Bangladesh in crisis
By Toby Cadman
May 29, 2015
On 30 April 2015, the U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific organized the hearing "Bangladesh's Fracture: Political and Religious Extremism." The hearing, which included the testimonies of five expert witnesses, focused on the Bangladeshi political and security crisis deriving from the post-electoral violence, widespread human rights violations, economic instability and the rise in religious extremism.
The political crisis of Bangladesh started in June 2011 when, despite the contrary opinion of the Supreme Court, the Awami League Government abolished the requirement to appoint a caretaker government to oversee the next general election. The political opposition, formed mainly by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), made the decision to boycott the elections, the result of which being that the Awami League and its supporters achieved an absolute majority in Parliament.
The elections, characterized by an extremely low voter turn-out, was criticised by the international community and particularly, the U.S. State Department, which issued a statement expressing its concern over an unrepresentative and illegitimate election. Moreover, reports confirm new electoral irregularities in the recent municipal elections, including intimidation of opposition candidates, harassment of the media, vote rigging and the capture of polling centres by government security forces.
In the first four months of 2015, more than 150 people have been killed in confrontations between the government and the opposition; hundreds more people have been injured, and around fifteen thousand members of the opposition have been arbitrarily arrested and detained. Moreover, numerous NGOs, such as Odikhar, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have reported numerous enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings carried out by members of the Joint Security Forces.
Witnesses at the Congressional hearing testified that, due to the insecurity and the transport blockade, the streets of Dhaka are empty and several international companies have decided to relocate to other countries in the region, deeply harming economic development. It is estimated that approximately $2.2 billion (1 percent of the Bangladesh GDP) has been lost as a result of political violence.
The sharp deterioration in Bangladesh's economic stability is just one of the factors leading to the convening of the Congressional hearing. The hearing also sought to respond to increasing instances of human rights violations and to consider steps to end a pervasive culture of impunity. As Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) stated, the tension between the two main political parties and the escalation of violence since the 2014 elections is having a significant effect on Bangladeshi citizens.
Moreover, he added that the current political unrest "may lead to a further breakdown of order that could open space for Islamic militancy or for the military to take power." These two potential outcomes would be tremendously harmful not only for Bangladesh, a modern secular State with a democratic tradition, but also for the region. If the political and security crisis continues, Bangladesh would risk sacrificing the economic and social advances achieved in recent years, including the advances in terms of democracy, improvement of live expectancy, female literacy and economic growth.
Against this background, witnesses offered several proposals to Congress and to the international community to assist in resolving the political crisis in Bangladesh. The witnesses called upon the international community to encourage dialogue between the Awami League and the BNP, criticize "the government's failure to provide adequate political space for the opposition" and support a "civil society dialogue" that advocates for non-violent politics.
For some witnesses it is essential to include young members of JeI in this dialogue, as the party has already been banned from participating in elections, "and its top leaders have either been executed or are facing death sentences" by a partial tribunal in a deeply flawed judicial process. Closing the political space to this group completely would only leave them the option of continuing a violent struggle. This in turn would likely lead to further unrest and longer term instability.
Finally, the international community should offer incentives to the government, should it stabilise the political and social situation, such as raising the prospect of greater trade and investment. It was suggested that future economic aid should be conditioned on the improvement of the human rights situation.
According to Ali Riaz, professor at Illinois State University, "the international community cannot continue to have a 'Business-as-Usual' approach while the country is slowly descending into a situation which has strong potential for engendering a prolonged conflict."
It should be noted with all the more concern that following the hearing, two further events have overshadowed the State, and underlined just how far Bangladesh has fallen.
On 12 May 2015, Ananta Bijoy Das, a 'secular blogger' was murdered on the streets of Dhaka, the third such murder this year. No murder can be tolerated in any society, however, it is all the more concerning when a citizen is murdered simply for expressing a contrary opinion. The principle of freedom of speech is paramount in any democracy, and attempts to curtail it by any means, be it by individuals, or by government policy, should be resisted and condemned in equal measure.
Second, note has been made of the use of enforced disappearance by the ruling party as a means to silence and dissuade opposition. On 10 March 2015, Salah Uddin Ahmed, a former BNP minister was reported as having been abducted. No investigation took place and the security services denied any involvement, despite there being compelling evidence to the contrary. On 13 May 2015, Ahmed was discovered in an Indian prison having been arrested near the border. Ahmed has limited recollection of the events that led to his detention, but he does recall being kidnapped by a group of as yet unidentified state actors.
There is a clear inference that the state security services in Bangladesh see kidnap and disappearance as a legitimate tool; again, actions that should attract vehement condemnation from the international community.
Cadman is a British lawyer who has worked in Bangladeshi law and politics.