Report 121 / Asia

Le Bangladesh aujourd’hui

La démocratie et la stabilité du Bangladesh sont menacées par deux éléments: d’un côté, le risque que son système politique sombre dans une impasse à l’occasion des élections et, de l’autre, le défi croissant que pose l’islamisme militant, qui a déjà déclenché une avalanche de violences.

Synthèse

La démocratie et la stabilité du Bangladesh sont menacées par deux éléments: d’un côté, le risque que son système politique sombre dans une impasse à l’occasion des élections et, de l’autre, le défi croissant que pose l’islamisme militant, qui a déjà déclenché une avalanche de violences. Ces deux problèmes sont liés, le militantisme islamique ayant gagné du terrain dans une période de dysfonctionnements politiques, de mécontentement populaire et de violence. La traditionnelle modération et détermination des bangladais dominera-t-elle ou assistera-t-on a une escalade de violence et de confrontation politique qui pourraient faire dérailler la démocratie? Ces questions sont vitales. Une grave instabilité dans le troisième pays musulman le plus peuplé du monde ne pourrait qu’avoir des implications plus larges. La situation ne doit pas faire craindre le déclenchement d’un conflit majeur dans le pays ou le renforcement de l’extrémisme ou du terrorisme au niveau international mais certains éléments de fragilité dans le système demandent à être observés de plus près et requièrent un plus grand engagement dans ce pays. La communauté internationale peut aider à faire face aux risques les plus grands mais elle ne peut le faire que si elle considère le Bangladesh comme un partenaire stratégique sérieux et se tourne vers un dialogue politique plus mûr.

En général, depuis qu’il a acquis son indépendance du Pakistan avec l’aide de l’Inde en 1971, à l’issue d’une guerre brutale, ce sont plutôt les mauvaises nouvelles qui attirent l’attention sur le Bangladesh. Mis à part les catastrophes naturelles récurrentes, la liste des sujets de préoccupations est longue: parlement non fonctionnel, corruption enracinée, culture de la violence tant politique que non politique, organismes judiciaires et de maintien de l’ordre faibles, extrémisme islamiste militant et attaques contre des minorités, conflit ethnique, mauvaises relations avec les pays voisins, pauvreté, analphabétisme et faibles indicateurs de développement spécifiques aux femmes.

Dans l’immédiat, les problèmes se multiplient à l’approche des élections générales qui auront probablement lieu en janvier 2007. La conduite de ces élections reposera sur quatre institutions: la présidence, le chef du gouvernement intérimaire chargé de surveiller le processus, la commission électorale et l’armée. Aucune d’elles n’échappe à la controverse; le président et le président de la Cour suprême (qui prendra automatiquement la tête de l’administration intérimaire) sont taxés de partialité envers le Parti nationaliste du Bangladesh (BNP) au pouvoir, tandis que le chef de la commission électorale a entamé sa crédibilité par une révision de la liste électorale mal conçue et selon toute apparence dans un but politique. Seule l’armée a gardé profil bas. Mais alors qu’elle n’a rien fait pour ternir son image, sa réticence actuelle à prendre position en politique pourrait changer en cas d’instabilité sérieuse.

Les dirigeants des deux principaux partis, le BNP et la Ligue Awami, sont empêtrés dans une haine mutuelle qui a paralysé le parlement. La Ligue a de bonnes raisons de se poser en victime: une attaque à la grenade en août 2004 lors d’un rassemblement de la Ligue dans la capitale a failli tuer sa présidente, Sheikh Hasina, et a blessé ou tué d’autres responsables du parti; on compte parmi d’autres attaques le meurtre de Shah A.M.S. Kibria, un ancien ministre des finances respecté. Aucune enquête sérieuse n’a été menée concernant ces attaques meurtrières.

La Ligue Awami, dont les résultats au gouvernement ont été entachés par la violence politique et qui a immobilisé le parlement par un long boycott, a adopté une stratégie de confrontation. Exigeant des points de référence raisonnables pour garantir des élections libres et justes, elle a refusé de négocier avec le partenaire islamiste de la coalition du BNP, le Jamaat-e-Islami, et menace même de se retirer de la course. Bien que la Ligue ait remporté le meilleur score en 2001 et qu’elle espère bénéficier d’un vote de protestation favorable à l’opposition, le système majoritaire à un tour fait de la sélection des alliés politiques et de la répartition des sièges entre ceux-ci des questions primordiales. Le BNP a le soutien des partis religieux et a renforcé sa position en persuadant le parti Jatiya de l’ancien général Ershad de rejoindre son alliance.

Le principal bénéficiaire de ces équations politiques brouillonnes est la frange islamiste, de plus en plus influente, qui est menée par des partis au pouvoir légitimes comme le Jamaat, mais qui s’étend aussi au Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (parti des Moudjahidin du Bangladesh) et au Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (Peuple musulman éclairé du Bangladesh), violemment militants. Des preuves circonstancielles et la logique politique donnent à penser que des groupes terroristes clandestins ont été entretenus et protégés par des personnalités au pouvoir.

Bien que le gouvernement ait longtemps nié le problème, une escalade de la violence en 2005 l’a forcé à faire face à une menace qui était déjà presque hors de contrôle. En août 2005, plus de 450 explosions simultanées ont eu lieu dans tous les districts du pays sauf un; les explosions étaient peu importantes et le nombre de victimes faible mais l’ampleur de l’organisation a tiré la sonnette d’alarme. Les premiers attentats suicide ont eu lieu en décembre 2005. Sous une pression nationale et internationale croissante, le gouvernement a arrêté certains militants de haut rang et quelques centaines de leurs soldats en mars 2006. La violence islamiste s’est tarie depuis lors, ce qui laisse penser que l’action de l’État a donné des résultats mais il se peut qu’il ne s’agisse que d’une suspension temporaire, ceux qui financent les militants craignant que la violence ne crée des problèmes diplomatiques et électoraux. Les problèmes du financement étranger de l’extrémisme et du système de madrasa en expansion en dehors de la réglementation étatique s’inscrivent sur le long terme.

Le militantisme accru ne peut être attribué seulement à la pauvreté. De fait, si l’on en croit les statistiques, l’économie du Bangladesh est en bonne santé et le pays progresse en matière de développement. Il existe d’autres facteurs de stabilité: des médias libres et dynamiques, une société civile et un secteur des ONG actifs, un électorat sophistiqué et une tradition bien enracinée de sécularisme libéral. L’islam a toujours été un élément identitaire important au Bangladesh; qu’il ait pris de l’importance depuis que le Bangladesh a acquis son indépendance en 1971 n’est ni surprenant ni alarmant. Devant les urnes, les bangladais ont toujours rejeté l’extrémisme religieux. Bien que les islamistes aient gagné en influence par leurs manœuvres au sein du gouvernement, leur score aux élections n’a pas augmenté. Le défi le plus urgent pour les dirigeants politiques du Bangladesh consiste à s’assurer que c’est bien la population qui choisit l’avenir du pays plutôt qu’une frange violente qui profite du vide laissé par les partis modérés qui ne voient pas plus loin que leurs intérêts à court terme.

Quant à la communauté internationale, le défi auquel elle doit faire face consiste à trouver les moyens de soutenir la démocratie. Pour ce faire, elle doit préférer un engagement politique plus actif à une relation jusqu’à présent axée sur l’aide et insister pour que le gouvernement satisfasse à certains standards en termes de droits humains, lors des élections et pour la réforme du secteur de la sécurité. Les problèmes de contre-terrorisme qui se posent sur le court terme ne devraient pas l’emporter sur les problèmes à long terme que sont l’amélioration du contrôle des forces de sécurité, le respect des droits humains et la fin de la culture d’impunité, particulièrement celle qui entoure les violences politiques. Mieux asseoir la démocratie est la meilleure garantie contre l’expansion de l’extrémisme.

Islamabad/Bruxelles, 23 octobre 2006

Executive Summary

Bangladesh faces twin threats to its democracy and stability: the risk that its political system will founder in a deadlock over elections and the growing challenge of militant Islamism, which has brought a spate of violence. The issues are linked; Islamic militancy has flourished in a time of dysfunctional politics, popular discontent and violence. The questions of whether Bangladesh’s traditional moderation and resilience will see it through or whether escalating violence and political confrontation could derail its democracy are vital ones. Serious instability in the world’s third most populous Muslim country could not fail to have wider implications. The situation does not justify great anxiety about the outbreak of major conflict domestically or the nurturing of significant extremism and terrorism internationally but there are elements of fragility in the system which need close watching and engagement. The international community can help to address the graver risks but only if it takes Bangladesh seriously as a strategic partner and moves towards more mature political engagement.

It tends to be bad news that brings Bangladesh to world attention since it won independence from Pakistan, with India’s assistance, in a brutal 1971 war. Apart from recurrent natural disasters, the list of worrying trends is lengthy: the non-functional parliament, entrenched corruption, a culture of violence, both political and non-political, weak judicial and law enforcement agencies, militant Islamic extremism and attacks on minorities, ethnic conflict, poor relations with neighbours, poverty, illiteracy and poor development indicators for women.

Most immediately, problems are multiplying in connection with the general elections, likely to take place in January 2007. Their conduct will rely on four institutions: the presidency, the head of the caretaker government charged with supervising the process, the election commission and the army. None of these is free of controversy; the president and chief justice (who will automatically lead the caretaker administration) are seen as partial to the governing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), while the chief election commissioner has damaged his credibility with a misconceived, and apparently politically biased, revision of the electoral roll. The army alone has kept a low profile. But while it has done nothing to tarnish its image, its current reluctance to play politics could change if there is serious instability.

The leaders of the two main parties, the BNP and the Awami League (AL), are locked in mutual hatred that has paralysed parliament. The AL has good grounds for its complaints of victimisation: an August 2004 grenade attack on an AL rally in the capital nearly killed its president, Sheikh Hasina, and left other senior leaders dead or injured; other assaults include the murder of Shah A.M.S. Kibria, a respected former finance minister. There have been no serious investigations of these killings.

The AL, whose own record in government was marred by political violence and which has stalled parliament with a lengthy boycott, has adopted a confrontational strategy. Demanding reasonable benchmarks for free and fair elections, it has refused to negotiate with the BNP’s Islamist coalition partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami, and threatens to pull out of the polls altogether. Although it won the largest share of votes in 2001 and hopes to benefit from an anti-incumbent swing, the first-past-the-post system means that much rides on the selection of allies and distribution of winnable seats. The BNP has the support of the religious parties and has strengthened its hand by persuading the Jatiya party of former military ruler General Ershad to join its alliance.

The principal beneficiary of these messy political equations has been the increasingly influential Islamist fringe, led by legitimate governing parties like the Jamaat but extending to the violently militant Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Circumstantial evidence, as well as cold political logic, suggests that underground terrorist groups have been cultivated and sheltered by those in power.

Although the government long denied there was a problem, a sharp escalation of violence in 2005 forced it to face up to a threat that was nearly out of hand. August 2005 saw more than 450 simultaneous bombings in every district of the country bar one; the explosions were small and casualties low but the scale of organisation rang alarm bells. The first apparent suicide bombings took place in December 2005. Amid mounting domestic and international pressure, the government arrested senior militant leaders and hundreds of foot soldiers in March 2006. Islamist violence has dried up since then, suggesting that the state’s action has brought results, but this may be only a temporary suspension, with sponsors of the militants worried that violence was becoming an electoral and diplomatic liability. The issues of foreign funding of extremism and the growing madrasa system outside of government regulation are concerns for the long term.

Increased militancy cannot simply be attributed to poverty. Indeed, on paper Bangladesh’s economy is healthy, and the country is making impressive progress on development goals. There are other stabilising factors: a lively free media, vibrant civil society and NGO sector, a sophisticated electorate and a deep-rooted tradition of liberal secularism. Islam has always been an important strand of identity; that it has grown in significance since Bangladesh achieved independence in 1971 is neither surprising nor alarming. Offered a choice at the polls, Bangladeshis have consistently rejected religious extremism. Although the Islamists have gained in influence by manoeuvring themselves into government, they have not increased their share of the vote. The urgent challenge is for Bangladesh’s political leaders to ensure that it is the people at large who get to shape the country’s future, rather than a violent fringe filling the vacuum created by moderate parties’ short-term self-interest.

For the international community, the challenge will be finding ways to support the workings of democracy. To do this, it needs to move relationships away from a focus on aid to a more active political engagement, insisting that the government meet standards in terms of human rights, elections and the reform of the security sector. Short-term counter-terrorism issues should not overwhelm the long-term issues of improving oversight of security forces, respect for human rights and ending the culture of impunity, particularly surrounding political violence. Improving democracy is the best guarantee against the growth of extremism.

Islamabad/Brussels, 23 October 2006

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.

I. Overview

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.

II. Slim Prospects for Return

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.

III. Fraught Conditions in the Camps

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.

IV. Improving Refugees’ Medium-term Prospects

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

Appendix A: Map of Rakhine State