Friday, August 2, 2013

Violence rolls on in cutthroat world of Bangladeshi politics

Polarised: Guards outside the high court in Dhaka on Thursday after a verdict was delivered banning the Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami from next year's elections.

Polarised: Guards outside the high court in Dhaka on Thursday after a verdict was delivered disqualifying the Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami from next year's elections. Photo: AFP

DHAKA, BANGLADESH: A prominent ruling party politician shot dead in the street. His assassin killed a day later by "crossfire" as he is taken into custody. A political party thrown out of elections, sparking riots and vehicles being burnt.

Barely more than a typical week in Bangladeshi politics.

Violence, by the hands of an angry mob, or via the barrel of a gun, is how power is exercised here.

Activists from the Jamaat-e-Islami party set a bus on fire after the Bangladeshi high court disqualified the party from taking part in the next general election.

Protest: Activists from the Jamaat-e-Islami party set a bus on fire after the high court ruling. Photo: AP

This week, youth wing leader with the governing Awami League, Reazul Haque Milki, was shot dead outside a shopping centre by a factional rival from his own party.


His killer, Zahid Siddique Tarek, was allegedly killed by "crossfire" a day later when gunmen opened fire on police taking him into custody.

Milki's death, captured on CCTV footage, has been played ad nauseam on Bangladeshi TV, but, beyond a passing interest in the killer's disguise of Punjabi kurta pyjama, few in Bangladesh cared much. None were surprised.

The violence rolled on.

On Thursday afternoon, when the High Court ruled that Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami was "illegal" because it did not recognise Bangladesh's parliament or constitution, supporters took to the streets in the capital and dozens of other cities. Cars and buildings were vandalised and a bus set alight by protesters.

Forged in a brutal war of independence, Bangladeshi politics has always been violent.

Two presidents have been assassinated, and dozens of senior government leaders and military commanders killed over the years for political advantage or revenge.

But 2013 has been particularly thuggish, and, with an election due within months, it is expected only to get worse.

Local rights group Odhikar estimates that 322 people have died, and more than 10,000 have been injured, in street protests and targeted political violence in Bangladesh in the first six months of this year.

Outside of conflict zones, no country's politics is more violent.

Human Rights Watch says much of the problem lies with government.

"Bangladeshi security forces have frequently used excessive force in responding to street protests, killing at least 150 protesters and injuring at least 2000 more since February," it says.

Part of the cause of Bangladesh's political violence lies in its intractable polarisation.

The two major parties can agree on nothing, even most fundamentally, the rules for holding an election.

The opposition Bangladeshi Nationalist Party, currently ascendant after dominating city council elections, says a free and fair poll is only possible if a non-partisan caretaker government is appointed to oversee the country during a campaign and to ensure elections are untainted.

The BNP will boycott any election held under the current administration.

"It is  absurd to think that [the] BNP will participate in national election under a partisan government," acting secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir tells Fairfax at party headquarters in Dhaka.

But the governing Awami League says a caretaker government is now unconstitutional.

(The party's critics point out that it was the Awami League that made it so, using its parliamentary majority to amend the constitution.)

"Simply, the caretaker government cannot be," Awami Secretary-General Mahbubul Alam Hanif says.

"We believe in democracy, we believe in all political parties' freedom. But if people think that democracy means that they can go to a protest, they can hit someone, they can kill a person or set fire to a car or a building, that is not democracy, and we cannot allow it."

The caretaker debate is but one of the polar disagreements between the two parties.

They disagree over the country's controversial war crimes tribunal, over economic management, and, perhaps most fundamentally, over the role of religion in politics.

The BNP sees Islam as  underpinning of its governing ideology, while Awami is fiercely secular. In defence of their positions they regularly call tens of thousands onto the street in nationwide strikes and aggressive protests.

"There is no mutual trust between the two major parties," BNP's Alamgir concedes.

"These issues can only be solved by talking, but, at the moment, discussion is not possible."

Piash Karim, Associate Professor at BRAC University in Dhaka, says Bangladesh democracy remains in an "experimental phase".

"I don't think our institutions are strong, or very evolved yet. We can't even agree on basic issues like how to transfer power or defend the sovereignty of the country, and it is largely because politics is so polarised."

He says he grows less confident every day the two major parties will find the political will to resolve their various standoffs,  but that a military coup as circuit-breaker, another feature of Bangladesh politics, is also unlikely.

He says the most likely outcome is that the hostile stalemate remains.

"And this is the worst case scenario, that the status quo remains, and we have the general strikes, the damage to property, violent protests, and the deaths of people that we see now."
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