Political Persecution in Bangladesh

On January 5, Bangladesh celebrated the first anniversary of the 2014 general election. The election resulted in victory for incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, president of the Awami League. While anniversaries are generally occasions for triumphant pomp and show, celebrations were marred by riots and political violence across the country. In the last year, Bangladeshi politics have descended to an almost farcical level, characterized by strange accusations and equally bizarre acts of persecution.

The Bangladeshi public had little reason to rejoice in the anniversary of last year’s elections, which were the most violent in the nation’s history. Twenty-one people lost their lives in the midst of state-sponsored violence, with police officers raiding the homes of opposition supporters and allegedly organizing enforced disappearances. The opposition was no less complicit, setting fire to polling stations and creating further disorder. The violence ensured that the elections remain disputed. The result was certainly an inadequate representation of the public sentiment: less than 25 percent of Bangladeshis voted, with many forced to remain at home to avoid the public turmoil. Moreover, 153 seats out of 300 were uncontested, illustrating the country’s poor democratic infrastructure. The primary opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) added to the chaos by deciding to boycott the elections after alleged vote-rigging. The confusion over the legitimacy of the current government could be a factor in their decision to blatantly target opposition leaders and dissenters alike.

In recent weeks, the actions of the Awami League have been unabashedly aggressive. Last January, they (rather ludicrously) arranged for five lorries to barricade BNP leader, and former Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia in her house. This year, they repeated the spectacle with 11 large lorries confining Zia to her office. The government claims they have imposed this modified house arrest on Zia to prevent her party from fanning the flames of public discontent. Sheikh Hasina even accused Zia of attempting to create “anarchy” in the country. Although Zia had indeed threatened to hold a series of national rallies to commemorate the anniversary of “Democracy Killing Day”, the governmental response was overwhelmingly belligerent. In response, BNP supporters launched riots and protests in major cities across the country. Instead of promoting domestic stability, the Awami League’s actions invigorated protestors and led to seven deaths in the subsequent confusion.

The government’s recent actions follow a growing trend of political persecution. The last year has also seen 15 leaders of the opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami convicted of war crimes in the 1971 war. The Jamaat-e-Islami Party was notorious for siding with the Pakistani military and opposing the independence of Bangladesh. The war claimed the lives of many innocent civilians, with Bangladesh authorities estimating the death toll was as high as three million. As a result, many approve of the convictions by Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal, and the subsequent death sentences. The accused may well be guilty of atrocities during the war, but opposition leaders have spoken out against the timing of the convictions, alleging that the government is simply propagating a “political vendetta”. International organizations like Amnesty International have concurred with this view and declared the judicial proceedings unfair. While it is certainly important to mete out justice for the terrible crimes of 1971, it is also imperative to maintain a fair legal system to ensure that such crimes are never committed again.

Even those who do not present a political threat are faced with excessive harassment. The government has cracked down on critics, severely restricting free speech. They have shut down several blogs that support opposing parties, and arrested the editor of news outlet Amar Desh for “sedition.” Such a crime seems a relic of the past, but the charge has been repeatedly leveled at senior Bangladeshi editors for their critiques. The authorities have also increased their control of social media. Their policies achieved global notoriety with the conviction of British journalist David Bergman for questioning the death toll of the 1971 war in his personal blog. In an alarming new development, the Bangladeshi parliament has expanded the controversial Information and Communication Technology Act to condone arbitrary arrests; it gives police officers greater flexibility to arrest citizens and increase their jail term without bail. These changes are representative of the government’s preoccupation with maintaining power at all costs.

That being said, Bangladesh does not seem to have a viable opposition that can institute reform. The BNP was in power from 2001-2006, but failed to govern effectively. They were implicated in numerous corruption scandals (as is the current Awami League government) and bitterly lost power to a caretaker government in 2007. The largest Islamic party in the country, the aforementioned Jamaat-e-Islami, also has a chequered past; many of their leaders fought against independence in 1971 and are accused of committing unnecessary acts of violence. The Awami League may have lost considerable public support by their recent actions, but there is no evidence to suggest that a change in government will eliminate the political crisis.

In the last year, Bangladeshi politics have descended to an almost farcical level.

With such acrimonious partisanship and the onset of mass protests, the government has been brought to a virtual standstill. The crisis has taken focus away from the nation’s inherent socio-economic issues. Bangladesh is currently ranked as the 145th most corrupt country in the world, with a below-par literacy rate of 58 percent. The lack of investment in essential policy areas like education and health hinder the nation’s development. Moreover, it has recently become infamous for a series of human rights violations, including child labor and appalling labor conditions. These problems were pivotal in the Awami League’s electoral victory in 2008. As part of their campaign, they developed an ambitious plan for development, titled Vision 2021, which aimed to bring Bangladesh into the range of middle-income nations. At the time, it certainly seemed feasible, following a prolonged period of economic growth and a drastic fall in poverty rates since the 1990s. Jim O’Neill, former chief economist of Goldman Sachs, even named Bangladesh as a future “high growth economy” because of its increasingly educated youth.

However, due to the unstable nature of Bangladeshi politics, little has been done to promote national progress. Instead, its leading politicians have become mired in a rancorous power struggle. The current crisis, which has spanned almost a year, has only served to exacerbate pre-existing weaknesses. Bangladesh is a developing nation that relies on foreign investment, but the recent political violence has caused a drop in investor confidence. By redirecting troops to halt urban protests, it has also alienated supporters and engendered more strife. Coupled with the current wave of public discontent, the Bangladesh government has many crucial issues to address.

As the country strives to counter these widespread problems, it needs a government that is focused on development rather than power. Now, more than ever, Bangladesh needs a measure of political consensus. Unfortunately, this seems increasingly unlikely in the face of bitter rhetoric and convoluted persecution. Unless the varying political parties can put aside their differences to implement much-needed reform, Bangladesh will remain a country plagued by poverty, corruption and exploitation.