Consequences of Bungled Diplomacy

Zillur Rahman | 23 November 2023
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IT WAS supposed to be friendship towards all and malice towards none. But the current government’s attitude towards the United States has been far from friendly. The government has put on its blinders and is dead set on holding the upcoming elections by hook or crook. In the process, they seem perfectly fine, bungling diplomatic relations with almost all western development partners. The alarm bells are already tolling. The recent violent crackdown on the opposition by law enforcement, the treatment of garment workers, and the seemingly one-sided election that the government is planning to hold have painted the government in a very negative light abroad.

The US secretary of state, Antony J Blinken, has mentioned Bangladesh by name when speaking about taking action against those who oppress worker rights. Members of the US Congress continue to push for taking action against Bangladesh’s government in a bipartisan manner. Bangladesh has yet to be invited once to the new US-led democracy summit, while western media has universally painted the ruling party as an authoritarian regime. The first strike was the sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion. The second strike was the US visa restrictions. Now, I fear what will come next.

In March of this year, Bangladesh withdrew additional guards assigned to envoys of six countries — Australia, China, India, Saudi Arabia, the United States and the United Kingdom — alleging a shortage of police personnel. This incident took place right after the encounter that Peter Haas, the US ambassador, faced when he visited Dhaka’s Shaheenbagh area last December to speak with families of victims of enforced disappearances.

Meanwhile, overzealous ruling party goons have deemed it fit to lob crude verbal and social media attacks on the US, directing much of their rage at Peter Haas. Mujibul Haque Chowdhury, chairman of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League unit in a Chittagong subdivision, was seen hurling threats and obscenities at the American ambassador at a political gathering on November 6 in a video clip that went viral on social media last week.

Faridul Alam, senior vice president of Cox’s Bazar’s Maheskhali Awami League, delivered a speech in which he threatened to kill US ambassador Peter Haas. The video footage of his statement in this regard was widely distributed on social media. These kinds of hostile and dangerous rhetoric are becoming more and more common among AL leaders.

On November 8, addressing a BCL rally on the Dhaka University campus, the general secretary of the Bangladesh Chhatra League, Sheikh Wali Asif Enan, said, ‘I will ask America to take back your “Haas”. You take the “duck” back. We don’t want these ducks in Bangladesh. We slaughtered a lot of ducks and ate them. Even “swans” are caught and eaten by the Bangladeshi people.’

AHM Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik, a retired Supreme Court judge and ruling party activist, stated on a television appearance that the US ambassador should remain silent about political topics or leave the country. ‘Our suggestion is to ignore the US administration and expel its envoy who is talking about the [electoral process],’ he said, accusing the ambassador of violating diplomatic conventions.

Hasanul Haq Inu, MP, a former minister and AL political supporter, asked for Haas to be removed from Bangladesh. US president ‘Joe Biden’s representative Peter Haas, who is the “newly appointed adviser of the BNP,” is acting in support of the BNP by supporting the killing of a policeman,’ Inu stated in a statement. ‘Peter Haas is a BNP supporter and the police officer’s murderer.’ ‘He does not deserve to be the ambassador of the friendly nation of America,’ Inu stated, while urging the Bangladesh government to declare Peter Haas persona non grata for engaging in undiplomatic activities.

Regarding this kind of alarming behaviour, the US ambassador has reached out to the government several times. US state department spokesperson Matthew Miller said that ‘the safety and security of our diplomats overseas is, of course, our top priority. We take any threats against them very seriously. Violence or threats of violence directed at our diplomatic personnel is unacceptable. We have repeatedly raised our concerns about the threatening rhetoric directed at ambassador Haas with the Bangladeshi government. I would remind them that they have an obligation under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to ensure the safety and security of US diplomatic missions and personnel. And we expect them to act on those obligations.’

In response to charges that the United States is interfering and favouring the opposition, US department of state spokespeople have repeatedly stated that Washington does not promote any specific party and that all parties in Bangladesh have voiced a wish for a free and peaceful election. According to them, the visa restriction policy supports this objective and the desire of the people of Bangladesh to choose their leaders freely, and it applies equally to any individual undermining the democratic process in Bangladesh.

The truth of the matter is that the government has always relied on the existing anti-American sentiment among the Muslim-majority population of Bangladesh to energise its political bloc right before the elections. As a consequence, we see incidents like the vehicle of then-ambassador Marcia Bernicat being attacked in Dhaka’s Mohammadpur in 2018 by a local unit of the ruling party.

However, it seems that the current regime is not aware that the tides have shifted. The population of Bangladesh is no longer as anti-American as it was during the war in the Middle East. The crucial vaccine donations during the pandemic, the support and aid being poured into Bangladesh to handle the Rohingya refugee crisis, as well as the US holding its place as the number one location for higher education abroad — all these factors and more have resulted in a surge of popularity of the US in the national psyche. An example of this is clear in the people’s reactions to the recent escalation in Palestine. The people have unanimously raised their voices against Israel, as expected. However, criticism against the US in this matter is almost non-existent, even among Islamic political entities.

The government also seems quite oblivious to the fact that the United States holds enormous sway over Bangladesh’s relationship with the UN, the UK, Canada, Australia and other important western development partners. Such blatant antagonism is going to undermine the soft power that Bangladesh has built up over time. Already, we are seeing EU nations and other western nations applying pressure on Bangladesh relating to human rights records.

When the leadership from the very top is espousing anti-American sentiments in parliament, it is only natural that the sentiment will be carried down to grass-roots political activists. But what may have worked before might just be the undoing of the ruling party in the coming days. All of this is, of course, due to the critical lack of attention from the government in strengthening democratic institutions in Bangladesh.

The ruling party has been so obsessed with development that it has forgotten all other nation-building pillars. Now, all these factors are popping up one by one. The party might think that everything will be fine if they can just hold on and get the election over with. I fear that they are not even aware of the consequences they might face if they refuse to heed the demands of the people.

Zillur Rahman is the executive director of the Centre for Governance Studies and a television talk show host.

This article was originally published on Newage.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.