As far as I know, most Bangladeshi leaders were not particularly upset that their country was not invited to the Democracy Summit hosted by US President Joe Biden the last week of December. But they were outraged by the sanctions imposed by the United States, just after this summit, on seven of the leaders of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the Bangladeshi version of an elite paramilitary police force responsible for numerous disappearances and/or dead. of dissidents and government opponents over the past decade or more. RAB predations have been the subject of numerous reports by international human rights agencies such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as annually in the US State Department’s annual report on human rights. rights in Bangladesh.
Although these various reports are probably not read by the majority of the Bangladeshi population, they circulate widely in the intellectual community and the media. There is no secret to the RAB’s long history of human rights abuses. Yes, there is some ambiguity about the support the RAB received from the United States, some other Western governments, as well as India, when it was established in 2004 as a counter-terrorism force. Terrorism in South Asia was high on the list of issues of concern to the West. In other parts of the region, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, terrorism is fueling insurgencies that threaten political and social stability. But that was short-lived in Bangladesh. While some argue that the RAB was then necessary, looking back at the threat seems illusory; but he was certainly attractive to Western allies.
A retrospective look at history from another angle, however, sheds a completely different light on the evolution of the RAB. Most readers are familiar with the story of Bangladesh’s slow but inexorable politically clear drift towards authoritarianism. I and others have often described it in these pages. From 2008, when the Awami League (AL) was elected with a large majority, after the military interregnum of 2007-2008 (a return to democracy, many of us thought), the AL followed a course careful and cautious but infallible of democracy. During this first term, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s main objective was to get rid of the Interim Amendment (which she had requested a decade earlier), which would have ensured reasonably free and fair elections. When the opposition boycotted the next election due to the removal of this amendment, the AL, with no restrictions on cheating, marched to an even greater victory. And the last election was a farce that made Bangladesh a de facto a one-party state, a state that not only seemed to identify with the authoritarians, but resembled them in almost every way, including its repression of opponents, the media, and any sign of dissent.
The RAB has become the main muscle of an authoritarian state in all respects except its self-identification.
This is clearly why the RAB has been useful to the government since 2008, despite the opprobrium it brought to Bangladesh from human rights agencies and advocates. Established as an anti-terrorist organization, unofficially authorized to use the violent tactics of terrorism against putative terrorists, it has instead become a violent terrorist unit against the citizens of Bangladesh who are branded as opponents of the government and therefore described as “terrorists”. The RAB has become the main muscle of an authoritarian state in all respects except its self-identification.
And, of course, the outside world with which Bangladesh has dealt has also changed drastically. I wasn’t personally involved, of course, but I guess the sequence of US involvement looked like this: the US, which had focused on terrorism when the RAB was created, the argued from the beginning against critics like human rights agencies, because he thought the RAB was useful as a counter-terrorism tool, then set about reforming it to explain to Congress why he was defending it always (numerous “training” programs to which its leaders obviously only gave a nod), to tough diplomatic approaches and threats, but no action to curb it from the many excesses, to the nonchalance (Trump administration).
Biden said early in his administration that he would put democracy and human rights at the center of his foreign policy. The administration took a while to get started. The long wait may have been the terrible shape in which Trump left the State Department. And the Biden administration’s continued difficulty getting high-level (political) nominations confirmed due to Republican tactics in the Senate. Although things seem to have sped up somewhat, there are still a large number of officers, mostly professional diplomats, awaiting confirmation from the ambassador’s deputy secretary. The new ambassador to Bangladesh has just been confirmed and will take office next month. And, by the way, a new ambassador to Pakistan has finally been appointed, but not yet confirmed. I believe there hasn’t been a regular (appointed and confirmed) Ambassador to Pakistan since 2018. This is how the Trump administration has messed things up at the State Department.
As far as Bangladesh is concerned, I suppose readers are interested in two issues: first, these sanctions, and possibly others (this may not be finished yet, as I will explain below ), will they make a difference as to whether Bangladesh pursues its political orientation towards party-authoritarianism; and second, will it turn US-Bangladesh relations into a hostile one? I suspect the answer to both questions is, not really.
I think Sheikh Hasina is way too close to his life goal – which has seemed to me for some years now to be the perpetual rule of Bangladesh by the family of the ‘Father of the Nation’. Every decision she has made along the way from 2008 until now points to this obsession, from the deification of Mujib, to the eventual destruction of the main opposition party, to the establishment by different means of Mujib. of a one-party state. This does not mean that I think Bangladesh will forever remain an autocracy under her and her family. I suspect, however, that she has succeeded in locking down the nation so successfully that fear reigns among potential rivals for power, and the instruments of repression are so effective that no opposition can form while it is still in power. But whether this effective mechanism of repression will hold when she leaves the scene is another question altogether. I doubt he can, as he seems to have no ideology other than self-glorification, which is a self-destructive ideology once the sole ideologue is gone.
And will the US-Bangladesh relationship degenerate into serious hostility? In this case, hostility does not mean violence, because the United States does not care enough about Bangladesh to resort to violence, even though Sheikh has sold his country’s soul to China. But she wouldn’t, because she wants Chinese money (don’t everyone?), but not enough to undermine her own obsession with perpetual family rule. For the United States, the question is how to be aggressive enough to keep certain democratic avenues open for the future and save as many lives as possible for a viable opposition when the time comes to make it relevant for the future of the country. .
One document that gives me an idea of future US policy strategy is a pretty brilliant article, written for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by my friend Ali Riaz, titled “How Bangladesh’s Digital Security Law Creates a Culture of fear”. I’m pulling in this paragraph from Ali’s article. The law is relatively new, having brought together by the government in 2018 several earlier acts that were already draconian in their censorship of dissent or criticism of the government. So it turned out to limit speech even more than previous laws had by “giving law enforcement the power to arrest anyone, search any premises and seize any any equipment without a warrant, requiring only suspicion that a crime had been committed using social media”. media.” In addition, “it allows the government to order the removal and blocking [of] any information or data on the Internet that it deems necessary, thereby providing ample opportunity to silence those who criticize its policies or data on human rights abuses. In the three years since its enactment, more than 1,500 cases have been filed under this law. More than 25% of them concerned journalists; 30 percent were politicians (clearly from the opposition). Of course, there are many more that are undocumented.
The United States has a serious interest in keeping Bangladesh out of the clutches of China, which must temper its enthusiasm for its renewed promotion of democracy there, but I think that will be the other main, if not the main point at ‘agenda.