After weeks of speculation about further sanctions by the United States on Bangladesh, presumably on allegations of human rights violations and demands for free and fair elections, the cat finally came out of the bag. There were no new sanctions against the country or any specific agency in the country.

What was revealed was a non-specific, yet very wide application of a visa policy that would bar individuals or officials, including those in political parties of Bangladesh, from entering the US – who would be deemed to have used their influence or authority to rig or manipulate elections in the country. The policy is wide reaching and can be interpreted to mean that any individual, whether in government or politics, engaged in electoral malpractice can be denied entry into the United States.

On the face of it, permission to enter into a country is a privilege granted by the host country to any foreigner. It can decide who it will grant this privilege to and who it will deny. As a would-be-visitor, anyone can expect any result. You cannot go to court if you are denied the request. If the US has a visa policy that articulates a set of principles that decides who from Bangladesh can or cannot attain visas to the country, it certainly has the power and the right to do so.

But this policy takes a different nuance when cast in the context of the change in US relations with Bangladesh over the last few years, specifically on our electoral process and cries from human rights groups over alleged abuses of human rights. More so as Bangladesh has been trying hard to refurbish its image after last year’s sanctions by the US on its elite law enforcement agency, the Rapid Action Battalion.

So, is this a shock that the US has announced a new visa policy at the heart of which is our electoral process and commitment to preserving human rights? Or is the US asking us to watch out for further harsh treatment?

At one level, this visa policy is an internal US matter. It should not bother our domestic governance. But unfortunately, it does. It hurts our national pride, our image, and trust of others in running our own affairs including our democracy. We are often quick to remark on external comments on our governance as uncalled for and we tend to ignore these often at our peril.

US visa policy may not affect ordinary citizens of Bangladesh since not many people from our 170 million plus citizenry are lining up at the US embassy for a visa. But there are others who may be affected.

The question, however, is whether this US threat for visa denial will affect our own conduct in elections. It is a long shot, but nevertheless, it will be worth watching.

External interest in Bangladesh politics is not new. We have courted foreign powers in the past to help us over political quagmires, particularly our opposition parties. Often we have been advised to correct our ways. More often than not, we have looked sideways and managed by. But this time we seem to be put on alert by no less a power than the US.

The next parliamentary elections are still more than six months away. And we don’t know if the major opposition will participate without having their demand for a neutral government fulfilled. A fair and participatory election is not possible without opposition. The US may hold out this threat, but to the US and all other external partners, it is of equal interest to see that all parties agree to a fair election. Then we will see the validity of this threat.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

This article was first published on Dhaka Tribune.