Friday, July 31, 2009

'SUICIDAL' according to Jamaat

As expected the government's announcement of removing a brigade from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) has run afoul of the "Opposition." Jaamat Amir Moulana Nizami (accused Collaborator during the Liberation War) termed the pullout as 'suicidal.' Unless the opposition has some constructive ideas in this situation, the Awami League government should continue with their original plan.

As usual the BNP/Jamaat position is based on two main concerns: India and security. In regards to the former, BNP Secretary-General Khondakar Delwar Hossain made reference to the Tipaimukh dam being constructed in Northeast India. Currently a parliamentary team is evaluating the project (Jamaat declined to go).

While Bangladesh's concerns are valid in the Tipaimukh case, Hossain's allegations that Bangladesh will be turned into a "hinterland" of India are a bit sensationalist (New Nation). For one, India has pledged that the dam would not be for irrigation and has repeatedely stated that is for hydroelectric purposes. Bangladesh could stand to benefit from a large renewable powersource near its border, and could take advantage of this capacity. Regardless the Tipai dam has been in the construction phase for decades and rights groups in Manipur are still opposed to it (New Nation).

In terms of security, the BNP and Jamaat accuse the government of an ulterior motive, without going into any details. If the BNP and Jamaat have information, they should share and at least begin a national dialogue. As was mentioned previously the security situation is still a bit delicate, especially since there are still segments of the CHT that are still opposed to the 1997 Peace Treaty (as evidenced by the election of the UPDF to the chairmanship in three sub-districts).

The Parbatya Bangali Chhatra Parishad (an association of Bengali students in the CHT) has similar security fears, however their's are much closeer-at-hand. They have issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the government to review the decision. The group also issued a 6-point demand and vowed to protest (Daily Star).

While any loss of life is a tragedy there is likely to be some bloodshed because of the pullout. However, it would be a mistake to think that it would be avoided (now or in the future) if the unit remained. If normalcy, defined as law and order derived from police and not the Army, is to be restored then the redeployment must go forward. The Bengali settlers and the CHT locals must seek redress from the police in all criminal matters. For their part, the police MUST remain impartial and provide security to each group without favor.

The Awami League government has taken an important step in normalizing the CHT, the BNP and Jamaat should either provide viable alternatives, if they do identify serious problems, or they should stand aside. The students' association has valid fears, as do the tribe organizations, however both groups must drop their prejudice in order for any lasting progress to be made.

Finally, Hossain stated that the CHT is a "part of Bangladesh." At the moment, the CHT is nothing more than an occupied territory, a colony. In effect, he is sounding a bit like the Indian "aggressors" that he despises.

Naxalites returneth

Despite the successes of the security forces earlier this month in driving out the overt presence of the Naxalites from Lalgarh, the Naxalites have continued to harass security forces as well as representatives of West Bengal's ruling Communist Party (Marxist). It would seem that the Naxalites are not quit ready to give up Lalgarh as their first "liberated zone."

In Goaltore, northeast of Lalgarh, a CPM leader was taken from his home and shot in a market place. In another incident, a CPM branch committee member in Salboni was abducted by Naxalites (The Telegraph). The Naxalites have also targeted police personnel in and around Lalgarh. At least three police personnel are missing (The Telegraph).

A police report (reported in the Telegraph) speculated that the Naxalites were targeting CPM leaders and supporters in order to prevent the revival of the area's "intelligence network." The report noted that after the Maoists established the "liberated zone," the police's intelligence network, which was based on information from the CPM, and its supporters "totally collapsed."

For their part, the Naxalites confirmed this report. One leader noted that the killings targeted people "who had been passing information about us to the police." While another noted that the group had learned from its past mistakes; after recruiting from the villages, the new recruits would be reported by the CPM informants, thus the kilings were a way of protecting their new manpower.

The CPM is going to be having an increasingly more difficult time in convincing its supporters and leaders to return to the area. However without their information network, security offensives against the Naxalites will become costly and probably achieve very little.

That the Naxalites are still able to recruit out of the area should be a warning sign to the West Bengal government. Although equitable development cannot be totally ensured until the security situation improves, it is necessary for the CPM and local administrators to prove to the local populace that they do have their best interests at heart.

The security forces will need to identify a new way of collecting the information they require, hopefully without further demoralizing the local people and the CPM. Cultivating new informants, independent of the ruling CPM, would be the easiest and quickest route. Moreover, the employment of the Cobras in Jharkand (the Telegraph) should keep the Naxalites off balance, for the time being.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Sarbaharas... Islamists... Jihad?

Daily Star reported a bomb attack in Pabna Sadar which left two dead.

Police suspect that 'Janajuddho' (of the Purbo Banglar Communist Party) was responsible and that an 'internal feud' might be part of the dynamic.

News invovling the Sarbaharas has seemed to be picking up in the last few weeks (at least from the Daily Star's perspective). Earlier this week, two members of the 'Red Flag' (PBCP) died from bullet injuries sustained during a gun fight with police and RAB in Atrai upazila (Naogaon).

The police and RAB seemed to have managed to not only clamp down on Islamist militants but the leftist thuggery as well. As long as the security forces keep the groups off-balance they can avoid a situation similar to 2004, when Siddiqul Islam (Bangla Bhai) of the JM(J)B rose to infamy.

The Islamist militancy front has been somewhat more quiet of late (the last week or so), following the sensational arrests of three Lashkar-e-Taiyeba members. First was Mufti Obaidullah (New Nation) who provided a wealth of information. Obaidullah evidently said that while there were similarities (and probably links) between LT and Harakatul Jihad, they did not "work like" JMB. In addition, he claimed (truthfully as it turned out) that there were other LT leaders in Bangladesh working as madrassa teachers (Daily Star). His information contributed to the arrest of Mufti Habibullah in Dhaka.

Mufti Habibullah revealed that he and Obaidullah entered Bangladesh in 1995 after bribing Indian border guards. Obaidullah bounced around the country teaching at madrassas in Moulvibazar (Sylhet), Madaripur (Dhaka), Munshiganj (Dhaka), Jessore (Khulna), as well as Dhaka (New Nation). For his part, Habibullah taught at madrassas in Jessore, Dhaka, and Habiganj (Sylhet) (Daily Star). What is interesting is the complete absence of any links to Rajshahi.

The Daily Star article also noted additional tidbits: Daud Merchant (associated with crime boss Daud Ibrahim), detained about two months ago, are evidently the sources of the leads for the arrest of the LT members. Moreover, on the first day of remand Habibullah admitted that LT was planning for an 'armed-jihad' in Bangladesh (Daily Star). Finally, a third LT member was arrested in Shyamnagar sub-district (Satkhira, Khulna) in the Sundarbans. Like his colleagues, Muhaddis Obaidullah was teaching at a Kawmi madrassa (New Nation).

This LT episode begs some interesting questions. First, what is the extent of the dialogue and networking between Daud Ibrahim and LT? Second, does LT really not have any presence whatsoever in Rajshahi division? Finally, this seems to cast some doubt on the general Western (and Chinese) conception that the Bangladeshis are "inept." This entire operation was carried out by Bangladeshi security forces based on Bangladeshi-derived information from a suspect that they previously arrested.

The Awami League government has certainly started raising expectations that subsequent governments (whether BNP or otherwise) will have to maintain. The first half of 2009 has certainly been a far cry from the five years of BNP-Jamaat rule, when action was only taken following 500 explosions in over 60 districts.

As the Daily Star points out some of these LT cadres are wanted by the US and India as well. The Bangladeshi government is continually demonstrating its resolve in dealing, not only with Bangladeshi Islamist militancy, but in transnational militancy. The next steps should be to engage the Bangladeshi government on multiple levels and either extradite the arrested or ensure that they are given a proper trial.

This episode also points out to additional problems that should be addressed bilaterally between Bangladesh and India. First is the issue of border control, India and Bangladesh must cooperate at the local level to catch militants as they are crossing the border. The US and UK (to say nothing of Australia) should provide reommendation and equipment to enable the border forces to effectively police their areas. Bangladesh must also rein in the rogue madrassas. While not all madrassas are harboring Islamist militants, it would be a mistake to think that none of them do.

Effective control of the country's education would not only cut-down on incidences of harboring but on improving the administration and overall educational quality of the madrassas. In an effort to rein them in the government will be attempting to enforce regulations to have madrassas hang potraits of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Earlier regulations also made it compulsory for madrassas to raise the national flag and sing the anthem (though some are still resisting).

In this regard, the government and the people should expect resistance to continue for some time, until all accept the necessity for the government to promote the idea of Bangladesh as democratic and secular. There is no problem with madrassa education (as evidenced by the fact that it is not outlawed) but there is a problem when a teacher espouses the removal of the democratic system of government. Hopefully the hanging of the picture of PM Hasina is meant to be the portrait of whoever is the sitting PM...
Finally, though this goes without saying it is worth repeating. Bangladesh (as well as the US, India, and UK) should be on watch for Habibullah's warning of an "armed-jihad." While this could simply bean attempt at disturbing the peace, LT (as well as HUJI, JMB or any other armed Islamist militant group) could easily find a foothold in the less governed, less patrolled, more locally corrupt, and less developed portions of the country. Regarding Obaidullah's remarks that LT and HUJI don't "work like" JMB, this is interesting and should be explored.
It may simply refer to the fact that LT and HUJI have not really done much in Bangladesh (aside from possible links to some high profile attacks a few years ago, British High Commissioner, Sheikh Hasina, NGOs), unlike JMB. Or it could be referring to JMB's alienating the local population, such as through displays of force, riding into Rajshahi aboard motorcycles and minibus (under police escort) and other more grotesque displays.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

CHT minus 1 Army Brigade

The Awami League government has announced that it will pull an Army brigade from the Chittagong Hill Tracts region (CHT, comprising the districts of Rangamati, Khagrachhari, and Bandarban) as part of the “phasing out” of troops, according to the terms of a 1997 Peace Treaty. (as reported by the Daily Star and New Nation) The brigade is located at Kaptai (in Rangamati) and will be relocated to the Chittagong Cantonment.

The Awami League was in power during the signing of the treaty. The other party to the treaty was the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS). However, the intervening BNP-Jamaat government (from 2001-2006) and Caretaker government (2007-2008) did not make any progress on the implementation of the treaty.

The conflict stemmed, partially, from ethno-religious-economic tensions between the Hill Tribes and the government of Bangladesh. At the risk of generalizing the issue: the CHT is populated mostly by Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and traditionalists of non-Bengali ethnicity. This region was awarded to East Pakistan (in 1947), ostensibly because it formed an integral hinterland of the Port of Chittagong, despite the fact that its inhabitants were not Muslim, which was part of the reason for Partition in the first place. In the intervening years, a number of Bengali-speaking settlers moved into the CHT and proceeded to marginalize the “tribals.” The effects of this political, economic, and social marginalization are still observable in the lack of development in the hill districts. An insurgency ensued and lasted over two decades, until 1997.

However, the PCJSS does not represent the interests of all the hills’ tribes. The United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) rejected the treaty (incidentally they were elected to the Chairmanship in three upazilas during the 22 January upazila elections, see breakdown from NextFrame).

A district leader of the UPDF alleged that the brigade’s pullout had nothing to do with the treaty and everything to do with the fact that the brigade in question simply was “not required anymore.” A retired Brigadier General told the Daily Star that the law and order situation had improved since he was assigned to the CHT in 1990-1992.

However, he did warn that security organizations would have to be on guard for the UPDF and any “foreign intrusion.” He also suggested that the government hold “long due” elections in the districts to “revitalize their activities involving people.”

The BG’s concerns and suggestions are substantive. Specifically, a “foreign intrusion” is a very real threat as the CHT is some of the most wooded and inaccessible areas in the region. Patrols regularly stumble upon weapons caches and small groups of fighters. With the UPDF’s engagement in the political process, one hopes that their motivation for violence will be less.

Ensuring free and fair elections for representative district governments will go a ways in bolstering the local people’s confidence in Dhaka. However, this is not enough. If Dhaka wants to truly enjoy stability and peace, the marginalization of the CHT’s people must cease, development must be provided equitably, and the Bengali settlers in the districts must learn to respect their neighbors.

Likewise, the UPDF must come to accept their role as a political unit in Bangladesh and engage in democratic politics (rather than politics of the gun).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Another Head for the Hydra

Since July 3, Bangladesh police forces (including Rapid Action Battalion-RAB) have been dismantling another “offshoot” of the JMB, Islam O Muslim (Islam and Muslim), according to the Daily Star (Source 1, 2, 3) and the New Nation.

Law enforcement has detained the chief organizer, the second-in-command, and a number of full-time members and other associates over the past weekend.

The arrest of the chief organizer led to some valuable information, first was the founding of IOM, evidently it stemmed from a disagreement over financial and other matters with some other “influential JMB leaders.” It has not been reported what, if any, links the IOM has with earlier reported networks Ahle Sunnah al Jamaat or Kalema-e-Jamaat (see The Hydra's Many Heads).

Second were the links to the now-executed leader of JMJB, Bangla Bhai, the IOM chief organizer “actively took part” in the JMJB’s anti-Leftist operations in 2004.

Third was the claim that he fled to India (specifically, West Bengal) after the arrests in 2005 of Abdur Rahman and Bangla Bhai (the two supremos of JMB/JMJB) who were eventually executed. During his stay in West Bengal (where he married a second time according to the Daily Star) he “played a key role in strengthening the JMB’s wing in India during his two-and-a-half years stay in Murshidabad, Nadia, and Maldah districts.”

Finally, the IOM allegedly planned to “dominate” a number of sub-districts in the north comprising C’nawabganj, Bagmara, and Naogaon.

The other significant arrestee was the “military affairs commander” who “used to go to India frequently” and provided arms to the JMB/IOM. A RAB officially stated that the various leaders, who parted ways after the execution of Abdur Rahman and Bangla Bhai, formed new organizations and were actively recruiting. From his confessions, additional members were picked up.

Notably, the second-in-command was detained, following an intelligence tip-off, at his father-in-law’s house in Belpara Johorpur village of C’nawabganj town. Another Daily Star article revealed that he came into contact with the JMB through another associate, whom later married his sister after he persuaded his mother. His mother and sister are now living “amid poverty and anxiety.”

These arrests continue to suggest that Bangladesh’s security forces have a solid grasp of the JMB threat and are working effectively to neutralize it. That the second-in-command was arrested following a tip-off from a Bangladeshi intelligence agency is also encouraging. Moreover, the wealth of information gained from the chief organizer, particularly the IOM’s plans to expand throughout the northern areas (which were once ample recruiting ground for the JMB/JMJB) presents the Government a rare opportunity to deal with the IOM-JMB branch decisively.

However, in addition to rooting out the remaining IOM cadres and leadership, the local governments must also take steps in ensuring proper governance in their areas. One way to ensure proper governance is for the national government to implement some of the points made by the vice chairmen of the Upazila Parishads, for instance eliminating provisions undermining their authority, and granting them greater autonomy (as reported by the Daily Star). The other way is for all levels of government to eliminate corruption.

The story of the second-in-command continues to bear some light on the JMB’s recruiting. Whether his future brother-in-law was involved in an extremist mosque or madrassa, or was simply a new acquaintance has not been reported. However, the importance of human connections, particularly family ones, are highlighted by this and previous stories. The idea of joining the organization due to another’s influence and the phenomena of entire families sympathizing with a group’s actions are evident. The significance of realities should be explored, not only by the Bangladeshi government but by the civil society, NGOs, and the international community.

Additionally, it seems that the second-in-command’s story is a bit more of the “usual narrative” than the JMB’s detained IT chief. One could not “come out successful in the SSC examinations” while the other attended the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. One worked as a mason in India before returning to Bangladesh, the other worked as an engineer for BUET.

The Bangladeshi government (and society) should take careful note of these stories and devise ways to not only apprehend cadres but also address their men’s grievances or their shared problems.

The recent press reports are discussing the ease with which extremists can flow across the border between India and Bangladesh. While the UK and Bangladesh have agreed, in principle, to share information and work towards effective “border management” any further discussion is pointless without involving India.

In addition to the border, India should be involved for the simple reason that it is clear that the JMB has become a transnational extremist organization. By involving India, Bangladesh could provide information that would help to shut down the JMB’s supply lines and financing.

If Bangladesh aims to keep JMB, or whatever offshoots it spawns, at bay then effective policing of the border should also be a priority. However, it the first priority of the government should be to address the lack of governance and development in these areas; by doing so, it will establish a friendly environment, where the locals trust the government, to police.
As for the spawning, the security forces should explore ways in which to exacerbate the fractures. Are there ways to promote infighting among the groups? Is one group willing to snitch on the other? Better still, is one group willing to abandon an armed struggle? This latter case would need to be approached cautiously to avoid another Islamic Democratic Party fiasco. At the very least, the news that the higher JMB leadership cannot agree on such things as financing and ideological issues is good, the JMB movement may be rotting from the top.