What’s behind the violence in Bangladesh?

Disturbing developments in Bangladesh suggest the country is turning into an authoritarian state. Simon Wilson reports.

What’s happened?

Two disturbing developments have seen Bangladesh attract global headlines for all the wrong reasons. First, a series of religiously motivated murders of more than two dozen secular bloggers, liberals, foreigners and others since 2013 has raised fears that Bangladesh is sliding towards Islamist extremism. In the past few weeks alone, those hacked to death by machete-wielding assassination squads include a professor of English, a gay rights activist and a Sufi cleric.

Second, this month, the 73-year-old leader of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist political party was executed for crimes against humanity during the war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. Motiur Rahman Nizami, the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, was the fourth senior member of his party to be executed since the governing party, the Awami League, set up a tribunal in 2010. Another politician, from the main opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP – in coalition government with Jamaat until 2009), has been executed too.

How are these events related?

Both the murders and the judicial executions have stoked international fears that Bangladesh is sliding towards authoritarian one-party rule, yet has a government that is unwilling or unable to counter the threat from domestic and global jihadism. The Awami League’s decision to set up an International Crimes Commission to prosecute those responsible for atrocities during the 1971 war was popular. Yet the tribunal has become a “witch hunt to weaken opposition to the League rather than a search for justice”, says The Economist.

This, along with an upsurge in extra-judicial killings, torture and disappearances, and an assault by the security forces and judiciary on critical voices, including newspaper editors and liberal and Islamist politicians, has eroded faith in the rule of law.

What of the jihadist threat?

What it means for investors

Bangladesh demonstrates some of the problems with investing in frontier markets (the market is accessible by private investors either via frontier-market focused investment trusts, or even exchange-traded funds such as the db x-trackers MSCI Bangladesh Index ETF (LSE: XBAN)).

As with most such markets, the attractions include good demographics – Bangladesh has a population of more than 169 million – rapid growth, and a great deal of potential. The trouble is realising this potential.

As David Fuller of FullerTreacyMoney.com points out, when it comes to emerging markets, “governance is everything”. The violent “new normal” feared by some is hardly attractive to foreign investors or conducive to economic development.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina blames the “Jamaat-BNP nexus” for the killings, calling them “secret and heinous murders to destabilise the country”. But most commentators think the perpetrators are domestic jihadists with putative links to Islamic State or al-Qaeda, part of the wider emergence of jihadist groups in several Asian countries (see sidebar).

But despite her clarity of purpose in executing the “pro-Pakistan” war criminals of Jamaat, Hasina has given succour to jihadists by failing to stand up for secularism and pluralism; she has condemned the writings of atheist bloggers as akin to “porn”, and observed that “it’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions”.

Next in the Awami attempt to paint its opponents as unBangladeshi is a new law making it illegal to question the official history, in which three million people are said to have died in the war of independence.

How many did die?

A 1976 study in the journal Population Studies put the number of deaths caused by the war at about 500,000, many due to disease and malnutrition. In 2008 an article in the British Medical Journal put the number of violent deaths at around 269,000.

However, in Bangladesh the accepted figure is three million – a number popularised after the war by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the then-leader of the Awami League, who became the independent country’s first president. He is a revered figure, and the father of the current prime minister.

Yet Rahman’s biographer, Sayyid Karim (also his first foreign secretary), viewed the number as “a gross exaggeration”. But the three million figure has, for many Bangladeshis, and in particular the Awami League, become a totemic element of the struggle for national liberation. Under a draft law called the Liberation War (Denial, Distortion, Opposition) Crimes Act, it will become a crime to make “inaccurate”, “malicious” or “trivialising” statements that “undermine any events” relating to the war.

Bangladesh-based journalist David Bergman, writing in The New York Times, has warned that the legislation is intentionally broad and ill-defined, and will almost certainly be used to prosecute anyone who deviates from Awami views.

Is that really likely?

Unfortunately, yes. BNP leader Khaleda Zia – Hasina’s long-term rival – is already being prosecuted for sedition for merely remarking that “there is a debate about how many hundreds of thousands were martyred in the liberation war”. Zia was also charged earlier this month with masterminding arson attacks during anti-government protests last year – the latest in a string of charges she claims are politically motivated.

Many in Bangladesh fear that Hasina’s rule has become so repressive – and the bitterness between her and Zia so poisonous – that she can never stand down for fear of reprisals by a future BNP government. “They both see this as almost a final battle,” says one economic analyst quoted by the FT on condition of anonymity. “My concern is that we may be moving into a ‘new normal’, in which there’s a high level of more or less suppressed violence, very little political space and eruptions
of unrest.”