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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

What Pakistan left behind in Bangladesh, the war-scarred demand a permanent solution


OLD GHOSTS stalk the streets of Dhaka. Over the past month, tens of thousands of people have gathered at Shahbag, near the National Museum in downtown Dhaka, demanding justice over the war crimes of 1971. There is a large portrait of Jahanara Imam, the “mother of martyrs,” who lost her son during the war, and fought for justice for all those who perished. She died in 1994, but her spirit is vividly present at Shahbag.

The people at Shahbag demand the death penalty for those found guilty by the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal, which is trying several prominent politicians, most of them from the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party, for war crimes. Many of Jamaat’s aging leaders, who were young men during the war, opposed Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. The demonstrations have turned violent: the death sentence given to one of the accused has led to widespread rioting, with the Jamaat’s youth wing vandalizing martyrs’ memorials in different cities. Police have opened fire and nearly 100 people have died. Troops are on alert. One of the bloggers who pioneered the protests has been found murdered. If Bangladeshis settle scores of the unfinished business of 1971 on the streets, it can get more violent.

Hartals or strikes have returned. Opposition leader and former prime minister Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)—whose leader Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury from Chittagong also stands accused before the international crimes tribunal—called for a strike that book-ended the three-day visit of India’s Bengali-speaking president, Pranab Mukherjee, to Dhaka. Expressing that strikes sometimes turn violent, Zia declined to meet Mukherjee.

What do the voices from the streets of Dhaka say?

Many narratives are intertwined in this mass of humanity. There is the narrative of the family that lost a loved one in 1971 and which has not been able to find out what happened to that father, or brother, or sister, and has sought justice in vain for four decades. There is the narrative of those who saw their loved ones killed, and have sought an answer from Bangladesh’s ruling class: Why us? Why has nobody been punished? There is also the narrative of the unconsoled, who want nothing less than revenge, and who would like to see those responsible for the bloodshed in the country die at the hands of the state. And there is another important narrative: of Bangladeshis who want to seize and reclaim the promise of liberation, of a secular Muslim-majority country united by a language. This was a nation wary of becoming India, but which never wanted to experience what has become of Pakistan today either.

It took a brash, foolish gesture on the part of a Jamaat leader, Abdul Quader Mollah, to ignite the spark. When the tribunal ruled that he was guilty on several counts of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life imprisonment, the rotund politician decided to cheer his supporters with a partisan, political sign—V for victory—as he made his way to the police van that took him to jail. He has the right to appeal, but his victory sign was meant to tell supporters not to lose heart. When Bangladesh goes to the polls (which it has to by early next year), the BNP will return to power, sweeping aside the ruling Awami League. As the BNP and Jamaat are allies, they will be part of the new government, and the price of that alliance would be freedom for the likes of Mollah—so runs his logic.

In my conversations with many Bangladeshis inside the country and abroad, the one great worry which those seeking justice for the war crimes of 1971 have is that once the government changes, the new one will pardon those the tribunal finds guilty. That assumption is not far off the mark. Many Bangladeshis can name incidents in which the current defendants are accused of having taken part, and they remember too well how over the years they had been rehabilitated politically. Some were elected as parliamentarians, a few became ministers. They belonged to the Jamaat, the party that tried its hardest to prevent Bangladesh from being born. Believing in the original idea of Pakistan, the home for the subcontinent’s Muslims, these politicians and their supporters did not want to see the breakup of Pakistan.

But the breakup of Pakistan had become inevitable after the military regime of Gen. Yahya Khan showed its utter incompetence to run a diverse nation. First, most people in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) felt that West Pakistan was tone deaf when the east cried for help after Cyclone Bhola devastated the countryside and killed nearly 3 million people in 1970. Then, in the elections that followed, against their expectations, not only did the east vote overwhelmingly for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League (it won 160 of the 162 seats in the east) but it also handed the party a clear majority in the national parliament which had 300 seats. That upset the calculations of the generals, and, critically, of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had aspirations of becoming Pakistan’s prime minister.

Instead of inviting Rahman to form a government, the generals and the politicians in the west decided to engage the east in prolonged negotiations. As we know by now, at the same time, preparations were being made to use military force to suppress any rebellion. The negotiations stalled; then broke down. Gen. Tikka Khan, assigned to take charge of the east, sent the Army into the streets, and the massacres began: first at Dhaka University, then in other populated areas, targeting and singling out those who were Awami League supporters, leftists, secular-minded, Hindus, and others. Countless thousands were killed in the first few weeks. Ten million refugees came to India.

The Pakistan Army was aided by two militia groups—Al Shams and Al Badr—and those now pejoratively referred to as razakars–many of them supporters of the Jamaat. Some of them encouraged Pakistani troops, others openly colluded with them, pointing out and often accompanying troops to the homes of Hindu and Muslim Bangla nationalists which supported the guerrilla force, Mukti Bahini. Hundreds of thousands died during those nine months. Many Bangladeshis say the figure goes as high as 3 million. The Hamoodur Rahman Commission that the Pakistan government set up after the war said the figure is perhaps a fraction of that, around 26,000. The Pakistani estimate is way too low; the Bangladeshi figure is being disputed. But it is no longer a matter of 3 million vs. 26,000. For the fact is that it takes exceptional callousness to describe the massacre of so many as “only 26,000 deaths.” Without getting into a statistical debate about how many people died—always a hard task 42 years after the fact, particularly in a predominantly rural society like Bangladesh, where records, even if kept, were often lost—the fact remains that an outrageously large number of civilians were killed, and they had committed no crime. This constituted a crime against humanity at the very least, and most Bangladeshis refer to it as gonohotta (genocide).

What’s less contentious is the number of women who were raped. Those figures range between 200,000 and 500,000, and such figures, the wide range apart, are entirely possible. In the course of my research of that period, including interviews with nearly 40 women who were sexually assaulted, it is apparent that rape was commonly used as a weapon of war, to intimidate and subjugate the Bengali, to assert power, or to get temporary sexual gratification.

The war escalated in 1971 after the Pakistan Air Force attacked Indian airfields in early December, and India retaliated with full force. It helped the Mukti Bahini reach Dhaka, leading to the surrender of over 90,000 Pakistani forces to the Indian Army. In the protracted negotiations that followed, India and Pakistan agreed to exchange prisoners of war, including 195 Pakistani officers and men whom Bangladesh asserted were war criminals. Bangladesh agreed because Pakistan said it would prosecute those officers and men under its laws. Pakistan never did that, feeding the sense of betrayal Bangladeshis felt toward the Pakistan Army.

But the Jamaat was in Bangladesh and it was known that its leaders had fought for a united Pakistan. Bangladesh passed a law that would set up tribunals to try the accused. But in 1975, Mujibur Rahman was assassinated and the government that took over pardoned the killers. The matter of trying the collaborators was allowed to fade. The once-banned Jamaat was allowed to operate again and became active in politics, Rahman’s killers were allowed to fly to safety, and over the years, some joined politics and others got diplomatic assignments. The discontent simmered.

When elections were announced for 2008, the Awami League promised that it would revive the tribunals and try those accused of war crimes. Astonishingly, the party was swept to power with a large majority; it got massive support from the young. Many of those who voted for the Awami League weren't even born in 1971; they learned about the conflict only from hushed memories of their parents or grandparents, rekindled when an anniversary came, and a promising young student’s photograph on the wall reminded the family of what was lost.

Immediately upon assuming power, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Rahman’s daughter, began the unfinished trials of her father’s killers. The verdicts came swiftly. The accused were sentenced to death. The punishments were carried out immediately. That explains the cries for “phaansi,” or death by hanging, that you hear at Shahbag—people who have gathered there want justice, and they want capital punishment not only because some of them seek revenge, not only because some feel that’s the only way to atone for the past, but also because of what they fear Mollah’s victory sign signifies. If the BNP and Jamaat return to power, is there any guarantee that these people, now convicted, will not roam free, and worse, seek retribution against those who bravely came out and offered their testimony before the tribunals?

The Shahbag spirit does pose a serious dilemma for liberals. Most human rights groups and liberals support tribunals for international crimes because these offer hope and redress against impunity. Commanders, soldiers, even politicians responsible for committing grave rights abuses have often remained at large. In some countries they remain part of the political setup; in others, they are allowed to go into exile. In some instances they become turncoats and join the new government. But few have been punished and sent to jail. That’s where liberals want the story to end. They are against the death penalty on the grounds that states often use it as a way to get even (the subcontinent has enough examples of that, Pakistan included). Prosecutors, and even judges, make mistakes. The penalty is imposed disproportionately on the poor and the powerless; the wealthy often get away with murder. And finally, because it is morally wrong to allow the state to take away any individual’s life.

Bangladeshi liberals are aware of all this, and yet many say that viewing the Shahbag movement only as bloodthirsty and vengeful is wrong. The underlying cry is for justice. But people have lost faith in the ability of the state to ensure that a punishment once given would stay; they have no assurance that a future government won’t pardon these men and let them go free. Better to execute them, so goes their reasoning.

What complicates the narrative, however, is the way the trials have been administered. Of the three sentences handed out so far, one is for life imprisonment (Mollah) and two (Abul Kalam Azad, who was tried in absentia since he’s untraceable, and Delwar Hossain Sayeedi) for death. Some of the evidence used is not from eyewitnesses. Sometimes, defense submissions have been ignored. One defense witness has disappeared. In a few instances rules have been changed halfway through the trial. In one verdict, one judge hadn’t heard half the arguments, and another judge hadn’t heard any of the oral submissions. And most controversially, the former presiding judge was recorded as having conversations with two academics based abroad in which tactical aspects concerning the trials were discussed. According to The Economist, the two academics also allegedly had conversations with the prosecutors as well, discussing witnesses, questions to be asked, and so on. Such conversations raise suspicion given that the accused are being tried for capital offense. Defense lawyers point out that judges have the right to consult experts, relying on the principle of amicus curiae, or even to discuss finer points of law. But the process has to be transparent—in this case it was not, and the presiding judge stepped aside. The defense sought a retrial. That plea was not granted.

Nobody denies that exceptional crimes were committed during the war. It is also true that by the standards of trials in Bangladesh, the tribunal has operated in a dignified manner. But such incidents detract from the purpose of the trials, giving its opponents ammunition to raise serious questions about the process, the result of which undermines the pain of the victims seeking justice. What also causes concern are remarks by Awami League politicians, including ministers, who have told the tribunal that it must pay heed to the voices and demands on the streets as it decides on the right punishment for those found guilty. This comes perilously close to the cliché “Give ’em a fair trial and then hang ’em.” If that is the foregone conclusion, it would weaken the tribunal’s credibility further, and, in a very real sense, disrespect the martyrs of 1971.

It is likely that the passionate spirit of Shahbag will subside as more verdicts are handed out. Students have colleges to attend, office workers have piled-up in-trays to clear, roads have to be vacated, traffic resumed. But the clarion call of Shahbag cannot be forgotten. Horrendous crimes had taken place in this country. Millions of lives were affected; virtually every family, every community, and every village knows someone who died during the war. Many had been made refugees and had to rebuild their lives.

But the most significant message of Shahbag is that in a country where Muslims form the majority, hundreds of thousands of people turned out in public, defiantly opposing religious fundamentalists—who had been and are violent, and who had sought to remake Bangladesh into an austere, joyless, repressed, faith-run state. They came to Shahbag to reclaim their songs, their music, their poetry, their dance, their colors, their heritage, and their freedoms. They came out so that their women can wear saris or jeans, go to work if they want to, and sing and dance, if they wish to. That’s the truly remarkable aspect of the spirit of Shahbag—of becoming the kind of Bangladesh the freedom fighters died for.

The uprising has a message for India and Pakistan, too: Don’t confuse religious rabble rousers for the majority. Much of the history of that war had lain buried because it was inconvenient to wake up those ghosts. The young people of Bangladesh want that silence no more. They want to dig open graves, and they seek answers. The truth that emerges may be uncomfortable, but it has to be faced. Pakistan too has to face its truth. Toward the end of Pakistan-born Kamila Shamsie’s novel Kartography Maheen tells her niece Raheen: “Bangladesh made us see what we were capable of. No one should ever know what they are capable of. But worse, even worse, is to see it and then pretend you didn’t. The truths we conceal don’t disappear, Raheen, they appear in different forms.”

Bangladesh has had many victims. Its families have suffered grievous hurt, and some of its people who committed criminal acts have evaded justice. They haven’t expressed remorse. One flashed the V sign; another, during his trial, shouted angrily at the judges, and threatened prosecuting lawyers to wait for the day when his party is in power again.

Many wounds are impossible to heal. Those who have suffered brutality know that. But honest accounting of what happened in 1971 is a good place to start. On Dec. 14, 1971, two days before Gen. A. A. K. “Tiger” Niazi surrendered Pakistani troops to Gen. Jagjit Singh Arora of the Indian Army, the razakars went round with Pakistani troops to the homes of professors, doctors, lawyers, and other intellectuals, singling them out and taking them near Rayer Bazaar. There, they were gunned down. With defeat looming, the collaborators and the Army killed dozens of civilians who would have formed the intellectual backbone of the new nation, as if to cripple it at birth. Many families have searched in vain for answers. These trials attempt to bring some justice to their calls.

But that culture of impunity has prevailed too long. Today there stands a monument at Rayer Bazaar, where a poignant question has been left inscribed: “Tomra je bolechhley, bolchheyki ta Bangladesh?” (“Is Bangladesh saying what they wanted to say?”) That question resounded in the valleys and rivers of this wounded nation for four decades. At last, there are some answers.

First appeared in the Newsweek magazine, March 22, 2013

London-based Tripathi is writing a book, to be published by Aleph Book Company, on the 1971 war

Friday, March 22, 2013

Justice in Bangladesh: Another kind of crime

Bangladesh’s war-crimes tribunal is sullying its judicial and political systems

Bangladesh Political Riots Threaten Booming Textile, Apparel Exports

ALEX FRANGOS in Hong Kong, SYED ZAIN AL-MAHMOOD in Dhaka, Bangladesh
BIMAN MUKHERJI contributed from New Delhi

TROUBLES IN Bangladesh are beginning to spoil its reputation among foreign companies that had flooded into the country—and are highlighting risks to investors looking for new manufacturing bases cheaper than China.

An upswing in the past few years that had lifted this impoverished South Asian nation into one of the world's top clothing exporters now risks slipping through its fingers after a series of tumultuous events.

Violent protests this month over the sentencing of three Islamist opposition leaders for war crimes during Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence have led to at least 60 deaths and widespread strikes.

The protests come on the heels of two apparel factory fires, one in November and a smaller one in January, which killed a combined 119 garment workers and attracted widespread negative press overseas. Rights groups said the fires reflected sometimes-dangerous working conditions and lax enforcement of labor standards in an economy that has become a major supplier to American and European retailers.

Now, some companies are speaking of the country in the past tense.

"Bangladesh was a good place to do business. But you have to read the political trends in the world," says Christophe Roussel, chief executive for global nonfood sourcing and logistics at Tesco Corp., the world's third-largest retailer after Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Carrefour SA.

"We are already moving away from Bangladesh," adds Veit Geise, vice president for sourcing at VF Corp., a Greensboro, N.C., company that owns brands such as Wrangler, Timberland and Nautica. "How many eggs do you want in a basket that's basically a powder keg?" Both men were speaking at a meeting of supply-chain executives about sourcing goods in Asia sponsored by the French Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

It isn't the first time pessimism arises around Bangladesh's garment industry; in 2005, the lifting of textile quotas fed worries that smaller garment-producing countries would be crushed by China's greater ability to export. But despite such concerns, Bangladesh's exports have continued to increase. According to data supplied by Bangladesh's Export Promotion Bureau, garment exports grew by more than 10% in the first eight months of the fiscal year ending in June, helped by diversification into emerging markets.

Any effects of concerns around the recent volatility won't be seen for a while. Nevertheless, in the latest period, exports to traditional markets in Europe and North America slowed to a combined growth of around 5% from a year earlier. Analysts say this may be a reflection of nervousness among the world's largest retailers due to sluggish economies as well as a reluctance to risk shipment delays.

The latest unrest ignited Feb. 5 when a war-crimes tribunal sentenced a senior Islamist politician to life in prison. Two other opposition figures have been sentenced to death, sparking what many have called Bangladesh's worst riots since independence from Pakistan. Local producers say they also are suffering from the turmoil.

"We are badly hit," says Rubana Huq, managing director of garment exporter Mohammadi Group. "Thousands of trucks carrying goods to Chittagong port have been burned or damaged during strikes in the last two weeks. Manufacturers are chartering cargo aircrafts to make up for lost time. The country's image has been badly damaged."

Bangladesh had been one of the biggest beneficiaries of a major reordering of the world's low-end manufacturing in the past few years. Rising pay in China has forced companies to find less-costly production locales, especially for goods that require armies of laborers such as apparel, shoes and linens. Bangladesh's exports of clothes have nearly doubled since 2008, creating thousands of jobs and putting a new sheen on the long-struggling economy.

But what many companies have found is that countries like Bangladesh—which seem like alternatives to China, including Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia— have their own obstacles. While salaries might be lower, political instability, poor infrastructure, recurring strikes and labor-law complexities can add their own costs. China's deep supply-chain network is hard to replicate quickly elsewhere, making it difficult for some factory owners to move. Nike Inc. recently said only eight of the 896 factories it worked with in 2011 were in Bangladesh as it reduces its exposure to countries presenting reputational risks.

That means there could be a limit to how much production actually leaves China in the coming years, economists say.

"Whereas China wiped out Korea's textile industry, Bangladesh or Cambodia won't wipe out China's," says Ben Simpfendorfer of Silk Road Economics in Hong Kong.

Tesco has already moved aggressively to diversify its sources of goods away from China. The low-price retailer has reduced its reliance on Chinese factories from about 80% of its goods a few years ago to 60% today, Mr. Roussel said, with Bangladesh playing a big role in that transition. But after recent volatility in the country, Tesco is thinking twice. "We were overloaded in Bangladesh," he said. "It's not about the conditions in the factory; it's the country itself."

Tesco is looking for manufacturing sites closer to its core European markets, such as Turkey, Eastern Europe and Africa. But China will remain its biggest supplier, he says, as China will remain dominant in industries such as toys and electronics.

Any further loss of investor interest in Bangladesh would mark a big lost opportunity for the country, which remains one of the poorest in Asia, with a per capita gross domestic product of less than $2,000 and a history of natural disasters.

What it does have going for it is a large population, with most of its 150 million people of working age, and relatively low wages, which helped fuel a manufacturing boom centered around garment making. After years of rapid growth, Bangladesh's clothing exports have hit close to $20 billion, nearly as much as the second-largest exporter, Italy, according to World Trade Organization data. China, the world's largest clothing exporter, sent abroad $154 billion of clothes in 2011.

Neighboring India has looked on with envy as Bangladesh scooped up more business in recent years. India's garment exports are expected to be around $13 billion this fiscal year which ends in March, around the same as last year and short of the government's target of $18 billion.

But now India sees an opening. A Sakthivel, chairman of India's state-backed Apparel Export Promotion Council, estimates around $500 million of orders have shifted from Bangladesh to India in the past four months. "Some of the buyers are coming back to India," he says.

Azizur Rahman, a senior official of the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone, denied that foreign investors may be pulling out. "The government is determined to keep the export-oriented industries free from political strife," he said. "We have plenty of investment in the pipeline and we hope to maintain our rapid growth."

The government has remained bullish, setting an export target of $28 billion for the 2013 fiscal year ending June 30.

But many manufacturers around Dhaka are skeptical. Garment-industry leaders say buyers have canceled scheduled trips due to the unrest, while manufacturers have incurred steep transport costs to make deadlines.

"The orders are still coming, but we will see the negative effect of the political upheaval in the coming months," said Ahsan Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Instute, a Dhaka-based think tank.

Bangladesh's textile industry is also facing challenges in keeping wages low. Although the minimum wage set by the government of $36.50 a month has remained the same since 2010, wages are set to be reviewed by the government next year, and pressure from labor groups has been rising.

Owners were forced to temporarily close 300 private garment factories in the Ashulia industrial belt outside Dhaka in June last year after clashes between workers and police. The factories reopened after three-way talks between government ministers, manufacturers and workers' unions, and the government promised to give ration cards to workers to buy commodities at subsidized rates.

All those pressures mean more foreign companies may move to reduce exposure to the country, and potentially other nations seen as alternatives to China.

"We source significantly from Cambodia and Bangladesh, but we do want to put a kind of cap on those countries," says Richard Thomas, head of Far East for U.K. department-store chain Marks & Spencer. "There are the political issues and risks associated with them. My personal view is that you shouldn't source more than about 25% of your goods globally from a place like that."

A version of this article appeared March 22, 2013, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall StreetJournal

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bangladesh’s Unfinished War: A Muslim country fights to remain secular

A mural of Jahanara Imam, a political activist and mother of a freedom fighter who was killed in 1971. It is the only portrait allowed in Shahbagh Squareby the protesters. Photo: Shahidul Alam

A CAMPAIGN of violence by Bangladesh’s main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, has left 74 people dead since February 28. They are protesting the death sentence handed down against senior Jamaat leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee by the International Crimes Tribunal, set up by the ruling Awami League.

More than four decades after independence, protesters in Bangladesh are demanding that leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami political party, as well as others, finally be punished for war crimes. Puppets of the alleged war criminals dangle from nooses in Shahbagh Square in Dhaka, Shahidul Alam

Jamaat and its allies have attacked police and uprooted rail lines. Molotov cocktails hurled by them killed a pedestrian in the capital, Dhaka. In a district town, they threw an engineer off a three-story building. Mobs have also attacked members of the country’s Hindu minority, setting their homes on fire. The police, in response, have opened fire, and most of the dead so far are Islamist activists.

As it happens, people opposed to Jamaat were already holding their own mass demonstrations, protesting the perceived leniency of the tribunal, since February 5. That day, another Jamaat leader, sentenced to life in prison rather than the maximum death penalty, emerged from court flashing a victory sign. This gesture incensed the public, who amassed in Shahbagh, a major city center, heeding the calls of young bloggers—much in the manner of the gatherings at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The crowd has repeatedly swelled to tens of thousands since it took control of the square.

Bangladeshis have smarted for decades, as those accused of war crimes during the country’s Liberation War in 1971 were never brought to trial. Through the war, an estimated 3 million people were killed and 200,000 women raped by the Pakistani Army. (Bangladesh was East Pakistan at the time, geographically separated from West Pakistan by the vast expanse of India.) The Pakistanis were aided by local collaborators, many of whom belong to Jamaat.

The crowd at Shahbagh—loath to see Jamaat reap the forensic benefit of witnesses dead and evidence lost over the years—has chanted for the death penalty for convicted mass murderers. To their chagrin, neutral observers have questioned the adequacy of due process in these cases. But this trial was never going to be without controversy.

What makes the Shahbagh movement truly remarkable, though, is its ardent call for a more secular nation. For this Muslim-majority nation, secularism was not a momentary reaction to Pakistani brutality. Bangladesh is the only major Muslim country today with a mass outpouring for more—not less—secularism. This is no longer fertile ground for a party like Jamaat.

Under pressure from the Shahbagh movement, Parliament passed a new law to allow the trial of Jamaat as a party for war crimes. In theory, facing a possible ban, Jamaat could dissolve itself and emerge under a new name, but without any war criminals in its party posts. Yet, true to its past, the party is reacting with violence.

Even as Jamaat’s political future narrows, its potential as an underground terrorist outfit is real. Many of its members are believed to have trained in Pakistani and Afghan camps. They may go so far as to target progressive activists and intellectuals, as they did in 1971. Already one leading blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was murdered outside his home on February 16—the first victim of such disconcerting plans.

What else is dismaying is the manner in which the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party has thrown its full support behind Jamaat. BNP leaders have gone so far as to call the police shootings “genocide” (gonohotta). Their choice of this loaded term is viewed by many as an insult to the memory of the millions of Bengalis who died in 1971 at the hands of the mainly Punjabi Pakistan Army.

It is not clear why BNP is cleaving so closely to malevolent Jamaati politics, unless it is a desperate gambit to overthrow the government through nondemocratic means. But Jamaat and BNP may find that public opinion feels as fiercely about the country’s hard-earned democracy as many do about secularism. Both are founding principles of the nation and enshrined in the Constitution. It is a shame that even after 42 years of independence, more blood may be shed to uphold those cherished ideals.

First published in The Daily Beast, March 11, 2013

K. Anis Ahmed is the author of Good Night, Mr. Kissinger, a collection of stories. His company KKTE was one of the sponsors of the Hay festival

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A dominant Jamaat will make Bangladesh look more like Pakistan, a joyless prospect citizens are rejecting loudly

Crowds and justice at Shahbag


ONE OF the truly significant aspects about the emotional upsurge at Shahbag in Dhaka—the hundreds of thousands of candles, the portrait of Jahanara Imam who lost her son in the liberation war in 1971 and fought for the rest of her life seeking justice—is that an overwhelmingly large number of the demonstrators are under the age of 40. Most were not born when Bangladesh emerged from its blood-soaked birth. Their fight is outwardly for an even harsher punishment (meaning death) for Abdul Kader Mullah, the Jamaat-i-Islami leader who foolishly flashed a victory sign when he was sentenced to life in prison for complicity in war crimes, and others against whom verdicts are awaited. But more fundamentally, they are trying to regain history, to assert their identity. Too often has the promise of Bangla nationalism been stolen, its national aspiration challenged, its spirit of unity based on language—irrespective of faith—reviled, its past rewritten, and the generation that fought for independence betrayed. Now it is time to reclaim the past.

For those who tuned in late: after Pakistan refused to let Sheikh Mujibur Rahman form the national government even after his Awami League had won the majority in elections, and unleashed a reign of terror in its eastern wing, hundreds of thousands of people were killed and women were raped. These criminal acts didn’t occur in isolation; pro-Islamist militia and Jamaat activists actively collaborated with Pakistani forces, leading them to the homes of nationalists, secularists, intellectuals, Awami supporters, Hindus, and others. They also participated in killing, looting, and raping. Ten million refugees arrived in India. In December 1971, Pakistan attacked India, providing India with the legal rationale to join the battle. In two weeks, Pakistani troops surrendered.

After the war, Bangladesh passed laws to try Pakistani troops and collaborators for war crimes. But India and Pakistan wanted to repatriate their prisoners-of-war, and Pakistan said it would try its officers and men who had committed war crimes. It never did, causing justified bitterness among many Bangladeshis who sought justice. A few recent memoirs of Pakistani officers admit some of the crimes, which is a small, necessary conciliatory step, but one many Bangladeshis don’t consider enough.

The assassination of Mujib in 1975 made justice more elusive. The governments that followed not only showed little interest in pursuing the collaborators, they even formed political alliances with the Jamaat, whose leadership comprised young men that most Bangladeshis say were collaborators, and in some instances, direct perpetrators. Adding to the humiliation of victims, some of the Jamaatis became ministers. The political paralysis made things worse.

While campaigning in the last elections, the Awami League promised to revive the prosecutions, and was stunned to receive a massive mandate from the young—many not born in 1971. It set up tribunals to try several accused, all except one from the Jamaat (the remaining accused is with the main opposition Bangladesh National Party, or BNP).

Justice should be firm and swift, and the trial fair. It isn’t Bangladesh’s fault that the trials could not begin for 40 years. But the trials could have been administered in a far better way. While the trials are conducted in a way that’s superior to regular criminal trials in Bangladesh, they do fall short of international standards. There have been serious questions about changed procedures. In one case, the defence has alleged that one of its witnesses has disappeared; in another case, a prosecution witness has died under mysterious circumstances; and rules and laws have been changed during the trial and now, after the verdict (allowing the appellate court to increase the sentence). And, in a sensational development, The Economist magazine revealed perplexing discussions about tactics between the judges and prosecutors with experts based abroad who had no official status. The presiding judge then resigned.

The life imprisonment verdict for Mullah had disappointed many Bangladeshis, but their simmering outrage boiled over when they saw in his “V” sign a message to his followers: wait for elections; we’ll be in coalition with the BNP, and I will be free. Calls for the death penalty for all collaborators intensified. Liberal human rights activists now face the dilemma of seeing a mass movement for justice, which they like, demanding the death penalty, which they dislike. The movement asks: if ordinary criminals get death penalty for murder, why not war criminals?

The government has hastily agreed to some demands, enraging the Jamaat youth, who rioted, vandalizing martyrs’ monuments in several cities. One blogger has been found murdered; four people have died in the violence. As the government is considering banning the Jamaat, the BNP is backing the Jamaat. The nation’s quest for closure threatens to morph into the paralysing dysfunctionality that has characterized its politics.

A dominant Jamaat will make Bangladesh look more like Pakistan, a joyless prospect Bangladeshis are rejecting loudly. But they must hold on to the principles of fair trial, and reject quick fixes and changing rules halfway. The stakes can’t get higher.

First Published: Live MintFebruary 27 2013

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Email:

Monday, March 18, 2013

Kerbside History: The world mustn’t misinterpret a country’s fight for its syncretic soul

SEVERAL MISCONCEPTIONS are afloat around the war crimes trials in Bangladesh, as well as the Shahbag Square protests, that are putting pressure on the government to take concrete steps against the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh.

Critics of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) have voiced reservations about the process of the trial, some have dubbed it ‘unfair’. Another allegation is that the trials are being used against political rivals and ‘opposition’ political figures. Such concerns have percolated through the western media, lobbied by a well-oiled PR machinery working on behalf of a few leading Jamaat figures.

What these detractors fail to understand is that the country, after sending a powerful army back to the barracks through a popular uprising in 1989, is trying its best to get back to its founding principles—the syncretic secular values of the Bengali culture. It is also extremely important for them to have a closure to events surrounding the ’71 war of liberation—a massively emotive issue among a majority of Bangladeshis, both in the country and abroad. The ict is a major step towards these goals.

The country and the state hasn’t created lynch mobs or death squads, or set up summary trials and simply kill opposition leaders, many of whom had admitted to have been involved in the atrocities committed in 1971. The ICT is pursuing the rule of law—however flawed—based on established norms. Also, let us not forget that the establishment of such special tribunals have always been a matter of huge debate all over the world—hailed or abused depending on which side tends to be on trial.

One sees mostly simplistic commentaries in the Indian and the international media. The huge gatherings at Shahbag Square are not about demanding death for a few Jamaat leaders. It is a lot more than that. It is going to decide which way Bangladesh will turn—towards its secular base founded on syncretism, or towards religious extremism, an alien concept imported by the Jamaat.

Leading figures of the current movement that calls itself ‘Generation 70’ did not even witness the war of liberation in ’71 and the atrocities committed by the brutal Pakistani army and its collaborators—Jamaat-led groups like Razakars and al-Badar. Memories of those atrocities have been etched forever in the collective consciousness of the nation. But this younger generation is not just drawing inspiration from memories; one must keep in mind that many of them did lose near and dear ones, killed by the collaborators. Not surprisingly, their demand for justice for the 1971 atrocities resonated with Bangladeshis, and they spontaneously began converging on Shahbag Square.

In a way, this younger generation has been able to rekindle the spirit of the 1952 language movement, which was  mounted against attempts by the ruling West Pakistani elite to impose Urdu as the national language on the Bengali-speaking East Pakistan. That year also laid the foundation for a dream of a secular nation, a dream fulfilled in 1971 after a mass uprising followed by a bloody, nine-month war. Similarly, a multitude poured on to the streets in December 1989, fought pitched battles with soldiers, and forced the military dictatorship to abdicate power.

What these crucial events in the history of Bangladesh establish is that its people have a tremendous capacity to correct the path of its polity whenever it veered away from its core value of liberal syncretism.

Jamaat, an extension of the Salafist doctrine, is a living refutation of these Bangladeshi ideals. Hence, throughout the ’80s and the ’90s, targets of Jamaat and its associated terror groups such as JMB (Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh), JMJB (Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh) or HUJI (Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami) were the progressive, secular elements of society and rural women empowered by NGOs.

The Jamaat is also in a desperate struggle. They can sense the rising public sentiment against them; thus they have embarked on a path of violent confrontation with the state. By blaming India, Hindus in Bangladesh and orchestrating attacks on minorities, they are merely trying to divert attention from the real issues.

The Shahbag Square uprising, fuelled by the elite, middle class and subalterns alike—in sharp contrast to the Anna Hazare-led movement in India—finds Bangladesh in another watershed moment in its history. The world is witnessing a course correction of momentous nature, but unfortunately fails to grasp its importance. Like 1952 and 1971, this uprising appears to be the beacon that will decide Bangladesh’s future.

First published in the Outlook India magazine, March 18, 2013

NAZES AFROZ is former executive editor for South and West Asia of the BBC World Service

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Why Taslima Nasrin support Shahbagh?

Photo: Saleem Samad, Gonojagaran Mancho, Bahadur Shah Park

Having keenly observed the Tahrir Square revolution and the eventual victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists in Egypt, I no longer get easily impressed by crowd-sourced movements.

So when crowds gathered at Shahbagh in Dhaka, I was apprehensive. Since February 5, protesters at Shahbagh have been demanding the death penalty for Abdul Qader Mollah, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes committed during the 1971 War of Liberation. The protesters fear that Mollah would be released if the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), an ally of the Jamaat-e-Islami of which Mollah is a senior leader, were to win the elections due in early 2014.

As a campaigner against the death penalty, I could not support this demand for death. Most people protesting at Shahbagh were born long after the 1971 war. But after Islamisation started in earnest in Bangladesh during the mid-80s, many witnessed how Islamists murdered progressive people, violated people's human rights, oppressed women and tortured non-Muslims in the name of Islam. After decades of maintaining silence, the patience of those protesting had been worn thin and they finally rebelled against the status quo.

I became more interested in the Shahbagh movement when some protesters started demanding a ban on the Jamaat, as well as on the religious schools, banks, clinics and other institutions created with funds from West Asian Islamist sources, whose express desire is to turn secular Bangladesh into an Islamist nation. I am not in favour of banning and censorship in general. But I supported the ban on the Jamaat because in Bangladesh, this political party is nothing more than a terrorist organisation led by known war criminals who raped, maimed and killed thousands in 1971.

In the last 40 years, the Jamaat has been committing an even more serious crime by systematically destroying the country through Islamisation. And yet, driven by the necessities of realpolitik, they have been pardoned, favoured, accorded respect, honoured, and empowered by the politicians and military since 1971. Some of these war criminals who were stoutly against the independence of Bangladesh were made members of Parliament, ministers, and once even president.

The Islamists have gained unbelievable strength in Bangladesh over the years. They have been showing off their strength by harassing, abusing, stabbing and murdering any dissenters. Islamists stabbed Asif Mohiuddin, an atheist blogger, in January. On February 15, they murdered Ahmed Rajib Haider, another atheist blogger and one of the organisers of the Shahbagh movement.

Islamists have also taken to the tactic of calling all bloggers and protesters 'atheists'. This has scared many at Shahbagh. Most of them are practising Muslims and they had cast their lot with the Shahbagh crowd with no other agenda than to demand the hanging of war criminals and seeking a closure for '1971'.

Now that the Islamists have called them atheists, many of them are now falling over themselves trying to prove themselves to be pious Muslims. Instead of saying, 'They are atheists and have the right to criticise religion, but 'no one' has the right to kill them', the 'liberal', 'secular' protesters at Shahbagh are bleating placatory statements: "Jamaat-e-Islami goons are trying to prove that bloggers are atheists, but they are not atheists; they are good people." As if atheists can't be good people!

Liberal Bangladeshis must realise that Islam should not be exempt from the critical scrutiny that applies to other religions as well. They must understand that Islam has to go through an enlightenment process similar to what other world religions have already gone through - by questioning the inhuman, unequal, unscientific and irrational aspects of religion.

If the Shahbagh movement can't make people understand this simple but necessary idea, then real change will not happen, even if some old criminals are hanged.

I know that even the atheists at Shahbagh will say that the time for this idea has not arrived yet. However, I earnestly hope that people will be enlightened enough to realise that there is no real difference between the Islam of the 7th century and the Islam the Jamaat-e-Islami practises to this day.

Sadly, the very nature of Bangladesh has changed greatly. Ordinary people have been alarmingly indoctrinated into the ways of Islamists. I lost the hopes I had for Bangladesh many years ago. But some of them were rekindled by the Shahbagh movement. I truly hope that the movement will turn into a positive political movement for a true democracy and a secular State, a State that affirms a strict separation between religion and the State, maintains a uniform civil code, a set of secular laws that are not based on religion, but on equality, and an education system that is secular, scientific and enlightened.

A war is needed in Bangladesh, a war between two diametrically opposite ideas - between secularism and fundamentalism; between rational thinking and irrational blind faith; between those who strive to move forward and those who strain to push themselves backward; between modernism and barbarism; between humanism and Islamism; between those who value freedom and those who do not.

Every sane person should support the Shahbagh movement since it is a rare and difficult movement in an Islamised country. I also hope that if the Shahbagh movement, in its present form, fails to achieve its goals now, the brave and enlightened people associated with it will not be permanently disillusioned, and will renew their efforts until their dreams come true.

A trend must be set. People need to get angry.

Hindustan Times, March 02, 2013

Taslima Nasreen is an award-winning Bengali writer and human rights activist. Some of her books are banned in Bangladesh where she has been prevented from returning since 1994. She lives in New Delhi. She blogs at