Start of Main Content

Upcoming Elections in Bangladesh Could Increase Mass Killing Risk

Protesters try to break through a police barricade during a demonstration against a strike called by the opposition in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Monday, Feb. 9, 2015. —Associated Press

Six months ago the Simon-Skjodt Center published a report on risk for mass killing in Bangladesh, focusing on scenarios related to the elections later this year. As the window for preventive action narrows, we are seeing a lack of action to mitigate the early warning signs of a future mass killing.   

Experts the Center has interviewed since the publication of the original report have said that the gulf between the two major political parties, the ruling Awami League (AL) and the opposing Bangladesh National Party (BNP), shows no sign of improving. The conviction of BNP Chairperson and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who was sentenced in February 2018 to five years imprisonment on corruption charges, is but one example of the underlying dynamics between the parties. The verdict against her may prevent her candidacy in the next elections, and the uncertainty over whether the main opposition leader will be eligible to run in the elections leaves open related questions about the involvement of the opposition.

The November 2017 report explored the scenarios in which Bangladesh could plausibly experience mass killings—defined as more than 1000 civilian fatalities in 12 months or less. The report focused on the political competition between the country’s two main parties as they approach national elections slated for December 2018.

The greatest risk detailed in the report is if the election results are unclear or contested. If there is disagreement regarding the election results, allegations of fraud or rigging, or a situation where neither the AL nor the BNP receives the required number of seats to form a government, the deeply polarized political environment has created incentives for each major party to react violently. Awami League members and supporters may go to extremes in order to avoid their leaders facing retaliation or losing the political and economic power accumulated over two terms in office. Members and supporters of the BNP alliance may be increasingly desperate to win the upcoming elections, as its leaders have been increasingly deprived of political and economic gains.

Bangladesh experts interviewed said that the risks and scenarios outlined in the November 2017 report remain relevant and plausible.

Yet international engagement is lacking. The ongoing mass atrocities in neighboring Burma/Myanmar, and the humanitarian crisis facing the approximately 700,000 newly displaced Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, have understandably demanded international attention. But by focusing solely on the Rohingya crisis and neglecting the political dynamics within Bangladesh, the international community risks missing opportunities to help prevent atrocities and be forced to respond to another crisis in the country.

To date, there remains some uncertainty regarding the general elections later this year, which the Simon-Skjdot Center identified as a potential flashpoint for mass violence. The BNP has not announced plans to boycott the election, and some Bangladesh watchers think that the party will field candidates in the elections given the negative consequences of the party’s decision not to contest the 2014 elections. That previous boycott left the BNP cut out of power and solidified the Awami League’s power over the government. Questions remain, however, regarding how participatory the elections will be—and therefore, what the risk of mass violence around the elections may be.

Virtually all of the report’s recommendations to mitigate the risk of a future mass killing remain relevant today. These include the following actions:

To political parties in Bangladesh:

  • Engage in formal inter-party dialogue before the election, and establish and publicize an agreement on expected electoral conduct.

  • Establish stronger local monitoring of election-related violence.

To the government of Bangladesh:

  • Ensure protection of democratic space for opposition parties and civil society.

  • Promote accountability for members of the security forces.

To the international community:

  • Promote political negotiations and the setting of acceptable election standards.

  • Support early warning and response efforts, especially around the upcoming general election.