Asia Report N°121
23 Oct 2006
Bangladesh faces twin threats to its democracy and stability: the risk that its political system will founder in a deadlock over elections and the growing challenge of militant Islamism, which has brought a spate of violence. The issues are linked; Islamic militancy has flourished in a time of dysfunctional politics, popular discontent and violence. The questions of whether Bangladesh’s traditional moderation and resilience will see it through or whether escalating violence and political confrontation could derail its democracy are vital ones. Serious instability in the world’s third most populous Muslim country could not fail to have wider implications. The situation does not justify great anxiety about the outbreak of major conflict domestically or the nurturing of significant extremism and terrorism internationally but there are elements of fragility in the system which need close watching and engagement. The international community can help to address the graver risks but only if it takes Bangladesh seriously as a strategic partner and moves towards more mature political engagement.
It tends to be bad news that brings Bangladesh to world attention since it won independence from Pakistan, with India’s assistance, in a brutal 1971 war. Apart from recurrent natural disasters, the list of worrying trends is lengthy: the non-functional parliament, entrenched corruption, a culture of violence, both political and non-political, weak judicial and law enforcement agencies, militant Islamic extremism and attacks on minorities, ethnic conflict, poor relations with neighbours, poverty, illiteracy and poor development indicators for women.
Most immediately, problems are multiplying in connection with the general elections, likely to take place in January 2007. Their conduct will rely on four institutions: the presidency, the head of the caretaker government charged with supervising the process, the election commission and the army. None of these is free of controversy; the president and chief justice (who will automatically lead the caretaker administration) are seen as partial to the governing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), while the chief election commissioner has damaged his credibility with a misconceived, and apparently politically biased, revision of the electoral roll. The army alone has kept a low profile. But while it has done nothing to tarnish its image, its current reluctance to play politics could change if there is serious instability.
The leaders of the two main parties, the BNP and the Awami League (AL), are locked in mutual hatred that has paralysed parliament. The AL has good grounds for its complaints of victimisation: an August 2004 grenade attack on an AL rally in the capital nearly killed its president, Sheikh Hasina, and left other senior leaders dead or injured; other assaults include the murder of Shah A.M.S. Kibria, a respected former finance minister. There have been no serious investigations of these killings.
The AL, whose own record in government was marred by political violence and which has stalled parliament with a lengthy boycott, has adopted a confrontational strategy. Demanding reasonable benchmarks for free and fair elections, it has refused to negotiate with the BNP’s Islamist coalition partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami, and threatens to pull out of the polls altogether. Although it won the largest share of votes in 2001 and hopes to benefit from an anti-incumbent swing, the first-past-the-post system means that much rides on the selection of allies and distribution of winnable seats. The BNP has the support of the religious parties and has strengthened its hand by persuading the Jatiya party of former military ruler General Ershad to join its alliance.
The principal beneficiary of these messy political equations has been the increasingly influential Islamist fringe, led by legitimate governing parties like the Jamaat but extending to the violently militant Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Circumstantial evidence, as well as cold political logic, suggests that underground terrorist groups have been cultivated and sheltered by those in power.
Although the government long denied there was a problem, a sharp escalation of violence in 2005 forced it to face up to a threat that was nearly out of hand. August 2005 saw more than 450 simultaneous bombings in every district of the country bar one; the explosions were small and casualties low but the scale of organisation rang alarm bells. The first apparent suicide bombings took place in December 2005. Amid mounting domestic and international pressure, the government arrested senior militant leaders and hundreds of foot soldiers in March 2006. Islamist violence has dried up since then, suggesting that the state’s action has brought results, but this may be only a temporary suspension, with sponsors of the militants worried that violence was becoming an electoral and diplomatic liability. The issues of foreign funding of extremism and the growing madrasa system outside of government regulation are concerns for the long term.
Increased militancy cannot simply be attributed to poverty. Indeed, on paper Bangladesh’s economy is healthy, and the country is making impressive progress on development goals. There are other stabilising factors: a lively free media, vibrant civil society and NGO sector, a sophisticated electorate and a deep-rooted tradition of liberal secularism. Islam has always been an important strand of identity; that it has grown in significance since Bangladesh achieved independence in 1971 is neither surprising nor alarming. Offered a choice at the polls, Bangladeshis have consistently rejected religious extremism. Although the Islamists have gained in influence by manoeuvring themselves into government, they have not increased their share of the vote. The urgent challenge is for Bangladesh’s political leaders to ensure that it is the people at large who get to shape the country’s future, rather than a violent fringe filling the vacuum created by moderate parties’ short-term self-interest.
For the international community, the challenge will be finding ways to support the workings of democracy. To do this, it needs to move relationships away from a focus on aid to a more active political engagement, insisting that the government meet standards in terms of human rights, elections and the reform of the security sector. Short-term counter-terrorism issues should not overwhelm the long-term issues of improving oversight of security forces, respect for human rights and ending the culture of impunity, particularly surrounding political violence. Improving democracy is the best guarantee against the growth of extremism.
Islamabad/Brussels, 23 October 2006