Will New Government Offer
Relief to Bangladeshi Minorities?
Dr. Richard L. Benkin writes from USA
For years, Bangladesh “flew under the radar” in the United States. In that country and in others, few people knew very much about the world’s seventh largest country. The
Mixed Fiber Agreement guaranteed a tolerable level of garment exports,
and both politics and poverty continued along a seemingly unalterable
path. But then the BNP government over reached in an attempt to appease its Islamist partners.
Weekly Blitz readers are familiar with the case of the paper’s editor and publisher, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. On November 30, 2003,
the government arrested the Muslim journalist after he exposed the rise
of Islamist terror in his country, especially through the use of madrassas. He
had angered the radicals even more by calling for full
Israel-Bangladesh relations and true interfaith understanding based on
mutual respect and religious equality. His arrest occurred when he was about to board a plane for Bangkok from where he was expected to fly to Tel Aviv. Shoaib had been invited to speak about “The Role of the Media in Creating a Culture of Peace.” Evidently,
the BNP government found that distasteful; certainly more distasteful
than it found the rampant corruption, oppression of minorities and
women, and the growth of Islamist radicals, all of which it tolerated
the government’s intention to carry out this miscarriage of justice
quietly, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury continued to find more and more
supporters worldwide. At first, the
government denied any wrongdoing; then, when evidence of it became too
great to ignore, it admitted it in public but continued to offer only
partial relief. It released Shoaib on bail but refused to drop the admittedly false charges. It promised “secret plan” that would cause the charges to go away, but never followed through on them And
so the case would not go away—such that the United States Congress, the
European Union, and the Australian Senate all passed resolutions
supporting justice for Shoaib.
And as a result, Bangladesh is no longer flying under the radar. Instead of highlighting the best of Bangladesh, the unwanted attention emphasizes the nation’s shortcomings. Not long before January’s State of Emergency, I told a high BNP official that his party has created a three-headed monster that will forever hold down his country: corruption, appeasement of Islamists, and the oppression of minorities, women, and dissidents.
The government that took power in January has attempted to change Bangladesh’s image and, to its credit, has tried to take real action in order to do so. It has moved resolutely against corruption, seemingly making its eradication the top priority of its governance. Officials from both of the major parties have been arrested, some going almost to the top of the hierarchy. (Up until now, however, the wealth amassed by the two leaders of the BNP and Awami League has been left alone.) The government’s record on combating radicals is somewhat spotty. To
its credit, it carrier out the previously handed down death sentences
of radicals who set off terrorist bombs throughout the country. It also told Islamist NGOs, thinly veiled as Saudi and Kuwaiti charities, that they could no longer operate in Bangladesh. On
the other hand, it has not moved against radicals in the police,
judiciary, and other areas; nor has it stopped incitement to terrorism
and jihad. Shoaib’s continued persecution is being taken as a sign that the government still places radical appeasement over justice.
government has done nothing, however, to alleviate the plight of
religious minorities and others; neither those still living in Bangladesh nor those who have been forced into exile. Earlier
this year, I was contacted by a group of Bangladeshi Hindus living in
exile after their lands were confiscated and their women brutalized by
forces of previous Bangladeshi governments. Moved by their plight and the undeniable evidence, I have agreed to help them obtain the justice so far denied to them. The
Bangladeshi government can indeed win a great deal of credit for itself
and for principles of Bangladeshi justice by the way it responds to
this issue. If it summarily denies that any
minority persecution exists, it will lose credibility with the
international community as did its predecessor when it tried to do the
same. (I was in attendance at official hearings when BNP representatives were laughed at after their blanket denials.) If it acknowledges the problem and negotiates honestly to resolve it, the new rulers in Dhaka will secure a very positive place in international hearts and minds.
As Bangladesh has lost the cover of anonymity it previously enjoyed, this issue threatens to become the government’s next headache. Words like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” are beginning to appear in descriptions of how minorities are treated in Bangladesh. There
is a large and growing—and voting—Hindu-American population that is
lobbying to end the persecution of their co-religionists; and their
concerns ring sympathetic bells of justice, minority rights, and
religious freedom with Americans. And US lawmakers are beginning to listen.
On July 30 and 31, 2007, the Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities will hold an exhibition and seminar in one of Washington’s Congressional buildings: the Rayburn House Office Building. The event will highlight the plight and persecution of Bangladesh minorities, those living in Bangladesh and those living in exile. US Congressman Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, is sponsoring the event; and Chicago area Republican Congressman Mark Kirk is speaking at the event, as well. In
addition to his ongoing and principled advocacy of justice for Shoaib,
Congressman Kirk has been a friend to Hindu-Americans as well. At least one major Presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, is scheduled to attend.There
is no doubt that some of the speakers will understand the plight of
these minorities as a manifestation of Islam, and will try to make that
point. Others, no doubt, will try to bash the current government in Dhaka. One
of the invited speakers, however, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, has
made it clear that he will look to identify the real sources of the
problem. It is expected that—unlike the
previous BNP government, which never undid the damage it caused by
preventing him from attending a Washington event last year—the current
government will not prevent him from attending. I also will be speaking at the event and will look to turn the event to a discussion of underlying problems and solutions. Of course, much of that depends on the government not providing an issue by standing in the way of Shoaib’s attendance.