By Ashis Biswas
It’s official. In Bangladesh, China backs the ruling Awami League (AL) firmly Western countries, led by the US and the EU, are becoming increasingly more supportive of the main opposition outfit, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Ironically, it was during the BNP’s tenure in 1991 followed by another 5 year term in 2001, that Sino-Bangladesh relations began to flourish. The AL leadership had never forgotten Beijing’s delay in recognising Bangladesh’s sovereignty and its consistent support to Pakistan over the years.
Currently however, the BNP has bitterly attacked Beijing’s present assessment of the political situation in Bangladesh. The reason? Chinese envoy in Dhaka Mr Li Jiming warmly praised the economic progress made by Bangladesh under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Treating this as a provocation, BNP leaders have protested sharply against Beijing’s glowing endorsement for the ruling AL regime, which it denounces as ‘Fascist’.
Western attitudes towards Bangladesh present a study in contrast. President Mr Joe Biden kept out Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka from the US-sponsored two-day virtual Democracy summit. However, Pakistan was invited, to the surprise of many. For Bangladesh, there was a further snub: the US sanctioned some Bangladeshi civil functionaries bypassing Dhaka, for their allegedly negative anti-democratic and authoritarian role in their dealings with the AL’s political opponents and HR rights-related issues.
It was the turn of Pakistan to surprise everybody, as it handed an unexpected rebuff of its own to the Yanks! It ignored Washington’s invite and skipped the long-awaited meet, expressing solidarity with China and Russia (both also uninvited) instead. Talk about adding insult to injury!
The Bangladesh Government protested against the unilateral US action against its officials. It warned that such moves could affect bilateral communications in the future.
Observers in Bangladesh cannot recall a time like the present, as major world powers are almost directly involved with the domestic policies of/developments in South Asian countries. China and the US have always adopted contrary positions on the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar and the frequent army interventions in the country’s governance. The contrast with Bangladesh, where regular elections have been held from the parliamentary to the civic/municipal levels, cannot be sharper. Even so, the US has never really got on well with the AL over the years.
Relations between the AL and the Western bloc have been difficult from the beginning. Led by the US, most European countries did not welcome the break up of Pakistan. They did not support the majority leader of Pakistan after the 1970 elections or his party — Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the AL! China stayed neutral while the West ignored Pakistani atrocities and the genocide of innocent Bengali civilians by the Pak troops using mostly US-made weapons.
Even after Bangladesh became a fully functional democracy in its own right, Western obsession over the loss of Pakistan proved enduring. From Washington to Istanbul to Riyadh, pressure was repeatedly exerted on the AL not to proceed with the trial of Pak war criminals. This, despite their direct involvement in the slaughter of lakhs of people and the targeted attacks on the Hindu minority community by their Bangladeshi Islamist supporters.
As many analysts have later conceded, for western ‘democracies’ to ignore blithely the genocide of innocent civilians in East Pakistan in 1970-71 was amazing indeed. No wonder the AL ignored Western protests and went ahead with its own political agenda on major issues like war crimes. .
The diplomatic dissonance between Dhaka and the Western capitals widened. Western institutions and agencies refused help to Bangladesh on the construction of its massive Padma bridge, one of the biggest of its kind in the World, over allegations of corruption. Bangladesh found them untrue.
Undeterred, Bangladesh secured Chinese help to implement its prestige project which is well over 95 per cent complete. Despite pressure from the West, the Hasina-led administration refused to treat Nobel laureate economist Dr Mohammad Yunus as an economic Messiah, after complaints of irregularities were made against the Grameen bank administration he headed.
The US and European leaders hit back by repeatedly pulling up the AL over its election victories in recent years, alleging massive rigging and intimidation in many areas. They criticised Dhaka over the ruthless treatment handed out to AL’s political opponents, including some accused of mass killing. The Amnesty International criticised Bangladesh for its poor civil rights records.
The AL denied such allegations .It exposed the communal/ criminal activities of many opposition leaders and their followers. Nowise convinced, Western observers insisted that elections in Bangladesh were invariably rigged and admitted that they ‘more comfortable’ working with the BNP! This in turn drew the familiar AL criticism: Western countries just could not — or would not! — forget their bonhomie with Pakistan.
India-based observers find it odd that even former Pakistani war criminals should find such sympathy and support in the US and EU countries despite their proven crimes! However in recent times, activists and leaders of the BNP and other Islamist groups have complained of the ruthless encounters and disappearing of their ranks carried out by pro AL elements, allegedly encouraged by the administration. Corruption among some officials and AL leaders has also emerged as a major factor in Bangladesh politics of late. Such trends have deeply concerned and upset secular political leaders in the AL and the civil society.
Observers find the BNP’s protest against Chinese envoy’s praise for Sheikh Hasina and the AL somewhat ironic. It was Begum Zia who had forged closer ties with China at the expense of India during the BNP rule. She offered them unique facilities in Defence sector deals and the purchase of arms and weaponry. From those halcyon days to the present, when the party has to play its role as the responsible opposition for years, the changes in the situation have brought little joy for the BNP or its supreme leader, the ailing Begum Zia.
Nor is there any younger charismatic leader within the BNP, a feature it shares with many other one-leader centred South Asian political parties. Mrs Zia had designated her son Tareq as her successor, but massive corruption charges forced him to quit Bangladesh and function from the London.
The BNP’s reaction to Chinese accolades for the AL and its leader is more of a warning than a mere protest. It referred to the AL’s decimation of all opposition in the country defying all democratic norms and its adoption of fascist tactics. The people of the country were fed up with the AL’s rule, according to the BNP. The Chinese were urged to do basic fact checking before going public on sensitive issues of Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, the Pakistanis insulting the mighty US also provided a moment of supreme irony. According to Dhaka diplomatic circles, the US administration was divided about inviting Pakistan from South Asia. Eventually two considerations prevailed — first, Islamabad should not be allowed to get closer with countries like Russia or China; second, it has long been a major ally for the US/West.
Whatever the explanation for Pakistan’s rejection of the US overture, clearly Islamabad has called for more respectful and positive behaviour from Washington, never mind its financial problems, in the days ahead. It is not often that the US invitations are ignored in this way — the Pak gesture of defiance was every bit as bad for Washington as Nicaragua’s recent decision to recognize only the PR China as the country representing the Chinese people, cocking a snook at the US even as preparations were on for the democracy summit .
All in all, these are not good times for the US diplomatically. (IPA Service)