Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Bangladesh: Back to the Future
Bangladesh: Back to the Future
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Bangladeshi Leaders Must Stop Politicizing Counterterrorism
Bangladeshi Leaders Must Stop Politicizing Counterterrorism
Report 226 / Asia

Bangladesh: Back to the Future

Bangladesh faces growing political violence in the lead-up to the 2013 elections unless the government takes a more conciliatory approach towards the opposition.

Executive Summary

Bangladesh could face a protracted political crisis in the lead-up to the 2013 elections unless Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government changes course and takes a more conciliatory approach towards the political opposition and the military. In December 2008, following two years of a military-backed caretaker government, the Awami League (AL) secured a landslide victory in what were widely acknowledged to be the fairest elections in the country’s history. The hope, both at home and abroad, was that Sheikh Hasina would use her mandate to revitalise democratic institutions and pursue national reconciliation, ending the pernicious cycle of zero-sum politics between her AL and its rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Three and a half years on, hope has been replaced by deep disillusionment, as two familiar threats to Bangladesh’s democracy have returned: the prospect of election-related violence and the risks stemming from an unstable and hostile military.

Instead of changing the old pattern of politics, the AL government has systematically used parliament, the executive and the courts to reinforce it, including by filing corruption cases against Khaleda Zia, the BNP chairperson, and employing security agencies to curb opposition activities. Most worrying, however, is the AL-dominated parliament’s adoption of the fifteenth amendment to the constitution, which scraps a provision mandating the formation of a neutral caretaker administration to oversee general elections. The caretaker system was a major practical and psychological barrier to election-rigging by the party in power. Removing it has undermined opposition parties’ confidence in the electoral system.

The fifteenth amendment carries other dangers as well. For example, anyone who criticises the constitution may now be prosecuted for sedition; new procedures have rendered further amendments virtually impossible; and the death penalty is prescribed for plotting to overthrow an elected government – a thinly veiled warning to the military, which has done so four times in as many decades.

The fallout from these changes is already clear. The BNP gave an ultimatum to the government to reinstate the caretaker system by 10 June 2012 or face battles in the streets. To this end, it rallied 100,000 supporters in Dhaka in March for a protest that turned violent. With the deadline passed and no action from the government, it is now calling for nationwide political agitation. A BNP-led boycott of the 2013 general elections may be in the offing.

Meanwhile, the military is visibly restive. On 19 January, it announced it had foiled a coup by mid-level and retired officers who sought to install an Islamist government. This followed an assassination attempt on an AL member of parliament in October 2009 by mid-level officers seething over the deaths of 57 officers in a mutiny by their subordinate paramilitary border guards the previous February. Large-scale dismissals, forced retirements, deepening politicisation and a heavy-handed approach to curb dissent and root out militants have created an unstable and undisciplined force. While a top-level coup is unlikely, the prospect of mid-level officers resorting to violence to express their suppressed anger is increasingly high.

Should the situation deteriorate to the point that the army again decides to intervene, it is unlikely to be content to prop up civilian caretakers and map a course to fresh elections as it did in 2007. This time the generals could be expected to have more staying power, not to mention less reluctance to carry out “minus two” – their previous plan to remove Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia from politics.

Even if such a worst-case scenario seems remote, it is clear that a new electoral stalemate threatens to erode Bangladesh’s democratic foundations.

Dhaka/Brussels, 13 June 2012

Op-Ed / Asia

Bangladeshi Leaders Must Stop Politicizing Counterterrorism

Originally published in Nikkei Asian Review

The July 1 terrorist attack in Dhaka hit unnervingly close to home. The Bangladeshi side of my family lost a relative -- Faraaz Hossain, a 20-year-old student at Emory University in the U.S. who was home for the holidays.

I had been at the site of the massacre, the Holey Artisan Bakery, in Dhaka's upscale Gulshan neighborhood, twice during my last visit to the country. Personal grief aside, this is the most visible manifestation yet of the threat that a new generation of self-styled jihadis poses to a country that prides itself on its moderate, secular, pluralistic society.

After the attack, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina vowed to bring all terrorists to justice and condemned those who killed in the name of Islam. Is this finally a wake-up call for a government that has too often underplayed the radical Islamist threat?

The attackers, eyewitnesses said, singled out foreigners, declaring they were there to kill non-Muslims. The majority of the 22 victims hacked to death or shot were foreigners. The venue in the capital's diplomatic zone, the targeting of mainly foreign victims and the brutal manner in which they were killed were all deliberate choices. The intention was clearly to gain maximum international publicity and to strike fear in the hearts of Bangladeshi citizens.

Shock Value 

The Islamic State group was quick to claim credit, posting pictures of the bodies on social media to ensure maximum shock and anguish. Skeptical experts and officials, however, have pointed to the likely involvement of local sympathizers or affiliates of rival al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent, or AQIS. Whatever the investigations reveal, the government's primary challenge will be to tackle local Islamic State supporters and AQIS, as the constituencies of both organizations are clearly growing. Without robust official action, these rival groups could continue to up the ante, competing for space and public attention, with dire implications for Bangladesh and its neighborhood.

One such group, Ansarul Islam, an AQIS ally, has killed scores of secular and atheist bloggers and publishers in the capital since 2013. Earlier this year, the group murdered a leading Bangladeshi gay rights activist and U.S. Embassy employee, Xulhaz Mannan, and a friend in Dhaka. An Islamic State sympathizer, the Jamaat-ul Mujahedeen Bangladesh, active since the early 2000s, is responsible for killing Hindu priests, Buddhist monks and Shias, mostly outside Dhaka. Since 2013, such attacks have claimed more than 70 lives.

In June, responding to domestic criticism and international concern, the Awami League-led government initiated a weeklong crackdown, reportedly arresting some 14,000 people. But civil society groups have alleged massive police extortion and abuse, and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-i-Islami claim their activists have been the primary targets. That Hasina's government has repeatedly blamed both parties for the killings lends credence to their claims.

Poisonous Politics 

The government's preoccupation with suppressing political opposition and dissent has certainly helped to create an environment for groups like Ansarul Islam and JMB to grow. Publicly criticizing atheist and secular bloggers for offending religious sentiments, Hasina and her senior officials have said the government cannot be held responsible for the consequences of such writings. Such mixed messages, and abdications of government responsibility, are also unlikely to foster public confidence in the state's ability to confront the growing jihadi challenge.

The Holey Artisan Bakery attack shows how little the weeklong crackdown managed to achieve. If it is to succeed in stemming the jihadi rot, the government must adopt a counterterrorism approach based on accountable and impartial law enforcement driven by credible investigations, intelligence-gathering and case-building, and anchored in the rule of law. If Hasina intends to follow through on pledges made after the attack to bring terrorists to justice, much-needed institutional reforms should start now. Heavy-handed, indiscriminate and politicized police and paramilitary operations are not only likely to fail but will also breed more resentment against the state.

The July 1 bloodbath marks a major escalation from those that had previously targeted individuals. It should prompt the government into a more serious effort to dismantle local groups linked to the most dangerous transnational jihadi outfits, Islamic State and AQIS. It should not, as in the past, turn the threat into a partisan issue.

Even as she condemned the attack, the prime minister pointed a finger at those who "have resorted to terrorism after failing to win the hearts of people democratically," an implicit reference to the BNP. As politicized cases against BNP chief Khaleda Zia and other top opposition members continue to pile up, and as the government increasingly closes off legitimate avenues of dissent, this zero-sum rivalry with its mainstream opponents has so far yielded a single winner: violent extremists. The Holey Artisan Bakery attack must not become their victory lap. Bangladesh cannot afford to lose more young liberal minds like Faraaz.