However the nation of Bangladesh, with more than 120 million inhabitants, is today an important regional power that is trying hard to escape from a legacy of mass poverty and tyrannical rule.
After Bangladesh successfully broke away from Pakistan, for years it resembled a typical Third World state, mired in corruption and dictatorship. Yet, since the military dictator General Mohammad Ershad was overthrown in a fairly bloodless revolution in 1990, Bangladesh has been a lively, imperfect, tumultuous and violent democracy.
As a sympathetic American wrote in 1993: “For Bangladeshis not only watch politics the way Americans watch the Superbowl; they imbibe it. It is the race for power that fascinates — perhaps because it’s a contest that truly draws blood, as scores of candidates, supporters, students, and others are murdered each year in political or quasi-political battles in the cities, in the countryside, and on university campuses.” It should be remembered that throughout history, few democracies ever evolved peacefully. American political history, for example, cannot be said to have been free of riots, arson and murders.
One important and unique aspect of Bangladeshi democracy has been the idea of a “caretaker government” run by the Supreme Court that takes power in the 90 days leading up to a general election. This helps insure that the balloting will be reasonably open and fair. Even with the “caretaker” governments in place, elections in Bangladesh have never been peaceful or free of voter fraud, but the concept has helped keep problems more or less under control.
The first example of a caretaker government took place in 1990 after the fall of Mohammad Ershad’s military dictatorship. The Chief Justice, Shahabuddin took power and afterwards the elections were won by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) under Khaleda Zia, the widow of the assassinated BNP leader Ziaur Rahman.
Since then governments led by the BNP and the Awami league have followed each other in office. The transitions between have been smoothed by the Supreme Court’s “caretaker” role.
Now, however, the Awami League government lead by Sheikh Hasina (daughter of Bangladesh’s first president Mujibur Rahman who along with most of his family was assassinated in a 1975 military coup) wants to do away with the caretaker concept. If this change to the law goes through, it will make a difficult situation worse.
The losers in Bangladeshi elections have always had a hard time accepting their loss. Everyone in the country knows that a large number of votes were cast or counted using what Mexicans used to call “electoral magic”. This endangers the legitimacy of all elected governments. At least with a caretaker government in place the loser has the consolation, minor though it may be, of knowing that the winner was not in a position to cheat on a national basis.
Another problem is that politicians have played far too great a role in the way the Bangladeshi legal system works. Accusations of corruption are often made, Sheikh Hasina herself was indicted in 2007. Yet the prosecutors are rarely able to prove their case or to convict powerful political figures.
To make matters worse Sheikh Hasina’s government has chosen to establish a special tribunal to prosecute war crimes committed against Bangladeshi civilians during the 1971 War of Liberation. If this tribunal were founded on recognized international principles and its procedures were open and its members were known for their integrity and legal accomplishments, then no one would have any reason to complain. Unfortunately, what is happening looks like another case of a politicized show trial with the result predetermined to suit the needs of the ruling Awami League Party.
Officially called the International Crimes Tribunal, Bangladesh (ICT), this special court has been set up with the limited intent of prosecuting only those who were opposed to Bangladeshi independence; those who fought on the winning side are, under the rules of the ICT, immune from investigation or prosecution. The Awami League was 100 percent for independence, but the other parties in Bangladesh include some politicians who were against the War of Liberation as well as politicians who supported it and a few who were neutral right up until the Pakistani Army’s surrender on December 16, 1971. These last are known as the December 16th Division and include large numbers of civil servants, police officers and religious leaders.
The decision to set up the ICT looks like an all-out effort by the Awami League to tear the guts out of their opponents in the BNP and the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami. For the moment, the Jamaat seems to be promoting a uniquely Bengali version of Islamist ideology. One sign of this is the way that the law has been modified to prevent individuals being tried by the ICT from appealing to the Bangladesh Supreme Court.
Another sign that the ICT is less than legitimate under any reasonable understanding of judicial fairness is the fact that some judges were men who were associated with a set of highly political mock trials that were conducted as “street theater” in the 1990s, complete with the ceremonial burning in effigy of the accused. The overlap between what were literally show trials and the ICT has turned the entire exercise into a farce.
Unfortunately, the farce may turn deadly since a member of the Awami League government announced anonymously that the accused would be hanged on the highly symbolic date of December 16, 2012. This announcement was made before any of the accused had been convicted. If the quote is accurate, it perfectly demonstrates the purely political nature of the ICT.
To Americans and to the West in general, Bangladesh matters because since 1990 it has been an example of how a poor Muslim nation can maintain an imperfect, but vibrant and functional democracy. Unfortunately, the Awami League seems to be reverting to its political origins as an aspiring left-wing totalitarian party. Back in the 1970s when it was allied with the Soviet bloc, the Awami League announced that it wanted to set up a one-party system. For years, international observers had assumed that Sheikh Hasina and her supporters had long ago given up the goal of a one-party socialist state, but based on the evidence of the ICT and the abolition of the caretaker tradition, this assumption must be questioned.
While human rights activists will properly hold the Awami government and its members to account, US policy makers and diplomats must be cautious.
There are no easy or happy answers, especially since the American government must take its relationship with India into consideration when it makes any move concerning Bangladesh. However, at the very least Washington will not be able to ignore the way the rule of law and the democratic process are being undermined by what it happening in this populous and culturally important Muslim nation.
Taylor Dinerman is a freelance writer based in New York. He is currently senior editor to Gatestone Institute