Thursday, January 22, 2015

Political conflict 2015 - Treacherous waters

See also in the 'Political Crisis 2015' series:
Analysis of the deaths (updated to 27 Jan)

When there is so little written in the international media about the current political crisis in Bangladesh, the economist the key exception, I guess there will be much comment about the research note published yesterday (21 January) by the Library of the House of Commons.*

It should be first noted that this is not - as the Daily Star says in its initial news report today - the view of the UK parliament. As the website of the commons's library says, the library, 'provides impartial information and research services for Members of Parliament and their staff in support of their parliamentary duties.' It is a note written by a researcher employed by the library of the House of Commons for the use of parliamentary stuff - nothing more, nothing less. So when the Daily Star has a headline stating 'UK lauds ….', it is wrong. The 'UK' has not lauded anything. (Bdnews24, gets it right)

It should be said that despite a few critical points set out below, this research paper is a good summary of the current situation, and very much worth reading.

My comments are as follows:

1. The research paper is very out of date in terms of numbers of deaths caused by the protests. It says in its introduction that the 'protests have led to at least ten deaths' when by the date of publication there had been between 31 to 33 deaths (depending on how you count them).

Moreover,it seems to completely ignore deaths of members of the public, apparently by opposition picketers. It says in section 3:

When street protests occurred on 5 January in Dhaka and a number of smaller towns, the authorities cracked down; at least ten protesters were killed in clashes with the police. Other opposition leaders were arrested and one, the BNP’s Reaz Rehman, was shot and wounded.  
It does not mention any of the 16 deaths of members of the public most of  burnt to death.

Its description of the violence prior to the 5 January election is also rather skewed. It states :
The run up to the election from October 2013 onwards was characterised by strikes and escalating violence, with significant casualties. Following the election, the unrest continued for several weeks. Human Rights Watch criticised the authorities’ use of excessive force, including extrajudicial killings of opposition supporters.
It is true that there was substantial government violence - including the disappearances of 19 BNP activists - but the library note fails to mention  that over 20 members of the public died as a result of fire bombs thrown by opposition activists or those under their authority, in that period.
The failure to mention opposition party violence is a significant omission which, inadvertently no doubt, somewhat skews perception of what went on in the end of 2013 and what is going on right not in Bangladesh, and how one should view both parties.

2. The research paper is particularly critical of the election. It describes it as 'extremely flawed' stating that although the government claimed a turn-out of 48% others had 'assessed it to have been much lower than that.'

Since, the 2014 election is at the heart of this dispute between the parties, this harsh description of the election is particularly notable, and will no doubt be welcomed by the BNP.

It goes onto say that:
Western donors refused to endorse the election outcome on the grounds that it did not reflect the will of the people of Bangladesh. They called for fresh elections once the political stand- off was resolved. Sheikh Hasina initially hinted at new elections but over the course of 2014 abandoned such talk.
I am not sure that this is an entirely accurate view of the donor response - though maybe I am splitting hairs. It is true that the EU, for example, did state that in the elections the "people of Bangladesh were not given an opportunity to express fully their democratic choice" and hoped for new elections, but little else seemed to change in the way donor did business in Bangladesh.

3. It is a pity that the research paper deals with the International Crimes Tribunal within the section of 'Trials of Political opponents and critics'. Whilst many of those prosecuted at the ICT are opposition leaders, I would argue, what ever else might want to say about the ICT, that that these men are not being prosecuted because they are political opponents, but because there have been longstanding allegations against most of them.

In its conclusion the notes states:
Whatever position is taken on the judicial merits of the International Crimes Tribunal, few would contest that its operations have exacerbated the political conflict between the two women.
I am not really sure that the ICT has 'exacerbated' the political conflict, though it certainly has informed it. The trials are significant in terms of what is going on politically in that they have helped the Awami League government to position itself within a powerful narrative relating to the 1971 war and the removal of impunity. A major allegation made by the Awami League government is that BNP's alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami shows that it has cosied up to the 'party of war criminals' and that it only wants to come to power to stop the trials. And this has hit hard, and no doubt a key reason why the BNP has created distance between it and the Jamaat.

4. The conclusion of the library research paper states:
The AL won a resounding three-quarters majority in 2008 elections, following two years of a military-backed caretaker government, leading some to hope that Bangladesh could make the break with its political past. But with Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia – who have been called the ‘battling Begums’ – perpetually at loggerheads, this opportunity has been squandered. ….

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been widely accused of playing fast and loose with democracy. But the sincerity of Khaleda Zia’s commitment to democracy is also being questioned by many analysts. Some wonder whether she may actually be hoping that her current strategy forces the army to intervene once again and oust the AL government. As yet, there is no sign of this happening. Perhaps understandably, given just how treacherous the waters are, Western donors have held back from imposing sanctions of any kind.

Despite the almost constant political turmoil, Bangladesh’s economy continues to perform remarkably well. While there remain many challenges ahead, good progress has also been made on social development.
Its comment that Khaleda Zia may "actually be hoping" that her current strategy "forces the army to intervene once again and oust the AL government" is probably spot on - though army intervention is a very unlikely ending to all this. If the army did not intervene before the 5 January elections, why would it now, particularly when the government has been assiduous in keeping it on side.


* The title of this post comes from a sentence at the conclusion of the report which states: 'Perhaps understandably, given just how treacherous the waters are, Western donors have held back from imposing sanctions of any kind.'

No comments:

Post a Comment