But this week’s industrial accident, the deadliest in Bangladeshi history (and worst in South Asia since Bhopal in 1984), comes at a particularly unnerving time for this hyper-densely populated, Muslim-majority nation. While the main culprits are the factory owners (who evaded government permits and oversaw shoddy construction), the public response has already turned political—with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, calling for nation-wide strikes in response.
The timing could not be worse. Unfortunately, the building collapse, while tragic, comes at a time when Bangladesh faces far greater short- and long-term dangers. While the nation has largely been spared widespread violence (unlike its South Asian neighbors) since independence from Pakistan in 1971 (and local and international development efforts have helped pull the country out of poverty), two worrying trends threaten to unravel the country’s progress.
The first problem, quite simply, is politics. The Economist frames the issue quite nicely in a May 2012 piece as such:
The Punch-and-Judy show of Bangladeshi politics, in which the ruling party—run by the daughter of a former president—bashes the opposition—run by the widow of a former president—before swapping places with it, has been running for decades.
Bangladesh followers will know the rivalry at hand: Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) party, swept into power in a landslide victory in 2009, against Khaleda Zia’s BNP, which has ruled for 14 years of modern Bangladesh’s 42-year history (most recently from 2001-2006). Conducted by both the AL and BNP, politically-motivated disappearances, kidnappings, and murders have cast a shadow over Bangladesh’s “democratic” political system for decades. But with national elections forthcoming in January 2014 (at the latest), the intimidation today may be at its worst.
This issue stems in part from Sheikh Hasina’s paranoia. Though the AL remains largely popular, history is on Zia’s side—as no party has ever won consecutive terms in Bangladesh’s history (albeit three military coups have skewed some results). The latest wave of political intimidation (most recently, Hasina’s government arrested prominent opposition journalist Mahmadur Rahman) has heightened tensions to point that the BNP may choose not to participate in elections at all. And as Egypt, Iraq, or the Palestinian Territories have shown, election boycotts mostly do not end well.
On top of the bitter rivalry, corruption in the country is ubiquitous—even Zia herself faces potentially crippling corruption allegations. Consequently, the citizenry has become increasingly jaded, with the military (did I mention the three successful coups?) following in kind. As a recent International Crisis Group report grimly puts it: “Three and a half years ago there was palpable hope for change. It has now been emphatically crushed.”
Self-inflicted wounds: International Crimes Tribunal and an Islamic resurgence
Nevertheless, peace and security in Bangladesh can persist despite corruption and the AL-BNP cage match. But another factor, namely Sheikh Hasina’s vow to prosecute a series of Islamic party leaders in an International Crimes Tribunal (or ICT; run by the domestic government, despite its name), has already had tumultuous ramifications—namely, Bangladesh’s worst violence since the nation’s founding.
Here is the context: in an effort to fulfill Hasina’s campaign promise, 12 men—including 10 prominent members of Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami—currently stand trial for a variety of war crimes related to conduct during the 1971 war of independence, which took the lives of some 3 million Bangladeshis in all (Jamaat-e-Islami allegedly opposed Bangla autonomy and consequently fought alongside the West Pakistan force). While a majority of citizens support the tribunal, Jamaat-e-Islami and its BNP allies deride it as a tool to score political points and extinguish opposition to Hasina’s rule. A recent scandal implicating ICT judges of collusion with prosecutors has not helped dispel this view.
The tribunal’s consequences so far have been bleak. With three of ten Jamaat-e-Islami convictions down, neither the tribunal’s public proponents nor opponents are satisfied.
On one hand, Jamaat-e-Islami member Abdul Quader Mollah was convicted this February—but only sentenced to life in prison, sparing him the death penalty. The response, largely from AL supporters, was swift: hundreds of thousands Bangladeshis gathered in Shahbag (a district in Dhaka) to protest the decision, demanding that Mollah hang. After 13 days of demonstrations likened by many to a “Bangladesh Spring,” the national parliament voted to allow an appeal. But the chorus of critics continues: protestors will virtually stand for nothing less than 10 death sentences, and for some, a permanent ban on Jamaat-e-Islami.
On the other hand, two other Jamaat-e-Islami leaders—Abul Kalam Azad and Delwar Hossein Sayedee—have been sentenced to death for crimes against humanity. Particularly after the latter decision, Jamaat supporters in Dhaka and elsewhere took to the streets. Violent clashes plagued pockets of the country in the weeks after the February 28 decision—with Jamaat supporters (most of whom were not alive in 1971) burning Hindu temples to the ground and hurling everything from sticks to crude explosives at police. The death toll so far is thought to have exceeded 100. According to the Economist: “Jamaat has been behaving more like an insurgency than a political party”—a worrying sign of things to come.
At the same time, another Islamic organization—Hefajat-e-Islam—has rapidly gained support amid the ICT trials, holding massive rallies in Dhaka as a sort of tit-for-tat response to the Shahbag movement. Hefajat members demand, among other things, anti-blasphemy laws and mandatory Islamic education. And they give the government until May 5 to accept their implausible ultimatum. The growth of Hefajat, many worry, may amount to the “Talibanization” of Bangladesh—a radical idea almost certain to precipitate greater unrest.
Bangladesh has endured a handful of Islamic extremist groups in the past (see here). But the Islamic movement emerging now is of a different kind. The Deobandi tradition behind a multitude of Pakistani terrorist groups is present in Bangladesh, but its reach and popularity do not run as deep. Rather, we might expect Hefajat-e-Islam and Jamaat to continue to work within the political system, though they may condone fringe elements that seek occasional bloodshed on the side.
So far, that violence does not appear systematic or well-organized. But with seven more trials to come—including those of long-time Jamaat head Ghulam Azam and current leader Motiur Rahman Nizami—that could change. Or if the Hasina government moves to ban Jamaat, pushing the group underground is likely only to invite greater discontent.
The ICT is an enormous project that ironically, by seeking justice for crimes committed in 1971, reopened the wounds of the same 1971 war. The havoc it has wrought—mixed in with deep-seated corruption, negligence (i.e., the factory collapse/fires), and a bitter political rivalry—threatens to turn long-peaceful Bangladesh into a tinderbox for violence. As the conflict in Syria shows, a country can go from relative peace and security to chaos and instability at almost the flip of a switch.