Fabric of instability
With a general election looming for Bangladesh, ABM Nasir considers how aggression and the dissemination of disinformation have formed a volatile, and vulnerable, political landscape
Violence and disinformation are anti-democratic, anti-competitive, anti-peace and destabilising in a number of crucial ways – socially, economically and politically.
Both violence and disinformation have formed part of Bangladesh’s political process since independence. But while the latter has only really asserted its dominance in recent times, violence has been a dominant factor in Bangladeshi politics for decades.
However, political violenceentered a different and deadlier phase from the time the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition won the general election in October 2001. In this new chapter of the country’s narrative, state-sanctioned violence by the highest echelons of the BNP-Jamaat leadership saw ministers act against religious and ethnic minorities, and directly targetpolitical opponents to remove them from the political process.
At the same time, radical religious outfits such as Harkat-ul-Jihad and Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) were recruited to carry out the action plans. Numerous instances of violence took place as a result, but the most devastating – aimed at disenfranchising minority voters and political opponents – were the October 2001 post-election political and sexual violence against Hindus; a grenade attack on August 21, 2004 at an Awami League rally, which killed 24 leaders and activists and injured hundreds, including the current prime minister of Bangladesh; a series of bombings across the country in 2005.
The worst-hit victims of this state-patronised violence were members of Bangladesh’s Hindu community. The violence led to the exodus of around 300,000 Hindus during the period 2001 to 2006. Such a forced exodus of Hindus was anti-democratic and inhuman.
Yet the terrorists did not limit their brutality to the Hindus. Bangladesh’s current Prime Minster, Sheikh Hasina,has herself been targeted.To date, she has survived 19 attempts on her life.
The violence continued unabated and escalated between 2013 and 2016. This time, the targets of the BNP-Jamaat leadership, as well as activists and radical Islamists, were the country’s religious and ethnic minorities, and its progressive bloggers.
Exacerbating this predicament was the disinformation campaign funded by both domestic and external groups. For example, rumours spread by radical Islamists concerning the supposed desecration of the holy Quran generated frequent acts of violence against Hindus. Unjustified accusations against secular and progressive bloggers, calling them atheists and anti-Islamic, cost the lives of more than 25 bloggers and forced hundreds of others to seek refuge abroad.
During January to March 2015, a massive petrol bombing campaign by BNP-Jamaat supporters led to the killing of more than 60 people and injured hundreds more. A report by Amnesty International published on January 25, 2015condemned the BNP-led campaign, saying that ‘the manner in which the BNP-led protests are being carried out clearly shows a repeated pattern of violence being used for a political purpose’.
Today, we are seeing a similar pattern of violence: the burning of public transport, journalists and law enforcement members being beaten, sometimes to death. This escalation of aggression has coincided with the start of the BNP-Jamaat coalition’s nationwide agitation programs, which began on October 28 this year.
It is also important to note that US social media infrastructures have been to spread anti-Hindu, anti-Western, and anti-secular disinformation by members of the BNP-Jamaat coalition.
The United States seems to be pursuing the Biden administration’s new value-based democratic approach to ensure a free election in the forthcoming 2024 poll. However, I believe this is a wrong-headed strategy, as it disregards the anti-democratic violence and disinformation that is disenfranchising ethnic and religious minorities and progressive forces within the country.
We can draw stark comparisons. Enforced elections didnot bring peace or stability to Afghanistan and Iraq. Attempted regime change didnot work in Bangladesh in 2007. The October 2001 free election victory by the BNP-Jamaat coalition led to a terrible plight forBangladesh’s minorities, and a mass exodus.
As an American citizen, I donot want to see China’s influenceintensify, or a radical Islamist takeover in Bangladesh. A sustainable democratic process and a participatory and acceptable election are only viable when the agents of violence and disinformation are removed from the political process. Otherwise, the country will become ever more vulnerable and volatile.My earnest request to US policymakers is that they do not contribute to making an Afghanistan-style ruin out of Bangladesh.
As Beijing gained a foothold in Malé, the anti-India campaign grew shriller, and Mohamed Nasheed, a charismatic leader and the first directly-elected President of the Maldives, was forced to resign. The turmoil that followed brought Abdulla Yameento power in 2013. During his tenure, the country joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), implementing Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, including the construction of 7,000 flats and a first-of-its-kind bridge linking Malé with the nearby airport island of Hulhule. Generous loans were provided for the projects by Chinese banks.
The new President highlighted the fact that ‘we are situated in a very strategic location, in which many of the sea lanes of communication go across our country’. He had previously told voters that foreign investment was needed to develop ports and other infrastructure to create a tax-free zone on the island. One may a recall how a similar promise to create a tax-free trading hub adjoining the Chinese-funded Hambantota sea port landed neighbouring Sri Lanka in a debt trap.
Yet, over the last five years, Indo-Maldives cooperation has witnessed an upward trajectory. More tourists from India than any other country visited the Maldives in 2020. Even further back, the two countries had close, cordial relations. India was the first country to help the Maldives thwart a coup attempt backed by Tamil mercenaries in 1988, and to provide aid in the aftermath of the devastating tsunamis of 2004 and 2014. Again, during the pandemic, India was the first to provide Covid vaccines for mass inoculation in the Maldives. As the country’s largest trading partner, India has been working on the Greater Malé Connectivity Project that will connect the capital to nearby islands.
India has also extended bilateral and development assistance to the Maldives for a medical complex in Malé, a trade partnership and investment for several infrastructure projects, and to set up hospitals, community centres and schools.
Given Muizzu’s rather unpopular image as the Mayor of Malé and Yameen’s disqualification from contesting the election, observers of the Maldivian political scene had initially given Solih a fair chance of being re-elected for a second term.
In fact, Solih worked assiduously to make the Maldives a model of good governance and the rule of law. Indeed, his efforts against corruption and at building democratic institutions did earn him laurels. But dissension within his own party and the vicious anti-India campaign led to his defeat. A big blow to his candidature was the departure of Mohamed Nasheed from the Maldives Democratic Party. The country’s worsening post-Covid economic condition, unemployment and burgeoning foreign debt, and Solih’s failure to deliver big new infrastructure projects,further helped the opposition seal his fate.
However, not all is well in Muizzu’s ruling coalition. Revolts have started brewing against his leadership, with his mentor Yameen forming a new party along with eight other leaders from the ruling party. Without a majority in the People’s Majlis (the Maldives’ legislative body), the President will not be able to implement his pro-China agenda. And with the elections to the People’s Majlis due in 2024 and his colleagues deserting him, Muizzu could be in for a rude shock.
Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London