IPCS Discussion

Security of Bangladesh in the South Asian Context

17 Aug, 2016    ·   5108

H.E. Moudud Ahmed's remarks during the proceedings of the discussion held on 26 July, 2016

On 26 July 2016, for the second interaction under its Twentieth Anniversary Plenum Series, IPCS hosted Mr Moudud Ahmed, former Vice-President and former Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, for a talk on Security of Bangladesh in the South Asian Context. The following is the text of his speech.

H.E. Mr Moudud Ahmed
Former Vice-President and former Prime Minister People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Bangladesh is in a cross-road. Its geo-political location draws an immediate international focus. With a population of 160 million in a small territory of 147,000 square kilometers it is surrounded by India on three sides and not very far in the north by China. On its south is the Bay of Bengal stretching to the vast Indian Ocean and on the east there is a small border with Myanmar. Nepal is just next door separated by a narrow strip of Indian territory. 

The emergence of the two powerful states, both striving not only to achieve economic strength but aspire to play an important role in the centerstage of global politics, is now a reality. Hence in this region, as a part of their global role, lie the strategic and security interests of the United States. 

Economically Bangladesh is doing well, better than most of the countries in South Asia with a sustained annual growth rate of around 6.2% for more than a decade now, with the hope of reaching the level of the middle income group in another five years. In the social sectors particularly in health care and education, according to the Noble Laureate Professor Amartya Sen the performance of Bangladesh is better than India.
Tragically, on the other hand, unlike India, Bangladesh has failed to build strong institutions to sustain a democratic order. It has experienced a one-party rule in 1975 and two successive governments of military Generals before it could return to a democratic order in 1991by holding a free, fair and neutral election under a non-party caretaker government, a system later sanctioned by the Constitution, continued till it was disrupted again in January 2007 by a military-backed Proclamation of Emergency. I generally do not criticize our sitting government when I am abroad, but the crises we have at home need to be mentioned as it is linked to our security as well. Lack of democratic practices and the election having been boycotted by the opposition (Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)), has led to have in January 2014 a Parliament where 154 Members out of a total 300 have been elected unopposed declining more than 50 million voters to cast their votes on the polling day. In the remaining 147 seats there was hardly any election as the contesting candidates belonged to the same ruling alliance and they won by rigging and occupying polling centers, keeping the voters away from casting their votes. Because of having for all practical purposes a one-party government and their suppression of opposition, a political vacuum exists in the country creating opportunities for the extremist forces to take advantage of the situation. It is argued that in order to contain and resist the rising terrorism in Bangladesh two immediate steps ought to be taken:
1. hold immediately a free and fair election in order to have an  accountable elected government and 
2. unite the people under a national platform comprising of all sections of people irrespective  of political affiliations.

Rise of Islamic Militancy
The rise of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh is not a recent phenomenon. It has been an issue of security not only of Bangladesh but all the neighboring countries and particularly India. The origins of this militancy could be traced back to 1980’s when the Talibans backed by the United States were fighting to throw out the ‘infidel communists’ from their ‘holy land’ of Afghanistan. Most of the militant leaders in Bangladesh claim to have been trained by the Talibans and taken part in the war against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.

Between 1996 and 2001 when Awami League was in the government, 8-major incidents of bomb explosions had taken place causing more than 25 deaths. The militancy intensified during the period BNP was in the government between 2001 and 2006. Besides many other incidents, in 6 Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) suicide bomb attacks 33 people were killed and 450 injured. On 21 August 2004 in a grenade attack launched at a public rally aiming to kill Sheikh Hasina, miraculously saved, killed 24 persons and 200 injured. The attack was later claimed to have been made by Harkat-ul-Jihad. On 17 August 2005 the JMB carried out simultaneous explosions of 478 bombs in 63 out of 64 Districts of the country mostly aimed at the courts and the government buildings. Between 17 August to 8 December of the same year in 7 major bomb attacks militants killed 30 people and another 400 injured. JMB by the time had developed a countrywide network but the BNP government in October 2005 was able to arrest all the leaders of JMB and Harkat-ul-Jihad. In a high-profile trial, on 29 May 2006, 7 top leaders were convicted and sentenced to death and in their appeals the High Court Division confirmed the verdict and the Supreme Court had done the same. In March 2007, out of those 7, 6 senior leaders were hanged to death for killing a sub-ordinate judge.

In recent months absence of a participatory democracy has encouraged the extremists and fanatic groups to go underground to take 17 valuable human lives which included bloggers, publishers, some members of Hindu community, a Priest of a Church, a Moazzin of a Mosque, a Saint of a Buddhist Temple, two young same-sex activists and wife of a senior police officer.

The latest horror created by some young educated terrorists killing 20 people, of them 17 foreigners including 1 Indian, at a restaurant on 1st July in Gulshan in the heart of the diplomatic enclave of the capital, followed by another attack close to the largest Eid congregation of the country on 7 July at Sholakia, Kishoreganj killing 4 persons including 2 policemen and 20 injured: all added a new dimension in the security concerns of Bangladesh. The incident mourned as ‘Gulshan tragedy’ stunned the nation to see not only the brutal killing of 17 foreigners at a time but to find that the killers were English-educated youths of well-to-do middle class families, not from the religion-based Madrasas as perceived so long. These killings and the government’s failure to track down the killers has caused a great amount of uncertainty, fear and a sense of insecurity in all sections of people. The United States and some other countries have indicated that these incidents are linked with ISIS, which the Bangladesh government vehemently denies.

Very recently soon after the Gulshan tragedy the Assistant Secretary of State Ms Nisha Desai Biswal on an urgent visit to Bangladesh has categorically stated that United States thinks that there are international connections with the rising terrorism in Bangladesh and she formally offered to provide technical assistance to the law enforcing agencies in Bangladesh to combat terrorism. The government is considering the proposal. As for India, besides the problems she has of similar nature, rise of militancy in Bangladesh is a matter of great concern for Delhi administration also. Besides the investments made in many sectors, any disruption in the transit facilities and the trading business of 7 billion dollars certainly raises question of security for India.

Chittagong Hill Tracts
Another area of security concern is the insurgency in Chittagong Hill Tracts bordering with India, which has been a focus of international attention for a long time. It is situated in the northeastern part of the country comprising of three districts Bandarban, Khagrachari and Rangamati. The tribal population is about 500,000 with non-tribal settlers around 450,000, they occupy a large territory, almost one-fifth of the total area of Bangladesh. The demand for self-rule by the tribal people has been a source of embarrassment to every government in Bangladesh. It has led to armed conflicts, confrontations, reprisals and military actions. However through all the efforts of successive governments finally in December 1997 the Awami League government with Indian support was able to sign a Peace Treaty with Jotindra Bodhpriya Larma known as Shantu Larma who represented the insurgent organization Jana Sanghati with an armed wing in the name of Shanti Bahini. But despite this Peace Treaty which helped in reducing tension and armed conflicts, for two major reasons peace could not be fully restored and the entire area remain to be vulnerable as a section of the tribal people still continue with their insurgency for a self-rule.
1. The provisions relating to land ownership and negation of right to vote of the settlers were in conflict with the Constitution and unless this issue was resolved, the settlers from the mainland will not have the access to cast their votes on the ground that they did not own any land to be eligible to be voters. 
2. Due to this constitutional conflict and some other legal and administrative predicaments no election could be held for more than three decades to allow elected tribal leaders to run their own affairs in the Hill Tracts. 

The frequent influx of Rohingya refugees entering into Bangladesh from Myanmar is another great security concern. There are still 300,000 Rohingyas infiltrated and scattered all over Bangladesh and the neighboring countries particularly India causing threat to law and order and security of the states. The flow of the Rohingya Refugees go on increasing whenever Myanmar army intensifies their torture and repression upon them as a part of their ethnic cleansing.

Relationship with India
The relationship between our two countries, other than having some occasional tensions on sharing of water and border killings by BSF, has remained most of the time stable no matter which party has been in the government. In recent years however our relationship has reached a much higher scale particularly from the year 2009 when the Awami League returned to power again.  People in Bangladesh realise that India being a large powerful neighbor, our relationship should be friendly and harmonious. The critical issues Bangladesh has with India included:

Land Boundary Agreement
The implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement signed between Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1974 bas been a demand of Bangladesh for a long time. The agreement provided demarcation of the land boundary between the two countries on the transfer of 111 enclaves situated in India to Bangladesh and 51 such enclaves held in Bangladesh to handover to India. Bangladesh on their part had already acted upon the agreement by way of amending its constitution in the same year in November 1974 but India could not do so for over 40 years. This long delay caused lot of irritation between our two countries.

In 2014 the BJP government had taken initiative to implement the agreement and had the Constitution 119th Amendment (bill was introduced by the last government in 2013) passed unanimously by the Parliament in May 2015. In less than a month Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi during his first visit to Bangladesh on 6 June agreed to complete the physical implementation of the agreement. In the month of July the process of exchanging the enclaves continued and by the month of August transfer of 162 enclaves and respective people so long lived without any national identity was completed. With this ended a long standing issue between the two countries. 

Maritime Zone
Having failed to arrive at an amicable settlement for nearly 35 years Bangladesh in October 2009 instituted arbitral proceedings against India pursuant to Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. India contested in the proceedings before the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (Arbitration Tribunal) who delivered its award on 7 July 2014, in which Bangladesh has been awarded 19,467 sq km, four-fifth of the total area of 25,602 sq km of disputed maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal and the award has clearly delineated the course of maritime boundary line between India and Bangladesh. The award has recognized India’s sovereignty over New Moore Island and it received nearly 6000 sq km of the contested zone where the Island had once existed. Both the countries have accepted the award 

Settlement of this complicated dispute by way of an arbitral award and the implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement have been great diplomatic achievements for both the countries. This peaceful resolution of the disputes has no doubt ensured more peace and security not only for two of us but for the entire South Asia.

Water Sharing 
Sharing of water of all the international rivers that flow between our two countries has been the most contentious issue between Bangladesh and India. 53 rivers flow from India downstream to Bangladesh upon which for centuries life, ecology, security and economy of millions of people depended. Bangladesh being a lower riparian country has suffered most because of the dams and barrages built in the upstream by India to divert the water for their own use. On the question of sharing of water of the Ganges at the Farakka Barrage a new Treaty for a period of 30 years was signed in 1997 but till now no progress has been made in respect of sharing of water of other major rivers. On the sharing of water at the Tista Barrage no treaty could yet be signed. When Mr. Manmohan Singh the then Prime Minister visited Bangladesh in 2011 with a prior announcement that the agreement would be signed on sharing of Tista River water the expectation rose high but it failed at the last moment because of the objection from the government of West Bengal.

India on their own has been working on a Mega Project to divert water from all the major rivers through the difficult terrain above the north of Bangladesh without any consultation with the lower riparian country. Brahmaputra, originating from China is the largest river of this region. India by taking advantage of being an upper riparian country has gone on implementing their projects for diversion of water. But in recent years as China is preparing a huge scheme for utilization of the water of Brahmaputra, India has now found itself in the same position demanding of China consultation for sharing of the water of Brahmaputra as Bangladesh has been demanding of India as a lower riparian country. 

The most rational approach would be to develop an integrated comprehensive joint plan for water management and resources of this region as a whole by the participation of all the countries which will include Nepal and China. This battle for water can be turned into a battle for prosperity of this entire region. This will also provide generation of electricity to meet the demands of all the neighboring countries.

Transit facilities for India
One of India’s most persistent demands was to allow transit facilities for the transportation of goods through our land to its seven land-locked northeastern states which would drastically cut down the distance and the cost of such transportation to India’s favour. For example the distance between Agartala (Tripura, India) and Kolkata is 1600 kilometers which now will come down to less than 100 kilometers between Agartala and the nearest sea port in Chittagong (Bangladesh).

There has been a widespread public resentment amongst the people against giving transit facilities on land to India as many fear that if such access is given, the security of Bangladesh will be under constant threat. But despite such apprehension and fear the government moved forward to allow the transit on economic grounds and they believe that such co-operation with India will not only strengthen the friendship between the two countries, but will also generate a huge revenue  from granting such facilities to India. The agreements for transit were signed between the two parties when the Prime Minister of Bangladesh visited India in January 2010. In order to implement the agreements building of sufficient infrastructure was necessary for which India offered a loan of one billion dollar under a separate agreement signed. In 2016 the transit facilities have been officially opened for India to take goods on land through Bangladesh to their northeast region. The transit facilities will also ease India’s security concerns in respect of its 7 vulnerable North-Eastern States.
Cross border migration, legal or illegal, is another sensitive issue between all the countries in South Asia. Human trafficking and illegal immigration is an issue of security for all of South Asia

South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC)
The South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), a forum for social and economic development by mutual co-operation between the countries of this region established in 1985 has not yet fully blossomed. If this organization could be made functional and effective it would have been easier for ensuring peace and security in South Asia.

Joint Action Against Terrorism
In order to contain any kind of terrorism a more pro-active joint effort is an imperative now. Recently our Prime Minister has said in the Parliament that there are “22 terrorist groups working in Bangladesh.” Most of them are unknown and ‘homegrown’ but there are three major organizations who claim to have international connections. The most prominent ones are Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Hizbut Tahrir and Ansarullah Bangla Team. All of them are banned by law. 

Despite the fact that all the principal leaders of JMB and Harkat-ul-Jihad are either hanged or in jail but still there are some militant terrorist groups who continue to operate in the name of Islam under different banners and names. Although in Bangladesh we have two sharply divided large and contending political parties but on the issue of containing terrorism there is a unity. There is also unanimity between the two political parties to not to allow any of the state territories to have any camp or armed groups to operate to the detriment of the other. 

Bangladesh and India will have to work together urgently, if necessary with international support, to eliminate the forces of terrorism in this region.