Political Confrontations Grip Bangladesh

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A series of increasingly violent, interlocking political confrontations have gripped Bangladesh for more than a month. The conflict threatens the country’s fragile democratic institutions and its remarkable export-oriented economic progress. As we found in a recent visit, many observers fear that the fundamental issues that underlie these confrontations cannot be resolved within Bangladesh’s constitutional framework.  Some worry, as we do, that in the absence of some form of compromise among the main political parties, especially on the hot-button issue of the conduct of the upcoming parliamentary elections, the Bangladesh Army will again step in, as it has many times before in the country’s forty years of independence.

The United States, for its part, should privately warn political leaders of the dangers Bangladesh’s democratic institutions face – and they with them. But as the experience of one of us as American ambassador in Dhaka in the mid-1980s suggests, any effort by Washington or other friendly foreign powers to intervene more directly is likely to fail. The only country that might effectively do so is China, but it avoids such roles.

The most recent phase of Bangladesh’s political conflict was triggered by the February 5 conviction by a specially constituted war-crimes tribunal of Abdul Quader Mollah, a senior official of the Jamaat-i-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic party.  Established by the government headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the leader of the Awami League and daughter of the man who led Bangladesh to independence, the court was designed to try men who had sided with Pakistan in the 1971 liberation war and participated in the massive atrocities that accompanied the struggle. Its procedures – and the very idea of trying people forty-odd years after their alleged crimes – were  criticized by international and Bangladeshi human rights groups, legal authorities, and others. But the trials are close to Hasina’s heart and important for her government, and she persisted in them.  As expected, Jamaat reacted violently against the court’s ruling.

But what was totally unexpected was the gathering at downtown Dhaka’s Shahbagh crossing that protested peacefully against what the demonstrators considered the court’s unduly lenient sentence of life imprisonment for Mollah and the government’s failure to ban the Jamaat.  Comprising mostly middle-class younger people initially gathered together by Bangladesh’s widespread social media network, the demonstrations took on an appealing carnival aspect that distinguished them from the country’s typical political rallies. Protest meetings spread to cities around the country. The demonstrations generated a kind of electric excitement; headline writers referred to “Bangladesh’s Tahrir Square.” The government quickly bowed to the protesters’ demands and enacted legislation allowing it to retroactively appeal the sentence and outlaw the Jamaat if it wished. Nonetheless, the Shahbagh demonstrations persisted. They morphed into a celebration of Bangladeshi secularism and a loud call for an end to Islamic extremism. At first seemingly non-partisan – politicians were reportedly shooed away – the gatherings took on an increasingly pro-Awami League coloration.

These actions took place against a background of increasing antagonism between the ruling Awami League and its longtime rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Begum Khaleda Zia. The two parties have alternated in power since the overthrow of Bangladesh’s military dictatorship in the early 1990s and Begum Zia and Sheikh Hasina, who have headed them for decades, are sworn enemies.

The present intense confrontation between the two parties is chiefly aimed at the conduct of the parliamentary elections expected at the end of this year. Since 1996, these elections have been carried out by non-partisan caretaker governments that were allowed three months in office to complete this task. This pioneering constitutional arrangement, made necessary by each party’s not unjustified conviction that the other would rig the election if it were in power, has generally worked well. (A notable exception was the aborted election of 2006, when the ruling BNP government connived to have one of its supporters lead the caretaker government and the Awami League withdrew from the race.) In 2011, Sheikh Hasina’s government amended the constitution: elections would henceforth be carried out not by a caretaker but by the political regime in power. Begum Zia and the BNP have adamantly refused to accept this change and have launched a series of agitations to force the government to give up its position. Our conversations in Dhaka with Awami League and BNP leaders convinced us that the two parties were on a collision course over this issue; neither was prepared to agree to a meaningful compromise.

Some Bangladeshi observers are convinced that the Awami League will go ahead with the elections without BNP participation. According to them, the government will try to persuade many of the smaller parties to take part, thus effectively assuring a decent turnout that will undercut BNP claims that the balloting was unfair.  (In conspiracy-theorizing Bangladesh, these Awami League machinations include persuading the Jamaat to participate: hence the “light” sentence initially given Mollah.)

The BNP has viewed the Hasina government’s moves against Jamaat leaders with growing suspicion. The Jamaat was a coalition partner in Begum Zia’s 2001-2006 government and was awarded a few seats in her cabinet, which it used to its advantage. This arrangement was expected to continue in the next elections, when and if these are held (and presuming the party has not been outlawed before then). Initially non-committal on the Shahbagh demonstrations, the BNP has become convinced that the rallies have been taken over by the Awami League. To the BNP, Shahbagh and other aspects of the government’s anti-Jamaat program are part of a scheme to distract Bangladeshi public opinion from the failures of Hasina’s government, especially the widespread corruption and violence that it alleges with good reason have marred her four years in power.

The BNP also seems convinced that India has somehow had a hand in the Shahbagh demonstrations and the Awami League’s campaign against the Jamaat. This may also have led Begum Zia to retreat from the “opening to India” that the party adopted when she was well received by the Manmohan Singh government during her visit to India last year, and to revert to the party’s longtime suspicion of the Indians’ motives and intentions (and to its familiar allegation that the Awami League is a tool of New Delhi.)

Under these circumstances, the BNP has at least passively supported the hartal (a familiar Bangladeshi political action designed to bring public activity to a complete halt) which the Jamaat called following the war crimes court’s sentencing to death of another Jamaat leader, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, on February 28. The hartal was accompanied by widespread violence across the country. This included attacks on the homes and temples of Bangladesh’s Hindu minority. Although Begum Zia eventually condemned the violence, she pointedly cancelled her meeting with the visiting president of India, citing the Jamaat’s hartal as the reason. (Observers were quick to comment that the scrapping of the meeting was further evidence of the BNP’s move away from its recent more favorable approach to New Delhi.) The BNP staged its own hartal following the Jamaat’s. In effect, the two parties carried out a joint three-day shutdown and were publicly perceived to have done so.

This is not to say that the BNP accepts the Jamaat’s Islamic ideology or shares its view of the 1971 war for Bangladeshi independence. Its founder, President Ziaur Rahman, the late husband of Khaleda Zia, defected from the Pakistan Army and proclaimed Bangladesh’s independence. Its ranks include such heroes of the liberation struggle as Shamsher Chowdhury, Begum Zia’s principal foreign policy adviser. But its views of the nature of that struggle and its narrative of the historical development of Bangladesh have always been less secular-oriented, less antagonistic toward Pakistan, and more suspicious of India than has the Awami League’s. It has been comfortable with its association with the Jamaat and accepts political Islam far more readily than the Awami League ever could.

The next few months could be a crucial time for Bangladesh. As we mentioned at the start of this posting, the United States can play a limited role in helping the country to move forward toward strengthened political stability and economic prosperity. Under stable, popular government, Bangladesh could move further from the “basket case” status to which Henry Kissinger once supposedly assigned it and join the growing ranks of middle-class Asian states. But at the end of the day it will be up to the Bangladeshis themselves to find their way out of their present political problems.


  1. Mohammd Zahinul Islam says:

    Howard B. Schaffer former US Ambassador to Bangladesh perhaps written very logically the present situation. An excellent piece of writing which is actually in everyone’s mind but people cant express due to state of fear. Thank you Mr. Howard B. Schaffer
    for writing a timely article. Food for thoughts indeed.

  2. Ainslie Embree says:

    Thank you – authoritative concise explication of a situation that has received little attention in our media. You mention China’s reluctance
    to get involved. Are India and Pakistan playing any significant role?

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