Asia in Review Archive 2021
Date of AiR edition
30 March 2021
Bangladesh: Fourteen Islamist militants sentenced to death for assassination attempt on prime minister
(lm) A Bangladeshi court on March 23 handed sentenced to death 14 militants in a two-decade-old case related to an attempted assassination of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The convicts are members of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), an Islamic fundamentalist organization that was banned in Bangladesh in 2005. [The Hindu]
In the case dating back to 2000, security officials recovered a time bomb near the stage where the prime minister was scheduled to speak. Among those accused in the case, 13 are in prison, while 11 have absconded. Last week’s verdict came after a High Court in February had upheld the death sentence of 10 militants and acquitted one [see AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4].
30 March 2021
Bangladesh: Authorities defend use of fences after Rohingya camp blaze
(lm) Authorities defended on March 24 the use of barbed-wire fencing surrounding Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps, after a major blaze in four conjoined camps near Cox’s Bazar had left at least 15 people dead and nearly 50,000 homeless [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].
In the wake of early assessments, the United Nations (UN), aid groups and Rohingya leaders said on March 23 that the fences erected by the military had hampered rescue work and made it difficult to evacuate, though it wasn’t yet clear how significant an obstacle they were. Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner came out defending the fences, saying they were not built inside the camps to act as barriers between blocks of shanties. [The New Humanitarian] [The Straits Times]
The cause of the fire is still under investigation. An early report from the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) suggested an exploding gas cylinder may have been responsible. Rohingya households receive cylinders of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking fuel as part of their aid supplies. [BRAC]
Meanwhile, the UN’s migration agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said the fire destroyed a number of facilities, including key medical facilities, food distribution centers, and a market. [ReliefWeb]
30 March 2021
Bangladesh: Violent protests spread after visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
(lm) At least 13 people were killed and dozens injured in protests against a two-day visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh. Clashes between protesters and government forces began on March 26 after weekly prayers in three cities – Dhaka, the capital; Brahmanbaria, near the Indian border, and the coastal city of Chittagong – and have since spread across the country. [Al Jazeera 1] [Reuters] [The Straits Times]
Prime Minister Modi arrived in Bangladesh on March 26 to attend the concluding event of Bangladesh’s 10-day-long grand celebration commemorating the birth centenary of the country’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 50 years of independence from Pakistan [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]. Critics accuse Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of stoking religious polarization in India and discriminating against minorities, particularly Muslims. In recent weeks, demonstrators in Muslim-majority Bangladesh had urged the Indian leader not to visit and criticized Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for issuing the invitation, saying the two countries have many unresolved disputes, including the killing of Bangladeshis by India’s Border Security Force (BSF) [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3].
A few hundred members of Hefazat-e-Islam, a tightly-knit coalition of a dozen or so Islamist organizations [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3], led street processions through Chittagong and Dhaka on March 27, protesting the deaths of four of their supporters, who were killed the day before when police had opened fire at protesters who allegedly attacked a police station. Violence continued in Brahammanbaria the following day, resulting in five more deaths, according to Bangladeshi media. When the protest march turned violent, security forces opened fire to disperse the crowds. [Al Jazeera 2] [New York Times]
Other groups – including students and other Islamist outfits – also staged protests, criticizing the government for what they described as growing authoritarianism, including forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. At least 20 people, including two journalists, were injured when members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BSL), the student wing of the ruling Awami League, carried out multiple attacks on protests at a university in the capital Dhaka. [Dhaka Tribune]
Separately, protests were held on March 25 across Bangladesh to observe the “Bengali Genocide Remembrance Day”. Approved unanimously in 2017, the national day commemorates “Operation Searchlight”, a military operation carried out by the Pakistan Army which sought to curb the Bengali independence movement by eliminating the Awami League apparatus, alongside Bengali civilians, intelligentsia, students, politicians, and armed personnel [see AiR No. 10, March/2021, 2]. [Hindustan Times]
30 March 2021
Bangladesh stresses importance of infrastructure project to develop trade with Bhutan
(lm) Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on March 24 held a meeting with visiting Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, discussing various fields of cooperation between the two countries, notably trade and connectivity. The Bhutanese prime minister was in Dhaka to attend the 10-day-long grand celebration commemorating the birth centenary of the country’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 50 years of independence from Pakistan [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].
The two leaders discussed the possibility of a bilateral or tripartite agreement to build a hydropower project in Bhutan. Prime Minister Hasina also offered to her country’s waterways to expand bilateral trade. In December, both countries had signed a Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA), the first such agreement Bangladesh signed with any country since its independence in 1971. [The Daily Star]
30 March 2021
Bangladesh visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a boost for trade, connectivity
(lm) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 27 concluded a two-day official visit to Bangladesh, a trip that sparked both violent protest [see article in this edition] and enthusiasm that relations between the two neighbors will continue to grow. [The Indian Express]
The Indian Prime Minister arrived on March 26 to attend the concluding event of Bangladesh’s a 10-day-long grand celebration commemorating the birth centenary of the country’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 50 years of independence from Pakistan. Leaders from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives have already attended the festivities, which started on March 17 [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].
On the first day of Prime Minister Modi’s visit, the two leaders witnessed the signing of five agreements involving trade, disaster management, information technology and sports. They also jointly laid the foundation stones for infrastructure development for power evacuation facilities of an under-construction nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. A new train service between Bangladesh and India was also launched by the two leaders. [Associated Press] [The Straits Times 2]
During the talks Bangladesh Prime Minister Skeikh Hasina requested India, currently a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), to play a “strong role” in the early repatriation of the displaced Rohingya back to Myanmar. [NDTV]
Prime Minister Modi also bore the gift of an additional 1.2 million doses of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom), after Dhaka had previously received 2 million free doses of the shot. Bangladesh in November signed a deal with the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker whose coronavirus shots are being used in New Delhi’s “vaccine diplomacy” [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. Coming at a time when New Delhi has told its international partners that it will prioritize domestic inoculations over exports of vaccines as it battles a rise in new infections, the gift lends further credence to the importance of the India-Bangladesh relationship. [Reuters] [South China Morning Post]
In December, the two countries had signed seven Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) on cooperation in a range of areas including trade, energy and agriculture AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4. The virtual summit marked the first high-level meeting of the two leaders since bilateral relations had nosedived after India in 2019 had passed its controversial religion-based citizenship law [see AiR No. 2, January/2020, 2]. New Delhi has since been making overtures to smoothen relations with Dhaka, with the Indian foreign secretary visiting Bangladesh twice last year [see AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1, AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3].
23 March 2021
Bangladesh invites leaders of five nations to visit on Independence Day
(lm) Bangladesh on March 17 witnessed the inaugural session of a 10-day-long grand celebration in Dhaka commemorating the birth centenary of the country’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahmanand 50 years of independence from Pakistan. The South Asian nation had postponed the 100th birthday celebrations of its founding leader last year due to the looming pandemic. [Anadolu Agency]
Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih delivered a speech as a guest of honor, while Bangladesh’s President Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also addressed the nation. Chinese President Xi Jinping, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga delivered recorded welcome speeches.
Heads of state from Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan also attended the celebrations under separate schedules due to the coronavirus pandemic. All five South Asian leaders held talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which yielded several bilateral memorandums of understanding (MoUs). [Daily Financial Times] [The Kathmandu Post]
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be attending as chief guest at the concluding event on March 26, signifying the importance of the India−Bangladesh relationship, for it will be Modi’s first foreign visit since the outbreak of the pandemic. As to possible outcomes of the visit, attention is paid to the signing of a water-sharing agreement between Bangladesh and India for the Teesta River.
Dhaka has long been pressing New Delhi for signing off a deal on the sharing of Teesta River water. Negotiations were expedited in 2009 and, since 2011, have aimed at ensuring that the river would get the necessary water during the lean season to ensure a minimum level to help the agriculture sector of north Bangladesh. However, as India uses dams upstream to generate electricity and needs water to irrigate farms in West Bengal state, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has so far refused to sign off a respective agreement.
Last August, then, talks between Bangladesh and China on a loan deal to implement a proposed irrigation project on the Teesta River had entered an advanced stage, leaving flat India which had hitherto initiated a series of measures to regain long-standing good relations with its eastern neighbor [see AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4].
23 March 2021
Bangladesh: Thousands flee ‘massive fire’ at Rohingya refugee camps
Authorities have begun investigating a huge blaze that ripped through a sprawling Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh on March 22, forcing at least 50,000 people to flee and left seven people believed dead. The fire, which marks the largest of multiple fires that have plagued the camps this year alone, was believed to have started in one of the 34 camps, before spreading to two other camps. [CNN] [France 24] [The Straits Times 1] [The Straits Times 2]
Meanwhile, a United Nations delegation on March 12 completed a three-day visit to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal where authorities have moved more than 13,000 Rohingya refugees since December, ignoring ongoing complaints by rights groups concerned about the low-lying island’s vulnerability to cyclones and floods. The UN earlier said it had not been allowed to carry out a technical and safety assessment of the island and was not involved in the transfer of refugees there [see AiR No. 50, December/2020, 3]. [Arab News]
To ease chronic overcrowding in the sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar [see AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2], Bangladesh wants to eventually transfer 100,000 of the more than one million refugees to Bhasan Char. The government routinely dismisses concerns of floods, citing the construction of a 2m embankment to prevent flooding along with facilities such as cyclone centers and hospitals [see AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2].
16 March 2021
SIPRI international arms transfers report 2020
(dql) According to the 2020 international arms transfers report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released last week, the US remains the world’s largest arms supplier in 2016-2020 accounting for 37% of the global arms exports, followed by Russia (20%), France (8.2), Germany (5.5%) and China (5.2%). Together, these five countries accounted for 76% of all exports of major arms. Besides China, Asian countries listed among the top 25 countries which accounted for 99% of global arms exports include South Korea (2.7%, ranking at 7), the United Arab Emirates (0.5%, 18), and India (0.2%, 24)
Against the backdrop of the US-China rivalry, the US allies Australia (accounting for 9.4% of US arms exports), South Korea (6.7%) and Japan (5.7%) were among the five largest importers of US arms.
23 Asian countries were among the 40 largest importers including Saudi-Arabia, India, China, South Korea, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iraq, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Oman, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, the Philippines, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Malaysia. [Reliefweb]
16 March 2021
Bangladesh proposes strengthening intra-OIC trade, seeks Saudi investment
(lm) Bangladesh has urged Saudi Arabia to sign Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) for further enabling Saudi investors to invest in public–private partnership projects in the South Asian nation. Dhaka’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs proposed as much during a bilateral meeting wit his Saudi counterpart in Riyadh on March 7, Bangladesh Foreign Ministry said the following day. [The Financial Express]
During his three-day working visit to Saudi Arabia, the Bangladeshi diplomat also met with the Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Yousef Al-Othaimeen, on March 8. During the meeting, the two sides reviewed areas and prospects of close cooperation between the OIC and Bangladesh. The meeting followed on a visit by a five-member delegation two weeks earlier to take stock of the situation of Rohingya refugees on the ground. At the time, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen had urged the OIC to help start the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to their home country Myanmar. [Prothom Alo]
16 March 2021
Bangladesh criticizes international community nor not doing enough to repatriate Rohingya refugees
(lm) Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momin has appealed to the international community to work sincerely, instead of paying ‘lip service’ regarding the repatriation of Rohingyas refugees to their home country Myanmar. Addressing a discussion at the Foreign Service Academy in the capital Dhaka on March 8, the foreign minister also urged countries to re-evaluate their commercial ties with Myanmar, and criticized that some countries had even increased their trade volume with Myanmar since the military crackdown on the Muslim Rohingya that began in August 2017. [The Daily Star]
Momin also took a potshot at international organizations and rights groups that had criticized Bangladesh’s decision to send some of the refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal. Since early December, authorities have relocated about 10,000 Rohingya to Bhasan Char, an island specifically developed to accommodate 100,000 of the 1 million Rohingya [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. Bangladesh has repeatedly justified the move saying it would ease chronic overcrowding in sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar [see AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2].
16 March 2021
Bangladesh: Rally held against Quran petition in India
(lm) The largest Islamist political party in Bangladesh, Jamaat-e-Islami, organized a rally in the capital Dhaka on March 15 to protest against a petition filed in India’s Supreme Court seeking the removal of 26 verses from the Holy Quran. [Anadolu Agency]
A local Shia Muslim leader from the state of Uttar Pradesh had previously filed petition with the Indian Supreme Court seeking the removal of 26 verses from the Holy Quran over claims that these were introduced to the religious book at a later date and are violent in nature and against the basic tenets of Islam.
In India, clerics from both Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects have strongly condemned the move and issued a fatwa – a death sentence – against the petitioner, calling on community members to ostracize him from the community and Islam. A prominent Shia Muslim cleric even urged the Supreme Court to reject the petition and sent a memorandum to Indian Prime Minister Modi to urge Indian authorities to arrest the petitioner for blasphemy and making an attempt to breach peace by vitiating the communal atmosphere in the country. [The Free Press Journal]
9 March 2021
Bangladesh seeks economic, not security relations with United States, says foreign minister
(lm) Bangladesh has conveyed to the United States that it would prioritize support in infrastructure projects and investment over purchasing defense equipment, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said on March 2. Momen recently completed a working visit to Washington, during which he held a phone conversation with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss bilateral cooperation to jointly address major challenges, including climate change, in South Asia and the greater Indo-Pacific region [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]. [Dhaka Tribune]
Earlier this year the US ambassador to Bangladesh had ensured Dhaka that the new Biden-Harris Administration would continue to make the Indo-Pacific and South Asia a significant priority. The remarks came after months of coordinated effort by Washington to entice Dhaka into closer embrace as a key Indo-Pacific partner to counter China’s growing financial and political footprint in the region [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3, AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3].
9 March 2021
Bangladesh: Cartoonist arrested under contentious internet law granted bail after protests
(lm) Bangladesh’s High Court granted bail on March 3 to a jailed cartoonist who has been held for ten months in pre-trial detention for drawing cartoons mocking a powerful businessman close to the government. According to his lawyer, he has developed major health problems and has been tortured in custody. [Al Jazeera] [Voice of America]
The same day, several hundred people rallied in Dhaka in the sixth days of widespread protests over the death in custody of a prominent writer earlier this month [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]. The protesters gave Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government an ultimatum to abolish the contentious Digital Security Act (DSA) by March 26 – Bangladesh’s Independence Day – or face intensified protests. [The Straits Times]
Both accused were among 11 individuals arrested in May 2020 under the DSA for allegedly creating confusion over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The men were repeatedly denied bail and remained in pre-trial detention for nearly nine months before they were officially charged in late January this year for posting “propaganda, false or offensive information, and information that could destroy communal harmony and create unrest”.
Against this backdrop, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, urged Bangladesh on March 1 to ensure a transparent probe into to the death in custody of the writer. Bachelet also called on Dhaka to “conduct a review of the Digital Security Act […]; suspend its application; and release all those detained under it for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and opinion.” [UN News]
Separately, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court (SC) on March 7 heard a bail petition concerning a 61-old man who was arrested under the DSA in March last year. The High Court granted him bail seven months later for one year on medical grounds, but the government filed a petition, challenging the court’s ruling. By the time of the SC’s decision, the accused had been in jail for a year without being charged, although the DSA gives authorities a maximum of 105 days to complete a probe and file charges. While the SC upheld the High Court’s ruling from last year, the Chief Justice remarked that the SC would not consider granting bail to people accused of “tarnishing the country’s image”, but on medical grounds. [The Daily Star]
9 March 2021
Bangladesh: Anniversary of Sheikh Mujib Rahman’s historic March 7 speech observed
(lm) Bangladesh has observed the 50th anniversary of the historic speech given by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding president of Bangladesh and father of incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, on March 7, 1971. Delivered during a period of escalating tensions between East Pakistan and the powerful political and military establishment of West Pakistan, the speech effectively declared the independence of Bangladesh. [bdnews24.com]
At that time, Pakistani military rulers refused to transfer power to Rahman’s Awami League, the largest East Pakistani political party which had gained majority in the National Assembly of Pakistan in 1970. The Bangladesh Liberation War began 18 days later when the Pakistan Army launched a military operation aimed at eliminating the Awami League apparatus, alongside Bengali civilians, intelligentsia, students, politicians, and armed personnel.
9 March 2021
Bangladesh: Suspension of prison term of former PM Khaleda likely to be extended
(lm) Bangladesh’s Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs recommended on March 8 to extend the freeze on the jail sentences of Khaleda Zia, the chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) who served two periods as prime minister. [The Siasat Daily]
An arch-rival of Prime Minister Hasina’s, Zia had served 25 months out of 17 years of prison sentences in two corruption cases when the government granted her conditional release for six months in March last year to seek medical treatment in hospital under the supervision of the prison authorities. [AiR No. 13, March/2020, 5].
The suspension was extended last September by another six months on condition that the former prime minister cannot go abroad. The same month, the Supreme Court’s (SC) Appellate Division upheld the suspension of trial proceedings in four more cases against Zia. The cases, carrying charges of vandalism, arson and defamation, were filed in 2015. [AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4].
2 March 2021
Bangladesh, US agree to jointly address challenges in South Asia and greater Indo-Pacific region
(lm) Bangladesh and the United States have agreed to further strengthen bilateral ties and to jointly address major challenges, including climate change, in South Asia and the greater Indo-Pacific region. The consensus was reached during a phone conversation between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen held on February 23. [The Hindu]
Momen is currently on a visit to Washington DC – his first since US President Joe Biden was inaugurated and announced his administration’s commitment to pursuing a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights, and equality with the use of multilateral tools. Apart from the phone conversation with Blinken, which could not be held in-person due to COVID-19 restrictions, Momen delivered two speeches on the Rohingya crisis, met with US Congressmen and gave interviews in response to ‘negative propaganda’ against Bangladesh, especially regarding extrajudicial killings. [The Daily Star]
Earlier this year the US ambassador to Bangladesh ensured Dhaka that the Biden-Harris Administration would continue to make the Indo-Pacific and South Asia a significant priority. The remarks came after months of coordinated effort by Washington to entice Dhaka into closer embrace as a key Indo-Pacific partner to counter China’s growing financial and political footprint in the region [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3, AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3].
2 March 2021
Bangladesh: Hundreds march in Dhaka to protest death of writer in prison
(lm) Hundreds of Bangladeshi students and activists took to the streets on March 1 in the fourth day of protests sparked by the death of a prominent writer who had collapsed and died in prison on February 25 after being arrest last year on charges of violating the contentious Digital Security Act (DSA). Riot police stopped demonstrators shortly before the Bangladesh Secretariat, which houses the majority of ministries. [Al Jazeera]
During clashes between police and protesters during previous demonstrations, dozens were injured as security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators marching at the University of Dhaka and the National Press Club. [The Straits Times] [France 24]
Authorities have ordered a committee to determine whether a negligence by jail officials may have caused the death of the writer. But protesters call the incident a ‘custodial murder’, pointing out that the writer was denied bail six times during his ten months in prison. Speaking at a press conference the same day, Prime Minister Hasina brushed aside international concerns over the DSA and the writer’s death saying the law was necessary to prevent ‘the youth from taking a wrong path or getting involved in militancy and terrorism.’ [Deutsche Welle]
Meanwhile, thirteen ambassadors from countries including the United States, France, Britain, Canada, and Germany expressed ‘grave concern’ over the case in a joint statement on February 26. The diplomats called on Bangladesh’s government to conduct ‘a swift, transparent and independent inquiry’ into the writer’s death, while also questioning the DSA’s ‘compatibility with Bangladesh’s obligations under international human rights laws and standards.’ [bdnews24.com] [South China Morning Post]
Throughout the last year, more than 40 people have been arrested over social media posts about the pandemic, lending credence to concerns that the DSSA is used as a pretense to muzzle critics of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic [see AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3]. In January Amnesty International had published a report calling on authorities in Bangladesh to immediately and unconditionally release all artists unlawfully detained and to repeal the Digital Security Act 2018 or substantially amend its repressive provisions. [AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4]
23 February 2021
Bangladesh: Lawyer files sedition case over Al Jazeera investigative report
(lm) A government-linked Bangladeshi lawyer filed a sedition case on February 17 over an Al Jazeera investigative report that had revealed disturbing facts about the family of Bangladesh’s Chief of Army Staff (CAS), General Aziz Ahmed [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3]. [Al Jazeera]
The lawyer behind the case is the founder and president of the Bangabandhu Foundation, a government-owned and supported welfare foundation for athletes in Bangladesh. The accused in the lawsuit are Al Jazeera Media Network’s acting Director General and several other people featured in the documentary.
Furthermore, the country’s High Court later the same day ordered the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) to remove all content of the report from social media and other online platforms. The BTRC had earlier approached YouTube to remove the investigation from the video platform – a request that was rejected as the content did not violate the company’s community guidelines. In addition, Bangladesh’s telco regulator had also called on US social media giants Facebook and Twitter to pull down the documentary. [The Straits Times]
Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s foreign ministry has slammed the documentary as a “smear campaign” by Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest political party, which since 2013 is banned from contesting national elections. Its predecessor, Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, strongly opposed the independence of Bangladesh and break-up of Pakistan. During the War of Liberation that transformed East Pakistan into Bangladesh in 1971, the group collaborated with the Pakistan Army in its operations against Bengali nationalists and pro-liberation intellectuals. Under Hasina’s government, which has been in power since 2009, five of Jamaat’s senior leaders have been executed over war crimes committed during the war [also see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1].
23 February 2021
Bangladesh: Court upholds death penalty for ten militants
(lm) A Bangladeshi High Court upheld on February 18 the death sentence of 10 militants, and acquitted one, in a two-decade-old case related to an attempted assassination of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. [The Daily Star]
The convicts are members of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), an Islamic fundamentalist organization that was banned in Bangladesh in 2005. In the case dating back to 2000, security officials recovered a time bomb near the stage where the prime minister was scheduled to speak. Among those accused in the case, 13 are in prison, while 11 have absconded. [Anadolu Agency]
23 February 2021
Bangladesh: Court sentences to death five members of Islamist militant group for killing US blogger
(lm) A special tribunal sentenced to death five members of an Islamist militant group on February 16 for killing a Bangladeshi-American blogger critical of religious fundamentalism six years ago. The court also jailed one man for life in the attack, which was part of a string of deadly attacks between 2013 and 2016 targeting secular activists, bloggers and atheist writers, claimed by Islamic State or al Qaeda-aligned groups. [The Straits Times]
All men convicted on February 16 belong to the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), an Islamic Jihadi organization in Bangladesh, which the police say was behind the murders of more than a dozen atheist bloggers. Earlier this month Bangladesh’s Special Anti-Terrorism Tribunal sentenced to death eight Islamist militants, two of whom are at large, in the 2015 killing of a publisher of books on secularism and atheism [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3]. [Jurist]
16 February 2021
Bangladesh: Islamist to hang over publisher’s murder
(lm) A special tribunal has sentenced to death eight Islamist militants, two of whom are at large, in the 2015 killing of a publisher of books on secularism and atheism. The attack was part of a wave of violence between 2013 and 2016 targeting secular activists, bloggers and atheist writers. [The Straits Times] [Al Jazeera]
The verdict comes at a time when Bangladesh is witnessing a surge in Islamist activism and violence, all the while the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (AL) – a traditionally secular, center-left party – continues to grapple with its relations to Hefazat-e-Islam, the biggest Islamic group in the country.
A tightly-knit coalition of a dozen or so Islamist organization, Hefazat-e-Islam burst onto the scene in 2010, ostensibly to defend Islam from AL’s allegedly anti-Islamic policies, especially a proposed policy to confer equal inheritance rights to women. The group then shot to prominence in 2013, staging mass protests and sit-ins in Dhaka with a 13-point charter of demands which included implementing the death penalty for blaspheming Islam or the prophet. [The Jamestown Foundation]
Importantly, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina facilitated Hefazat-e-Islam’s rise, as it decided to offer ideological concessions in order to deter unrest. Moreover, the AL government considered the group a useful Islamist ally to counter its political rival, the Islamist-friendly Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Consequently, in the years between 2013 to 2016, when secular bloggers were killed by militant groups, the government resorted to blaming the victims for their offensive writings. A case in point, authorities in 2017 responded to Hefazat-e-Islam’s demand by removing 17 popular poems and stories by non-Muslim writers as the group accused such writings of promoting secularism. [Prothom Alo]
Understandably, the religious groups considered such appeasement policies as empowering, and have since continued to push their agendas to further Islamize the society and public sphere. In October and November last year, for example, Hefazat-e-Islam organized a series of mass-protests in Dhaka to protest against French President Emanuel Macron’s defense of free speech laws that allow cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed [see AiR No. 44, November/2020, 1]. Weeks later, the group started an agitation against the construction of a sculpture of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding president of Bangladesh and father of incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in Dhaka [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]. Islamist groups deem such statues to be anti-Islamic, often associating them with idol worship – a strictly forbidden practice in Islam.
16 February 2021
Bangladesh: Gallantry award of former President and BNP founder Ziaur Rahman revoked
(lm) The National Freedom Fighter Council [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2] decided on February 9 to revoke a gallantry title awarded to Ziaur Rahman, founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and former President of Bangladesh. The decision, however, has not yet been implemented; it depends on the Ministry of Liberation War Affairs, which may decide to send the proposal to the Cabinet for final approval.
Originally an officer of the Bangladesh Army, Ziaur Rahman quickly ascended to leadership in the months following the 1975 assassination of Sheikh Mujibur, the founding president of Bangladesh and father of incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Rahman, who was killed in a military coup in 1981, was the husband of Khaleda Zia, an arch-rival of Prime Minister Hasina’s who served two periods as prime minister and is currently on conditional release from jail in two corruption cases [see AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4].
The awards had been conferred to Rahman for his contributions to the War of Liberation that transformed East Pakistan into Bangladesh in 1971. The reasons behind the decision against him have been cited as involvement in the plot for assassinating Sheikh Mujibur, as well as aiding and abetting the group of army officials involved in the killing by appointing them to important government posts during his presidency (1977-81), among others. However, the charges pertaining to the murder of Sheikh Mujibur have not been tried in any court. [Dhaka Tribune 1]
Protesting the decision, members of the BNP questioned the motive behind the decision, suggesting it had been made for “political vengeance”. They also said the National Freedom Fighters Council did not have the authority to revoke the gallantry title, considering that the body was formed to look after the welfare of members of the Freedom Fighters – the so-called Mukti Bahini – who fought for Bangladesh during the War of Liberation. [Dhaka Tribune 2] [United News of Bangladesh]
16 February 2021
Bangladesh: Authorities to move more Rohingya to remote island, despite outcry
(lm) Authorities in Bangladesh have sent another 3,000 to 4,000 Rohingya refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, ignoring ongoing complaints by rights groups concerned about the low-lying island’s vulnerability to cyclones and floods. [The Straits Times] [Anadolu Agency]
Since early December, authorities had already relocated about 7,000 Rohingya to Bhasan Char, an island specifically developed to accommodate 100,000 of the 1 million Rohingya [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. Bangladesh justifies the move saying it would ease chronic overcrowding in sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar [see AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]. The government also routinely dismisses concerns of floods, citing the construction of a 2m embankment to prevent flooding along with facilities such as cyclone centers and hospitals [see AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2].
Earlier this month a long-awaited meeting of a working committee on the Rohingya repatriation between Bangladesh and Myanmar had been adjourned indefinitely, after the military overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government and declared a year-long state of emergency [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].
16 February 2021
Bangladesh: Investigative report exposes close relationship between crime family and prime minister
(lm) Bangladesh’s Chief of Army Staff (CAS) General Aziz Ahmed is the pivotal figure of a disturbing investigation by Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera. A two-year investigation, “All the Prime Minister’s Men” reveals how his family has all the tools of the state at its disposal, including the commuting of sentences, obtaining false documents and the arrest of political opponents, all the while maintaining powerful links with the country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
To begin with, leaked documents obtained by Al Jazeera show how General Aziz is using his position to protect his four brothers, two of whom are wanted for their involvement in the 1996 murder of a member of a rival political party of the ruling Awami League. Following that murder, the two men had fled abroad to escape law enforcement, with General Aziz using military officers to help one of his brothers creating a false identity, which was then used to set up businesses in Europe and buy properties around the world. [Al Jazeera Investigations 1]
Furthermore, the investigation revealed that the Bangladeshi government had secretly bought highly invasive surveillance equipment from Israel – a country that Bangladesh officially does not recognize – with one of the brothers wanted by law enforcement serving as a key figure in the procurement. The contract for the acquisition of spyware was signed one day after General Aziz Ahmed became head of the Bangladesh Army. [Al Jazeera Investigations 2]
The Bangladesh military reacted to the evidence by saying that the equipment was for an “army contingent due to be deployed in the UN peacekeeping mission.” The UN on February 4, however, denied that it was deploying such equipment with Bangladeshi contingents in UN peacekeeping operations. [YouTube]
16 February 2021
Maldives, Bangladesh sign two Memoranda of Understanding
(lm) During a visit of Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid to Bangladesh last week, both countries signed two Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) pertaining to the recruitment of manpower and the training of foreign service officers. [Dhaka Tribune]
The two South Asian nations further agreed to establish two regular consultation mechanisms to boost cooperation on trade and business, in addition to a direct shipping line. The two mechanisms include a joint commission for comprehensive cooperation led by the respective foreign ministers and annual foreign office consultations led by the respective foreign secretaries. [The Daily Star]
9 February 2021
Talks between on Rohingya repatriation deferred due to military coup in Myanmar
(lm) A long-awaited meeting of a working committee on the Rohingya repatriation between Bangladesh and Myanmar has been adjourned indefinitely, after the military overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government and declared a year-long state of emergency. Earlier this month Dhaka its neighbor to resume the repatriation process this year, after Myanmar had earlier said it was committed to the repatriation as per the 2017 bilateral agreement, in spite of two failed attempts in the past [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. [Dhaka Tribune 1]
Furthermore, the new administration has explained in writing to Bangladesh the reasons for the coup, citing alleged discrepancies such as duplicated names on voting lists in scores of districts in the national election held in November last year [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2]. [The Daily Star]
What is more, Bangladesh last week turned down a proposal to import 100,000 metric tons of rice under a government-to-government agreement from Myanmar, at a time when Dhaka is trying to replenish its depleted reserves after floods last year ravaged crops and sent prices to a record high. In December last year, Bangladesh agreed to buy 150,000 tons of rice from the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED), one of the largest procurement and marketing agencies for agricultural products in India. [Dhaka Tribune 2]
2 February 2021
Bangladesh: Military coup in Myanmar may scuttle plans to repatriate Rohingya refugees
(lm) The military coup in neighboring Myanmar on February 1 [see article this edition] has raised fears in Bangladesh that the new regime may not make genuine efforts to revive the stalled process of voluntary repatriation of Rohingya Muslim refugees. Myanmar had earlier said it was committed to the repatriation as per the 2017 bilateral agreement, despite to failed attempts in the past [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. [The Straits Times 1] [Forbes]
Bangladesh is hosting more than a million Rohingya refugees who fled a brutal military crackdown three years ago [see AiR No. 5, August/2017,12] at cramped makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar, which is considered the world’s largest refugee settlement. Earlier this month Dhaka urged Myanmar to resume the repatriation process this year, after the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) approved a resolution strongly condemning rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minority groups in Myanmar, including arbitrary arrests, torture, rape, and deaths in detention [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1].
Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s government sent two more groups of Rohingya refugees to a remote Bay of Bengal island on January 30, ignoring complaints by rights groups concerned about low-lying island’s vulnerability to cyclones and floods. [South China Morning Post] [Bloomberg]
Since early December, authorities had relocated about 3,500 Rohingya to Bhasan Char, an island specifically developed to accommodate 100,000 of the 1 million Rohingya [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. Bangladesh justifies the move saying it would ease chronic overcrowding in sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar [see AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]. The government also routinely dismisses concerns of floods, citing the construction of a 2m embankment to prevent flooding along with facilities such as cyclone centers and hospitals [see AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]. [The Straits Times 2]
2 February 2021
US climate envoy phones Bangladesh’s foreign minister, discusses climate change
(lm) Recognizing that Bangladesh is exceptionally vulnerable to climate change, the newly appointed United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, has assured Dhaka of continued support and cooperation on tackling the effects of climate change. [South Asia Monitor]
During a phone conversation with Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen on January 26, Kerry also said this year’s 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) might be the world’s last chance to hit the target of carbon emission.
Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries in terms of climate change. In the 2020 edition of Germanwatch’s Climate Risk Index (CRI), Dhaka ranked seventh in the list of countries most affected by climate calamities during the period 1999–2018. [Germanwatch]
26 January 2021
Myanmar, Indonesia to urge safe return conditions for Rohingyas
(nd) In an effort to weigh in on the solution of the Rohingya refugees, Indonesia urged Myanmar to create safe conditions to return from Bangladesh to Rakhine state. During a virtual ASEAN meeting, the bloc members supported the repatriation plan. The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) reminded the bloc members of the ongoing clashes between Myanmar’s military and Arakan Army, creating an unsafe environment into which a return cannot be forced. APHR renewed calls to exert more pressure on the Burmese government in this regard.
In November 2018 and August 2019, previous plans to repatriate Rohingya refugees failed due to the lack of a guarantee for their safety and rights. Indonesia took in over 11,000 Rohingya refugees since 2015, according to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry. With regards to the about 400 Rohingya refugees residing in Aceh province, Amnesty International Indonesia emphasized the government should not rush repatriation unless the conditions in Myanmar are safe. [Benar News]
Brokered by China, Bangladesh and Myanmar met last week to discuss the repatriation of Rohingya refugees last week. While Bangladesh has announced a successful agreement on the repatriation of 1 million Rohingya refugees, the Burmese side has downplayed the significance of the meeting’s conclusion. The media coverage was either non-exiting or listed under “national” in an unprominent location. Observers see this as a sign of how little pressure with regard to this issue is felt by — the Burmese civilian and military leadership. [Anadolu Agency]
26 January 2021
Bangladesh: Amnesty International voices concerns over detention of artists
(lm) Amnesty International has expressed its deep concern about the recent arbitrary detention and other forms of harassment of artists who are facing increasing attacks on their right to freedom of expression for addressing social injustice, police brutality, inequality and discrimination. In a report published on January 21, the UK-based organization also authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all artists unlawfully detained and to repeal the Digital Security Act 2018 or substantially amend its repressive provisions. [Dhaka Tribune] [Amnesty International]
Taking place against the larger backdrop of an increasingly repressive government, this trend is hardly surprising: Throughout the last year, more than 40 people have been arrested over social media posts about the pandemic, lending credence to concerns that the Digital Security Act 2018 is used as a pretense to muzzle critics of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic [see AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3].
19 January 2021
Dhaka-Washington ties will remain strong under new US administration, says US envoy
(lm) The United States ambassador to Bangladesh has said that the bilateral relations between Washington and Dhaka will only get stronger, with no major changes under President-elect Joe Biden. Further elaborating, the ambassador also ensured that Biden‘s administration will continue to make the Indo-Pacific, and South Asia in particular, a significant priority. [United News of Bangladesh]
The remarks come after months of coordinated effort by the United States to entice Bangladesh into closer embrace as a key Indo-Pacific partner in South Asia, at a time when China has increased engagement with countries in the region through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3, AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3].
They also come just days after Bangladesh on January 13 strongly condemned remarks by United States’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo implicating the South Asian nation as a possible location for operations of Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda. [Al Jazeera] [Anadolu Agency]
19 January 2021
Bangladesh, China, Myanmar to hold tripartite meeting on Rohingya repatriation on January 19
(lm) A secretary-level meeting between Bangladesh and Myanmar will be held on January 19 in Dhaka to discuss the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. China will join the meeting as mediator. The last tripartite meeting on Rohingya repatriation was held in January last year. While Myanmar has shown little cooperation since then, Bangladesh is hopeful some headway will made at the upcoming meeting, according to Bangladesh’s foreign minister. [South Asia Monitor] [Radio Free Asia]
Bangladesh and Myanmar first signed a repatriation deal in November 2017, followed by a physical agreement in January 2018, to facilitate the return of Rohingyas to Rakhine State in Myanmar. The countries had set two dates to begin the repatriation – November 2018 and August 2019 – but refugees were reluctant to return to what they said was a hostile environment in Rakhine. Authorities in Bangladesh more recently then started relocating Rohingya refugees from crammed camps near the Myanmar border to a settlement on what the UN and rights groups worry is a dangerous low-lying island prone to cyclones and floods [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5].
The upcoming meeting assumes added significance, because recent developments may spur China to pressure Myanmar on the issue: In a 134-9 vote with 28 abstentions the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on December 31 approved a resolution strongly condemning rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minority groups in Myanmar, including arbitrary arrests, torture, rape, and deaths in detention [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1].
19 January 2021
China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”
(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043.
The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership.
Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”
As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]
For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017.
12 January 2021
Bangladesh: Court orders halt of demolition of structure carrying memories of anti-British movement
(lm) A High Court issued a status quo order on January 6 to temporarily halt demolition of a historical structure housing the former house of Jatindra Mohan Sengupta, a late 19th century-Indian revolutionary against the British. Previously, a minority rights body had submitted a memorandum to local authorities, urging the government to take necessary steps to protect the complex. [South Asia Monitor] [Dhaka Tribune]
12 January 2021
Bangladesh: Government deprives 52 people of their status as members of Mukti Bahini
(lm) Bangladesh`s government has cancelled the freedom fighter certificates of 52 people, following the 70th meeting of the National Freedom Fighters Council. The decision also affected a former army officer, who was involved in the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding president of Bangladesh and father of incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. [bdnews24]
An autonomous Bangladesh government body, the National Freedom Fighters Council was formed to look after the welfare of members of the Mukti Bahini – the so-called freedom fighters – who fought for Bangladesh during the War of Liberation that transformed East Pakistan into Bangladesh in 1971. Civilian fighters and their heirs are entitled to numerous privileges, including honorarium. To this end, the council is also charged with preparing a list of freedom fighters, which is also known as the “Red Book”.
12 January 2021
Bangladesh invites Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said to join founding father’s birth centenary
(lm) Bangladesh has invited the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, to join the birth centenary celebrations of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding president of Bangladesh and father of incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The sultan was also invited to attend celebrations taking place on March 26 – the Independence Day of Bangladesh to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the country’s declaration of independence from Pakistan. [Dhaka Tribune]
5 January 2021
Bangladesh wants repatriation of Rohingya refugees to begin this year
(lm) Bangladesh’s foreign minister on January 3 informed that a letter had been sent to Myanmar’s government, requesting to resume the repatriation process of more the more than 1 million Rohingya refugees this year. Context and timing of the announcement are noteworthy: In a 134-9 vote with 28 abstentions the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on December 31 approved a resolution strongly condemning rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minority groups in Myanmar, including arbitrary arrests, torture, rape, and deaths in detention. [India Today] [Dhaka Tribune] [New York Times]
Bangladesh and Myanmar had signed a repatriation deal in November 2017 followed by a physical agreement in January 2018 to facilitate the return of Rohingyas to the Rakhine province. However, there has been no success in the repatriation of Rohingyas despite two failed attempts in the past. Meanwhile, authorities in Bangladesh have started relocating Rohingya refugees from crammed camps near the Myanmar border to a settlement on what the UN and rights groups worry is a dangerous low-lying island prone to cyclones and floods [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5].