A Democratic Bangladesh in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Region

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister spent a fortnight in Washington DC and New York recently. She is currently in UK in a similarly lengthy sojourn. The undisguised reason for such a lengthy stay in USA and UK just a couple of months before the crucial national election is that she wanted to drum up western support for the planned reenactment of rigged election. Instead of support however, she received stern lectures on free elections and democracy from junior level officials like undersecretaries and state ministers. The one high level meeting the Bangladeshi Prime Minister managed to secure, a meeting with the National Security Advisor to the US president, Jake Sullivan, went so bad for her that the Bangladeshi government sought to suppress any news of the meeting and keep the nation in dark. Predictably, news of the meeting leaked out few days later.

The ongoing USA and UK trip is just the latest in a series of disastrous foreign tours in recent months that has humiliated the government and the nation before the world.  She travelled to South Africa for the BRICS Summit, but Bangladesh was not invited to join that forum. Bangladesh was invited to the G20 Summit in New Delhi as a guest of the Summit President. Instead of using the occasion to state anything meaningful or original, the Prime Minister embarrassed the nation by shamelessly seeking personal access to the world’s top leaders like a groupie in the backstage after a concert of rockstars.

Our Prime Minister cajoled a selfie with the US president, who has the reputation of affability and ever-readiness to indulge photo-opportunity seekers. Immediately the government tried to present the frivolous selfie to the domestic audience as the definitive proof of ringing personal endorsement of the US president. She also violated the decorum in the solemn ceremony where leaders paid homage in the mausoleum of Mahatma Gandhi, by making a shortcut over the grass in trying to get near the most powerful leaders walking at the front of the procession. The following video shows how she made the whole country cringe in awkward shame.



In her first trip across the Atlantic this year, however, her officials did arrange an interview with the British magazine The Economist. One wonders whether she regrets the interview, as the magazine correctly points that she is ‘increasingly authoritarian and resented’ and her ‘iron grip on Bangladesh may yet strangle its laudable progress’. Earlier this year, the Financial Times (link) carried a long-form article with the title, ‘In Dhaka, a prime minister’s ‘vendetta’ is shaping politics’. More recently, the same newspaper pointed out the ‘transparency concerns’ in the candidacy of her unqualified daughter for a World Health Organisation position. In recent interviews with the CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera, the Prime Minister comes off as a somewhat unhinged person who is prone to making irrelevant farrago of outrageous claims in response to questions about human rights abuses, rigged elections, corruption, and the economic problems besetting the country.

Contrast these with titles such as ‘Bangladesh’s Soft-Spoken but Strict President’ (William Borders, New York Times), ‘Bangladeshi Leader Tireless in Pep Talks to People’ (Michael T Kaufman, New York Times), or ‘President Zia has Reputation as ‘Bangladesh’s No 1 Motivator’ (Stuart Auerbach, Washington Post).

These articles were the result of President Ziaur Rahman’s widespread travel as well as his overture to foreign journalists and cultural celebrities like Mohammed Ali. Zia appreciated the power of global media in highlighting the plight of the Bangladeshi people in 1971 only to see the country’s image tarnished as a basket case in the post-war years. That’s why he put such a big emphasis on public diplomacy.

Contrast the tragicomedy of the Prime Minister with the way the late President carried himself and presented his nation:



Hasina Wajed’s public relations drive is a farcical imitation of President Zia’s four‑decade old actions. Of course, one reason why she is failing where he succeeded is because the two leaders have very different underlying stories. By the early 1980s, thanks to Zia’s tireless efforts, major western publications like the Economist had articles about a miracle-in-the-making, because Bangladesh’s transformation under him indeed was bordering on a miracle. In contrast, the current Prime Minister inherited a genuine economic miracle and a fledgling democracy, only to turn it into a corrupt and flailing personal autocracy.

After all, foreigners write what they see, and unlike Bangladeshis, they can’t be gagged by the regime.

The underlying differences between the two leaders manifest in another way, with profound consequence for the country’s foreign relations. They have very different attitude when it comes to appointing people to senior positions, not just in the foreign ministry but everywhere. For the late President, competence was the key attribute. That’s why people like SAMS Kibria or AMA Muhith (both of whom went on to be Finance Ministers under the current Prime Minister) served in senior positions under President Zia. For the current Prime Minister, personal loyalty trumps all else. The result is that she is surrounded by sycophants and apparatchiks who fail to do even propaganda properly!

This hollowing out of the foreign service under the current Prime Minister leaves the country weaker than she found it while the world has become riskier. Forces of illiberal irredentism is engulfing our entire region, as evidenced by communal, sectarian, and ethnic violence across South Asia, and the presence of a million or so Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Farther afield, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a reminder that there remains those for whom might is still right. Superpower rivalry is the reality of our time —as evidenced by the fact that western democracies’ stressing of the importance of a free and fair election in Bangladesh has been described as ‘meddling in internal affairs’ by China, Russia, and Iran. Then there are the long-term challenges of climate change, population ageing, and social transformations wrought by technology —all hitting Bangladesh as hard as anywhere else in the world.

As the leader of a small, insignificant state, President Zia appreciated the importance of a ‘rules-based’ global order. He believed that without global rules, Bangladesh would forever remain at mercy of stronger countries. Accordingly, during his presidency, Bangladesh participated actively in the global arena. The two-year stint in the Security Council, or the shuttle diplomacy between Baghdad and Tehran, are the relatively well-known examples of this. In addition, a number of competent bureaucrats pushed Bangladesh’s agenda in fora such as the ILO, UNCTAD, WHO or FAO.

That is, foreign policy under the late President was not a one-man show. And Zia’s practices were followed by his party —with the Prime Minister Mrs Khaleda Zia showcasing the country’s gender achievements to the American First Lady in the 1990s, diplomatically declining the George W Bush Administration’s requests to send troops to Iraq in 2003-04, and being interviewed by the Time magazine for its cover story titled ‘Rescue Mission: In a candid interview, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh tells of her campaign to rid the country of the threat from terrorism’.

In contrast, surrounded by yes-men and cronies, everything the current Prime Minister tells everyone, everywhere is all about her.

Imagine instead that Bangladesh’s democratic journey was not disrupted. A Bangladeshi Prime Minister with democratic legitimacy could well have stood beside democratic leaders in the recent Hiroshima Summit. A leader with a better record on human rights might well have been the voice of conscience and dignity in our bigotry and hatred riddled subcontinent. A more competent set of bureaucrats may well have made Bangladesh a key player in global negotiations over climate change policies.

All of this is possible, but not under the current dispensation. Only a democratic Bangladesh can credibly work towards a free and open Indo-Pacific region.