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Contributed by Palash Kamruzzaman, Research Fellow
This article first appeared in The Conversation, September 21, 2016
Bangladesh, once dismissed as a “basket case” for development, has made remarkable progress in many aspects of human and economic development in the last couple of decades.
The people of Bangladesh are a key element in this remarkable advancement. They work hard on scarce farming land, risk their lives in ready-made garment factories and other labour-intensive industries, and take on low-skilled jobs abroad to send money home.
But as well as being one of the key drivers for making Bangladesh an emerging success story, the general population is the group that often pay the heaviest price for development.
Death and destruction hit workers at factories in Rana Plaza in 2013 (official death toll: 1,126) and Tazreen Fashion in 2012 (official death toll: 117). The latest addition to this grim list is the explosion at a packaging factory Tampaco Foils in September 2016, where the reported number of dead people was 34, with many others critically injured.
It seems that people die in large numbers in Bangladesh, especially in industrial accidents. Accidents do happen but when such a trend persists it is worth questioning the social structure behind it.
Any of these incidents, in an advanced democracy, would have resulted in a major governmental shake up. Sadly, in Bangladesh, this is not the case. Apart from a bit of rhetoric about investigations, a few messages of sympathy from political leaders, and some compensation packages for victims’ families, no meaningful changes follow.
This clearly highlights a significant lack of democratic accountability – and a poor state of national law and order.
Investigations into these accidents take years. Perpetrators are often never brought to justice and issues are swept under the carpet thanks to political patronage and high level connections between the worlds of business and politics.
Understandably, delays in justice also prompt fears of denial of justice. It remains to be seen how long it will take to investigate what happened at Tampaco Foils and whether anyone will be held accountable. The owners of Tazreen fashion were only formally indicted and ordered to stand trial for negligence after nearly three years (the case is still continuing).
The Bangladesh paradox
Power, money, and political connections can offer a form of indemnity for some. High profile cases in other crimes such as murder in which perpetrators remain at large or are yet to be brought to justice also loom in the public consciousness for their connection to power or wealth. As a consequence, a sense of lawlessness is growing in Bangladesh.
Ordinary people seem to accept that fairness in trials and justice for them are highly unlikely. In fact, the state of disillusionment in the justice system is so high, that some people don’t even want the pretence of justice to play a role in their tragedies. One university professor, the father of a murdered publisher, recently declared: “I don’t want justice”. This is a shocking development for any society in the 21st century.
Bustling Dhaka. Shutterstock
The Bangladesh paradox, in which its visible successes exist so visibly next to its social failures, deserves to be analysed. While the country is definitely making great progresses in some areas, it is also true that there is a democratic deficit, politics is dysfunctional, corruption is rife, and public accountability is low. Nepotism and political allegiance matter more than anyone’s capability and merit.
Tragic accidents in labour-intensive industries do not lead to positive changes because power, money and political connections suppress opinions and oppress the victims. The poor continue to die in their hundreds and thousands, and suffer ill treatment and a lack of job security. This subjects them to further poverty and a precarious future.
The apparent inevitability of major accidents is embedded in an emerging social structure that protects the elites, and pays little attention to the safety and lives of the poor. Social justice does not exist.
And when social justice does not exist, it is sometimes replaced with a cold and hostile environment which can breed even more lawlessness and violence. In light of recent terrorist activities in the country (in which the government has denied any international involvement), one also wonders whether home grown radical terror groups are just the latest destructive force borne out of the current socio-political state of the country.
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Contributed by Dr Palash Kamruzzaman, Research Fellow, University of South Wales
This piece first appeared in The Conversation, 30th November, 2015
An Italian priest has been wounded by gunmen in Bangladesh, the latest in a wave of attacks on foreigners there. Only weeks before, an Italian citizen working with a development organisation was shot in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone – one of the most heavily guarded places in the country. A few days later, a Japanese citizen was murdered in northern Bangladesh in a similar style.
The motives for these murders are not yet clear, but political leaders have rushed to suggest who could be behind these killings without presenting any credible and concrete evidence. Another spin-off of these events is to create an atmosphere of panic, which has been greatly heightened by Islamic State (IS) apparently claiming responsibilityfor these incidents – including the bombing of a Shia procession on 24 October 2015.
Initially, the government of Bangladesh denied it was aware of any such threats, but it soon transpired that some foreign consulates did actually inform the government about credible risk against Western citizens in the country.
Broadly speaking, security is a major issue in Bangladesh, with several murders reported in the national newspapers every day. Many of these murders are taking place because of political rivalries, extortion, and everyday quarrels – and alarmingly, a great many of them never see anyone brought to justice.
In 2012, a journalist couple were murdered in their bedroom, and the murder of an innocent man by the student wing of the ruling party was captured on live television. In 2013, a young student was said to have been murdered by the relatives of influential members of the ruling party.
Then 2014 saw the sensational “seven murder” case. Members of the country’s special elite forces were apparently involved, allegedly taking a bribe from the mastermind of the incident. Some of the violence has been religious, too: in the last two years, a number of secularist bloggers have been killed by Islamist extremists.
And in the meantime, no-one has yet been brought to justice for the 2013 disaster at Rana Plaza in which over 1250 workers died.
Don’t go there
As is all too common in Bangladesh, the investigations into most of these cases are still dragging on after an agonisingly long time. The failure to secure justice for these incidents and thousands more like them creates a sense of lawlessness, where local gangs, muggers, and terrorist groups feel that with strong political patronage and power it is possible to get away with serious crimes, including murder.
This has all hardly flattered Bangladesh’s image, and the consequences have already been humiliating in many ways. In autumn 2015, Cricket Australia (CA) cancelled a scheduled tour in Bangladesh citing credible threats by militant groups against Westerners. The CA raised the security concern and delayed the team’s departure while working on a “revised security plan” with the Bangladesh Cricket Board and top level Bangladeshi security forces.
The uptick in attacks on foreigners only made the situation worse, and the tour was finally cancelled despite Bangladesh offering VVIP security (given to the visiting Presidents of other countries) to each player. The Chief Executive of the CA said that in the end, it was simply not possible to proceed with the tour, because:
The safety of our players and officials is our highest priority. We had hoped the security concerns would fade, but unfortunately the advice we have received from government, our own security experts and independent security advisors has clearly indicated that there are now high risks to our people should they make the trip.
Soon after, the South African Women’s cricket team cancelled their Bangladesh tour too, and a number of foreign textile buyers and research teams have also written off their planned visits. Most of the Western embassies have warned their citizens to be careful.
Paradoxically, this is nothing less than blowback from years of cynical propaganda on the part of Bangladesh’s leaders, who deliberately maintain this culture of impunity and denial. They have also used brazen fearmongering to score political support from the rest of the world.
Let’s not forget that the present government’s mandate is questionable in the eyes of many; at the last election more than half of its MPs were elected unopposed, and only a reported 5% of voters turned out. And yet its senior figures maintain that their government has to remain in power to stop ill-defined “militants” overrunning the country.
The unresolved murders of foreign citizens have simply given them more fodder for this self-serving rhetoric, even though what they most clearly demonstrate is the impotence of Bangladesh’s law enforcement agencies.
And on October 24, amid the heightened tension and ramped-up security, a Shiite procession was bombed, with two people killed and over a hundred injured – even after national newspapers published stories saying the government had in fact predicted just such an event.
There are, of course, a range of groups in Bangladesh espousing violent fundamentalist ideologies, and over the years, scores of people have been arrested for militant activities – including suspected members of IS and al-Qaeda. But the state has never been able to prove that a genuine offshoot of IS or al-Qaeda is actually operating in Bangladesh.
Nonetheless, the government’s fearmongering seems to be serving it well, and its complacency has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This sense of lawlessness, coupled with a tense political environment in which governing and dissenting parties both resort to violence, means that Bangladesh is becoming a highly conducive environment for radical terrorism.
Superficially reinforced security and policing is all very well, but if the law and order situation does not improve and exploitation of a culture of fear continues, Bangladesh might become a story of the boy who cried wolf.