On September 18th, Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister, was interviewed by BBC’s top political interviewer Laura Kuenssberg. The interview’s main focus was on the death of the Queen of the United Kingdom; Hasina’s reminiscences of her meetings with her; and the Queen’s significance as head of the Commonwealth. However, Kuenssberg did ask questions about Bangladesh politics (from 46:05).
Kuenssberg: … [T]he late Queen’s high commissioner to your country called on your government to commit to a free and fair process for next year’s elections. Will you commit to that?
Hasina: Look, in my country we have had military rulers for a long time, directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly. In 1975, when my father was assassinated, he was the president of the country, and you know that my entire family — my mother, my two brothers, two sisters-in-law, and other family members, including 18 members — were killed. Since then, for 21 years, time and again, there were coup d’etats in our country, several times. Around 20 times there was an attempt at coups and every time there was blood-shed. And there was no democracy, no democratic rights. So I struggled for establishing democracy in my country…
Kuenssberg: But there were, the United Nations and the Queen’s high commissioner did call on your government to commit to a free and fair process, and the United Nations [has] spoken about allegations of disappearances.
Hasina: Many people can place allegations, but how far it is true you have to judge. Before that no one should make any comment because in my country, as I have told you, the military rulers rule the country, they form parties. They never go to the people and ask for vote for them. They used the army, use the administration, and use everything just to remain in power. Only during the Awami league’s time you can see free and fair elections.
Kuenssberg: I have heard very clearly that you have committed to those elections being free and fair elections and being in your constitution today.
Hasina: Of course, of course. It is my struggle to establish a democratic system, free and fair elections…
Kuenssberg: And will you crack down on groups who have been accused of disappearances. The United Nations has raised concerns about things that are going on…
Hasina: OK. How many people have disappeared in your country or other country, you can judge. All these issues I think. First you have to take all information, you collect it and then they can accuse.
A number of points that can be made about the interview:
1. It would be interesting to know whether Hasina knew in advance that Kuenssberg would ask questions about democracy and disappearances, or whether Hasina thought the BBC would only be asking soft questions about the Queen. Arguably, from a public relations perspective, if Hasina was aware, it was probably a mistake for her to do the interview. If she was not aware that these questions were going to be asked, Hasina is unlikely to have been very happy.
2. There was some strange language used in the interview. Why did Kuenssberg use the term, the “Queen’s high commissioner”, when what she meant was the British High Commission in Dhaka? She also asked whether Hasina would “crack down on groups who have been accused of disappearances”. These are not groups, as such, but government law enforcement and state intelligence agencies under Hasina and the government’s command, and Kuenssberg should have made that clear.
3. In what was a short interview, it was good that Kuenssberg did ask questions about democracy and disappearances, but the BBC interviewer is not a foreign affairs correspondent and it showed that she had limited background, or briefing notes, on Bangladesh.
Rather than just simply asking whether the government was going to commit to free and fair elections, it would have been better had she contextualised that question of there having been earlier rigged elections in 2018, in which only 7 out of 300 seats were allowed to go to opposition candidates.
Had Kuenssberg known a little more about disappearances in Bangladesh she could have perhaps responded to Hasina’s claims that allegations of disappearances were not substantiated.
4. As to the substance of Hasina’s responses. It is fair for Hasina to talk about the history of military rule in Bangladesh (1975 to 1990) and of course the earlier assassination of her father and her wider family in 1975, but she goes onto make some peculiar assertions:
“[From 1975] for 21 years time and again there were coup d’etats in our country”.
Ershad was deposed in 1990, and democracy returned a year later, with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) winning the first election. The comment about “21 years” of coups appears to be suggesting that the first BNP elected government in 1991 was a coup d’etat!
“They never go to the people and ask for vote for them.”
Hasina seems to be trying to make the point that the opposition BNP was — unlike the Awami League — a political party originally created by a military leader. This is a fair point to make. However, whatever the foundations of the BNP back in the 1980s, it is no longer a military party, and since 1990 has put itself up for election in just the same way as the Awami League has.
“So I struggled for establishing democracy in my country …”
The Awami League was involved in confronting Ershad in the late 1980s to seek the return of democracy, but it did so in alliance with other political parties including the BNP, the country’s main opposition party.
And while it is correct that when the Awami League was in opposition in the early 1990s and in the early 2000s, the party argued for free and fair elections in situations where they were in jeopardy — since 2009, when the Awami League returned to power, they have prevented a free and fair contest from happening.
“Many people can place allegations [about disappearances]...”
Only during the Awami league’s time you can you see free and fair elections”
This is obviously not true. In 2011, the Awami League government removed the constitutional provision allowing for an election time caretaker government, and have since then stacked the election commission with pro-government members. This resulted in the 2014 election being boycotted by all opposition parties. In 2018, in an election in which the opposition took part, it has been widely reported that the Awami League systematically rigged the election.
“It is my struggle to establish a democratic system, free and fair elections…”
As noted above, there was a time when the Awami League did support these things. Not any more, however.
“How many people have disappeared in your country …”
This is a common trope used by the Bangladesh government to conflate (a) those in Bangladesh alleged to have been forcibly disappeared by state agencies, that is to say picked up and put into secret detention or killed and (b) people in western countries who go missing for various reasons. Clearly, they are two very different things.●