By Farish Noor
28 October 2013
Bangladeshi opposition supporters defying a ban on protests in Dhaka on Friday. The government has banned rallies in some parts of the country, fearing violence as the opposition gears up for street protests. AP pic
AS Bangladesh inches closer to elections, the deadlock between the political parties of the country -- the Awami party led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia and the Islamist Jamaat-e Islami party -- seems to be getting worse. After a national strike called by the Islamists of the Jamaat last month, Bangladesh is going through yet another strike called by the BNP and the Jamaat, again.
The root of the problem lies in the unease of the opposition parties who have been calling for a neutral caretaker government to oversee the election process, until elections are called for in more than a month's time. The prime minister's reluctance to concede to these demands has led the opposition to believe that the elections may not be managed in an objective and neutral manner, and would thus favour the incumbent. But as local political leaders slug it out among themselves, it is the country that is being put on hold and normality suspended.
Related to these worries is the fear among the Islamists of the Jamaat that their party is about to be banned or at least crippled for the duration of the election campaign.
The earlier strike that was called by the Jamaat was in response to the arrest and charging of several senior Jamaat leaders, who have been accused of human rights violations during the critical period of Bangladesh's painful and difficult birth, when the country, that was formerly known as East Pakistan, broke away from Pakistan and struggled to be an independent country in its own right.
The Jamaat-e Islami of Bangladesh, which had strong and close links to the Jamaat-e Islami of Pakistan, was then accused of taking part in the killings of many Bangladeshi intellectuals, activists, political leaders and students in Dhaka and other cities, that led to one of the worse instances of violence in the country's history; where the intellectual elite of Bangladesh was virtually decapitated overnight.
Bangladesh is a country with untold promise and potential, a human resource base that is vast and a land mass that is of strategic importance in the wider context of geopolitics in Asia. But over the past few years issues from the past -- such as the Jamaat's alleged role in the Pakistan civil war -- have bogged it down and made its political elite look ever inward instead.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is trying to shore up her party's flagging popularity at the moment and resolve a number of outstanding issues that include security concerns along the borders with Myanmar and India, but these can only be tackled if there is some guarantee of continuity in governance.
It is precisely that continuity that is under question at present, with an opposition alliance that is growing steadily adamant in its refusal to play by Sheikh Hasina's rules.
We in Southeast Asia should be aware of the fact that events in Bangladesh will eventually have an impact on the Southeast Asian region as well, and it would be unwise to regard this as a problem that is contained far away, in South Asia.
Two outstanding issues will have an impact on our region: The first is the lingering problem of the Rohingya people of Myanmar, who have been steadily expelled or forced to leave their homeland in Arakan (Rakhine), Myanmar, as a result of an increasingly bellicose and virulent form of Burman-Buddhist ethno-nationalism.
Historians will note that Arakan has always been a nation in its own right and the Rohingya people belong there. Yet for decades now the Rohingyas of Myanmar have been forced to flee to Bangladesh, where they in turn have left for other parts of Asia such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and even as far as Australia. The present government of Bangladesh has regarded this more as a security problem, though the Jamaat-e Islami has tended to present this as a challenge for Muslim states to show support for a Muslim minority.
Would a change of government lead to a change in the stance towards Myanmar and Rohingyas? Analysts I spoke to have suggested that the opposition parties may be inclined to take a more proactive and determined stand to deal with the Rohingyas instead. That, in turn, will surely impact on the outflow of Rohingya refugees elsewhere.
The second issue is the security of the border between Bangladesh and India, which impacts on wider security concerns in South Asia, which is the regional neighbour to Southeast Asia. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government has been criticised by her opponents for being soft and conciliatory with India, but the security of the land border and the safety of the maritime zone between the two countries are of importance to Southeast Asia too: For much of the maritime trade that comes to Southeast Asia invariably passes through the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. Should a more aggressive government come to power in Dhaka, and should relations with India be soured as a result, a host of other related concerns ranging from border security to maritime trade may be affected as well.
It is for these reasons that we cannot regard Bangladesh as a "distant" country to us in Southeast Asia. As the immediate neighbour to Myanmar it is also the immediate neighbour to ASEAN. And for that reason developments there do and will impact on us, and it would be worth our while to know Bangladesh better.