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Controversy over Commonwealth reaction to Bangladesh election

Written by pat_perkel

posted by Pat Perkel

The Commonwealth Secretariat sparked controversy with its assessment that conditions for the January 5 Bangladesh election “were not compatible with Commonwealth election observation guidelines, particularly the need for inclusive and representative elections”.

“The acts of violence are deeply troubling and indeed are unacceptable in response to any political situation,” read the statement.

That assessment was unfair to Bangladesh and overlooked significant political pressures, according to analysis offered by CJA members with expertise in the region.

“It seems to put the blame on Hasina, whereas she did try her level best,” says Jayanta Roy Chowdhury of CJA India. “Khaleda Zia has gone for the jugular and remained obstinately against contesting national polls being conducted by a civilian Election Commission overseen by an interim government where half the ministers including the crucial home ministry would have been from her party. She simply wanted the polls to be conducted by a caretaker government formed of people `with experience in at least two previous caretaker governments.”

That meant people who had earlier been handpicked by her, and polls conducted by the Army.

Zia also encouraged the radical-terror linked Jamaat-i- Islami to hit the streets continuing their program of killing and maiming members of the minority community and Awami Leaguers in a manner which was chillingly similar to what happened in 1971, though on a smaller scale, perhaps so as not to attract too much negative attention  internationally, Chowdhury says.

Over the last year a silent pogrom launched by JI culminated in  several weeks of mayhem just before the elections. It  killed several hundreds of Hindus and Buddhists, maimed more than a thousand, and burnt down several thousands of minority community houses and temples. The reported aim of all this was to intimidate Hindus, Buddhists and Christians as well as Awami League supporters from the majority Muslim population,  to get them to stay away from elections.

“Frankly, one fails to see condemnation of this terror in any comment emanating from the Commonwealth or for that matter from other rights bodies and organisations. Far fewer deaths in any other part of the world would have raised a global furore. One wonders why this happens. Is it because of skin colour?” Chowdhury asks.

Chowdhury pointed out that Jamaat Bangladesh has a history of radicalising youth and sending trained volunteers as Jihadis to trouble spots like Afghanistan. Most analysts in India feel allowing Jamaat to rise in Bangladesh will be detrimental not only for Bangladesh but for Asia and the World as a whole.

Mahendra Ved, president of CJA India, has followed Bangladesh developments since the late 1960s. His analysis of the election incorporates past experience and a keen assessment of Western involvement that echoes the questions Chowdhury raises.

“Bangladesh’s freedom materialised, despite  opposition from  Western governments, but in part because of the brave support from Western media, including the BBC, individual leaders like Senator Edward Kennedy and philosopher Andrei Malraux. The Chinese, too, like the western governments, supported the military junta in Islamabad which was committed to a policy of genocide to subjugate Bangladeshis. The Americans and the Chinese waited for three years, till 1974, when Z A Bhutto visited  Dhaka, before recognising Bangladesh,” Ved says.

“While advocating democracy, the West has not hesitated to do business with military juntas, particularly selling arms to them. Commonwealth simply suspends membership of the more distasteful Juntas, and little else. This happened in Pakistan and Bangladesh more than once.

“But once  democracy returns, as has been the case across South Asia and Myanmar, the performance is conveniently seen through the prism of human rights bodies whose yardsticks remain Western, Western and Western. See the American failure to lift sanctions over Myanmar.

“I have rarely come across any report of the human rights bodies criticising treatment of minorities, of sectarian killings, unless the victims are Christians.

“Do the human rights bodies have anything to say about the killers of various leaders  taking refuge in the Western countries?

“Why are the Bangladeshis being asked to forget and forgive the killers of 1971? Is there a time bar? The Americans, at least, fought hard court battles for long and eventually handed over an individual involved in slaying Sheikh Mujibber Rahman, founder of Bangladesh, to Dhaka. But one of the leading Razakars (Islamist Militiamen which was involved in genocide in 1971 in Bangladesh) is a free British national, who simply gets away by denying any role. The British media lumps it. And no word from any of the human rights bodies.

“The Hasina Government reached out to the West — the US, the UK and Germany — to learn and adopt the norms and procedures followed in Nuremberg and Kosovo war crimes trials. Did these governments extend help? Their response was wishy-washy. Perhaps, they did not want to offend Pakistan.

“Besides the 1975 Mujib killing (I am one of the very few who reported it the same day), I reported the Bangladesh elections in 1978, 1979 and 1991. I can say it is the same story of the Hindus being attacked as part of the poll collateral. The culprits were always the BNP/Jamaat, whether they lost or won the poll. The 2001 election was also followed by systematic killing of the minorities. The Zia Government took office after 9/11, but before the US-led operations in Afghanistan. BNP-Jamaat cadres had a field day celebrating victory. Many Hindu families were killed or pushed into India. The rise of `Bangla Bha’i and militant groups formed by “veteran” Taliban soldiers who returned from Afghanistan, during 2001-06 is a very recent story known to us all.

“There have been cases of AL, when in power, working to displace minorities from their properties. There is a DhakaUniversity study that says whoever is in power  does this. But from where the Amnesty or HRW got this bit about AL being engaged in systematic killing of the Hindus along with JI and BNP, I do not know.

“The West does not like Hasina because she removed Mohammed Yunus from Grameen, disregarding  vociferous advocacy by Hillary Clinton and others on his behalf. Try writing a story about how Grameen charges huge interest for its loans, it will not be published.

“I am no fan of either lady, since both have led dictatorial and repressive regimes. They should talk, but I doubt if they will. I have seen them since they were young housewives. Hasina, at least, is political. Zia remains a semi-literate army wife, surrounded by cronies. I doubt if she realises that she is being used by the Islamists within BNP and outside. Perhaps, she does not mind it, if that gets her power, to be passed on to her sons.

“After winning the one-sided election, Hasina has already made the conciliatory overture. I hope and pray that Zia will accept it and fresh elections are held before this year is out.”

Writing in Washington’s Daily Beast, Kapil Komireddi also raises concern about U.S. and foreign interpretation of the election results.

“Now that elections are over, violence is the only instrument at Zia’s disposal. She and her allies will attempt to disrupt normal life to the point where the government will either have to assume authoritarian powers or negotiate with her. The status quo is untenable. Hasina will almost certainly dissolve the government and call fresh elections,” he writes.

“But it’s important to grasp that democracy is not in peril in Bangladesh. Secularism is. Sanctions, now being contemplated in some capitals, will hurt ordinary Bengalis and assist the far right. They may reverse the gains of the previous half-decade. To get a sense of Hasina’s accomplishment during this time, consider these words by the author Salim Mansur: “a democratically elected government in a Muslim majority country for the first time in fourteen centuries of Arab-Muslim history arranged for, and brought to trial, Muslims charged with crimes against humanity.” Is there a leader in the contemporary Muslim world with a profile quarter as courageous as that?

“Any attempt to interfere in Bangladesh’s affairs must begin with the realisation that Zia is not the victim. She is the force behind the unrest. Washington, given its awful history in Bangladesh, has a special obligation to ensure that it doesn’t, in the name of upholding democracy, end up once again giving succour to mass murderers and their political allies.”

Ved and Chowdhury drew support from Farid Hossain, CJA Bangladesh, with his view that the issue at stake is whether Bangladesh is going to be a moderate Muslim nation, or slip into the type of activities by the militants under the Zia regime (2001-06) against which the U.S. Congress had passed strictures.

“As the analysis points out, the same U.S. is again siding with the Islamists. It is this U.S. stance that made Zia harden her position and reject Hasina’s conciliatory overtures,” he says.

“Those who feel unease at Hasina Government’s tactics should note that it is a response to months of systematic street violence that Jamaat, subsequently supported by BNP have unleashed. Being looked upon as a ‘victim’ is precisely what Zia wants. In the last few years, Pakistan, too, has been calling itself a ‘victim’ of terrorism. It would be wise not to adopt an even-handed approach in judging the Bangladesh poll by acknowledging Zia, BNP and Jamaat as ‘victims.’

“After Nuremberg and Kosovo war crimes trials, why is Bangladesh being criticised for bringing justice to its people?” he asks.

Read the Daily Beast article at

photo credit: Asia Society via photopin cc

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