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Friday, January 31, 2014

Bangladesh journalist expresses discontent over low turnout in elections hit by political turmoil

Dhaka, Jan 31 (ANI):
Bangladesh journalist Saleem Samad on Friday expressed discontent over low turnout in the recent violence-plagued elections, which were marred by clashes and strikes as the opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotted the polls. 

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League ended with more than two-thirds of seats in a contest that was shunned by international observers as flawed and derided as a farce by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

With fewer than half the seats contested, the outcome was never in doubt. Talking to a reporter in Dhaka, Samad said the polls were first in the last 42 years which were not only low from voter's point of view but also from the candidates'.

Samad said the voter turnout was low due to the fear instilled by the opposition.

First published in the Business Standard, 31 January 2014

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Bangladesh's Non-Election


In early December, after weeks of strikes and road blocks called by the political opposition, the dairy farmers of the Rangpur district, in northern Bangladesh, started protesting the disruption to their business by pouring milk onto highways. For many weeks, they hadn’t been able to get their milk to the processing and packaging plants in the capital; instead, they had to sell it to local confectioners and small restaurants. Supply far outstripped demand.

Across the country, an average of half a million liters of milk was dumped every day that the opposition called a general strike or a blockade. After many such protests since late October, the dairy industry was on its knees. Many small farmers, like those in Rangpur, had borrowed money to buy their livestock and could no longer afford to feed their cows; they started selling the animals and looking for other ways to make a living.

Supermarket shelves in Dhaka grew more sparse. They carried little fresh milk, and no butter, except for shockingly expensive brands imported from India and Australia.

The crisis erupted after the opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami, objected to holding a national election unless the government first handed over power to a neutral caretaker body; it feared rigging otherwise. When the ruling Awami League refused, the opposition leader Khaleda Zia called a series of crippling protests.

B.N.P. supporters and Jamaat-e-Islami unleashed their anger on anyone who defied the strikes, destroying roads, damaging rail lines, torching buses — and killing about 200 people since late October, according to the British newspaper The Independent.

The milk farmers’ plight was just one example of the colossal waste caused by the chaos surrounding the election. Supply roads to the capital were obstructed, and across the country, milk soured on roads and vegetables rotted in fields. The garment industry, a major engine of the economy, was in jeopardy because of delayed deliveries to international buyers. Shahidullah Azim, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told Reuters early this month that up to $1 billion in orders were at risk in the weeks ahead if stability did not return.

But as political negotiations foundered, the opposition decided to boycott the election. So when the vote took place on Jan. 5, like many of my fellow citizens, I didn’t bother to cast a ballot. The sole candidate in my constituency — an ally of the Awami League — was running uncontested. Some 152 other members of Parliament from the Awami League and affiliated parties also ran against no competition, and the 147 remaining Awami League contestants faced off against weak independent candidates. (In the end, the Awami League won 232 out of 300 seats.) Bangladesh is now in the unprecedented situation of having a Parliament with no real opposition.

How much staying power can such a government have? Enough to serve the whole term, it turns out, no matter how dysfunctional the situation. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has had the good sense of forming a new cabinet that is relatively fresh and untainted, leaving behind many ministers suspected of corruption. And while the Awami League has taken a hit in terms of popularity for staging an election with no serious contender, the B.N.P. seems to have come out of the experience even more discredited.

Many people have been put off by its hard-line stance and violent tactics. The B.N.P. has refused to sever its links to the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami, even though that group was widely believed to be behind much of the street violence. On polling day and in subsequent weeks, Hindu minorities were targeted by Jamaat-e-Islami members simply for having gone out to vote. Especially in northern districts, where religious minorities are concentrated, Hindu families have been attacked, their homes torched and their businesses destroyed. According to one count, up to 700 people may have been affected. These attacks have been widely condemned, and not just by Hindus, with protests taking place throughout the country.

Most important, economic considerations will prevail over concerns about political representation, and this will favor the new status quo. The cost of more upheaval would be too high, and the prevailing mood now is for restoring economic stability. Businesses cannot afford another disruptive year. The Center for Policy Dialogue, an independent think tank, estimates the total economic loss at more than $6.3 billion. The transport sector has borne the brunt of the losses, followed by the agricultural sector and the clothing and textile industries.

Previous elections in Bangladesh were celebrated with great fanfare: Voters would display their inky thumbs with pride. Not this time. Still, after the near-standstill of this fall, a semblance of normality has returned. There has been no major public outcry yet over this lopsided election. Children are going back to school. The roads in the capital are reassuringly clogged with traffic again. Butter has returned to the supermarket shelves. The fundamental political issues remain, but for now, an uneasy peace holds.

First published in The New York Times, January 29, 2014

Tahmima Anam is a writer and anthropologist, and the author of the novel “A Golden Age.”

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Time for a New U.S. Policy in Bangladesh


Although situated in close proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bangladesh has to this point somehow avoided becoming a major headache for Washington. Yet, given recent developments, Bangladesh could soon cause U.S. officials a migraine.

Bangladesh is currently suffering some of the worst political unrest in its history. After several months of unprecedented levels of political violence, a deeply flawed election took place on January 5, the ruling party and opposition are at loggerheads today. With no end in sight to this political crisis, street violence and other unrest is bound to continue—particularly in the wake of heavily politicized trials for war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war. Washington needs to wake up before the powder keg of this country spirals out of control.

However, first it is important to understand what is at stake. Over the years, Bangladesh has transformed itself in marvelous ways, serving as an example to other developing nations. The Bangladesh Bank (equivalent to the Federal Reserve) has the second highest foreign currency deposits in South Asia after India, while the country’s garment industry has become the world’s second largest. Significantly, this multi-billion-dollar industry—housed in the third largest Muslim country in the world—is largely driven by women. In Bangladesh, many more girls are in school than boys.

Furthermore, Bangladesh demonstrates an array of human development successes, ranging from decreased mortality rates to increased average incomes and less poverty. A Bangladeshi institution, Grameen Bank, has pioneered microcredit financing. Additionally, the world’s largest non-governmental organization, BRAC, has become a globally active entity whose latest tasks include helping rebuild Afghanistan. Corruption notwithstanding, some state institutions—including the Bangladesh army—have an impressive record as well. Some may associate Bangladesh’s army with mutinies and coups, but in fact it has also been lauded for its extraordinary contribution to U.N. peacekeeping missions. In honor of the great services provided by Bangladeshi forces, the African nation of Sierra Leone has declared Bangla its second language.

Meanwhile, Dhaka shelters half-a-million registered Rohingya minorities in its territory. Similarly, ghettoes inhabited by people of Pakistani origin still dwell in the heart of Dhaka. Neither Islamabad nor Naypyidaw is willing to take back these descendants—making Bangladesh the de facto safe haven for these displaced people.

To be sure, Bangladesh is also accused of providing havens for more unsavory populations. Delhi thinks Bangladesh is a potential sanctuary for separatists fighting for the independence of the northeastern states of India. Bangladesh has also been accused of harboring militants sponsored by the Pakistani intelligence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some in Washington are concerned that Bangladesh could fall into the hands of terrorists. This is a highly misplaced concern, however.

Bangladesh has significantly curbed religious-based terrorism in recent years. Furthermore, it has helped India by arresting some of its wanted extremists. Recently, Dhaka has signed a long-awaited extradition pact with India. India appears convinced that Dhaka will continue to clamp down on anti-India activities if Sheikh Hasina remains in power. Her administration’s demonstrated willingness to support Indian interests significantly reduces Indian security worries on its Eastern flank. This helps explain why India has supported Hasina’s recent controversial reelection.

Since human rights and promoting democracy have been cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy, it is understandable that America is unable to applaud the deeply flawed election of late that returned Hasina to power. Washington’s cautious efforts in recent weeks to help bring the government and opposition together—so that they can come to an agreement to hold a fresh election—are welcome. Nevertheless, much more needs to be done.

Belatedly, U.S. policymakers seem to have realized Bangladesh’s overall importance in a number of sectors. Although President Obama has suspended GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) benefits for Bangladeshi garment manufactures, “Made in Bangladesh” still remains a trusted brand among American retailers and consumers. American conglomerates now consider Bangladesh a lucrative destination with the rise of a strong middle-class population. What is less clear is whether Washington has recognized Bangladesh’s strategic importance. Thanks to geography, the country lies somewhat equidistant from three nuclear powers. It sits along an important channel that transports massive amount of freight every year.

Washington, which has already wisely increased its military aid to Bangladesh, would be wise to build a strategic partnership with Bangladesh in order to help protect American interests in the vast Indian ocean—a region that stretches from Eastern Africa to Southeast Asia, with Bangladesh right in the middle.

Unfortunately, none of this can happen if Bangladesh’s political deadlock continues to grind on. Ongoing political clashes can end up in lawlessness, which could enable indigenous vigilante groups to proliferate. This in turn could provide an environment ripe for foreign insurgent groups.

What this all suggests it that despite Bangladesh’s many success stories—it faces many impending dangers ahead. Therefore, it is time that Washington adopts a more robust policy on Bangladesh. A prime focus of a revamped policy should be trade. Washington should pursue a bilateral trade partnership that emphasizes not only commerce, but also the importance of labor rights, transparency, and countercorruption measures within Bangladesh’s economy.

In addition, American cooperation, whether technological or financial, to bolster Bangladesh’s energy sector would come as a great relief to DhakaBangladesh’s economy is performing as projected due to acute scarcities of power. With a steady growth of urbanization and dwindling indigenous energy sources (mainly in the form of natural gas), Bangladesh thus is badly in need energy assistance—an area Washington can be of great help. The U.S. has a strong interest in greater energy security throughout South Asia, and has advocated for cross-regional pipelines and financed energy projects in Pakistan. Therefore, Bangladesh is a logical next step.

On the political side, Washington should exert pressure on both the ruling party and opposition to take disputes off the streets and on to the negotiating table. Both parties should be encouraged to explore new avenues for peaceful dialogue—such as social media—and other nonviolent means to engage with the masses. If democracy is for the people, then it is virtually absent in Bangladesh where political parties show little interest in being accountable to their constituents.

Democracy in Bangladesh—the embodiment of a moderate Muslim nation—is now imperiled. The United States can no longer be complacent about the nation a famous American secretary of State once notoriously referred to as a “basket case”—yet has now become, despite its economic and democratic achievements, one of the biggest tinderboxes in Asia.

First published in The National Interest, January 27, 2014

Arafat Kabir is a regional politics analyst based in Bangladesh. Follow him @ArafatKabirUpol.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Bangladesh: Election amid anarchy


The ruling Awami League wins an election marred by boycott and violence. But the only solution to a looming political crisis is another round of elections with full political participation sooner rather than later.

AMID unprecedented violence, Bangladesh finally held its much-debated 10th parliamentary elections on January 5, allowing the ruling Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, to form the new government. However, the major opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which boycotted the elections and tried to resist the electoral process, continues to question the legitimacy of the mandate.

The Bangladesh Election Commission has declared the Awami League winner in 139 out of the 147 seats to which elections were held. Having won 127 seats uncontested, the ruling party has 231 of the 300 seats, a clear three-fourths majority in parliament. The Jatiya Party, which won 33 seats, is likely to be the main opposition. The Workers’ Party won six seats, the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) five and the Tarikat Federation one. The 13 independent candidates who won are mostly rebels from the ruling party who defeated its official candidates.

In one of the most violent elections Bangladesh has ever had, opposition activists torched hundreds of polling centres, destroyed ballot papers and boxes, killed or injured polling officials and attacked voters. Polling was cancelled at 540 centres out of 18,000, that is 3 per cent of the centres.

In her post-election press conference, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked Khaleda Zia, the leader of the rightist-Islamist opposition alliance, to give up terrorism in the name of democratic movement and discard the Jamaat-e-Islami, which had violently opposed the country’s independence from Pakistan. She said she was ready to go in for a mid-term election that would be fully participatory if the opposition agreed to this.

Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad said the holding of the election against all odds was in itself a big achievement. According to Election Commission figures, around 41.5 million people, or 40 per cent of the electorate, cast their votes. Violence, however, had its impact on the turnout. With their victory assured, even Awami League supporters, except die-hard ones, stayed away from the polling booths.

The turnout was low in the northern and western strongholds of the BNP and the Jamaat, but in many areas, including the Greater Chittagong, Dhaka and Barisal regions, it was remarkably high, according to the Election Commission.

Political legitimacy
In the highly controversial elections of February 15, 1996, under the Khaleda Zia government, which Awami League, in the opposition then, boycotted, the turnout was only about 20 per cent. However, the question of the legality of that parliament never arose. It was this parliament that passed the 13th Constitution amendment Bill incorporating the “non-party caretaker system”. The BNP demanded that the 2013 parliamentary elections be held under a non-party caretaker government, a system the outgoing parliament reversed. Though the new parliament may be controversial in the eyes of the parties that did not join the election or failed to stop it, observers say in no way can it be termed “illegitimate”. However, its political legitimacy may be questioned because it was not fully participatory.

While the Awami League expressed satisfaction with the election, the BNP and the Jamaat called it “a farce”. However, a South Asian group of electoral management bodies observed that the turnout was “good” in some polling booths while in some others it was “not so high”. Some local observers said the voter turnout was “very low” as many candidates had not tried to encourage voters to exercise their franchise and because of massive violence.

Constitutional requirement
In Bangladesh, holding of the election before January 24 this year had become a constitutional necessity. But the opposition not only boycotted it but also resorted to extreme violence to resist the democratic exercise. As many as 100 people died in election-related violence across the country while more than 500 people died in violent protests organised by the BNP and the Jamaat in 2013 in a bid to dislodge the government.

Bangladesh has seen many violent political upheavals in the past 34 years. But the violence unleashed by the BNP and the Jamaat this time has been the worst. In the most anarchist manner, 531 educational institutions, where polling centres were housed, were either burnt or damaged. These include primary schools, high schools, colleges and madrassas.

The elections also served as a grim reminder to the religious minority of the brutal treatment its members received 43 years ago from marauding Pakistani forces and their local cohorts. Homes and property of Hindus were attacked on the assumption that they had voted for the ruling party or ignored the directive to boycott the elections. Hundreds of houses were burnt or damaged, and a large number of Hindus fled their homes. The attacks were carried out systematically by the activists of the BNP and the Jamaat.

The Jamaat, as also the BNP, was opposed to the landmark war crimes trials conducted to bring to justice the perpetrators of mass murder and rape in the 1971 war of liberation. The judicial process, which a sovereign state cannot relinquish, also alarmed Pakistan, whose National Assembly recently endorsed a resolution condemning the execution of Jamaat leader Quader Mollah, who had been convicted by Bangladesh’s apex court for war crimes in 1971.

The political crisis deepened when the BNP’s demand for a caretaker government to oversee the election was integrated with the Jamaat’s demand to relinquish the war crimes trials. When Khaleda Zia virtually took the leadership of both BNP and the Jamaat, it took the nation by surprise as to why the former Prime Minister had to risk whatever liberal image her party had. Her willing leadership of the entire “anti-liberation forces”, or the “neo-Pakistanis” as they are called, has alarmed a large segment of the population, among them even critics of the Awami League.

The January 5 election was thus seen also as an exercise to check the possible rebirth of religious terrorism and as a deterrent to the growth of “neo-Pakistani extremists” on Bangladeshi soil. The Islamists, through violent means, were apparently trying to capitalise on the election to make a comeback.

Violent turn
There was no guarantee that the Khaleda Zia-led alliance would have joined the election even if it was rescheduled. The ruling party tried to negotiate with the opposition to find common ground which was acceptable to all parties. Sheikh Hasina herself invited Khaleda Zia for discussion, but the latter refused.

The international community led by the United States also tried in vain to mediate between the two leaders to bring them to the negotiating table. Diplomatic efforts were also on by U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco.

The BNP-Jamaat alliance not only refused to participate in the election without a “non-party caretaker government” but vowed to foil it by any means. It declared a countrywide hartal and blockade, which continued for months. The Jamaat and its militant students’ wing, Islami Chaatra Shibir, resorted to wanton destruction and killing.

The Jamaat-Shibir cadre, reportedly in collaboration with the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir and other radical groups, struck terror all over. They targeted buses, trucks, cars, rickshaws, autorickshaws and cargo vehicles using crude bombs, gunpowder, gasoline, petroleum, stones, bricks, batons and other weapons. All modes of public transport, government offices, businesses and industries were attacked indiscriminately. The armed cadre also cut more than 25,000 large trees, set fire to over 10,000 vehicles, and attacked dozens of minority religious institutions. The violence affected the nation’s economy.

Bangladesh has long been divided into two radically opposite political and ideological camps, “pro-liberation” and “anti-liberation” or “neo-Pakistanis”. Though out of power for more than seven years, the BNP and the Jamaat in the meanwhile had won many local elections, including major city corporations, and a few parliamentary byelections.

But Khaleda Zia was hell-bent on reviving the non-party caretaker system to hold the election and on forcing the government to amend the Constitution. The outgoing Parliament had revoked the system following a landmark verdict of the Bangladesh Supreme Court which declared the non-party caretaker system undemocratic and unconstitutional. Having scrapped the caretaker provision through a constitutional amendment, it was impossible for Sheikh Hasina to bring back something that would demoralise her party before a crucial election.

In the midst of the political stand-off, Sheikh Hasina offered an olive branch to the opposition to encourage her opponents to join the election—she offered them Cabinet berths in an “all party government” that would supervise the election. The opposition rejected the offer. Therefore, the government says, it had no other alternative but to go in for the election.

International reaction
The U.S.-backed international community sided with the anti-election grouping, lending vital support to the Jamaat and the BNP. The E.U. and the U.S. have repeatedly requested everyone to not resort to violence, but without any specifics.

Terming the continuing violence surrounding the elections “unacceptable”, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked the political parties to resume “meaningful dialogue” for an inclusive political process. Instead of toeing the U.S. line in debunking the elections as “not at all credible”, the U.N. chose to lambast the unprecedented violence that left at least 22 people dead on the day of polling. Ban Ki-moon also called upon all parties to exercise restraint and ensure an environment conducive to protecting the people’s right of assembly and expression.

Since 1996, when Khaleda Zia was forced to step down barely a few months after a “farcical” election earlier that year, caretaker governments have conducted elections in Bangladesh. (Two general elections were held in Bangladesh in 1996, the first on February 15, which the BNP won following an Awami League boycott. After that parliament was dissolved, another election was held on June 12, in which the Awami League won.)

The U.S. found nothing wrong with the 1996 February elections and, in fact, sent 48 observers to monitor it. But it found this round of elections “not credible enough” to send observers to monitor them. The E.U. and the Commonwealth too did not send observers.

India, which shares a long border with Bangladesh, differed with the U.S. on the understanding of Bangladesh’s problems. It said that the elections were a “constitutional requirement” which shall be left to the people of Bangladesh and that the democratic processes “must be allowed to take their own course”.

The United Kingdom, France and Germany, too, asked the new government and all political parties to engage in a dialogue to find a path forward to holding fresh national elections. They urged the political leadership to do everything to halt the violence and intimidation, especially against the minorities.

Over the years, the Jamaat-e-Islami has organised itself as a cadre force that is inimical to the interests of the Bangladesh state, in line with its philosophy of 1971. It cannot contest elections as it has been deregistered and most of its key leaders are either convicted or being tried in the war crimes tribunals.

The Islamist party has no future unless it ousts the Awami League from power by all means and gets the war crimes trials foiled. The BNP, which emerged from the cantonment, has become fully dependent on the Jamaat, whose support base will come to roughly 4 per cent of the national votes.

There is no indication that the coalition of the BNP and the Jamaat will cease its violent campaign. With powerful supporters such as the U.S. and also Pakistan, it will continue its violence against what it calls an “illegal” government.

Bangladesh will surely get a legitimate parliament and a legal government, but it will possibly have no respite from violence and political turmoil. The only way to avoid instability is a meaningful dialogue among the stakeholders for an inclusive election sooner rather than later.

First appeared in the Frontline magazine, Print Edition:

Haroon Habib, a liberation war veteran is correspondent for The Hindu newspaper. He is General Secretary of Bangladesh Sector Commander's Forum

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Future looks fraught in polarised Bangladesh

Dhaka's rival political matriarchs must talk to each other for the good of their country


It is a story worthy of great theatre: the bitter rivalry between two women that is tearing apart a country.

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia head the two main political parties of Bangladesh, and have swapped power back and forth for the last 20 years.

The relationship between the two “battling begums” has come under international scrutiny recently, after Bangladesh suffered the most violent election in its short history. More than 100 people died during the campaign, with the country disrupted by strikes, blockades, and violent clashes between police and opposition supporters.

The controversy started well before the country went to the polls on 5 January. Since 1996, Bangladesh has held elections under a neutral caretaker government. In 2010, Hasina’s Awami League party, buoyed by a strong parliamentary majority, decided to abolish the provision. The opposition, Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) took issue with this, saying that a fair election could not be guaranteed without a neutral body overseeing it. The Awami League would not set up a caretaker government. The BNP boycotted the election.

Hasina decided to go ahead with the poll. Inevitably, her party – unopposed in 153 of the country’s 300 constituencies – won. But, equally inevitably, the validity of a contest in which there was only one real option has been questioned. The election result was also undermined by an unusually low turnout, with the government putting the figure at under 40 per cent and others reporting far less than that.

This was not just to do with voters choosing not to vote, but with a systematic campaign of intimidation and violence by supporters of the opposition BNP. Enforcing blockades, strikes, and boycotts, supporters of the BNP and their allies, the Jamaat-e-Islami, petrol bombed buses carrying workers, and set fire to shops that had opened in defiance of the strikes.

“The violence perpetrated against people who have not complied with the opposition call is a criminal act and it is the responsibility of the government to bring the attackers to justice,” says Abbas Faiz, Bangladesh researcher for Amnesty International. “But the majority of people who died during the two months of elections died from gunshot wounds. There is a strong possibility the police may have used excessive force.” Amnesty is calling for immediate investigations to identify the perpetrators of attacks, and to establish whether the force used by police was lawful. In a statement, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called on “all sides to exercise restraint and ensure first and foremost a peaceful and conducive environment, where people can maintain their right to assembly and expression.”

Elections in Bangladesh tend to be big public events, with people getting up early to join famously long queues and proudly displaying their ink stained fingers. Yet people in the capital Dhaka during this year’s election described an eerie calm. Voting took place in just nine of 20 seats in the city. There were vicious attacks on the country’s Hindu minority, who make up around 10 per cent of the population and tend to support the Awami League.

The consensus seems to be that both of the main parties are equally culpable for the farce that the election has descended into. An editorial in the country’s Daily Star newspaper said that the Awami League had won “a predictable and hollow victory, which gives it neither a mandate nor an ethical standing to govern effectively”. Its verdict on Zia and her associates was no better: “Political parties have the right to boycott elections. But what is unacceptable is using violence and intimidation to thwart an election.”

The election chaos comes after a year of ugly political violence in Bangladesh: around 500 people were killed in political clashes during 2013, making it one of the most violent years since independence in 1971. This began with a mass popular movement against religious fundamentalism. Named the Shahbag movement, after the area of Dhaka where it began, the protests swiftly triggered a backlash from the religious right and their supporters. Much of this polarisation – between secularists and Islamists – had been precipitated by the government’s war crimes tribunal. Prosecuting people for crimes committed during the war of independence in 1971, the tribunal has reopened old tensions. Islamists claim it is being used to shut down the opposition, while secularists argue that the sentences (which include the death penalty) are not harsh enough.

Now, several weeks after the election, the political system remains in crisis. Zia is effectively under house arrest, while Hasina’s victory is seen across the board as empty. International and domestic observers alike say that the only way forward is for the two women to sit down together and hammer out a compromise. With early elections expected within the next 18 months, and with political uncertainty and violence continuing, this is ever more pressing.

This article was published on 21 January 2014 at

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Bangladesh Human Rights Watch World Report 2014

Bangladesh tumbled backwards on human rights in 2013. The government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which has long claimed to be liberal and democratic, engaged in a harsh crackdown on members of civil society and the media. In August, it jailed prominent human rights defender Adilur Rahman Khan on politically motivated charges. “Atheist” bloggers were arrested, as was a newspaper editor. The government increasingly accused those who criticized its actions or policies, ranging from the World Bank to Grameen Bank founder and Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, of being involved in plots against it.

On many occasions the government employed violent and illegal measures against protesters, including against followers of the Hefazat-e-Islami movement and those demonstrating against deeply flawed war crimes trials which ended in death sentences against many accused.

Dire conditions for workers in the garment and other industries remained largely unreformed in spite of promises of improvements following the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in April and the deaths of over 1,100 workers. The government finally dropped frivolous charges against several labor rights leaders. The courts also ordered all charges to be dropped against Limon Hossain, a young man wrongfully shot and maimed by security forces in a botched operation in 2011.

Elections scheduled for January 2014 led to increased tensions. Although the Awami League campaigned for a caretaker system while in opposition to guard against fraud and manipulation, once in power it abolished the system, leading to opposition party threats to boycott the elections and increasing the chances of violent confrontations between security forces and protesters.

Crackdown on Civil Society, Media, and Opposition
In February, Bangladesh was gripped by large-scale protests, political unrest, and violence after the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) sentenced a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islaami party, Abdul Qader Mollah, to life in prison instead of death. Hundreds of thousands of people throughout Bangladesh took to the streets in peaceful protests to demand that Mollah be hanged. The situation took a more violent turn after the ICT, on February 28, sentenced another Jamaat leader, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, to death for war crimes. Following this verdict, Jamaat supporters took to the streets. Jamaat supporters were responsible for a number of deaths, but the security forces killed many more with often indiscriminate attacks on protesters and bystanders.

At the same time, the government began a crackdown on critics. Several bloggers who criticized the government for appearing to appease Islamic extremism were arrested.

In April, the law minister announced that the government would increase its control over social media, blogs, and online news websites. On February 16, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission shut down the Sonar Banglablog, known to be operated by Jamaat activists, for spreading “hate speech and causing communal tension.” In a further attack on free speech, on April 11 the police arrested Mahmdur Rahman, the editor of an opposition news outlet, Amar Desh. Rahman was subsequently charged with sedition and unlawful publication of a hacked conversation between the ICT judges and an external consultant initially published by theEconomist magazine. On April 14, police raided the offices of another opposition newspaper, Daily Sangram, and its editor was subsequently charged for printing Amar Desh.

In August, Adilur Rahman Khan of Odhikar, a leading human rights group, was arrested under the Information and Communication Technology Act for allegedly false reporting about killings by government security forces when they dispersed the May 5-6 demonstration by Hefazat, a fundamentalist group demanding greater adherence to Islamic principles. Police raided Odhikar’s offices on the night of August 11, seizing computers which may contain sensitive information on victims and witnesses. Khan was denied bail several times and kept in prison for two months before being granted bail in October on appeal.

In October, parliament passed a bill amending the Information and Communication Technology Act to increase the length of sentences, according the police greater powers to arrest, and making certain offenses non-bailable.

At time of writing, the ICT, set up to prosecute war crimes during the country’s independence war in 1971, had handed down eight convictions, five of which resulted in death sentences. While human rights organizations have long called for fair trials of those responsible, the trials fell short of international human rights standards. In December 2012, theEconomist published damning evidence of collusion between judges, prosecutors, and the government showing that judges were instructing the prosecution on the conduct of the trials, the questioning of witnesses, and written submissions. The revelations led to the resignation of the ICT’s chief judge, but defense motions for retrials were rejected.

Although the ICT had the authority to order measures for victim and witness protection, it summarily dismissed credible claims of witness insecurity. In the Delwar Hossain Sayedee case, judges dismissed credible evidence that an important defense witness was abducted from the courthouse gates and did not order an independent investigation into the allegation. Contradictory statements by key prosecution witnesses were not taken into account in several cases, and judges severely limited the number of defense witnesses. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court reversed the life sentence given to Abdur Qader Mollah and imposed the death penalty after the government pushed through retrospective amendments to the ICT Act, in clear violation of Bangladesh’s obligations under article 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The amendment allowed the prosecution to appeal against the life sentence handed down by the trial judges, which the ICT Act had not previously allowed.

Human Rights Watch and the Economist, journalists and television show guests were issued orders by the ICT to show cause for contempt for critical remarks and reporting on the tribunal.

Unlawful Violence Against Protesters
Bangladeshi security forces frequently used excessive force in responding to street protests, killing at least 150 protesters and injuring at least 2,000 between February and October 2013. While large numbers of protesters were arrested, Bangladeshi authorities made no meaningful efforts to hold members of the security forces accountable. At least 90 protesters were killed by security force gunfire during the clashes among the Shahbagh movement, Jamaat-e-Islaami supporters, and security forces in March and April.

In response to the May 5-6 Hefazat protests, the police, the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) fired indiscriminately into crowds and brutally and unlawfully beat protesters, leading to approximately 50 deaths. At least a dozen members of the security forces and police officers were also killed, as well as three members of the ruling Awami League party.

Labor Rights and Conditions of Workers
Bangladesh has long had notoriously poor workplace safety, with inadequate inspections and regulations. This issue was spotlighted in April, when the Rana Plaza building, which housed five garment factories, collapsed. The building had been evacuated the day before due to cracks in the structure, but the workers had then been ordered back to work. More than 1,100 workers died.

Under domestic and international pressure, on July 15, 2013, the Bangladeshi parliament enacted changes to the Labour Act. The amendments, which did away with the requirement that unions provide the names of leaders to employers at the time of registration and allow workers to seek external expert assistance in bargaining, failed to lift a number of other restrictions on freedom of association. The law also provided exemptions to export processing zones where most garments are made. Even after Rana Plaza, Bangladeshi law remains out of compliance with core International Labour Organization standards, including Convention No. 87 on freedom of association and Convention No. 98 on the right to organize and bargain collectively.

The government also undertook to have more regular inspections of factories in 2013, but inspections which were due to start in September remained stalled by administrative delays.

In a welcome move, the authorities dropped charges against the leaders of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, who had been hampered and harassed in their work for years by frivolous criminal charges.

Tannery workers in the Hazaribagh neighborhood of Dhaka, one of the world’s most polluted urban sites, continue to face highly toxic working conditions. Some 150 leather tanneries operate in the area, producing leather primarily for export and discharging 21 thousand cubic meters of untreated effluent into the nearby Buriganga River each day. The government's planned relocation of the tanneries to a dedicated industrial zone, delayed numerous times since 2005, was again put off in mid-2013.

The Department of the Environment fined two tanneries for their failure to treat waste in 2013, the first time environmental laws have been enforced against Hazaribagh tanneries. Enforcement of environmental and labor laws is otherwise lacking, with negative consequences for the health and well-being of tannery workers and local residents.

Women’s Rights
Leading human rights groups in the country had discussions with doctors to revise medico-legal protocols for the treatment and examination of rape victims to exclude degrading practices like the two-finger test to draw conclusions about a woman’s “habituation to sex.” Such groups are challenging the practice as a violation of the fundamental rights to life and health with dignity in the High Court Division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court.

Key International Actors
India, Bangladesh’s most influential international interlocutor, remained largely silent on the human rights situation. Bangladesh and India continued to hold talks on issues linked to their shared border including illegal trade and the use of excessive force by Indian border guards leading to deaths and injuries to Bangladeshi and Indian nationals.

Bangladesh’s donors were more vocal, pressing the government to end its crackdown on critics. Donors were swift in denouncing the arrest of Adilur Rahman Khan, with members of the international community observing court proceedings. However, donors were largely silent on the lack of fair trials at the ICT.

Following the Rana Plaza collapse, over 70 European companies signed an international accord designed to better protect Bangladeshi workers by requiring regular inspections of factories and making the results public. However, American buyers refused to join this accord and signed a separate agreement which has been criticized for not allowing workers to freely form unions.

The government publicly agreed to allow international monitors to observe the January 2014 elections. The international community, in particular the US, have been vocal in calling for the various parties to come to an agreement well beforehand in order to avoid contentious and potentially violent protests and a non-credible election result.

First published by Human Rights Watch, January 21, 2014

Monday, January 20, 2014

Bangladesh: A long road ahead

To end the deadlock, the two main parties should give all groups a voice in the political process


Bangladesh's political crisis is not going away anytime soon. On January 5, the country went to the polls in an election that was largely one-sided. Since 1996, Bangladesh has held elections under a neutral caretaker government. However, the ruling Awami League (AL) has now scrapped a constitutional provision for neutral electoral oversight, and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted the Tenth Parliamentary Elections without this provision.

One may certainly question the legitimacy of these elections: They were far from representative. The AL was set to win by default, as BNP had not registered for the election by the end of the registration period. AL candidates won 153 of the 300 parliamentary seats without any contestation. In the capital, Dhaka, citizens only voted in nine out of the 20 constituencies.

Nor is an election acceptable, if citizens do not vote. Fewer than 40 percent of the population turned up at the polls according to the government; others report the number as far less. Some voters stayed away from voting booths for fear of violence. CNN reports one polling officer as saying, "Presence of voters today is lower than any other time of voting."

Members of the international community have also questioned the validity of these elections. Although the United Nations did not formally declare the need for a re-election, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged both parties to exercise restraint and urgently address the people's expectations for an inclusive political process. Australia, Europe, and the United States called for fresh elections to be held.

Political violence a norm
Bangladesh is likely to descend into further violence without new elections. The country is certainly no stranger to political instability. Its violent birth in 1971 was followed by numerous coups and violent strikes as authoritarian governments toppled each other and later gave way to parliamentary democracy in 1991. Electoral violence is not a new phenomenon either. However, the January election is a huge step back after the successful and internationally acclaimed elections of 2008.

The country cannot move forward without a real opposition. AL leader Sheikh Hasina was sworn in as prime minister with the AL-allied Jatiya Party (JP) as the leading opposition in the parliament. The excluded BNP opposition, however, is not likely to stand down.

BNP demonstrations and strikes have paralysed Bangladesh since last year, and the party has continued its protests after the election. However, BNP is now operating within significant constraints. Opposition leader Khaleda Zia has just been released after two weeks of house arrest. Many opposition members are in hiding after the arrest of dozens of party members and police raids on their homes. However, the BNP movement shows no signs of abating. A key BNP leader has recently called the new AL government immoral, illegal, and autocratic and the party is now calling for a new election.

The BNP may, however, have to detach from its former coalition partner, the country's main Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). BNP has stood by its ally as JI leaders were tried by a war crimes tribunal for mass atrocities committed against the Bangladeshi population during the 1971 liberation war. A High Court decision has since led the Election Commission to cancel Jamaat's registration, and on-going JI-instigated violence has even prompted one European diplomat to call the JI a terrorist organisation.  

At the same time, Sheikh Hasina plans to keep the AL in power. She shrugged off all doubts regarding the legitimacy of her victory at a press conference. The New York Times reported that when a journalist asked her whether she believed that the election would bring further instability, she said, "What do you want, that I should start crying, 'Oh, crisis, we have a crisis!' Do you want that?" Bangladesh's newly sworn prime minister appears oblivious to the ongoing violence. However, according to the Times a close aid to the prime minister said that he was certain that new elections would occur, although a new opposition coalition was also expected to fill the power vacuum and attract breakaway factions from the BNP.

Decades of strife 
The irreconcilable differences between the AL and the BNP signal the failure of democratic institutions in Bangladesh. Bangladesh was not simply stuck in an impasse as the parties traded power for two decades. Rather, the political system has gradually disintegrated as institutions have failed to regulate politics and society.  

Bangladesh's gradual institutional weakening was overshadowed by the country's remarkable success in economic and human development. And this deadlock may now cost the country its economic and political future; major donors are considering the withdrawal of aid unless the crisis abates. Donor pull-out can have devastating consequences for the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable groups, as the country's development strategy relies heavily on foreign aid.

The newly sworn Awami League government may lack legitimacy with the people, but it must be the one to pull Bangladesh out of this mess. The government needs to pursue political stability as its foremost goal. Failing to do so would be disastrous for the country's growing, but now stalled economy, especially for the informal labour and agrarian workers. A crackdown on the opposition would only worsen the AL's already declining credibility with the people. Under these circumstances, a credible and representative new election is the only viable option.

The AL should also consider bringing back the caretaker government. A non-elected body has its disadvantages: In 2006, an unelected caretaker government stayed in power for over two years as the country prepared for an election. However, this is the third time in Bangladesh's history that the opposition's demand for neutral electoral oversight has brought politics to a standstill. The caretaker government has more credibility with the people than one would expect of an unelected body. Bangladesh experienced its biggest surge in voter turnout during the two elections where a caretaker government supervised the polls after a prolonged period of political unrest (1996, 2008). Electoral turnout rose from 55.5 percent in 1991, to 75.6 percent in 1996; and from 75 percent in 2001, to 85.3 percent in 2008.

New way forward
If the caretaker government is reinstated, its selection mechanism must be reformed. In order to be legitimate, the caretaker government must be selected by representatives of all political groups and through an inclusive process. The government does not have to start from scratch on such an effort. It can draw on the experience and infrastructure of various NGOs and civil society groups that have sufficient experience in creating dialogue across groups.

The government must also review its institutional practices. The current crisis can be traced back to an institutional decay that has silently crept up on politics and society. The parliament needs to be revived; the opposition should refrain from calling hartals and walking out of parliament, and instead, engage in responsible and meaningful dialogue. It is important for all parties to respect existing rules instead of constantly changing them to suit their needs. However, these rules must be created through inclusive processes and not just serve the party in power.

Bangladesh has a long and difficult path ahead. A long-term solution requires more than a new poll. Bangladesh has held elections since its independence in 1971, but ruling parties have monopolised all governing institutions. The country remains far from the democratic ideal that its constitution enshrines - its multiparty governments can, at best, be labelled electoral authoritarian regimes. However, only a genuinely representative political system can bring stability to Bangladesh should the two parties continue to coexist.

Future governments must strengthen governing institutions and give all groups a voice in politics. If not, the two parties may find themselves in another deadlock in five years.

First appeared in Al Jazeera news portal, 18 January 2014

Nayma Qayum is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Follow her on Twitter: @naymaqayum