Fire bombs, trains derailments, street protests – Bangladesh is witnessing a surge in political violence which has killed 50 people. DW speaks to analyst Jasmin Lorch about how the government is reacting to the turmoil.
On early Tuesday, February 3, fire bombs were thrown at a packed bus in Bangladesh, setting the vehicle alight, killing at least seven and injuring 16 passengers. The attack, which took place in the coastal city of Cox's Bazar during a nationwide strike, was the latest in a surge in political violence which has plagued the country since the beginning of the year.
The latest episode of political volatility in the South Asian nation began when police banned protests in the capital Dhaka and confined Khaleda Zia, the leader of the country's main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Zia had earlier called for demonstrations on the anniversary of last year's general election. Her party and its partners boycotted the 2014 elections after being told there would be no neutral monitor overseeing the voting, thus allowing incumbent PM Sheikh Hasina to win a new 5-year term.
The turmoil has also led to frequent strikes, attacks and transport blockades, hampering economic activity in the country by preventing businesses from operating normally and hurting ordinary citizens' economic prospects. Nearly 800 vehicles firebombed or damaged and two owners of TV stations have been arrested.
Jasmin Lorch, a research fellow at the Germany-based GIGA Institute of Asian Studies, says in a DW interview the country is facing a political deadlock with the government trying to marginalize the opposition while the opposition is aiming to bring down the government.
DW: How would you describe the current political situation in Bangladesh?
Jasmin Lorch: There is a political deadlock in the country. The last year elections, which brought the ruling Awami League (AL) to power, were boycotted by the BNP. The party is not represented in the parliament where the AL holds a clear majority.
There is no meaningful dialogue between the two parties. Instead, the ruling AL criminalizes and represses the opposition, while the BNP and its allies stage violent street protests with the declared aim to bring down the government.
The intense and often violent confrontation between these parties is a recurring problem in Bangladesh. Successive party governments have staffed the administration with their own loyalists and marginalized the opposition, no matter whether the AL or the BNP has been in power.
Is PM Hasina seeking to intimidate the opposition?
The AL government is indeed trying to curb political dissent. Since early January 2015, Khaleda Zia has been effectively under house arrest. The government has also detained many other opposition activists. Since the anniversary of the January 2014 elections, Zia and the BNP have called protests and blockades to force the AL to step down.
Seven burnt to death after bus firebombed
The government has cracked down harshly on the opposition to stop the demonstrations. The AL has politicized the security apparatus. Media outlets that are seen as close to the BNP have also faced harassments. At the same time, the government is seeking to legitimize itself through economic development. Ultimately, the AL wants to monopolize political power. It looks like the AL wants to show that it can do without a serious political opposition. But, of course, this is very undemocratic.
A Bangladeshi court ordered an investigation into an allegation of murder against Zia over the death of dozens of people in petrol bomb attacks. How serious is this accusation and do you expect it to lead to a criminal prosecution?
The accusation is that the former premier and three other opposition leaders masterminded the killing of 42 people during the BNP's street protests and blockades. The complaint was filed by the president of a pro-AL organization, and the court order comes as the government is cracking down heavily on political dissent. The opposition denies the allegations, arguing that Zia was under house arrest when the demonstrations took place.
But the situation is complex. During their ongoing protests, the BNP activists have engaged in violence such as the hurling of petrol bombs. The BNP is structured hierarchically. So it is unlikely that such acts of violence would be able to happen without the knowledge or even the consent of the party leadership. In principle, an investigation into the violence committed during the BNP's demonstrations would be useful. But the problem is that the AL has politicized the judiciary. If there is a trial, it might not be impartial and fair.
The owner of a leading Bangladeshi television station considered to be close to Zia has reportedly also been arrested. This comes as Abdus Salam, the owner of Bangladesh's oldest private TV station, was arrested last month after his channel aired a speech of Zia's fugitive son live from London. Is the government also cracking down on freedom of speech?
The government is indeed cracking down on political dissent and limiting the freedom of speech. Media outlets that the ruling AL perceives to be close to the opposition have faced harassments and restrictions. International human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, have also criticized the AL for that.
This crackdown on journalistic freedom forms part of the AL's strategy to marginalize the political opposition and keep itself in power. In his speech, Tarique Rahman called for a toppling of the government. Tarique Rahman has a powerful position within the BNP and he will likely become Khaleda Zia's successor.
What is the opposition's ultimate aim and can it really be achieved through violent protests?
The BNP demands snap elections under a neutral, non-partisan interim government. It argues that elections held under the AL can never be free and fair. There is absolutely no trust between the two major political parties. The BNP accuses the ruling AL government of marginalizing and harassing the opposition, and these accusations are well-founded. But it is also true that the opposition is ready to use violence.
The current blockades are enforced by all means. In the run-up to the January 2014 elections, activists of the BNP and its main ally, the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), also staged violent protests, exploded crude bombs and torched several polling centers. As a consequence, the BNP and its allies have lost a lot of legitimacy, both in Bangladesh and abroad. I think the opposition's strategy is largely counter-productive.
How polarized is the Bangladeshi society at the moment?
Both the AL and the BNP have strong roots in the population, and both parties also have activists and goons that engage in violence. In this sense, the society is very polarized. But I don't think the country is descending into complete chaos. This is a very violent political party conflict, but it is not a civil war. There are ideological differences between the AL and the BNP, but both parties also share a number of political values.
The War of Independence, for instance, is of great importance to both AL and BNP supporters. There are also activists and leaders in both parties who would be ready to talk to each other. The personal feud between Zia and PM Hasina plays a big role in fuelling the party conflict. In many respects, the conflict is very personalized.
What is your political forecast for the coming weeks?
There are several scenarios. One scenario is that the AL government will manage to sit out the crisis. This is quite possible, as various local and international actors have become skeptical of the BNP due to its violent strategy. But a return to business as usual could increase political instability in the long-term, as the AL would probably continue to marginalize the political opposition. Another scenario is some kind of military intervention.
In January 2007, when political conflict between the AL and the BNP had escalated, the military staged a covert coup. The army subsequently ran the country from behind the scenes for about two years. Military intervention would definitely be a huge set-back for Bangladesh's democratic development. The most desirable scenario would certainly be that the AL and the BNP sit for talks. The international community should put pressure on both the government and the opposition to try to make this happen.
Jasmin Lorch is a research fellow at the Germany-based GIGA Institute of Asian Studies.