06/28/2023, 14.03
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PM Sheikh Hasina says opposition wants to sell island to US, a claim Washington denies

by Sumon Corraya

Members of the ruling alliance have accused the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of planning to sell St Martin’s, a coral island, to Washington to build a US military base in exchange for help to win the upcoming elections. Such allegations are false. The US is pressing for free and fair elections.

Dhaka (AsiaNews) – Bangladesh’s St Martin’s Island has become the subject of a heated political debate. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her allies claim that the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) wants to concede the small coral island to the United States to win the next elections, scheduled for January 2024.

“How did the BNP come to power in 2001? At that time, they came to power with the promise of selling gas. So now they will sell the country, or want to come with a bond to sell St Martin's?” said Ms Hasina at a press conference last week after her official visits to Switzerland and Qatar.

The United States has already dismissed the claim, but allegations concerning the island’s sale are nothing new. Similar rumours began circulating about Manpura Island In 1971.

Dainik Bangla, a well-known national newspaper, published an article in 1980 titled “None will be allowed to establish naval base at Saint Martin’s”, after a Foreign Ministry spokesman denied reports that a foreign country was interested in building a military base on the island.

Rashed Khan Menon, chairman of the Bangladesh Workers' Party, an ally of the ruling Awami League, took up the issue on 14 June.

A few days later, Hasanul Haque Inu, president of Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (Jasdar), another Awami League ally, raised the matter before in parliament.

In his address, he said that when the United States shows enthusiasm about another country's democracy it brings more suffering to its people than to its government or opposition.

“The time has come for us to think about the reason of this overenthusiasm of the US. Is it democracy or Saint Martin’s Island?” he asked.

The United States has urged Bangladesh to ensure that the upcoming parliamentary elections are free and fair. As part of this, it announced a new visa policy whereby anyone obstructing the election would not be allowed into the US.

In December 2021, the US imposed sanctions on Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a counterterrorism squad, over alleged enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, as well as on other law enforcement officials accused of human rights violations.

In a statement, the US State Department said reports about the island's purchase were “not accurate”, while  stressing continued US commitment to stronger ties with the South Asian country.

“We respect Bangladesh’s sovereignty, and we have never engaged in any conversations about taking over Saint Martin’s Island,” said US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller during a media briefing.

“We value our partnership with Bangladesh. We strive to bolster our relationship by working together to promote democracy by supporting free and fair elections,” he explained.

The BNP has accused Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of cracking down on the opposition during her previous terms in office and winning the 2018 elections through election fraud.

St Martin’s Island is located in the northeastern part of the Bay of Bengal, about nine kilometres south of the tip of the Cox's Bazar-Teknaf Peninsula, near Myanmar.

The island, which has a surface of only three square kilometres, became a Marine Protected Area last year. Most of its 3,700 residents live from fishing, growing rice, and coconut, as well as harvesting seaweed which is dried and exported to Myanmar.

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