The latest edition of The Economist carries a comprehensive yet questionable report on India-Bangladesh ties. There are a couple of serious allegations in the report that just cannot be allowed to go unanswered. The opening paragraph alleges that India helped Awami League with cash and advice in winning 2008 general elections. The publication has not even bothered to substantiate this open allegation with evidence. I take the “cash” part more seriously. There is no harm in taking advice from a rising democracy, especially when the whole world is set on this particular set of governance. But accepting “cash” is another story altogether: it not only undermines the credibility of a democratically elected government but also colors the objectivity of the report.
The Awami League has historically had good ties with India, and is now logically trying to cement those ties with various agreements on sensitive matters that have been a stumbling block to the peace of eastern South Asia. So by alleging that the current government took “cash” support from India to come to power, the report is in effect trying to undermine peace efforts in the region. The Economist has chosen to publish this report at a time when both countries are finalizing treaties to resolve long-standing problems and expand the horizon of co-operation. The sensitive deals concern the resolution of matters like border disputes, water-sharing, electricity procurement for Bangladesh, transit routes and proportionally balanced trade. These deals will equally benefit Bangladesh economy, and should be taken as initial steps toward a South Asian Union.
As for transit routes, the report has quoted the fears of “military types” that such facility to India might provoke reprisals from separatist outfits. First of all, what are “military types”? Are they people with military background or simply a handful of people with a military mindset? And second, allowing India transit routes to the Seven Sisters will in fact help Bangladesh outsource the tackling of its militancy problem,because separatist groups in north eastern India have deep links with underground movements in Bangladesh. Such links have repeatedly played into the hands of Islamic militants by becoming a conduit for arms and safe havens.
Coming back to The Economist, the sweeping comment regarding lack of transparency in the upcoming 1971 war-crimes trials clears the purpose of this report. It is evident that the report was prepared with the intention of highlighting this issue only. For a western magazine to side with an Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, should be an eye-opener. This is the very party that has proven links with religious militants in the country, this is the very party that has hired lobbyists through third-party contacts in the west to fight its cause, and this is the very party that is supporting known war criminals. Hardly ever were questions or allegations raised about the impartiality of war-crimes tribunals in Cambodia or Rwanda. Even in the matter of the Armenian massacre, western media sided with the victims, not EU-aspiring Turkey. But in case of Bangladesh, sympathies seem to be surprisingly shifting toward the perpetrators of 1971 crimes against humanity.
Jamaat-e-Islami is a coalition partner of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Khaleda Zia. So, the BNP will quite naturally never pursue these trials. That leaves only the Awami League to bring closure to the victims of those heinous crimes. Yet, The Economist had no qualms about stating without evidence that “the
(upcoming) war-crimes trials over the events of 1971 are being used less as a path to justice than to crush an opposition Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami”. The publication also showed lack of journalistic sensitivity by using the word “events” for the 1971 holocaust. While it’s true that trials of mass atrocities have rarely been free of political controversies, they have still produced meaningful results, both in term of providing closure to the victims and bringing the perpetrators to justice like in former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and Cambodia etc. Besides, I agree with international experts that “ultimately, the quality of the evidence placed before the court would determine the success or failure of the Bangladesh tribunal”. And also “based on comparative experiences, a trial that is not considered legitimate is likely to produce weak results that are susceptible to challenge further down the line.”
So, the focus has to remain on the crimes and the victims, and not on the political affiliations of the suspects. Not the trials themselves but the suggestion of The Economist that these trials are a witch-hunt in reality compromises the validity and effectiveness of the rule of law and justice. Despite the politics surrounding this issue, the fact that there is widespread desire to bring the war criminals to justice simply cannot be ignored. This was one of the major election commitments of the Awami League before the 2008 elections for which the party secured massive public votes.
But as The Economist alleged right at the beginning of its report that Awami League won the polls by questionable means, it only goes to prove what many in Bangladesh consider western conspiracy to keep the region destabilized. There can be no doubt that the trials will close a painful episode of the country’s history, and also that reversing the process would only worsen the situation.
The Economist report is nothing but a bland effort to create an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty ahead of events that carry momentous value for the future of Bangladesh. In journalistic terms, the said report is mere media propaganda in an attempt to bottle-neck peace efforts in South Asia.