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The Death of Democracy in Bangladesh

Atif Jalal Ahmad, Michael Kugelman

Security, Asia


Democracy in Bangladesh hangs in the balance, and an upcoming election will mark a critical inflection point.

It’s not often that armed motorcyclists attack a U.S. ambassador, but that’s exactly what happened to Marcia Bernicat, Washington’s envoy in Bangladesh, one night this past summer.

Bernicat was leaving a dinner party in Dhaka on August 4 when men on motorbikes chased her vehicle and threw bricks. No perpetrators were named in the assault, which left her unharmed.

The incident showcased the violent and increasingly fraught politics of Bangladesh that could soon transform the country—regarded in fairly recent years as a fragile but nonetheless democratic and moderate Muslim-majority nation—into a one-party state. And it highlighted how Washington, which accords relatively little policy attention to Bangladesh, is now getting caught up in the vortex of the country’s toxic politics. U.S. officials ignore Bangladesh at their peril.

Draconian Deeds

Several days before the attack on Bernicat, protests had broken out across Dhaka after a bus accident on July 29 killed two young pedestrians. Protestors, many of them students, demanded the government improve road safety. The rallies were largely peaceful, but the authorities cracked down hard. In one Dhaka neighborhood, thugs identified by local media reports as members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing of the ruling Awami League party, assaulted protestors. Reporters covering the protests were beaten, and some had their cameras snatched. Law enforcement officials patrolled universities to prevent protests from spilling onto campuses.

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