December 20, 2013 | Backgrounder on Asia and the Pacific
Bangladesh has experienced significant political tumult in the past year and there is concern that as the national election (scheduled for January 5, 2014) approaches, street violence will escalate, jeopardizing the country’s nascent democratic system. While the threat from terrorism had diminished to some extent under the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the recent execution of a leading Islamist politician and the sentencing to death of other opposition leaders accused of war crimes during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 have unleashed furor among Islamists. If Bangladeshi leaders undermine the democratic process, the Islamist agenda, and extremist ideologies in general, would likely find greater appeal among the Bangladeshis. The U.S. has a strong interest in ensuring that Bangladesh—the fourth-largest Muslim-majority country in the world—remains stable and on a path of democratic reform and economic development.
Bangladesh has experienced significant political tumult in the past year and there is concern that as the parliamentary election (scheduled for January 5, 2014) approaches, street violence will escalate, jeopardizing the country’s nascent democratic system. While the threat from terrorism had diminished to some extent under the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the recent execution of an Islamist politician and the sentencing to death of other opposition leaders accused of war crimes during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 have unleashed furor among Islamists. The war crimes verdicts led to violent protests earlier this year that left over 150 dead. Following the December 12 execution of Islamist leader Abdul Qader Mollah, rioting broke out, killing at least five Bangladeshis in a 24-hour period. The international community urged the Bangladeshi Prime Minister to stay Mollah’s execution, but to no avail.
The opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and several smaller parties have said they will boycott the election if the government does not agree to install a neutral, non-party caretaker regime to conduct elections. If the Hasina government and the BNP are unable to come to agreement on how the polls should be conducted, there is a likelihood of political destabilization, similar to what unfolded in 2006 and 2007 when the military took the reins of power.
The U.S. has a strong interest in ensuring that Bangladesh—the fourth-largest Muslim-majority country in the world—remains stable and on a path of democratic reform and economic development. If Bangladeshi leaders undermine the democratic process, the Islamist agenda, and extremist ideologies in general, would likely find greater appeal among the Bangladeshi people. Political chaos is often a breeding ground for extremism, domestic and international. While the U.S. should not oppose the International Crimes Tribunal II, it should insist that the court proceed in accordance with international standards. Among other things, the U.S. should press the Hasina government to negotiate with the BNP about holding elections, warning that a BNP boycott of the election would sacrifice the credibility of the polling process and provoke instability.
China is slowly building up ties with Bangladesh and competing with India for dominance in the region. The U.S. should facilitate strong India–Bangladesh ties, even as it strengthens its own bilateral engagement with Dhaka, to ensure that Bangladesh does not become unduly dependent on China and more susceptible to Beijing’s political influence.
For a country described by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as an economic “basket case,” Bangladesh has made considerable economic and social progress in recent years. For instance, life expectancy has increased by 10 years, infant mortality has declined by nearly two-thirds, female literacy has doubled, and economic growth has averaged over 5 percent annually. Bangladesh is on a path to becoming a middle-income country within the next decade. Without political stability, however, Bangladesh will have difficulty maintaining its economic momentum.
While Bangladesh’s economic progress is commendable, serious challenges remain. Thirty percent of Bangladeshis live below the poverty line—including much of the workforce responsible for the recent economic growth. The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory last April that killed over 1,100 workers shows that attention to worker and building safety regulations and compliance have not kept pace with higher rates of economic growth. Bangladesh will risk facing more garment factory tragedies until it works with international stakeholders and makes a concerted effort to improve safety.
Bangladesh has made impressive gains in its economic and social indicators in the past several years. Bangladesh is known for widespread famine that swept the country in 1974, but today Bangladesh has the realistic and arguably imminent prospect of achieving food self-sufficiency. Nationwide, more girls are in school than in neighboring countries. According to the Legatum Prosperity Index, Bangladesh has surpassed India in terms of quality of life of the average person because of Bangladeshis’ longer life span, lower levels of undernourishment, lower rate of infant mortality, and better access to sanitation facilities.
Bangladesh has strengthened its economy over the past several years by
Microfinance run by the Grameen Bank, which has made small loans to nearly 9 million Bangladeshis—mostly women—since its establishment in the early 1980s, has become one of Bangladesh’s greatest economic success stories. The founder of Grameen Bank, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Much to the rest of the world’s dismay, however, the Hasina government has, over the past three years, sought to undermine Yunus and the Grameen Bank. The Bangladeshi government forced Yunus to retire in 2011 on the grounds that he was beyond the legal retirement age. Yunus supporters say Hasina’s move was politically motivated by her desire to bar him from challenging her in future elections. In 2007, when the country was under a state of emergency and Hasina herself was behind bars, Yunus attempted to form his own political party.
During a 2012 visit to Bangladesh, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Yunus and called him a “tremendous model for the developing world.” Clinton urged the Bangladeshi government not to hamper the internal operations of the bank. Unfortunately, the harassment of Yunus and the bank continues. In early November, the Bangladeshi parliament passed a law that will bring the Grameen Bank under central bank authority.
Another factor behind Bangladesh’s recent economic success is an increase in remittances. There are about 8 million Bangladeshi emigrants and guest workers spanning 155 countries that sent home over $14 billion in 2012.
The next few years present further challenges for Bangladesh. With fast growth to both its east and west, in India and Burma, Bangladesh’s economy will need to remain competitive and focus on enhancing regional integration.
Bangladesh’s lack of good governance and institution building puts the country’s tangible economic and social gains in jeopardy. Corruption in Bangladesh is multi-fold, and permeates public life. As noted by Maneeza Hossain in 2007, a “politician assuming a position of public service attempts to recover the money expended to win the election. Stated differently, a political office is now a kind of financial investment—one available only to the wealthy—that is expected to produce considerable returns.” The World Bank cancellation of a $1.2 billion loan for construction of the Padma Bridge last year due to corruption among Bangladeshi officials involved in the project is a striking example of the magnitude of the problem and how it undermines economic development. In a June 29, 2012, statement, the World Bank said it had urged the Bangladeshi authorities to investigate and prosecute individuals involved in the corruption scheme, but that the Bangladeshi government had not responded adequately to the request.
When the Awami League government came to power in a sweeping victory in late 2008, its election promises included the introduction of a new type of politics and a commitment to fight corruption. But it has achieved little on either front. A dysfunctional parliamentary system and rampant corruption have created a political malaise among the youth and middle class. Awami League supporters rightly note that the Hasina government cannot be held solely responsible for the endemic governance problems. Since the mid-1990s, the opposition (whether it was the BNP or Awami League) has boycotted parliament over 50 percent of the time, focusing instead on carrying out its agenda through street agitations. The tradition of confrontational politics in which hartals (strikes) and street fights have replaced parliamentary debate is undermining the nascent democratic process.
One of the earliest decisions made by the government of Sheikh Hasina upon her accession to power in 2009 was revising the constitution. The Awami League government decided to make null and void all constitutional actions introduced since the military coup of Husain Muhammad Ershad in 1982. Presented as an attempt to introduce necessary constitutional reforms, this dramatic motion mandated that Bangladesh revert back to the 1974 constitution. The action was possible because of the Awami League’s commanding majority in parliament.
The Awami League government subsequently rewrote the 15th amendment of the Bangladeshi constitution in June 2011 to allow the current government to remain in power while the next elections are conducted. Thus, the system of a caretaker government that requires the elected government to hand over power 90 days before the elections to a neutral body to oversee elections—a hallmark of Bangladeshi political practice—is no longer permissible under the present constitution. The Bangladeshi Supreme Court ruled in May 2011 that the caretaker system of government should be retained for the next two parliamentary elections.
Despite mounting local and international pressure for a neutral body to oversee the upcoming elections, the government insists that the caretaker government system is “against the spirit of democracy.” The opposition and prominent figures such as Bangladesh’s Nobel Laureate Mohammad Yunus are becoming increasingly vocal with their calls for a neutral caretaker to ensure free and fair elections. At least 70 Bangladeshis have been killed since October, in violence related to protests led by the opposition BNP demanding that elections be held under a neutral caretaker regime. In the past two weeks since the government announced the date of elections, the opposition has also forced a transportation blockade, which has crippled the economy.
The Hasina government established the International Crimes Tribunal II (ICT-2) in 2010 to punish those accused of committing human rights atrocities during Bangladesh’s war for independence in 1971. It is widely alleged that the Pakistani Army and its collaborators, including members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, killed some three million Bangladeshis and raped hundreds of thousands of women during the war. The International War Crime Tribunal Act of 1973 was originally passed to try nearly 200 alleged war criminals soon after Bangladesh achieved independence, and is the basis of the current trial process. In a treaty signed between India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, however, the alleged war criminals were pardoned. The reinstatement of the ICT was one of the main platforms of the Awami League’s 2008 election manifesto. Previous governments had avoided prosecuting 1971 war crimes, fearing unanticipated repercussions.
The tribunal has so far tried nine Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) leaders and two members of the opposition BNP. One of the chief defendants, Ghulam Azam, a 91-year-old JeI leader, was found guilty of overseeing war crimes during 1971, and was sentenced to 90 years in prison. Another senior JeI leader, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, was convicted of murder, rape, and torture and sentenced to death in February. The government carried out the first execution of someone convicted by the tribunal when it hanged Islamist politician Abdul Qader Mollah on December 12. The execution provoked rioting among Islamists and led to the death of at least five Bangladeshis in a 24-hour period. The U.S., United Kingdom, and European countries had tried to convince Sheikh Hasina to stay Mollah’s execution.
Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, member of the BNP and first sitting member of parliament to be tried in the tribunal, was found guilty of nine charges and sentenced to death. Abdul Alim, a former minister of the BNP, was also found guilty of crimes such as murder, genocide, and looting and received a life sentence. In early November, the court announced its verdict that two Jamaat leaders, one a U.S. citizen living in the U.S. and another living in the U.K., were found guilty of torture and murder of 18 prominent professors, doctors, and journalists during the war of independence. The court sentenced them both to death.
The legacy of the “unfinished revolution” of 1971 looms over Bangladeshi political and social life. There is popular support among Bangladeshis for holding the ICT-2 trials and for addressing the traumatic events of a war of independence that left countless victims, a shattered national consensus, and undelivered justice. With the overwhelming popular mandate of the December 2008 elections, Sheikh Hasina probably considered the moment opportune to re-engage this crucial aspect of Bangladeshi consciousness. But the severely flawed procedural framework of the trials and the absence of any meaningful outreach for national reconciliation have made the process extremely divisive and exposed dangerous fault lines in Bangladeshi society. While supporters of Sheikh Hasina view the reinstatement of the tribunal as a principled move, the opposition argues that holding the trials is merely a way for the ruling party to label its political opponents as unpatriotic or even traitors. The trials have sent the message that a judicial process can be an effective tool to paralyze a political opponent.
The international human rights community has raised questions about the impartiality of the tribunal’s proceedings and whether Sheikh Hasina is using the tribunal as a tool against political opponents. The U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch criticized the tribunal, saying it has been compromised by a “strong judicial bias toward the prosecution.” The JeI, which was part of the coalition government run by the BNP from 2001 to 2006, has traditionally been pro-Pakistani, while the Awami League is seen as a secular party with pro-India leanings. One of the chief justices of the ICT-2, Justice Nizamul Huq, resigned in December 2012 following media leaks of Skype conversations in which he admitted to being under strong pressure from the government to convict the defendants quickly. Amnesty International has called for Bangladesh to overturn all war-crime death sentences given this year.
The war crimes tribunal was troubled from the start, with seemingly little effort given to establishing a procedural structure in line with international practice. The process has been tainted by reports of collusion between prosecutors and judges. The court has accepted uncorroborated single-witness testimony and uncorroborated single-witness hearsay as basis for conviction. The tribunal also has been selective in its choice of defendants. The list of accused includes no one from the ruling Awami League party.
In February and March, violent protests over the sentencing to death of JeI leaders killed nearly 150. The demonstrations provoked a range of reactions in Bangladesh. Government supporters characterized the violent protests as acts of insurgency against public order by parties that do not deserve to be part of the national community; many in the opposition branded the trials, and the crackdowns on protesters, as attacks against the religion of Islam.
Because of divisions over the ICT-2, Islam and secularism are being increasingly presented as competing ideological norms. What may have started as a rhetorical device in an impassioned political fight is transforming into sharply opposed narratives of national identity.
Hefazat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam), a coalition of radical Islamist organizations that run madrassas (religious schools) throughout the country, marched on Dhaka in May 2013 to protest the death sentences against the Islamist leaders. Hefazat-e-Islam issued a 13-point charter in April that calls for banning the mixing of women and men, instituting a harsh new blasphemy law, declaring the minority Ahmadis non-Muslims, and making Islamic education mandatory at the primary and secondary level. Meanwhile, the Awami League which advanced slogans, such as “Muslim in religion, secular in politics,” in its 2008 electoral campaign, seems intent on a course to confirm and revive a secular Bangladesh, in line with decades-long political practice accepted by most Bangladeshis.
A court decision forbidding the JeI to participate in upcoming national elections has been extremely controversial, and has polarized society even more. In August, a Bangladeshi high court ruled that the JeI should not be allowed to participate in national elections on grounds that its charter does not recognize parliament as the sole institution to pass laws and because it bars non-Muslims and women from leading the party. The supreme court refused to issue a stay on the high court’s ruling, and the election commission cancelled JeI’s party registration. Some Bangladeshi academics have faulted the move, saying it goes against the ideals of liberal democracy. They argue that democracies need to accommodate different ideologies and that it is up to the people to decide whether to vote for the party. There had been rumors of an outright ban of the JeI, but fears of a violent backlash have so far held the government back from this step. JeI has a small support base mostly in rural areas. It won between 4 percent and 5 percent of the vote in the 2009 elections.
Its controversial aspects notwithstanding, the International Crimes Tribunal process revealed the latent power of Bangladeshi youth. The Shahbag movement, named after the square where people gathered, began in reaction to the sentencing of the first of the 11 defendants prosecuted by the tribunal, Abdul Qader Mollah, a JeI figure who was one of the leaders of its youth organization in 1971. After gruesome, albeit controversial from a legal standpoint, testimony, including descriptions of child rape, the court sentenced Mollah to life in prison. For many in the Awami League camp, the sentence seemed too lenient for the conviction. A gathering ensued of protestors, mostly youth, demanding a reconsideration of court’s decision and the imposition of the death sentence.
The Shahbag gathering soon developed into a young, urban festival, merging protests with a celebration of cherished Bangladeshi cultural themes, often anchored in the 1971 war of independence folklore. In addition to capital punishment for the party leaders convicted of war crimes, the protesters demanded an official ban on the JeI and all Islamist extremist groups.
The gathering lasted more than 30 days in downtown Dhaka, demonstrating the increasing strength of its middle-class culture. Organized mainly through Facebook, blogs, and Twitter, the Shahbag movement resembled other protests around the world planned via social media, in places such as Brazil, Turkey, and Egypt.
The Shahbag protests exposed deep rifts within Bangladeshi society. Islamists took offense at the Shahbag movement and accused bloggers and online activists who organized the demonstrations of insulting Islam and its prophet, Mohammed. A group of young Islamists murdered one blogger, Rajib Noor, and Hefazat-e-Islam accused the Shahbag protesters of promoting “un-Islamic behavior and views.” The Shahbag moment revealed that a restless and aspiring middle class is increasingly pitted against a rural, less affluent, and madrassa-educated population. The government of Sheikh Hasina seemed to be unprepared to manage the demands and expectations of the Shahbag crowd, or to contain the reactions of its detractors.
The dissonance between the needs of a growing economy and the limitations of a state riddled with bad governance became clear in multiple ways with last April’s Rana Plaza disaster, the collapse of an industrial complex leading to the death of over 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers. This disaster is a symptom of fast growth and lack of proper government oversight. A government investigation into the tragedy found that the factory had been built without proper permits and that workers were required to enter the building even after cracks were found in the structure the day before it collapsed. The garment sector employs over 4 million Bangladeshis, mostly women, and clothing accounts for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s manufacturing exports.
Bangladesh passed new labor laws in response to the tragedy and has pledged to inspect the country’s 5,000 garment factories. The new laws include a slight easing of restrictions on labor organization, something Washington had been demanding. In June, the Obama Administration revoked Bangladesh’s trade privileges under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) because of poor labor conditions in Bangladesh. On November 13 and 14, thousands of garment workers protested outside Dhaka against low wages, even after the government agreed to raise the minimum wage by 77 percent. The demonstrations forced the closure of 200 factories and left over 80 people injured.
The Hasina government has made notable strides against Islamist extremists and successfully dismantled one of the deadliest groups, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which carried out several attacks in 2005 and 2006. The law enforcement and intelligence agencies have acted aggressively against extremists, leading to arrests and disruptions of terrorist plots. The government also has enacted and updated legislation aimed at countering terrorism, including the Anti-terrorism Act of 2009 and the Money Laundering Prevention Act of 2009. Other steps the government has taken to counter the terrorist threat include enhancing intelligence collection capabilities and introducing specialized units in the police force.
The emergence this spring of a new extremist group, Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), which draws inspiration from the global jihadist movement, has raised concern that al-Qaeda is seeking to exploit the increasingly volatile politics in Bangladesh. The existence of ABT was revealed following arrests of five Bangladeshi students in the February 2013 murder of secular blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, who had played a key role in organizing the Shahbag protests. ABT members were reportedly influenced by al-Qaeda materials that had been translated into Bengali. On August 12, 2013, ABT leader Mufti Jasmuddin Rahmani and 30 of his followers were arrested.
While domestic issues continue to dominate the election campaign, the way in which Bangladeshi leaders manage relations with neighboring powers India and China is becoming increasingly important. China is slowly building up ties to Bangladesh and competing with India for dominance in the region. China is Bangladesh’s top supplier of military equipment and biggest trading partner. Trade between Bangladesh and China surpassed $8 billion in 2012. China has pledged to build a deep-sea port at Sonadia Island, off the coast of Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, and expressed interest in establishing a transport link connecting Chittagong in Bangladesh to Kunming in China.
Indo–Bangladeshi ties have improved considerably during Sheikh Hasina’s tenure. Trade between the two neighbors is soaring upwards of $5 billion (approximately 10 percent of which represents Bangladeshi exports to India). Indian conglomerates have been awarded major infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, including construction of a $1.6 billion coal-fired power plant. New Delhi has appreciated the Awami League government’s actions against terrorist groups and its crackdowns on insurgents from India that seek shelter in Bangladesh. Indo–Bangladeshi cooperation led to the arrest of several insurgent leaders that had been operating in India’s northeast. Dhaka handed over terrorist suspects to New Delhi, even before the two sides had established an extradition treaty. But their 2,500-mile-long shared border has also been the source of much friction. Bangladesh is resentful of Indian border fencing and several incidents of Indian border security forces killing innocent Bangladeshis.
Many Bangladeshis believe the partnership has become asymmetric and that India has not adequately reciprocated Bangladeshi concessions. The Hasina government expected two major dividends of its open-arm relationship with India: progress on water-sharing discussions and a land-border agreement to resolve decades-old enclave issues between the two nations. Neither has materialized, partly because of the low priority assigned to these issues by New Delhi and also due to Indian domestic politics. The two sides were close to finalizing an agreement on water sharing in 2011, but one week before Indian Prime Minister Singh was slated to travel to Dhaka, the powerful Chief Minister of West Bengal, the Indian state bordering Bangladesh, denounced the agreement, leading the Singh government to back away from it. During a recent trip to India, the Bangladeshi foreign minister was unable to make progress on either the water-sharing or land-boundary agreements.
The Indian lack of reciprocation toward Bangladesh is beginning to have consequences. The opposition BNP is criticizing the Hasina government for the imbalance in the Indo–Bangladesh relationship. The BNP says the Hasina government has been too weak, and is incapable of securing the country’s interests when it comes to dealing with India. New Delhi must recognize the importance of solidifying relations with Bangladesh now, or risk facing a less cooperative Bangladesh in the years to come.
Bangladesh heads toward its 10th national elections without the participation of most political parties and amidst concern that escalating violence will seriously mar the polls. Political volatility has already affected the investment environment. There is concern that escalating street violence could even lead to political destabilization, similar to what unfolded in late 2006 when the military took power. Without the BNP and its coalition partners’ participation, the polling process will lose credibility among large parts of the Bangladeshi population, as well as with the international community.
The U.S. has a strong interest in ensuring that Bangladesh remains stable and on a path of democratic reform and economic development. To encourage Bangladesh in this direction, the U.S. should:
By helping Bangladesh continue on a democratic path, the U.S. can help ensure it remains stable and immune to the influence of global terrorist movements. Sustaining and enhancing U.S. engagement with Bangladesh also ensures that an important South Asia nation does not become unduly dependent on Chinese investment and trade, and thus more susceptible to Chinese political influence.—Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation. Maneeza Hossain is Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, and Director of the Daily Ittefaq, a newspaper in Bangladesh.
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