Two years later, Bangladesh needs a real opposition

Bangladesh's prime minister Sheikh Hasina won an election boycotted by the opposition two years ago today.
Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina won an election boycotted by the opposition two years ago today.

On this week in 2014, Bangladesh’s prime minister Shiekh Hasina was enjoying a hollow reelection, with a supermajority in the Jatiyo Sangsad (জাতীয় সংসদ), Bangladesh’s unicameral parliament. Hasina had pushed forward with elections, despite breaching political trading by refusing to appoint a caretaker government and despite the opposition’s determination to boycott the vote as flawed.bangladesh flag icon

Nearly two decades prior, when Hasina and her Bangladesh Awami League (বাংলাদেশ আওয়ামী লীগ) were in the opposition and boycotted the 1996 elections, the two major parties worked out a compromise for a new vote four months later — a vote that the Awami League went on to win.

After her uncontested victory in January 2014, however, Hasina used the opportunity not to enter into negotiations with her rival,  Khaleda Zia, and other leaders of the more Islamist and more conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, বাংলাদেশ জাতীয়তাবাদী দল). Instead, Hasina has spent the past two years working to undermine not only the BNP, but the entire framework of Bangladeshi democracy, however fragile it had been since independence in 1971.

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Today, Hasina’s government has so marginalized the BNP that the seesaw of power between the two parties is far more lopsided than at any time in the past 30 years. Zia has been detained and placed under house arrest for much of the past two years, other top BNP leaders were imprisoned or exiled, the BNP’s hardline Islamist allies Jamaat-e-Islami (বাংলাদেশ জামায়াতে ইসলামী) have been virtually criminalized and some of its leaders, on trial for war crimes from the 1971 war for independence, executed. 

Fresh elections are due only in 2018, three years from now, by which time there might not be a robust opposition to wage much of a challenge at all.

The result has been to push the BNP and its allies to the radical fringes. It’s not a coincidence that the BNP’s subjugation and the executions of Islamist leaders have coincided with a rise in savage murders of atheist bloggers throughout 2015. The first was Avijit Roy, slashed to death by machetes on the streets of Dhaka last February. Others followed. Washiqur Rahman. Anant Bijoy Das. Niloy Neel. Faisal Arefin Dipan. The government, of course, wasn’t responsible for their ghastly murders, but it’s proven incapable of protecting them, adding to an already troubling environment for press freedom. The BNP, for its part, has used the opportunity to empower the worst elements of its cadres.

Part of the problem is the government’s botched attempt at justice for the war crimes of the 1971 war of independence. Hasina, shortly after taking power again in 2009, created an ‘International Crimes Tribunal,’ which has now convicted and sentenced to death several figures for abuses during the 1971 war when Bangladesh, then ‘East Pakistan,’ broke from Islamabad.

In late November 2015, the government executed Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a top BNP official, who had served in Bangladesh’s parliament for seven consecutive terms, beginning in 1979, and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, formerly the Jammat-e-Islami secretary-general and a minister of social welfare between 2001 and 2007. The two figures were accused of leading the Al-Badr militia that exterminated much of Bangladesh’s intelligentsia in during the independence war.

Motiur Rahman Nizami, who is the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, is sentenced to death and his sentence has been upheld by Bangladeshi courts, though his summary execution could cause even greater divisions. Nizami’s execution could take place any day.

Perhaps there are good reasons to execute the Jamaat-e-Islami war criminals. Maybe, given the Bangladeshi justice system, a ‘life sentence’ means that they’ll serve a few years in prison before their release, so executions are the only lasting measure of punishment. Maybe it really is cathartic for the many Bangladeshis who suffered so much in the fight for independence and who can now move forward from the painful memories under which the country came to life.

But it’s also true that had these executions taken place in the context of a war crimes tribunal in the 1970s (and not nearly a half-century later), they would be far more understandable in the international community — in the same way that criminal law systems treat a crime of passion as manslaughter and calculated murder as first-degree homicide. Imagine if Germany decided to hold the Nuremberg Trials not in 1945, but instead in 1990, then promptly executed 10 former Nazi war criminals just as the Berlin Wall was coming down. It would seem random, stale and odd.

It’s not a perfect analogy because the means to prosecute Bangladesh’s war criminals were unavailable for decades. The Shahbagh movement of 2013 demonstrated that even a younger generation of Bangladeshis seek justice to transcend the demons of 1971. There’s a valid rationale for the war crimes tribunal and even for the executions.

But that doesn’t change the fact that an Awami League government is pushing through these executions with little due process, at least by the standards of international law, including a troubling lack of transparency and harassment of defense counsel. The trials, once heralded as an opportunity for reconciliation, are now seen by many BNP supporters and human rights activists alike as a vehicle for revenge with a chilling effect on political dissent.

Meanwhile, the United States has been virtually absent from Bangladesh’s backsliding. In the aftermath of the Bush administration’s failures to make Afghanistan or Iraq incredibly democratic, one of the features of the Obama administration has been reticent to promote democracy worldwide. Nowhere has this reluctance been more glaring than in US policy with Bangladesh. In December, Thomas Shannon, US undersecretary of state visited Dhaka and described the country as a ‘global example of the strength of tolerance, inclusiveness and democracy.’

It’s hard to square the glowing praise with a country where an increasingly isolated opposition is pushed to the fringes, where political figures (however guilty of crimes against humanity 45 years ago) are imprisoned or even executed and where radical Islamists are killing secular writers in retribution and with impunity.

Though it’s properly Bangladeshis who are responsible for their democracy and rule of law (or lack thereof), the United States has characteristically pushed Bangladesh to the backburner of its regional concerns, with India, Pakistan, Myanmar/Burma and China all taking far higher precedence — and that was true in 1971 when Bangladesh was struggling in a lonely fight for its independence. That’s unfair to Bangladesh, whose 160 million citizens make it the world’s eighth-largest country, and it’s unwise, given that Bangladesh’s stability is vital to south Asia regionally.

Though India should be Bangladesh’s natural ally, relations between the two countries have always been touchy. A recent land-swap deal inked with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi last July was a rare success for Hasina on the international stage, ending a decades-long stalemate over enclaves, counter-enclaves and counter-counter-enclaves. At its most absurd, isolated pockets of Indian territory existed within Bangladeshi enclaves inside wider Indian enclaves within the larger Bangladeshi border. The deal will change all of that, eliminating impoverished and lawless zones along one of the world’s longest international borders.

Modi, however, like his American allies, has been virtually silent about Bangladesh’s democratic stalling.

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