By Ali Riaz
The new US visa policy for Bangladeshi citizens, announced on May 24, 2023, has stirred intense discussion and debate in Bangladesh and has also drawn attention from international media. While the policy is unambiguous in its intention, there are questions about the modus operandi of its implementation and effectiveness in achieving the desired goal of protecting Bangladesh’s democratic institutions and freedom of expression.
Cognizant of the fact that the visa policy is in some ways a follow up to earlier measures such as sanctions on the country’s elite force and its officials, many are wondering whether harsher measures will follow.
What does the new policy say?
The purpose of the new visa policy is to support a fair election in Bangladesh as well as those trying to restore the democratic system. The election is scheduled to be held in January 2024. Under this new policy, the United States will be able to deny visas to those who obstruct the election process in Bangladesh.
The actions to be considered “obstructions” to the electoral process and those who will come under it are clearly laid out. Vote rigging, voter intimidation, the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, and the use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from disseminating their views, are listed as acts of obstruction. Those who will come under the purview of the new policy include current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and opposition political parties, and members of law enforcement, the judiciary, and security services.
State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller and US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu clarified that this policy is not only applicable to the government and its supporters, but to the opposition as well. Additionally, according to Lu, the restrictions would be applicable to those who give orders.
The announcement of the policy, though not overtly targeted towards the government, is a clear rejection of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s claim that an environment conducive to a free and fair election is prevailing in the country. This preemptive action is not a punitive measure, but the expansive scope of the policy sends a warning to everyone connected to the electoral process.
The broad scope of the policy shows that Washington is trying to be even-handed with the regime and the opposition, but it is also a reflection of the growing exasperation in Washington about governance in Bangladesh.
Warnings made, warnings ignored
US concerns regarding the deteriorating human rights situation in Bangladesh and overall democratic regression are not new. The United States had taken punitive actions against the elite police force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and seven current and former officials in December 2021. It also refrained from inviting Bangladesh to two Democracy Summits, held in December 2021 and in March 2023. These measures were followed by repeated calls and warnings that political development is on the radar of the US establishment. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen in April 2023 that the world is watching Bangladesh’s upcoming election. In February 2023, US State Department Counsellor Derek Chollet said that erosion of democracy in any country, including Bangladesh, limits Washington’s ability to cooperate with that country. In March 2022, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, while visiting Dhaka, underscored the issue of democracy as a key point in the relationship between these two countries. The United States also insisted that RAB reform remain a precondition for rescinding the sanctions.
Unfortunately, these calls and warnings fell on deaf ears. The Bangladeshi government continues to ignore US pressure, instead showing defiance. These calls were riddled with anti-American populist rhetoric such as by Prime Minister Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wazed Joy, describing the US State department as a ”bunch of hypocrites” and Hasina alleging that the United States is trying to topple her.
What prompted these developments?
Both domestic and foreign policy appear to have prompted US actions. Three domestic factors can be identified as influencing Washington’s decision.
- The growing authoritarian tendency of the Hasina regime. Obstruction to peaceful opposition rallies and persecution of opposition leaders have intensified in recent months ahead of the election. The government and its supporters have continued with wanton use of draconian laws such as the 2018 Digital Security Act, taking an inflexible position despite criticisms at home and abroad. Additionally, it has made moves to introduce more restrictive laws such as the Data Protection Act (DPA). Introduction of the DPA will adversely impact US investment and businesses in Bangladesh and provide the government enormous regulatory authority.
- A likely repeat of the unfree and unfair 2018 election, which was described by international media as “transparently fraudulent.” The government has continued to show indifference to the concerns of the opposition and members of civil society about the role of the election commission in ensuring an inclusive election.
- The role of civil administration in local elections, boycotted by the major opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. This was largely contested by ruling party leaders, but members of the civil administration appear to have shown support for candidates officially nominated by the ruling party.
Geopolitics at play
With the growing international importance of South Asia thanks to heightened competition between the United States and China in the Indo-Pacific region, US insistence on having a democratic system in Bangladesh is not devoid of geopolitical considerations. Although the US-Bangladesh relationship has expanded and become multifaceted in recent decades, there are concerns in Washington about China’s assertive posture in Bangladesh.
Besides buying two submarines from China in 2016, Bangladesh joined Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the same year. The BRI is not only a framework for infrastructure development and cooperation in different countries but is also a tool to expand China’s sphere of influence. Bangladesh-China cooperation is thus not limited to economic realms. Then-Chinese Ambassador to Dhaka Li Jiming’s warning in 2021 that Bangladesh’s relations with Beijing would be severely harmed if the country joins the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue showed the expectation of China.
In the past six months, three top Chinese foreign affairs officials have visited Bangladesh. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang made a surprise stopover in Dhaka in the middle of the night just before Assistant Secretary Donald Lu’s visit to Bangladesh in January. Chinese Special Envoy to Myanmar Deng Xijun arrived in Dhaka in April just a day before Foreign Minister Momen was to visit Washington.
Further, amid the current tension in US-Bangladesh relations, Chinese Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Sun Weidong visited Dhaka for three days beginning May 26, 2023. Bangladesh is considering joining China’s Global Development Initiative. On the contrary, Dhaka’s response to the Indo-Pacific Strategy initiated by the United States did not seem encouraging and Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook falls short of Western expectations.
As democracy and human rights are the purported centerpiece of US President Joseph R. Biden and his administration’s foreign policy, it is not surprising that the United States wants to make an example of Bangladesh.
Will it work?
Bangladesh is not the first country subjected to US visa restrictions as a tool to punish those who have subverted the democratic process. Previously, visa restrictions have been imposed on individuals from Nigeria, Somalia, Uganda, Nicaragua, and Belarus for undermining democracy and electoral processes under different laws. In most instances, these measures were adopted after the elections. However, to date, successes have been limited which raises questions as to whether it will have a different impact on Bangladesh.
Adopting such a measure at least seven months ahead of the election in Bangladesh is a positive sign, because Washington can take proactive actions to prevent rather than ex post facto measure. In addition, it is unclear how the US embassy in Dhaka will sort and decide on which cases to follow up and investigate. A former US diplomat with extensive experience at the US embassy has described this as a “daunting task for [a] handful of staff.”
Despite these challenges, the announcement is having an impact on those connected to the government who either aspire to visit the United States in the future or already have immediate family members residing there. This pressure will no doubt be felt among Bangladesh’s political and economic elites.
The US visa restrictions alone will not guarantee a free and fair election or restore democracy in Bangladesh. However, the new policy sends a loud and clear message to Dhaka as much as to US allies about how Washington views the possible trajectory of Bangladeshi politics. In short, it signals a readiness to act. The desired goal of a free and inclusive election and a return to the democratic path will require a more concerted international effort on the one hand, and political engagement of the citizens of Bangladesh demanding a neutral administration on the other. Re printed from Atlantic Council’s South Asia Centre.
Ali Riaz is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.