Bangladesh’s development story: Myth or reality?
RECENT years have seen Bangladesh regress towards authoritarian rule. In 2011, the established political tradition of organising inclusive and peaceful elections under a non-partisan caretaker government was scrapped, while the 2014 general election was boycotted by the largest opposition party leaving more than half of the parliamentary seats uncontested. During the most recent election, government security forces launched a brutal crackdown on the opposition whose members also responded with violence. There were also claims the vote was rigged. An independent survey by Transparency International confirmed major irregularities, including ballot stuffing in 47 out of 50 sample constituencies.
PM Hasina since 2008 is transforming the county into a one party state as per the whims of his late father’s vision, which is an antithesis of any healthy democracy. The government under Awami League has systematically persecuted all opposition leaders, including hanging and jailing of Jamat-e-Islami leadership. In the last one year after the Covid pandemic, the government has arrested almost 5000 and 1000 have been injured in public protests, demanding political rights and enforcement of democratic values. Enforced Disappears and extra-judicial killings are common norm to handle voices of dissent. Global human rights bodies have repeatedly voiced concern on the issue while UNHCR has demanded an independent inquiry.
The ruling Awami League government has faced little opposition in the Bangladeshi parliament and has consolidated its power with violent repression. Political opponents have disappeared and leaders of parties outside the ruling coalition have been jailed. In early 2018, for example, opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was sentenced to seven years imprisonment on corruption charges that some claim were politically motivated. Peaceful protests by students demanding better road safety rules and equitable access to government jobs have been violently repressed, and there have been attacks on journalists and photographers covering events.
Since 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have replaced MDGs as means to end multiple inequalities by 2030. It is widely believed that the long-term success of SDGs hinges on improving the quality of government around the world. In fact, this is so important that building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions is now a development goal in its own right. Key to achieving this is to have mechanisms in place to hold governments to account. Parliament, the judiciary, the media and voters should be able to hold the executive power to clearly defined limits and standards. If those who rule aren’t subject to effective checks and balances, they can abuse their privileges to maintain power.
Recent events suggest that the Bangladeshi government is moving in the opposite direction. And the cost, in terms of damaging development prospects, could be significant. In systems where there are weaker mechanisms to hold the government to account, for example, corruption in the public sector may be rife and state institutions less effective. There are already worrying signs. Bangladesh has once again returned to the global list of the most corrupt nations and was ranked 13th from the bottom among 180 countries by Transparency International.
Prime Minister Hasina’s government committed to curb the media freedom across the country. Any journalist reporting against the government is being labelled as traitor and charged under sedition laws. The Covid-pandemic era exposed the authoritarian mindset of Hasina government and its actions against dissident voices.
Prominent journalists such as Abul Asad, Ruhul Amin Gazi, and Shafiqul Islam Kajol, cartoonist Ahmed Kishore, and writer Mushtaq Ahmed remain in detention, despite calls from the UN to reduce prison populations to prevent the spread of Covid-19 particularly by releasing low-risk offenders and those in pre-trial detention. Similarly, Bangladesh’s government has repeatedly demonstrated that it is not committed to protecting human rights. The international community should take a clear stand to ensure accountability of institutions and security forces, an independent judiciary, and free press in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a counter-terror paramilitary force, is committing grave abuses. The UN must impose sanctions over the elite and powerful group of Hasina government. The imposition of sanctions would be a landmark step towards ending the culture of impunity for abuses by security forces in Bangladesh and would serve to deter future human rights violations.
The international community should take a strong stand for the protection of human rights in Bangladesh, seven human rights groups said on International Human Rights Day. As Bangladeshis grapple with the impact of Covid-19, the ruling Awami League has used the pandemic to tighten the screws on critics and the free press, further entrenching authoritarian rule. The government has consistently targeted dissidents with the Digital Security Act-2018, the Special Powers Act-1974, and other draconian laws. Security forces commit enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture with impunity.