Bangladesh: Baptism By Fire

Bangladesh is fast becoming a nation in crisis, perennially at war with itself. Opposition thugs have adopted guerrilla tactics designed to bring a nation to its knees, while the state has often been baited to respond with deadly force against its own citizens.
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The image is still seared in my mind. A brutalized and dazed young man, barely able to sit down on the mud-caked road; his devastated father helplessly squatting next to him. His clothes had either been burned off or removed, and his entire body was blanketed with fresh first degree burns. His name was Monir and he was 14-years-old. Over the next few days his father would watch him slowly succumb to his injuries. Monir became one of dozens of Bangladeshis burned to death by rampaging mobs, and likely will be joined by several more. What were their crimes? They had the audacity to go to work during a harthal.

Almost exactly a year ago on the 42nd anniversary of Bangladesh's Day of the Martyred Intellectuals, I wrote of the painful legacies of Bangladesh's War of Independence. I tried to intimate the hope of long-overdue transitional justice to a long-traumatized people hungry for justice and reconciliation, and the hope of national catharsis through an exorcizing of historical demons. Yet I also wrote of dreams of peace, prosperity, and progress for a nation yearning to take its rightful place as both an emerging "Next Eleven" market economy and a flawed yet vibrant multiparty secular democracy in the Muslim world.

Fast forward a year, and Bangladesh is fast becoming a nation in crisis, perennially at war with itself. Opposition thugs have adopted guerrilla tactics designed to bring a nation to its knees, while the state has often been baited to respond with deadly force against its own citizens. Bangladesh is now entering one of the darkest chapters in its young history as an independent country, and even younger history as a democracy. How has a once-vibrant and fiercely-optimistic nation fallen so far in just a year?

The Thirst for Transitional Justice

Like many of Bangladesh's socio-political problems, we should start by looking to the ghosts of 1971. Even in a land which routinely suffers cyclones, tornadoes, and famines of Biblical proportions, the 1971 Genocide was perhaps the single-most traumatic event in the history of Bengal. The Liberation War featured some of the most widespread and systematic mass killings, rapes, and torture since World War Two, there have been repeated calls for justice by survivors of the genocide. The International Crimes Tribunal was established in 2009 and began prosecuting suspect collaborators with the occupying Pakistani Army, almost all of whom are from the fundamentalist Jamaat e Islami party.

Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal: Political Witch-Hunt?

A common criticism of the ICT is that it is a tool of the government to attack "opposition figures." This largely comes down to an issue of framing and causation versus correlation, and requires contextualizing Bangladesh's complex and tumultuous political history. The Pakistani architects of the 1971 genocide have either passed away or are enjoying comfortable retirements without any fear of prosecution or extradition by Pakistan. As they continue their steady march to the dustbins of history, they are essentially unreachable from any jurisdiction-Pakistani or Bangladeshi. Therefore, the only available defendants for West Pakistani atrocities in 1971 have been surviving Bengali collaborators in Bangladesh.

These collaborators are largely members of Jamaat e Islami, a largely unpopular fundamentalist party whose reputation has long been tarnished from its members' participation in a range of brutal collaborationist militias during the independence struggle.

Jamaat e Islami would later opt to the right-wing BNP coalition rather than the nominally secular and leftist Awami League. The fact that most of the defendants are members of a party which happen to currently be in the opposition coalition is a product of Bangladesh's tumultuous political history and hyper-cynical, Machiavellian political atmosphere. In that context, it is overly simplistic to simply reduce the ICT as an instrument for the Awami League to cripple its BNP rivals rather than as an institution borne out of decades of vocal activism by traumatized and outraged Bangladeshis from all walks of life.

No Peace Without (Real) Justice

That is not to say, however, that the ICT does not have serious procedural and jurisdictional flaws as well as fundamental shortcomings in the pursuit of holistic truth-telling and achieving genuine national reconciliation. When the ICT was established as a fully domestic institution with no international jurisdiction, State Minister for Law Qamrul Islam boldly claimed:

The international criminal trial process will be more neutral and transparent than that of other war crimes trials so far held elsewhere in the world. It will be exemplary for the world community... working with full independence and complete neutrality'.

Yet the ICT has been widely accused of a wide variety of evidentiary and procedural irregularities falling far below international standards. Newspapers, radio broadcasts, and other forms of mass media have reportedly been admitted as evidence. Defense counsel have been separated from their clients during interviews. All judges are government appointed and proceedings can continue in their absence, raising serious questions about both their impartiality and competence. There have also been significant accusations of government interference. The Awami League has campaigned on a promise to bring war criminals to justice, and certainly stands to gain political capital by concluding as much of the trial as possible before the upcoming 2014 General Elections in January.

An Exercise of Victors' Justice?

On June 1971, the late Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas courageously revealed before the world the full extent of Pakistani atrocities in Bangladesh. While even today Mascarenhas is revered as a hero in Bangladesh, what is often conveniently ignored is that his groundbreaking expose also unearthed atrocious conduct by resistance fighters as well. He graphically chronicles the atrocities committed by rebellious Bengali troops during the March 25 mutiny:

"Women were raped, or had their breasts torn out with specially fashioned knives. Children...were killed with their parents; but many thousands of others must go through what life remains for them with eyes gouged out and limbs roughly amputated. More than 20,000 bodies of non-Bengalis have been found... The real toll, I was told everywhere in East Bengal, may have been as high as 100,000; for thousands of non-Bengalis have vanished without a trace."

Throughout the brutal war, non-Bengali communities were widely reviled as categorically sympathetic to West Pakistan. In the months after Pakistan's surrender and Bangladesh's independence, this thirst for vengeance would culminate in widespread reprisal attacks against suspected collaborators as well as the general non-Bengali population.

Yet while many collaborationist foot soldiers were jailed immediately after independence and their senior leaders are currently being tried, resistance fighters have retained immunity for all actions committed during or anytime after the war. As the long-marginalized non-Bengali "Bihari" population begin to finally receive citizenship, should they not also receive their fair share of justice as well? Are they also not sons and daughters of Bangladesh?

It is not only non-Bengali citizens who suffered at the hands of "revolutionary impunity", but countless Bengalis as well. Unlike other revolutionary greats such as George Washington and Nelson Mandela who set a powerful example by limiting themselves to one term as leaders of their newly independent nations, Bangladesh's "Founding Father" promptly banned all political opposition and proclaimed himself "President for Life." His Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini death squads were responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, while an additional 1.5 million people are believed to have perished in the 1975 famine due to criminal mismanagement.

It is well-understood that perfect justice is never possible. Yet should we not do everything possible to ensure that the ICT's proceedings fully meet international standards? Likewise, if the underlying purpose of these proceedings is to deliver genuine justice, enhance truth-telling, and foster true national reconciliation, should we not investigate and prosecute all crimes? Rather than shying away from inconvenient truths and the painful legacies of our shortcomings, should we not strive to create an accurate and complete historical record and deliver justice to all victims? Anything less will ultimately dishonor the noble principles which launched the independence struggle in the first place.

Shahbag: A Nation Rises...

On Feburary 5, defendant Abdul Quader "The Butcher of Mirpur" Mollah was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, after which he reportedly flashed victory signs. Almost immediately, a huge segment of the Bangladeshi populace erupted into popular protest and launched the "Shabagh Movement" to demand the harshest penalty available in the nation's criminal code be imposed for Mollah and others convicted of the worst crimes.

There were several remarkably unique features of the Shahbag movement. For one, while the movement was largely youth-driven, it consisted of a broad cross-section of Bangladeshi society. Muslim and non-Muslim, religious and secular, old and young, and citizens of all political affiliations united to show their support for the ICT and the victims pursuit of justice. The movement also categorically rejected any acts of violence, favoring sit-ins and artistic displays to violent street actions. In a political culture which has long encouraged "zero-sum game" political gangsterism, the fact that Shahbag participants did not vandalize any vehicles, loop any shops, or harm a single people was nothing short of a miracle. Even when Jamaat e Islami thugs reacted by attacking Shahbag protesters, the police, and reprisal attacks against Hindus, in true Gandhian form the Shahbag supporters remained committed to the tenets of non-violence.

Unfulfilled Potential

Yet perhaps what was most remarkable was a broad theme of rejecting the political system :

"We don't need the politicians here," said student Sayed Badrul Islam. "They let this cause down.Politicians have been busy slinging mud against each other and spent decades without pushing the war crimes issue. So now the young generation has wrested the leadership to bring it into focus and push it harder."

Shahbag was directly compared to the Arab Spring and called Bangladesh's Tahrir Square, and it was widely hoped that outrage over the government's handling of the war crime trials would ultimately translate into a broader movement designed to force the country's political elite to address the myriad of issues affecting the lives of ordinary Bangladeshis.

Perhaps in the comparison to Egypt was inadvertently apt. The ICT judges eventually acquiesced to popular sentiments by not only imposing the death penalty on subsequent defendants, but re-sentencing Mollah to death as well. Yet after this "victory", the movement...simply disappeared. Death sentence for Mollah? Mission Accomplished. There has been no similar agitation against rising crime levels, the use of deadly formalin in foodstuffs, or the denial of basic workers' rights. The nation's youth united in outrage against historical wrongs and mass atrocities committed before their birth, yet where is this same righteous indignation against the ongoing endemic (and in many cases, deadly) corruption which has plagued the nation since its independence and has robbed it of the opportunity to reach its full potential? What happened to the passions of Bangladeshis around the world whose innovative support helped sustain this movement? After months of sustained protests in which the fervent passions of hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- were mobilized, is it really acceptable that the only achievement will be the hangman's noose rather than lifetime incarceration for a few disgraced old men?

No Progress Without Peace, and no Peace Without Progress

After Bangladesh's vibrant civil society united to overthrow of the last of a series of post-independence despots and dictators, it was hoped that Bangladesh would be a model of secular multiparty democracy in the Muslim world. Indeed the successive elections of women Prime Ministers was heralded as a powerful (though certainly not unprecedented) victory for the empowerment of women. Yet Bangladesh is now trapped between two political dynasties who lord over a political system so dysfunctional that, in the words of Bangladeshi author Tahmima Anam, "a dictator can be overthrown, disgraced and imprisoned, and still make a comeback."

Yet even in the depths of so much misery and despair, there is still hope-indeed among the political elite. Just this October Bangladesh successfully passed a landmark anti-torture bill, largely thanks to the efforts of MP Saber Hossain Chowdhury (no relation). During the a period when the currently ruling party was in disfavor, Chowdhury was arrested and endured physical and mental torture. Upon his eventual release, he articulated his motivations:

In my situation, I had two choices -- go for double revenge when the political tables are turned, or try and change the system so that no one else will have to go through what I did. So immediately after being released in late 2002, I started to explore and look into possible legislation that would ensure protection against torture and custodial deaths.

Imagine if Bangladeshi society at large could embrace this magnanimity and indomitable spirit. Imagine if a reawakened Shahbag movement composed of members of all political parties and political persuasions were to demand that the ICT try all suspected war criminals. Imagine if they were to also demand all political parties to categorically renounce the use of violence in enforcing harthals, and that the movement was ready to instantly mobilize whenever the parties reneged on this promise and utilized political violence, and could rely on the active support of Bangladeshis around the world.

Even as Bangladeshi's non-Bengali population finally begins to gain rights as equal citizens, the nation's categorical lionization of its resistance fighters as saints who could do no wrong is a deeply ingrained reaction to the complete lack of accountability on behalf of Pakistan. Yet if the nation were to take as passionate of a stand against incomplete justice as it did against collaborationist war criminals, we could have real transitional justice and genuine national reconciliation.

Likewise, Bangladesh's "winner-takes-all" political culture is of course deeply ingrained and is as much a tool of Machiavellian politicians as it is a natural product of social conditions and realities. Corruption is an overarching and complex problem which will take an equally comprehensive solution for its complete eradication, while good governance is a time-intensive and continually evolving process.

By taking a concerted stance against the nation's penchant for self-destructive political violence, we could create a nation which would be a significantly better place for its ordinary citizens to live and work in-and I believe more people like 14 year old Monir would be alive today, and will be saved in the future.

That is as worthy of a goal as any.

In loving memory of my uncle Khaliq, who was one of the most remarkable man I have ever known. He taught me to love and embrace America as my own while cherishing my Bangladeshi heritage. He taught me to demonstrate my passion for social justice by self-reflection as well as constructive critical thinking. He dedicated his life to serving others and inspired me to study law in order to do the same. Allah Yarhamak

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