A bipartisan group of six influential US Congressmen has voiced concern over the status of democracy in Bangladesh and called upon the Trump administration to address “threats to democracy” in the country.
In a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday, the members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee also highlighted reports of election fraud, rigging and voter suppression over the December 30 polls and urged the Department of State to “take action”.
The allegations of widespread rigging and voter suppression must be taken seriously, says a US Congress press release having a copy of the letter.
The group of the six Congressmen is led by Eliot Engel. US House Representative Michael T McCaul, Ranking Member Brad Sherman, Chairman of the Asia and Pacific Subcommittee Ted Yoho, Ranking Member of the Asia and Pacific Subcommittee Andy Levin and Ann Wagner co-signed the letter.
"We are gravely concerned by the negative trajectory of democracy in Bangladesh and request an outline on how the Department intends to respond to this trend, particularly in light of the serious allegations that the outcome of the December 2018 elections lacked credibility," the US lawmakers said in the letter.
Asserting that supporting democracy, rule of law, and human rights in the Indo-Pacific region is critical to advancing US interests, the Congressmen said the reports of widespread irregularities in Bangladesh's recent elections seriously threaten those important interests.
In another development, a top Pentagon commander also expressed concern over the December 30 polls, saying that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina “is trying to achieve a de-facto one-party rule”.
US Navy Commander and Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Philip S Davidson expressed the concerns in his deposition to the Senate's Armed Services Committee during a Congressional hearing on Tuesday.
“Bangladesh's December 30 elections point to concerning trend of consolidation of power by the ruling Awami League and raise fears that PM Hasina is aiming to achieve a de facto one-party state,” he told the Senate's Armed Services Committee in his prepared remarks.
“Bangladesh is an important security partner with strong potential to enhance regional stability and advance US interests in South Asia on counter-terrorism, Muslim outreach, countering violent extremism, supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and supporting United Nations Peacekeeping Operations,” he said.
The top US commander also said the humanitarian crisis caused by the presence of more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Burma (Myanmar) in Bangladesh has strained the Government of Bangladesh.
“Military-to-military engagement with Bangladesh fits into a broader strategy and commitment to uphold an international, rules-based order in the vital Indo-Pacific region and contributes to building a regional security framework,” he added.
Philip Davidson's deposition was followed hours later by the bipartisan group of the six Congressmen, led by Eliot Engel, who chairs the powerful Foreign Affairs Committee of the House, writing to Mike Pompeo seeking "a timely response" to protect democracy in Bangladesh.
Observing that Bangladesh has a strong and proud democratic tradition, the lawmakers said they are particularly dismayed that the campaign leading up to the election was marred by violence, mass arrests, and a crackdown on free speech.
“The Awami League claimed 96 percent of the seats contested -- more than the party and its allies won in 2014, when a key opposition party boycotted the general election and the Awami League ran unopposed in more than half of the seats contested,” the letter read.
According to press accounts, when polls across the country officially opened, reporters found that some ballot boxes looked suspiciously full. There are reports that AL activists barred some people from voting, claiming that the polling stations were closed for lunch or had run out of ballots, it said.
“Some voters were even told their votes had already been cast. To make matters worse, the Government of Bangladesh failed to grant credentials and issue visas to most international election monitors, including those funded by the United States.”
There will be a series of elections taking place this year in Asia, including in Afghanistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. It is crucial that the US demonstrate its continued commitment to and respect for democratic institutions, beginning with Bangladesh, the Congressmen added in the letter.