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    South Asia
     Jan 30, '14

EU lets down Bangladeshi opposition
By Mir Rashedul Hasan

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Election-time tensions are routine in Bangladesh. But confrontations throughout 2013 and following the January 5 national vote have forced the country into soul-searching over issues of identity and sovereignty.

All major countries and organizations including the United States, the European Union and the United Nations did not endorse the

election, which was subject to a mass opposition boycott.

Bangladesh public opinion is decisively clear on this discourse; they sided with opposition demands of having an election under a neutral caretaker administration. But that doesn't feature on the regime's agenda.

Rampant corruption, brutality and abuse of power by the ruling regime have evoked resentment across a silent majority after the ruling Awami League with advice from its staunch backer India pushed a polarization along sensitive secular, religion and sovereignty issues. That polarization tactic utterly backfired and and the Awami League lost all city government elections as a result.

It was obvious that the Awami League regime is afraid of losing power if free and fair elections were held. Instead of a course correction from its repressive and deceptive actions, the party doubled up in repressive practices. A steady stream of visitors and assurance from Indian policy makers further emboldened the regime to overrule any popular demand for democracy.

As a result all democratic rights of the opposition and people in general are completely shut down. Deadly force is being applied against any and all opposition voices; be that against media, teachers, lawyers, civil society members or political opposition.

The US and the EU have tried to mediate current political crisis using typical Western democratic principals. But sadly that undertaking grossly failed to consider the reality and political context in Bangladesh - where not democracy but autocracy rules the day.

The broader Bangladeshi population is tuned to external reactions to their demands for democracy. The EU as major export destination for Bangladeshi goods and Bangladeshis beyond the urban and educated class are eager to understand is the EU is standing by them in the time of need. However, the EU produced a resolution on January 16 that actually evoked many questions than answers.

The EU (along with other Western partners) had been labeling forceful opposition-led protest as "violent" and painted the partner of main opposition party as "extremist". But in its resolution the EU failed to identify root causes of "violence" - destruction of democratic institutions and rights, wholesale repression and brutality by the Awami League regime.

If one looks into statistics and news reports about shootings of opposition activists and abductions and killings by regime forces, it would be clear the regime is the principal perpetrator of violence.

The essence of the EU view is that that:

1. The EU criticized regime for human-rights violations but grudgingly accepted autocratic rule by the Awami League.
2. The EU blames the opposition for the violence.
3. The EU labeled Jamaat-E-Islami and Hefazat as "extremists".
4. The EU asked main opposition party the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to distance itself from alliance partner Jamaat-E-Islami and non-political entity Hefazat.
5. The EU asked Bangladesh opposition to sit down with regime. [1]

First of all labeling Hefazat for violence is factually wrong. Second, putting Hefazat in same bracket with Jamaat-E-Islami Bangladesh, a political party, is another gross mistake on the EU's part.

Hefazat is not a political party and did not participate in any political protests. It is a socio-religious movement that came out to demand protection for the sanctity of Islamic faith.

Asking the main opposition to stay away from Jammat-E-Islami and Hefazat also raises critical questions, such as, does the EU have a grasp of core issues in Bangladesh?

The core issue in Bangladesh today is people's democratic right to elect their government in free and fair manner. The EU has a long tradition of supporting such legitimate democratic rights. Why then should the main opposition in Bangladesh terminate its alliance with any party or group pressing the same demands for democratic rights?

The EU has also asked the Bangladesh opposition to sit down with regime and find a resolution to current crisis. Similar opposition and international efforts - including UN initiatives - failed because the regime is unwilling to hold free and fair election and is emboldened by Indian backing.

Markedly different EU reaction
There is one other reason the Bangladeshi masses should question some of the EU resolution calls. Let's consider ongoing protests that turned "violent" in face of repressive actions by the Ukrainian regime. The chronology and pattern of forceful protest by Ukrainian opposition are very much same as Bangladesh.

The only difference in these two anti- regime protests is that Ukraine's opposition is an association with the EU. The EU did not label the Ukrainian opposition as "extremist" nor as it to break ties with political allies. [4] Why this markedly different EU reaction on Bangladesh opposition then?

EU resolution finds synergy
Indian foreign minister Salman Khurshid already stated that India had asked the US (perhaps the EU as well) to follow the Indian lead on Bangladesh because India as a neighbor knows better. And to recap, in substance the Indian lead is keep ruling Awami League in power even without a mandate, otherwise, Bangladesh will be ruled by extremist. [2][3]

India (and the ruling Awami League) had calculated that a crackdown would secure tacit support from EU and Western capitals against "extremists". Indian propaganda in fact has overshadowed the fact that extremism had never been prevalent in Bangladesh nor does it have any support within opposition.

By joining the Indian chorus placing the "extremist" label on Bangladesh's opposition, isn't the EU pushing to weaken popular demand of democracy in Bangladesh?

Was the EU misled?
How can a victim of regime brutality became "extremist" and a perpetrator of "violence"? And how can socio-religious movement Hefazat put in same bracket as political parties?

Thousands of miles away EU Parliament members deliberated their observation and calls but who were their sources of information? People invited to speak at the EU were highly biased. It is customary that accused given a chance to present their case. Was Jamaat-E-Islami or Hefazat given chance to present their position before being labeled "extremist" ? No.

Instead, the elite secular class in Bangladesh who often seen parleying with EU ambassadors, were allowed to induct their fabricated version into the EU resolution. Perhaps, the EU needs to do some real soul searching on who are victims and who are the "extremists". [5]

The EU has a clear motivate to maintain a stable environment in Bangladesh - a ready-made garments trade that benefits EU consumers. But how prepared is the EU to engage with the Bangladeshi people beyond its urban elite and secular class?

1. European Parliament resolution of 16 January 2014 on recent elections in Bangladesh
2. India's understanding of Bangladesh will help US, The Hindu, December 30, 2013
3. Prime Minister's comment on Bangladesh raises eyebrows, The Hindu, July 1, 2011
4. Firebombs hurled as Ukrainian protests take violent turn, World News, Jan 25, 2014
5. Bangladesh: End Spate of Extrajudicial Killings - Opposition Members Killed in Post-Election Crackdown, Human Rights Watch, January 27, 2014

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Mir Rashedul Hasan is a Bangladeshi -American and an IT professional from Seattle, United States.

(Copyright 2014 Mir Rashedul Hasan)

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(Jan 21, '14)



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