On September 10, Politico reported that Bangladesh’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) hired two Washington lobby firms, Blue Star Strategies and Rasky Partners, to represent its interests in the lead up to the national elections expected at the end of this year. Such a move would not be unusual, especially given the high stakes nature of Bangladeshi politics and BNP allegations of election tampering in recent city polls. After all, foreign governments, political parties, and other foreign actors have spent over $530 million on US influence campaigns since January of last year. But the story took an interesting turn when, a few days later, senior BNP officials denied the report in interviews with Bangladeshi news media.
If BNP did not retain these Washington lobby firms, someone certainly did. Publicly available US government records include a copy of the lobbying disclosure forms filed by the firms along with a copy of the contract signed by Abdul Sattar acting on behalf of the BNP.
(Find the Blue Star Strategies documents here)
In fact, this is not the first time the BNP – or someone representing themselves as a BNP official – has sought help from Washington lobbyists. In 2015, powerhouse Washington lobby firm Akin Gump was approached to represent the BNP in the United States and delivered a proposal for services, though there is no evidence that any contract was executed or work performed. However, it is unclear if the BNP was aware of this effort. The “BNP official” listed in US government documents (and the person to whom the proposal was addressed) was not a Bangladeshi official, but British lawyer Toby Cadman, an international lobbyist who has historically been employed by the Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami. It is unclear in what capacity, if any, Mr. Cadman was working for BNP at the time.
(Find the Akin Gump documents here)
Despite Awami League officials, BNP’s current lobby contract is relatively modest – especially given that they have retained two firms. Valued at $35,000 per month, it is noteworthy, however, that this is a larger investment in US government relations than the Government of Bangladesh, whose agency of record, BGR, Group receives only $25,000 per month to represent the country’s interests in Washington. Clearly, someone is serious about getting the BNP’s message out in Washington.
While Bangladesh remains an afterthought in too many of Washington’s foreign policy discussions, the country plays an important, and under-appreciated, role in South Asia. A nation of 160 million, 90 percent of whom are Muslim, Bangladesh has long been considered an outlier in the region for experiencing relatively low levels of violent extremism. Concerns that this could be changing, though, rose following a series of high-profile terrorist attacks that culminated in the 2016 mass casualty attack on Holey Bakery in Dhaka.
Additionally, the country is currently hosting over 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled atrocities committed by the Burmese military.
Despite the recent influx of refugees, Bangladesh has persevered. Terror attacks are down, and the economy is up, as are relations with India. The US, Japan, and India are all exploring investment opportunities in the country’s infrastructure, and last month U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo announced $300 million in security assistance for projects in Bangladesh and neighboring countries.
This progress is precarious, though. Elections in Bangladesh are highly contentious, and historically marred by episodic violence of which the country’s beleaguered religious minorities too often bear the brunt. If there was ever a time for Washington to be paying attention to Bangladesh, it is now.
Given the BNP’s current situation – party leader Khaleda Zia is in jail facing corruption charges brought by the military-backed caretaker government in 2008 – and the national elections that are rapidly approaching, it would not be unusual for the party to retain professional government relations counsel to influence US government officials regarding their interests. So, why deny what is not only an understandable strategy, but a matter of public record? Were Blue Star Strategies and Rasky Partners retained under false pretenses, or is the denial another sign of a party in disarray? With national elections only a few months away, time is running out for the BNP to put its house in order. Professional counsel might be just what the party needs.
This piece was originally published by The Hudson Institute on 15 September 2018