Why We Ignore Bangladesh at Our Peril

Earlier this month, armed men on motorcycles attacked the vehicle of Marcia Bernicat, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, as she was leaving a dinner party in the capital city of Dhaka. According to local media reports, the men chased and threw bricks at her motorcade.

Fortunately, Bernicat and her retinue were unharmed. As of this writing, the perpetrators have not been identified.

It’s not often that a U.S. ambassador is attacked while posted overseas. And yet, the incident received relatively little media attention in the United States.

In fact, this lack of attention is unsurprising; Bangladesh is frequently off the radar. In the West and especially in the United States, it typically attracts bursts of media attention only when there has been a major terrorist attack or a catastrophic flood.

Given recent developments in Bangladesh, however, we ignore the country at our peril. Bangladesh is a powder keg, and it could well explode.

Over the last few years, the political environment in Bangladesh has become increasingly charged and polarized. The ruling party, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League (AL) party, has been cracking down mercilessly against the political opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies, including the Islamist party known as Jamaat-i-Islami (JI).

Opposition members have been arrested and subjected to the use of force. The leader of the opposition, BNP chief Khaleda Zia, was jailed several months ago on charges that her supporters regard as politically motivated. Government critics also accuse a controversial war crimes tribunal, which has led to the executions of several elderly opposition leaders for alleged abuses committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war, of being politically motivated.

Ominously, the government isn’t only cracking down on political opponents; it’s also taking aim at private citizens that oppose their policies. Earlier this month, after two young people were struck and killed by a speeding bus, large protests broke out in Dhaka to protest lax traffic laws. The police responded with force, and the protestors were also met by violent counter protestors. According to some reports, the latter included members of a government-aligned youth party.

It also may not be a coincidence that Ambassador Bernicat had her car attacked at a time when she has been openly critical of the Bangladesh government’s heavy-handed policies toward its opponents.

Separately, the tentacles of extremism are spreading around a country that until relatively recently had been widely regarded as a moderate, Muslim-majority state. Islamist militant groups, some of them claiming to be working with a South Asia-based faction of ISIS, have staged a series of attacks over the last few years. Other local extremists have targeted liberal thinkers, religious minorities, atheists, and other victims that are rejected by the radicals’ hardline, maximalist Islamist ideologies.

These two trends—political repression and extremism—are not necessarily unrelated. As the state’s crackdowns continue apace and peaceful channels to express dissent are eliminated, people aggrieved by the excesses of their governments may be susceptible to radicalization. The JI, one of Bangladesh’s main opposition parties and a frequent target of government repression, is a peaceful party, but it does have violent youth wings.

In the coming months, Bangladesh could reach an inflection point. It is scheduled to hold national elections late this year or early next. The government has insisted the elections will be free and fair. However, some BJP members have threatened not to participate in the poll unless their leader, Zia, is released from jail. Given how viciously the government has cracked down on the opposition, it remains to be seen how easily the BJP and its allies would be able to mobilize and campaign, if they do choose to contest the election.

An AL election victory, which the opposition—and much of the country on the whole—likely wouldn’t accept as free or fair, could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Such an outcome could transform Bangladesh into a virtual one-party state. It could also usher in a period of unrest that results in violent anti-government street protests and even more violent government crackdowns. Extremists, seeking to exploit such a dangerous environment, could try to stage attacks.

In effect, not long from now, Bangladesh could be plunged into an extended period of political crisis and mass unrest. The country would then find itself back on the radar and back in international news headlines—but for all the wrong reasons.

What this would all mean for Washington, which too often takes its eyes off the ball when it comes to Bangladesh, is simple: One of its chief interests in South Asia—that of stability—would be imperiled in a big way.

Image: Sk Hasan Ali / Shutterstock.com

Follow Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia, on Twitter @MichaelKugelman.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center.  Copyright 2018, Asia Program.  All rights reserved.