Will a “military” option save Bangladesh?

Sadeq Khan

Violent unrest by the followers of 20-party alliance led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is continuing for the 38th day in the form of ambush, vandalising, petrol-bombing and disruption of vehicular traffic, sought to be quashed by the combined forces of Ansar, Police, Detective Branch, Rapid Action Battalion, and Border Guards of Bangladesh, armed with lethal weapons under orders to “shoot suspects at sight”, deployed by the present Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Begum Zia’s party leaders and those of her alliance partners were mostly jailed and implicated as accomplices in criminal prosecution right at the outset of the current phase of unrest, provoked by police cordon and lock-in of Khaleda Zia is her office to prevent her from going out to address a public meeting. She has remained in virtual isolation from her workers, shut in her office premises with internet, phone and television connections cut-off (electricity and mobile phone connections were also cut-off, but later restored). But her activist following all over the country appear to be proliferating and have so far been able to successfully hold-up inter-district movement of men and merchandise, paralysing much of economic activity and causing tragic losses of life and property. The law-enforcement agencies of the sitting Prime Minister, on the other hand, are carrying on widespread and arbitrary arrests that have tripled the prison population, and are also indulging in frequent encounters and “crossfire” killings in extrajudicial execution.

Law enforcers are ‘doing PM’s bidding’
Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner who is now the Director General of Rapid Action Battalion, which is composed of both army and police personnel, has described the situation as a “war” of attrition, and a Deputy Inspector General of Police has instructed policemen not only to gun-down suspected “saboteurs” but also to “eliminate their entire progeny.”
Deutsche Welle on 10th February reported that Bangladesh crisis was ‘fast approaching point of no return’: “With no side willing to back down, the political crisis in Bangladesh is worsening. There is an increased risk of military intervention as political battle lines become ever more entrenched.
“Analysts say the latest round of political violence – which has claimed the lives of more than 50 people – marks a new phase of the deadlock between the ruling AL and the BNP, which have swapped time in government since the South Asian nation’s independence from Pakistan. The ongoing crisis has also led to frequent strikes and transport blockades, hampering economic activity in the country by preventing businesses from operating normally and hurting ordinary citizens’ economic prospects. Nearly 800 vehicles firebombed or damaged and two owners of TV stations have been arrested. While the BNP appears bent on ousting the government via street power, the ruling AL seems determined to neutralize the opposition.
“Should the crisis assume even more threatening dimensions, it could potentially result, as in the past, in a military intervention. The law enforcement agencies, including the police and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the most feared security agency, are doing Prime Minister Hasina’s bidding. The judiciary is only nominally independent. Yet, it is still the only institution that has at least on paper the capacity to curb the government’s illegal actions and the opposition’s extra-constitutional efforts.
“Bangladeshi civil society is sharply divided along partisan lines, limiting its effectiveness to hold the two main parties to account.”

Global agencies ‘deeply concerned’
The Asia Report N°264, issued 9 Feb 2015 by the International Crisis Group from Brussels in its executive summary on Bangladesh crisis also came to the conclusion:
“A protracted and violent political crisis would leave Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia the ultimate losers, particularly if a major breakdown of law and order were to encourage the military to intervene; though there is as yet no sign of that, history suggests it is an eventuality not to be dismissed.”
Western members of the international community are continuing to express from their capitals and through their Dhaka missions grave concerns over both the escalating violence by opposition elements and the denial of “democratic space” by the government in Bangladesh. The United Nations General Secretariat has taken note as follows.
On 16 January, The United Nations human rights office expressed concern over the rising levels of political violence rippling across Bangladesh amid fears of a return to a state of destructive brinkmanship seen in the run up to the country’s 2014 elections: “The deepening political violence in Bangladesh, resulting from the failure of the two major political parties to resolve their differences peacefully, is very disturbing,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in Geneva.
On 28 January, in reply to a question about Bangladesh situation, Stephane Dujarric, spokesman of the UN Secretary General said that the UN High Commission for Human Rights had asked the parties to the turmoil in Bangladesh to calm down, and UN Secretary General is also deeply concerned: The government should ensure that the law enforcement agencies “do not arrest or detain any top opposition leader arbitrarily.” The standards set up by international laws on human rights “must be adhered to by law-enforcement personnel” in their acts “to restore law and order.”

‘We urge’ govt. to allow peaceful protest
Asked about whether recruitment of Bangladeshi military and police personnel may be affected by violation of human rights, Dujarric replied that in such cases, the policy of examining the conduct of recruits by international standards on observance of human rights would be rigorously and “continuously applied.” Then on 5 February, in answer to a specific question about the “Secretary General’s response” to the report that the former Prime Minister has been charged with arson and electricity has been turned off to the opposition party office, and basically the authorities are using violence on protestors, and whether there is any [Department of Political Affairs] or other UN involvement in trying to mediate, the Deputy Spokesman of the UN Secretary General said: “The political process is separate and apart from the issue of peacekeepers in UN missions, who are under the control ultimately of the mission.  Regarding the situation in Bangladesh, we’ve made our concerns known. As you know, officials, including the senior officials from our Department for Political Affairs, have repeatedly visited Bangladesh, trying to meet with the leaders there and make sure that the crisis can be resolved peacefully.
“We have continually encouraged and continue to encourage the authorities to allow for peaceful protest and for the right to peaceful assembly.  And beyond that, we’ll continue to be in touch with the leaders of the two main parties, trying to make sure that they can resolve their differences.”
On 8 February, the Bangladesh military’s Inter Services Public Relations Directorate (ISPR) in a press release requested the media to be ‘careful’ while publishing news on or related to the Armed Forces. The press release noted that some “speculative and fabricated news and comments have of late been circulating in the mass media involving the Armed Forces”, which are “undesirable and could create confusion among people. The Armed Forces is a patriotic organisation that is totally respectful to the country’s Constitution and laws.”

Global speculations & ISPR admonition
Given the confusion and the sense of insecurity and uncertainty being experienced by the mortally suffering population of the country, it is a well-intentioned and timely warming. One has to wonder, however, whether speculation by the foreign media and geo-political analysts would be impressed or restrained by the ISPR admonition.
Former US ambassador William B. Milam, now a Woodrow Wilson International Scholar, has been writing a series of articles on Bangladesh from December 2013, warning against the constitutional and political machinations of Sheikh Hasina’s government aimed at establishment of an authoritarian one-party state. In his latest article published on January 20 in Friday Times.com, he sadly observed that “autocratic” democracy practised by Sheikh Hasina had already plunged the Bangladesh polity into such an abyss of violence and anarchy as might result in an undesirable option of military intervention (notwithstanding constitutional amendment by Sheikh Hasina providing capital punishment for “usurpers” of state power).
London-based “The Economist” in two consecutive issues, in February 2 “Explaining the World, daily,” why Bangladesh’s politics are broken, as well as on February 7, weekly in print on ‘Showdown in Bangladesh: on Fire’ has respectively warned that as Bangladesh unbearably “suffers a dysfunctional two-party system…the generals may feel, as they did eight years ago, that they have no option other than to call time out on a political brawl that neither side can win,” and that Khaleda Zia now “seems to want to bring the country to such a pass that the army will feel obliged to intervene; it will be loath to do so.”

Whither Bangladesh?
On the other side of the coin, staunch Awami League men close to the Prime Minister openly brag that Sheikh Hasina would never agree to snap election that might bring Khaleda to power, and would rather hand over power to the army.
News analysts in the media are careful to mention that their reference to the “option” of army take-over is not an “invitation” to the army to intervene, as they make the reference to warn the “battling Begums” of the danger of continuing impasse baffling possible political solution. Some geopolitical analysts, on the other hand, are calculating the “desirability” of military intervention to end further downhill slide of the country’s evident growth potential, noting further that the military in Bangladesh is well poised to have a balanced relationship that they maintain with two world powers with strategic foothold in the region, namely USA and China, and has also developed good relations with the regional hegemon India, whose security concerns in the eastern wing of Seven Sister States the Bangladesh military may effectively address.

Source: Weekly Holiday