US Visa Policy: Who Will Cure Quinine?

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Published on May 29, 2023
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Dr. Rashid Askari:

The United States seems hell-bent on ensuring free and fair elections in Bangladesh. President Joe Biden seems to be carrying out a personal crusade to make sure that the upcoming 12th parliamentary elections in Bangladesh are held fairly and squarely. It sounds a good idea on the surface, but if you get to the bottom, you may see it’s not as good as painted. What is the yardstick of free and fair elections in the US eye? The circumstantial evidences show that their index of fairness in next Bangladeshi elections will only be measured by the defeat of Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League. Biden will wish her better luck next time and congratulate the winner and expect them to play a cat’s paw for America that Hasina did not. Sheikh Hasina herself knows it very well that the Biden administration is looking to knock her government off their perch. And until they find someone completely at their beck and call, the US will continue to play a cat-and-mouse game with Bangladesh like now. On the one hand they are bringing unfounded allegations against Sheikh Hasina and imposing personal sanctions on her government’s high officials in order to damage her political career, while on the other, they are praising her government’s various activities. About the recent visa restriction policies, the US says that they have not sanctioned anybody. They will just restrict US visas pursuant to the 3C provision under the US Immigration and Act for the ones found to be impeding or undermining free and fair elections in Bangladesh. Maybe they are telling the truth from their perspective, but that’s not the whole truth. The recent changes in their visa policies may turn, in the end, into tools of controlling politics in Bangladesh. America is trying to regain their lost control to be able once again to pull the strings from behind the screen. So, it will not be wise for both the government and the opposition to dance to the US tune contrary to our national interest.

However, excessive US interest in the upcoming Bangladeshi elections certainly provides plenty of food for thought. The election of 1970 in Yahya’s Pakistan was one of the fairest elections in world history in which Awami League under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won a landslide victory and earned the authority to form government. But the Yahya-Bhutto clique flagrantly violated people’s rights and waged genocide against innocent civilians who won the elections. What was US stance then on the genocide of Bangladesh? It is public knowledge that the Presidency of Richard Nixon was in favour of Pakistani rulers who robbed people of their most fundamental rights. What does it prove? People might draw a line of argument in this way that there is a long gap between Nixon and Biden. But it has now become evident to all that the US has always been a slave to its own hegemonic interest across the globe. Presidents changed, congresses changed, but the hidden agenda behind their foreign policy premised upon the country’s continuing desire for political and military hegemony, never changed. And in the post-Cold War world, when the super powers are into a mad scramble for supremacy, the US is heading for a unipolar world leaving behind the legacy of bipolar politics of the past. So, whatever the super powers are doing is eyewash, and we all know it. Much as the US government says that their objective is the defence of democracy, the resultant sanctions and visa policy reforms are nothing but a secret weapon to keep Bangladesh under increasing pressure to affirm/switch allegiance to the United States.

The intended purpose of the new visa policy announced by the US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken is to support the smooth holding of the upcoming parliamentary elections by restricting the issuance of visas for Bangladeshi people responsible for subverting the democratic electoral process. It sounds reasonable and the most interesting thing is that, both the Awami League and BNP camps and the government have warmly welcomed the new US visa policy. Maybe, the reason for this is that the US has not imposed it without any prior notice like the sanctions on RAB; rather the concerned ambassador has perused it in consultation with the representatives of the major political parties, including the Awami League, BNP and Jatiya Party.

According to the State Department statement, the restriction on the issuance of visa applies to current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of government and opposition political parties, and members of law enforcement, judiciary, and security services. And actions that fall under this restriction include vote rigging, intimidation of voters, attempting to gag the freedom of press and assembly, use of violence to prevent people from exercising the franchise etc.

Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign affairs, however, finds no cause for concern over this issue of visa restrictions. The United States diplomat serving as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu justifies the enactment of this new visa restriction law by saying that this policy is used to support the efforts of Bangladesh Prime Minister, her government, Bangladeshi civil society, and Bangladeshi people to have a free and fair election in a country which is of special importance to the US.

The US may have some ulterior motive for being concerned about free and fair elections to be held in Bangladesh, but it will yield immediate good returns. The visa restriction policy will put pressure on the government and all major political parties to remain more careful about discharging their respective duties and responsibilities in the elections. The government side has already ensured that they must make a stand in favour of free and fair elections. So, they should find the US visa restriction policy very supportive to their plans, because, those who want to take recourse to subversive activities in order to undermine the democratic electoral process like before may not dare to do it for fear of losing the chances of getting US visas for themselves and their family members. And the government and nongovernment officials and employees and others who are involved in the process of elections may find it wiser and easier to comply with the US agenda. In all cases the end result is likely to be positive. Besides, the US visa restriction diplomacy is a clear endorsement of the fact that the US does not certify BNP’s demand for an interim caretaker government to conduct the elections and that BNP has accepted the US visa restriction bid, and by implication, the parliamentary electoral procedure being run by Sheikh Hasina government. BNP’s cry for the Caretaker Government has been reduced to cry over spilt milk through the introduction of the US visa restriction policy.

However, the provision for restricting visas of the accused’s immediate family members for no faults of their own is not justifiable. To give people their due is the golden mean. There are also chances that the new US visa policy may be applied through arbitrariness and personal bias based on inadequate information. Taken as a whole, if the new visa policy serves the purpose it is avowedly intended for, it may yield some immediate returns which may worsen in the long run. If we catch malaria, quinine cures it. But who will cure the effects of quinine? 

Writer: Former Vice Chancellor of the Islamic University Bangladesh

Courtesy: Daily Sun