- By Jake Scobey-ThalJake Scobey-Thal is assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy. Previously, he worked as a freelance reporter in Myanmar and as the Asia Associate for Human Rights Watch. His articles have appeared in The Nation, Next City magazine, and Salon among others. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
While the world remains fixated on anti-government demonstrations in Kiev and Bangkok, perhaps the most intractable political standoff of the past weeks is also the one getting the least attention.
Twenty people were injured in Bangladesh’s Kurigram district on Thursday after police reportedly fired 89 rubber bullets and six teargas canisters at anti-government demonstrators. The incident is only the latest in the spat of violent clashes between protesters and Bangladeshi security forces that have left at least 40 people dead and thousands injured in recent weeks. The opposition party alliance led by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has organized mass protests calling for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who leads the governing Awami League, to step down and establish an impartial caretaker government in the lead-up to the January 5 elections.
Threatening a "tougher movement," BNP spokesperson Saluddin Ahmed set a Thursday deadline for the government to address the opposition’s demands. With the deadline having come and gone, and Hasina still firmly in power, Bangladesh’s violent political standoff may be only just beginning.
Political instability has become the norm in Bangladesh. Clashes between political party loyalists forced the then-caretaker government to postpone elections in January 2007 and led to the subsequent military-backed government (elections were called the following year and the Awami League won in a landslide).
Bangladesh has often turned to caretaker governments over the past two decades in an effort to usher stable democratic transitions. Yet in 2011, Hasina, fearing an opposition takeover, cancelled the system. In response, BNP leaders have consistently stated they would refuse to participate if the current government refused to cede power prior to polling.
In October, Prime Minister Hasina held talks with BNP chief Begum Khaleda Zia to negotiate the election process, but with Hasina unwilling to step down from her post, the two sides failed to come to terms. With no resolution to the political staring contest, the opposition has pushed ahead with a series of nationwide strikes and transportation blockades — demonstrations that have become increasingly violent in recent weeks.
While security forces have at times used excessive force, protesters are responsible for the majority of the deaths and injuries, according to Human Rights Watch. "There are credible reports that bombs hurled by protesters injured at least four children," Human Rights Watch said in a statement released on Wednesday. "A number of security force personnel have been injured, and several police and a member of the Border Guards Bangladesh have been killed."
The statement cites a November 28 incident in which unidentified protests threw a gas bomb into a public bus, reportedly injuring 40 passengers. Both the Awami League and the BNP blamed the other for the attack.
While violent political demonstrations are nothing new in Bangladesh, tensions have been inflamed in this election cycle by the special tribunal convened to prosecute war crimes committed during the 1971 conflict, which led to Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. At least 150 people died in clashes earlier this year after death sentences were handed down to several opposition leaders who were defendents before the tribunal. Many of those indicted continue to lead the Jamaat-e-Islami party, which is aligned with the BNP. Jamaat’s Assistant Secretary General Abdul Quader Mollah, who faces the death penalty, was moved to Dhaka Central Prison this week, leading to speculation that he could be hanged as early as this weekend. Mollah’s execution would likely spark even more vicious factional bloodletting.
With no viable resolution to the country’s violent partisan intransigence in sight, the biggest question that remains is how the military will play its hand. No stranger to intervening in politics, the Bangladeshi military has initiated several coups since Mujibur Rahman — the country’s founding leader and Hasina’s father — was assassinated in August 1975. After elections were postponed in 2007, the president called a state of emergency and a military-backed caretaker government took power. And while the generals have so far been careful to keep their distance, there is no doubt that the legacy of military rule has contributed to Hasina’s reluctance to yield power in the lead-up to polling.
But with the election less than a month away and the leadership on both sides holding firm amid threats of escalating violence, the army may not stand idle for long. In Bangladesh, it’s just politics as usual.