Bangladesh government must step back from chaos
Bangladesh government must step back from chaos
Op-Ed / Asia

Bangladesh government must step back from chaos

The brutal murder of a law student blogger who had criticized Islamist groups in Bangladesh has underlined the growing power and impunity of the country's extremist rump. The death of Nazumuddin Samad, 28, who was hacked and shot to death on April 7, has also highlighted how the rise of religious extremism is affecting the country's image and its efforts to advance economically.

It has long been obvious that the governing Awami League's campaign against the rival Bangladesh National Party has seriously weakened the country's commitment to liberal democracy, the rule of law, civil - in all senses of the word - society, and that it risks causing significant damage to the economy. But it is only now becoming clear that the winners in this long lasting vendetta are violent religious extremists.

With jihadis on a killing spree and a government that brooks no opposition,  Bangladeshi citizens and the country's liberal and secular civil society are under siege. Samad is just the latest victim of a resurgent extremist movement that has killed at least five other bloggers, targeted publishers, attacked religious and sectarian minorities and their places of worship, and murdered foreign nationals who had made the country their home. The killings, and a cycle of strikes last year, are chilling the investment climate, with private investment stagnating over the past five years even as the economy has grown.

With Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government bent on silencing free speech and legitimate dissent, mass arrests of opposition activists and illegal detentions and extra-judicial killings are on the rise, and citizens see the police and courts as more of a threat than a source of protection or disinterested arbitration.

Until recently, there was little political space for violent extremists in Bangladesh's secular polity; jihadi threats were successfully -- if brutally -- crushed. However, political conflict and dysfunction has created a vacuum that militants have filled. The threat is far more lethal now; homegrown extremists are bent on silencing liberal and secular voices violently, and Bangladesh's jihadi landscape is fast becoming more complex, with new entrants including al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and Islamic State.

Hasina's Awami League and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's BNP, the two largest parties, seem locked in an intractable zero-sum game that is aggravating social and political divisions and crippling state institutions. Neither side accepts the legitimacy of the other, manifested in the indiscriminate violence of BNP-led street demonstrations and the government's repressive use of law enforcement and the courts.

The politicized police force is more focused on targeting the opposition than on curbing criminality or extremism; prisons are overburdened by mass arrests of opposition leaders and activists; the judiciary is perceived as partisan in trials with political overtones, including criminal cases against Zia that could see her imprisoned for life, and is fast losing credibility. Heavy-handed measures, including enforced disappearances, torture and extra-judicial killings are denting the government's legitimacy, and, by provoking violent counter-responses, benefitting violent members of established parties and extremist groups alike.

New opportunities

However, there are new opportunities to end the political deadlock and restore a more functional democracy. In a departure from the policy of violence it unleashed in the run up to and following elections in 2014, and in contrast to its attempts to unseat the government forcibly, the BNP has re-entered the political mainstream, including contesting local polls. Yet rather than grasping the opportunity, the government is further tightening the screw on anyone who disagrees with it.

It is now bent on silencing civil society critics. Prominent human rights groups are being targeted, and onerous restrictions have been placed on online expression. After Mahfuz Anam, the editor of the largest English-language daily, The Daily Star, publicly admitted his paper had published uncorroborated corruption allegations against Sheikh Hasina in 2008, AL party activists filed more than 60 defamation and 17 sedition cases against him.

By undercutting the secular civil society institutions that are the best check against the spread of religious extremism, the government is empowering the forces of chaos. By abusing the rule of law to silence critics and target opponents, it is undermining the trust of citizens in the state's provision of both justice and security.

Few believe that Anam, Zia, the opposition leader's party colleagues and other government critics will get a fair hearing from judges appointed less for their qualifications and integrity than for their political reliability. However, as she moves to consolidate power through a manipulated criminal justice system, Hasina should recognize the risks to her own credibility, and possibly survival: If history is any guide, the arbitrary legal provisions and instruments her government has introduced could be used against her in the future.

The BNP certainly has much to answer for in relation to the last three years of violence. Its preference for the street over the ballot box mobilized mobs of violent hardliners and claimed far too many innocent lives. But its decision to contest municipal and local elections in December, and again in March, seems to mark a change in strategy made all the more significant by its decision to refrain from major protests despite allegations of widespread AL rigging.

The onus of breaking the cycle of violence rests with the AL. Hasina should not listen to those in her own party who interpret the BNP's new willingness to engage as a sign of weakness that should be met with greater repression. As a first step back toward normality, the government should end the use of the police and judiciary to target political opponents and silence critics, and accept peaceful dissent; that would help it regain some of its lost legitimacy.

To combat extremists who are using the poisoned political waters to increase their influence, the authorities need to go further than merely halting their abuse of the criminal justice system; they need to restore its impartiality so that verdicts against violent jihadis carry the weight of justice rather than mere political vengeance. The government should also bear in mind the potential economic cost of its strategy: Foreign direct investment rose slightly in the second half of 2015, but investors do not like political uncertainty, let alone chaotic violence, and their enthusiasm is likely to cool if the drift away from the rule of law continues.

If mainstream avenues of legitimate dissent remain closed and the protections of the law continue to be denied, a rising number of the government's opponents may feel compelled to view violence, and violent groups, as the most effective alternative force for change. Islamist extremists would then be the ultimate winners.

Rohingya refugees gather at a market inside a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, 7 March 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Briefing 155 / Asia

Building a Better Future for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees who have little hope of going home any time soon. The government should move to improve camp living conditions, in particular by lifting the education ban and fighting crime. Donors should support such steps.

What’s new? With no near-term prospect of returning to Myanmar, almost a million Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh face an uncertain future. An impressive aid operation has stabilised the humanitarian situation; attention must now turn to refugees’ lives and future prospects, in particular improved law and order and education for children.

Why does it matter? A lack of security and hope creates major risks. Militants and gangs increasingly operate with impunity in the camps, consolidating control to the detriment of non-violent political leaders. Without education opportunities, children will be left ill equipped to thrive wherever they live in the future.

What should be done? Bangladesh should institute an effective police presence in the camps and bring the perpetrators of crimes to justice. It should also lift its ban on formal education in the camps. If it does, donors should help meet the costs of these and other measures to improve refugees’ lives.

Eighteen months on from the mass expulsion of 740,000 Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, no sustainable solution for the refugees is in sight. Repatriation to Myanmar should remain the long-term goal – not only to relieve the huge burden on Bangladesh but also because that is the strong preference of the refugees themselves. But the unfortunate reality is that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh will be unable to return home to Myanmar for the foreseeable future. Systems are now largely in place to provide for their essential humanitarian needs in the sprawling refugee camps. It is now time to move beyond the emergency phase of managing this crisis. Shifting focus in this way requires Bangladesh to ease its restrictions on longer-term assistance. Specifically:

  • The Bangladesh government should lift its ban on the provision of formal education in the camps; local and international organisations are ready to provide such education.
     
  • It should also improve law and order in the camps, where militants and gangs increasingly operate with impunity and are consolidating control to the detriment of non-violent political voices and leaders. This requires instituting a regular and effective Bangladeshi police presence in the camps and investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice.
     
  • For their part, donors should help Bangladesh not only to meet the refugees’ immediate humanitarian needs but also to cover the costs of measures that improve their lives and prospects for the future.

The Myanmar security forces’ mass expulsion of Rohingya starting in August 2017 created a major humanitarian emergency in neighbouring Bangladesh and the largest refugee settlement in the world.[fn]This briefing is based on an April 2019 visit by Crisis Group to Dhaka and the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, including interviews with refugee leaders, humanitarian agencies and local analysts. For more background on the situation of the Rohingya, see Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 296, The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis, 16 May 2018; 292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017; 283, Myanmar: A New Muslim Insurgency in Rakhine State, 15 December 2016; 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014; and 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013; and Asia Briefing N°153, Bangladesh-Myanmar: The Danger of Forced Rohingya Repatriation, 12 November 2018.Hide Footnote Around one million Rohingya, from this and previous exoduses, live in a cluster of densely populated camps in Cox’s Bazar district, as well as some in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Some eighteen months on from the main exodus, a major humanitarian operation by local and international aid groups has successfully addressed the immediate priorities. Life-saving essentials – food, water, sanitation, shelter and basic health services – are now in place. As the monsoon season looms, the camps are much better prepared this year than before: drainage has been improved and roads through the camps have been surfaced. But there are limits to what can be done to mitigate risk in such densely packed camps carved out of former forest and where there are almost no flat areas. A heavy monsoon (unlike last year’s unusually mild one) could still take a serious toll, and a cyclone – a relatively frequent event in this region – would be devastating.

The likelihood that the refugees will remain in Bangladesh for years requires that attention now turn to their medium-term prospects.

There is no prospect that the refugees will be able to return home to Myanmar’s Rakhine State any time soon. The Myanmar authorities still have not addressed the fundamental issues of Rohingyas being denied citizenship, freedom of movement, security and other basic rights. Fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army – a militant outfit that draws its support mainly from the ethnic Rakhine population (a mostly Buddhist group distinct from the Rohingya Muslims) – has escalated sharply since January.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°154, A New Dimension of Violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 24 January 2019.Hide Footnote The fighting has affected remaining Rohingya communities, both because they are caught between the warring parties and sometimes find themselves in the crossfire, and because of the uncertainty and fear that fighting brings. This creates a further impediment to the refugees’ return. The conflict also has pushed repatriation down the list of priorities in Naypyitaw, which is currently focused on the Arakan Army insurgency and national elections in 2020.

The likelihood that the refugees will remain in Bangladesh for years requires that attention now turn to their medium-term prospects. A key priority is education. The Bangladesh government currently prohibits the provision of formal education to the refugees. This restriction robs families of their hope for a more economically secure future and ensures that a generation of children will be deprived of the skills they will need to flourish, wherever they ultimately live.

Informal private “tuitions” held in private dwellings and networks of madrassas that only teach the Koran do not adequately fill the formal education gap.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugee leaders and humanitarian agencies, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, April 2019.Hide Footnote No evidence has emerged of these madrassas promoting violence or intolerance among children, or of indoctrination or recruitment by local or transnational jihadists. However, a policy of denying young people formal education and leaving them reliant on unregulated madrassas almost certainly increases the risks of such groups gaining a foothold in the camps.[fn]Bangladeshi officials also cite this as a risk. See “Delayed repatriation risks breeding Rohingya terrorists: Bangladesh official”, The Irrawaddy, 24 April 2019.Hide Footnote Already, the Chittagong-based Islamist movement Hefazat-e-Islam – which has publicly called for jihad against Myanmar – has considerable influence over the madrassa network in the camps, through the funding and religious scholars that it provides.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, journalists and analysts, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, April 2019. For more details on Hefazat-e-Islam, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°295, Countering Jihadist Militancy in Bangladesh, 28 February 2018. On the calls for jihad, see “Hefazat: Jihad against Myanmar if Rohingya killing continues”, Dhaka Tribune, 15 September 2017.Hide Footnote

Equally concerning is the lack of law and order. One prominent refugee leader described the security situation as “very serious”, saying he was “unable to sleep at night” for fear of attack.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rohingya refugee leader, refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019.Hide Footnote A determined and often violent struggle is currently underway for de facto control of the camps. At stake is informal political authority over a huge population and access to lucrative economic rents from the camp economy – both licit and illicit – through corruption and extortion. The groups vying for control include the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group, which has shown that it is willing to deploy deadly violence to further its aims; informal networks of religious leaders; non-violent political and civil society groups; and a random assortment of criminal gangs.

Violent groups operate freely in the camps. As evening draws in and humanitarian workers withdraw to their bases in Cox’s Bazar town, security is in the hands of untrained and unarmed night watchmen appointed from among the refugees. Overstretched Bangladeshi police are focused on perimeter security and protection of local Bangladeshi communities and remain mostly outside the camps at night. Refugees express serious concerns about their personal security, and militants and gangs are intimidating, kidnapping and killing with impunity.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugee leaders, analysts and humanitarian workers, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019. See also “In Rohingya camps, a political awakening faces a backlash”, Reuters, 24 April 2019.Hide Footnote Murders and other forms of violence are an almost nightly occurrence; the police rarely investigate, and perpetrators have almost never been brought to justice.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Allowing formal education in the camps is a first priority.

This creates a toxic political environment within the camps. Without basic security, non-violent political actors face intimidation or worse. For example, ARSA was likely responsible for the grisly murder of Arif Ullah, a camp leader, in June 2018 – based on the manner of his killing which is typical of ARSA (a deep knife cut to the throat) and the fact that death threats typical of ARSA had been circulating against him on WhatsApp, accusing him of being too close to the Bangladesh army.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts with detailed knowledge of the security situation in the camps, Bangladesh, April 2019.Hide Footnote Some refugee leaders to whom Crisis Group spoke in April 2019 had received credible death threats, they believe from ARSA, and fear for their lives.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugee leaders, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019.Hide Footnote Amid the lawlessness, violent actors are likely to further consolidate control, which will stifle peaceful political organisation among the refugees and constructive debate about how to shape their own futures. Effective control of the camps will pass to those who prioritise accumulation of power or wealth, or militant agendas, over the future well-being of the community.

The burden of ameliorating these problems disproportionately falls on Bangladesh. Understandably, Dhaka’s policy response is focused on repatriation, which it sees as the only viable durable solution for the refugees. Making life better for the Rohingya where they are now would not only impose financial strain on Bangladesh but might be perceived as working at cross-purposes with Bangladesh’s interest in Rohingya returns to Myanmar.

Returns to Myanmar should remain the long-term goal – not only to relieve the hardship visited on Bangladesh and avoid consolidating what a UN investigation called ethnic cleansing, but also because that is the preference of the refugees themselves.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, refugees and refugee leaders, Cox’s Bazar, April 2019 and November 2017-March 2018. See also “‘I still don’t feel safe to go home’: Voices of Rohingya refugees”, Oxfam, 18 December 2017.Hide Footnote International pressure on Myanmar through the UN and by countries having influence in Naypyitaw should continue to focus on improving the situation of Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State, a prerequisite for any sustainable return. This pressure should include insistence on implementing the Kofi Annan Commission recommendations of August 2017, in particular its detailed suggestions on addressing discrimination and ensuring freedom of movement and a credible pathway to restoring Rohingyas’ citizenship rights. It is only by demonstrably improving conditions in Rakhine that any refugees would consider returning home.

At the same time, Bangladesh should recognise – even if it does not want to state this publicly – that no major repatriation is on the horizon. In this context, policies that restrict the Rohingya refugees’ ability to prepare for an uncertain future should be eased. Allowing formal education in the camps is a first priority, and there exist local and international groups with the ability and willingness to do so.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian agencies, Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, April 2019.Hide Footnote Measures to improve law and order would include instituting a regular Bangladeshi police presence in the camps, investigating crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice. Failure to address these issues now will do significant long-term harm to the refugees, and potentially fuel insecurity and instability in this part of Bangladesh.

Though some of the burdens to be borne by Bangladesh are unavoidable, donors can and should, at least, lessen the financial impact on Dhaka. If the implications of the Rohingya refugee crisis for regional peace and security are not to worsen, donor countries need to be generous in their support not only to the annual humanitarian appeal but, if Dhaka’s restrictions are eased, also to longer-term assistance to the refugees.

Brussels, 25 April 2019

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