Political Chaos Descending On Bangladesh

Analysis by SAAG (South Asia Analysis group)

By Bhaskar Roy May 8, 2012

Street politics has been the hall mark of Bengalee politics. The 1952 language movement in Dhaka stands as the marker of the freedom struggle against the West Pakistani disregard for the East. Liberation was achieved in 1971, but democracy was snuffed out in August 1975 when the father of the nation Sk. Mujibur Rahman was assassinated by a group of young army officers. This was followed by a series of martial law governments till 1991. Since then, as democracy returned to the country, the two main political parties, the Awami League and the BNP have been in contention with each other with confrontations, sometimes violent, on the streets. The language movement was for a noble cause. Since 1991, the political movements on the streets have no noble cause. They are hurting the economy and stability of the country. All sides share the blame.

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It is sad, but political violence, revenge and retribution seems to have become embedded in the country. On the other hand, the law and order machinery, especially the special force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), have tended to become more brutalized. Cases of killings, crossfire deaths and disappearance of people have become more wide spread. Domestic and international human rights organizations have been recording the statistics and appealing to the government for restraint and accountability. Despite assurances from the government, the situation has not improved significantly.

On top of that, the recent disappearance of BNP’s organization secretary, Illias Ali and his driver has given added ammunition to the BNP led opposition to launch protest demonstrations against the government.

Ali’s disappearance was peculiar. His car was found abandoned late at night. There was no sound. No shots were fired. Either is was a case of a perfect abduction, or an inside (BNP) job. Searches and investigations have yet to reveal any clues.

There are some important questions here. Are the government leaders including Home Minister Sahara Khatun and their immediate senior bureaucrats are so inept that they cannot control the police and RAB? Or, are these agencies being allowed a free hand to do whatever they want? Third is the government being sabotaged from inside by these same agencies some of which were created during the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) government of 2001-2006? Trojan Horses cannot be ruled out.

Unfortunately, the government and the main ruling party, the Awami League have adopted a wrong approach to counter the opposition’s demonstrations on the streets. It is the responsibility of the political leaders and the law enforcement personnel that the democratically accepted movements remain peaceful. When, however, the Awami League workers wade into the field and rough up opposition members, the issue takes on a different perspective. With some of these actions including arbitrary arrests to ensure stability, the government may be scoring self-goals.

The culture of state violence which included domestic and external terrorism, goes back to 2001-2006 BNP-JEI government. They let loose a cult of unparalleled political violence. Awami League leaders and workers were attacked and killed. In an attack on Awami League leader Sk. Hasina in May 2004, in Dhaka, 22 of the Party’s leaders including a presidium member were killed, many injured and Sk. Hasina escaped miraculously with an injury which still has to be treated. That case, directly connected with the BNP, is yet to be resolved and the culprits punished.

Prime Minister and BNP chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia’s elder son, Tareque Reheman, was the king pin of the violence policy, terrorism, and corruption. As senior Joint General Secretary of BNP, Tareque ruled from his office in Hawa Bhavan. The terrorist group called the Jamatual Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB) headed by Bangla Bhai was controlled by him. Assisting him was Home Minister for state Luftozzaman Babar and several other ministers including JEI leaders like Matiur Reheman Nizami, Dilwar Hossain Sayedie and others. Nizami, a Razakar of 1971, was a minister. Khatme Nabuwaqt leaders, another terrorist organization, used to refer to Tareque Reheman as “maternal uncle”. Their talks will fill up volumes. Tareque also controlled important promotions and postings in the army, other security organizations and the bureaucracy.

The BNP-JEI combine aimed to create an Islamist extremist controlled state with some collaboration with Pakistan and fundings from NGOs from the Gulf including from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. A mad idea. But if it succeeded, it would have wreaked havoc in South Asia. Sanctuary even for the Al Qaida was considered. The JMB exploded bombs in 53 out of 54 districts on August 17, 2004. Under the regime, Bangladesh was on the verge of being declared a state sponsor of terrorism.

It is, therefore, no surprise, that the Awami League was brought back by the people with an overwhelming majority in the December, 2008 elections. The BNP was sharply diminished, and the JEI was all but wiped out. This reflected the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh. Over 40 percent of the voters were exercising their franchise for the first time. The next election is going to add more new voters. These young people want a stable and secure country, education and jobs. They are very bright people. If they are dismayed and turned away, the consequences are going to be serious.

After the Awami League led government took over in January, 2009, there was a freshness and hope in the air. If allowed to by its own politics, Bangladesh can become the flag bearer of South Asia. Its economy has grown by 6 percent a year. The garment industry is the second largest in the world only next to China’s. It is ready to stand as a bridge between South Asia and South East Asia.

Unfortunately the opposition, certain interested intellectuals and bureaucrats who harbour anti-Indianism as their nectar continue to oppose any profitable agreements with India. Giving India transit facility to its north-east would bring in Nepal and Bhutan into play as these countries have to traverse Indian territory to reach Bangladesh. Much of Bangladesh’s power problems would be resolved through transmissions from Nepal, Bhutan and India. Chittagong and Mongla sea ports will be further activated profitably.

India’s one billion dollar soft aid could help in Bangladesh’s economic development especially after Indian Finance Minister Mr. Pranab Mukherjee declared in Dhaka that $200 million of that tranche into aid, and the rest at one percent interest, the lowest that Bangladesh has received. But there are generic problems especially from Indian suppliers. The Indian government must review this agreement. Unfortunately, West Bengal or Paschim Bangla Chief Minister Ms. Mamata Banerjee, with a myopic view on state politics, has stymied the Teesta river water agreement. This, hopefully, will be resolved soon along with the Tipaimukh dam issue, and support Bangladesh’s development.

Sk. Hasina had promised to eradicate terrorism from her country. She has recorded signal success. Terrorism monitors across the world have applauded her achievement. But the progenitors of terrorism are still around. That is the challenge.

Sk. Hasina has crafted and executed a sound foreign policy. Maintaining the independence and sovereignty of Bangladesh, she has reached across to neighbours and the world. She has balanced relations with China and India, brought in Russia, now moving towards new economic relations with the US and the European Union. Her relations with the Gulf and West Asian countries are stable, having resolved issues relating to expatriate Bangladeshi workers. Foreign remittance from this region is poised to increase.

The biggest challenge to Sk. Hasina and her government is her commitment to bring the 1971 war criminals to book. Three million Bengalees died in the liberation war, around 300 thousand women were raped. All these were not done only by the Pakistani army, but the anti-liberation forces like the Al Badar and Al Shams collectively known as the Razakars. These genocidal groups even misled the Pakistani army on occasions to attack and decimate old men, women and children. There was no discrimination between Muslims and Hindus.

These genocidal actors mostly represented by the JEI and a few in the BNP now, were rehabilitated by President Zia-ur-Rahman in 1978. He also formed the BNP that year.

Despite some questions from the EU and the USA and opposition from the BNP and JEI and their acolytes in various institutions, the International War Crimes Tribunal (ICT) Bangladesh was established in 2010. Individuals have been identified, and the top five leaders of the JEI are in jail for war crimes and other criminal acts. Surprisingly, the process appears to have stalled.

In a scathing editorial on March 28, the Dhaka daily The New Age questioned the intention of the government and accused it of “insincerity” in conducting the war crime trials faithfully. The ICT Bangladesh has pulled up the prosecutions lawyers several times for failure to produce witnesses and shoddy investigations. Law Minister Shafique Ahmed told the media that the government was looking for competent lawyers. This is astonishing. Bangladesh has many competent lawyers. Then, why appoint incompetent lawyers in the first place?

Although some witnesses have died there are many who are alive. There are documentary evidence left by the Pakistani army and officials while withdrawing in a hurry which implicates Matiur Reheman Nizami and others. A book by a Pakistani Major Sadiq Salik “Witness to Surrender” gives eye witness accounts of the role of the Razakars and how these groups were created by the Pakistani army.

External pressures to scuttle the war crimes trial may not be discounted. In fact, they can exert more pressure than the internal opponents. Pakistan would be at the top of the list as their army stand to be discredited once again. Islamabad sent a special emissary to Dhaka on this issue in early 2010. Saudi Arabia has its own interest in promoting Pakistan’s position and its own strategy to promote Wahabi Islam in Bangladesh. The Saudi Gazette came out recently in defence of Prof. Gulam Azam, earlier Amir of JEI and the main collaborator with the Pakistani army. The US has its own problem because of its position against the liberation war, and still not fully clear on its position in the assassination of Sk. Mujibur Rahman. The European Union stands against death penalty. These are formidable forces.

The BNP-led opposition will do everything possible to keep the government under pressure, create chaotic conditions and use issues like the disappearance of Illyas Ali to lock down the country. At the moment they are unlikely to listen to the business community to avoid strikes which are hitting the economy. In fact, if the economy plummets, it will be a stick in the opposition’s hands. This, however, is democratic politics.

The opposition’s 90 day ultimatum to the government to restore the caretaker government system for elections ends on June 10. The government must listen to the constructive criticism coming from the neutral media. It must review some of its political and administrative decisions.

The war crimes remain Bangladesh’s poisonous weed. Everything that followed had roots in it. Unless this weed is weeded out completely and the truth brought in front of the people many of who are post-liberation generation, have learnt distorted history of the liberation war. This has also led to distorted politics. If this opportunity to settle the issues is wasted the nation will be a perpetual sick person. The gains made till now by the Awami League led government are not irreversible.

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.