The politics of Bangladesh is dominated by two parties—one being the Awami League (AL) and the other the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Collectively, these two parties have won four times each out of the ten national elections of Bangladesh so far. Under the charismatic leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, AL was instrumental in Bangladesh achieving independence from Pakistan through a bloody nine month war in 1971. Sheikh Mujib became the first Prime Minister of sovereign Bangladesh in 1972. He also won the first general election of the country in 1973.

Mujib was assassinated by a faction of military in 1975 and after his demise the leadership of the party fell on the shoulders of his daughter Sheikh Hasina, who later won three elections with AL’s ticket and became the Prime Minister for three times—in 1996, 2009 and 2014. Hasina is the incumbent Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

BNP was founded in 1978 by Maj Gen Ziaur Rahman, a decorated army officer and one of the sector commanders of Bangladesh’s liberation war. After forming BNP, Ziaur Rahman won the second national election in 1979 and formed the first BNP led government. Like Sheikh Mujib, Ziaur Rahman was also assassinated in 1981 by a faction of army miscreants. After his death, his wife Begum Khaleda Zia became the party chairperson. Khaleda, under the banner of BNP, has won three national elections and become the Prime Minister three times in 1991, 1996 (for a short period) and 2001. BNP currently does not have representation in parliament as it boycotted the last (tenth election) national election of 2014 (tenth election) in Bangladesh.

Jatyio Party and Jamaat-E-Islami are two of the minor parties that have some influence, but pale in comparison to AL and BNP. There is also a plethora of smaller political parties, but they are in fact one-man-band shows run by former student activists, drifters from major parties, one time luminaries, and clerical eminences, and who normally win seats via alliances with the two major players.

Political dynasty has contributed to the current atmosphere of confrontational politics of Bangladesh. The ruling party, whichever it may be, has always used their incumbency advantage to the full by trying to establish a hegemonic control over political agenda and the use of public resources. In turn, the opposition (on the other side of whichever party is in power) always claims to be marginalized and attempts to paint parliamentary work as futile, going as far as boycotting almost half the sittings of parliament over the last 20 years.

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Forty five days after Sheikh Hasina, the incumbent Prime Minister of Bangladesh, visited the Rohingya refugee camps in south Bangladesh, Begum Khaleda Zia, the chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Hasina’s arch rival in the country’s two party politics ,decided to visit the same region. On September 13, Premier Hasina had gone there in a helicopter, landed directly on Kutupalong refugee camp, and spent about 30 minutes with Rohingya refugees. On October 28, Khaleda Zia started her journey in a motorcade from her residence in the capital, and spent one night in Chittagong and another in Cox’s Bazaar. Later in the morning of October 30, she visited three of the Rohingya camps—Moynarghona, Hakimpara and Balukhali—and spent about 30 minutes at each spot.

The distance between Dhaka and the nearest Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar is around 430 kilometers and it usually takes two hours to get there by helicopter. Khaleda, herself a former Prime Minister of Bangladesh (three times, same as Hasina), instead opted for a two day motor ride to apparently reinvigorate her smothered and dying party politics in the countryside en route to the camps.

She stopped at Feni, a district in between Dhaka and Chittagong, and was treated with a grand lunch comprising of 30 types of local delicacies. Then, mere hours later, as her motorcade was moving towards Chittagong, a group of activists from Premier Hasina’s ruling party Awami League (AL) swooped on Khaleda’s convoy with iron rods, sticks and brick chips. At least 45 people were injured and some 30 vehicles damaged in the incident. Nearly 15 journalists were also assaulted even when they identified themselves as from the press. Khaleda was unharmed, and the obstruction ultimately did not hamper her scheduled visit to the camps. However, it became the object of widespread public focus on October 28, and the two parties were quick to extract political capital out of the incident.

On October 29, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the Secretary General of BNP, said that AL’s attack on Khaleda Zia’s motorcade was premediated. The response: on October 30, Obaidul Quader, the Secretary General of AL, said that Khaleda Zia had staged the attack in her own area (Khaleda wins a seat in Feni in every election), and that her accusations were false. It was “pre-planned and staged”, according to Quader. Khaleda, meanwhile, did not say anything direct about the attack on her convoy while talking to the media at the camps on October 30. Instead, she spoke of the government creating obstacles for BNP’s relief distribution for the refugees, and of the government’s failure to take proper steps towards repatriation of Rohingyas. On the same occasion, Khaleda also urged the Myanmar government to take back the Rohingyas and give them their rights and citizenship.

During Premier Hasina’s visit to the Rohingya camps on September 13, she too had demanded that Myanmar take steps to take their nationals back, and assured temporary aid until that happened. In between these similar, measured political appeals by the two main Bangladeshi leaders, the Rohingya exodus from the other side of the border continued and about 300,000 new refugees were added, bringing the total tally to more than 800,000 within a span of 47 days.

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina in the camp. Photo: PMO Office.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina in the camp. Photo: PMO Office.

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Partisan politics capitalizing on refugee crises is nothing new. Refugees suffer an arrhythmic oscillation between life and death on the one hand, and on the other, are trapped by the fetters of political power games run by players unfamiliar to them. Deprived of agency, and unaware of the logistics of international as well as national laws, the refugees remain in a transitional phase, in a constant struggle to understand and abide by the rules and principles laid down on them.

The Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are no different. Disenfranchised and oppressed since 1982 by both the Burmese Junta and the subsequent Suu Kyi administration, they have lost both the confidence and the capacity to raise their voices against the discrimination they face in Myanmar. When the Burmese military began their systematic ethnic cleansing, the best the hapless Rohingya could do was to flee to Bangladesh. With the situation in Myanmar approaching genocide, the exodus of Rohingya refugees shows no signs of slowing. A financially small country like Bangladesh is shouldering the lion’s share of refugees, and understandably, losing money and resources in supporting such a large added population. Against such financial losses, there is still gain—a political gain—especially for the ruling AL, if they can play their cards right.

AL had started out on unsure footing. When the influx of Rohingya first started, AL had originally thought of keeping the borders sealed. On August 28, the Bangladesh government even proposed a joint operation with Myanmar to deal with militant outfits creating trouble in the border areas, including groups such as the Arakan Army. These decisions were not without partisan reasons: the South-Eastern part of Bangladesh where the Rohingyas take refuge is a political stronghold of BNP and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami, and both had expressed their support of the Rohingya refugees even before the unfolding of the post-August 25 exodus. Asides from this, on June 15, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali claimed the Rohingya were a threat to national security. According to Ali, the Rohingya were engaged in drug-smuggling, exacerbating the growing methamphetamine epidemic sweeping across the country. However, after refugee numbers became overwhelming and people became more empathetic towards the Rohingya, the AL government was compelled to allow them in.

In the sub-continent, religion is a big topic. If religion-imbibed nationalism is fueling the Buddhist Rakhine’s ethnic cleansing of Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar, a religion-imbibed compassion is catalyzing the predominantly Muslim Bangladeshis’ outpouring of aid for their “Rohingya brothers and sisters”. AL was quick to get the drift, and party leaders and activists, always a step ahead of their main rival BNP in street politics, began to tout Hasina as the “mother of humanity”. The aim of the campaign was reportedly to champion Premier Sheikh Hasina’s decision to welcome the Rohingya with open doors and open arms, and was purported to help her bag a Nobel Peace Prize. A rumor had even been going around that Hasina had been shortlisted for 2017’s Nobel Peace Prize (the Nobel Prize for Peace 2017 ultimately went to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons). Nonetheless, Hasina’s stance on the ongoing Rohingya crisis earned her government and her party praises locally and globally, and boosted the popularity of the ruling AL ahead of the next general polls, according to senior Awami League leaders. After the one sided, non-participatory election of 2014, such image boosting had become a necessity for AL.

BNP, meanwhile, failed to be an early player in the Rohingya crisis political game. The party couldn’t muster the strength to escape its series of misfortunes following the last general election. Many of its leaders were still in prison, and those who had been released were in self-imposed hibernation. Most importantly, Khaleda Zia was in the UK when the August exodus of Rohingya started. Khaleda returned to Bangladesh on October 18 after a three month visit to the UK. In her absence, the onus of BNP leadership fell on the shoulders of Mirza Fakhrul, but Fakrul failed to capitalize on the Rohingya crisis for BNP’s gain. BNP even failed to capitalize on AL blocking BNP’s 22 trucks of aid to the Rohingya refugee camps. Now, with Khaleda’s much publicized visit to the Rohingya refugee camps, BNP has finally jumped into the game. The alleged AL led attack on Khaleda’s motorcade gave BNP a political upper hand it needed.

Khaleda Zia in the refugee camp. Photo: Zahiduddin Saimon
Khaleda Zia in the refugee camp. Photo: Zahiduddin Saimon

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In the background, however, economics is proving to be a massive hurdle. Despite Myanmar’s claims that it wants to take back the Rohingya, for 800,000 stranded refugees in Bangladesh, this is still only a distant hope. In Ukhia and Teknaf areas of Cox’s Bazar, there are 1,000,000 Rohingyas living there. The 800,000 or so new entrants have reportedly built habitats on almost 4,500 acres of forestry in the area. Each day, about 500 tons of trees are being burned to help them meet their fuel needs. In the last two months, newly-arrived Rohingya refugees have cut down trees off of 1,500 acres of social forestation project in Cox’s Bazar, mainly for building temporary sheds and firewood. The social forestry project in the district’s south forest range is 15 years old, and involves about 2,000 locals, mostly poor and unemployed, who had been hoping to enjoy 45% benefit from it. The estimated loss of forest resources so far: more than $18 million.

Since Bangladesh is not a signatory party to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, it doesn’t allow the Rohingya refugees to engage in economic activities. That means the Rohingya refugees will not have any income of their own while each Rohingya entrant is estimated to have expenses reaching $1,000. With nearly 800,000 new Rohingya entrants, the cost for the next one year is likely to be $800 million for Bangladesh. Besides, as a knock-on effect, prices of essentials have gone up significantly in markets close to the refugee camps. This has put a toll on the locals who are now outnumbered by the refugees.

An elderly Rohingya woman arrives from Myanmar. Photo: Parvez Ahmed
An elderly Rohingya woman arrives from Myanmar. Photo: Parvez Ahmed

The United Nation (UN) Pledging Conference sought a $434 million response plan to help 1.2 million Rohingyas and the Bangladeshi host community. The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock told delegates that focus would be on mobilizing resources “to save lives and protect people”. Bangladesh can legitimately expect at least $1 billion per annum in foreign funds to provide services to these refugees. This amount is, however, half the estimated amount of $2 billion that bearing such a large number refugees is supposed to cost. The economists of the country also fear that the intensity of the crisis will become more visible when the flow of international aid decreases.

This economic dimension to the Rohingya issue has thrown both the main parties into uncharted territory. If AL can navigate this terrain through diplomacy, crisis management and successful repatriation of the refugees, they will secure a win in the next general election of 2019. Meanwhile, if BNP can continue their highly public engagements with the Rohingya and cultivate an image as the ones keeping the government on track regarding their pledges, then surely they too have much to gain. However, in the midst of all this, the Rohingya question remains unanswered, and it remains to be seen whether this Bangladeshi party rivalry will lead to more aid and support for the Rohingya and possibly a resolution to the crisis, or whether this bickering will be yet another episode of political bravura in realm of Bangladeshi politics.

Related stories:

September on Arakan Road

Will India’s ‘textbook diplomacy’ work in tackling the Rohingya crisis?

“Rohingya Hindus are used here like pawns”: A Minority on The Chessboard

Faisal Mahmud has over seven years of reporting experience for three national English dailies in Bangladesh. He currently works for Bangladesh Post as Senior Correspondent. As a trained engineer who has completed his bachelors in Computer Science and Engineering, Faisal specializes in reporting and writing on telecommunication, financial technology and renewable energy. Faisal also has a keen interest in human interest stories and writes in-depth reports on several social issues. He is currently pursuing his MA in Journalism at Ateneo De Manila University (ADMU) in Philippines under the ACFJ Fellowship.