The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s announcement of a new visa policy on May 24 “to support Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair and peaceful national elections” is a startling new development in the bilateral relationship between the two nations.
It occurs one month after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that Washington, DC, was attempting to topple her administration. Additionally, it might affect India’s diplomatic relations with Bangladesh.
Blinken stated that the US immigration authorities would be able to restrict the issuance of visas to those who undermine the holding of free and fair elections. The new policy will apply to current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of the ruling and opposition parties, law enforcement officers, judges, and security services, as well as their families.
The US declaration came amid ongoing opposition demonstrations from the previous year calling for the elections to be held under a caretaker government. Because they believe that the Hasina administration cannot be trusted to conduct a free and fair election, the opposition has called for the creation of a “neutral” Election Commission. The opposition also requests that the cases against their leaders and cadres be dropped since they believe them to be baseless. In January 2024, elections are most likely to take place.
The working style of Prime Minister Hasina has become more and more perceived as dictatorial throughout the course of her three stints in power.
She had previously received praise for her campaign against Islamists, which included outlawing the Jamaat-e-Islami as a political party and establishing a court that found many of its members guilty of conspiring with the Pakistan Army in 1971 and condemned some to death or life in jail.
However, her campaign on the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is led by former prime minister Khaleda Zia, struck a fatal blow to the opposition by claiming the BNP’s ties to Islamist organisations and charging top-level corruption. Following a suspended jail term for which she had to sign a good conduct agreement, Zia is currently under virtual home arrest.
However, the BNP has been preparing for the election, and political animosity and acrimony are rife throughout Bangla society.
On May 23, BNP cadres demonstrated in Dhaka as Zia was being tried in a different case stemming from fresh allegations of alleged corruption. After altercations with police who attempted to stop the march through the city, many BNP protestors were taken into custody.
Last week, a prominent BNP leader claimed that the opposition had only one demand: “to send Sheikh Hasina to the grave” at a protest demonstration in the Rajshahi area. After a police crackdown, the leader was detained for threatening the Prime Minister with death.
With their own demonstrations and marches against “anti-national” elements, followers of Hasina’s Awami League and other pro-government organisations have kept the streets raging in the meantime.
In Bangladesh, there is a clear reduction in the room for disagreement and criticism. A journalist for the Bangla-language Prothom Alo was imprisoned in March of this year as a result of the harsh Digital Security Act that the Hasina government enacted last year.
In May 2021, a different Prothom Alo reporter had been held for many days and interrogated. The Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient Matiur Rahman created the publication, which has been labelled anti-national and “which never wants stability in the country” by the prime minister.