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Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) activists shout slogans during a rally in Dhaka on 20 January 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj
Report 264 / Asia

Mapping Bangladesh’s Political Crisis

Violence continues to plague the aftermath of Bangladesh’s deeply contested January 2014 elections. The country’s two main post-independence parties must turn back from a political dead end that is doing long-term damage to them both, negotiate a return to democratic rules and work towards a new all-party cabinet to oversee new elections.

Executive Summary

On 5 January, the first anniversary of the deeply contested 2014 elections, the most violent in Bangladesh’s history, clashes between government and opposition groups led to several deaths and scores injured. The confrontation marks a new phase of the deadlock between the ruling Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) opposition, which have swapped time in government with metronomic consistency since independence. Having boycotted the 2014 poll, the BNP appears bent on ousting the government via street power. With daily violence at the pre-election level, the political crisis is fast approaching the point of no return and could gravely destabilise Bangladesh unless the sides move urgently to reduce tensions. Moreover, tribunals set up to adjudicate crimes perpetrated at the moment of Bangladesh’s bloody birth threaten division more than reconciliation. Both parties would be best served by changing course: the AL government by respecting the democratic right to dissent (recalling its time in opposition); the BNP by reviving its political fortunes through compromise with the ruling party, rather than violent street politics.

With the two largest mainstream parties unwilling to work toward a new political compact that respects the rights of both opposition and victor to govern within the rule of law, extremists and criminal networks could exploit the resulting political void. Violent Islamist factions are already reviving, threatening the secular, democratic order. While jihadi forces see both parties as the main hurdle to the establishment of an Islamic order, the AL and the BNP perceive each other as the main adversary.

The AL and its leader, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid, emphasise that the absence from parliament of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her BNP make them political non-entities. Yet, concerned about a comeback, the government is attempting to forcibly neutralise the political opposition and stifle dissent, including by bringing corruption and other criminal cases against party leaders, among whom are Zia and her son and heir apparent, Tarique Rahman; heavy-handed use of police and paramilitary forces; and legislation and policies that undermine fundamental constitutional rights.

The BNP, which has not accepted any responsibility for the election-related violence in 2014 that left hundreds dead (and saw hundreds of Hindu homes and shops vandalised), is again attempting to oust the government by force, in alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami, which is alleged to have committed some of the worst abuses during that period. The party retains its core supporters and seems to have successfully mobilised its activists on the streets. Yet, its sole demand – for a fresh election under a neutral caretaker – is too narrow to generate the public support it needs to overcome the disadvantage of being out of parliament, and its political capital is fading fast as it again resorts to violence. 

The deep animosity and mistrust between leaders and parties were not inevitable. Despite a turbulent history, they earlier cooperated to end direct or indirect military rule and strengthen democracy, most recently during the 2007-2008 tenure of the military-backed caretaker government (CTG), when the high command tried to remove both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia from politics. Rather than building on that cooperation, the two leaders have resorted to non-democratic methods to undermine each other. In power, both have used centralised authority, a politicised judiciary and predatory law enforcement agencies against legitimate opposition.

Underpinning the current crisis is the failure to agree on basic standards for multiparty democratic functioning. While the BNP claims to be the guardian of Bangladeshi nationalism, the AL has attempted to depict itself as the sole author and custodian of Bangladesh’s liberation. The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), established by the AL in March 2010 to prosecute individuals accused of committing atrocities during the 1971 liberation war, should be assessed in this context. While the quest to bring perpetrators to account is justifiable, the ICTs are not simply, or even primarily, a legal tool, but rather are widely perceived as a political one, primarily for use against the government’s Islamist opposition. In short, the governing AL is seen to be using the nation’s founding tragedy for self-serving political gains.

The AL needs to realise that the BNP’s marginalisation from mainstream politics could encourage anti-government activism to find more radical avenues, all the more so in light of its own increasingly authoritarian bent. Equally, the BNP would do well to abandon its alliances of convenience with violent Islamist groups and seek to revive agreement on a set of basic standards for multiparty democracy. A protracted and violent political crisis would leave Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia the ultimate losers, particularly if a major breakdown of law and order were to encourage the military to intervene; though there is as yet no sign of that, history suggests it is an eventuality not to be dismissed. The opportunities for political reconciliation are fast diminishing, as political battle lines become ever more entrenched. Both parties should restrain their violent activist base and take practical steps to reduce political tensions:

the AL government should commit to a non-repressive response to political dissent, rein in and ensure accountability for abuses committed by law enforcement entities, reverse measures that curb civil liberties and assertively protect minority communities against attack and dispossession of properties and businesses;

the AL should invite the BNP, at lower levels of seniority if needed, to negotiations aimed at reviving the democratic rules of the game, including electoral reform. It should also hold mayoral elections in Dhaka, a long-overdue constitutional requirement that would provide opportunities to begin that dialogue; and

the BNP should commit to non-violent political opposition; refrain from an alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami that is enhancing the Islamist opposition’s street power with little political return for the BNP; and instead demonstrate willingness to engage in meaningful negotiations with the AL to end a crisis that is undermining economic growth and threatening to subvert the political order.

Islamabad/Brussels, 9 February 2015

Rohingya refugee women hold placards as they take part in a protest at the Kutupalong refugee camp to mark the one-year anniversary of their exodus in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, 25 August 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Briefing 153 / Asia

Bangladesh-Myanmar: The Danger of Forced Rohingya Repatriation

Bangladesh and Myanmar have struck a deal for the involuntary repatriation of over 2,000 Rohingya refugees. But the agreement is rushed and threatens stability on both sides of the border. Myanmar and Bangladesh should halt the plan and instead work to create conditions conducive to a safe and dignified return. 

What’s new? Bangladesh’s government is preparing to return several thousand Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. Under pressure from China, the two countries have agreed to start implementing a repatriation agreement on 15 November 2018.

Why does it matter? The returns process is not voluntary and jeopardises refugees’ safety as conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are not conducive to their return. The move renews the risk of violent unrest in Bangladesh where the refugees are housed as well in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

What should be done? The UN, U.S., European Union (EU), Australia, Canada and other governments should press Bangladesh and Myanmar to postpone repatriation until conditions on the ground in Myanmar allow Rohingya refugees to return safely and voluntarily.

I. Overview

Bangladesh is poised to begin returning several thousand Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. This repatriation is unlikely to be voluntary and should not proceed. It would not only violate Bangladesh’s international legal obligations and jeopardise the safety of the refugees, but risks triggering violence and greater instability on both sides of the border. Bangladesh and Myanmar should immediately halt the plan. The UN, including the secretary-general’s special envoy and the UN refugee agency, should continue to firmly oppose it, both in public and in private, and establish a process whereby Rohingya refugees are consulted about their future. The U.S., European Union (EU), Australia, Canada and others also should press Bangladesh and Myanmar to halt the returns and instead work to create conditions conducive to voluntary repatriation; those countries’ participation at the 11-15 November ASEAN summits in Singapore is an opportunity to do so.

II. New Pressures for Repatriation

Almost 750,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh following Myanmar’s brutal military operation in Rakhine state in response to attacks on security posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group in August 2017.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017.Hide Footnote The refugees have been living in vast camps near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border ever since. A UN fact-finding mission concluded that the military’s actions constitute crimes against humanity, war crimes and possible genocide.[fn]“Myanmar: UN Fact-Finding Mission releases its full account of massive violations by military in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States”, press release, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 18 September 2018.Hide Footnote

Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to a procedural framework for repatriation in November 2017, which was supposed to start on 23 January. But no Rohingya refugee has returned through official channels. In fact, more Rohingya have left Myanmar since then: some 16,000 have departed Rakhine state for Bangladesh so far in 2018.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials involved in the relief effort, Bangladesh, November 2018.Hide Footnote Refugees are unwilling to return without guarantees that their security and rights will be protected, accountability ensured and compensation provided for the destruction of their villages, homes and property.

On 30 October, however, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed on a repatriation deal at a joint working group meeting in Dhaka. Under the agreement, 485 Rohingya families (a total of 2,260 people) are to be returned to Myanmar starting on 15 November; Myanmar has said that it will process 150 returnees per day.[fn]“First batch of over 2,260 returnees to be accepted at rate of 150 per day”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 5 November 2018, p. 2.Hide Footnote  These people were not consulted in advance and how they were selected is unclear; they are terrified at the prospect of being returned to Myanmar.[fn]“Humanitarian Organizations call for Guarantees of Safety and Rights for Refugees before Return to Myanmar Commences”, press release, INGO Forum Myanmar, 8 December 2017.Hide Footnote  The Bangladesh authorities have said that they will not force people to go back, but no return under present circumstances can be voluntary. Crisis Group interviews indicate that some of the refugees on the list for return have gone into hiding out of fear of being repatriated; at least one has attempted suicide.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 2018. See also “Rohingya refugee attempts suicide as repatriation fears rise”, The Telegraph (London), 8 November 2018.Hide Footnote

Some of the refugees on the list for return have gone into hiding out of fear of being repatriated; at least one has attempted suicide.

While the two countries have held many previous discussions and made announcements on repatriation plans over the past year that have not been implemented, this time Bangladesh appears determined to push through a limited returns process. Its political calculations have shifted for two key reasons.

First, it has come under considerable diplomatic pressure from China to start returns. China has important economic and geostrategic interests in Myanmar, including a multi-billion dollar China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, the details of which are currently being finalised; it is also a major investor in Bangladesh, giving it significant leverage. China has been supporting Myanmar in the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly and protecting it from stronger Security Council action. It has advocated support for Myanmar and Bangladesh to deal with the situation bilaterally instead of being addressed in multilateral forums, but this argument rings hollow if the bilateral process is not working.

Beijing has thus facilitated a series of meetings between Myanmar and Bangladesh and has made clear that it wants to see movement. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted a side meeting among Myanmar, Bangladesh and UN Secretary-General António Guterres and his Special Envoy during the General Assembly in September, where the Bangladesh foreign minister committed to start repatriations “soon”.[fn]“China facilitates informal meeting at UN to expedite refugee repatriation process”, The Irrawaddy, 1 October 2018.Hide Footnote Shortly before the 30 October meeting between Myanmar and Bangladesh, Chinese Public Security Minister Zhao Kezhi also met with Bangladeshi leaders.

Secondly, Bangladesh is worried about what it sees as an emerging global consensus that most refugees are unlikely to return home for the foreseeable future and a shift in Western donor focus to their local integration. Many senior Bangladeshi officials privately acknowledge that the majority of refugees may never go home.[fn]But they are not ready to state this publicly or to allow donors to take for granted Bangladesh’s continued hosting of the Rohingya – especially given the low levels of funding for the humanitarian operation and the burden this places on Bangladesh. It also believes that international actors have not pressed Myanmar enough to address the security, rights and accountability issues to enable any large-scale return.[fn]By undertaking some forced returns, Bangladesh officials appear to be banking on the fact that they will alarm donors and prompt them to focus more on the situation and realise the status quo is unsustainable.

These factors have combined to tip Bangladesh’s policy in favour of a small-scale return. Political dynamics ahead of general elections in Bangladesh on 23 December may also play a part. Myanmar also sees a limited repatriation as serving its interests. Naypyitaw hopes that a small number of returns would demonstrate to a sceptical world that it is ready to welcome Rohingya back, shifting the focus away from the reasons why they originally left – and thereby weakening, it believes, the basis for claims of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

III. The Risks of Forced Returns

While Bangladesh and Myanmar may consider that the return of some refugees serves their respective interests, it would harm the Rohingya themselves, who would be returning to a situation from which people continue to flee. Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, and while it has given the Rohingya safe haven, it does not formally recognise them as refugees. Nevertheless, Bangladesh has an obligation under customary international law to ensure that any return of refugees to Myanmar is voluntary and safe.

Bangladesh and Myanmar did not consult in advance with the UN or its refugee agency on the repatriation. The UN has stressed the move is premature and that it does not yet consider conditions on the ground in Rakhine state conducive to returns.[fn]The UN special rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Myanmar issued a statement on 6 November calling on Bangladesh to shelve the “rushed plans” for repatriation.[fn]

In addition to the human rights concerns, a forced repatriation carries serious risks for security and stability on both sides of the border. The refugee community in Bangladesh is strongly opposed to the move and will do whatever it can to resist it. This will increase tensions in the camps and could lead to confrontations between refugees and Bangladeshi security forces and greatly complicate humanitarian operations. A botched repatriation attempt could potentially set back peace and development efforts by years.

The ARSA militant group continues to have a prominent presence in the camps and could launch cross-border raids on Myanmar’s security forces, as it did in January 2018, in an effort to stop repatriation. Other militant factions have also been organising in the camps, though their capacity for violent action is unclear.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, January-November 2018.Hide Footnote Any attack or other security incident in Rakhine state would heighten tensions there and could worsen conditions for the several hundred thousand Rohingya who remain. Myanmar has also said that some of the people proposed by Bangladesh for repatriation were ARSA members.[fn]“Dozens of ‘terrorists’ among Rohingya slated for repatriation, Myanmar official says”, Radio Free Asia, 8 November 2018.Hide Footnote  It is not known if they are among those selected for return but this raises the worrying possibility that some of those sent back could be arrested.

In addition to the human rights concerns, a forced repatriation carries serious risks for security and stability on both sides of the border.

A rushed repatriation is also likely to increase tensions in Rakhine state. Already, ethnic Rakhine opposed to returns have held demonstrations to stop them. Rakhine nationalists are also calling for strict security vetting of returnees and resettling them to certain secure areas instead of their home villages. In particular, nationalists are staunchly opposed to any returns to southern Maungdaw, which they want to maintain as a “Muslim-free zone”.[fn]“With Rohingya gone, Myanmar’s ethnic Rakhine seek Muslim-free 'buffer zone’”, The Daily Star, 16 March 2018.Hide Footnote  Crisis Group has seen a partial list of the returnees, a number of whom came from villages in this area, and under the terms of the repatriation agreement should be allowed to return there. A secretive repatriation process without the consultations and preparations needed in Rakhine state could easily inflame hostilities and provoke violence against returnees or the remaining Rohingya population.

If refugees fear that they will be forced back to Myanmar, they may become more desperate to leave the camps and to attempt dangerous sea journeys across the Bay of Bengal to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia or other countries. This could have wider regional implications, as it did during the maritime migration crisis of 2015.

IV. Recommendations

The following actions should urgently be taken:

  • Bangladesh and Myanmar should immediately halt plans to return refugees to Rakhine state until they can ensure a process of voluntary, safe and dignified return. The onus is squarely on Myanmar to create those conditions.
     
  • In the meantime, Myanmar should grant unfettered access for the UN and its international NGO partners, as well as the media, to northern Rakhine for the delivery of essential humanitarian support and in order to allow independent assessment of the situation on the ground.
     
  • The Bangladesh government and its international partners should deepen their political engagement with the Rohingya refugees and consult them about their future. So far, there is almost no consultation or even processes in place to do so.
     
  • China should stop pressing for an early repatriation and lend its weight to efforts by other governments and organisations to create conditions in Rakhine state that are conducive to voluntary and sustainable return.
     
  • The UN and its refugee agency should continue to firmly oppose the repatriation in public and in private and use its influence in both countries to halt the process. In particular, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, should take a clear public stand and press both Dhaka and Naypyitaw to shelve their current plans. The UN, already facing serious questions about its approach in the years leading up to the crisis, cannot fail the Rohingya again.[fn]The Fact-Finding Mission recommended that “As a matter of urgency, a comprehensive, independent inquiry should be conducted into the involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar since 2011, with a view to establishing whether everything possible to prevent or mitigate the unfolding crises was done, identifying lessons learned and good practices, making recommendations as appropriate, including on accountability, and enabling more effective work in future.” This call has been echoed by the Special Rapporteur, Yanghee Lee. See “Report of the International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar”, A/HRC/39/64, 18 September 2018, para. 111.Hide Footnote If a precedent of forced repatriation is set, larger-scale forced returns in the future become much more likely.

As dialogue partners with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the U.S., EU, Australia, Canada and others should use the upcoming ASEAN summit meetings from 11 to 15 November in Singapore to press Myanmar to halt its current plans and instead work to create conditions for voluntary repatriation. ASEAN countries have a direct stake, since forced returns will likely lead to a surge in Rohingya seeking to flee by boat to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Brussels, 12 November 2018

 

Appendix A: Map of Rakhine State