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Bangladesh: October 2017 update

Published Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Elections are due within a year or so in Bangladesh. The main political parties continue to be at loggerheads. Some detect a growing authoritarianism and there are concerns about the threat from terrorism. In recent months the country has also faced a massive refugee influx of Muslim Rohingya from Burma.

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Domestic politics

The ruling Awami League (AL), led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and the main opposition party, the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia, continue to be at loggerheads. With elections due within the next year or so, past experience suggests that tensions could deepen further.

During 2016 and 2017, both sides have rehearsed the positions about how the next elections should be conducted that they took in 2014. After winning power in 2008, the AL changed the Constitution so that a neutral caretaker administration was no longer required and shows no inclination to reverse the move. The BNP argues that the status quo ante should be restored.

The AL is said to be considering creating an all-party interim cabinet in the run-up to the next elections. However, the BNP rejected a similar idea in 2014.

In the absence of compromise, the BNP will have to decide whether or not to boycott the next elections, which would inevitably cast a shadow over their credibility and raise the prospect of heightened political instability. Critics of the government also continue to express concerns about the independence of the Election Commission.

The BNP claims that the AL government has become increasingly authoritarian. Human Rights Watch speaks of a “crackdown on civil society, media, and critics” and a “response to extremist violence has perpetuated security forces’ long-standing use of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings.”

The International Crimes Tribunal, established by the AL-led Government to try those allegedly responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 1971 war for independence from Pakistan, continues to operate. Human rights critics have argued that the trials do not meet international standards. Political opponents claim that the entire process is politically-motivated. Six prominent opposition figures have been hanged since the Tribunal began its work.

Over the last year or so, the AL-led government has come into growing conflict with parts of the judiciary. In July 2017, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling in 2016 by the High Court that declared the 16th Constitutional Amendment unconstitutional. The Amendment, passed in 2014, had restored parliament’s power to impeach senior judges by a two-thirds majority. The Chief Justice currently faces corruption charges.

Since mid-2016, the AL-led government has escalated its counter-terrorism operations significantly. It has also now accepted that there are international dimensions to the terrorist threat, including from Islamic State/Daesh.

The Rohingya refugee crisis

Since late-August 2017, hundreds of thousands of new Muslim Rohingya refugees have fled from violence in Burma to Bangladesh, placing a massive strain on the country.

During the first weeks of the latest Rohingya crisis, the response of the Bangladesh authorities was subject to some criticism. At first, they seemed concerned mainly with preventing Rohingya from entering the country, and those that did so initially found little official assistance on offer.

However, during September and October 2017 – as the scale of the crisis became clear – the Bangladesh authorities took significant steps to address such criticisms – for example, allocating extra land, improving road access and supporting new settlements. Access for humanitarian agencies also improved.

There are concerns about Bangladesh’s plans to move the 600,000 or so Rohingya refugees that have recently arrived from their current location, Cox’s Bazar, to an offshore island called Bhasan Char.

As the crisis has escalated, relations with the Burmese authorities deteriorated significantly. In September, Bangladesh accused Burmese planes of violating its airspace and of laying landmines in border areas. For a few days, there were fears that war might break out between the two neighbours.

In late-September, Sheikh Hasina set out a five-point plan for a peaceful resolution of the Rohingya crisis:

  • Myanmar must unconditionally stop the violence and the practice of ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine State immediately and forever.
  • Secretary General of the United Nations should immediately send a Fact-Finding Mission to Myanmar.
  • All civilians irrespective of religion and ethnicity must be protected in Myanmar. For that, ‘safe zones’ could be created inside Myanmar under UN supervision.
  • Ensure sustainable return of all forcibly displaced Rohingyas in Bangladesh to their homes in Myanmar.
  • The recommendations of Kofi Annan Commission Report must be immediately implemented unconditionally and in its entirety

As the prime minister’s plan indicates, Bangladesh continues to hope that a significant number of recently arrived Rohingya can be returned to Burma relatively quickly. There is a 1993 agreement between the two countries that allows Rohingya who can prove residence in Burma to be returned. On 24 October, Bangladesh and Burma signed two agreements covering security and border cooperation which were portrayed as an important stepping-stone towards beginning the return of refugees. But relations between the two countries remain tense. Observers have called upon all sides to ensure that no refugee is returned against their will.

UK-Bangladesh relations

Bangladesh is a human rights ‘priority country’ for the UK government. The UK has pledged a total of US$63 million for the UN’s humanitarian plan in response to the latest Rohingya crisis – the largest pledge by a single donor.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7452

Author: Jon Lunn

Topics: Asia, Human rights, International politics and government, Terrorism

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