Saturday, March 23, 2013

Bangladesh: Punish War Criminals but Maintain Law and Order



IN THE ongoing war crime trials in Bangladesh, 10 top leaders of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami and two leaders of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are being tried. The verdicts in three cases have come and the remaining ones are likely to come in the next one month or so. While it is necessary to punish war criminals to set right the record of history, it is equally important for the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government to maintain law and order. A serious decline in the law and order situation would defeat the very purpose of war crime trials that are nearing completion.

It is believed that extremist elements grew in Bangladesh because they were not brought to book in the aftermath of the liberation war. Sheikh Muzib-ur-Rahman, father of the Bangladeshi nation and under whose leadership the war of liberation was fought, himself gave amnesty to these war criminals. His objective was very different. He thought that such an act of generosity will lead to all sections of society coming together and marching forward. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Mujib was murdered by the enemies of the liberation war on 15 August 1975.

Mujib’s murder brought about a very different trend in Bangladeshi politics. Zia-ur-Rahman who came to power subsequently established the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and used Islam to legitimize his rule. This emphasis on Islam brought the focus back on the Islamist parties, the most important of which was the Jamaat-e-Islami. Zia rehabilitated leaders of this party many of whom returned from Pakistan. Islamists leaders also received prominent positions in his administration.

This trend of emphasis on Islam continued during the regime of General Ershad, who declared Islam as the state religion. Even after the restoration of democracy in 1990, the Islamist forces represented by the Jamaat-e-Islami only grew stronger. The Jamaat had participated in the movement for the restoration of democracy along with other mainstream political parties. It subsequently offered support to the BNP-led government. Through these deft moves it tried to gain acceptability in the country’s political set-up of Bangladesh.

Soon, however, the Jamaat started showing its true colour. It is the source of all other extremist and terrorist groups in Bangladesh. During the regime of the four-party coalition, the Jamaat was part of the government and terror groups supported by it launched attacks on all secular political groups in the country. An attack was also directed at Sheikh Hasina in August 2004 in which she nearly lost her life.

Civil society in Bangladesh and especially the freedom-fighters (Mukitjodhas) have realized that if politics has to remain moderate then these extremist elements have to be weeded out. It was also realized that these forces have grown stronger because they did not get their due punishment for the war crimes they had perpetrated during the liberation war. Through a sustained movement they brought this issue on to the national agenda during the run-up to the 2008 elections. Seeing the popular sentiment in favour of prosecution of war criminals, the Awami League, known for its pro-liberation role, felt encouraged to adopt this issue as its own.

However, the actual prosecution of war criminals is fraught with danger. The Jamaat has increased its influence in Bangladesh over a period of time. Today it commands significant material resources and muscle power in the country. People sympathetic to the Jamaat can be found in the administration and even in the military. The February 2009 Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutiny is strongly suspected to be engineered by the Jamaat to foil the war crime trials.

The best way for the Jamaat to foil war crime trials is by creating a law and order situation. In any case Bangladesh in known for ‘confrontational politics’ with the two main political groups continuously struggling against each other on the streets rather than engaging in political debates in parliament. In this context, the job of the Jamaat has been made easy after the support it has received from the BNP.

In the days to come, it is expected that the Jamaat would create further problems for the law enforcement agencies by unleashing its violent cadres most of whom aspire to establish an Islamic state in Bangladesh. Deterioration in the law and order situation may also prompt the army to take over the administration or control power through a proxy as was done in January 2007 when a similar situation had arisen in the country. This does not, however, mean that the war crime trials should be stopped. The war crime trials should be taken to their logical conclusion to create a precedent that will discourage the extremist and radical elements. But the government of the day in Bangladesh must also act swiftly and efficiently to maintain law and order so that the situation is not used by extra-constitutional forces to thwart the whole exercise.

First published in International Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), India March 21, 2013