Key US official visits Bangladesh amid political turmoil

Dhaka, Jan 14 (EFE) – The United States’ Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, was set to arrive in Bangladesh on Saturday on a short visit amid security concerns and political volatility.

Analysts said that Lu’s visit is expected to mount pressure on Bangladesh to allow more political space for the opposition and hold free and fair general elections, less than a year ahead of the polls scheduled for December 2023 or January 2024.

Bangladesh authorities recently criticized the US for what they said amounted to backing the opposition parties, who have been in the streets since August holding protests seeking the ouster of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government.

On Dec. 14, the US ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas was forced to abruptly cut short his scheduled meeting at the house of the founder of Maayer Daak – a platform for the family members of victims of enforced disappearance – in Dhaka, hastily citing security concerns.

The ambassador left the house after a group of pro-government protesters attempted to enter the building while he was inside.

Maayer Daak was established by the mother of an opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader whose whereabouts have remained unknown since December 2013.

The pro-government protesters claimed to be family members of victims of extrajudicial killings during the presidential tenure of BNP founder Ziaur Rahman from 1975-1981.

Following the disruption, the US ambassador rushed to the foreign ministry and held an emergency meeting with Foreign Minister MA Momen to express his concerns.

The next day, Prime Minister Hasina’s son and her advisor on information technology, Sajib Wazed – who lives in US – indirectly accused the US of trying to plot a coup in Bangladesh.

“Why has there never been a coup in Washington, DC? Because, there is no US Embassy there!” Sajib wrote on his verified Facebook page.

On December 22, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke on the phone with Bangladesh’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Shahriar Alam.

“The Deputy Secretary and State Minister discussed strengthening US-Bangladeshi relations, the importance of holding free and fair elections, and the safety and security of US embassy personnel,” state department spokesperson Ned Price said in a briefing.

In the backdrop of an international community polarized by the Ukraine War, Russia jumped in the debate claiming that the US envoy’s activities in Bangladesh amounted to interfering in domestic affairs.

On Dec. 22, Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said “this incident (referring to Haas’ aborted meeting)) is an expected result of the activity of the American diplomat, who, under the pretext of caring about the rights of the citizens of Bangladesh was persistently trying to influence the domestic processes in the country.”

Local media reported that around the same time, Bangladesh denied entry in its waters to a Russian ship carrying a consignment for a nuclear power plant, ostensibly due to US pressure.

Subsequently, the US State Department confirmed on Jan. 10 that Lu would be travelling to India and Bangladesh between January 12-15.

“While in Bangladesh, Assistant Secretary Lu will meet with senior Bangladeshi officials and civil society leaders to discuss strengthening our bilateral relationship, expanding economic engagement and hear their perspectives on labor and human rights,” it said.

Lu’s visit comes just a week after Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher, the US National Security Council’s senior director for South Asia, visited Bangladesh.

Earlier this week, Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang also had a brief stopover in Dhaka on Jan. 9.

“Bangladesh has become strategically important, now lots of visitors from powerful countries are visiting Bangladesh,” Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of the civil society group Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Citizens for Good Governance), told EFE.

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