At least 44 people have been killed in the past two days in protests in Bangladesh following the third conviction by a war crimes tribunal set up to investigate the role of Islamist political leaders in Bangladesh’s independence movement in 1971.
The recent spurt in violence follows a month of largely peaceful protests by youthful demonstrators demanding capital punishment for leaders that collaborated with the Pakistani military in trying to crush the movement for Bangladeshi independence.
The escalating violence threatens the fragile democratic process in Bangladesh, the world’s third-largest Muslim-majority country. The U.S. should encourage the government to engage with opposition leaders (who wield influence with the Islamist political parties) to bring calm to the situation.
The South Asian country of Bangladesh was founded in the fires of war and genocide during the War of Liberation against Pakistan in 1971. The Pakistani army, along with pro-Pakistani Bangladeshi militias called “Razakars,” waged a campaign of terror against the people of Bangladesh. Eight million people fled Bangladesh, and an estimated 300,000 to 3 million were killed. An estimated 200,000 girls and women were raped.
A war crimes tribunal was established after the Awami League came to power in 2008. Several former Razakars are current leaders of the major Bangladeshi Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami. Abdul Quader Molla, a key leader of Jamaat and a former Razakar, was convicted of war crimes on February 5. Molla’s crimes during the war include beheading a Bangladeshi poet and raping an 11-year-old girl. He was also complicit in the deaths of at least 400 civilians. The government sentenced Molla to life in prison, but protesters are calling for the sentence to be appealed and for Molla to get the death penalty instead.
The sentence triggered large, spontaneous rallies demanding Molla’s execution. The protests have been centered in Shahbag Square in the capital city of Dhaka near the country’s main university. The protesters are mostly youth—considered the Facebook and Twitter generation—who are calling for justice not just for the accused war criminals but throughout the country.
For a country that has seen revolving-door politics between leaders of the two main political parties—the Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina and the Bangladesh National Party’s Khaleda Zia—for the last 20 years, the youthful protests are seen by many as a hopeful sign that the younger generation is finally taking part in the political process.
Meanwhile, supporters of Jamaat are staging their own protests. They argue that the Awami League is using the war crimes trials to destroy Jamaat and solidify its political dominance. They cite the unexplained arrest of a Jamaat defense attorney last week as proof of the Awami League’s political gambit.
Jamaat-aligned protesters are also upset by bloggers posting what the Islamists see as anti-Islamic messages online—so much so that the prominent blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was murdered last week, possibly by Jamaat’s student wing. Jamaat supporters have also threatened to plunge the country into civil war if Molla’s sentence is appealed and he is sentenced to death.
Jamaat started to make good on its threat this week when another of its leaders, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, was sentenced to death. Jamaat protesters clashed with police throughout the country, resulting in over 40 deaths in 48 hours.
It is clear that the horrible wounds of the War of Liberation have yet to heal in Bangladesh. The memory of a bloody past continues to divide Bangladeshis today, and differing perceptions of the war are resulting in more bloodshed and death more than 40 years after the conflict.
Since her election in 2008, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has helped to counter the threat from Islamist extremists, who have sought to make inroads in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina’s government has taken proactive steps to crack down on radical Islamists and emphasize the democratic principles of the country’s founding.
The recent protests demonstrate the Bangladeshi public’s desire for justice for the conduct of leaders during the 1971 war as well its opposition to the agenda of the Islamists. It would be a tragedy, however, if the Shahbag protests lead to a cycle of political violence similar to that seen in late 2006 that ultimately prompted the military to take control.
The U.S. needs to try to facilitate talks between the ruling party and opposition, which has ties to the Islamist political parties, to try to bring calm to the situation. The Sheikh Hasina government should reach out to the opposition before the violence escalates further and beyond its control.
Andrew Thomchick is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.