BRUSSELS – In the course of just a few weeks, Bangladesh’s fragile democracy – which had made substantial social and economic progress in recent years – has deteriorated dramatically. The general election on January 5, which Bangladesh’s Western partners had hoped would consolidate its democratic credentials, was marred by violent protest and the refusal by the European Union and the United States to send observers, following the decision by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the country’s main opposition party, not to participate.
Unrest in South Asia’s dynastic democracies is nothing new. But the international community thought that Bangladesh – though still desperately poor, prone to frequent flooding, and having experienced a recent series of tragedies, including fires and a major building collapse in its garments factory – had matured sufficiently for a peaceful transition of power. Under the Awami League government, which was peacefully elected with a huge majority in December 2008, and whose secular/socialist traditions are rooted in the Bengali national movement (which led to independence from Pakistan in 1971), Bangladesh had enjoyed a period of relative stability and rapid economic growth.
But painful divisions persisted beneath the surface. In particular, the split between democratic secularism and sharia-based Islamist governance has defined Bangladesh’s identity since independence, when the rift between competing political models took its most extreme form in horrendous massacres of Bengali nationalists. That legacy remains a flashpoint for violence today.
One controversial issue stoking tensions has been the workings of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) established by the current government after receiving a clear mandate to try those accused of mass killings and other atrocities 43 years ago. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina defended the decision by insisting that there can be no impunity for war crimes on the scale perpetrated in 1971, when an estimated two million people died, with many civilians executed in cold blood.
This quest for justice is no different from efforts to hold war criminals accountable elsewhere, such as in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. There is clearly a need for emotional closure to allow the country to move on from its bloody birth. But Hasina’s opponents rejected the ICT as a political act aimed at silencing another opposition party, Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s most prominent Islamist organization, whose leaders sided with Pakistani forces during the civil war.
But Hasina’s desire for justice and closure is understandable, given that her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (the country’s founding father), and most of her family were brutally murdered in 1975. There were also sound political motivations for establishing the court: a portion of the Awami League’s support comes from the Bengali intelligentsia, in particular the Hindu minority, which suffered terribly in the 1971 war.
Jamaat-e-Islami and its ally, the BNP, responded to the war-crimes trials with violent disruption and obstruction aimed at paralyzing the economy. Roughly 300 people – many of them members of religious minorities, who are often scapegoated for supporting the Awami League and the ICT – died last year as a result of the protests. Hindus comprised most of the prosecution’s witnesses for the ICT.
Jamaat-e-Islami and its even more radical ally, Hefazat-e-Islam, a fundamentalist madrasa-based group that has campaigned to ban women’s right to work, attempted to block the ICT’s work physically – and even to destroy its international credibility on the grounds that the court reserved the right to impose the death penalty. Hefazat-e-Islam, which supports execution for so-called “atheist bloggers,” apparently thinks that blogging causes greater harm than mass murder.
Hasina’s government rightly pointed out that all criminal courts in Bangladesh can impose the death penalty, so it would be odd that a murderer could be executed but a mass murderer could not. On December 12, Abdul Quader Molla, a prominent member of Jamaat-e-Islam, was the first to be hanged for war crimes, with six more sentenced to death.
In fairness, international jurists have criticized the ICT on procedural grounds, while the EU opposes capital punishment in all circumstances. But no one outside the country contests the legitimacy of the ICT per se.
In fact, the war-crimes trials were only one of several irritants to the opposition, which was also determined to reinstate the model of a technocratic civil-service-led caretaker government in the run-up to the election. This model, unique to Bangladesh and Pakistan in South Asia, was introduced to eliminate abuse of administrative resources by the incumbent government during election campaigns but was abolished by a constitutional change that the Supreme Court upheld in 2011. Indeed, the Awami League rightly pointed out that the caretaker government that took power in 2006, backed by the military, clung to power for two years, instead of the constitutionally mandated maximum of 90 days, and even tried to prevent Hasina from returning to the country from abroad.
The BNP claimed that there could be no fair elections without a caretaker government, even though they had recently won local municipal elections. This stance led to a boycott, despite Hasina’s offer to create an all-party government with three cabinet portfolios for the BNP, including the interior ministry, which has substantial oversight over both the police and the conduct of elections. The government had no choice but to hold the election, as mandated by the constitution.
So, what can be done now that the election is over and a new Awami League government has been sworn in?
Above all, the Awami League must make a greater effort to build bridges – for example, by either charging BNP leaders accused of committing crimes, or releasing them from prison. It must also deliver on its promise to hold a fresh election, provided the BNP ceases its deliberate use of violence, and it should seek an agreement with the EU to send a strong election-observer mission.
The BNP should also distance itself from Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist fundamentalists, and commit itself to secular governance. Indeed, the BNP has not always been close to those who want a sharia-based state. On the contrary, the BNP has traditionally been pro-business, and Bangladesh badly needs foreign direct investment, which has dried up with the unrest. The BNP also needs to make peace with India, the regional economic giant.
Bangladesh is at a crossroads. Neither the West, nor South Asia, can afford to see the country take a wrong turn.