Bangladesh, that most beautiful and tragic of countries, today risks tearing itself apart in renewed vicious squabbles over its violent creation. It is as if the tormented ghosts of the country’s bloody past are rising to seek revenge.
It is time for Bangladeshi and international leaders to set up a truth and reconciliation commission to exorcise the ghosts and try to heal the deep wounds before it is too late.
A twist in the tragedy is that it had begun to look as if – in spite of recent terrible disasters in garment factories – Bangladesh was finally going to justify the golden dreams of its founding fathers and give the lie to Henry Kissinger’s description of the country as an eternal basket case.
Thanks to economic growth of 6 to 7 per cent a year, Bangladesh has joined a new elite of fast-growing nations, along with Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines and Turkey.
Now all this is at risk because of political stalemate, plus strikes and demonstrations and widespread anger over death penalties imposed on some Muslim leaders for their part in the 1971 war that led to Bangladesh being created from the former East Pakistan.
The country’s origins are a testament to the cruel, sometimes criminal, cynicism of so-called leaders of the world. It had a long colonial history as part of British India. When India and Pakistan were created in 1947, East Pakistan was separated from West Pakistan by 1,600 kilometres of India.
As Salman Rushdie wrote, the new Pakistan was a weird creature, a “fantastic bird of a place, two wings without a body, sundered by the land-mass of its greatest foe, joined by nothing but God” (a reference to the Muslim religion that both wings of Pakistan shared).
Effectively, the East suffered a new colonialism: the military rulers based in West Pakistan derided the Bengalis of the East as inferior and unmilitary, though they were happy to use export earnings from the jute of the East to fund the infant industries of the West.
The generals’ rule was undermined in 1969 and 1970 by student rebellions and then by natural disaster when a massive cyclone hit the Bay of Bengal and wiped up to half a million people from the face of the earth, far bigger than the recent disaster in the Philippines.
The cyclone struck days before Pakistan’s first free and fair general elections and played into the hands of the Awami League, which campaigned for autonomy for East Pakistan, and complained of the unpreparedness for the disaster and the lethargic response to it. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League took all but two of the seats in East Pakistan and had a small absolute majority in the whole of Pakistan.
But the generals, aided by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had won a majority in West Pakistan, blocked negotiations and in March 1971 arrested Mujib and cracked down on the recalcitrant Bengalis in an orgy of destruction, including rape and widespread murder, looting and pillage.
Up to 100,000 people were killed, and almost 10 million people fled to neighbouring India as refugees.
Bangladesh achieved its independence only after a nine-month struggle, in which India was the midwife. Shamefully, US president Richard Nixon and Kissinger made common cause with Mao Zedong’s China in backing the Pakistani generals, who were useful in forging the US-China rapprochement. The Soviet Union and Britain eventually broke diplomatic cover to support India’s intervention.
I detail this history because the latter-day commentariat has forgotten the brutality of the Pakistani forces and that much of the world stood by in useless hand-wringing at the suffering of the Bangladeshis.
Bloodshed continued when the dithering Mujib was assassinated by junior army officers, and his successor Ziaur Rahman was himself killed by disgruntled army colleagues. Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Mujib’s daughter, and Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of Zia Rahman, are the leading political rivals today.
The women’s stubborn rivalry had already threatened to bring politics and life in Bangladesh to a standstill before elections due by January.
But then strikes and violence were triggered by death penalties given by a controversial war crimes tribunal to several people who allegedly aided Pakistani army atrocities in 1971. In one case, the judges increased the sentence from 90 years to death; in two other cases the defendants were not in Bangladesh, but in the UK and United States.
The tribunal has been criticised as flawed by organisations that support bringing the 1971 criminals to justice. The danger is that its controversial death penalties may get caught up in contemporary politics.
It is time to set up an international tribunal, take the death penalties off the agenda, look for truth not vengeance and seek reconciliation and healing that will allow Bangladesh to kill its ghosts and seek to prove Kissinger completely wrong with more economic successes.
Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University.
-South China Morning Post.