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Bangladesh: Getting Police Reform on Track
Bangladesh: Getting Police Reform on Track
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership
Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership
Report 182 / Asia

Bangladesh: Getting Police Reform on Track

After decades of misuse and neglect, Bangladesh’s police are a source of instability and fear rather than a key component of a democratic society.


Executive Summary

After decades of misuse and neglect, Bangladesh’s police are a source of instability and fear rather than a key component of a democratic society. Human rights abuses are endemic and almost all Bangladeshis who interact with the police complain of corruption. With an elected government in place again, there are now opportunities to reform this dysfunctional force. But there are also significant obstacles. If the government fails to move beyond the current modest reform process, the democratic transition could falter should deteriorating security give the military another chance to intervene, using, as it has in the past, the pretext of upholding law and order to justify derailing democracy. Deep structural reforms – including a new police law – and major additional resources are necessary to create an effective and accountable service. Above all, it will take political will – which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League-led government is sorely lacking – and a vision of the police as something other than a tool of political control and a source of patronage.

Life in the police force is difficult and unrewarding for most officers. Working conditions are deplorable. Many officers are overworked, the transfer system has become a major source of corruption within and out of the police, and salaries are abysmal, even by local standards. Pay raises and promotions are infrequent and do almost nothing to improve the lives of officers or promote competency in the force. Without improved salaries and working conditions, no amount of oversight will help curb the corruption and malaise that is rife in the police. 

The dire state of the force reflects failures by successive governments to grasp the centrality of a functional civilian police service to their legitimacy. While most have acknowledged the fundamental flaws in the antiquated system of policing, none – including the current one – has seen reform as a priority. Rather a weak, corrupt and politicised force has allowed government agents to use the police to further their own narrow interests. And when left with little choice but to confront law and order issues such as rising crime or increasing extremist activity, the party in power has relied on quick fixes, including empowering the military to counter rising crime, rather than empowering the police as a sustainable solution. Not only have half measures diverted necessary resources away from the police but they have also expanded the role of the military into what are normally civilian matters.

Ironically it was the military-backed caretaker government (CTG) that resuscitated the UN-sponsored Police Reform Programme (PRP) scuttled by the last Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led government. During the two-year state of emergency between January 2007 and December 2008 the military clamped down on politicisation and temporarily allowed the CTG to make progress on a number of reforms stalled under the previous government, including police reform. As police reform was more a donor priority than a Bangladeshi one, it has made little progress. Despite consolidating support for reform within the police and updating infrastructure, its flagship community policing initiative has faltered. Poor management and undefined goals have prevented the PRP from having more impact. Mostly due to the government’s lack of political will, the PRP does not address the most dire structural problems that enable human rights abuses, corruption, vigilantism and extremism. Without parliament passing a new police law, any progress on reform, however marginal, is subject to rapid reversal.

The police need resources to tackle internal threats and crime. They remain far better placed to handle counter-insurgency and terrorism threats than a military trained to fight external enemies. The international community should realise that helping the police rank and file, not just military and elite paramilitary forces, with training and technical assistance would pay counter-terrorism dividends. However, the Bangladesh government should not just improve training, increase financial support and eventually police numbers but also enact concrete organisational and political reforms. Political appointments must end; merit alone must determine postings, transfers, recruitment and promotions; the recommendations of police and the public for reform must be considered; and emphasis placed on the police serving and protecting citizens. 

The government must resist the temptation to use the police for political, partisan ends as it and its predecessors have in the past. The colonial era Police Act of 1861 is ill-suited to modern policing, and only a new law similar to Police Ordinance (2007), which would increase police accountability and operational neutrality, will equip the force with the tools necessary to function in a democratic society. A force that is professionally run, well trained, adequately paid and operationally autonomous will best ensure the security of their constituents and the government itself. Moreover successful police reform can only be sustained if it is linked to a judiciary that enforces the rule of law fairly and effectively to protect individual rights and assure citizen security. If the police continue to be used for political ends, the force may be damaged beyond repair at a great cost not only to Bangladesh’s citizens but also to the current and future elected governments.

Dhaka/Brussels, 11 December 2009

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.