Over the course of last year, especially since mid-November, the political situation in Bangladesh has deteriorated to the point where there is no longer any hope for any stability without a drastic change in the circumstances. Despite a general lack of international media attention, the basic situation is well known. I am not going to repeat it here, though if anyone is interested, I took part in a recent radio show for the University of Warwick’s radio station covering the basics of the conflict. The information is mostly correct, except that the number of deaths mentioned has since escalated and even the number cited was a cautious estimate.
This blog post is not going to try and reinforce these statements or expand on them. My position is very clear; the situation is wrong, all the main parties involved have committed serious mistakes that are affecting the entire country, and something needs to be done. What I would like to talk about today is the fact that the international community is not doing enough and why they need to. Before I continue with this, I should probably acknowledge that there are many people who will read this and scoff at the notion of an independent nation needing the help of “foreigners” to solve their problems. This would range from Bangladeshis themselves insisting that we need to solve our own problems, those with anti-Western sentiments saying that superpowers should not have a say in every corner of the world, and those in the West saying we are not in the same situation as the likes of Syria, so there is no need to get involved.
To all of these people, I have one response and one response only. Wake. Up. While it is heartening to think that there are parts of the world that have more self-determination than others, it is foolish to suggest that any country can be completely cut off from the global system and still expect to survive. Even the most isolationist of nations, North Korea, has a significant alliance with China that is ensuring its continued existence. For all the patriotic rhetoric of self-sufficiency we would like to spew, Bangladesh is no different, especially given the fact that we are not exactly an internationally significant nation. We have always relied on our relations with other countries to shape our political sphere.
The 2006 caretaker government would not have had the gall to declare a state of emergency and overstay its tenure if it did not have the backing, at least implicitly, of more powerful nations like India and the USA. Similarly, it would not have stepped down when it did if the international political climate was not making a push for democracy. The 2013 war crimes tribunals, while deeply rooted in national politics and partisanship, would never have taken off if major powers objected.
Bangladesh’s very existence has been influenced by foreign intervention. We owe our independence to the contribution of other nations like India. At the same time, the oppression pre-independence Bangladesh faced was partially down to the Cold War politics of then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was happy for the Pakistani government to do as it pleased as long as it was not allying itself with the USSR as India had.
Considering the current scenario, there are a couple of things that are very striking. Throughout the course of the election discussions last year, the international community made a strong push for all parties to take part in the election in order to make it legitimate. This included visits to Bangladesh by India’s President Pranab Mukherjee, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, and UK Senior Minister of State Baroness Warsi, as well as repeated entreaties by US Secretary of State John Kerry. All of these countries have criticised the elections – which since took place without the participation of all parties – and demanded fresh ones.
However, all of these foreign powers have also stopped short of calling the elections invalid. The closest has been Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, who said that the elections were “regrettable”. Indeed, Russia has gone so far as to say that the election results should be respected as is. The focus of the nations has instead been on the war crimes tribunals, as shown by the coverage of the New York Times, and on the violence that is being instigated by both sides.
The other point is that the majority of the countries, while critical of the elections, have not done anything concrete with regards to how their relations with Bangladesh will now be shaped. Britain is discussing changing its aid commitments but this is largely seen as a hollow threat, at least at the moment. While they all refused to send observers to the elections – a strong symbolic gesture invalidating the fairness of the process – they have not done anything since then. If anything, they seem content to pay lip service to the death of democracy without getting their hands dirty.
In the pragmatic world of global politics, this is hardly surprising. Nations are cautious about getting involved and spending valuable resources. In Bangladesh, the situation is made more complex by the fact that the returning government, while blatantly flouting democratic principles, are very much the lesser of two evils. They are supposedly secular, while the opposition that has spearheaded the boycott of the polls have dangerously fundamentalist elements, arguably the most worrying aspect for Western powers in an age of rampant Islamophobia and terrorism. As far as other nations are concerned, they might have an influence over what happens, but they would only be willing to exercise that influence as a last resort.
Yet, we have seen the disastrous consequences this pragmatism has had in the recent past. Egypt’s current crisis is down to the fact that the global community decided to pick and choose which aspects of the consecutive revolutions they wanted to focus on; democracy the first time, Islamist extremism the second time, instead of taking a well-rounded approach to the entire situation. Syria has been torn apart due to political indecision and diplomatic tugs-of-war for years. Parts of Pakistan have been suffering from oppression which the world refuses to look at because Afghanistan and Iraq were such misguided disasters. And these are the regions the media is bothering to look at.
It would be stupid of me to suggest that Bangladesh has reached the stage of all-out civil war that these other parts of the world are currently having to face. But is it not high time that the world took notice BEFORE we reached that stage? Diplomacy and security is supposed to be about actively preventing conflict, yet the reality is that it is about reacting to conflict. The powers that be do not try and make the world a better place, but prevent it from sliding further into hell. Sadly, they are failing to do even that. Perhaps it really is naive of me to suggest this, but it might be worth trying to change their approach. I know that Bangladesh would be better off for it.