Transport workers affiliated to the ruling Awami League try to break through a police barricade to offices of the BNP opposition in February
It has been a month since Hasina Ahmed’s husband Salah Uddin, a senior member of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party, was blindfolded and taken away by armed plainclothes police from a friend’s home in north Dhaka. He has not been seen or heard of since.
“I just want my husband back, nothing more,” says Ms Ahmed, her voice breaking, as she sits with one of their children in an apartment in the capital’s upmarket Gulshan district. “Why don’t they produce him in court? They have no right to take him like this. I have four kids.”
On the surface, Dhaka’s busy and modern streets make Bangladesh look like any other developing country with a fast-growing economy. Predominantly Muslim with a population close to 160m, Bangladesh has been a vigorous if sometimes violent and dysfunctional democracy since the end of military rule in 1990. But Bangladeshis say the disappearance of Mr Ahmed — the BNP’s joint secretary-general — is only the latest sign that the country has descended into the worst period of political violence, state repression and lawlessness for 25 years or more.
There have been 202 “disappearances” by the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite anti-crime and anti-terror unit of the Bangladesh security forces, and other groups since 2009, according to local rights group Odhikar .
The recent troubles mark a new low in the longstanding rivalry between Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister and Awami League leader, and Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister who heads the BNP . The government says the BNP is behind the violence that has marked the party’s campaign of strikes and protests. The clashes between the two main parties have also distracted attention from a dangerous upsurge of Islamist extremism among other factions.
If not “disappeared” or murdered in extrajudicial killings, opposition activists have been arrested on the orders of Ms Hasina’s government, harassed or targeted with scores of apparently spurious criminal cases against them. Many have gone into hiding. Odhikar itself, deprived of foreign funds on the orders of Ms Hasina, has run out of money. Its head, Adilur Rahman Khan, was himself abducted two years ago and then detained for two months.
A vindictive government has also targeted the media, arresting journalists, closing down television stations, disrupting mobile messaging apps such as Viber and Tango, and causing nervous Bangladeshis who once spoke freely to foreign journalists to request anonymity when commenting on politics.
Sajeeb Wazed, son and adviser of the prime minister and a man known locally as “Joy” (Bengali for “victory”), has called for editors such as Mahfuz Anam, the respected publisher of The Daily Star, to be arrested and tried for treason after the newspaper published a photograph showing a political poster calling for the government’s overthrow.
Government officials justify their crackdown by saying they are reacting to months of protest strikes and transport blockades organised by the BNP and its allies. The latest round of protests began on January 5, the first anniversary of a general election that was boycotted by the BNP and returned Ms Hasina and the Awami League to power.
More than 100 people have been killed, some of them burnt to death in the firebombing of vehicles by opposition militants. Exporters for the crucial garment trade — Bangladesh’s biggest industry — have sometimes had to resort to truck convoys or costly air freight to get their products to the port of Chittagong and on to clothing retailers abroad. Many schools closed for weeks on end.
With the exception of international rights groups and a few politicians, the outside world has remained largely aloof from the deepening crisis in Bangladesh since the start of the year, despite the country’s large diaspora. Western governments have made barely a murmur in public, and Hindu-majority India prefers Ms Hasina’s Awami League government to a BNP alternative that would include the party’s Islamist allies of the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Prominent Bangladeshis, however, are concerned about the increasingly bitter rivalry between Ms Hasina and Ms Zia, known as the “battling begums” (ladies).
First, they fear that Ms Hasina’s rule is now so repressive that she can never stand down for fear of reprisals by a future BNP government, in a lurch towards entrenched authoritarian rule that would end their regular alternation of power. Their second worry is that the mainstream dynastic politicians are so distracted by feuds dating back to independence from Pakistan in 1971 — Ms Zia’s husband Ziaur Rahman became military dictator after the assassination of Ms Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding father, but was himself assassinated six years later — that they are ignoring the rising danger of Islamist extremism nurtured in Bangladesh’s proliferating madrassas, or Islamic schools.
Only last month, three men said by police to be madrassa students hacked to death a 27-year-old blogger who had criticised Islamic extremism. He was the second secular blogger to be killed in the heart of Dhaka in this way this year.
Mahbubur Rahman, a BNP leader and former army chief, laments the “deplorable” state of Bangladesh and the fact that animosity between the “two quarrelling ladies” has provided fertile ground for extremists. “The government is bent on destroying democracy and perpetuating their rule for a long time to come,” he says. “We are afraid there may be some evil force that comes up . . . I’m afraid of religious militancy.”
Abdul Moyeen Khan, a nuclear scientist, former minister and another BNP leader, is equally critical, accusing the Awami League of imposing a police state and denying his party “the minimum democratic space for any political party to operate”. Institutions from the Election Commission to the civil service, the judiciary and the army have been corrupted or co-opted by Ms Hasina and the government, he says.
“The police is thoroughly corrupt and the RAB is killing people right and left. They are killing people even outside the realm of politics — for money, for land. It’s a total collapse of law and order.”
Government ministers and officials insist that they are acting in the best interests of Bangladesh. HT Imam, a minister and adviser to Ms Hasina, denies that there is any censorship in Bangladesh and says ordinary people are fed up with months of BNP-inspired hartals or shutdowns and rejects accusations of mass repression.
Political disruption holds up delivery of products
The clothing industry is the main export engine of the Bangladesh economy, and has thrived despite years of political upheaval and catastrophic factory accidents. Economists say low-wage Bangladesh should be able to gain as many as 15m of the 80m industrial jobs expected to move out of an increasingly prosperous China in the next decade.
“Murder and conspiracy to murder are the same thing,” Mr Imam says. “To my knowledge, people who have been arrested — there may be one or two exceptions — but most of them have been extremely violent in their speeches, in the manner in which they [ask people] to come out and attack.”
Mr Imam is sharply critical of London-based Tarique Rahman, the son of BNP opposition leader Ms Zia, who faces arrest on corruption and violence charges if he returns home, but denies that the government is trying to destroy its opponents. “We want a viable and strong opposition, and not only that — we are aware that we will be in the opposition again,” he says.
Even non-BNP entrepreneurs and investors believe that the BNP is so exhausted by its losing battle against the Awami League that the rest of the year could be relatively peaceful. The BNP has decided to allow its members to take part in metropolitan elections in Dhaka and Chittagong at the end of April.
“Whatever is happening on the political front, the Bangladesh economy is stable, less volatile and moving forward,” says Atiur Rahman, governor of the central bank, in an interview. “And there’s the resilience that’s inbuilt in a young nation — nobody can stop it.”
He points to multibillion-dollar plans by Japan, China and others to build infrastructure including a new port on the Bay of Bengal and a bridge over the Padma river (the lower Ganges), as well as consistent economic growth of 6 per cent a year and continued expansion of the $25bn a year garment export sector.
Remittances from the Gulf and elsewhere, he says, are expected to rise to over $15bn in the current financial year from $14.2bn last year. Foreign exchange reserves have risen threefold in the past five years to reach $23bn, equivalent to six months of imports.
Optimists see Bangladesh eventually emulating other Muslim-majority nations, such as Malaysia, with imperfect democracies but successful economies. “I don’t think Bangladesh will become Pakistan,” says one leading local journalist. “It will become Turkey.”
Independent economists, however, say growth has been more affected by unrest than the state cares to admit, with official statistics underestimating the impact of disruptions to road transport and consumer spending in recent months. Few Bangladeshis pay tax and capital flight is entrenched. For the first time in six years, some international financial institutions are expected to lower their growth predictions for the current year to below 6 per cent.
One economic analyst, who asked not to be named, likens Bangladesh to Kenya because of its combination of rampant corruption and macroeconomic stability, and expresses concern about the latest manifestations of the rivalry between Ms Hasina and Ms Zia. “They both see this as almost a final battle,” he says. “My concern is that we may be moving into a ‘new normal’ in which there’s a high level of more or less suppressed violence, very little political space and eruptions of unrest.”
Zaidi Sattar, chairman of the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh, says the economy has for years grown below its potential because it has been hostage to politics. But he adds: “This time the political repression that one sees and the handling of the opposition — even we are surprised that the government would go to that extent and try to eliminate the opposition. The two sides have to talk.”
Ms Ahmed, meanwhile, is still hunting for her missing husband. A former member of parliament herself, she has asked for help from Ms Hasina, rights groups and the diplomatic missions of the US, the EU, the United Arab Emirates and others — so far to no effect.
Mr Imam says that if the security forces had arrested him “they would definitely produce him before the court”, but the government’s opponents say he was probably beaten or tortured and died in custody. An anguished Ms Ahmed says she is 100 per cent certain that he was abducted by the state. “I don’t know if he is alive or not,” she says quietly. “What can I do?”
Source: Financial Times