The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week held a hearing on labor and trade issues in the aftermath of the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza last April that killed over 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh. While these issues are important, Congress should also focus on the current challenges to democracy in the country.
Bangladesh, a country which has seen significant social and economic growth in the past 10 years, suffered a political relapse on January 5, when the country held an election that saw only 30 percent voter turnout and lacked participation from the main opposition Bangladesh National Party. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal testified, “The election did not credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people. This could have serious ramifications for stability in Bangladesh and the region.”
Heritage’s Lisa Curtis expressed concern in December that a “non-inclusive election would likely strengthen the appeal of the Islamist agenda among Bangladeshis and further weaken the country’s democratic foundation.” In a recent article for the World Review, Curtis further explains that increasing pressure from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party could spell violent retaliation as the group calculates that it has little to lose by attacking the government.
U.S. interests lie in maintaining stability and economic development in Bangladesh, home to the world’s fourth-largest Muslim population and neighbor to powerful countries such as India and China. Immediately following the January election, the State Department condemned the circumstances surrounding the election and called on the two parties to come to agreement on holding new elections to better represent the voice of the Bangladeshi people.
While it is heartening to see Congress focus more attention on Bangladesh, congressional leaders should examine more closely what is happening to the democratic foundations of the country of nearly 150 million and what effects that may have on regional stability and extremist trends. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent video message calling on Bangladeshis to “launch a massive public uprising in defense of Islam” demonstrates that international terrorists see an opportunity ripe for exploitation in Bangladesh.
The U.S. should work to bolster the democratic process in Bangladesh to help limit opportunities for al-Qaeda-linked groups to make inroads in this fragile Muslim democracy.
Roy Howell is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.