While the political chessboard sets itself at home ahead of the run-up to the next elections - for which a fortnight’s window spanning the last week of 2023 and the first of 2024 has now officially been disclosed by the Election Commission - Sheikh Hasina’s government seems to smell more fertile ground overseas to get some points on the board.
Of course September always has the flavour of international relations about it, given its permanent slot for UNGA Week. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina spent barely a week in the country between returning from the extreme scrutiny of a bilateral summit in India to jetting off again for New York City (via farewell to Queen Elizabeth) for the annual meet of the international family of nations. Even so, it proved a busy, as well as telling, even fruitful period for the premier.
Although ostensibly this visit will be to the UN, the reality is lost on no one that this will be the first time Prime Minister Hasina will be setting foot in the US since an apparent strain in ties caused by the Biden Administration’s sanctions imposed against RAB and seven of its current and former top officials, including the current chief of police, Benazir Ahmed, last December 10 - International Human Rights Day. Even IGP Benazir’s recent visit, thanks to a UN invite for which the US allows certain exemptions to its own policies, drew great interest among Bangladeshis both at home and abroad. By and large it passed without incident. The Hasina visit is shaping up to be more significant.
This was evidenced by US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas seeking out an audience with the premier during her short stay in Dhaka. When an American envoy moves with such urgency, you can safely conclude something concrete is afoot. Interestingly, the US embassy’s statement following the meeting had no mention, not even as afterthought, of ‘human rights’ - on which the two sides haven’t seen eye-to-eye since President Biden took the reins in Washington. Rather, it spoke in glowing terms of ‘shared achievements over the 50 years of positive bilateral relations’ and setting the stage for the next fifty.
The range of issues discussed at the meeting included cooperation in economic development, security, climate change, Rohingya refugee assistance, and COVID-19, according to Ambassador Haas himself. While on the one hand there was the reiteration of US cooperation, particularly its remarkable contribution of vaccines (88 million doses) to Bangladesh during the pandemic, on the other there was acknowledgement of Bangladesh’s own achievements, including “remarkable economic progress, its leadership on climate change, its generosity in sheltering Rohingya refugees, and its tremendous contribution to global peacekeeping operations.”
The clincher came with the announcement of a “ministerial-level special session” of the two countries, along with other stakeholders, to be held on the sidelines of the UNGA. Word in the diplomatic quarter of Dhaka was that it was all about the signing of two preliminary defence deals - pretty basic ones that only set the grounds for defence purchases from American manufacturers. But reading the tea leaves, you couldn’t help but feel a more significant breakthrough might be in the offing.