeshi government to ensure a credible and acceptable election.”
On the overall pre-election situation in Bangladesh, Ali Riaz said, “Add this to the absence of a level playing field, large-scale arrests of opposition candidates and activists, the impunity enjoyed by the ruling party activists in perpetrating violence, the credibility and integrity of the election is increasingly becoming questionable.”
Immediately after the publication of the report, UK’s Ealing Central and Acton’s Labour MP Rupa Huq (email: [email protected]) in a tweet message said, “Getting lots of notifications about violence suffered by opposition contesting elections in Bangladesh in 5 days. Whilst I’ve never been MP for the entire diaspora it’s sure a sad state of affairs when Trump govt condemns non granting of observers visas to monitor but U.K silent.”
Earlier, on December 21, 2018 at 3:21 PM, Robert Palladino, Deputy Spokesperson of the State Department in a tweet message said, “U.S. is disappointed by Government of #Bangladesh’s inability to grant credentials & issue visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission to the majority of international election monitors from @ANFREL, which U.S. funded through @NDI.”
In response to it, Sajeeb Wazed, IT-affairs adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on December 22 said, “@ANFREL Chairman former member of #Bangladesh opposition. Election observers have to be neutral cannot be affiliated. Astounding @StateDept & @NDI picked obviously based [biased] observers.”
It should be mentioned here that ANFREL chairman is Koul Panha is a Cambodian national and has no affiliation with any of the political parties in Bangladesh.
While Bangladesh and United States have already exchanged unpleasant words centering the foreign observer issue, political analysts in Dhaka believe, Bangladesh may not pay much heed to what the US policymakers say about the upcoming general election as for many years, Washington’s influence in South Asia has been greatly minimized. Moreover, the ruling party in Bangladesh enjoys strong support from India, which has already been proved as extremely effective. It was India that has played crucial role in 2014 in helping the ruling Awami League in ignoring reservations expressed by some Western nations. At that time, China and Russia also stood in support of Awami League.
Observers say, ruling Awami League should move ahead with its own strategies in winning the December 30 general election without much bothering about the possible reaction from the United Nations and the West.
But policymakers in the US are differing to the opinion of the Bangladeshi observers saying Bangladesh government may not succeed in holding another questioned election. They said the controversy centering the foreign observers may complicate further.
Meanwhile, there are indications from sources in the Capitol about “certain measures” either from the State Department or from the White House prior to the December 30 election in Bangladesh. “There will be certainly some message from the State Department or the White House about the current situation in Bangladesh,” the sources added.
US policymakers are already scrutinizing several documents regarding “persecution” of opposition candidates and their supporters as well as “abuse of power” by the members of the law enforcing agencies. They also are scrutinizing details about the judiciaries, Election Commission and law enforcing agencies in Bangladesh.
According to sources, lobbyists appointed by Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JIB) are actively pursuing the US policymakers in taking some “tough” measures immediately to “compel Bangladesh authorities” in ensuring a free and fair election.
It may be mentioned here that, Bangladesh exports goods worth billions of dollars to the United States, European Union and Britain.
Earlier, a House Resolution – HR 1169, introduced by William R. Keating, from the Democratic Party, was unanimously passed on December 12, 2018 reaffirming the commitment of the United States to promote free, fair, transparent and credible elections in Bangladesh.
In the resolution it is said:
“Whereas Bangladesh achieved independence in 1971 and established a secular democratic state, which is home to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and atheists;
“Whereas Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country with nearly 160,000,000 people;
“Whereas according to the United States Agency for International Development maternal and child mortality rates in Bangladesh have declined by more than 60 percent, production of rice has tripled, and growth in gross domestic product has averaged more than 6 percent annually for over a decade;
“Whereas Bangladesh has fulfilled the criteria to initiate graduation from the United Nations “Least Developed Country” status and could become a middle-income country within the next 3 years;
“Whereas in 2017, the generous people of Bangladesh welcomed more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees following the Burmese military and security force’s crimes against humanity and genocide against the Rohingya in Northern Rakhine State;
“Whereas in recent years, Bangladesh’s democratic system has faced challenges, including political violence, environmental strain, Islamist militancy, a refugee crisis, and challenges to freedom of speech and press;
Whereas free, fair, transparent, and credible elections are the cornerstone of every democracy;
“Whereas legitimate elections that respect fundamental freedoms are characterized by transparency, accountability, security, and accessibility for all voters;
“Whereas strong democracies worldwide make for better trading partners, provide new market opportunities, improve global health outcomes, and promote economic freedom and regional security;
“Whereas attacks on democracy and democratic institutions undermine the sacrifices of the Bangladeshi people and the country’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law;
“Whereas one of Bangladesh’s main political parties boycotted the 2014 general election due to concerns about the impartiality of the electoral process;
“Whereas Bangladesh is scheduled to hold general elections on December 30, 2018;
“Whereas democratic stability, regional security, and economic prosperity in Bangladesh and South Asia are vital to the national security interests of the United States;
“Whereas the United States-Bangladesh relationship is built on a foundation of shared values and cooperation on issues including economic growth and development, labor rights, peacekeeping, counter terrorism, and the environment and climate;
“Whereas the United States should more actively engage with the Government of Bangladesh with respect to their shared interests in safeguarding human rights, religious freedom, and secular democracy in Bangladesh, while preventing the growth of religious extremism and militancy; and
“Whereas repeated attacks on religious minorities, expanding religious intolerance, and growing destabilization caused by radical groups undermine United States economic and strategic interests in Bangladesh: Now, therefore, be it
“Resolved, That the House of Representatives-
“(1) reaffirms the commitment of the United States to promote free, fair, transparent and credible elections in Bangladesh;
“(2) calls on the Government of Bangladesh to respect the freedom of speech and of the press and to heed the Bangladesh Election Commission’s request to ensure security for minorities and maintain communal harmony for a peaceful election;
“(3) urges political leaders and judicial authorities in Bangladesh to respect the will of voters and ensure that all Bangladeshis will be able to participate freely in the upcoming elections, and that the elections will be impartial and inclusive; and
“(4) commends the government and people of Bangladesh for their generosity in hosting Rohingya refugees despite the hardships associated with responding to this man-made humanitarian disaster created by the Burmese military and security force’s crimes against humanity and genocide against the Rohingya in Northern Rakhine State.”
Congressman William R. Keating is a senior member of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee.