Bangladesh’s foreign ministry on Wednesday summoned 13 Western ambassadors after they issued a joint statement against an attack on an independent candidate during a recently-held parliamentary by-election.
The envoys, including from the United States, Britain, France and the European Union, had condemned a July 17 attack on Ashraful Alom, an independent who stood against the winning ruling Awami League (AL) party candidate in the capital Dhaka.
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Alom, an actor and social media star also known as Hero Alom, was beaten in an attack in a polling centre in Banani in Dhaka. His party has alleged that the physical assault was carried out by supporters of the ruling party.
The 13 diplomats, also including envoys from Canada, Germany, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, issued a joint statement warning that “violence has no place in the democratic process”.
They also called for a full investigation and accountability to be brought against the perpetrators.
Western governments have expressed concern over the political climate in Bangladesh, where Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s party has dominated for the past decade.
The envoys were summoned to explain their statement, said Shahriar Alam, a junior foreign affairs minister.
“We said that it is an incident by which the peaceful, free and fair polls of the whole day cannot be judged,” Alam told reporters after the meeting. “We have expressed our discontent over [the envoys’] behaviour.”
“Bangladesh expects that the diplomats will refrain from such undiplomatic behaviour in future,” Alam added.
‘No point’ to statement
Mohammad Ali Arafat, the recently elected lawmaker of Awami League who won against Hero Alam, told Al Jazeera that the very fact that the US and EU are concerning themselves with Bangladesh’s internal matters is very disturbing.
“We are a democracy and none other than Awami League has fought more for democracy in Bangladesh. Our country’s interest should be determined by our own citizens, not some foreign power,” he said.
Arafat said he was “very shocked” by the assault on Hero Alam and had personally urged law enforcers to immediately arrest the perpetrators, which the police did.
“Despite that, I don’t see the point of such statement[s] by the foreign missions,” said Arafat, who is also a member of AL’s central committee.
Western interest in Bangladesh elections
US Embassy spokesperson Bryan Schiller, noting that arrests had been made in connection with the attack on Alom, said they had issued the statement in a bid to “support Bangladesh’s goal of holding free, fair, and peaceful elections”.
But Zahed Ur Rahman, a Dhaka-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera that the Western interest in Bangladesh’s elections is down to opposing a new world order spearheaded by China.
“China wants Bangladesh in its sphere of influence and in recent years China’s economic and strategic footprint in Bangladesh has been increasing fast.
“Presumably the US and EU are trying to reverse that,” he said, adding that an authoritarian regime in Dhaka will likely tilt towards China.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also spoken about free and fair elections in the South Asian nation of 160 million people. In May, he warned of visa curbs on Bangladeshis who would undermine voting. The last two general elections – in 2014 and 2019, which Sheikh Hasina’s party won – were marred by boycotts and violence.
Zahir Uddin Swapan, the head of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) media cell, said that as the main recipients of readymade garment exports, it is in the US and EU’s best interest to ensure a “true democracy” in Bangladesh, which is one of the biggest exporters of garments in the world.
“Besides, democracy and human rights issues are the focus points of their foreign policy, especially of the Biden administration. So they are taking active interest in Bangladesh’s upcoming election,” he said.
He also said the AL party fears the people’s mandate.
“They bypassed people’s voting power in 2014 and 2018 through stolen elections,” he said. “That’s why they are taking such [a] reactionary stance against the US and EU, because they know another stolen election will not be accepted.”
In April, Hasina accused the US of seeking regime change as the US has been critical of the government’s human rights records. Washington slapped sanctions in December 2021 on senior security officials accused of enforced disappearances.
Police deployment at BNP’s main office
Bangladesh’s next general election is due before the current parliament’s term expires in January.
The BNP and dozens of smaller allies have called for protests throughout the country demanding Hasina step down and make way for a neutral caretaker government.
Dhaka has promised to hold free and fair elections but refused to agree to appoint a caretaker government – a key opposition demand. The opposition fears the AL government will rig elections.
The Hasina government says the demand for a caretaker government is unconstitutional.
On Wednesday, police blocked the office of the BNP in Dhaka ahead of its planned rally on Thursday, saying the party did not receive permission.
The protest will be the latest where opposition parties are set to press home their demands, which include the dissolution of the parliament, the reconstitution of the election commission, and the resignation of the ruling Awami League government.
Additional reporting by Faisal Mahmud in Dhaka, Bangladesh.