Bangladesh at a Crossroads

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.