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Factum Perspective: The US agenda in Bangladesh

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The US agenda in developing countries seems for many a matter of raking up human rights issues, fostering civil unrest, and forcing weak governments to sign defense deals to counter China’s growing influence. In South Asia, this tactic is being applied in Bangladesh, a fiercely independent-minded country under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has been activated on issues such as involuntary disappearances and alleged suppression of human rights organizations and activists. On June 27, 2022, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) wrote to the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh in New York to say that the OHCHR is compiling a report on “cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights.” The letter sought inputs from the mission by July 15.

The OHCHR’s draft report on Bangladesh stated that on February 21, 2022, Special Procedures mandate holders addressed allegations of intimidation and harassment of relatives of disappeared persons, human rights defenders, and civil society organizations. It alleged that between December 2021 and February 2022, authorities “raided” some homes of the disappeared and intimidated the relatives. On March 14, 2022, the mandate holders called on the authorities to cease “reprisals” against the relatives for talking to them, as this could have a “chilling effect” on others wanting to testify.

The Bangladesh government replied that it was investigating 76 cases, along with the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. Since it did not have any data on the said cases, it had to visit these homes to get information. There was no ulterior motive. On February 5, 2022, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister A. K. Abdul Momen told media that “certain UN bodies transmitted to the government an inaccurate list of disappeared people.”

The OHCHR document also referred to the persecution of the rights organization Odhikar and its Secretary Adilur Rahman Khan and Director Nasiruddin Elan. They had been accused of anti-State activities. Odhikar’s bank accounts were frozen under a 2016 Act. In December 2021, the mandate holders addressed the issue of Khan and Elan relating to a 2013 case against them under the Information and Technology Act of 2006. But this was of no avail.

On December 10, 2020, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) a counterterrorism and anti-drug trafficking force. Seven of its current and former officers were sanctioned due to “serious human rights violations” including engineering involuntary disappearances of political opponents.

But Bangladesh described the allegations as “outlandish”. Bangladeshis pointed out that several Western countries had provided support to RAB and worked closely with it as they viewed RAB as a key force against terrorism. In 2009, the US Ambassador in Dhaka, James Moriarty, had described RAB as the “country’s premier counterterrorism force” and opined that it is “best positioned to one day become a Bangladeshi version of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

In March 2022, the US reiterated that it would not lift the ban on RAB, more or less shunning Bangladesh’s appeals. US Ambassador Peter Haas said: “There is no scope for repeal of sanctions against the Rapid Action Battalion without concrete action and accountability. We want to see a RAB that remains effective at combatting terrorism, but that it does so while respecting basic human rights.”

Despite overt sympathy for the 1.1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar living in Bangladesh, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s May 2021 announcement of a grant of USD 155 million for refugee welfare, Bangladeshis complain that the US has done precious little to get the Myanmar junta to take back the refugee repatriation as per the 2017 agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar’s former civilian government.

On the contrary, Margaret Daugherty, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went to the largest refugee camp in Katupalong in Cox’s Bazaar on February 13, 2020, and asked refugee leader, Razia Sultana, to boycott the Repatriation Agreement in the “absence of guarantees of safety in Myanmar.”

Bangladesh views the issue very differently from the US. In its view, there is a threat of drug trafficking and Islamic radicalism emanating from the refugee camps. Bangladesh desperately wants repatriation, not grants to maintain refugees in the country. According to The Daily Star, the disassociation of Western powers and the United Nations from the repatriation process is due to Myanmar’s influence over them.

Nevertheless, the US appears to have a deep interest in the refugees for reasons not clear yet. US and Western missions paid frequent visits to the Rohingya refugee camps in September, October, and November 2021. They are also intrigued by the US Embassy’s signing a lease agreement with a hotel in Cox Bazaar for five exclusive and completely sealed off underground car parks with surveillance equipped supplied by the embassy.

Attempt to Sign Defense Pacts

Even as the ban on RAB was on, the US had been pressing Bangladesh to join the anti-China QUAD, and sign two defense agreements, viz., the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and the Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA).

US officials say that GSOMIA is a “reciprocal legally binding agreement that ensures governments understand and commit to protecting classified military information. The GSOMIA does not obligate governments to share classified information or material. It ensures protection of the information shared by partner governments.”

On ACSA, they say that its purpose is to allow US forces and the forces of partner nations to procure and pay for common types of supplies and services. It could cover everything from food, water, clothing, transportation, training, petroleum, ammunition, maintenance to medical services.

“The agreement does not in any way commit a partner nation to military action nor does it authorize stationing of ships, aircraft, or military personnel in foreign countries. It only serves to simplify procurement agreement, logistic support, supplies, and services between partner forces,” US officials said.

Asked if the defense agreements were meant to promote the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) or to counter China, an US official said it was not. The US was only responding to requests from Bangladesh. The US and Bangladesh cooperate on various military matters, including training peacekeepers, holding counter-terrorism exercises, and preparing disaster response plans.

The US provided USD 5.3 million to cover the total cost of procurement and delivery of five Metal Shark boats to support the maritime security objectives of the Bangladesh Navy. The US also provided USD 3.3 million to send 233 members of the Bangladesh military to attend various military professionalization courses in the US and the wider Indo-Pacific region, US officials said. “We desire to support the Bangladesh Military Forces Goal 2030, as Bangladesh seeks to modernize its military.”

Bangladesh is reportedly not inclined to accept the drafts of the agreements proposed by the US, though it is seeking to buy advanced equipment from the US as part of its goal to modernize its military by 2030. Bangladesh is also disinclined to join QUAD. Dhaka’s case is that QUAD should be an economic alliance not directed against any country (in this case China, which is a major investor in Bangladesh). But Quad’s economic component is still only a concept.

Meanwhile, the US is likely to keep up the pressure on Bangladesh on these issues, as it did in the case of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant to Nepal this year. In Pakistan, former Prime Minister Imran Khan had charged that a top US State Department official, Donald Lu, had warned of consequences to Pakistan if Khan remained Prime Minister. Khan linked his ouster caused by defections of his partymen in the National Assembly with the ominous US warning.

P. K. Balachandran is a freelance journalist based in Colombo writing on South Asian affairs for various news websites and dailies for a number of years. He has reported from Colombo and Chennai for Hindustan Times, New Indian Express and Economist. He has a weekly column in Daily Mirror and Ceylon Today in Sri Lanka.

Factum is an Asia-focused think tank on International Relations, Tech Cooperation and Strategic Communications based in Sri Lanka accessible via www.factum.lk

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