With elections looming at the end of this year, escalating violence and political confrontation has left democracy in Bangladesh at a crossroads. In truth, democracy in modern Bangladesh has always been precarious: military takeover, political violence and parliamentary boycotts have all featured throughout Bangladesh’s 42 years of existence.
Democracy, based on rule of law, should provide a safe and friendly environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights. These include right to life, freedom from torture, equality before law, freedom of movement, thought, opinion, expression, assembly and association. These rights are again being systematically violated by the government as people came out in protest at the death sentence of Jamaat-i-Islami leaders,accused of committing crimes against humanity during the country’s 1971 War of Independence.
Convictions and ensuing political violence
On 28 February 2013, the controversial International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) sentenced Delwar Hossain Sayeedee to death
The verdict was cheered by his opponents but set off protests, which subsequently resulted in the deaths of over a hundred people, including women, children, students, passersby, protesters and police.
I intend to particularly focus on two different ongoing protests simultaneously taking place in the country: the first is the Shahbag movement which is demanding capital punishment for all the alleged war criminals and the second is the protests after the verdict on Sayeedee.
The impartiality of the Tribunal became clear when in December 2012, the Economist published contents of leaked communications between chief justice Mohammed Nizamul Huq and Ahmed Ziauddin, a lawyer of Bangladeshi origin based in Brussels. It exposed both the unfairness and the government control over the tribunal and supports many objections raised about the tribunal’s impartiality.
Human Rights Watch and defence lawyers acting for Ghulam Azam and Delawar Hossain Sayeedee have requested a retrial over the controversy. But the trials carried on regardless.
Apart from all these controversies, one of the major limitations of the ICT is that those who fought with the Liberation forces, irrespective of their conduct, are immune from prosecution. It is widely acknowledged that Bangladeshi freedom fighters were also involved in war crimes. For example Kader Siddique, an MP and renowned freedom fighter, is alleged to have had direct involvement in massacres of prisoners of war. The Hamoodur Rahman commission was constituted by the Pakistan Government to investigate atrocities during the Liberation War. Once its report was submitted, the Bangladesh government did not take any steps to bring those military personnel responsible for the war crimes to account. These issues raise questions about the intentions of the government.
Shahbag vs Sayeedee conviction protest: political violence and state monopoly
Nowhere is the divergence in the ability to express political dissent revealed more clearly than in the asymmetrical treatment of the Shahbag protestors and those supporting the incarcerated Jammat-i-Islami leaders. Shahbag protestors were given multi-layered security but on the other hand protestors in support of Sayeedee were tortured and killed by the by the law enforcement agencies across the country, often with incontrovertible video evidence as publicised by the Asian human rights commission (AHRC).
The government responded to the Shabag protestors by making an amendment in the International Crimes Tribunal Act. Compare this treatment with the deployment of the security apparatus and partisan thugs against the supporters of Sayeedee. It demonstrates the extent to which the politicization of the legislative, judicial and law enforcement agencies have been made absolute.
While they give explicit support from the Prime Minister, other ministers and members of parliament for the Shahbag protest, they remain silent at the brutality meted out to others. It gives lie to the oath of office they made “I will do right to all manner of people according to law, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will”.
International human rights organization such as Human Rights Watchurged the Bangladeshi government and the Jamaat-e-Islaami party of the need to act urgently to ensure that security forces and party supporters do not engage in further acts of violence.
In reality neither Jamaat –e –Islami nor BNP asked their supporters to be violent or attack law enforcement officers. The government, however, did not instruct the security forces to strictly observe its obligation to use maximum restraint and avoid lethal force unless necessary to protect their lives or those of others.
Supporters of the ruling Awami League party have also engaged in vandalism and violence, joining with police in countering the Jamaat supporters and protestors as well as common people.
Military takeover and political parties’ positions
The dramatic events we have witnessed in Bangladesh these past few month has unleashed a popular debate amongst people, including civil society and policy makers: whether there is a chance of a military takeover and whether the country is heading towards civil war.
Barrister Rafiqul Aslam Miah of Bangladesh Nationalist Party shared his view on BBC (1st March 2013) stating that there is possibility of military takeover of power. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, addressing the nation, had said the forces behind the previous military takeover are still active.
Let’s look into the past and see who were responsible for past military take-overs. Bangladesh has had military governments in the past. The army ran the country for fifteen years until 1990. Now once again the question is whether the nation will go back to an undemocratic process. Bangladesh has had a history of political violence, coups and counter-coups since gaining independence in 1971. Democracy was interrupted many times with coups on 15 August 1975, 3 November 1975, between 1977-1980, 1981, 1982, 2007 and lastly an alleged failed coup in 2012.
Partly to counter this, and to absolve the country from squabbles of who really won elections, the main political parties agreed on a constitutional process of caretaker governments.
For the opposition, this ended of 1/11, t when, in the midst of growing political instability, a military backed caretaker government took over power on 11 January 2007, and paved the way for the Awami League to come to power. The people who were behind the military take over remain unpunished. Journalist ABM Musa suggests that the party which invited the 1/11 episode is now in power. “Who will punish the perpetrators?” Many opposition leaders repeatedly asked the government to avoid a repetition of the 1/11 political changeover of 2007.
Not a single government has rightly addressed the democratic deficit that afflicts Bangladesh, and the failure in governance that affects peoples lives. This government is no different. It was elected following the unconstitutional transfer of power, raising once again the quality of the democracy we have. Since its independence, all the elected and unelected governments have notably failed to meet the promise raised by the country’s independence.
Bangladesh’s endless cycle of dysfunctional democracy
When democratic institutions fail, it creates space for undemocratic forces. Let us closely observe a few parliaments and the participations of the parliamentarians. The opposition is so desperate for an election but what happens when they get elected? What is their past history? How have they crippled democracy?
Bangladesh supposedly returned to democratic rule after almost a decade of dictatorship in 1991. The fifth National Parliamentary Elections 1991 resulted in a victory for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party with Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) as the main opposition in the parliament.
What happened afterwards, during the 1991-1996 period? In 400 working days, the main opposition BAL boycotted 135 days and walked out 35 times in 33 days. Other parties in opposition walked out of the parliament 60 times.
The parliament boycott culture emerged from then on. In the seventh parliament (following a boycott by most opposition parties of the sixth national elections), Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) formed government and BNP became main opposition party, and between 1996-2001 BNP boycotted 163 out of total 382 sittings. BAL strongly criticized the parliamentary boycott by BNP but it was the BALwhich started the culture of parliamentary boycotts.
In the eighth parliament elections, BNP formed the government with 199 seats. Again BAL was the main opposition and it set another example of boycotting parliament from the beginning of the new House. During the 2001-2006 period, the parliament went about its business for 373 days while the main opposition Awami League boycotted the parliament for 223 days and walked out of the parliament 74 times in 150 days.
The eighth parliament dissolved in the midst of political violence. A state of emergency was called. A military backed government was installed and put a break on the journey of democracy that started since 1991. Then, after the long expected ninth parliamentary elections, the Awami League formed the government with a landslide victory of 234 seats. The BNP once again became the largest opposition. Since June 2011, BNP has boycotted the parliament for 122 out of 135 working days.
And now the people are brought to the same crossroads again; the crossroads of political violence where people pay the price and politicians get the gain and glory.
BAL and BNP, very often blame each other for crippling the parliament. Yet, surprisingly, when these parties remain on the treasury (or government) bench they become very responsible, but when they come to opposition they take the path of boycott culture.
When on the treasury bench, these political parties claim that the boycotting opposition is being irresponsible by not attending parliament. The same parties, when in the opposition, blame the treasury bench for compelling them to stay away from the House proceedings.
These policy makers keep the parliament from functioning; they use the judiciary and executive branch for their political benefits and this cripples the democracy.
Now the people of Bangladesh are caught between a crocodile and bear, where the government is unwilling to protect its citizens from violence, and indeed is carrying out violence against its people. All political parties always love to keep people in fear and facing problems, especially before the election, so they do not think of any other political alternatives. If things go very wrong, traditionally they bring back their supporter forces within the military, and when the crisis is over they turn back in their positions.
The Shahbag movement is moving towards its next victory, where Jamaat will be banned from politics. And the counter Shahbag movement will march for its final win-lose battle. More violence will ensue in the clash between the government and opposition parties. Now it’s time to see how the people make their decision to save the nation’s democracy.
William Gomes is a Bangladeshi journalist and human rights activist, and was a visiting fellow at the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York in 2012. He had also worked for the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). Twitter: @wnicholasgomes