Bangladesh has been lauded as a success story over the last two decades with enviable GDP and HDI growth. In spite of these gains, the country’s slow march towards middle-income status faces numerous challenges. Labor unrest and industrial accidents threaten the country’s position as a global leader in ready-made garment production, while climate change remains a menacing backdrop in this delta country existing at practically sea level. These issues would consume even the most dedicated and hard-working government. Unfortunately Bangladeshi governments stretching back to independence have focused on enriching office holders and punishing enemies rather than effective governance.
The current government has taken to both tendencies with unprecedented vigor. After it returned to power in 2008, the Awami League government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina moved swiftly to crush its enemies by sending key political opponents to the gallows and violently suppressing the main Islamist political party, Jamaat-e-Islami. This struck at the alliance built by the mainstream opposition Bangladesh National Party, a particularly corrupt fiefdom of the aging matriarch—and Hasina’s arch-nemesis—Begum Zia. Though political violence is not new here, Hasina’s subsequent actions touched off a firestorm that has increased bloodshed to a level not seen in decades.
In 2013, when the kangaroo courts created by the government failed to return the requisite death penalty upon a few key opposition leaders, the rage unleashed by the government took the form of public protests. This series of violent demonstrations by left-wing radicals led to a quick volte-face by the courts, under immense government pressure, and subsequent executions. In order to tilt the scales in future elections, Hasina’s government unilaterally rewrote the constitution to remove a system in which impartial technocrats oversaw each contest. Recognizing the double attacks on the electoral process and the judiciary, the opposition touched off its own series of violent counter-protests. In an attempt to deprive the government of legitimacy the opposition boycotted the elections of January 2014, resulting in a parliament entirely controlled by Hasina and her lackeys.
Any international pressure on Dhaka to reform melted away in the face of realpolitik. The Indian government made it known that it supported the continuation of AL rule. Having all but ceded foreign policy in South Asia to India, Western nations focused their energies on pushing for token changes and aid projects. The United Nations, dependent upon Bangladesh for a large chunk of its peacekeeping forces, took the sham elections at face value. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring the international community cumulatively decided that a flawed regime with democratic trappings was better than chaos.
The loss of established figures to the hangman’s noose or exile has resulted in a power vacuum in opposition circles, allowing for the rise of violent radicals to supplant the older generation. The media has been pressured into exercising ‘self-censorship’ and civil society beaten into submission. Lacking an effective opposition, the increasingly discontented masses will either be entirely turned off from participation in the political process or be shunted into the hands of radicals. Meanwhile, Hasina continues to surround herself with sycophants and to devote her energies to stamping out perceived plots against her grip on power.
Both the West and India continue to tolerate the status quo at their peril. Though the rise of violent Islamism is disconcerting, Bangladesh is currently far from being overrun by IS militants. The threat grows as the government, isolated from reality and lulled into a sense of security by the fractured state of the opposition, will be unable to adapt to crises as they arise. Having failed to effectively challenge the government’s actions in early 2014 and with no viable partner in the opposition, there is little the international community can do now but wait. Eventually Hasina’s time at the helm of state will end.
In the event of her death, the fractious Awami League will consume itself in the subsequent power struggle. Otherwise, her government continues lose just a little more public confidence and faith with each outrage and eventually a genuine popular movement against her will take shape. By stressing support for democratic institutions and movements, and embracing them when they arise to challenge the status quo, the West can help return Bangladesh to a position of envy as a democratic developing Muslim nation. The alternative, clinging to the façade of a democratic Awami League government in the face of all evidence to the contrary, will only fuel popular resentment against the West and poison the well when the walls finally come crumbling down—and that, far more than anything else, would leave Bangladesh open to the malevolent influence of IS.
*The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not represent those of The Political Analysis.