Sunday, June 28, 2009

Push Against Naxalites Continue

West Bengal police and Central Reserve Police Force paramilitaries, including some special force paramilitaries, are continuing their push against the Maoists (Naxalites). According to IBN, the Maoists are active in 21 police stations (thanas) in three districts, West Midnapore, Bankura, and Puruliya (see map).
According to the Telegraph, the Government began moving on Lalgarh last week traversing the Jhitka jungles from Binpur. From Saturday, 27 June, Government forces departed Goaltore and moved on Ramgarh, according to IBN. Allegedly, the Naxalites retreated 5 km. to Kanthapahari village.

This village is part of the plan for the final assault, according to the Telegraph (article 1 and article 2). The plan is for the government to move into the area of Khasjangal (about 8km from Lalgarh and 1.5 km from Ramgarh) and 'trap the Maoists so they can't escape to Bankura using the forest cover.'
(The image above is a notional example of the events preceding and a conceptulization of the final assault. Note the heavily wooded area between Ramgarh and Lalgarh.)
A Central Reserve Police Force officer noted the importance of the topography (probably the forested area) saying that the Naxalites are 'capable of inflicting heavy casualties before beating a tactical retreat.' In order to get a better idea of the terrain the Government has been seeking the aid of Ramgarh residents in drawing up maps of some of the villages in the area, Bankishole, Hathigonsa, Kanthapahari, Chhotopelia, and Barapelia.

Sadly, a resident of another village in the area noted that the Naxalites were preparing to use villagers as human shields.
As the CRPF officer noted the Naxalites 'have a strong base among the tribals and we are also sure to encounter human shieds.' One hopes that the Government will not hold the tribals loyalties against them when they push out the Naxalities.
It has been noted from a variety of sources that the Naxalites were able to gain a foothold and the confidence of the local residents because of the inability of the government (central, provincial or local) to provide the necessary benefits - education, healthcare, economic.
The use of human shields is very troubling. If the CRPF and other government personnel lose sight of the fact that they are there to help the local residents then they will only be breeding more resentment.
The articles mention that the troops will be taking along mortars, these are dangerous indirect fire weapons that discriminate even less than a bullet. They should be used sparingly, if at all, and only when absolutely necessary. The government cannot allow innocent locals who are being used as shields against their will to perish during their "liberation."
If the government is truly attempting to beat the threat that PM Singh has labelled the gravest threat to India's stability then they must minimize local casualties and finally make good on the promise of development and good governance.
Only then will the Naxalties be truly beaten.

The Joint Working Group

Government representatives of the United Kingdom and Bangladesh met and inaugurated the Joint Working Group to combat terrorism, as reported by the New Nation and the Daily Star.

Dhaka is seeking the UK’s assistance in capacity building, training, equipment procurement, and border management. During the meeting the UK agreed, in principle, to assist in developing Dhaka’s capability in combating terrorism through law enforcement training, intelligence sharing, and obtaining equipment. However, specific items were not concluded and the next meeting of the Joint Working Group could take place “in [the] next six months.”

Dhaka also suggested the formation of a “joint cell” as part of the border management framework. In addition Dhaka is also seeking assistance in building the capacity of the Coast Guard in order to protect the country’s “marine resources and maritime boundary.”

The Home Secretary said Bangladesh looked forward to “form such [a] group with U.S., Australia, and Russia.” Rather cryptically, foreign ministry officials indicated that the U.S. and UK have proposed Bangladesh and other countries in this region to form a Joint Working Group to combat terrorism.

Additionally, the UK Minister for Security and Counter-terrorism indicated that London is very concerned about the “radicalization of young vulnerable people in countries like Bangladesh,” according to the Daily Star. The Minister stated that ‘there is no doubt illiterate people are most vulnerable to committing terrorism activities.’

The progress of the Joint Working Group is good news, particularly for Bangladesh. Intelligence sharing and training will be beneficial for combating terrorism and border management. Cooperation on the latter will expand the visibility, and control, of the Bangladeshi government in the border areas. Coupled with better equipment, Bangladeshi security and police forces will one day be able to enforce the country’s laws in the areas that are too remote to be policed effectively, such as the Sundarbans and the Hill Tracts.

There is no doubt that these areas continue to spawn violent groups, Islamist or otherwise, due to the lack of effective state control in these areas. The British and Bangladeshis should expand the partnership to include the Australians and the Americans, in order to utilize even more resources in combating terrorism (in the short term) and effective border management (for the long term). The West has obvious interest in promoting Dhaka’s control over its border areas, as effective control will limit the presence of violent groups and their ability to move freely across the India-Bangladeshi border.

India should also be engaged in this dialogue. Any discussion on border management must include the input of the bordering country. Moreover, if the Joint Working Group is also going to discuss the Rohingya issue – Burma must be included at some point. Though the legitimacy (and brutality) of the junta government is clearly an impediment.

The Minister’s assertion that poverty could make one susceptible to messages of Islamism is only part of the problem. As the recent arrest of the JMB’s “IT chief” illustrates even well-educated students can be recruited by violent Islamist organizations. The assertion that poor education, inadequate healthcare and lack of economic opportunity are shared by many militant Islamists is not exactly novel. Targeted development aid to mitigate these realities, coupled with a drive by the Bangladeshi government against corruption will help to prevent seemingly easy recruitment from the rural areas.

However, more work must be done in figuring out why the message of Islamism, and specifically violent Islamism, is being well-received by both the disadvantaged and the advantaged.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Maoist on the wane, development, governance to rise?

The first line of Calcutta’s Telegraph says it all “Bullets cannot isolate Maoists, bowls of rice can.”

As reported, West Midnapore administrators are developing a short-term relief and rehabilitation program for the area. Besides distributing rice aid, the administrators will have to revive the local panchayats and involve them in the relief program.

The article also notes additional challenges in income generation and the re-enumeration of individuals below the poverty line. Though government records show 30,000 people (of 150,000) below the poverty line, an official said this was ‘a gross underestimation.’

In order to promote the development of the region, the block government is attempting to procure sewing machines for the adhivasi community and axes for the Lodha woodcutter community. Finally, Telegraph noted that only 3 primary health centers and a number of primary schools exist.

The Telegraph is on point with this article and another, “Rise and rot of a rebel ‘state."

Communities will naturally be more responsive to the group that is perceived to be providing direct, meaningful benefits to the area, whether it is the government or not. Now that the government has begun to push out the Naxalites, it must ensure that development continues to occur in the area. However it would be a mistake to focus all attention on Lalgarh, other communities in West Bengal’s rural areas should also enjoy rural development programs.

Aside from social and economic development, good governance is also necessary in these areas. Reviving the panchayats will go a long way, particularly since they will be involved and co-opted into the relief programs. However, corruption will remain a factor.

In northern West Bengal, in Malda district, the Telegraph also reported that an adhivasi community is demanding the removal of the inspector-in-charge of Habibur police station alleging that police were bribed not to investigate, nor charge anyone in the gang raping of a 12-year old. Her father lodged a First Information Report after his daughter named her attackers.

If corruption can be reined in, development could have a chance of actually impacting the local community. If it is not, then not only will the money be wasted, but the development will not occur (or it will occur in a lopsided way).

Such an outcome will enable another violent group to entrench itself in the rural areas – where good governance and prosperity, simply haven’t arrived.

Monday, June 22, 2009

RAB arrests JMB IT Chief, Explosives Expert

The recent wave of arrests continues as RAB forces detained 4 more JMB cadres, as reported by the Daily Star and the New Nation.

RAB picked up the suspected "IT chief" from Dhaka's Pallabi area. As the RAB Director of Operations stated, the arrest will "help us to understand that many highly educated people and brilliant students are involved with the banned outfit." The detainee graduated from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and was a research associate at the university's Water Resource Engineering Department.

Giving some credibility to earlier reports, the detainee noted that he would he would send bomb-making information through Bashar, the son of current JMB chief Saidur Rahman. In addition, he maintained a website(s) for JMB and had been to India for "training" (it wasn't specified what sort of training, militant or academic). Allegedly, he got involved with JMB through a former Dhaka University student, who now teaches in Gazipur.

Another raid in the Mukagachha (Mymensingh) resulted in the detaining of a part-time member, and the wife, allegedly a member of the suicide squad, of another full-time member (the husband was detained earlier and gave his wife's name in a confession).

Finally, another sweep in Dhaka's Mirpur area resulted in the arrest of the JMB explosives expert "Boma Mizan" (who RAB has been seeking for a while now) and his wife, though her links to the JMB aren't clear.

These recent arrests seem to show that RAB and local law enforcers are well aware of JMB's activities and evolution. As earlier articles noted, many of the alleged detainees are linked to other members through marriage or blood. If this trends continues it would seem that offspring are being indoctrinated by parents (to some extent) and that spouses could share some political views (an amateur sociological opinion). Or, some of these detainees are being pressed into JMB service against their will, or otherwise deceived into joining.

The fact that the "IT chief" is a highly educated individual presents an interesting challenge to the prevailing notion that most Islamist militants, at least in South Asia, are poorly educated and poor. That militant extremism cuts across class boundaries isn't earth shattering, but these sorts of arrests should cause policymakers and analysts to step back and ask, why? His motivation should be explored - is there a perception of the Bangladeshi government that is shared by these individuals? Do these individual share common grievances? Or is there simply a shared education that leads the students to the conclusion that murder and destruction are an acceptable means to an end?

The other interesting point is the training link to India. RAB and its intelligence wing will probably be exploring this point in detail. If the "training" turns out to be unsavory, Bangladesh should provide this information to India before making it public so as to allow India time to clamp down on the training camp (if its still there).

The arrest of the JMB's "IT chief" and bomb expert are key victories, a testament to RAB's effectiveness in curtailing the group's activities. Hopefully RAB and the local law enforcement personnel will be as effective in dismantling future extremist groups, before they set off a country-wide bomb attack.

If Bangladesh is serious about improving ties with India a good place to start would be to explore the ULFA connection in depth (in regards to the 2004 Chittagong arms case) or any other transnational extremist groups reportedly operating in Bangladesh.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Weekend Cadre Tells All!

A part-time member (gayeri ehsar) of JMB told the Daily Star that the group had briefly joined the Kansat movement in April 2006 because the group felt betrayed that the ruling BNP-Jamaat coalition at the time reneged on a pledge “to protect the organization and annihilate the Sarbaharas.” According to the Daily Star, the Kansat movement began in January 2006 after locals brought allegations of irregularities against Rural Electricity Board officials. During the movement, 500 JMB full-time and part-time cadres destroyed government property and torched government vehicles.

More importantly, the JMB is using different cross-border routes in Chapainawabganj (Rajshahi) and Jessore (Khulna) to smuggle in bomb-making materials and small arms from India and to traffic them to different “offices” located in cadres’ homes. In addition, the member also revealed that Majlish-e-Shura members are attempting to reconstitute the organization in Dhaka and other divisional towns.

He listed a few of the Shura members noting that they hail from Gaibandha, Pabna, and C’nawabganj. Though recruitment has been stalled, the JMB is focusing on recruiting family members (both blood and through marriage). Finally, the group is planning attacks “in several important districts” to embarrass the government.

This revelation has a number of important points – firstly is the confirmation that at least some elements of the BNP were aware of the JMB’s existence and actively collaborated with them. More disturbingly, these elements may have been involved in the countrywide bomb blasts of 2005, since the physical manifestation of the falling out evidently occurred in the Kansar movement in April 2006.

Secondly, though the information regarding the arms trafficking routes is probably known to the security and law enforcement forces, it gives the public and international community a much clearer picture of JMB’s current activities. The JMB is regrouping, setting up trafficking routes, and safe havens in the border areas. Moreover, the fact that the Majlish-e-Shura members are also from these districts indicates that militant Islamist tendencies are both well-developed and tolerated in these areas.

One of the Shura members “Bhaigna” Shahid is reviving operations in Bogra, the same district that Bangla Bhai was from. It would be worthwhile to know which sub-districts Shahid is conducting operations.

These revelations will certainly assist the local police and RAB forces in tracking down and apprehending the JMB groups. From the reports over the last couple of days it seems that the authorities are dealing with the JMB effectively. The law enforcers should continue to explore the trafficking routes from India and actively engage Indian local police and Border Security Forces in order to shut down these routes. This is a great opportunity to build confidence between the two governments’ security and law enforcement organizations while also dealing with a mutual threat.

However, apprehending JMB cadres and dismantling trafficking routes does not address some deeper issues. All levels of Bangladeshi government, but the local level in particular, must learn the reasons that the JMB has continually been able to reassert itself in certain districts of Rajshahi division. If these reasons are due to the local population’s grievances or advocacy by certain mullahs, local government can take proactive steps in addressing these issues. If the government doesn’t explore the deeper causes of militant Islamism and only deals with its current manifestation, the authorities will simple drive militant organizations further underground.

The danger is that the next time the JMB resurfaces it may be too late.

JMB, HUJI, oh my!

Rapid Action Battalion sources told the New Nation that the JMB and HUJI have started regrouping in the city (presumably, Dhaka) and in remote villages across the country. Unfortunately the article did not reveal any specific places, districts, or sub-districts.

Like earlier Daily Star articles, New Nation reported that the groups are targeting women and “youths” for recruitment. Moreover, the article reported that JMB members are also being trained in the manufacturing of arms and ammunition from insecticide sprayers.

The RAB source stated that security has been increased for members of the Supreme Court and other judicial officials, after reported threats by militants seeking to establish ‘divine laws’ in place of ‘man made ones.’

Security officials also reportedly told the New Nation that there over 33 “extremist right wing or militant organizations.” Other analysts/watchdogs reported that several of the organizations had renamed themselves at different times, and that some were not related to militancy.

The increased protection for the SC and judiciary officials should sound familiar. In the past, JMB and other militant Islamist organizations have targeted representatives of constitutional law in Bangladesh, judges, lawyers, and courts. It would seem that RAB has credible information that the groups are going to revert back to their old tactics.

A reversion to these tactics simply highlights the fact that democratic and constitutional law is under threat in Bangladesh.

Of particular interest is the note that not all groups were related to militancy but are “extremist and right wing.” Whether this represents the political parties, like JIB or IOJ, or other non-governmental organizations is an interesting question. The statement makes one think of the possible links between these non-violent groups and the militant organizations.

Agitating for a different system, or revised system, of government is democratic. But advocating the dissolution of the state is revolutionary, perhaps even treasonous. A good course of action would be to understand the root allegations of the “non-violent extremist right” and decide whether they are valid or not.

However, these groups are still a threat to democracy since they are advocating for its removal. Oversight and regulation of their activities is necessary, but open dialogue should be conducted on their grievances – corruption, graft, or religious rights.

The Hydra's Many Heads

Rajshahi Metropolitan Police arrested 18 persons on suspicion of links to JMB, according to the Daily Star on June 20. Three were later released. The detainees ranged in age from 44 to an 18-month old and included teenagers and pre-teens. All were arrested in the Tikapara area of the RCC.

A RMP official told the Daily Star that the 15 detainees were initially arrested for involvement in a new outfit ‘Ahle Sunnah al Jamaat.’ Detainee interrogation, however, revealed a new network “Kalema-e Jamaat” that allegedly has 600 adherents across the country. It’s probable that these adherents are unrepentant JMB cadres that have been in hiding since 2005 and are now regrouping under a new name to avoid detection.

A new network isn’t terribly concerning, as long as law enforcement services remain alert and proactive by tracking down financiers, suppliers, and sympathizers. The possibility of “600 adherents” spread “across the country” is good news. This would suggest that there is a traveling savant or two spreading the message, with diligence on the parts of the security and law enforcement forces they could be apprehended. More importantly this is a far cry from three years ago when the JMB claimed to have thousands of trained fighters.

Bangladesh should provide any worthwhile details to the Indian government as the arrests over the last few days have all occurred very close to the West Bengal-Bangladesh border. Having a keen set of eyes on both sides of the border will assist in detaining militants and would also go a long way in keeping the Kalema-e Jamaat/Ahle Sunnah al Jamaat/Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) on the run.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

JMB Regrouping in Western Borderlands

JMB continues to rear its head in Rajshahi division. According to the Daily Star, police arrested four cadres in the last few days and learned of the JMB’s regrouping in four sub-districts of Chapainawabganj – far to the west on the border with India (see graphic). According to the police, the four fled following the crack down after the August 17, 2005 country-wide bombings.

The detainees had been busy: they’ve attempted to recruit women and “youths” and they’ve also turned to making their own weapons and ammunition. Perhaps most importantly, the detainees revealed that Shahadat and Selim, based in Gomostapur subdistrict, are attempting to revive the JMB. The four detainees were apprehended in: Shibganj and Bholahat sub-districts. Aside from these two areas, police named Gomostapur and C’nawabganj Town sub-districts as part of the regrouping campaign.

The article is a positive sign for a couple of reasons – firstly, it’s the local police who have been making the arrests of late, not RAB. This may indicate that the local police are getting more cooperation from the locals, the local police are getting more professional, and/or the JMB is simply unable to bribe the local police or is no longer a welcome guest.

Secondly, the issue of homemade weapons and ammunition may indicate that JMB is unable to find suppliers of modern weapons or, more likely, the organization is so disorganized financially that they are unable to procure arms. On the other hand, somebody must have trained the detainees, one doesn't just figure out how to make a gun and bullets from insecticide sprayers.

With this victory, one is left with the impression that Bangladesh has “figured out” the JMB question. In other words the government is able to find, arrest, and extract information from the militants with relative ease, keeping the group off balance, and with minimal bloodletting. One also hopes that the government is also aware of emerging threats to the Constitution and to the region.

India and the U.S. are natural partners as their interests will coincide with the Bangladeshi government. India has the rare opportunity to cooperate with a friendly Awami League government in an area of mutual concern – extremist violence in the borderlands. While the Bangladeshi government will have lingering concerns over Indian dominance, a responsible India, conscious of the views of its neighbors should be able to allay these apprehensions. The U.S. could also provide much needed training, equipment, and confidence to the Bangladeshi police forces thereby enhancing governance in the areas outside of Dhaka.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Networking: Bangladesh to Asia

Daily Star reported on June 16 that PM Hasina’s Cabinet supports signing the Asian Highway Network agreement (AHN) and its proposed routes.

According to the Daily Star the three proposed routes (to be depicted later) are:
A1: Benapole-Jessore-Dhaka-Kanchpur-Sylhet-Tamabil
A2: Banglabandha-Hatikamrul-Dhaka-Kanchpur-Sylhet-Tamabil
AH41: Mongla-Jessore-Dhaka-Kanchpur-Chittagong-Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf-Myanmar

PM Hasina has indicated that her support for the agreement is dependent on whether or not the Government can renegotiate the proposed routes, which it can if it becomes a member of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP).

With this decision a bill will be drafted and submitted to Parliament.

As PM Hasina noted, Bangladesh can no longer “remain aloof in the age of globalization. We have to go forward with the network in the interest of socio-economic development.” Specifically, the third route will be a boon for Bangladesh. With the inclusion of Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh’s southeast will hopefully be able to enjoy some of the economic benefits that the western areas will enjoy. If done properly more equitable development should be achieved through the AHN.

Then there’s the point of governance. The AHN will not only provide a newly constructed and (hopefully) more effective means of supply and transportation for businesses but will also allow the government to extend its reach throughout the Khulna, Chittagong, and Cox’s Bazar divisions. Improving access to the road’s hinterlands will not only benefit all levels of government but the residents in the hinterland as well. A new roadway will serve to increase local residents’ access to markets, healthcare, education, employment, and security.

While the AHN will create these opportunities in the future, many are dependent on the successful implementation of the project. The biggest problems will be commitment and governance. Each level of government must commit not only to the route but to the idea of the AHN. This means committing to free trade and free markets, equitable economic development, and increased opportunities for all. This commitment will cost time as well as financial and political capital. The Government must be open and transparent with the route, the costs, and the actual timeline of the road. In another sense the AHN will be a test of the new government and the new democratic system since the Caretaker Government.

For governance, the project must remain grounded in the economic considerations of the country and the local areas. Corruption, mismanagement, and petty politics will need to be kept in check throughout this project, and with the amount of money involved in the construction of three national highways these vices will be all the more enticing.

In fact the AHN is no stranger to these plagues. As reported by the Daily Star on June 16, a former communications minister from the mid-1990s has been accused of manipulating the route for political reasons. In 1993 Bangladesh offered two entry/exit points in the country at Tamabil (the current) and Astagram (both in Sylhet division). However, when retired Col. Oli Ahmed assumed the minister position in 1995, he scrapped the latter.

An independent study by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP) found that the Astagram route would have been more suitable. Allegedly, the reasoning behind this change was purely political; a former transportation director of UN-ESCAP recalled to the Daily Star “I heard some communications ministry top policy makers saying: since India had offered the route, it must have had some vested interest in it…, so we couldn’t go for it.”

Retired Col. Oli Ahmed denies any wrongdoing and blames the UN-ESCAP and World Bank for playing favorites with India.

This is simply a taste of the mismanagement and misappropriation that the project could experience if the government is not held accountable for its actions. Moreover, this article also exemplifies the sensitive relationship between the Bangladeshi and Indian governments. On the one hand, Bangladesh is aware that it is dwarfed economically, demographically, and is almost surrounded by India. For its part, India has not always treated Bangladesh (or its other neighbors) fairly and with respect to their situations.

There are many benefits that the Asian Highway Network would bring to Bangladesh. The successful management and implementation of the network would not only ensure these benefits to a larger constituency but may even bring India and Bangladesh closer together. It is for these reasons that the U.S. and India need to play a positive role by supporting Bangladesh with technical advisers (if requested) and financial commitments, if possible. A clear stipulation of this support would be transparency and accountability. If the U.S. and India are slow to realize this opportunity, China would be willing and able to provide the needed cash, expertise, and without commitments to transparency and equitable development.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Military Seeks Money

A recent report submitted to the Defense Standing Committee, reported by the Daily Star on June 11, noted the lack of equipment available to UN peacekeeping contingents from Bangladesh. In addition to equipment shortfalls, the report also suggested establishing a new “Quick Reaction Force” and increasing efforts to allow Bangladeshi nationals to work in UN headquarters.

While the equipment shortfalls are imposing, they are obviously not a major impediment to Bangladesh contributing to existing UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) missions. As the report points out there over 8,000 Bangladeshi soldiers contributing to 11 DPKO missions in 10 countries. In addition to the international recognition that such a commitment usually brings, Bangladesh also derives a number of monetary and other intangible benefits from its soldiers serving abroad. Besides the 7,445 crore Tk. over the past seven years, the military also benefits from working alongside other UN peacekeeping units from around the world and additional on-the-job training and experience with non-standard equipment.

Whether this warrants increasing the military procurement budget is another story. Bangladeshi politicians, like most in South Asia, are particularly weary of their military leadership, given the military’s history of “political activism.” Generals Zia and Ershad are two names that immediately come to mind. Besides this unease, wouldn’t the millions of taka be better spent on services and programmes that would benefit the Bangladeshi citizenry? Universal schooling, sanitation, electrification, a transparent and uncorrupted bureaucracy, any of these items should receive priority i any budgetary increase.

This isn’t to say that the military doesn’t have good intentions, the Quick Reaction Force, if implemented properly, is one. First, a QRF would actually address two of the military’s most acute problems, transportation and logistics. Second, aside from the benefit to Bangladesh’s peacekeeping missions, a QRF would also benefit Bangladesh in maintaining stability in the Chittagong Hill Tracts or the Sundarbans. Any violent group’s encampment could be dismantled quickly after being found. Third the QRF could be a boon for bilateral India-Bangladesh relations. Bangladesh would have the opportunity and capacity to maintain its commitment to preventing violent groups from crossing into India.

The Bangladeshi government should proceed cautiously with the establishment of a QRF; such a force could also be utilized in a quick coup by the military in a moment of “instability.” Despite this threat, a well-managed QRF (independent of political party influence but unquestionably loyal to the Bangladeshi Constitution) would yield positive benefits to the stability of Bangladesh.

Finally, the Bangladeshi government should push for the inclusion of more Bangladeshi nationals in staff positions throughout the UN, but particularly in the DPKO. Few countries match Bangladesh’s level of commitment, and it is unfortunate that a nation with such vast experience in the field of peacekeeping operations is not able to share this experience through dedicated staff officers at UN headquarters.

Of course, staff positions at the UN cannot be allotted solely to gain political favor or to reward commitment. If the Bangladeshi military is serious about commanding greater positions at UN headquarters it must not only contribute “troops” but educated, experienced, professional, well-trained, and disciplined soldiers.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Allowing the ghosts of 1971 peace?

A Daily Star article today reported Law Minister Shafique Ahmed’s reaction to the Pakistani Government’s rumblings over a planned trial of suspected 1971 war criminals.

As the minister points out, the Bangladeshi government is only going to be trying “Bangladeshi citizens who had committed offences against humanity in collaboration with Pakistani occupation forces.” Pakistan, it would seem, has no chicken on the chopping block.

Or do they?

Everyone should know the story of how the al-Badr, al-Shams, and Razakar brigades actively supported the (then) West Pakistani army in killing millions of Bengalis during the 1971 Liberation War. Furthermore, it’s no secret that many of the leaders of these brigades went on to found a host of Islamist political parties and movements. The leaders of these collaborator organizations deserve to be put on trial for their crimes, no matter what their contribution to society or politics has been since then.

These trials will probably expose the Pakistani government (President Yahya Khan)’s approval and support for these atrocities. However as the minister pointed out, Pakistan is not on trial.

Three decades is far too long to have waited for reconciliation and justice, but putting off these trials for the sake of political expediency is easy when there are so many more pressing problems. Moreover, the very concept of these trials has been a vicious political and social debate within the Bangladeshi polity.

These reasons notwithstanding, Bangladesh should try these suspected war criminals. Can you imagine what the world would be like if Augustin Bizimungu or Hermann Goring were allowed to roam free and found a political party?

The International Community has a role to play here. The Community must support these trials through noninterference; however, they must also encourage the process to be as reconciliatory and transparent as possible. More importantly, the Bangladeshi government must ensure that guilt is assigned independent of political considerations and after suitable evidence and personal accounts disprove the suspects’ innocence. Finally, the Community should put pressure on Pakistan to not only respect Bangladesh’s right to hold these trials but to also supply evidence to the prosecution or defense as necessary.

The International Community needs to realize that these trials are much more than seeking justice and safeguarding human rights.which is reason enough to have them. These trials will also represent Bangladesh’s commitment to its identity as a secular state and a repudiation of militant and political Islamism in both the past, present, and future.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Freedom of Education vs. Censorship

On 3 June, the Daily Star reported that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education has made "strong recommendations for imposing a ban" on "unapproved" textbooks in madrasas. In addition, all madrasas would have to have a picture of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the offices, to properly observe national holidays and memorial days, and to ensure that the national anthem is sung everyday.
I have no problem with most of these points. In most public buildings in the United States you will find pictures of the U.S. President and Vice President. In grade school we were required to say the U.S. "pledge of allegiance," and of course we observed all national holidays and memorial days.

The tricky part: is the funding for these madrasas on the government's coin? Are they run by private groups? By NGOs? The answer is yes to all three. In which case, many of these recommendations could be construed to be an infringement on civil rights of the private groups to set policy in their institutions.

We should not forget that this is not only an issue of civil rights but also of Bangladesh's national security. It is no secret that most Islamists find their ideological underpinnings during study at a madrasa. But being an Islamist does not necessarily lead to bombs, guns, and murder. On the other hand, calling for the dissolution of the current government and political in place of the one you want could be construed as treason. Tricky.

The middle ground is probably to install these recommendations in government managed and funded madrasas. These points should be a prerequisite to government money or service, but at the same time madrasas funded or managed by other groups or individuals should be routinely monitored by the community. For instance, engage the parents in actively discussing the child's education. What did you learn today? What do you think about it? Finally, the government needs to do something about the actual items that cause violent Islamism to take root in the first place - unequal development, corruption, disillusionment, the like.

As for the text books, having not read them (I probably should) I lean towards the ban. If the book includes incendiary statements that promote murder and violence then the books should be banned, especially in the madrasas - government funded/run or not. The reasoning is that these ideas are totally contrary to the spirit of Bangladeshi (and traditional) parliamentary democracy. However, if the book never goes that far but insinuates that a better government would be one based on religious law, then allow it. But any sensible administrator should also encourage discussion between the teacher and the pupils. Why would it be better? How would it be worse? What would be different? What would be similar? In this way the mind decides for itself what to believe. Right now, I'm not entirely convinced this is the way the conversation works in the madrasas that indoctrinate violent Islamists (or any religious school preaching violence on others, for that matter).

The U.S. government might not think it has much stake in this debate at first glance - but it most certainly does. The path that Bangladesh chooses to trend here is critical to the development of the still young democracy. If you go too far into the realm of control and censorship, you risk promoting the environment you are seemingly trying to avoid. If you err too far to the other side, you risk legitimizing the violence and the message.

Finally, the U.S. should take note that textbook debate is occuring not but 100 km from its own capital.