Bangladesh: Effortless Victory

The re-election of Sheikh Hasina and the AL, however, will ensure that the campaign against Islamist extremism, as well as against the criminal Rohingya gangs and militants in the CHT will continue uninterrupted.

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Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina [ Photo credit: AP via Al Jazeera]

On January 11, 2024, Sheikh Hasina was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh for the fifth term, her fourth consecutively. Hasina has inducted 25 ministers and 11 state ministers in her Cabinet.

Bangladesh went to the polls on January 7, 2024. Of 300 parliamentary seats, the ruling Awami League led by Hasina won 223; the Jatiya Party (Ershad) 11 seats; the Workers’ Party, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) and Bangladesh Kalyan Party, one each; and independent candidates won 62 seats. The election was postponed in one constituency, as required by law, after an independent candidate died. The overall turnout was low, with only 40 per cent of approximately 120 million eligible voters taking part, Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal disclosed, on January 7.

The elections were boycotted by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by former Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, after Hasina rejected calls to resign and let a neutral caretaker government run the election. Another 15 opposition parties also boycotted the election.

The Hasina Government had, earlier, strengthened its political hold over the country as a result of its overwhelming win in the 11th General Elections held in December 2018. The Awami League-led 14-party-alliance had secured a huge majority of 288 seats in the 300-member Jatiyo Shangshad (National Parliament). The Opposition parties contested the 2018 elections as an alliance, but performed abysmally. The 10th General Elections, conducted on January 5, 2014, faced a comprehensive boycott by the Opposition, as well as by some of Hasina’s allies, prominently including General H. M. Ershad’s Jatiya Party (Ershad). 153 of a total of 300 seats in the Jatiyo Shangshad were decided unopposed. Of the unopposed seats, Awami League candidates were declared unopposed winners in 127 seats; followed by the Jatiya Party (Ershad), 20 seats; JSD, three seats; Workers Party, one seat and Jatiya Party-Manju (JP-M), one seat. Of the remaining 147 seats for which elections were held, on January 5, 2014, the Awamil League won 107 and the Jatiya Party (Ershad), 14. Only 11 of the 41 registered parties in Bangladesh participated in the elections. Despite this, according to the Bangladesh Election Commission, the voter turnout was 45 to 46 per cent.

Before the recent elections, the Awami League manifesto was released on December 27, 2023, prioritizing 11 key area for betterment of technological, economic and infrastructural sectors of the country. One of the key areas was prevention of communalism, all forms of terrorism and militancy; and protection of democratic systems. The Awami League government has always emphasized a zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism.

Through 2023, there was not a single case of a fatality related to proscribed Islamist terrorist groups reported in the country, continuing with the trend established in the previous years, 2022 and 2021. 2023 recorded a total of 375 arrests of Islamist terrorists/radicals belonging to various groups, including 237 Jamaat-e-Islami-Islami Chhatra Shibir (JeI-ICS), 50 Jama’atul Ansar fil Hindal Sharqiya (JAFHS), 27 Imam Mahmuder Kafela, 24 Ansar al-Islam, among others.

However, at least 28 incidents of violence were reported in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh in 2023. At least 32 persons (16 civilians and 16 militants) were killed, and another eight civilians and one militant injured, in these incidents.

The Rohingyas have also been involved in a wide variety of other criminal activities, including extortion and drug and gun running. Among the 10 active groups in Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has been active in Ukhiya, Balukhali, Palongkhali (Ukhiya Sub-District) and Whykong (Teknaf Sub-District); the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) and the Master Munna gangs in Ukhiya and Palongkhali; the Islami Mahaj and Jabu Dacoit gang in Whykong; and the Chakma dacoit gang, Nabi Hussain dacoit gang, Putia dacoit gang, Salman Shah dacoit gang, and Khaleq dacoit gang, in the Nayapara camp. ARSA controls most of the camps, and ARSA and the Nabi Hussain dacoit gang often engaged in clashes over dominance, resulting in multiple incidents of murder.

The situation in the Rohingya camps is complicated, with numerous elements contributing to the perceived threat that Rohingyas pose to peace and security in Bangladesh.  On September 7, 2023, the Additional Superintendent of Police (ASP) of Cox’s Bazar District, Rafiqul Islam, disclosed that 7,012 Rohingyas had been accused in a total of 3,105 cases, from August 25, 2017, to September 6, 2023, across 33 Rohingya camps in Ukhiya-Teknaf sub-Districts in Cox’s Bazar District. He further revealed that 2,997 persons were arrested in 2,078 cases under the Drugs Act; 564 persons in 240 cases under the Arms Act; 1,141 people in 188 cases of murder; 94 rape and attempted rape cases under the Women and Child Abuse Act; 114 people in 62 robberies and 535 people in attempted robbery cases; 133 people in 65 cases under the Special Powers Act; 242 in 47 kidnapping cases; 221 in 39 human trafficking cases; 104 Rohingyas in 42 cases filed under the Foreigners Act for infiltration through the border; and 961 Rohingyas accused in 250 cases filed for various other crimes.

The violence in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) has also been another flashpoint. The CHT region, consisting of three hilly and forested southeastern Districts of Bandarban, Rangamati, and Khagracchari, is experiencing increasing ethnic violence even after 26 years of the signing of the CHT Accord of 1997. According to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), in 2023, 21 fatalities were recorded in CHT, indicating a rise from 15 fatalities recorded in 2022, and 10 through 2021. The situation has worsened, with communal violence, kidnapping, political violence, explosions, terrorism, and other security risks. On May 7, 2023, the Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan warned, “No armed criminals and militant groups will be spared in the hills but the government will take initiative if any criminal wants to return to normal life.” He further stated that the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) had been strengthened, with modern equipment to protect the bordering areas of the CHT. “After assuming power, the current government has been working tirelessly to make the BGB a modern and international standard border guard and it has elevated to the three-dimensional force after bringing change in its organisational structure,” he asserted.

Meanwhile, the War Crimes (WC) Trials, which began on March 25, 2010, have continued. So far, a total of 125 leaders, including 50 from the JeI; 27 from the Muslim League (ML); 11 from the Nezam-e-Islami (NeI); five from the BNP; two each from Jatiya Party-Ershad and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP); 27 former Razakars; and one former Al-Badr member, have been indicted. Significantly, out of these, verdicts have been delivered against 104 accused, including 86 who have been sentenced to death, 36 to imprisonment for life and five for 20 years imprisonment. Six of the 86 persons who were awarded the death sentence have been hanged, so far. Of 36 persons who were awarded life sentences, six persons have already died in prison. On November 30, 2023, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), led by Justice Mohammad Shahinur Islam, sentenced seven accused to death for committing a series of crimes against humanity, including murder and rape, in the Bagerhat District of Khulna Division, during the 1971 Liberation War. The convicts were identified as Khan Akram Hossain, Sheikh Mohammad Ukil Uddin, Mohammad Mollah, Khan Arshad Ali, Rustom Ali Molla, Sheikh Idris Ali, and Sheikh Rafiqul Islam Babul. Only Khan Akram Hossain, Sheikh Mohammad Ukil Uddin, and Mohammad Mollah were present in the dock when the verdict was announced, with the rest absconding.

In 2023, three war crime suspects were arrested. On July 10, Mohammad Abdur Rashid alias Baddi, 72, was arrested at Bagaber Bazaar in Rupganj, Narayanganj District. Rashid was suspected to have committed crimes against humanity at different places in the Phulpur sub-District of Mymensingh District. ICT-1 had issued the warrant of arrest against him on January 18, 2022. The accused went into hiding after the issuance of the tribunal’s arrest warrant. Earlier, on February 16, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested two death-row fugitive war criminals from Mohammadpur and Mugda areas of Dhaka. The arrestees, Abdul Wahed Mondal and Jachhizar Rahman alias Khoka, had been absconding since 2016, after coming out of jail on bail, Lieutenant Colonel Arif Mohiuddin Ahmed, Commanding Officer of RAB-3, disclosed.

Though violent incidents related to various Islamist organisations and their operatives have substantially declined in Bangladesh, the festering issue of Rohingya refugees and various criminal activities related with them is undermining security in the country. Moreover, even after 26 years of the CHT Accord, peace is yet to be established in the southeastern region of the country, and the increasing fatalities there are an indicator of the ethnic divide and consequent discord.

The re-election of Sheikh Hasina and the AL, however, will ensure that the campaign against Islamist extremism, as well as against the criminal Rohingya gangs and militants in the CHT will continue uninterrupted. While the combined opposition has threatened to intensify street mobilization against the Government, this is unlikely to alter the political environment – always fractious – in Bangladesh. With an overwhelming majority in Parliament once again – at least in part due to the Opposition’s miscalculation in staying away from the elections – it is unlikely that Sheikh Hasina will confront any extraordinary challenge in continuing with the policies that have been a hallmark of her earlier tenures.

Sanchita Bhattacharya

Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Research Fellow at Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, India

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