Asian Conflicts Reports, October 2009

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Asian Confiicts Reports is the monthly magazine of the Council for Asian Transnational Threat Research (formerly Council for Asian Terrorism Research)
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    ! Terrorism in Bangladesh !   Women and the War on Terror !   India’s Maoist war ! The Southern Thailand conflict Issue 8 | October, 2009  Asian Conflicts Reports    A=   Naureen Chowdhury Fink  Perspectives on the terrorist threat in Bangladesh have often gravitated between extremes.However, the truth is somewhere in between. Traditionally considered a moderate, Muslim-majority country, Bangladeshis have shown little inclination to replace personal piety withtheocratic government or religious violence. Instead, citizens have shown a fierce dedication todemocratic government despite several attempts to install autocratic government. Yet, ongoing news reports of active militants captured, arms caches hidden in schools and connections toregional and international criminal and terrorist organizations suggest that the threat is clear, present and cannot be neglected.The emergence of groups like Harakatul Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh, Jamatul MujahedeenBangladesh, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and Ahl-e-Hadith Andolon Bangladesh following the return of Bangladeshi mujahedeen from the Afghan wars infused political violence inBangladesh with the language of   jihad  and tactics borrowed from terrorist groups abroad. Actslike the August 2005 serial bombings, consisting of nearly 400 simultaneous bombs in all but 1district in Bangladesh and attacks on prominent persons in 2004-05, brought terrorism inBangladesh onto international radar screens. However, attacks to date have focused ontransforming domestic politics. Nonetheless, reported connections of Bangladeshi militants toforeign terrorist groups and criminal syndicates abound, such as Harakatul Jihad al-Islami   inPakistan or ganglord Dawood Ibrahim’s infamous “D-Company”, believed responsible for the1993 bombings in Mumbai. In combination cultural, familial and ideological connections thattransverse porous borders in South Asia, these factors suggest future actions are likely to betransnational in scope.Bangladesh is no stranger to political and ideological violence, which cautions against anexclusive emphasis on Islamist groups, though they have gained the most attention in the post-9/11 era. Bangladesh has long faced an insurgency by the Rohingya Solidarity Organizationseeking control of the Rakhine state in Myanmar as well as a tribal autonomy movement in theChittagong Hill Tracts [CHT]. The Bangladesh Enterprise Institute reported in 2008 thatLeftist violence in the country was on par with, and even exceeded at times, violence by jihadistgroups. As one senior South Asian diplomat observed, more people have been killed due to political violence in Bangladesh than terrorist attacks, situating the threat amongst complex political and social challenges, the relationship among which should be reflected in strategies tocounter such violence by the Government of Bangladesh [GoB] and its international partners.The highly partisan and confrontational nature of politics in Bangladesh has created anenabling environment for the emergence of militant groups by normalizing the use of violence toexpress political disagreement and promoting a culture of impunity. The two dominant political parties, the left-of-center Awami League [AL] and the right-of-center Bangladesh NationalistParty [BNP] are centered on highly influential leaders who govern them with little tolerance fordissent. This is also translated into a “winner take all” mentality by the ruling party in parliament,leaving little space for a “loyal opposition.” Opponents have regularly resorted to walkouts orgeneral strikes– hartals –which often generate violence and economic damage Bangladeshis can illafford. Moreover, the civic administration is highly politicized and public service has become ameans of acquiring access to the national purse strings, often to compensate for expensivecampaigns that involve the use of armed gangs, or mastaans , to intimidate rivals.A related concern to that of terrorism in Bangladesh is that of violent religious radicalization,and the replacement of the traditionally tolerant, liberal and private practice of Islam inBangladesh into one shaped by stricter Wahabbi influences imported from the Middle East.Though this may be symbiotic with the emergence of religious militant groups, it is also anindependent concern. Changes in language and dress, such as replacing the Persian “Khuda Hafiz”   prevalent in Bangladesh to the Arabized “Allah Hafiz”  for ‘goodbye’, the donning of the whiterobe or thoub for men and the  Burqa or  Hijab for women, in place of traditionally colorful lungis  or  sarees and an intolerance for traditional Bengali arts and culture are publicly visible changesunderscoring these fears. Additionally, periodic violence against the Ahmadiyya and Hinducommunities stokes fears that Bangladesh may become less hospitable to minorities. !   The threat ofterrorism inBangladesh is clear,present and cannotbe ignoredThe highly partisannature ofBangladesh politicsis an enabler formilitant groups 12 Traditional liberalIslam is beingreplaced by astricter versionimported from theMiddle East 3 Countering terrorism in Bangladesh   This increasing religious tenor of public and political discourse has been widely ascribed to therise of Jamaat, the most influential Islamist party in Bangladesh. However, despite over thirty yearsof activity they have been unable to develop a substantial mainstream constituency, in large part dueto allegations of war crimes during the independence struggle in 1971. Nonetheless, in developing a reputation for integrity in office and a network of social services for the rural poor, Jamaat, ormore militant groups outside the political system, can pose a significant challenge to seculargovernments branded as corrupt, self-serving and unable to provide for citizens’ basic needs inBangladesh. Broad disillusionment with the government and the dividends of democracy will serveto feed their strength; despite fifteen years of elections, the state-society relationship remains problematic and government often falls short of meeting democratic requirements beyondelections, such as the rule of law, vertical and horizontal accountability and effective governance.The story in Bangladesh is however also shaped by a number of positive trends whichcontribute to the resilience of both state and society in the face of threats like terrorism and violentreligious radicalization. A strong sense of nationalism, based on a carefully balanced mix of Bengaliculture and Islam, prevents the populace at large from favoring policies that unduly tip the scalestowards one or the other. Undoubtedly, Islam plays a major role in the private lives of a largemajority of Bangladeshis; however, as a recent Gallup poll demonstrated, a large majority of Bangladeshissay that a democratically elected government is very important to them (61%) or essential and something they cannot live without (32%).A vibrant civil society sector, including innovative non-governmental organizations, has led to initiatives to promote micro-credit, women’s empowerment through education, healthcare and entrepreneurial opportunities andhelped the government expand the delivery of essential social services. Human rights advocates andthe media also serve as a watchdog against government excesses. An innovative politicalmechanism, such as the interim caretaker system, has to date allowed for smoother transfers of  power.Each of these provides Bangladesh with some tools to boost its resilience in the face of militants’ rhetoric about the failures of the state, its illegitimacy compared to a theocratic state orcaliphate and to address grievances arising from poor service delivery, which might make militantgroups more attractive recruiters.Though Bangladesh is increasingly less dependent on foreign aid, international actors have long been key stakeholders in the country. Additionally the regional nature of the threat–and it wouldbe naïve to think that Islamists in Bangladesh aren’t watching events in Pakistan and India and vice versa–underscores the importance of international and multilateral cooperation in South Asia.However, the scope and impact of international engagement is also constrained by difficult political relationships in the region, a lack of sustained attention in international fora and existing  political will among national elites.The counterterrorism discourse and policies developed by international partners often focus on“hard security” aspects. However, as the UN’s Global Counterterrorism Strategy, passed by theGeneral Assembly in 2006, points out, a number of development-related issues contribute to“conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism.” Therefore, it is vital that bilateral andmultilateral efforts to address the threat adopt a more holistic approach and a closer policymaking relationship between development and security issues. Though these need not converge in public,in capitals and ministries, decision-makers need to consider taking advantage of the synergiescreated by their activities abroad to address both types of challenges. For example, support forimproved governance and the rule of law or justice sector reform, looking at prison conditions andinterrogation techniques, are usually classed as development assistance though these are vitalfoundations for building state capacity to address security threats like terrorism.Initiatives by international stakeholders to address the challenges of terrorism and violentradicalization will be most effective when they are aligned with national objectives. This maysometimes require withdrawing support for programs which may be admirable in theory butineffective in principle. For example, decades-long efforts to promote internal party democracy inBangladesh have proved largely fruitless. Instead, funds should be directed where they have the mostchance of making effective change, in line with the priorities expressed by Bangladeshis and theirgovernment. A closer study of its positive trends might also provide valuable lessons learned forother countries facing similar challenges. Though Bangladesh has not reached the levels of conflict witnessed in Pakistan – and is unlikely to in the near future – to neglect the terrorist threat inBangladesh, with 150 million people in a volatile region beset by violence, does little to promoteeither national development or international security. ã      A=Rafia Zakaria  Sakina Bibi and Gul Begum had never been to the market before in their lives. Forty-year oldSakina and her daughter in law finally made it out of the tent that had been supplied to them inthe camp outside Karachi when their seven children ran out of food. They had a hundred rupeesbetween them and fifty were taken by the rickshaw driver who took them to the market. Theyhad to rely on the shopkeeper for correct change because neither of them could read or write andhad not dealt with currency before. The two women are among the hundreds of thousands of displaced who fled their villages in the north and made their way to camps in the South. In theircase, the men had sent them ahead while choosing to stay to guard the family property, whichthey thought would be taken over if they were not there to occupy it.These women, part of the hundreds of thousands of displaced that have been seeking shelterin camps and relatives houses since the onset of fighting between security forces and Talibanmilitants in 2004, represent the most ignored constituency in the War on Terror. Not only is itnearly impossible to find statistical data on the number of women affected by the conflict thatbegan in Afghanistan and has now bled over to the tribal areas of Pakistan, but few efforts havebeen made to provide systematic or targeted aid to them. According to piecemeal reportscomplied by International Aid Agencies like UNIFEM and the UN Office for the Co-ordination for Humanitarian Affairs, nearly 60% of the approximate 2.5 million people displacedby the conflict are women. Like the women whose predicament is presented above, few haveever left their home villages or even their homes unaccompanied by men. Nearly 80% are illiterateand as a group they have the highest maternal mortality rate in all of South Asia. Because they haveled such sequestered lives, very few are able to provide for their families in camps and the death of the men in the family has left many without recourse. Many widows who left the tribal areas atthe beginning of the conflict have been forced to take shelter and face abuse at the hands of relatives in big cities like Karachi and Lahore. Many have been forced into marriages and manyalso into beggary and prostitution.The internally displaced women ironically represent the most visible toll that the ongoing conflict has taken on Pakistani women. Since direct causal relations can be established betweenthe women in the camps fleeing villages with burnt schools and off-limit bazaars these women,swathed in their  Burqa s are the image of the female cost of the conflict. Even lesser attention isbeing paid to the more complex conglomeration of existing tribal customs, strategic choices madeby Pakistani and NATO forced to defeat the Taliban and the failure of the Pakistani state to takeseriously the ever deteriorating impact of a culture of violence on the most vulnerable of their population. While violence against women has historically been and continues to be a debilitating  problem in Pakistan but unlike previous years, the escalation of the conflict and the consequent pressure on existing structures of social and tribal organization have left women, the mostunprotected group in Pakistani society after religious minorities, even more vulnerable thanbefore. According to reports compiled by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in the lasteighteen months alone 808 gang rapes were reported in the country. The majority of victims wereraped by groups of three or more men and then killed by immediate relatives. This astounding number becomes even more chilling when one considers the fact that the numbers compiled bythe HRCP are based on newspaper clippings of reported cases; which statistically make up only athird of actual cases. The reason why the number of gang rapes is significant is because it shows acommunal component to the brutalization of women that is proximately of not directly relatedto the ongoing civil war on the country. While there is no data available on whether these gang rapes are directly related to groups participating in the conflict, their known use as weapons of revenge and retaliation unrelated to the women themselves demonstrate how a conflict riddensociety is increasingly using women’s bodies as sites of warfare. This pattern is recognizablysimilar to the rapes of women in conflict zones in Africa and Eastern Europe. Its prevalence andincrease in the years since 2004 suggests that civil conflict and violence against women areinterrelated in complex and disturbing ways. !   Women are anignoredconstituency in theWar on TerrorPressure on existingsocial structureshas left womeneven morevulnerable thanbefore 12 US aid to Pakistanhas failed to makeany specificprovision forwomen affected bythe conflict 3 Terror, tribes, and the war on women in Pakistan  
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