April 24, 2015
Ongoing political turmoil in Bangladesh has plunged the
nation into a political-security crisis. According to some
observers, current circumstance has the potential to
undermine its democratic government. Analysts point to
continued rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of
the Awami League (AL) and Khaleda Zia of the
Bangladesh National Party (BNP). The BNP is seeking to
regain power and has held a series of street protests and
transport blockades demanding that a new election be held
under a caretaker government. Trials against Islamist
leaders for their role in atrocities committed in the 1971 war
of independence are also politically destabilizing as are
signs of ongoing Islamist militancy. Numerous
demographic and environmental stresses also weaken the
nation’s resilience. Some observers believe the military
may once again step in.
Unequal treatment of women, human trafficking, and
violence toward minorities persist as do concerns over
worker’s rights abuses and worker safety in Bangladesh.
Working conditions in Bangladesh received widespread
international attention in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza
factory collapse that killed over 1,000 workers. Such
factory disasters there have increased global and U.S.
concerns about its labor rights regime.
Bangladesh in Brief
Land area: 130,168 sq kilometers, almost the size of Iowa
Geography: Most of the country is low-lying delta
Resources: Natural gas, arable land, timber, coal
Natural hazards: droughts, cyclones, extensive flooding
Bangladesh (the former East Pakistan) is a Muslim-majority
nation in South Asia, bordering the Bay of Bengal,
dominated by low-lying riparian zones. It is the world’s
eighth-largest country by population, with over 160 million
people housed in a land mass about the size of Iowa.
Bangladesh is under threat from a combination of political
violence, corruption, weak governance, poverty,
demographic and environmental stress, and Islamist
militancy. There is concern that influence of Islamist
extremists could increase despite their being vigorously
pursued by Bangladesh authorities.
The Bangladesh National Party and the Awami League
dominate Bangladeshi politics. When in opposition, both
parties have sought to regain control of the government by
bringing pressure through demonstrations, labor strikes, and
transport blockades. The current Hasina AL government
came to power in 2009 with an strong majority in
parliament. It has moved forward with a war crimes tribunal
to prosecute atrocities from the 1971 war of independence
Demographic pressure and environmental problems, which
experts say are likely exacerbated by climate change,
increasingly are problems for Bangladesh. A growing
population, when combined with limited economic
resilience and constraints on the extent to which agricultural
output can be expanded, could prove to be challenging in
the future. There are questions regarding Bangladesh’s
future food security. Despite self-sufficiency in rice,
Bangladesh has an overall food deficit and is reportedly
losing up to 1% of its arable land each year due to climate
change and urbanization.
Ethnicity: 98% Bengali
Religion: 89.5% Muslim, 9.6% Hindu
Population: 166 million with 1.6% growth 2014 est.
Life expectancy: 71 years 2014 est.
GDP per capita: $3,400 2014 est.
GDP growth: 6.3% 2015 est.
GDP by sector: Agriculture 15.1%, industry 26.5%, services
58.3% 2014 est.
Population below the poverty line: 31.5% 2010 est.
Sources: State Department, CIA World Factbook,
Economist intelligence Unit.
Bangladesh again appears to some observers to be entering
a period of increased political instability that could further
erode democracy in the country and create opportunities for
Islamists if there is a breakdown in order. Some observers
believe a breakdown in order resulting from the ongoing
political impasse could also lead the military again to
intervene. Violence on the street appears to be escalating.
The State Department is “gravely concerned” by the
A number of BNP and Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami Party
leaders have been arrested under the International Crimes
Tribunals (ICT) Act and accused of war crimes dating back
to Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in
1971. While accounts differ widely, there is general
consensus that approximately one million people died
during the 1971 war that was fought between independence
forces in then-East Pakistan, with assistance from India, and
the Pakistani army that was largely composed of troops
from then-West Pakistan but had some support from within
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East Pakistan. The BNP and Jamaat have opposed the
ongoing trials and view them as a move by the AL to
further consolidate its political advantage. The U.S.
government supports “bringing to justice those who
committed atrocities in the 1971 Bangladesh War of
Independence” and believes that the ICT process “must be
fair and transparent.”
The United States has long-standing supportive relations
with Bangladesh and views Bangladesh as a moderate voice
in the Islamic world. Washington provides economic
assistance to Dhaka and engages Bangladesh through an
annual Partnership Dialogue, and on security matters
through an annual Security Dialogue. U.S. interests in
Bangladesh are rooted in its being a secular and pluralist
democracy and its status as a moderate Muslim-majority
nation that makes a contribution to counterterrorism as well
as regional and global security. The Bangladesh-U.S.
Partnership Dialogue seeks to improve the ties between the
two nations through cooperation in a number of areas.
Bangladesh and the United States see a common interest in
working to counter extremist Islamists and their ideology.
The two countries signed an October 2013
Counterterrorism Cooperation Initiative. The United States
and Bangladesh also share an interest in supporting
international peacekeeping operations. As part of its
commitment to strengthen Bangladesh’s maritime security
capabilities in the Bay of Bengal the U.S. transferred the
U.S. Coast Guard cutter Jarvis to Bangladesh in October
The third U.S.-Bangladesh Dialogue on Security Issues was
held on April 22, 2015. Issues discussed included “maritime
security, counterterrorism, disaster risk management,
peacekeeping, law enforcement, nonproliferation, joint
military exercises and exchanges and other security issues.”
Following the dialogue Principal Deputy Assistant
Secretary Thomas Kelly stated “... we see Bangladesh as a
regional model in terms of counterterror cooperation.”
U.S. Foreign Assistance
($s in thousands)
There are signs that transnational terror networks with
connections in Bangladesh remain. An accidental bomb
explosion in the Burdwan District of West Bengal India on
October 2, 2014, killed two members of Jamaat Mujahideen
Bangladesh (JMB) and wounded another. Members of JMB
reportedly have been infiltrating from Bangladesh into
border districts in India to make contact with sympathizers
in several madrasas where they have allegedly been
engaged in recruitment and fundraising activities. JMB also
reportedly sought to recruit 150 men to carry out attacks
and sent approximately 50 improvised explosives to Dhaka
and Assam before the Burdwan explosion led police to the
house where they found the wives of two of the JMB
operatives. Literature recovered by police at the house
reportedly links the group with Al Qaeda.
Bangladesh in a Regional Context
Positioned at a geopolitically important intersection
between South Asia, China, and Southeast Asia,
Bangladesh is a nation of strategic importance not only to
the South Asian sub-region but the larger geopolitical
context of Asia as a whole. Bangladesh is. Bangladesh’s
foreign policy seeks to promote trade and economic
development. It is a member of the Organization of Islamic
Cooperation (OIC) and values close ties with Muslim states
while remaining a relatively moderate nation. It is a
member of the South Asia Association for Regional
Cooperation (SAARC) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for
Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation
Under the AL, Bangladesh is seeking to develop closer ties
with India and China on a range of issues. The prospect for
political tensions with India remains over illegal
immigration to India from Bangladesh and over the sharing
of cross border water resources. By some estimates, there
are as many as 10 million-20 million illegal Bangladeshi
immigrants in India. During a meeting with Prime Minister
Modi in 2014, Sheikh Hasina emphasized that Bangladesh
would not be used as a base for extremism.
Some Bangladeshi commentators believe that the nation
should pursue closer ties to China. China also reportedly
has plans to help Bangladesh build a deep sea port at
Sonadia near Cox’s Bazar. The opening of Burma holds the
prospect of further connectivity between South Asia and
Southeast Asia. China has become involved in other large
scale development projects in Bangladesh such as the
Padma Multi-purpose Bridge, which is one of Bangladesh’s
largest infrastructure projects.
Bruce Vaughn, email@example.com, 7-3144
Source: U.S. State Department, “Bangladesh,” Budget Justification
Foreign Operations, Annex: Regional Perspectives, 2014, 2015.
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