DHAKA – The US Congress has expressed deep concern over the growing political violence in Bangladesh as two major political parties remained adamant in their respective positions and feared that further instability might lead to expansion of “extremist” groups threatening “regional security”.
The US Congressional Sub Committee on Asia and the Pacific arranged it with US Representative Steve Chabot, Chairman of the Sub Committee on Asia and the Pacific, in the chair.
Ed Royce, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs’ Committee, Professor Ali Riaz, a Bangladeshi born Professor and Chair, Department of Politics and Government, Illinois State University and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, Major General (retd.) ANM Munir Uz Zaman, President of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies and John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch participated in the hearing as witness speakers.
Responding to a question on political situation, Professor Ali Riaz said, “I’m not very much optimistic about an inclusive election at this point unless something dramatic happens.”
On a recent meeting between Bangladesh Nationalist Party [BNP] Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia and country’s president Mohammad Abdul Hamid, he said the President has a very limited constitutional power. “In that case how much he will be able to intervene in this kind of situation is not very clear.”
Ali Riaz, however, said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that he has moral power. The President does carry some order.”
He said the most likely scenario is that a non-inclusive election Bangladesh is going to experience. “I wish I’m wrong. But as of today that what it looks like.”
The analyst also mentioned two options — at least some sort of accommodation of opposition’s demand, including a cabinet not-headed by the incumbent Prime Minister would be an option or deferral of election.
Ali Riaz said the present political crisis in Bangladesh can be turned into an opportunity to build a stable democratic prosperous country.
“It’s time for Bangladeshi political leaders to take the right decisions to hold an inclusive election, agree on post election tolerant behavior, rein in extremism, commit to address the issues of war crimes judiciously, and commit to regional peace, and it’s time for the international community to help them in this regard,” he said.
He also mentioned that economic and social achievements of recent decades show that the citizens are capable of taking steps in the right direction.
“The upcoming election is important at both domestic and regional levels with significance for the US,” Riaz added.
He said Bangladeshi politics is once again at the crossroads and the constitution requires an election to be held by 24 January 2014. “But there is no agreement between the opposition and the ruling parties as to who will oversee the election.”
Major general [RTD] Munir Uz Zaman said “in total the formation of so-called interim government has shown that she (PM Sheikh Hasina) does not really care about what sort of accommodation is needed to solve the problem”.
He said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will try and push towards a one-party election with disastrous consequences for the country and if she does that the country will move in the path of instability because the post election violation is going to be even higher than pre-election violence.
“If she finds it absolutely difficult to push towards a one-party election which of course is her desire then she’ll probably urge the President to declare the state of emergency by which she can stall the election and buy time for ourselves…perhaps then she’ll come back to election after a year or a year and a half.”
He said if the level of violence goes so high the military reluctantly is softened to the process to restore some bit of stability in the country and provide security to citizens. “That’s the third option I see.”
Major General [RTD] Munir said increased instability in Bangladesh means a hampering of the commercial functions, investment, trade, services and, above all, massive disturbances in normal life and subsistence activities of millions of poor and middle class of this overpopulated nation of 160 million. “Death, injury and destruction follow in big numbers in such situations in Bangladesh. A destabilized Muslim majority nation is a breeding ground of fundamentalism, militancy and even terrorism.”
He said Bangladesh is no different. In a worst case scenario, some spillover effect cannot be ruled out to neighboring provinces of bordering nations.
John Sifton said, “I think at some point the Prime Minister will have to come to the reality…she may not realise it today but she eventually will have to realize.”
In his opening remark, Chabot said the country is at political turmoil and it is uncertain whether or not the BNP boycott the election. “I (during his visit in Bangladesh) stressed the need for curtailing the growing violence, which can only bring about further instability possibly leading to expansion of extremists groups,” he said.
“During those meetings (with Hasina-Khaleda), I expressed my views that the national election should be free, fair, transparent and without violence. Both the leaders were adamant in their positions. Sheikh Hasina insisted that the provision is well in place to conduct a fair election. Khaleda Zia maintained that a fair election could not be held without caretaker government.”
He, however, highly appreciate Bangladesh’s development saying ‘Bangladesh story has been an impressive one.’
In the hearing, Ed Royce expressed his concern over the attacks on minorities saying the government is not doing enough to protect minorities.
In reply, Ali Riaz said, “I completely agree with you Congressmen…These’re the issues that we need to address and we urge the international community to work closely so that such attacks don’t repeat.”
Though it was supposed to start at 2pm (Washington time) it started at 2:55 pm and Chabot in his opening remark sought apology for the delay.