Washington’s misconceptions about Bangladesh


How does Washington perceive Bangladesh? While it’s challenging to provide a definitive answer, we can make educated guesses based on available evidence. To understand this perception, we can consider various sources of information.

First, official US State Department documents such as memos and position papers, along with statements from the White House, offer insights. Second, the statements made by American diplomats, both in Washington and Dhaka, provide clues. Finally, opinions expressed by US public diplomats, including Congress members, senators, think tanks, and caucuses advocating American principles such as democracy, freedom of expression, and human rights, can also shed light on this matter.

Among these sources, the views of public diplomats dispatched to Bangladesh by Washington in recent months stand out. They have given us significant hints about how the US government perceives Bangladesh.

For instance, a bipartisan congressional delegation visited Bangladesh to assess the political situation in the country and the plight of Rohingya refugees. During their meetings with Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, they were reportedly told that “Bangladesh is a lawless society where human rights violations are rampant, and the country has fallen into the trap of China”.

While it’s true that Bangladesh, like any other nation, experiences occasional human rights violations, labeling it a “lawless society” is a stark exaggeration. But the assertion that Bangladesh has fallen into China’s trap requires critical examination.

Under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s leadership, Bangladesh has pursued a balanced foreign policy, maintaining crucial relationships with countries like China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, and the US. This approach aligns with Bangladesh’s long-standing foreign policy principle of “friendship to all and malice to none”, as espoused by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Bangladesh’s external debt situation largely comprises multilateral lenders, with the World Bank and ADB being the largest contributors. By 2022, Bangladesh’s debt to the World Bank and ADB stood at 36 percent and 23 percent, respectively. Among bilateral lenders, Japan plays a significant role, with Bangladesh owing 19 percent of its external debt to Japan. Russian and Chinese loans account for 7 percent each. Bangladesh carefully assesses the economic viability of projects when obtaining loans from foreign sources.

The narrative of lawlessness and falling into China’s trap appears to stem from Washington’s misperception of Bangladesh. This raises the question: What has contributed to this misperception?

In recent years, Bangladesh has faced negative public diplomacy campaigns. One example is the legal actions against Nobel Laureate Professor Yunus, which some US power lobbies view as harassment and persecution. They may not be fully aware of the allegations against Professor Yunus or may be hesitant to accept them.

Professor Yunus collaborated with a military-backed nonpartisan government in 2007 to assume a prominent political role and circumvent age limits. He also evaded taxes on donations to trusts and challenged actions taken by the National Board of Revenue in court before eventually paying about BDT 124.67 million in taxes.

Yunus’s connections with influential figures in Washington, including Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton, have framed him as a victim of the Hasina government.

Additionally, a section of the Bangladeshi diaspora sympathetic to the opposition ultra-Islamist Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and pro-jihadist Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) has portrayed the Hasina government negatively. Anti-Hasina and anti-Awami League forces have manipulated some Congress members into adopting an anti-Hasina stance.

Furthermore, pro-BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami forces are linked to various lobby groups in Washington and congressional caucuses. These groups have advocated for increased sanctions on Bangladesh based on allegations of human rights violations and disrespect for Professor Yunus, as seen in a recent hearing conducted by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission at Congress.

Bangladesh’s civil society, particularly NGO-based organizations, may present information in a way that aligns with their foreign funding interests. American diplomats in Bangladesh often engage with a specific segment of civil society, which can contribute to a one-sided view.

If Washington continues to rely solely on anti-Hasina and anti-Awami League elements for information and decision-making, it risks complicating the Dhaka-Washington relationship. In response, Dhaka may seek allies within the anti-American axis, considering Bangladesh’s strategic geographical location and the geopolitical preferences of major world powers.


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