One of the very first letters of congratulation received by Donald Trump after his startling defeat of Hillary Clinton in the US presidential elections came rather surprisingly from the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina.
In the letter, sent apparently “within hours of the victory’”, Hasina told Trump (addressing him as ‘Excellency’) that she thought his electoral success was down to his “extraordinary leadership to serving the American people and also the global humanity” (sic), and she invited the president-elect and his wife to Bangladesh.
Some media have commented on the effusive tone of this letter, including the UK’s Independent, which published an article titled ‘The Muslim country congratulating ‘His Excellency’ Donald Trump’.
The Independent report wondered why, in light of Trump’s comments about Muslims, the prime minister of a country “with the fourth largest Muslim population in the world” would “welcome Donald Trump with open arms and a fawning letter”.
The paper perhaps could also have added that the welcome to Trump comes despite the fact that his success will stymie many Bangladesh government priorities, including its demand for greater tariff-free access for its exports into the US and the implementation of the climate change treaty.
Whilst the letter could simply be a reflection of ‘diplomatic necessity’ – the need for Bangladesh to seek as positive a relationship as possible with whoever is the US president – rather than any ‘genuine conviction’ for Trump, Hasina nonetheless is likely to have heaved a huge sigh of relief that Clinton did not win.
The Muhammad Yunus affair
To understand why Hasina will have been relieved that Clinton lost, one must first go back to the vicious 2010 dispute between the Bangladesh government and Noble Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the micro-credit agency, Grameen Bank.
The dispute involved Hasina calling Yunus a “blood sucker of the poor”, the government (through its proxy, the country’s Central Bank) removing him as managing director of the microcredit bank, the lodging of numerous criminal cases against Yunus (including for defamation and food adulteration), and a vitriolic campaign against both him and Grameen Bank in the pro-government media.
Government attacks against any other Bangladesh citizen would likely have gone unnoticed by the US but Yunus was not only a Nobel Peace Prize winner but also someone very well known to Clinton, the US secretary of state at that time.
Clinton, a strong supporter of Yunus’s work, was aghast at the action the Bangladesh government sought to take against her friend as well as the microcredit bank itself. As a result, the US state department lobbied very hard to stop his removal from the bank, going as far as to put on hold ‘high-level interaction’ with the Bangladesh government as punishment.
To the Bangladesh government, this was not just Clinton and the US government supporting a person whom it wished to target, but also someone who it considered as a possible future political threat due to his previous inclination to get involved in politics.
In Bangladesh conspiratorial circles, this was akin to the US government supporting a political adversary of the Awami League government. Indeed, many claim that the World Bank’s decision to cancel its $3billion loan to fund the Padma Bridge was in part US payback for the Bangladesh government’s attack on Yunus.
The Yunus affair poisoned the relationship between the Hasina government and the Obama administration, but it got a lot worse four years later – after Clinton had left the state department – when the US government strongly criticised the Bangladesh government over its handling of the January 2014 national elections, in which all opposition parties refused to take part.
The opposition boycott was triggered by the Bangladesh government, in power since 2009, removing from the constitution in 2011 a provision that required that elections take place under a non-political caretaker government.
This provision had been inserted in 1996, following a campaign ironically spearheaded by the Awami League government itself, to stop the political party in power rigging an election. The international community, led by the US, pushed very hard and publicly for the Bangladesh government to take steps to ensure fair and inclusive elections, but the Hasina administration did not buckle.
After the controversial elections, the US state department issued a strongly worded statement. “The United States is disappointed by the recent Parliamentary elections in Bangladesh,’ it read. ‘With more than half of the seats uncontested and most of the remainder offering only token opposition, the results of the just-concluded elections do not appear to credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people.”
It went onto state, “We encourage the Government of Bangladesh and opposition parties to engage in immediate dialogue to find a way to hold as soon as possible elections that are free, fair, peaceful, and credible, reflecting the will of the Bangladeshi people.”
At the time it was touch and go whether Hasina’s government could survive – but it did and the Western nations soon backed off leaving the Bangladesh government to consolidate its power.
However, alone in the international community, the US state department kept up its public pressure, with its ambassador in Dhaka saying soon after the election that it’s interaction with the Bangladesh government was “not business as usual” and continuing to call, many months later, for new elections. As a result, the legitimacy of the Bangladesh government was for a long time in question.
The US elections
With this background, the US presidential elections took place with the real possibility that Clinton could take office as president.
Since Bangladesh is facing a new national poll in two years, in which concerns about vote rigging will again be at the fore, this was an outcome that the Hasina government feared.
A US government with Clinton as president – which would be calling strongly for a fair election process that allowed the opposition parties to participate, could in the minds of the Bangladesh government, have caused a lot of difficulties for the Awami League during the 2019 election, allowing any election victory to be yet again questioned.
Though the risks attached to a Clinton presidency for the Bangladesh government may well have been more imaginary than real, Trump is certain to take no interest in the fairness or otherwise of Bangladesh’s elections – or indeed in the country’s poor governance and human rights record.
Clinton’s defeat, therefore, removes one more obstacle to an unquestioned election victory for the Hasina-led party in 2019.
A relief, no doubt, for the Awami League leadership – and it is this which helps explain why the Bangladeshi prime minister gushed in her letter about the US president-elect’s “extraordinary leadership” in the service of “global humanity”.