Sheikh Hasina Once Fought For Democracy In Bangladesh. Critics Say She Now Threatens It

Himalaya Times
Read Time = 8 mins

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was Bangladesh’s opposition leader in 2007, when hundreds of troops raided her home and took her to a court in the capital of Dhaka, where she was arrested on extortion charges.

Hasina, who had served as premier in 1996-2001, slammed the charges as a conspiracy to keep her from running in upcoming polls. She was fighting for the rights of her people, she said at the time, in a Bangladesh trapped in a state of emergency under a military-backed interim government.

She was given a choice: leave the country or stay in jail, according to a close associate. She opted to stay — 11 months later, she was released and in 2008, she was reelected prime minister.

Today, she is the longest-serving leader in the history of Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim nation of over 160 million people strategically located between India and Myanmar, and is set to tighten her grip on power in Sunday’s general election. The vote follows Hasina’s 15-year-rule that saw her turn from a leader fighting for democracy to, critics say, one of its biggest threats.

Hasina’s main rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, is boycotting the Jan. 7 polls, saying her government cannot ensure a fair vote. That sets the stage for the 76-year-old premier to secure her fourth consecutive and fifth overall term in office.

Her supporters say Hasina and her Awami League have given them a new Bangladesh. Where there were frequent power cuts, there is now industry. More girls are going to school, development projects are humming and the stability she brought has staved off military coups that have shaken the young nation’s turbulent history.

In the middle are disenchanted voters who see little chance of changing the status quo.

Hasina’s political life was shaped by the Aug. 15, 1975, military coup and assassination of her father, Sheikh Mujib Rahman, the first leader of independent Bangladesh.

That fateful night, while 28-year-old Hasina was in Germany with her younger sister, a group of army officers burst into the family’s Dhaka home and killed her parents, three other siblings and the household staff — 18 people in all.

Some say the brutal act pushed her to consolidate unprecedented power. It was also what motivated her throughout her political career, analysts say.

“Hasina has one very powerful quality as a politician — and that is to weaponize trauma,” said Avinash Paliwal, a senior lecturer specializing in South Asian strategic affairs at SOAS University of London.

To Hasina, her father was the founder of independent Bangladesh after its forces, aided by India, defeated Pakistan in 1971. At the heart of her ambitions was to create the nation he envisioned, according to a source who worked closely with Hasina.

“She felt her father’s work was cut short, and that only she could complete it,” they told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media.

After the assassination, Hasina lived for years in exile in India, then made her way back to Bangladesh and took over the helm of Awami League. But the military rulers had her in and out of house detention all through the 1980s until, after general elections in 1996, she became prime minister for the first time.

What followed was a decadeslong power struggle between Hasina and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, the chief of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, now ailing and under house arrest.

The two women ran the country alternatively for years in a bitter rivalry that polarized Bangladesh politics. Hasina has often accused the BNP of courting hard-line extremists that her party, which calls itself moderate and secular, had worked to stamp out, while Zia’s BNP claims the Awami League is using oppressive tactics to stay in power.

Analysts, however, say that while they project different ideologies, both parties are tainted by a history of electoral violence and politics of retribution.

Recently, Hasina’s government accused the BNP of arson and sabotage after a fire on a passenger train killed four people in December, claiming the opposition was trying to create chaos ahead of the election. The BNP denied the accusation.

Hasina’s party lost the 2001 general election, after which she again became the leader of the opposition. Political violence, unrest and military interventions marked the following years until she was reelected in 2008.

This time, she fixed her sights on the economy and built infrastructure previously unseen in Bangladesh. A strong electricity grid that reaches far-flung villages; big-ticket projects such as highways, rail lines and ports. The country’s garment industry became one of the world’s most competitive.

Abdul Halim, a rickshaw puller in Dhaka, says he is not a supporter of the prime minister, but “Hasina gave us electricity.”

“I thought my family would never have power at home. Now my entire village has electricity,” he said.

The development gains sparked other advances — girls were educated on par with boys, and an increasing swell of women joined the workforce. Those close to her describe Hasina as being very hands-on and passionate about uplifting women and poor people. Her supporters also credit her with neutralizing a growing threat of Islamic militancy.

According to Mohammad A. Arafat, an Awami League lawmaker in Dhaka, what Hasina has done for Bangladesh’s economic development “has been phenomenal.”

Ahead of the election, Hasina flaunted some of her signature achievements, such as Dhaka’s metro or the country’s longest bridge, which she inaugurated in 2021. She has cast herself as the leader of an impoverished nation aspiring to become an upper-middle-income country by 2031.

“Bangladesh will never look back again,” Hasina said in 2023. “It will continue marching to be a smart, developed and prosperous country.”

But the recent global economic slowdown has not spared Bangladesh, exposing cracks in its economy that have triggered labor unrest and dissatisfaction with the government.

Mohammed Shohid, a driver in Dhaka, said the government has failed to stop price hikes of essential goods — prices of beans and tomatoes have nearly doubled in the past two years. “We cannot afford them anymore,” he said.

Hasina’s critics say her government has used harsh tools to muzzle dissent, shrink press freedoms and curtail civil society. Rights groups cite forced disappearances of critics. The government rejects the accusations.

In the 2018 election, an AL-led alliance won 96% of the parliament seats amid widespread allegations of vote-rigging, which authorities denied. In 2014, all major opposition parties boycotted the vote.

The BNP says about 20,000 of its members have been arrested in recent months on trumped-up charges ahead of Sunday’s vote, and tens of thousands of their supporters have rallied on the streets, with some protests turning violent.

With Zia under house arrest and other party leaders behind bars or in exile, observers say Hasina’s next term is practically guaranteed.

An array of independent candidates, including some from the AL itself, and a few smaller opposition parties are meant to project a veneer of competition but can actually do very little, critics say.

Hasina’s government insists the election is inclusive and fair, and has slammed the BNP for staying out of the race. But some analysts say the polls reflect the broader signs of trouble in Bangladesh’s democracy.

“There’s a history of an autocratic slide in Hasina’s decision-making,” said Paliwal, the university lecturer. “The current elections may be a final stamp on a full-blown one-party state.”

Voters like Dhaka resident Tamanna Rahman, 46, said the prime minister has no real challengers. “We do not have any option but to elect Hasina again.”

On the international stage, Hasina has cultivated ties with powerful countries and successfully balanced between rivals. She staunchly supports both India and China, even as the two Asian giants are locked in a stand-off over a disputed border region. In turn, Beijing and New Delhi have bankrolled a slew of Bangladesh’s infrastructure projects.

Hasina has also nurtured Bangladesh’s historic ties with Russia, shunned by much of the West over its invasion of Ukraine — even as she increasingly courts Western leaders.

“Say what you will about Hasina, but she has managed the great power competition very effectively,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute.

Hasina also won international praise when she gave shelter to Rohingya Muslims fleeing prosecution in neighboring Myanmar in 2017. Some 1.1 million Rohingya live in overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh today, and untold numbers of them perish on treacherous sea voyages for a chance of a better life elsewhere.

The United States — the biggest export market for Bangladeshi garments — announced visa restrictions in May on anyone disrupting the electoral process in Bangladesh. The announcement came after Washington expressed concerns over human rights violations and press freedoms in the country.

Analysts saw the move as an attempt to push Hasina to hold a fair election. She hit back, accusing the U.S. of trying to oust her from power.

But some of the pressure she has been under became evident during a recent news conference.

“If you talk too much, I will shut down everything,” she snapped, her salt-and-pepper hair covered by a traditional sari, her grey eyes fixed on the reporters.

Zillur Rahman, director at the Dhaka-based Center for Governance Studies, says Hasina — who survived 19 assassination attempts and racked up a long list of political enemies — has “no safe exit.”

“She is always under threat … and she has to be in power,” Rahman said.


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