Bangladesh: Western Perceptions on Developments

President BIPSS, Major General Muniruzzaman (Retd). testified at the Congressional hearing on Bangladesh on 20 November 2013. (Courtesy BIPSS)
President BIPSS, Major General Muniruzzaman (Retd). testified at the Congressional hearing on Bangladesh on 20 November 2013. (Courtesy BIPSS)

The last week has seen a flurry of activities in the West about developments in Bangladesh. These include a hearing (November 20, 2013) by the U.S. House Sub-Committee on Asia titled “Bangladesh in Turmoil.

Such increased focus in the run-up to the elections in Bangladesh is indicative of the West trying to understand what exactly is happening in this important South Asian country.

Interestingly, on both sides of the Atlantic, there has been considerable understanding about what is at stake in Bangladesh. Both, in their own ways, underlined the very real danger of lurking fundamentalism taking over the country, and both pointed to the dubious role of the Jamaat riding piggy-back on the BNP; the need for political reconciliation and inclusive elections and that the war crimes trials should be speedily concluded in order for the people to get a closure of the horrific events of 1971.

In the Congressional hearing, testifying experts were Prof. Ali Riaz (Woodrow Wilson Center), Maj. Gen. (Retd) A.M.N. Muniruzzaman (President, Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies) and John Sifton (Human Rights Watch). The Congressional panel was headed by Sub-committee Chairman Steve Chabot who had recently visited Bangladesh.

The written testimonies apart, the operative points that emerged from the proceedings were that:

  • Notwithstanding procedural issues, there was need for closure of the war crimes trials which enjoyed widespread support among the people of Bangladesh.
  • Bangladesh faced a serious threat from fundamentalist radicals, with consequences similar to the ones being seen by the U.S. in Pakistan.
  • Stress was also laid on political reconciliation between the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) for democratic consolidation, denying non-state / religious fundamentalists from allying themselves politically to prevent further destabilization and political instability.
  • Persecution of religious minorities, particularly Hindus has continued under governments headed by both parties and needs to be stopped.
  • The achievements of the Awami League government on the domestic front have been substantial.

Meanwhile, a joint resolution of the European Parliament titled Bangladesh: Human Rights and Forthcoming Elections was passed on November 21, 2013. It noted the political violence unleashed during ‘hartals’ called for by the Khaleda Zia-led BNP with its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, demanding that the forthcoming election be overseen by a ‘non-party’ caretaker government and calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. It noted the allegations that the Jamaat-e-Islami was promoting strikes in order to obstruct proceedings of war crimes cases against its leaders; It expressed concern over the severe impact of the hartals (shutdown) on impoverished sections of the population, which depend on daily wages to survive.

It recognized progress in the fields of education, healthcare, poverty alleviation, food security, infrastructure, climate change and employment generation under the Awami League Government.

It acknowledged the need for reconciliation, justice and accountability for crimes committed during the 1971 Liberation War; stressed and supported the important role of the International Crimes Tribunal in this matter; though it expressed strong objections to the death penalty.

It also called for taking firm notice of serious threats arising out of the increasing radicalization of fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh, and called upon competent authorities to investigate links between banned terrorists and sectarian outfits with the Jamaat-e- Islam and Hefazat-e-Islam;

In an editorial titled Political Crisis in Bangladesh, the New York Times claims Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is clinging to power till the general elections, and is trying to neutralize her opponents.

It blames Sheikh Hasina for removing a constitutional provision that allows for the setting up of a neutral caretaker government three months before general elections.

The NYT conveniently forgets that the Supreme Court had declared the caretaker government unconstitutional, and that Sheikh Hasina was only acting on the former’s directive. It has also ignored the fact that Khaleda Zia and her BNP boycotted consultations that were to determine what would replace the caretaker set-up.

Insofar as neutralizing her opponents by any means possible is concerned, the NYT fails to realize that the banning of the Jamaat was spearheaded by the Tarikat Foundation and not the ruling Awami League on grounds that its creation was contrary to the Bangladesh Constitution. Courts have upheld this contention.

Finally, the NYT claims the trials by the International Crimes Tribunal are yet another tool to stifle political opponents. As the Congressional hearing and several opinion polls have shown, if there is one thing on which a majority of Bangladeshis are agreed upon, it is the war crimes trials.

The NYT should, therefore, revisit its editorial keeping the outcomes of the Congressional hearing and the European Parliament resolution on the correct picture in Bangladesh.

This article first appeared in Daily Sun, a leading newspaper of Bangladesh.

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