This intensification of the measures against all forms of opposition could signal a decision by the AL leaders (really Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who seems to answer to no one these days) to consolidate the AL one-party government into a one-party state before growing popular disillusion solidifies into popular resistance.
If so, it probably also means a cycle of increasing repression, increasing violence, and much greater instability. The BNP wanted to hold a rally to protest government actions despite the official ban on street demonstrations put in place recently by the government. Insisting on doing so would be a recipe for violence.
Clearly, the first item on the agenda of an authoritarian-minded party seeking absolute power is to destroy any opposition that can claim to be legitimate. The BNP can claim legitimacy despite its abysmally poor record when in office.
Both parties have governed very badly. Rumour has circulated for a number of months that Khaleda would be arrested on some charge or other, possibly on corruption, or perhaps as the Economist magazine has suggested, on sedition.
Given the control the government exercises over the courts, and the authoritarian mindset that seems to be inspiring the AL, speaking as opposition leader against the government could lead to a charge of sedition that the courts would uphold.
One wonders, however, if the sudden crackdown on all opposition is not a preemptive move of a government that feels growing levels of dissatisfaction in the country. The AL has, it is assumed by many observers, managed to avoid popular discontent so far because the economy keeps chugging along at 5-6% growth, and poverty continues to decline, albeit at a fairly slow rate.
The prime minister took to the media herself the other day to boast of the government’s plans for the future largely on empowering women and the underprivileged. One might infer that it was an effort to take peoples’ minds off the present and focus them on heady promises for the future. It is not clear to me, despite statistics that are almost always manipulated to make the government look better than it is, that the economic outlook is as rosy as many predict, especially in the rural areas.
In any case, it is possible that Sheikh Hasina’s legitimacy may not be as solid as she thought it was, and she may have decided to hammer the opposition on the one hand and offer up bucolic visions of the future on the other to the masses.
With most of the opposition locked up or clammed up or bought up – the only voices of dissent I see in the English language press are from the Bangladeshi diaspora – it is not certain that she can be stopped.
The international community seems inclined to look the other way, perhaps believing that Bangladesh is a lost cause for democratisation. India, which stands to lose most if instability becomes chronic and dysfunctional, seems unconcerned now.
This, in itself, is a disincentive for those in Bangladesh who are opposed to the AL’s authoritarian ways to step up and voice dissent. Can the West, and will it try to, keep them out of jail and out of harm’s way?
As one wag recently wrote that Sheikh Hasina has trained the AL “in the art of bullying, bashing, muzzling free voice, thuggery (sic), creating and abolishing movements (like the Shahbagh movement), creating an opposition party that is a part of her government and [whose leader] sits in her cabinet and votes in favor of the ruling party …”
She has, this anonymous writer says, created the “world’s first model of autocratic ‘democracy’.” (I note the author of this send up did not sign his name to the article. I also note that the BNP wasn’t bad at these same skills when in power.)
My guess, however, is that the democratic elements of civil society and the opposition parties will not bow down without a fight. Sooner or later, in the absence of a peaceful turnover of government, there will be violence – and it may be pretty serious. We may regret our indifference.