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Bangladesh: Democracy in Decay

Updated: Jan 14, 2019

The death of democracy does not occur overnight and does not occur without a conscious and conscientious effort. It takes a coordinated and determined plan. It requires the erosion of state institutions. It requires the circumvention of the rule of law. It requires the decimation of a free media and the withdrawal of freedom of speech. And it requires the establishment and entrenchment of a culture of fear and complete impunity for state sanctioned violence against the civilian population.

Democracy in Bangladesh did not die suddenly on 30 December 2018. It has been in gradual decay since at least 2009, if not before. For those of who did not see this or predict this happening, they chose consciously not to see. Whilst death did not occur on 30 December 2018 it was certainly the day of its wake.

The blame for this decay has been laid firmly at the feet of the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed and her ruling Awami League party. Sheikh Hasina has been blamed for creating one party rule; criticised by many opponents for finishing what her father may have started. However, much as it is the ruling elite that has eroded the state, it is also the international community and the people of Bangladesh that have allowed this to happen by blind and wilful ignorance.

The question must be why. Why have we displayed such blind and wilful ignorance? The answer to that may well be that the hundreds if not thousands that have suffered at the hands of the brutal State Security Service are not our friends. They are members of the political opposition that we do not like and do not trust. They are ordinary people that play no role in our lives and are consequently dispensable. For it was not until a renowned photojournalist, Shahidul Islam, was arrested and arbitrarily detained for speaking critically of the ruling party that outrage was expressed. According to media reports, his detention was widely seen as a test for freedom of speech in Bangladesh and sparked worldwide demands for his release. But why have we remained silent for the hundreds of others who have disappeared or the thousands that remain detained without charge. What about Mir Ahmad bin Quasem and what about Abdullahil Amaan Azmi both missing since August 2016.

Bangladesh has for a number of years been a country of concern for many within the international community, as despite its rhetoric and protestations to be a democracy, the reality is quite different, with countless mass human rights violations being committed with disturbing frequency, to such an extent that it can clearly be seen as State sanctioned policy. Further, emboldened by the lack of consequence for its actions, the Government of Bangladesh has adopted policies to reduce democratic space and consolidate its grasp on power. The Government of Bangladesh and its security services now have statutory authority to continue to oppress civilians, oppression that thus far, has been free from consequence, other than occasional ‘statements of concern’ from certain quarters of the international community. It is now quite clear that following the recent election, and the credible reports of widespread and systematic corruption, it is no longer enough to issue statements of concern, as they are simply ignored by the Government, or devalued by reference being drawn to an alternative position that may have offered positive comment, no matter how limited. The Government of Bangladesh is adept at manipulating the facts to suit its own ends, and will not hesitate to rely on mischaracterisations, statements used out of context, and on occasion, falsehoods, to give credence to its positions.

The Awami League won the 2014 parliamentary elections with hardly a vote being cast. The opposition coalition boycotted the election in a move that was regrettable and widely criticised. In the recently held 2018 parliamentary election, the Awami League secured close to 96% of the vote. It has been long debated as the dictators’ dilemma as to whether it is more prudent to take the election with 100% of the vote, as with Saddam Hussain (although he was subsequently overthrown) or to give the election the appearance of legitimacy and fairness by taking a more modest percentage of the vote. Clearly this was a dilemma for the incumbent Awami League in Bangladesh with claims of a win of 96% of the vote putting its Prime Minister in the ranks of Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov with 97%, Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov with 91%, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev 81%, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad with 98%.

Bangladesh has now reached such heights, as predicted earlier this year, of full autocracy and the next 5 years is likely to be a painful chapter in Bangladesh’s history. It is now quite clear that Sheikh Hasina considers Bangladesh to be her own back garden and woe-betide anyone who tries to take it away from her and dynastic family rule.

It is clear that the mere holding of an election a democracy does not make. An election must be free, and it must be fair, otherwise, it merely contributes to a façade. The elections in 2014 and 2018 were just that, a façade. Individuals were prevented from exercising their democratic rights, to the extent that entire parties either boycotted the election as they refused to legitimise a palpably unfair process or were actively prevented from participating. Opposition to the ruling party has been met with a violent crackdown, numerous civilians losing their lives, and many more injured, and yet, no-one has been held accountable for the undoubted offences committed during this period. Such impunity has reigned ever since; de factostate policies of enforced disappearance and extra-judicial killing exist, and whilst it cannot be properly suggested that every single instance has been overtly state sanctioned, the complete impunity with which the security services operate, and the increasingly aggressive and violent rhetoric from the government, offers at the very least, tacit approval and encouragement.

The Awami League has successfully built a narrative that anyone opposed to it and its policies, is opposed to Bangladesh as a country and therefore is a threat and a target. The reality however is that in using the past to attempt to cling to power, it is repeating those historical mistakes, and only fracturing the country further.

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