Four decades after 1970-71, the US and its European allies have failed in their second attempt to organise an undeclared diplomatic isolation of the Awami Lleague-ruled Bangladesh.
The US and EU countries, including the UK and Germany, have refused to recognise the January 5 national elections in Bangladesh, which the ruling Awami League and its allies won massively. Their objection: The ruling party had won over half of the 300 seats without contest, as the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, in partnership with forces representing Islamic fundamentalists, boycotted the polls. The outcome of the polls, they argue, cannot therefore be accepted as indicative and inclusive of the people’s sentiments.
The BNP, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, did much more than staying away from the polls. It organised a virulently violent campaign, seeking to disrupt the poll process, sponsoring mass strikes and protests involving major loss of life and property. “Clearly, Ms Khaleda is no blameless victim, as she claims,” says a Dhaka-based commentator.
At last count, the overall damage to the Bangladesh economy as a result of the lawlessness prevailing during the last few weeks, was a staggering $4 billion. The death toll so far is over 70 and still counting.
This has forced a rethink among the World Bank and other authorities, who now feel the annual economic growth rate would be no more than 5.7 per cent, a drop from around the seven per cent, targeted earlier. The country was registering the highest growth in the South Asia region, it may be added, under the League’s rule and still commands huge forex reserves.
Even as the country’s progress in women’s emancipation and the economic empowerment of the poor has slowed down, the BNP leaders, aided and abetted by their mentors in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan, have threatened that their ‘scorched earth’ political tactics (usually carried out in countries under foreign occupation by locals) will continue.
The US and EU stand is not surprising. Western diplomats openly indicated their preference for the BNP and its fundamentalist allies (‘We feel more comfortable with them’) even during their pre-poll dialogue with the League and the opposition. US Ambassador Dan Mozena was intent on completing the unfinished political agenda of ex-President Richard Nixon and Foreign Policy Adviser Henry Kissinger in 1971 — help Pakistan consolidate its position in South Asia and crush nationalist, secular forces in Bangladesh.
‘What is surprising is the renewed Western support for Islamic fundamentalism and its continuing bonhomie, with repressive regimes in Asia even after 9/11 and its declared intent to crush Islamic terror all over the world! Presumably, their abysmal failure to liquidate the Al Qaeda and jihadists, despite the long campaigns in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan and the standoff in Syria, has forced the US and its allies to adopt a Vietnam-like retreat and withdraw mode,’ says an observer. Even the worst critics of the Awami League cannot accuse it of encouraging Islamic terrorism, despite international pressure from Turkey to Pakistan.
In this situation, what may help Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sustain her party in power is the prompt post-election support, diplomatic and other, announced and assured by India, Russia and China, in addition to Nepal and Myanmar, after January 5.
These countries have announced their intention ‘to work with the new government and carry forward old ties.’
In other words, the US and EU cannot hope to introduce a new regime of economic sanctions and other punitive measures for Bangladesh as they did with Myanmar, nor can they do much to halt the flow of regional trade and investments.
The lesson seems to have gone home, with Washington-based officials announcing (with no great pleasure) that they would continue their policy of ‘working with elected governments!”
The lone standout in the region is Pakistan. Pakistan-based textile and garment industries have invested heavily in Bangladesh offshore units in recent years, to escape crippling power cuts and other problems at home. According to one estimate, as many as 10,000 different investments have been made, involving a commitment of $2 billion.
But in 2013, Bangladesh lost some 70 working days, compared to under 40 the year before, thanks to the BNP-led suicidal agitation. Massive export orders have been delayed, some lost already. No wonder, now Pakistani investors no longer feel safe in Bangladesh. Hence, their proposal to seek new investment opportunities in neighbouring West Bengal.
This has occurred against the backdrop of a new low in Pak-Bangladesh relations, with Islamabad formally condemning the trial of the 1971 war criminals, an emotive issue in the East.
While recent developments have brought a measure of comfort for Sheikh Hasina, the days ahead may still be difficult and problematic for the new government she now heads.