Close to one million Rohingya from Myanmar are said to be living in Bangladesh at the moment, nearly half of them having fled since late August. The exodus is one of the world’s worst refugee crises in decades, and so far Bangladesh, already a very poor country, has borne much of the burden.
The sudden influx of so many refugees has created a major humanitarian emergency and raises security concerns. There’s also a less-well-understood effect: The Rohingya refugee crisis is shaking Bangladesh’s body politic to the core, and in ways that may hasten the country’s ongoing slide toward authoritarianism.
Many Bangladeshis, the great majority of whom also are Muslim, support their government’s decision to shelter the refugees, despite the costs and the risks. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been credited personally, including by the archbishop of Dhaka, for the humane response. But that openness could upset the very precarious balance between secularism and religion in Bangladeshi politics.
Since the country’s independence in 1971, power has basically shuttled back and forth — sometimes through elections, sometimes not — between the nominally secular Awami League, now the ruling party, and the gently pro-Islamic Bangladesh Nationalist Party (B.N.P.). Starting in the early 1990s, as each party increasingly worried that it was losing its edge over the other, both began striking loose alliances with Islamist groups.
These electoral coalitions didn’t used to undermine the prevailing cross-party consensus, for secular politics and progressive social policies, but this has changed in recent years. In particular, Bangladesh’s most influential Islamist movement, Hefazat-e-Islam, which runs about 25,000 madrasas throughout the country, has had more and more say over laws or policies regarding women’s rights, marriage, education — and even the placement of statues representing secular justice.
B.N.P. leaders have criticized Ms. Hasina for failing to say that the crackdown against the Rohingya is a genocide, and while calling for imposing sanctions on Myanmar, have chided the Awami League government for its “diplomatic failure” to bring in India and China to help mitigate the crisis.
Hefazat, for its part, has advocated the liberation of Rakhine, the western state of Myanmar from which the Rohingya are fleeing. The group, whose headquarters are in the city of Chittagong, in the area of Bangladesh adjacent to Rakhine, has threatened to wage jihad on Myanmar “if the army and its associates do not stop torturing the Rohingya Muslims.”
Such postures make it that much harder for the Bangladeshi government to even consider stemming the influx of refugees. Whether or not Hefazat becomes a formal political party and runs in the next general election, scheduled for late 2018 or early 2019, the Rohingya refugee crisis, which is unfolding on its turf, already is giving it a greater role in national politics.
The crisis is also stoking divisions along pro- and anti-India lines within the government and between some government factions and the army. Principally, it is bringing out distrust of India, Ms. Hasina’s main foreign backer, in the Bangladeshi Army and so complicating civilian-military relations in Bangladesh.
The ruling Awami League traditionally has had warm ties with India, especially when the Congress party was in power. But India’s current Hindu-nationalist government squarely backs Myanmar. It fears that Muslim refugees entering Bangladesh will find their way to India; in fact, it has already said that it wants to expel the 40,000 or so Rohingya who live there now, some of whom are in its conflict-riven state of Kashmir. The Indian government also needs the Myanmar government’s cooperation to combat insurgents in India’s remote northeastern states, who use Myanmar as a base.
And so, much like the B.N.P.’s full-throated support for Rohingya refugees and even Hefazat’s threat of retaliation make it politically hairy for the Hasina government to do anything other than accommodate the exodus, India’s stance — among other things — means that the administration must not appear to be too welcoming either.
This is a tenuous position to hold, however, and it is causing rifts within the ranks of the Awami League. Bangladesh’s finance minister, A.M.A. Muhith, recently said, “In a sense, Myanmar has declared war by sending the Rohingya to Bangladesh. They are trying to jeopardize our economy by sending people from their country.” With this, Mr. Muhith seemed to sidle up to the Bangladeshi Army, which has long been distrustful of India.
The Awami League slowly seems to be moving away from its original tenets — secular, pro-India, not overly nationalist, opposed to radical Islamism — and inching its way closer to positions endorsed by the B.N.P. The shift is problematic because it threatens to further shrink the political space available to minority views and dissenting voices.
The government has been implicated in enforced disappearances of opposition supporters. Secular bloggers and academics have been murdered in record numbers in recent years. Intolerance is now tolerated. Earlier this week, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, a known critic of the government’s authoritarian tendencies, resigned — or, more likely, was made to resign — on dubious health grounds.
Partly in response to the Rohingya crisis, which is widening existing political fractures in Bangladesh, Ms. Hasina continues to consolidate power. And liberalism is coming under threat even as extremism could find new fodder.
In early September, I went to Shah Porir Dwip, an island at the southern tip of Bangladesh, to report on the refugee crisis. A Rohingya originally from Myanmar who has lived in the area since the early 1990s brought me to the home of a close confidant of Hefazat’s leader. The Hefazat man had just taken in 70 Rohingya, mostly orphaned children, newly arrived from Myanmar.
He said nothing to me besides an initial greeting, but the scene alone suggested a troubling possibility: that despair could find meaning in extremism, or that extremism might prey on despair. It also revealed the inroads that Hefazat, once a fringe organization, has made both in this region, where the state is largely absent, and in mainstream national politics.
Ms. Hasina faces a near-impossible trilemma: appeasing radical Islamists in Bangladesh while remaining friendly with India even as she tries to satisfy the Bangladeshi Army’s demand for a more aggressive posture toward both Myanmar and India. So far her attempts to strike that balance seem to have undercut the role of secularism and other liberal values in Bangladeshi politics.
Many governments, including in the West, are only timidly condemning Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, for her government’s failure to help the Rohingya. Presumably this is because they worry about scuttling Myanmar’s still-tentative transition toward democracy. But another factor is no less consequential for the stability of the region: Bangladesh’s continued slide toward authoritarianism.
Tom Felix Joehnk is The Economist’s correspondent in Bangkok.