Sunday, February 22, 2015

Political Crisis 2015 - the US shift on Bangladesh

Ambassador Bernicat's press conference, Feb 2015
See also in the 'Political Crisis 2015' series:
Analysis of the deaths (updated to 5 Feb)

How much can change in a year?

The day after the 5 January 2014 elections, the US statement Marie Harf, the State Department's Deputy Spokesperson, issued a statement which made the US government's position very clear - There must be new elections. It read:
The United States is disappointed by the recent Parliamentary elections in Bangladesh. With more than half of the seats uncontested and most of the remainder offering only token opposition, the results of the just-concluded elections do not appear to credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people. 
While it remains to be seen what form the new government will take, United States commitment to supporting the people of Bangladesh remains undiminished. To that end, we encourage the Government of Bangladesh and opposition parties to engage in immediate dialogue to find a way to hold as soon as possible elections that are free, fair, peaceful, and credible, reflecting the will of the Bangladeshi people.
We condemn in the strongest terms the violence from all quarters that continues to mark the prevailing political impasse. Violence is not an acceptable element of the political process; we call on all to stop committing further violence. Bangladesh’s political leadership – and those who aspire to lead – must do everything in their power to ensure law and order and refrain from supporting and fomenting violence, especially against minority communities, inflammatory rhetoric, and intimidation. 
In the coming days, as Bangladesh seeks a way forward that is in keeping with its strong democratic traditions, we call upon the Government of Bangladesh to provide political space to all citizens to freely express their political views. We also call strongly on the opposition to use such space peacefully and responsibly, and for all sides to eschew violence, which is not part of democratic practice and must stop immediately. 
And the following was said in a press briefing
QUESTION: -- you have called for fresh elections in Bangladesh. Do you think this – the new government formed after this election which you say is not credible and free and fair is a legitimate government? Are you planning to work with the new government? 
MS. HARF: Well, we’ve been very clear about our strong concerns about the selection and what we think the way forward should be. We believe Bangladesh still has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to democracy by organizing free and fair elections that are credible in the eyes of the Bangladeshi people. We did note that we were disappointed by the recent parliamentary elections, especially because so many of the seats were uncontested or only had token opposition. Obviously, we believe going forward things should be done very differently. ..... 
QUESTION: And what do you think (inaudible) Bangladesh – because this is the first time in many, many years that when – as far as democratic elections in Bangladesh are concerned, violence and demonstrations and all those kind of – took place because of past events between the two parties and groups and all – so forth. So what is the future, you think, now? 
MS. HARF: Well, we’ve said that Bangladesh still has a chance to have a different future, that we obviously condemn in the strongest terms the violence coming from all quarters, believe that violence has no place in a democratic process, and encourage Bangladesh going forward – the parties – all parties and all sides – to come together and move away from that kind of violence.
And quite soon after the elections, the US ambassador at the time was making its known that the US wanted elections by June 2014.

Just over a year later on 17 February 2015, Bangladesh's new US ambassador, Marcia Stephens Bloom Bernicat however read out the following statement. The part that dealt with the politics of Bangladesh is as follows:
We have recently expressed concern about the ongoing unrest and violence in Bangladesh. The United States deplores the unconscionable attacks, including bus burnings and train derailments that have killed and wounded so many innocent victims. We have condemned in the strongest terms the use of violence for political objectives, believing that there is simply no justification for such actions in a democratic Bangladesh. Everyone has a role to play in stopping the violence, to resolve their differences through non-violent and responsible political expression. 
Let me take this opportunity to say very directly that the United States does not back any particular political force or party in Bangladesh. Our intention is to work with all Bangladeshis, including a government that is receptive to a broader and deeper bilateral relationship with the United States. 
Looking ahead …. Our focus now is to look ahead and move the relationship forward. I am eager to work with the government, the opposition, and civil society on our vital and common interests over the coming years of my tenure.
Quite a remarkable shift! Not a single mention of the election. No criticism of the government. The only implied suggestion that the government had anything to do was this sentence: "Everyone has a role to play in stopping the violence, to resolve their differences." She did say in response to a question that "The US government’s views on the election is well known and it is on the record" but went onto say
What I want to emphasize is our intention to move forward with our bilateral relationship. Keep in mind that we very strongly believe that Bangladesh is a democratic country … This is a democratic society and there are many means to address this issue. Bangladeshis will use that space created by democratic process to address those issues in a peaceful manner.
It is very clear, that the US has stepped away, at least publicly, from pressing the Bangladesh government on the issue of the moment; dialogue for new elections.

See also this article on : How the UN, West share responsibility for the current crisis

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