A look at Bangladesh’s steady descent into chaos

After seeming to find its feet, Bangladesh has succumbed to a political standoff that threatens to stoke militancy, curtail debate and reverse a nascent prosperity.

Protestors take to the streets of Dhaka after the murder this month of blogger Niladri Chaterjee, pictured on their banner, who was killed by suspected religious militants over his secular writings.  AM Ahad / AP Photo
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In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Bangladesh, which for years had been an international symbol of poverty and catastrophe, seemed to have reached a kind of stability. The country’s economy, powered by its garment industry, was posting some of the highest growth rates in Asia and grabbing textile jobs from China and other countries.

The government announced that it could become a middle-income country by 2021. And after a brief period of military rule in the mid-2000s, Bangladesh, which has witnessed 19 military coups in its 40-year history, seemed to be edging toward stable democracy, with regular elections, a vibrant civil society and a boisterous online media.

“I call the country the next Asian tiger,” then US ambassador to Bangladesh, Dan Mozena, said in 2013 – a comparison to stable Asian dynamos such as Taiwan.

But in the past two years, the country has regressed severely. Since the January 2014 elections, the most violent in Bangladesh’s history, both the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) have continued to send activists, henchmen and security forces into the streets for battles. The Awami League leadership, once viewed by liberals as the best hope for sustained democracy, has tried to change the law to weaken independent institutions and has jailed thousands of opposition activists.

And in this environment of repression and violence, religious militancy is rising. In the past year, four secular bloggers, who are often the leaders in promoting free expression in Bangladesh, have been murdered, allegedly by militants with links to Islamist extremists. Earlier this month, a group of men forced their way into the home of blogger Niladri Chaterjee, who wrote under the name Niloy Neel, and slit his throat. The killers also had hacked Chaterjee with 14 blows to his head and upper torso. Other bloggers have been hacked to death with machetes in public.

Bloggers and writers remaining in Bangladesh and continuing to speak out against militancy live in fear, hiring private guards and staying inside. A hit list of 84 secular bloggers and writers has surfaced, all of whom militants apparently believe should be punished for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed. The bloggers killed this year were on the list.

After the Awami League won elections in 2008, some in the leadership counselled prime minister Sheikh Hasina to institutionalise democracy. These would have included ensuring greater civilian command of the military.

But remembering that when the BNP controlled parliament between 2001 and 2008, it had allegedly used its power to target Awami League supporters for arrests and killings, the prime minister opted for a different path. (Hasina had nearly been killed herself in a grenade attack in 2004.)

Before the 2014 elections, Hasina refused to allow the creation of an impartial caretaker government, which had been normal in past elections. Opinion polls suggested that the public preferred having a caretaker government to oversee elections. The opposition then boycotted the polls and violence began. During the campaign season, Hasina had one opposition leader hanged.

Opposition activists began attacking members of Hasina’s party. “On numerous occasions, opposition party members and activists threw petrol bombs at trucks, buses and motorised rickshaws that defied the traffic blockades or were simply parked by the side of the road,” reported Human Rights Watch. “In some cases, opposition groups recruited children to carry out the attacks.”

The government struck back by unleashing a brutal paramilitary force against opposition supporters. With the opposition boycott, Hasina’s party took more than 80 per cent of the vote, but the election had the lowest turnout of any poll in the country’s history.

After the election, Hasina cracked down even harder. Frederic Grare of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank notes that “constitutional amendments have … ended the separation of powers between the executive, legislature, and judiciary.”

The opposition, led by Bangladesh’s other powerful woman, Khaleda Zia, also has opted for extremism. Attempts to get the two women to speak to each other have repeatedly failed as the two have even argued about who should call the other.

No one in the two parties, apparently, can tell the begums to stop; even as Bangladeshi democracy began to mature, the management of the two major political parties remained almost Leninist. Once Hasina and Zia opted for a path of confrontation, it became almost impossible to stop them.

Prominent Bangladeshis who might have served as mediators have grown so tired of the strife that they refused to become involved. And although Bangladesh has closer relations with India than it did a decade ago and also enjoys warm ties with the US, Saudi Arabia and China, no single outside actor has enough leverage, it seems, to convince Dhaka to work out some compromise. In contrast, in neighbouring Myanmar, the European Union, Japan, the US and China have leaned on the government to negotiate a peace plan with rebel ethnic minorities, which could potentially lead to a nationwide cease fire and free national elections.

In this unstable environment, religious militancy has bloomed. As Iftekharul Bashar, an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore notes, Bangladesh has risen nearly 20 places in the Global Terrorism Report in just four years. This rise reflects a steep increase in the number of bombings, stabbings and grenade attacks allegedly committed by militant groups.

Islamist militancy in Bangladesh stems from many factors, including the spread of radical groups from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the impact of worldwide jihadist social media and high unemployment among young men, who are much less likely to find jobs in the garment industry.

Although Bangladesh, which sends a large number of its citizens abroad for work, has a low overall unemployment rate at about 4.5 per cent, the rate for men between the ages of 15 and 24 is at least twice as high, according to World Bank statistics.

And this period of political chaos has not helped. The government, distracted by its efforts to shut down the opposition, has used a counter-terrorism campaign of repression, including apparent extrajudicial killings, rather than the combination of arrests, co-option and rehabilitation employed by Indonesia to neuter militant groups after a string of deadly bombings in Jakarta, Bali and other locations in the early 2000s.

There is little sign that Bangladesh's militant groups are cowed. Some of Bangladesh's liberal bloggers and writers fear that the government has made a tacit agreement with militants not to press them too hard, so that the Awami League can shore up its conservative credentials and focus its energy on fighting the BNP. The government "patronises Hefazat-e-Islam, a conglomerate of Islamist fundamentalist groups", says Sanjay Kumar, who covers Bangladesh for The Diplomat, an Asian geopolitics website. Top leaders of Hefazat-e-Islam frequently appear at rallies to offer their blessings for leading politicians, yet members of the organisation allegedly wrote up the hit list of bloggers and writers, and several of the men allegedly involved in the killings were linked to the group.

Bangladesh’s police believe that most of the killers of the bloggers came from a group called Ansarullah Bangla Team; in August, police arrested two men from the group for the murder of Chaterjee. Still, the government has not outlawed the Ansarullah Bangla Team.

As the government seeks to destroy critics, it appears to have little interest in protecting civil society. Several of the secular bloggers killed, including Chaterjee, reportedly had told the police of threats but had received no protection or even investigation. After Chaterjee’s murder, police even delivered a public warning to … bloggers, telling them not to “hurt religious sentiments” and suggesting that the authorities would not protect anyone who did.

The political turmoil slowly has begun to sink Bangladesh’s economy as well. Although it remains a favoured destination for garment companies, the frequent strikes have crippled transport, as well as the power grid; the government has banned some social media and messaging services, further impeding communications and hurting small business. The International Monetary Fund in March cut its projection for Bangladesh’s growth this year, and the World Bank recently estimated that the past year of turmoil could cost the Bangladeshi economy about $2 billion (Dh7.34bn) in lost production.

Meanwhile, average Bangladeshis have begun to sour on the idea of democracy, a trend similar to that seen in many other developing nations over the past decade – countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Venezuela, Egypt and others – where attempts to democratise often led to chaos, corruption and the return of authoritarian rule. Some students have become so infuriated that they have launched their own protests against the toxic politics.

And while the military intervened in politics as recently as 2006, it appears highly unlikely to step in now. According to Bashar, the government has given the military a larger role in the economy to placate it and the army does not have one charismatic leader who could launch a coup and appeal to the public as a peacemaker. Instead, Bangladesh appears doomed to more chaos.

Joshua Kurlantzick is Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.