Published:  07:46 PM, 26 June 2024

Chinese hand in Bangladesh disinformation campaign

Chinese hand in Bangladesh disinformation campaign Collected Image
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has just completed a highly successful visit to India. But elements within Bangladesh and some countries don’t appear to like the closeness that Dhaka has with Delhi. Sheikh Hasina’s second visit within two weeks saw both countries bolster their defence relationship and signed agreements for expanding cooperation in maritime security, ocean economy, space, and telecommunication sectors, as New Delhi tries to move ahead with its neighbourhood first policy in the third term of the Modi government. A combination of domestic constituents, including the BNP-Jamaat combine, and China want to make it look as though India is in competition with Beijing. This disinformation is far off the mark and fails to comprehend the historic linkages between India and Bangladesh. More insidious however, are recent social media posts claiming that India is preparing to swallow Bangladesh. These media posts must be exposed for what they are: disinformation and propaganda by anti-India players in Bangladesh with tacit support by foreign players, like China. 

Prime Minister Modi welcomed Bangladesh’s decision to join his Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative to expand and facilitate regional cooperation of India’s maritime neighbours. He said the deals with Dhaka were part of his country’s pursuit of a neighbourhood-first approach. Prime Minister Narendra Modi (22 June) held extensive talks with his visiting Bangladeshi counterpart to intensify up cooperation in diverse areas including trade and connectivity. The two leaders decided to expand cooperation in several new areas and inked a series of agreements, including to boost ties in the maritime sphere and blue economy. The key pacts signed by the two sides included one on forging strong ties in the digital domain and another on having a “green partnership”. The two sides also inked an agreement on railway connectivity.

“Today we have prepared a futuristic vision for cooperation in new areas. The youth of both the countries will benefit from the consensus reached on cooperation in areas such as green partnership, digital partnership, blue economy and space,” PM Modi said in his statement to the media. In her remarks, Ms. Hasina described India as Bangladesh’s major neighbour and a trusted friend. “India is our major neighbour, trusted friend and regional partner. Bangladesh greatly values our relations with India, which were born out of the War of Liberation in 1971,” she said. “I recall with gratitude the contribution of the government and the people of India to Bangladesh’s independence,” she said.

Sheikh Hasina told reporters during her recent visit to India that the two countries decided to boost the sharing of river waters and cooperation in the power and energy sectors. She also met Indian industry leaders and invited them to invest in Bangladesh which plans to develop bigger ports, waterways, rail, and road connectivity. India loaned Bangladesh US$ 8 billion in the last eight years, to help expand that infrastructure. Since Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party came to power in 2009, she has also acted to address New Delhi’s concern about Indian militant groups taking shelter in Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, the BNP-Jamaat have tech-savvy cadre which is adept at trending political content to mobilize social media users on anti-India campaigns. The Jamaat has a well-knit international cadre composed of wealthy businessmen and service sector professionals in the West that fuels its manipulation machinery. Several activists mobilizing social media users against India happen to be based in the West. Their access to global newspapers, sophisticated media tools and information networks allows them to legitimize and amplify their opinions irrespective of their credibility. 

The most recent illustration of this was on X (formerly twitter) on a handle @revolt_71 which recently wrote “If you love Bangladesh then you have to raise your voice against the number 1 enemy of Bangladesh which is India. Via #SheikhHasina India has made us their slaves.” The handle then goes on to say “June 23, 1757, the independence of the subcontinent was lost to the British Raj and on June 23, 2024 - India is playing the role of the British Raj to devour Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina is the Mir Jafar of today.” The X post has images which are very Chinese in nature. The use of the snake and other motifs is Chinese like and indicates a certain anti-India narrative. More importantly, the narrative building appears to be focused on how India’s railway system is gradually encircling Bangladesh, a rhetorical explanation of engulfing Bangladesh. This false narrative is being peddled to show that Sheikh Hasina has fallen into India’s trap. This is far from the truth!

In recent years, BNP-Jamaat cyber cadres have intensified their unethical social media campaign, with the aim of shaping public opinion through the systematic spread of disinformation and propaganda online.  Their tactics include the use of fake profiles, and creation of deceptive FB pages impersonating the ruling government. Moreover, the strategy of “thirst trapping” a type of social media post intended to entice viewers sexually, is being used to build an audience before disseminating false information. Many of the BNP’s disinformation spreaders disguise themselves as “news sites” on Facebook, although those so-called news outlets do not have any identifiable authors or publishers. A recent investigation revealed that the BNP is investing substantial sums of money to propagate their manipulated narratives. As seen in the India out campaign in Bangladesh, driven by the BNP-Jamaat social media cell, China provided tacit support to the movement despite knowing that Sheikh Hasina has kept up good relations with Beijing. The only objective was to harm India-Bangladesh relations. 

That Sheikh Hasina will be travelling soon to China in July is lost in the media focus on her India visit. Notably, Bangladesh also enjoys good ties with China, its major trade partner for raw materials. Bangladesh’s garment industry, which brings in more than 80% of foreign currency from exports, is heavily dependent on China for raw materials. Maintaining a close relationship with Beijing is challenging for Bangladesh, which also balances diplomatic and trade relationships with India and the United States. However, India is still Bangladesh’s largest export destination in Asia. Trade between the two countries touched US$ 15.9 billion in the financial year 2022-23. New Delhi mainly exports cotton, motor vehicles, sugar, iron, steel, aluminium, electrical and electronic equipment to Bangladesh. It imports cereal, pulp paper and board, cement, and raw hides from Bangladesh.

There is thus a unstated understanding that a strong Bangladesh is good for India. To ensure that Bangladesh remains so, India has invested time and money in that country. But domestic efforts to disseminate disinformation against Sheikh Hasina and to malign India by the BNP-Jamaat tend to play into the hands of external forces like China, who await for an opportunity to weaken the Dhaka-New Delhi link. This is a dangerous game being played and will have consequences. The good thing is that both India and Bangladesh are aware of the strengths in the relationship and are willing to go the extra mile to make it work. Bangladesh maybe balancing India with China, but the Sheikh Hasina knows that when it comes to the crunch, it is to India they will turn to.

Pen & Ink by: Md. Moniruzzaman (Journalist)

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