A democratic power transition in Bangladesh may be the primary motive behind this restriction, Yet Washington may also have other intentions.
Leading up to the Bangladesh election, which is scheduled for this year, the U.S. Department of State steps up to act on visa restriction policy. On September 22nd, 2023 the department introduced visa restrictions aimed at individuals from Bangladesh and their immediate family members who are involved in or complicit in actions that undermine the democratic election process in the country. This marks the active enforcement of a visa restriction policy that was initially announced in May 2023.
In recent years, Washington’s approach towards addressing human rights concerns in Bangladesh has indicated a noticeable shift, demonstrating a more assertive stance. This change became particularly evident in 2021 when sanctions were imposed on senior officials of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in accusations of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, emphasizing the United States’ dedication to addressing human rights violations. Since then, the relationship between the ruling party and Washington has experienced a slight deterioration. And this is reflected in a recent interview with BBC, where Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina remarked, may be the U.S. doesn t want me in power. Yet, it is not just a mere speculation but a significant observation that indicates the United States is dissatisfied with collaborating with the current regime. This raises the question of whether the U.S. is genuinely committed to promoting democracy or if it gets down on to regime change operation, which is driven by its own strategic interests in Bangladesh.
As the centerpiece of the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh holds immense strategic importance in the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) led by the United States, aimed primarily at countering China’s growing influence where Washington has been leaving no stone unturned to bring Bangladesh into alignment with this strategic initiative. Eventually, earlier this year, Bangladesh disseminated its own IPS outlook, which seemingly leaned towards the US but was carefully crafted to uphold the principle of non-alignment, ensuring that Beijing’s interests are not undermined. And no doubt, this outlook has fallen short of satisfying American expectations. Over the past few years, Washington has actively displayed a keen interest in establishing robust security cooperation with this South Asian nation. Following this, two defense agreements, namely the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and the Acquisition Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), had already been proposed to which Dhaka had its conventional response "under consideration. It is indeed which Washington doesn t anticipate listening repeatedly.
In addition, Russia has shown a notable inclination to engage with the recent developments in Dhaka’s political landscape. By incorporating Bangladesh into a list of over 30 countries permitted to trade with Russia using the Ruble, Moscow solidifies its pledge to remain a steadfast friend to Bangladesh, undeterred by Western pressures. Even, recently New Delhi (a sole member of the U.S. led Quad) and Dhaka have opted a significant treaty to conduct export-import transactions using Taka and Rupee instead of the Dollar. As of now, America has not issued a direct response, however, there is conjecture that it might communicate its reaction through alternative channels, potentially involving visa restrictions or altering its engagement with Dhaka in specific summits.
Washington has been hosting a virtual democracy summit since 2021. During the latest summit earlier this year, several countries with relatively lower democratic rankings, such as Nepal (ranked 101) and Pakistan (ranked 107), were included among the 111 invited members. In contrast, surprisingly, Bangladesh, which has demonstrated steady improvements and ranked only 73, was excluded from the list. This also raises a pertinent question: do these visa curb initiatives truly reflect the democratic strides the United States claims to champion?
Yet, whatever the sole intention of this policy, it undoubtedly has an impact, albeit not necessarily on a large scale. As a consequence of such interference, the relations between Dhaka and Washington are poised to suffer a substantial setback as it tarnishes Dhaka s reputation on the world stage. Furthermore, there is a heightened risk that this interference could drive Bangladesh towards China, Washington’s arch nemesis, thereby undermining the US’s vision of strengthening ties with Bangladesh.
While it may have a discernible impact on certain aspects, on the flip side, its influence on the upcoming election is relatively minor. This is mainly due to the main opposition party’s weakened momentum and heavy reliance on international support, which challenge their effectiveness in capitalizing on this opportunity. Indeed, Washington, too, is aware of this situation and understands that the restriction alone does not guarantee a democratic election. But it will serve as an indirect warning to Bangladesh, discouraging any thoughts of defying America’s demands now and in the future.
Author’s Bio: Md Salman Rehman is a researcher and writer at the consortium of Indo-Pacific researchers. He has graduated in International Economics from the University of Chittagong, Bangladesh.