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Challenges Facing Bangladesh


Political conflict in Bangladesh has led to corruption, poverty and severe problems in the educational system. The country is facing increasing instability. A political power vacuum is being filled by radical Islamists, posing a threat to the secular-democratic system. But the situation is not irredeemable. The article argues that Bangladeshis can work with foreign powers to bring about much-needed political reform.


By Adam E. Stahl



In need of some stability


In January 2007, the Bangladeshi High Court suspended general elections due to allegations of a lack of transparency and fairness within the voting system.  Concurrently, the country is under a national state of emergency and civil unrest has spread across the country with nearly 35,000 Bangladeshis arrested. [1] National elections will not be held for at least 18 months despite domestic and international calls for a specific and speedy timetable. [2] The elections were to be a continuation of the struggle over political power between the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the Awami League (AL), which threatens to rip apart the fragile political system of one of the Muslim world’s largest democracies. [3]


At present, a caretaker government backed by the Bangladeshi military heads the country, and has initiated serious steps to crackdown on the endemic corruption that continues to plague Bangladeshi politics. [4] A variety of criminal charges have been filed against the nation’s two leading political figures, Sheik Hasina of the AL and Khaleda Zia of the BNP. [5]


Bangladesh’s political instability stems from a number of issues, including widespread corruption, weak government institutions, illegal migration to and from Bangladesh, radical Islamist terrorism, and an increase in Islamist influence, which has successfully exploited the political vacuum that the AL-BNP rivalry has allowed to open. Here I will set out the challenges facing Bangladesh, with emphasis placed on the growing political vacuum, and subsequently show how Bangladesh’s vital ally, the United States, can assist the Bangladeshi government on its quest for stability.


Bangladesh’s roots


Since Bangladesh won its independence from West Pakistan in 1971 after a bloody war of liberation, the AL and the BNP have dominated the country’s politics. The AL, led by Sheik Mujibar Rehman, was the first political party officially to govern the new Republic of Bangladesh in 1973. [6] Under Sheik Mujibar, democratic rule quickly turned authoritarian. On 25 March 1982 a military coup occurred under the leadership of General Hussein Muhammad Ershad. General Ershad suspended the constitution and officially named Islam the state religion. Thus political Islam entered into the mainstream Bangladeshi political system.


Since 1990, Bangladesh has been a parliamentary democracy with a separate judiciary and an active civil society, yet it remains only a “partly free” country. [7] Although a democracy, Bangladesh faces challenges central to a successful working democratic system: freedom of expression and political opposition. The media is active but it is not “free”: journalists feel threatened by political and religious opposition. [8] With the rise of radical Islam in Bangladesh, these democratic practices will become more difficult to obtain, as radical Islamists equate the very idea of democracy with heresy.


Border crossings


A significant challenge to Bangladesh’s democratic character is immigration. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries with a massive population of approximately 150 million, of whom 85 percent are Sunni Muslims. [9] It shares a 4,000 km border with India. Illegal migration, from Bangladesh into India, has strained relations between the two countries, adding to Bangladesh’s pot of political difficulties, including the construction of a highly disputed border fence. [10] New Delhi claims illegal migration of “rebels” is the reason for its decision to construct a fence along the border, while Dhaka insists it violates a bilateral defence treaty in a “no build” zone. [11]


Bangladesh shares its south-eastern border with Myanmar. Comparatively, it is a small border, less than 200 km, [12] yet it has served as a crossing point for massive flows of illegal Muslim refugees. The migration of Muslim refugees from Myanmar is significant as south Bangladesh is increasingly viewed as a haven for radical Islamist organisations. In an area with strong Islamist influence, impoverished and uneducated refugees from Myanmar are easy targets for radicalisation. The result is growing support for radical Islamist groups and not for the AL or the BNP.


Most immigration is flowing into the coastal cities of Chittagong and Cox’s Bazaar, known sanctuaries for, among others, the “student wing” of Jaamat i-Islami, (JI). The JI is a radical Islamist party with 17 seats in Parliament, serving as part of the BNP’s coalition. [13] Though the BNP claims to have firm control over the JI, the increase in radical Islamist recruits and training camps, especially in the coastal area, shows that neither party has complete control over Islamist proliferation. In the south, where borders are porous, the ramifications of growing radical Islamism are considerable, potentially jeopardising Bangladeshi-Indian trade relations.


Finally, to the south lies the Bay of Bengal, vital to Bangladesh’s trade relations with India, Myanmar, and other South Asian countries. It is also useful for illicit narcotics and arms smuggling, routinely carried out by pirates. [14] Further, Islamist groups have been linked to criminal activity in the south, a combination which presents a serious threat of maritime terrorism in the Bay, economically threatening any country in the region linked to the Bay.


Party politics


The Awami League


The Awami League is characterized as a centre-left, secular-democratic political party, drawing support from minorities such as Shiite Muslims and Bangladeshi Hindus. Minority groups have long been targets of radical Sunni Islamists, whom many believe are aided by the JI and therefore protected by the BNP. One of the AL’s most contentious attributes is its pro-India stance, which dates prior to the establishment of the Bangladeshi state. [15] The contempt between the parties continues to grow and a détente between the two is only a distant hope.


Adding to the AL’s hatred towards the BNP are the numerous attacks on AL members, including the 2004 attack in which 13 grenades were thrown during an AL rally where Sheik Hasina was present; over 20 were killed and Hasina was left deaf in her right ear. [16] Further, many AL-sympathizing journalists, academics, and high-profile AL members have been assassinated. On 18 August 2005, Sheik Hasina stated that, “Jamaat e-Islami, a conservative party within the BNP coalition, has been supervising activities of various terrorist groups in the country for a long time”. [17]


The AL has been linked to a number of murders, the charges for which the police levelled at members of the party, including Sheik Hasina, the leader of the AL; Hasina also faces a lawsuit for alleged extortion totalling $400,000 whilst in office. [18] The charges filed against the former Prime Minister portray the seriousness of the interim government’s plan for fighting corruption at the governmental level. They also represent how other agencies and institutions are backing the interim leadership. The interim government’s plan has effectively marginalised Sheik Hasina. Belligerency and political rivalry, as well as alleged corruption, are but a few examples of why the Bangladeshi political system is so turbulent.


The Bangladesh National Party


General Ziaur Rahman (General Zia), a former officer in the Pakistani Army, established the BNP in September 1978. Currently, Khaleda Zia, the General’s wife, leads the party. The BNP is viewed as right of centre, nationalistic, conservative and business-oriented. The party takes an overtly hard line approach to India and is openly pro-Pakistan. The BNP is known for its mixture of traditional Bengali customs with Islam, though it has remained secular, despite its coalition with Islamist groups. The key difference between the AL and BNP is the latter’s alliance with Islamist organisations, which they rely on in order to stay in power.


One example of the BNP’s political allies is the JI. The JI openly supports the Pakistani military and is alleged to have been involved in massacres and targeted killings of various intellectuals in Dhaka, as well as other acts of terrorism. The JI also calls for the implementation of Shari’a (Islamic Jurisprudence) and the establishment of a theocratic system in Bangladesh. [19] Due to Khaleda Zia’s alleged participation in a number of criminal activities, reports abound that she may leave Bangladesh and seek asylum in Saudi Arabia. [20] As a result of the military-backed interim government’s crackdown, Khaleda Zia, like Sheik Hasina, has been politically marginalized.


Bangladeshi Islamist parties, specifically the JI and the Islamic Oikye Jote (IOJ), have benefited politically from an alliance with BNP. The JI are deeply radical in their views and are suspect in many Islamist terror attacks in Bangladesh, including the 2005 murder of Awami League member and former Finance Minister, Shah M.S. Kibria. [32] Moreover, the JI are suspected to have links with armed radical Islamist groups, such as the 10,000-strong Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), with its suspected 2000-man suicide standby brigade. [33] In turn, both the JI and the JMB are believed connected to the highly fanatical Jagrata Muslim Janata-Bangladesh (JMJB). The JMJB is allegedly funded by al-Qa’ida, [34] making possible an international jihadist agenda.


Two challenges for two parties


The two great challenges to Bangladeshi democracy are corruption and the education system. The AL and the BNP have been recognised for economically stabilising Bangladesh in the last decade through various market-based economic reforms. [22] Despite the political rivalry between the AL and the BNP, both parties clearly want to see Bangladesh prosper. Still, political instability and corruption are responsible for the country remaining impoverished, with more than 60% of Bangladeshis living below the poverty line. [23] According to the World Bank, corruption is “among the greatest obstacles to economic and social development” as it “undermines development by distorting the rule of law and weakening the institutional foundation on which economic growth depends”. [24] In addition, Bangladesh consistently ranks as one of the most corrupt countries; its current rank, according to Transparency International, is 156 out of 163. [25] The United Nations Development Program Human Development Index (UNDP) places Bangladesh at 137 out of 177. [25]


The picture is more nuanced than these rankings suggest, according to one International Crisis Group analysis on Bangladesh: there are certain sectors of Bangladeshi society which fare well in comparison to surrounding countries. In Bangladesh, “Women are much better off than in Pakistan…conditions have been improving” and there is a powerfully active “NGO sector in all areas of social development”. [26] Nevertheless, endemic corruption has kept the country from progressing socio-economically, adding to the political instability.


With a visible increase in Islamist education, Bangladesh’s secular educational system is another challenge for both parties. There have been improvements in the educational system, such as greater gender balance and increased government spending, though expenditure may not have reached the appropriate level. There are reports that the government spends approximately $45 per student whereas certain madrassas (Islamic religious schools) are spending $75 per student. [27]


Of the students who participate in primary school only 76% complete the necessary requirements and it takes students an average of 6.6 years to do so. [28] Further, teaching methods are outdated and schools are generally dilapidated, adding to the difficulties in learning.


Concomitantly, there has been considerable growth of madrassas, mostly funded by wealthy Gulf States and Saudi Arabian charities, which aim to spread their Wahabbist ideology. [29] Recent figures claim more than 60,000 madrassas operate in the country with the majority (independent madrassas) not registered with the government.


The independent madrassas threaten Bangladesh’s secular society as radical Islamist groups, such as the JI, dictate the curriculum in these schools. These Islamic schools offer free education, often with free food and shelter: precisely the socio-economic services that the government is unable to provide and a crucial area that Islamists are able to exploit. [30]


The significance of this is that the JI, and other Islamist groups, are enjoying an increase in the number of new students, whom they will educate according to their Islamist radical ideologies. A 1998 study of the number of students enrolled in madrassas totalled 2,123,000, approximately 10% of Bangladeshi students. [31] Presently, the number of students attending Bangladeshi madrassas is not known, though there is evidence of mass recruitment in recent years.


Hopeful, still


The Republic of Bangladesh is currently in deep political crisis. The AL and BNP leaders are under investigation for murder and corruption; radical Islamists are making strong political headway; porous borders remain a threat to security; the country is currently under the control of a military-backed government; and national elections have been suspended for at least 18 months. Despite these crises, there remains ample reason for optimism.


Bangladeshis have long appreciated their democratic system and culture of secularism. Bangladesh remains a quasi-free state with electorate-level involvement in politics and there is no indication that the majority of Bangladeshis are shifting away from democratic rule. Bangladesh remains one of the poorest countries in the world yet there have been significant improvements: the country is making “good progress” towards the UN Millennium Development Goals and has made “extraordinary progress” in human and economic development.  Between 1997 and 2000 its GDP grew on average five percent a year. [35]


The main areas of concern are corruption, education and poverty, all of which are being exploited by Islamist groups. These issues can be countered by a successful resolution between the AL and the BNP. In order for a resolution to materialize, the AL and BNP must find common ground. Facing the current militant Islamist threat to Bangladesh is one area in which the two parties share an interest. More common ground for the two parties is improvement in the educational system. Greater numbers of students are finding better education amongst radical Islamists and as a result the country may soon find its democratic character at greater risk than it already is. [36]


The interim government is not the only body capable of pressuring the AL and BNP to take this reforming line. Bangladesh remains an important US ally in the ‘war on terror’ and America continues to show its commitment to Bangladeshi democracy with financial aid: USAID has provided Bangladesh with over $5bn since the early 1970s. Further, the US has assisted Bangladesh in poverty, education, political reform, and has helped to rebuild the country following natural disasters. Though not ideal, the US may find it necessary to use the threat of cutting financial aid in order to press for speedy and concrete reforms.


As a country with democratic character, Bangladesh cannot remain under a military-backed interim government for long. The interim government and the US must exert their influence to assist in reforms. Though a solution to Bangladesh’s ills will not be witnessed by a single improvement in one area, an AL-BNP agreement would represent the first step towards overall progress. Should this come to fruition, Bangladesh’s fragile democracy will find itself on a stable path moving towards greater national development.


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Adam E. Stahl read International Relations and Conflict Resolution at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Centre, Herzliya, Israel. He currently works as Research Assistant and Executive Coordinator for the Counter-Terrorism Executive Studies Program at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism. He begins his MSc in the History of International Relations at the London School of Economics in Autumn 2007.