Current Bangladesh Time: 12:45:09 AM (Mon)

Look for Action, not Words

Dr. Richard L. Benkin

I recently received an email from an individual long involved in the struggle for minority rights in Bangladesh; an email he sent to several people who, like me, are equally involved in that struggle. The communication talked about “a new development” in the Bangladeshi government’s attitude toward minorities. Its evidence was a statement by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid that her “government believes in peace and prosperity of the mass of people, freedom of all religions and equal rights of people of all walks of life.” The PM also promised to repeal all of Bangladesh’s laws that legislate discrimination against minorities.

When will people learn to look at one’s ACTIONS and not be lulled into complacency by their words? Complacency means disaster for the minorities.

I have heard the same pious-sounding statements from Bangladeshi officials of both major parties that were never reflected in action. I wondered why these leaders continued to say such things when all they did was confirm that the speakers were either unwilling or unable to carry out their promises, if not both. Everyone in Washington knows that, and gives no credence to the words of Bangladeshi officials. That is why every single piece of legislation designed to give Bangladesh favorable trade status here failed.

One bill proposed to the US Senate in 2007 would have offered Bangladesh and some other nations a sort of consolation prize for not getting a free trade agreement. If passed, it would have lowered tariffs on Bangladeshi goods. The government considered passage so important that it sent Mohammed Yunis, who they believed was their most convincing ally, to lobby the Senators; which he did, calling the trade bill critical to the Bangladeshi economy. He urged them to pass it, but while the Senators flattered the Nobel laureate and politely thanked him for his advice, they rejected it. The bill was never even brought up for a vote in committee and died an ignoble death. Tariffs on Bangladeshi goods remain higher than those on competing countries from Latin America and elsewhere. And as long as Bangladeshi governments allow rampant oppression against minorities, they will remain so.

Yet, Hasina’s empty words are enough for those who ignore history and prefer to hope that she might be serious this time. Well, good for them; it’s nice to have hope. But “a new development”? Hardly. Hers was a statement to a visiting foreign; and if there was any substance to the countless hopeful statements that national leaders make when speaking to foreign dignitaries, our world would have long forgotten the scourges of war, poverty, and minority oppression. Even Adolf Hitler told foreign leaders in 1937 that Czechoslovakia was the last of his “territorial demands.” People forget that newly-elected Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia told a visiting Indian official on October 27, 2001, that her government “would protect the minorities and prevent the recurrence of recent incidents”; and that four years later, visiting US Congressman Joseph Crowley “praised the steps being taken by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s government to protect the minority communities.” Yet, as every rights group who is following the matter has said, minority oppression only intensified under Khaleda Zia’s government.

Mouthing empty words is easy, taking action is not. For instance, Bangladeshi officials, including those from the military-backed interim government, have said that the Vested Property Act (VPA) is, as one told me, “a black law that must be repealed.” Yet, despite its electoral landslide, the Awami League (AL) has not acted. Moreover it has supported the VPA for years. According to Dhaka University’s Professor Abul Barkat, who has written the most authoritative study the VPA, the AL and BNP have shared equally in the spoils of confiscated land and property. By the end of the last AL regime, about 40 percent of all Hindu households had been affected by the VPA, and over half of all Hindu land had been confiscated under it. Even Awami League allies recognize its 2001 passage of the Vested Properties Return Act an empty gesture that never had any reality.

More tragically, attacks on Bangladeshi minorities have increased since the AL took power; and are carried out with the knowledge that the government will not stop them. I have interviewed dozens of victims, and most report that local officials refused to help them and even told them to leave Bangladesh. Some witnesses claim to have seen them participating in attacks. Global Human Rights Defense documents a 2008 attack in Narayanganj where officials refused to act until the rights group pushed the issue. Even then, the government only launched an “investigation” that never yielded results; the perpetrators were never punished. Last month, I interviewed a Hindu family that had crossed into India only 22 days earlier after they were brutalized and their property plundered by Islamist radicals supported by local leaders.

Unfortunately for the victims, those who should be forcing the government to keep its words seem content with the words alone. Bangladeshi Hindus have been reduced from almost one in five Bangladeshis at independence to less than one in ten today. Words will not protect those who remain, nor will calling them “a new development.” But if advocacy groups pretend they are, they will be condemning Bangladesh’s minorities to the same fate of non-Muslims in Pakistan; where those who have not been murdered, forced to convert, or forced out now pay the jizya for the “privilege” of being tolerated.
Is that what the emailer wants?

Regardless of her words, Sheikh Hasina must be held accountable for what her government does. And if it lacks the will to act, people of goodwill need to help her get it. Otherwise, they all will be guilty of making minority oppression permanent.