Prime Minister’s overseas visits: A tale of controversy and false promises

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s 15-day trip to Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom during a severe dollar crisis hardly bore any fruit. While the delayed visit to Japan was a state visit, the other two were not. She was not even invited to the White House or Downing Street during the hyped visit ahead of the election. Instead, her ambassador lied about a “bilateral meeting” with the British Prime Minister, creating a fresh controversy.

Experts suggest the trip was part of an effort to garner support for her authoritarian rule at home after clinging to power with two controversial elections in 2014 and 2018.

The outcome of the delayed state visit of Sheikh Hasina to Japan, as documented in the Japan-Bangladesh Joint Statement on Strategic Partnership, shows Bangladesh has agreed to receive assistance from Japan in the defense, agriculture, economic and technology sectors.

Among other issues, a consensus was reached on defense technology transfer from Japan and increasing its security cooperation with Japan under Official Security Assistance, a new cooperation framework for the benefit of armed forces and other associated organizations.

Japan also promised to continue assisting Bangladesh in developing economic infrastructure, improving the investment climate, and improving regional connectivity through the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt, known as the BIG-B Initiative, and the recently launched concept of an Industrial Value Chain connecting the Bay of Bengal and neighboring regions.

Contrary to her experience in Japan, where Hasina went on a state visit, her trip to the U.S. and the U.K. have been little assuring. Most notably, in the U.S., Hasina met the World Bank and International Monetary Fund officials, and no official meeting between Hasina and senior officials of the U.S. administration took place.

In Washington, D.C., Hasina attended a World Bank headquarters event commemorating the World Bank Group’s 50-year cooperation with Bangladesh. The World Bank pledged to provide 2.25 billion USD in loans to 5 projects in Bangladesh. However, the loan agreement is no formidable achievement as Bangladesh had already received 5.04 billion USD in 2021 and 5.37 billion USD in 2020 as official development assistance from the World Bank. Indeed, these loan agreements rang the bell in Dhaka as the national debt increased faster than the GDP, according to noted economist Dr. Debapriya Bhattacharya, due to the unprecedented level of corruption in the guise of mega projects.

During the visit, however, Bangladesh’s foreign secretary, Masud Bin Momen, met with the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, who reiterated the importance of free and fair elections, as well as the U.S.’s commitment to promoting human rights, labor rights, and freedom of expression in Bangladesh.

After the visit to the U.S., World Bank to be precise, Sheikh Hasina went to the U.K. to join King Charles III’s coronation ceremony. During an informal gathering at Marlborough House of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, like many foreign dignitaries, Sheikh Hasina had a casual conversation with the U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Bangladesh High Commissioner to the UK Saida Muna Tasneem, in a formal briefing to the media, claimed that “Heads of state and government from 130 countries went to the U.K. to attend the King’s coronation. Rishi Sunak has held bilateral meetings with only seven of those heads of state and government. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was among them. This is very important diplomatically and politically.”

She also claimed that Rishi Sunak, the British Prime Minister, has praised Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as a “role model” and a source of inspiration for him.

Saida Muna Tasneem’s desperate attempt to portray an informal chat as a bilateral meeting was exposed as a lie, as the Office of the British Prime Minister stated in their official response that images and press releases from countries with which bilateral meetings were held had been published on the United Kingdom’s official website. There is no mention of any bilateral meeting with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, on the British government’s website. In addition, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted images of himself with the Prime Ministers of many countries. There is, however, no photograph of Sheikh Hasina.

In response to a question at a news conference in London on May 8, Prime Minister’s traveling companion and advisor Salman F. Rahman revealed that the two leaders met as a courtesy rather than a bilateral encounter.

Later, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and his wife Susannah visited Hasina at The Claridge Hotel. Following the meeting, the British High Commission in Bangladesh posted a photo of Hasina and Cleverly on its Facebook page, adding that “substantive” conversations were held on Bangladesh’s upcoming election being inclusive, free, and fair.