Bangladesh Assessment 2008
On January 23, 2008, Bangladesh Chief Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, minced no words in elaborating the achievements of the Interim Administration. While underlining the promise to hold the much-awaited Parliamentary elections in December 2008, Ahmed indicated that the tenure of his administration had been peaceful and comforting for each Bangladeshi. "Not a single bullet was fired, not a single bomb went off during this Government," he declared. The Chief Advisor, however, failed to mention his Government’s inability to dispel the pervasive sense of popular unease rooted in political uncertainty and poor economic condition that constantly threatens to undermine the sense of peace and tranquillity in this country of 150 millions.
Clearly, however, elements of the Islamist militancy that grew in the country under active political patronage under the preceding regimes, appeared to have been negotiated rather well by the Interim Government. Ahmed’s regime has successfully targeted the vast network of the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and its affiliate, the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), a task that appeared to have been deliberately left unfinished by the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led regime. The execution of the top JMB-JMJB leadership on March 30, 2007, was the high point of the Government’s measures against Islamist radicalism. In the early hours on that day, the outfit’s chief Abdur Rahman and second-in-command, Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai, Majlish-e-Shura (the highest decision-making body) members Abdul Awal, Khaled Saifullah and Ataur Rahman Sunny, and suicide squad member Iftekhar Hasan Al-Mamun, were hanged in different prisons. On March 4, 2007, President Iajuddin Ahmed had rejected the mercy petitions of the six leaders, who had been arrested in 2006. While the hurried execution, about two weeks before the anticipated days, did send a strong message to the surviving cadres and over-ground workers of the outfit, the Government’s step was also interpreted in informed circles as a move that failed to unravel the dynamics underlying the group’s dramatic rise. The Government had, in fact, barred the Press from talking to these militants and even the Court proceedings had been held in camera. As the leaders of the JMB walked to the gallows, the curtain fell on the forces that had catapulted a small gang of Islamists to a level where it had dared to coordinate and execute a simultaneous nation-wide series of bombings in 63 of the country’s 64 Districts, and to openly flaunt its nexus with al Qaeda.
Since the execution of the JMB leaders, over a hundred of JMB cadres, mostly lower-rung activists have been arrested from various parts of the country. The group’s backbone has been broken as a result of this neutralisation process. Intelligence reports did suggest a possible mutation of the JMB into gangs such as the Allahr Dal (Allah’s Group), Jamal-al-Jadid (New Glory) and the Jadid al Qaeda (The New Base). On May 1, three explosions at the main railway stations in Dhaka, the southern port of Chittagong and the northeastern city of Sylhet brought back memories of the country-wide explosions on August 17, 2005. However, as in the previous serial blasts, the explosives used remained low-grade and were visibly not intended to kill. The hitherto unknown outfit Jadid al Qaeda (JaQ) claimed responsibility for the attack, in which a lone person was injured. Between May and June 2007, this group went on to plant seven explosives at the Rajshahi University of Engineering and Technology (RUET), all of which were recovered before their detonation. Subsequently, a few cadres of the JaQ, including Abul Hossain Tutul, who had allegedly planted the explosives at RUET were arrested. Activities of the new Islamist groups thereafter remained limited to issuing Press statements threatening to carry out attacks. None of these threats was, however, translated into action.
While international pressure and the shock of the August 2005 serial bombings had forced the erstwhile BNP regime to initiate action against the JMB-JMJB combine after the country-wide attacks, the Harkat-ul Jihad-i Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) remained outside the scope of official action. Except for the October 1, 2005, arrest of its ‘operations commander’ Mufti Abdul Hannan, none of HuJI-B’s functionaries were apprehended by the law-enforcement agencies. It is useful to recall that HuJI-B has been involved in a number of recent terrorist incidents in India, has deep linkages with terrorist organizations based in Pakistan, including al Qaeda, is believed to constitute a significant international terrorist threat, and figures in the US State Department’s list of ‘other terrorist groups’. Towards the end of 2007, however, the Interim Government appeared to have initiated some action against this group as well. On October 28 and 29, nine suspected HuJI-B militants were arrested from Narsingdi, Jhenidah, Magura, Khulna and Dhaka along with 60 kilograms of explosives, 16 grenades, rifles, handguns, various equipment and ammunition. Whether the arrest was a result of the Interim government’s attempt at pursuing the outfit or a mere accident, however, remained unclear, and it is notable that the regime is yet to act with a firmness comparable to that shown in the case of the JMB-JMJB, against the HUJI-B leadership.
Total fatalities as a result of Islamist militant violence over the period 2006-07 were at a low 20, with just seven of these civilian, and no losses to the Security Forces (SFs)
Islamist Militancy related fatalities: 2006-07
Left-wing Insurgency related fatalities: 2006-07
Going by fatalities alone, one would be led to believe that there is a raging Left Wing insurgency across Bangladesh. The truth is, Left-wing insurgency in Bangladesh is a highly dispersed, low-scale and criminalised movement consisting of a multiplicity of minor groups. Nevertheless, this feeble and degenerate movement continued to be the principal focus of SF ‘counter-terrorist’ responses, especially of operations by the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a specialised ‘anti-crime’ para-military force under the Home Ministry. Over the past years, RAB personnel had attained a measure of notoriety by arresting and then eliminating a number of alleged Left Wing Extremists (LWE) in fake encounters, and this trend continued uninterrupted through 2007, albeit at a somewhat diminished scale. Thus as compared to 139 LWE fatalities in 2006, the year 2007 registered 72 LWE deaths. Strong action by the SFs left the movement, already weakened by continuous infighting, in complete disarray. Even though media reports, quoting unnamed intelligence officials, continued to indicate some level of mobilisation by LWE groups, especially in the western and central Districts, their activities through out the year did not go beyond random acts of thuggery and extortion. The surrender of 104 cadres of the Purba Banglar Communist Party (PBCP) at the remote Deshigram village in Tarash Sub-district of Sirajganj District on December 1, 2007, constituted a serious setback to the most dominant of the Left Wing extremist factions in the country.
The Interim Government, however, continued to pay scant regard to India’s concerns on the activities of insurgent groups operating in India’s northeastern States. Since the early 1990s, top leadership and cadres of a number of Indian terrorist and insurgent groups, including the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), and the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), have bases in Bangladesh. According to the Indian Border Security Force’s (BSF) January 2008 estimates, 141 camps of terrorist and insurgent groups operating in India’s Northeast were in existence in Bangladesh. Successive political regimes in Dhaka, however, have continued to summarily dismiss such claims. There were initial hopes – however faint – that the Interim Government would change the long-standing Bangladeshi policy on providing support and safe haven to Indian insurgents, but the new regime has continued with the policy of denial.
Throughout 2007, political developments in Bangladesh received more attention than measures against militancy. The declaration of Emergency on January 11, 2007, created a larger role and longer tenure for the Interim Government. Under normal circumstances, the responsibility of the Interim Government is restricted to preparing ground work for the parliamentary elections, and its tenure limited to 90 days. However, sharp political polarisation between the BNP and the Awami League (AL) had created a logjam and the continuation of the Interim Government (comprising a Chief Advisor and 11 Advisors), emerged as the ‘only option’. Since then, with the active backing of the Army, the Interim Government has firmly entrenched itself in power and in every segment of administration. Despite the Interim Government’s repeated assurances about holding a free and fair parliamentary poll by the end of December 2008, many suspect that Bangladesh’s tryst with the present non-party military backed administration is likely to be a prolonged one.
The grand strategy of the Interim Administration is being articulated through steps purportedly undertaken against pervasive corruption in the country, the implementation of extensive reforms in the organisation of political parties and assistance to the Election Commission (EC) in its tasks of preparing the voters’ list and chalking out the roadmap for the parliamentary elections. It is evident, however, that in the manner of accomplishing each of these objectives, the Government has secured vastly augmented powers, and is seeking to impose a radical transformation in the country’s politics.
The manipulative use of the Special Powers Act (SPA), 1974, by the Interim Administration, to detain politicians, businessmen and journalists has evoked harsh criticism. According to the Cabinet Committee on Law and Order, between January 11, 2007, and the first week of January 2008, a total of 440,684 people had been arrested on various grounds by the law-enforcement agencies. This included close to 200 politicians and businessmen who are under prosecution for involvement in corruption. Among them are the country’s foremost leaders and members of their families, including former Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina, on charges of extorting Bangladesh Taka (BDT) 29.6 million from a private company, and Khaleda Zia, for tax evasion. Other prominent individuals who have been prosecuted include former Minister of State Lutfozzaman Babar; Khaleda Zia’s son and BNP General Secretary Tarique Rahman; former BNP minister Brigadier General (Retired) Hannan Shah; former BNP State Minister for Civil Aviation, Mir Mohammad Nasiruddin; AL General Secretary Abdul Jalil; former BNP Minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury; former-AL Parliamentarian Fazlur Rahman Patal; former-BNP Parliamentarian Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim; Partex Group Chairman M.A. Hashem; and former Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry President, Abdul Awal Mintoo.
Similarly, under the programme for carrying out reforms within the political parties, immense encouragement has been provided by the Interim Administration to potential dissident groups within leading parties. Such steps appeared to have been based on the presumption that, given the autocratic ways both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia had run their parties, their ‘in prison’-status would provide a fillip to the potential dissidents within the parties to take over the reins, thereby heralding a new age in Bangladeshi politics. However, such reform processes stagnated after initial signs of success in which the dissidents threatened to banish both the women leaders to the pages of history. Both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina have influential coteries within their parties, and these have been successful in resisting such moves. The Government, on the other hand, is yet to lift the restrictions on political activity in the country and has not started a process of dialogue with the political parties regarding the impending polls. Differences of opinion among the Advisors in the Interim Administration over allowing political activity by lifting Emergency provisions led to the resignation of five Advisors within a space of two weeks in December 2007 and January 2008.
Indications emerging in March 2007 suggested that the ‘comprehensive electoral reforms’, including the preparation of the new voters’ list and identity cards for all above 18 years of age, would only commence in July 2007. According to sources in the Election Commission, the massive exercise involving about 85 million voters would require at least a year to be completed. Voter registration, in fact, started only in November and till mid-January about 26 million voters had been issued photo identity cards. Rectifying the last voters list, which included over 10 million fake and duplicate voters, is an enormous task and is unlikely to be completed within the scheduled timeframe. In fact, the Government’s earlier decision to hold elections to all local government bodies before the parliamentary polls has already been shelved. The current plan of holding city corporation elections ‘before the parliamentary polls’ is also likely to meet the same fate.
While the Interim Government’s anti-militancy, anti-corruption and political reforms measures have secured some popular support, its performance on the economic front has been far less satisfactory. Since the declaration of the Emergency, annual inflation of the consumers’ index has climbed steadily and by November 2007 (the latest available figures) had reached a 17-year high of 11.21 percent. Acute shortages of supply of food grains have contributed to soaring food prices and the Government has been able to do little to address the crisis. The World Bank’s 'Global Economic Prospects 2008' report has projected Bangladesh's economic growth at 5.5 per cent for the current fiscal year due to what it describes as 'political tensions, severe flooding and cyclone'. The estimate is lower than the Bangladesh Bank’s projection of economic growth at 6 to 6.2 per cent.
Time appears to have stood frozen in Bangladesh through 2007, a remarkable change from the previous turbulent years. But each passing day brings harsh reminders of life under a military administration, with restrictions mounting on several fronts. The people have been told that the current phase of ‘discipline’ is necessary to restore the integrity of democratic processes, and the people have endured the authoritarian ways of the Interim Government in the hope that a more unsullied democracy will shortly be restored. It can only be hoped that the future rewards their patience and their acquiescence.
Note: April 30, 2007, was mentioned as the date of execution of the top JMB-JMJB leadership. The mistake is rectified on June 17, 2013.