Column by Mahfuz Anam: Free and fair elections for our sake, not because of US visa policy
Honestly, I find the latest visa policy of the United States for Bangladesh to be insulting. Free and fair elections are something we should ensure from our own sense of self-respect. Unfortunately, the truth is we have not done so on the past two occasions.
Now we have been bracketed with Nigeria – a perennially corrupt country whose elite have syphoned off billions for decades, neglecting their poor, which can be termed as "economic crimes against humanity" (a section of our elites have started doing so, too). The country is ethnically in shambles, with the terrorist group Boko Haram perpetrating the most heinous of crimes for years.
On the contrary, we nipped terrorism in the bud after the Holey Artisan tragedy. Our record in fighting poverty has opened many of our critics' eyes, and even US President Joe Biden has termed our economic progress exemplary.
So why is the US, through its visa policy, taking the steps that they are? If we had remained true to the values of our Liberation War – of strengthening democracy, upholding the rights of all, and ensuring good governance – we would not have to deal with such policies.
The truth is, we have made a shambles of our elections and have weakened most of the accountability structures like the parliament, statutory bodies, legal infrastructure, etc. To ensure loyalty, we have filled vital institutions with political sycophants, and a section of the administration with careerists to whom competence is never a factor and integrity is only a feature of the fools. We have practically handed over the business world to loan defaulters, money launderers, and opportunists. Only deliberate and criminal neglect could have permitted a select few to loot our banks as they have. There are some honourable exceptions, and it is they who have held up our economy.
We made a mockery of democracy by concentrating all powers in the hands of the government, the ruling party and their supporters. Did we not play havoc with our electoral system through 153 "uncontested" MPs in 2014, and with the ballot box stuffing the night before polling in 2018? Just as I write, a law is being proposed to curtail the powers of the Election Commission. This is all happening while we promise our people and the world that we are committed to free and fair polls. Today, if the international community, at the moment led by the US, casts serious doubt about our election process, can we really blame them? Can we deny that a widespread belief exists among the general public that, without pressure, the upcoming election will be a repeat of what we saw in the last two instances?
Only last year, we celebrated 50 years of Bangladesh-US diplomatic relations with President Biden writing a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, stating, "I am confident our partnership will continue to flourish for the next 50 years and beyond," adding that the drive, resourcefulness, and innovations of Bangladeshis – rebuilding after the 1971 war and now forging a path of economic growth and development – serve as a model for the rest of the world.
The truth is, we have made a shambles of our elections and have weakened most of the accountability structures like the parliament, statutory bodies, legal infrastructure, etc. To ensure loyalty, we have filled vital institutions with political sycophants, and a section of the administration with careerists to whom competence is never a factor and integrity is only a feature of the fools.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken commended Bangladesh on the occasion for "showing extraordinary humanity" by sheltering one million Rohingya. He also praised Bangladesh for being one of the strongest supporters of UN peacekeeping role, for promoting climate change issues and effectively fighting the pandemic in which the US donated 115 million vaccine doses and $131 million in assistance. The US remains our biggest destination for RMG exports.
What happened that within a year our bilateral relations came to such a pass that our prime minister did not shy away from stating in an interview with BBC in London on May 16, when asked why the US had imposed sanctions, "I don't know, maybe they don't want me to continue – or the progress we are making in Bangladesh, they cannot accept it. This is my feeling."
Diplomatic niceties aside, clouds have been gathering over our bilateral relations for a while. Over the years, through its annual State Department reports on human rights, the US has been indicating its rising unease with the rights conditions in Bangladesh. The situation came to a head with the issue of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings that have been going on unabated, in spite of protests by the public and vehement criticism in the independent media.
Disappearances were turned into a mockery with ministers making ridiculous public statements, like those who disappeared had actually "run away" from home or were among those "drowned in the Mediterranean Sea" while trying to illegally go to Europe. No attention was paid to the claim of the families that law enforcement officials in plain clothes were seen on the scene.
The US imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) and some of its serving and former officials, and like magic, such killings almost totally stopped. Instead of taking credit for this effective remedial action, the authorities went on denying any wrongdoing and praising the sanctioned officials and promoting them as models of law enforcement.
The exclusion of Bangladesh from the Democracy Summit hosted by Washington in 2021, in which 110 countries including Pakistan were invited, was a clear indication that something was deeply wrong in our understanding of each other. Inexplicably, when the exclusion was repeated in the second biannual gathering in 2023, we carried on as usual.
The latest blow was a letter written by six US congressmen to President Biden urging him to take "urgent action to stop human rights abuses by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina… and to give the people of Bangladesh the best possible chance for free and fair parliamentary elections to be scheduled this fall." One action that was suggested was extremely disconcerting.
The letter contains serious allegations of abuse, torture, extrajudicial killings, jailing of journalists, disappearance of opponents, and assault or killing of peaceful demonstrators, etc., many of which are grounded on facts.
But many are not. The allegations that "Since Sheikh Hasina's rise to power, the Hindu population has been halved. Looting and burning of households, destruction of temples and religious idols, murder, rape, and forced religious conversions are causing Hindus to flee Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina's government has also persecuted Bangladesh's minority Christian population – burning and looting places of worship, jailing pastors, and breaking up families when religious conversions occur" are simply not true. In no way can the government be accused of committing these "crimes." We urge the authors of the letters to acknowledge the factual errors and correct them.
However, the main question raised by the US visa policy remains on hand – making the upcoming general election free and fair, which is the universal demand of our people.
Regardless of what the world may or may not say, it is our own sacred duty to hold free and fair elections. This we must do for our own sake, for our people, and for our future. Let us admit that we made a farce of the process earlier, and our people will not accept a repeat of the past. We must do everything to correct our past mistakes. Let us also understand that we live in a globalised world where interdependencies rule, and finer economic calibrations must make space for other considerations.
We must also internalise the meaning of our own slogan "Digital Bangladesh." As we digitise, the world does too, and often much faster. This means that what we do is known to the world instantly. Just as a slight tremor in some remote corner of the world is known within a second, the slightest vote-rigging in some remote part of Bangladesh, too, becomes global knowledge in no time. Yes, we can shut down social and other media, but information will flow regardless, and all our claims will be tested against facts and our credibility will stand or fall against what that comparison brings out.
So we cannot hide, and we only fool ourselves by thinking that we can. We must truly and sincerely go for free and fair elections. Our future depends on it. We still have time to do so.
Mahfuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star.