There appear to be three inter-related processes at work in Bangladesh that are producing the current crisis.
The first is the Bangladeshi economy which last month produced some spectacular strikes in Bangladesh’s large garment sector. The cost of living has quickly outstripped the meager wages that Bangladeshi textile workers receive (approximately 25 dollars a month), and in response they staged a massive general strike which shut down Dhaka. In response, the textile mill owners shut down some 250 factories and asked for police support to crush the strike. Some 100 workers were injured in the clashes that followed, in which police used tear gas and water cannons against the strikers. There were also some fairly serious attacks on children who live in the area. The workers were eventually forced back to work with some vague assuraces that wage increases would be forthcoming (sometime in the next three months). Unfortunately, the global economic downturn has put a squeeze on the profits of the textile industry in Bangladesh, which is looking to survive the problem by squeezing wages. And as the garment industry is the largest industry in Bangladesh (employing some 2 million workers) and responsible for most of the country’s exports, it’s unlikely that the state will intervene on the side of labor decisively.
Added to this is the massive power crisis that Bangladesh has been suffering from. The poor infrastructure of the country have made it difficult to attract foreign direct investment as well as drastically increased the cost of living for ordinary Bangladeshis. Perhaps most disturbing is that a country that is ravaged by the effects of global warming routinely is now looking at overcoming its power shortages by investing heavily in coal-based power plants.
The second is the long-standing political fight between the Awami League and the Bangladeshi National Party (and its partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami). This is manifesting in charges being brought by the AL against the Jamaat for its involvement in the events of the 1971 war that partitioned Bangladesh and Pakistan. The Jamaat’s senior assistant secretary general Mohammad Qamaruzzaman and assistant secretary general Qader Mollah were detained for their involvement in the Islami Chatra Sangha and the al-Badr militia movement which opposed the independence of Bangladesh and fought against the Indian-backed Mukti Bohini forces. The charges against them — compiled by an inquiry conducted in 1995 — include killing civilians during the 1971 war. In response, the Jamaat has produced a list of figures in the Awami League who may also have been involved in targeted assassinations of civilians in 1971. Three other leaders of the Jamaat were arrested for “hurting religious sentiment“.
Earlier this month, the Jamaat and the BNP staged joint demonstrations against the rounding up of senior Jamaat party heads, arguing that the detentions were politically motivated rather than genuine. The Awami League countered that it was merely fulfilling campaign promises to go after “anti-patriotic forces.” It is more likely that Sheik Hasina is pursuing a cynical and opportunist strategy of eliminating her opposition and strengthening her own ruling coalition by relying on tired nationalist slogans (despite the probable guilt of the Jamaat leaders arrested). If those rounded up are convicted of the charges against them, it could result in the execution of much of the leadership of the Jamaat. There are also growing signs that the BNP may be looking for opportunities to distance itself from the Jamaat, as it fears that there will be a political fallout from being associated with and defending war criminals.
The third are the massive reforms being pushed through in the military in response to the coup that was attempted in 2009. Some 824 officers and soldiers are being brought up on charges. One of the key reforms is the use of military rather than civilian courts to try mutineers (military courts are faster and can now administer the death penalty for mutiny). Sheikh Hasina clearly has something to be worried about since the mutineers threatened to topple her government — renaming the Bangladesh Rifles and restructuring the unit are part of the process of bringing that wing of the military/paramilitary under more direct control of the civilian government. It was probably the isolation and the weakness of the forces allied to the mutineers that prevented the mutiny from succeeding, in the first place. It also seems to be the case that the demands and causes of the mutineers were limited to internal democracy, wages, and ending corruption within the army and not broader demands that could have been linked to the more widespread fears of “civil war” that were being circulated at the time.