US sends ‘poor democracy’ message to Dhaka by keeping it out of Biden meet

The exclusion comes within a week of a top US diplomat praising Bangladesh for a whole host of achievements

Hasina Modi
The prospect of a regime change in Dhaka, with parliament polls barely two years away, is not something Delhi will be happy with

The US invitation to Taiwan at President Joe Biden’s ’Summit for Democracy’ has hogged the limelight because China has protested furiously and asked Washington to stick to “One China” policy and not “play with fire” . China is doubly upset because, along with Russia and Turkey, it is not among the invitees. But the invitee list for the summit has also generated controversy in South Asia, as Pakistan has been invited but not Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. India and Nepal have been invited.

The virtual event will be held on December 9 and 10, with the aim of “helping stop democratic backsliding and the erosion of rights and freedoms worldwide.”

While Afghanistan’s exclusion was expected, Pakistan’s inclusion and Bangladesh’s exclusion have surprised many. Not the least because there may be some pointers in Bangladesh’s exclusion for the possible direction of future US policy in South Asia.

The exclusion comes within a week of a top US diplomat praising Bangladesh for a whole host of achievements.

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Ambassador Kelly Keiderling was on record recently for suggesting that “the US now has a modern idea of Bangladesh being a vibrant economy and a major contributor to world security in terms of UN peacekeeping.”

“Bangladesh keeps watch on the international transnational crimes, along with human and drug trafficking along the Indian Ocean rim. These are also elements of global security.”

Keiderling is South and Central Asian affairs bureau deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy at the State Department.

Also read: Afghanistan could have taken B’desh route to prosperity; US didn’t allow it

While Keiderling was praising Bangladesh and the BBC was branding PM Sheikh Hasina as a top influencer as the “voice of the Vulnerable” in the recent COP26 Climate Change Summit, US diplomats were publicly chiding Pakistan as a “county of particular concern” on grounds of religious freedom and suggesting more penalties and sanctions were possible.

During a closed-door briefing to lawmakers on national security issues held last week, Pakistani policymakers reportedly rang alarm bells that the US could be on the verge of imposing more stringent measures if it perceives China is dominating Islamabad’s foreign policy calculus in the post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

So, Bangladesh’s exclusion from the Democracy Summit comes as a shock for both Dhaka and Delhi, because it means the US now officially considers Bangladesh at par with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the UAE, all allies of the US but which Washington considers as countries “woefully lacking in democracy” and have thus been excluded from the list of invitees to the Democracy Summit.

For Bangladesh, now celebrating its Golden Jubilee of Independence from Pakistan and surging ahead of it in all markers of human and economic development, it is downright humiliating to be ranked as “less democratic” than Pakistan.

Also read: Sheikh Hasina: Gritty stateswoman who steered Bangladesh to prosperity is 75

Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League, in power since Jan 2009, has long complained of and worried about the involvement of US agencies in covert regime change operations, highlighting lack of democracy and human rights as issues to pull up the government of Sheikh Hasina.

One former US ambassador Dan Mozena was even accused by regional columnists of “behaving like an Opposition politician” before the 2014 parliament polls when the Islamist opposition had unleashed violent street agitation and boycotted the elections on grounds they were likely to be rigged. India, China and Russia strongly backed Hasina’s return to power with Delhi saying the polls were “constitutionally necessary”.

Since the Awami League had swept the Dec 2008 polls in an election that everybody including the Bangladesh opposition said was fair, the ruling party had a point when it argued that it was the opposition BNP and Jamaat e Islami which had unleashed huge violence to enforce a poll boycott and therefore its allegation of tainted polls were misplaced. The opposition wanted a return to the caretaker system which the Awami League had voted out with its huge parliamentary majority on grounds of gross misuse in 2007 when the army backed caretaker, instead of organising an election soon enough as per its constitutional mandate, hung on to power for two years with a pseudo reformist agenda. During this violent period, which also witnessed the upsurge of radical Islamist violence by the Hifazat e Islam in 2013, the US ambassador Dan Mozena was brazenly playing to the opposition agenda, pitching for restoration of democracy rather than calling for an end to the deadly opposition street violence and bus bombings.

The Awami League is historically suspicious of the US, not only for Nixon’s full-throated support to the bloodthirsty Yahya Khan military regime by sending a naval task force to the Bay of Bengal to stop the fall of Dhaka, but also because there is now enough evidence of CIA’s involvement in the August 1975 coup that killed almost the entire family of the country’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. American journalist Lawrence Lifschultz (Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution) and Sukhranjan Dasgupta (Midnight Massacre) have detailed the CIA’s role in the bloody coup that paved the way for Pakistan type military rule in the newly independent nation.

Two years ago, Bangladesh intelligence claimed it had evidence of a detailed regime change operation unleashed by a Major Power (read US) on lines of the 2013 Euromaidan operations in Ukraine, using extensive use of social media to spread labour, student and public unrest, capitalizing on the early administrative confusing over how to the handle the COVID-19 outbreak. The exclusion of Bangladesh from the Biden administration’s Democracy Summit may now convince the Hasina government that Washington might still be looking for regime change. If that is true, it raises many issues for Delhi.

Delhi sees Hasina as an ally and her government as its “best friend ” in South Asia. The prospect of a regime change in Dhaka, with parliament polls barely two years away, is not something Delhi will be happy with. But unlike in 1971 when Indira Gandhi stood up to US threats with Russian support, to send her troops to liberate Bangladesh, with support from the Bengali guerrilla force Mukti Bahini, Washington is now a key strategic partner, with Delhi having signed all four foundational agreements to formalise the partnership.

Also read: India should keep Bangladesh close for fruition of Act East vision

But after being left in the lurch by the sudden US military pull-out from Afghanistan, Delhi seems to be seeking alternatives, one of them being strongly connecting to old friend Russia. President Vladimir Putin will be in Delhi just four days before Biden’s summit and India seems to be working more closely with Russia and Iran on its Afghan response ever since the last US soldier left Kabul. India simply cannot afford a debacle in Bangladesh after the one in Afghanistan. Like in 1971, it needs to stand up to the US if Washington was up to its old bag of tricks in Bangladesh. The last thing India would like to see is a trusted ally rushing to China for help to keep the US out.

(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC and Reuters Correspondent and author)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)

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