Tuesday, November 19, 2013

International dimensions of Bangladesh's current political crisis

The current political stand-off between Bangladesh's two main parties over the nature of the election-time government (BNP wants caretaker/neutral government; the AL wants an all party government under the control of the prime-minister) is not only of interest to the country's voting population, but also to a number of its neighboring, and not-so neighboring, countries.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of where the United States, India, China and Russia - currently stand in relation to the conflict between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and why they have taken these positions.

United States
Background: Historically, the United States has had a frosty relationship with the Awami League going back to the country's support for Pakistan during the war of independence in 1971. Although the US did recognise Bangladesh relatively soon after its independence in April 1971 (though the UK, for example recognised it two months earlier), relations with the US continued to be less than friendly in view of the the 1971, the Awami League's socialist orientation, and the party's preference for the Soviet union/India axis. Moreover, credible allegations emerged that in 1975 the CIA station chief in Dhaka had contact with the majors who subsequently murdered Sheikh Mujib (the country's first president, and leader of the AL) and his family - though contact with these men did not take place under the authority of the US ambassador at the time.

In December 1975, three months after the assassination of Mujib (and following a number of attempted coups) General Zia Rahman - who in 1978 formed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to carry out his political ambitions - assumed power, orientating Bangladesh's foreign policy towards the United States, and away from the Soviet Union/India axis.

Following the murder of Zia Rahman in 1981, General Ershard took over continued this pro-US policy.With the toppling of Ershard in 1990, and resumption of democracy, and the battle between the two main parties - AL and BNP - taking centre stage, it appears that the US has taken a relatively even handed policy towards the two parties, and the old suspicions between the AL and the US have dramatically reduced.

Current situation: The US's repeatedly stated position is that it wants there to be credible, free and fair elections in Bangladesh - and by 'credible' it has stated, at least in the past, that this includes an election which all the main political parties participate. It has therefore pushed the two parties to have a dialogue and find an amicablesolution which allows the BNP to take part in the election. The US has not stated which formula it prefers - one closer to the the BNP's preferred option of a caretaker government or one closer to the AL formula of an all party government in which the opposition party is a part of.

The key issue is whether the US will send observers to an election in which the BNP is not participating and whether it considers such an election to be credible. It does not appear that the US government has finally made up its mind - but it has made it clear to the BNP that in certain circumstances, it could deem elections credible even if it did not take part. (In 2009 apparently, the US told the BNP that it would recognise the elections as credible even if the party decided not to take part). The manner in which parties seek - or do not seek - to find a solution will play a part, it appears, in the US's final decision on the credibility of any 'one party' elections. Publicly, on this issue, the US government is now stating that its position will depend upon whether the Bangladesh people consider it to be credible. (see: transcript of press statement given on 19 November 2013 by Nisha Desai Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs)

An added complexity to the US position on Bangladesh is its close relationship with India - which is  a strategic partner. India has asserted (it being Bangladesh's big neighbour) that it's interests should be decisive in determining what the two country's positions should be towards the Bangladesh elections - but the United States has argued against India's apparent explicitly pro-Awami League stance and willingness to provide support for elections without the BNP's participation. The US has tried to argue that support for elections without the BNP, which will result in an unstable government is not in India's best interests and it could back-fire against it. These are on-going tensions within the two country's partnership, in which of course one should remember, Bangladesh plays a relatively minor part (see more in section on India below).

Background: It is no secret that India has a soft spot for the Awami League - a relationship that goes back a long way even before the 1971 war when India provided great assistance to the country's independence movement spearheaded of course by the AL itself. In recent years, the secular nature of the AL's politics (its anti-fundamentalist thinking, at least) has provided reassurance to the Indian government on security matters. And this in turn then provides a sound basis for India to pursue its own economic interests.

India has not really had much choice - assuming it wanted to make a choice. BNP's position has traditionally been 'anti-India', and this has at times been quite shrill, with the party seeking to exploit a perception, held by many people in the country, that the Awami League is willing to sell out the country's interests to its big neighbor.

Although without India, Bangladesh may never have obtained independence, it is notable that quite soon after December 1971, an anti-India feeling emerged after independence (initially directed towards Indian businessmen who were seen as exploiting the vulnerability of Bangladesh's post independence state), and the BNP built its 'anti-India' position on this.

Moreover, the perception that Pakistan's intelligence agencies have close relationships with the BNP, has also given India another reason to support the Awami League.

India's willingness to remain close with the Awami League, has been informed by the BNP's strong electoral alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami since 2001, and the militancy that developed during its 2001 to 2006 term of government. The Jamaat is seen in particular by India as a security threat with its islamist politics and perceived relationships with militant groups.

Interestingly, though, in the last few years, the BNP has softened its position towards India, significantly muting it anti-Indian rhetoric. Hoping to neutralise India's traditional support for the AL, the BNP has tried to prove to India - with Khaleda's visit to New Delhi in November 2012 as the most important landmark in BNP's movement away from its former position - that it can also be a solid and safe ally, and that in the future it will remain as forceful in its fight against militancy as the Awami League

Current situation: The issue right now is whether India will support the Awami League if it undertakes elections under a so called 'all party government' (without BNP's involvement, and with Hasina retaining the position of prime minister), and without the participation BNP in the elections themselves.

It's current public position in a recent statement from Indian ambassador is non-partisan, stating that “It is for the people of Bangladesh to decide their own future. India supports holding of free and fair elections in Bangladesh.”

However, prior leaks to the media from Indian diplomats indicated that the Indian government was concerned that the US was failing to support the Awami League's position that free and fair elections could take place under an all-party government and in misunderstanding the risks to Bangladesh/India attached to a BNP/Jamaat victory. As mentioned above, India believed that in the context of the US/India strategic alliance, with India's security concerns as Bangladesh's  neighbour, the US should follow India's foreign policy interests when it came to elections in Bangladesh and were irritated by what it saw as the US's independent position on this matter.

India's sees the resurgence of the Jamaat-e-Islami in any new BNP government, along with BNP's apparent support for Hefazet-e-Isalmi as inimical to its interests. The US appears to think that India's perception of these threats are overblown - that Jamaat is a very much weakened force in Bangladesh politics due to AL's policies in the last five year  and in any case is a ''moderate Islamic party and that the BNP has made it clear that it will come down hard on militancy and seeks a good relationship with India.

The difference in position between the US and India can be summed up as follows: India does not want BNP/Jamaat to come to power, US does not mind if it does.

In the last five years, the AL has also been good to India in terms of providing contracts to Indian companies, so the Indian government also has economic interests in the governing party remaining in power.

India's diplomats are usually tight lipped and the fact that they decided to brief journalists about its difference of opinion with the United States was seen by many as out of character, and indicating the seriousness which India took its disagreement.

India's support for the AL's position right now has diplomatic significance - providing a counter weight to how most of the rest of the international community views the situation (the need for participatory elections). Subsequently, the support could be significant in the AL's attempts to persuade this  community that the elections without the BNP are credible and should be supported.

However, India's position could back-fire both against it and the party. If the vast majority of Bangladeshis, along with most of the international community, questioned the credibility of the elections held without BNP, India could look very isolated if it continued to support the AL's position. And for the AL, in the context of widespread suspicion within Bangladesh about India's motives, it would not be helpful for them to be seen to be so heavily supported by its neighbor.

However, the AL may not pay such a high political price for India's support since BNP is not publicly exploiting this issue - viewing its future strategic relationship with India as more important.

Background: In 1971, China was firm allies with Pakistan, and following the country's independence twice vetoed Bangladesh's recognition in the United Nations. With the assassination of Sheikh Mujib, Zia Rahman came to power, and changed the orientation of the country's foreign policy towards China (and away from India). As a result, historically, the country has stronger ties with the BNP than the AL. An important element of China's relationship with Bangladesh is its old, though decreasing, rivalry with India

Current situation: Under the current government, China has received some important trade deals, (though not as many as the government has given India) and the foreign minister has made a number of trips to China to improve the two country's relationship - however the failure of the AL government to allow it to build a deep sea port in Sonadia off the Chittagong coast, apparently rankles. China likely sees economic advantages in a BNP victory, but its most important interest right now, due to its varied economic investments in the country, is for the political stability.

Highly unusually for China it has made a number of public statements about the current situation, calling for dialogue between the parties. Since China usually does not make any comment on the political situation in Bangladesh, these rather anodyne statements have been interpreted as slightly favoring the BNP's position.

Background: In 1971, the Soviet Union supported Bangladesh's fight for independence, as part of its alliance with India - and after the war Mujib and the Soviet Union had a good relationship. The Russian government continues to have a good relationship with the Awami League and it has won some important contracts - (an arms and nuclear power deal are particularly significant) - which involved the first visit of a Bangladesh prime minister for 40 years

Current situation: The Russian government has made no political statement on the current political stalemate in Bangladesh. Its interests in Bangladesh appears to be primarily economic - and Russia is concerned that it may lose these contracts if the BNP comes back into power - with the BNP having told Russian diplomats that the contracts will certainly be reviewed.

Because of this, Russia is perceived as seeking an Awami League victory, though there is no direct evidence to support this suggestion.

European Union, Australia, Canada
This bloc of countries with different histories towards Bangladesh have the same basic position as the USA in relation to the elections in Bangladesh - though there are inevitable nuances between these countries as to criteria in determining when elections will be deemed to be credible. Some diplomats are taking a more legalistic position than others - arguing that since the constitution allow elections to take place in the way that the AL government is now organizing them, then it is irrelevant whether or not the BNP decides to boycott them. Others look beyond the letter of the law and ask whether or not credible elections without a party that represents the voting intention of between a third and half of the country could in any way be deemed credible (even though the current constitution allows it).

The main interest of all these countries is political stability - for their economic and aid interests locked up in Bangladesh.

For the EU, a key question is whether or not they will send an observer team - with no decision yet firmly made, and indeed no invitation from the government either


  1. You can also consider the significant military relationship Bangladesh maintains with China. Last several years have seen a huge increase in arms acquisition, especially from China, which a lot more or order. Two Chinese made ships have joined Bangladesh Navy this year, with two more scheduled to join later this year. Two more will join by 2015 and also more significantly, two submarines coming by 2015 or 2016. Consider the view of India facing Chinese-made subs in the Bay of Bengal. And also the regular US involvement in training Bangladesh military. Bangladesh Navy is going to receive a US made ship for the first time, which more on the way. US Air Force personnel just left Bangladesh 13th Nov. after a military exercise. Of significance here is the US policy of containing China, which brought India closer to the US in the first place.

  2. Very good article to give people an insight of how Bangladeshi politics are influenced by outside forces. it is unfortunate for Bangladeshi young generation have no political knowledge and they kind of believe politics is all about listening to their stupid leaders and vandalizing cars and creating a chaos. thanks for the article

  3. The US has been quite worked up on the Bangladesh parliament elections which were held a month ago, despite a total boycott from the main opposition party – the Begum Khaleda Zia -ed Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – and its major ally Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh. The US was quite perturbed over India’s support of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and pressured India to persuade Sheikh Hasina to defer elections and accommodate Begum Khaleda Zia in the political process at Zia’s terms. Both Russia and China are with the India mainly because of their concerns about the deadly web of Islamist terrorism that the US policies may weave for Bangladesh. The US envoy in Bangladesh Dan Mozenna paid an unusual visit to India three months ago and held closed-door talks with Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon to use India in persuading Sheikh Hasina to defer the Bangladesh polls till such time major political players in Bangladesh arrive at a common ground. India refused to play ball. The Indians could not stomach Washington’s support of Begum Khaleda Zia, during whose prime ministerial tenure anti-India insurgent forces had thrived on Bangladeshi soil. Begum Khaleda Zia has been seen by India as a stooge of rival Pakistan. India could not afford to score an own-goal by shackling Sheikh Hasina and strengthening the hands of known India-baiter Begum Khaleda Zia. During the tenure of Begum Khaleda Zia her interior minister had warned India not to forget that the Indian northeastern region was “Bangladesh-locked.
    Nalliah Thayabharan