Specter of 2014 Polls Violence Haunts Bangladesh

Jesmin Papri and Pulack Ghatack
181121-BD-clash-1000.jpg Supporters of Bangladesh’s main opposition BNP party clash with police near the party’s offices in Dhaka, Nov. 14, 2018.
Newsroom Photo

Bangladesh is on edge ahead of its next general election in late December, amid fears of a repeat of violence that accompanied nationwide polls five years ago.

That election was the most violent in the country’s history, according to one assessment. In the days since officials announced the next election, now scheduled for Dec. 30, violence has broken out at least twice on the streets of Dhaka.

“I don’t believe it to be a democracy at all; it’s just a fight to occupy state power. Neither the government nor the opposition is interested in democratic practice,” Humayun Mujib, an office secretary at a labor organization in Dhaka, told BenarNews this week.

“They will resort to violence and will do everything to confirm their victory in the so-called election. The common people will be victimized,” he said.

But the opposition’s decision to contest the polls instead of boycott them as it did in 2014 has decreased the potential for violence, according to Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary general of Sujon, a group that advocates good governance.

“Rather, confrontation among rival groups with the ruling party may become worse,” he said.

On Nov. 9, a day after the election was announced, two men were struck and killed by a van as supporters of rival candidates from the ruling Awami League fought in the street.

Days later, police used tear gas and rubber bullets on opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) supporters who threw bricks and burned cars outside BNP headquarters. It was not clear how the incident started; each side blamed the other. At least 43 people were injured.

“We fear for violence whether there is an election or not,” BNP standing committee member Gayeshshor Chandra Roy told BenarNews. “BNP was not responsible for any incident before or after the election. The government is responsible.”

Mahbubul Alam Hanif, Awami’s joint secretary, rejected allegations of the party’s involvement in violence against its rivals.

“No one will be allowed to be involved in violence during the election … the home minister has already said it categorically,” he said, referring to Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal.

As many as 104 million Bangladeshis are eligible to vote on Dec. 30 to choose 300 members of the national parliament.

The balloting will decide if Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, 71, will get a fourth term in office. She first served in that role from 1996-2001 and was elected again in December 2008.

2014: Most violent election

Hundreds of people died during the election period five years ago, when the BNP and its coalition partners stayed out of the election to protest the ruling party’s refusal to cede the reins of government to a caretaker administration during the voting season.

According to the Bangladeshi rights group Ain O Salish Kendra, at least 85 people died and 2,777 others were injured in 24 political clashes in the weeks before the Jan. 5 election, between Nov. 23 and Dec. 31, 2013.

Violence before, during, and after the turbulent election killed at least 400 people, including voters, party activists, election officials and security personnel, according to the U.S. Institute for Peace’s Center for Applied Research on Conflict.

“The January 2014 election was the most violent in the country’s history,” USIP said in a report.

“The opposition political party and its allies boycotted the poll, which they enforced with beatings, murders, and Molotov cocktails hurled at buses – incinerating those inside,” the report said. “The ruling party responded to the unrest through the partisan army and police, which often indiscriminately fired into crowds of protestors.”

The think-tank Asia Foundation gave a higher election death toll – more than 500.

Hasina regained power that year and, as a result of the boycott, 250 seats in Bangladesh’s parliament represent the governing Awami League and its allies.

Parliament also has a friendly 34-member “opposition” bloc, 16 elected seats held by independent MPs, and 50 appointed legislators, who fill a quota reserved for women.

On Nov. 11, the opposition parties announced that they would contest this year’s election, even after the ruling party ignored a slate of demands they had put forth in a series of dialogues.

Opposition leaders slammed the decision to hold the polls during the Christian holiday season, saying it was a ploy to avoid international scrutiny.

Nervous minorities

Among those most concerned about political violence are members of ethnic and religious minorities, who are often targeted during campaigns.

“As the election is nearing, there is a rising concern, anxiety and a sense of insecurity among the religious and ethnic minorities of the country,” Rana Dasgupta, secretary-general of the Hindu, Buddhist and Christian Unity Council told a Nov. 16 news conference at the National Press Club in Dhaka.

“We are very much concerned over the security of the minority groups.”

In 2014, “Attackers vandalized hundreds of homes and shops owned by members of Bangladesh’s Hindu community before and after the elections. Members of Bangladesh’s tiny Christian community were also attacked,” U.S.-based Human Rights Watch reported then.

About 20 percent of Bangladesh’s population of more than 163 million people belongs to a religious or ethnic minority group, mostly Hindus.

The political importance of the Hindu minority “is controversial in an increasingly conservative Islamic-majority country,” the U.S. Institute for Peace report said. “Politically, Hindus gravitate toward the secular Awami League, making them a target for opposition parties.”

In 2001, when a BNP-led alliance won the general election, thousands of Hindus fled Bangladesh following attacks on them that year.

Dasgupta asked the election commission not to certify candidates with a record of whipping up anti-minority sentiment.

“Both the local and general elections that were held in the country after 1990 did not become the matter of celebration, but misery for the minorities,” he said.


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