Regional politics, looming economic challenges and Biden Administration human rights policy put pressure on Awami League in run-up to national elections

Panelists at a recent discussion titled ‘Challenges of Democracy in Bangladesh’ organized by Washington-based rights organization Right to Freedom, (R2F) highlighted the increasing pressure on the Awami League government ahead of national elections in the coming year.  The panelists also highlighted the role of the United States, India, and China in South Asia’s geopolitical context, looming economic challenges,  and the Biden Administration’s global priorities as sending a message to Dhaka about the importance of ensuring democracy and human rights.

The panel discussion was held in the National Press Club in Washington and featured : Michael Kugelman, Director of the South Asia Institute of The Woodrow Wilson Institute; Dr. Ahsan Mansur, Executive Director of the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh; and Jon Danilowicz, R2F Board Member and retired State Department official. The discussion was moderated by R2F President Ambassador (ret) William B. Milam.  Representatives from the U.S. State Department, international organizations, Washington-based journalists, scholars and R2F board members were also present as participants and the event was live streamed via Facebook.  

Michael Kugelman began the panel discussion by discussing the geopolitical context of South Asia. He pointed out that the US and China were trying to expand their influence in various Asian countries, including Bangladesh. He highlighted the increasing influence of China in the region and noted that both the US and India were concerned about this development. Kugelman noted Chinese efforts to establish  a naval base in Bangladesh, which has added to the concerns of the US and India.  He described increasing pressure on the Bangladesh government as the ruling Awami League has adopted a policy of suppressing the opposition. Despite some economic successes, the government is facing pressure from various quarters, including national, regional, and international.

Kugelman also discussed the US position on Bangladesh’s relationship with China. He noted that the United States was not pressuring Bangladesh to join any side. Instead, the US considers Bangladesh an important partner in the Indo-Pacific strategy. He pointed out that the Bangladesh government was keen to be a part of the Indo-Pacific strategy and highlighted the deep relationship between the Awami League and the Indian government. However, he noted that China was also playing a significant role in Bangladesh’s infrastructure projects.   At the same time, Bangladesh did not want to create distance with other major allies, including the US.  Kugelman added that Bangladesh wanted sanctions on the RAB lifted.

Kugelman also discussed the Bangladesh’s poor democracy and human rights record, which has come to the attention of the Biden Administration. He believes that the US sanctions on RAB were a game changer and sent a message to Dhaka about the importance of ensuring democracy and human rights. This ban has caused concern in Dhaka, and the US Ambassador to Dhaka was recently faced resistance when attempting to meet with family members of missing victims.  The upcoming national elections were also discussed, with European countries, including the US, calling for free and fair elections. Despite the growing pressure from the US and EU government, there was little hope that the Bangladesh government would take any steps to ensure a free and fair upcoming election, preferring to retain power at all costs. Kugelman predicted the Bangladesh government would be able to crush any opposition unrest.

According to John F. Danilowicz, corruption, lack of good governance, and the crisis of democracy were major obstacles to economic progress in the country. He emphasized the consensus on the poor state of human rights in Bangladesh, as detailed by the U.S. Department of State,  Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, RFK Foundation, and Amnesty International.  Danilowicz called for a political solution and dialogue to address these issues in view of the upcoming elections. Regarding the harassment of journalists and media freedom in Bangladesh, Danilowicz stressed the need for freedom of the media and criticized the Digital Security Act. He also highlighted the challenges faced by NGOs, including the targeting of Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus by the ruling government.  Danilowicz noted the importance of international aid and the need for the Bangladesh government to avoid alienating its traditional development partners. Danilowicz noted the enhanced coercive power exercised by law enforcement agencies, particularly regarding  surveillance technology.  Danilowicz stressed the importance of domestic and international observers in ensuring free and fair elections. He highlighted the political capture of key institutions, noting that over the decade ago the judiciary and others  had some sort of degree of independence but now these institutions have been captured and politicized by the regime. 

Dr. Ahsan M. Mansoor raised concerns about the current situation of the banking sector in Bangladesh, contrasting official and unofficial figures related to non-performing loans and available reserves. He noted that Bangladesh was passing through a critical period, and many national and international interests are involved. He pointed out that when Bangladesh started its journey after the war, there was food shortage, hunger, and famine in 1974. Bangladesh was then considered one of the poorest countries, with per capita income of less than $100. However, he believes that Bangladesh has made progress, with per capita income now exceeding $2,700.

He said, “other areas that has shown serious weaknesses, is the banking sector. We know that banking sector has been mismanaged thoroughly, due to lack of governance, due to cronyism, giving licenses to those who are not bankers but basically thugs  who like to exploit the banks for their personal influence.  He highlighted non-performing loans going up from 4-5% to 9-10 %, according to official statistics.  At the same time, unofficial reports claim that the IMF believes  actual non performing loans of the whole banking system could be as high as 22- 24%. At the same time, last week, the head of the financial regulatory council say- “if Bangladeshi banks adapt the real —standard; the capital of the banking sector, as a whole, on average, will decline by over 40%”. So that’s show the weakening situations of the financial systems.”

During a Q&A session of the discussion, Ambassador Bill Milam  criticized the opposition parties’ decision to boycott the 2014 elections, deeming it as the biggest political mistake in South Asia’s history. One participant asked the panelists whether the earlier government had promised free and fair elections, as the election results were already predetermined and rigged. Everyone around the world condemned the lack of free and fair elections, and the question was raised on how to ensure a different outcome in the next election. Danilowicz argued the focus should be on implementing measures that contribute to free and fair elections, such as proper observer presence both domestically and internationally, and other pre- and post-election steps. A human rights activist questioned how observers can do their job when almost all state institutions were partisan, citing concerns about the RAB.  Kugelman highlighted the US’s decision to impose sanctions after prolonged observation of the RAB’s human rights abuses and lack of change.