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Bangladesh: Elections and Beyond
Bangladesh: Elections and Beyond
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership
Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership
Briefing 84 / Asia

Bangladesh: Elections and Beyond

Bangladesh’s 29 December 2008 general election is expected to end a two year military-enforced state of emergency and return the country to democratic governance.

I. Overview

Bangladesh’s 29 December 2008 general election is expected to end a two year military-enforced state of emergency and return the country to democratic governance. While an end to emergency rule and elections do not equal democracy, both are necessary preconditions for the country’s stability. Through peaceful dialogue – an important achievement in its own right – the army-backed caretaker government (CTG) and the country’s main political parties have reached agreements on many issues that could derail the elections. However, there are no guarantees that the election will take place on time, that all the major parties will participate, or that all of them will accept the results. Even a successful election will only be the initial step to developing a more effective democracy in Bangladesh. The immediate goals for all stakeholders – including the international community – should be to ensure that all registered political parties contest and that the elections are credible and free of violence. Beyond the general election the political parties will face the challenges of making parliament work and contending with an army seeking a greater say in politics.

By late 2007 the CTG realised that reforms were easier to advocate than execute. Corruption had worsened despite its anti-graft campaign, and the political parties refused to undertake reforms or go to the polls without their jailed leaders. Faced with a failing reform agenda and declining popular support, the CTG was forced to abandon its “minus two” policy of sidelining the two major political parties’ leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, and negotiate an exit strategy with the parties. Talks overcame many obstacles to elections contested by all the major parties, including the release of Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, compulsory political party registration and the timing of the upazila (sub-district) polls. The upazila elections are slated for late January 2009, although their schedule is disputed.

The government has met many of the technical requirements to enhance poll credibility, but it has fallen short on several political conditions. New legislation aims to minimise the influence of ill-gotten wealth and a new electoral roll of over 80 million voters has been widely praised. However, a longstanding state of emergency curtailing fundamental rights, which may be lifted only after campaigning is under way, threatens the credibility of the election.

The political situation is complex and fragile. Bangladesh’s two largest political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), are approaching the election from opposite positions. The Awami League, viewed as the frontrunner, is eager to contest the polls promptly and with few preconditions. The BNP is in disarray. The party threatened to boycott if emergency laws barring many of its members from standing in the election were not rescinded. BNP boycott threats have already forced one poll delay, and party leaders maintain a boycott is still an option if the state of emergency is not lifted before the election. If the election goes ahead without the BNP, its staunch ally and Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e Islami, believes it could go it alone and run as the default option for Bangladeshis who would otherwise vote for the BNP.

A number of factors could adversely affect the elections and their aftermath. Although the election laws make electoral malpractice more difficult, the Election Commission (EC) has been reluctant to enforce them. Allegations of rigging could spark a party boycott or political violence; the continued emergency could prompt rejection of results. Technical flaws on election day with ballots or the voter roll could cause a delay or require re-polling in some areas. Islamist militants like the Jamaat’ul Mujahideen Bangladesh are still active, even in Dhaka, and pose a threat not only to the election but also to the country’s longer-term security.

Keeping the military in the barracks will require the new government and the opposition to seek accommo­da­tion with each other and the army. Dialogue with the CTG has demonstrated to the political parties that they can advance their interests through peaceful negotia­tions. If civilian rule is to succeed in Bangladesh, cooperation must be placed before confrontation. A return to zero-sum politics by the parties could be an excuse for the army step in yet again. Only Islamist forces stand to gain from another military government. 

In terms of next steps:

  • The caretaker government should follow through on its decision to lift the state of emergency before the elections and refrain from issuing presidential ordinances that restrict the rights and freedoms necessary for credible democratic elections.
     
  • The Election Commission should appropriately enforce the election law and the election code of conduct; immediately initiate a public information campaign on voting procedures, in particular clarifying what identification is needed to vote; publish results in a timely and transparent fashion and at all levels of the election administration; and refrain from positioning security personnel in polling stations or in a manner that interferes with the election process.
     
  • Election observers should consider the impact of the state of emergency or any emergency provisions issued as presidential ordinances on poll credibility before issuing public statements.
     
  • The political parties should abide by the election laws; continue to seek solutions to electoral-related issues through peaceful negotiations with the CTG and other parties; and accept the election results if independent election observers deem the elections free and fair.
     
  • The international community should pressure all parties to play by the rules and accept the results, as well as encouraging the new government and parliament to continue institutional reforms. The European Union (EU) should consider Instrument for Stability funding to support such steps.

Dhaka/Brussels, 11 December 2008

Op-Ed / Asia

Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership

Originally published in Asia Times

In August 2017, the flight of 700,000 Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar produced the world’s newest refugee crisis – and one of its worst. Now stuck in miserable camps in Bangladesh, the Rohingya have little prospect of returning to their homes any time soon.

Their suffering is primarily a grave humanitarian concern and the Bangladeshi government and its foreign partners should focus their response on protecting the well-being of those displaced and assisting host communities. But the Rohingya’s plight also raises a so far unspoken question: Will they wait patiently to return in a safe and dignified manner – for now an unrealistic goal – or will the main militant organization in their midst lead them to pursue their goals with violence?

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) formed in 2012 in the wake of strife among Buddhists and Rohingya in Myanmar’s underdeveloped and conflict-ridden northern Rakhine state. The group leveraged the anger and desperation of Rohingya facing daily oppression as an ethnic and religious minority. Through communal leaders, ARSA propagated a message of hope while in fact bolstering its position via a combination of claims to religious legitimacy and fear.

The militants are now attempting to re-establish themselves as a political voice in the Bangladesh camps. But it’s not too late for the refugees to establish non-militant leadership and self-governance.

ARSA does have sympathizers in the camps, but its authority is less clear than before the mass exodus. In the view of many Rohingya, it was ARSA’s attacks on Myanmar police that provoked the country’s brutal, indiscriminate military campaign forcing them into exile. Foreign governments and human-rights organizations have branded this campaign as ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.

Not all refugees hold ARSA responsible for the calamity that befell them. Some adopt the view that, whether or not ARSA’s attacks had taken place, the Myanmar authorities would have found a way to drive the Rohingya from their land.

The Rohingya’s plight is likely to worsen before it improves ... While Bangladesh has thus far been hospitable to the refugees, the political climate could easily turn against them, particularly in the event of ARSA violence on Bangladeshi soil.

But ARSA was also responsible for killings of civilians, both Rohingya and their Hindu neighbors, as it sought to eliminate perceived informants. After careful analysis, Amnesty International concludedthat ARSA massacred dozens of Hindu villagers in August 2017. The group exposed Rohingya civilians to Myanmar’s massively disproportionate response. Its militants did not wear uniforms or do anything else to distinguish themselves from the civilian population, and they launched attacks from the cover of villages.

Since the refugee exodus, ARSA has continued its insurgency, claiming responsibility for an attack on a Myanmar convoy in January. It has also been linked to several killings in the camps.

In October last year, 47 Rohingya religious scholars issued a fatwa condemning any act of jihad, even for self-defense, against Myanmar. But Crisis Group’s May report suggests that this ruling does not necessarily mean the Rohingya have abandoned ARSA or the idea of violent resistance. First, it was issued at the height of the exodus, when the scholars sought to reassure Bangladesh that the refugees were not a security threat. Second, it did not categorically reject violence, but rather denounced particular tactics the signatories viewed as premature or misguided.

Factors other than opposition to violence could hinder ARSA from representing the Rohingya. Village populations that once backed the militants are now scattered across the camps, new leaders (majhis) are emerging and the “common enemy” that ARSA rallied against – the Myanmar security forces – is far away across the border. Most refugees are preoccupied with the daily struggle to establish basic standards of living in the camps.

Nor does it appear that transnational jihadist groups – that is, groups such as al-Qaeda in the South Asian subcontinent, Islamic State (ISIS) or their Bangladeshi affiliates – have been able to exploit the Rohingya crisis to mobilize or recruit in the camps. While concerns this might happen are legitimate given the security landscape in Bangladesh, there is no evidence that it is occurring, nor that a counterterrorism lens is useful for understanding the evolving situation in the camps.

The Bangladeshi authorities appear to share this assessment. Moreover, ARSA itself has always sought to distance itself from transnational groups.

But the Rohingya’s plight is likely to worsen before it improves. The monsoon season has arrived, threatening the camps with flooding. While Bangladesh has thus far been hospitable to the refugees, the political climate could easily turn against them, particularly in the event of ARSA violence on Bangladeshi soil.

The Rohingya need a non-violent leadership who can work to ensure their safe and voluntary return to their homeland.