Deadlock and Displacement in Bangladesh
13 Feb 2015
Bangladesh has seen a recent flare-up in political violence, this comes amid a major internal displacement crisis arising from the country's inter-communal tensions.
On the first anniversary of Bangladesh's deeply contested January 2014 elections, which were boycotted by the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), violence has broken out and escalated on the streets of the capital, Dhaka.
The recent firebombing of several buses left dozens dead and many others injured. Police connected the attacks to BNP leader and former prime minister Khaleda Zia, and affiliated Islamist parties. There are growing fears that this escalating political crisis will create room for violent Islamists and jihadi groups to garner support from those frustrated by a decades long political deadlock.
A new report from International Crisis Group (ICG), 'Mapping Bangladesh's Political Crisis', explores the dynamics behind this unrest, and looks at the roots of the violence. This is a legacy of Bangladesh's recent and longer-term history, stretching back to the country's bloody separation from Pakistan in 1971.
Two factions dominate politics in Bangladesh: the Bangladesh Nationalist Party under Khaleda Zia and the ruling Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina, and for 25 years the parties have rotated in office, with the exception of a military-backed caretaker government that lasted from 2007-2008. The parties are engaged in a game of zero sum politics and there is growing concern that the opportunities for political reconciliation are diminishing, with political battle lines becoming increasingly entrenched.
The ICG report highlights the substantially increased danger of jihadi involvement emerging from the ongoing political crisis. The violence suits jihadi factions who see both parties as the main hurdle to the establishment of an Islamic order. Indeed, despite the BNP's alliances with Islamist groups, most jihadi groups do not distinguish between the two parties, with many calling on supporters to demolish the "Hasina-Zia regime".
Violent Islamist factions threaten the precarious secular, democratic order.
Violent Islamist factions are increasing in popularity, threatening the precarious secular, democratic order. The BNP is allied with a number of Islamist groups, most notably Jamaat-e-Islami, which significantly bolsters the opposition's power on the street. According to the report, "the BNP's relationship with the Jamaat has political costs because of the latter's propensity for violence, alleged links to extremist jihadi groups and public image of involvement in atrocities during the 1971 liberation war". The Jamaat reportedly has links with regional jihadi groups, including Pakistan-based anti-India cells.
Since a government crackdown on Bangladeshi jihadi groups over the last five years, groups now operate in smaller, less visible cells. India is said to be assisting with the intelligence effort. India's prime minister Narendra Modi expressed concern about emerging jihadism in Bangladesh to President Obama during his 2014 visit to the United States.
This crisis comes amid a wider contest between secular, religious and ethnic identity in Bangladesh. Lailufar Yasmin refers to the difficulty of reconciling "culturally projected [secularism with] politically embodied aspects of Bengaliness and Islamic religious ideals" in her commentary on the struggle between secularism and Bengali Muslim identity since independence ' Struggle for the Soul of Bangladesh'.
The spread of Islamist extremism particularly threatens minorities. Given the size of the Hindu community (nine per cent of the population) and their predominant support for the ruling Awami League, Hindus have been targeted, particularly women, by mobs incited by religious extremists. Election violence in 2014 saw hundreds of Hindu homes and shops vandalised, whilst armed gangs displaced five thousand families and left hundreds dead. Emboldened by the Jamaat-BNP partnership, Islamist groups also attacked the Ahmadi community, and in 2004, succumbing to Jamaat pressure, the BNP government banned all Ahmadi publications, a ruling that is yet to be repealed.
The spread of Islamist extremism particularly threatens minorities.
Bangladesh is simultaneously facing a major displacement crisis, which has disproportionally affected the country's vulnerable ethnic and religious minority communities. The extent of this crisis is outlined in a report from the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) who estimate that as of January 2015 at least 431,000 people have been displaced as a direct result of conflict and violence.
Alongside a vulnerability to natural disaster and climate change, the social factors behind this displacement crisis are complex and, as with the political violence engulfing the country, have their roots in the country's struggle for independence 45 years ago.
This emergency has significant implications for religious communities, and much of the displacement has its roots in sectarian inter-communal violence, often drawn along religious lines. Over the last three years inter-communal violence targeting indigenous, Hindu and Buddhist communities has caused widespread displacement, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region, an area that contains millions of Hindus and Buddhists who chose not to migrate from Pakistan to India during the 1947 partition. About 280,000 people are thought to have been displaced by inter-communal violence in this region since 1973.
On top of this, Bangladesh also hosts more than 230,000 members of the stateless Muslim Rohingya minority, refugees from Myanmar's Rakhine state, where they are subject to extreme religious and ethnic persecution, in particular by Buddhist nationalists, who consider them identical to Bengali Bangladeshis.
The fact that most people displaced by conflict and violence are from marginalised minority groups only serves to prolong their displacement, whilst the worsening political crisis in Dhaka only fuels this vicious cycle of violence.
This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
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