All Sorts of Things

Random posts on all sorts of things designed to inform and provoke.

Bangladesh: Political History Causes Current Violence as the Begums Look to the Future

Protests continue to roil Bangladesh as government supporters and opposition activists battle each other over sentences handed down by the country’s International Criminal Tribunal (ICT).

The ICT began hearing cases against members of the country’s two major opposition parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), for crimes against humanity allegedly conducted during Bangladesh’s March – December 1971 war with Pakistan.

Both JI and BNP contend these trials, which have been ongoing since 2010, are politically motivated while the government claims the ICT is impartial.

As noted above, the alleged crimes date back to 1971 when Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, separated from Pakistan, then known as West Pakistan, after a brutal war which, according to official figures, claimed the lives of three million people and the rape of up to two hundred thousand women.

During and after this conflict, JI, now the country’s largest and most popular Islamic party, was accused of working with Pakistani soldiers and participating in these atrocities.

Following its independence, and despite JI’s repeated denial of the accusations, Bangladesh’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, banned the party and stripped its members of their citizenship. The ban was revoked by the country’s seventh president Zia ur Rahman and JI has been associated with his party, BNP, ever since.

Mujibur Rahman, incidentally, is the father of the current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. He was killed in a coup that involved Zia ur Rahman who is the late-husband of the leader of the opposition Khaleda Zia. Consequently, this conflict is not just political but also generational and quite personal which makes predicting its outcome exponentially more difficult.

It’s unclear if both leaders expected the violent outcome from the ICT’s actions, especially since the tribunal’s initial prosecution did not provoke a significant violent response. The situation changed when the ICT sentenced JI leader Abdul Qader Mulla to a life sentence and he was caught smiling after the verdict.

A number of Bangladeshis including thousands of students considered the sentence to be too lenient and began protesting online and in cities around the country.

This activism caused the government to file an appeal with the Supreme Court asking Mulla be sentenced to death. It also likely played a part in the ICT’s decision, announced one month later, to put another JI leader, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, to death.

While these sentences placated the students, they upset members of the JI and its political partner, the Zia-led BNP, who immediately retaliated by attacking police, public infrastructure, government offices, the homes and temples of Hindus – a minority in Bangladesh – and setting trains and vehicles on fire.

This reaction has given the government a reason to ban JI and parliament has been told Dhaka is researching how the current administration can repeat the action’s of the prime minister’s father.

Obviously this is terrible news for the BNP who counts JI as a valued member of its coalition; JI held multiple cabinet seats during Zia’s most recent administration from 2001 – 2006. The situation is made direr politically because a number of other JI leaders, including its chief, remain on trial and general elections are forecast for next year.

The current protests will likely continue for some time since the JI remains popular amongst its constituents because it’s an honest Islamic party that runs a number of charities, hospitals and religious schools. Furthermore, Zia won’t abandon JI because she needs its support and JI will stick with BNP because it knows that a win for her means pardons – and cabinet positions – for its leaders.

What all parties, including the ruling coalition led by the Awami League, should also consider is that if things continue to remain unstable then the armed forces may once again take over the government.

Indeed, local government officials in 40 districts have already asked for support from paramilitary and army troops and, while this action will most likely tamp down on the violence in the short-term, if the local police is unable to take over security from the military, then these troops won’t go back to the barracks and the country’s nascent democracy will once again be buried.

The government clearly believes the benefits of this instability outweigh its risks. Its opponents accuse it of using the 1971 war for political purposes and turning an Islamic country into a secular nation.

Regardless of one’s opinion about the validity of the latter point, no one can dispute the ruling coalition’s reasoning and justification for the former. It differentiates them from the other parties, generates loyalty among the supporters and, given its history, firmly highlights the sacrifices made by Sheikh Hasina’s family.

The government’s actions also make sense when one considers that the upcoming elections were projected to be relatively close and, through these actions, the government can drastically reduce the BNP’s chances of success.

In the meantime, the Bangladeshis continue to suffer the brunt of this as the ongoing protests have killed over 80 people, injured hundreds and battered an economy that had enjoyed growth rates of around six percent over the past decade. The situation may get worse depending on what further sentences are handed down by the ICT.

Such is the campaign season in a South Asian country and the best one can hope for is a slow simmer until post-elections or after the military takes over.

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This entry was posted on March 7, 2013 by in Global Economy, International Affairs and tagged , , , , , .
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