Is a US-Sponsored “Regime Change” in the Offing in Bangladesh?

momen blinken

Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Momen in Washington on Monday, April 10th (Blinken had asked Momen to meet him) to discuss the current state of affairs in Bangladesh; in particular, the modus vivendi for the next parliamentary elections, as well as violence against and intimidation of the media and civil society, especially under the Digital Security Act. Interestingly, Hasina appeared to be well aware of the implicit agenda of the meeting, which was to coerce her regime into submission to America, if not her removal from power.

Interestingly, hours before the Blinken-Momen meeting, Hasina finally uttered the taboo phrase, “regime change” at a special session of parliament. She was unambiguously apprehensive of some atrocious action Biden Administration was likely to take against her government, which could be a “regime change” in Bangladesh by the US, which she classified as a brutal, undemocratic entity.  She singled out the superpower as hegemonic, and hostile towards the Muslim World. She imputed America’s hostility to her government to her refusal to allow an American military base in Bangladesh. She was, sort of, glorifying herself as another “martyr” like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi! Although she’s no martyr, one wonders if her sixth sense had forewarned her correctly that her days as a brutal dictator had POSSIBLY been numbered!

Now, let’s see if the US wants a regime change in Bangladesh, or if it simply wants a compliant regime to serve its long-term geopolitical interests across the region. A directly US-sponsored military intervention – à la Panama or Iraq – for a regime change operation in Bangladesh is least likely to happen. However, there’s nothing new about US-sponsored regime changes in the Third World by staging coups d’état by the armed forces of the countries concerned without any military intervention by the superpower since the early 1950s. One may think of a third option besides any direct US military intervention or a US-sponsored military coup in the country. It could be the imposition of US economic sanctions and embargoes on Bangladesh besides the subtle arm-twisting of the country, which the Biden Administration has already been doing. Since America is the biggest donor and investor in Bangladesh and a major importer of apparel from the country, withdrawing financial assistance and investments and stopping imports would spell disaster in the country. No regime would survive such all-out sanctions or embargoes in Bangladesh. This apprehension is well-reflected in Hasina’s recent parliament speech.

During the post-9/11 paranoia about further terror attacks by Islamist terrorists in the West, America, and its allies sought a compliant regime in Bangladesh having no soft corner for Islamist terror outfits. During Khaleda Zia’s second term (2001-2006), “pro-Indian” people in Bangladesh organised political chaos and disorder throughout the country in preparation for Hasina’s re-ascendancy. The military takeover of the country under General Moeen U. Ahmed on January 11th 2007 was a prelude to Hasina’s re-ascendancy to power in 2009. In sum, the West and India were instrumental in Hasina’s re-election as prime minister in 2008. Now, seemingly, her former sponsors, especially America, are hell-bent on removing her from power, albeit for some not-so-convincing reasons, such as the lack of democracy, freedom, and human rights in Bangladesh. One wonders if the brutal regimes in Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, for example—who are very friendly with America—are any better than the dictatorial Hasina Regime!

Thus, there is no illogic in Hasina’s former sponsors’ desire to remove her from power this time around. Her nemesis is her overreliance on China and Russia as Bangladesh’s development partners and “generous lenders” of billions of dollars (which, by the way, have enriched her family, cronies, and associates). In other words, while the “Joint Indo-Western Factor” was instrumental in her installation to power in 2009, the “India Factor” was almost solely responsible for her third term that she began in 2014. It was the “China factor” in 2018. China played the most important role in Hasina’s fourth electoral victory in 2018, which was the worst rigged election in the history of Bangladesh.

It’s widely believed in Bangladesh that China gave several billion dollars to Hasina’s party to bribe the police, bureaucrats, and army to rig the election. At an overwhelming majority of polling centres, police, military, civil servants, and goons of the ruling party stuffed the ballot boxes in favour of Hasina’s Awami League party the night before the scheduled polls. Now, there is the flip-side of the “China Factor”, which is about America’s growing discontent with Hasina for her overreliance on China. America simply doesn’t want Bangladesh to become a Chinese protégé or satellite à la North Korea and Myanmar. Thus, even if Hasina remains in power beyond this year, she will have to play by the rules set by America and its allies. It’s logical to assume that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s ominous muscle flexing in the South China Sea, especially Beijing’s designs to annex Taiwan, eventually, have further convinced Washington about clipping the wings of regimes overtly friendly to the Sino-Russian Axis. This is integral to America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. Hasina’s willingness to allow the Communist superpower to build naval bases and ports in the country may be mentioned in this regard.

America’s desire to “straighten up” the Hasina Regime, if not removing her from power, has very little or nothing to do with the purported reasons, the lack of democracy, freedom, and violations of human rights in Bangladesh. America and its allies wouldn’t have lived with multiple brutal undemocratic regimes around the world, including that of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, if democracy, freedom, and human rights were the real concerns here. Unfortunately for Hasina, as Bangladesh isn’t Egypt, so isn’t she another el-Sisi. Had the lack of democracy and freedom in the country ever been the prime concern of America and its allies, they would have intervened when two rounds of thoroughly rigged elections were held in 2014 and 2018 that installed Hasina to power. America and its allies couldn’t care less when Hasina’s police gunned down several hundred unarmed Hefazat-e-Islam supporters (non-violent poor madrasa teachers and students) in Dhaka in May 2013. America also turned a blind eye to Hasina’s “judicial executions” of so-called war criminals by compliant and corrupt judges and prosecutors.

We also know America didn’t bother to impose sanctions on Bangladesh while the RAB (rightly classified as a “death squad” by the DW TV channel in Germany) and police were doing extra-judicial killings in the country with total impunity until December 10th, 2021. On the contrary, we have evidence of American and British patronage of RAB from its inception in 2004 for many years. One wonders why hundreds of extrajudicial killings of civilians and the BDR Massacre in February 2009, which led to the killing of 57 army officers (including a general) by unruly border security guards, went almost unnoticed by America! It would be an embarrassing question for the State Department to answer why all of a sudden it started championing the cause of democracy, free and fair elections, and human rights in Bangladesh. Has the recent emergence of China as a threat to America’s geopolitical interests in the Indo-Pacific region got something to do with the renewed American interest in promoting democracy and human rights in Bangladesh? Most definitely, it’s all about the phenomenal rise of China as an economic and, of late, military superpower to challenge American hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

Inconvenient truths and embarrassing questions aside, the Hasina regime has been too defiant of all norms of democracy and human rights to carry on indefinitely. She should have understood that America and its allies from time to time punish and even remove friendly old autocrats and corrupt regimes. We know China (another major violator of freedom and human rights) has been the mainstay of the Hasina Regime. Again, Hasina’s track record since she started her second term in 2009 is abysmally poor, rather dreadful. What has followed since the US Treasury Department’s sanction on seven RAB and police officers in the country is a series of visits by American high officials in Bangladesh, who have been regularly reprimanding the regime, warning the stakeholders in private, and demanding that Hasina hold free, fair, and inclusive elections, due by early January 2024. American Ambassador Peter Haas, since his arrival in Bangladesh in March 2022, has been very proactive, conveying the Biden Administration’s message to the Hasina administration (unpalatable for the regime) to do away with the draconian Digital Security Act and extrajudicial killings, to give equal opportunities and space to the opposition parties, and last but not least, to hold a free, fair, and inclusive election.

Unfortunately for Hasina, she hasn’t paid heed to the maxim: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”! Despite umpteen warnings from Washington, Hasina has remained defiant. She’s perpetually in a state of denial about any wrongdoings by her government since 2009 and hasn’t taken any positive steps to appease America, which from time to time goes to war purportedly for the restoration of democracy and freedom. Examples abound! Of late, seemingly like Noriega and Saddam Hussein, Hasina is no longer a dependable ally for Washington. Apparently, she couldn’t care less about Secretary Blinken’s recent meetings in Washington with some Bangladeshi victims of Hasina’s brutal and biassed law enforcement and judiciary. We all know that her popularity has plummeted to the lowest possible point, which paradoxically has led her to engage in all known tricks to rig elections to stay in power. Overall, the regime has outlived its usefulness for its former benefactors, including America.

Interestingly, the Hasina Regime plays cat-and-mouse with its Western critics. It sometimes concedes some space to its critics but vents its frustration through silly verbal attacks on the US in general and the US Administration in particular. In the recent past, Hasina agreed not to offload cargo from a US-sanctioned Russian ship. On December 10, 2021, the US Treasury Department flagged sanctions on seven senior police and military commanders of RAB for extra-judicial killings, which she had to stop for almost a year. As a result, she had to release some people who had been arrested (and tortured in custody) without sufficient grounds to do so. However, very recently, RAB arrested a Bangladeshi woman last month who died in custody. Hasina’s police arrested a journalist for publishing something highlighting the level of poverty and hunger in the country. Recently, Hasina and hundreds of pro-regime intellectuals, including the Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University, demanded the proscription of a Bengali daily (Prothom Alo) having the largest circulation in the country for violating some vague law of the land. Hasina, however, doesn’t understand that her vitriol and harsh retaliatory actions, among others, against Dr. Muhammad Yunus don’t go well in the free world. She has no clue why Amnesty International, the BBC, CNN, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, Al Jazeera, DW, and very renowned academics, human rights activists, journalists, politicians, Nobel Laureates, and even a former UN Secretary General across the world frequently register their concern at the violations of human rights and the persecution of decent and respectable human beings like Dr Muhammad Yunus. If her track record in respecting democracy, freedom, and human rights at home had been flawless, she would not have had any reason to sob over the Biden Administration’s “impending regime change” in Bangladesh.

America has not yet chosen a party or political leader of its liking to take up the reins of administration to replace Hasina and the Awami League. One may welcome this non-intrusive move by America. Nevertheless, America hasn’t yet given any indication that it would go for the jugular or a “regime change” in Bangladesh as it did in so many other countries in the past. America hasn’t withdrawn the basket of carrots from in front of Bangladesh either, let alone exposed the proverbial stick to coerce Hasina into submission. One may, however, assume that America possibly won’t take any drastic action against Hasina provided she maintains an “acceptable distance” from China (and Russia). Then again, one may counter-argue that Hasina’s chances of remaining in power beyond this year are very slim. As we know, America wants a super-friendly regime in Bangladesh, which would grant the superpower a military base in the country (which it badly needs in and around the Bay of Bengal) to contain China. And given the extreme unpopularity of Hasina and the Awami League in Bangladesh, the Biden Administration won’t be able to retain her in power and do regular business with the country. And Hasina won’t be able to deliver what Biden and his advisers and ambassadors have been demanding from her: a free, fair, and inclusive election in the country. She simply can’t deliver it at all. As she would lose any free and fair election in the country, she can’t re-introduce any neutral caretaker government, as she removed the provision from the Constitution in 2011. And the BNP and other opposition parties aren’t going to accept any election without a neutral caretaker government, which was enshrined in the Constitution until its revocation.

To conclude, as Hasina has already become a liability for the Biden Administration, on par with Noriega and Saddam Hussein, even if she agrees to concede certain things to America, including a military base in the Bay of Bengal, Biden would lose face for doing business with an undemocratic Hasina. America would love to have a friendly regime in Bangladesh that also enjoys the people’s support and is popular. As we know, America has a track record with regard to its treatment of autocratic, brutal, and corrupt proteges in the past. Washington abandoned or overthrew despots like Muhammad Reza Shah, Manuel Noriega, and Saddam Hussein without any qualms or guilt. One believes that there’s some bipartisan understanding between Biden and Modi vis-à-vis Hasina. Seemingly, what has transpired between Washington and Delhi in this regard is much more important than what Hasina agrees to do for Biden to remain in power.

Lastly, Hasina knows well that Biden can make her resign and leave Bangladesh, as America has all the economic (and military) leverage to do so. Bangladesh and any government in the country can’t sustain more than six months or so economically with full-fledged American (Western) sanctions. Bad days are ahead for the Hasina regime. Meanwhile, the BNP and other opposition parties mustn’t take part in any election under a “national government” headed by the next President, Shahabuddin Chuppu, or the Speaker, Shirin Sharmin, while Hasina is “on leave”! That would be suicidal for them. In sum, Hasina’s safe exit would be good for Hasina herself, Bangladesh, and America. This might lead to democracy, freedom, and the rule of law in the country.

Taj Hashmi, Ph.D., FRAS is a historian-cum-cultural anthropologist, and is a retired professor of Security Studies at the APCSS, US. He has written several books and hundreds of journal articles, and newspaper op-eds. As an analyst of current affairs, and a human rights activist he regularly appears on talk shows about Bangladesh, South Asia, and World affairs. His latest book, Fifty Years of Bangladesh, 1971-2021: Crises of Culture, Development, Governance, and Identity, was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in May 2022.

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