WOMEN'S RIGHTS ACTIVIST CONFRONTS A DIVIDED BANGLADESH
by Andy Heintz, CounterVortex
Shireen Huq has never shied away from taking a stand. Huq, founder of the women’s activist organization Naripokkho (meaning Pro-Women or For Women), has been on the front line of feminist causes in Bangladesh since the organization was founded in 1983. Today, however, she not only faces the continuing struggle for equal rights and gender equality in Bangladesh, but a host of related crises that are roiling the country. In a telephone interview from Dhaka, she discusses issues ranging from the plight of more than a million Rohingya refugees living in the Cox's Bazar district, impacts of the military coup in neighboring Burma (also known as Myanmar), and the crackdown on freedom of speech and expression in Bangladesh.
Women suffer in the refugee camps
Huq describes the initial welcome the Rohingya received when they fled to Bangladesh to escape the Burmese army's genocidal assault in 2017.
"One of the border guards I spoke to said that they could hear the screams of people across the river and see the flames swirling up in the sky," Huq says. "The government was under pressure from the local people demanding it open the borders. The guards started to open the borders at dusk to let in a few people at a time, but that soon grew out of control and the government had to respond. The borders were opened."
She says she could still see the evidence of the assault several days later.
"A week later," she says, "I could see the black smoke billowing way up into the sky. The border guards said, 'That black smoke you see now; we saw the flames.'"
"The local people were welcoming the Rohingya," she continues. "They were giving them food; they were giving them clothes. You must remember Bangladeshis have experienced genocide and it is still in our living memory. It's not some story of the past. When we are faced with another population suffering from genocidal attacks, immediately, there is empathy. It is a reflex action. Our prime minister received great admiration from the Bangladeshis and the Rohingya when she said, 'If I can feed 160 million people, I can feed another 10 million.'"
Huq, however, says her government had underestimated how long the Rohingya would stay in the country.
"I think initially the government hoped this crisis would be over in two years," she says. "It's a complex situation. Bangladesh has gotten into a difficult situation with this whole issue."
Today the Rohingya remain in overcrowded refugee camps unable to go back to their homeland in Burma because of the volatile situation there. Meanwhile, the arrival of international agencies and international NGOs and their visibly ostentatious and well-resourced operations has caused considerable resentment among the local Bangladeshi population. One of the main complaints of the local people is that they have been left out of any discussions regarding the presence and purpose of these agencies who have landed in their area.
"They were upset when they saw these international agencies arriving in large numbers with huge resources and making little effort to communicate with the local community," Huq says. "A lot of these organizations were hiring young people, but they weren’t hiring local youth. The people they hired were from outside Cox's Bazar from other areas of Bangladesh or from abroad. They resent they were never consulted about any aspect of the refugee operations. They were not brought into the loop. It’s been three and a half years and things have clearly gotten out of hand, with rising resentment among the local population who are euphemistically referred to as the 'host community.' The government of Bangladesh now requires that at least 30 percent of all Rohingya-related expenditures should be spent for improvements in the lives of local people."
Huq notes that traffic created by all the vehicles deployed by the international humanitarian agencies working in Cox’s Bazar also has been a source of tension.
"The long stretch from Cox's Bazar to Teknaf in the southeast coast includes a road that is in very poor condition," she says. "It takes a long time to travel this road. There is presently a huge amount of traffic moving on this road because each agency has its own car, and each officer of each agency is going to drive their own car. I have actually heard women say they don’t feel safe letting their children go to school on their own. Children used to walk to school, but it’s become too dangerous to cross the road because there is this constant flow of heavy vehicles."
"One woman told me it’s impossible to cross the road," Huq continues. "She said they will be standing there for 20 minutes before they can cross the road. These people think they are on a humanitarian mission, so they don’t think they have to stop for children trying to cross the road. There also is no carpooling. It’s ridiculous. I have been down there and seen the congestion firsthand and it's quite obscene. And in the eyes of local people, it is wasteful."
Huq also notes how recent reports of refugee camps being used for human trafficking and drug smuggling has stoked anger at the Rohingya from local people. Violent deaths and frequent reports of domestic violence within the camps also has become a cause of concern.
"A large number of Rohingya women report physical abuse by their husbands," Huq said. "When they first arrived, many Rohingya women had just experienced brutal sexual violence by the Myanmar army. It dominated our conversations. Today the issue of domestic violence in the camps is recognized as a serious problem."
According to a June 20 report by the International Refugee Committee entitled The Shadow Pandemic: Gender-Based Violence among Rohingya Refugees in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, between July and December 2019, before the onset of the COVID-19, one in four women in Cox's Bazar reported being survivors of gender-based violence (GBV). More recent data from January to October 2020—a period of time which women and girls faced an increase in unpaid work, greater protection risks in and out of their homes and mental health issues—the percentage of IPV reported in the camps climbed from 81% in the June report to 94% in this newest report. The IRC report stated the rise of intimate partner violence (IPV) was a consequence of the Bangladeshi government's COVID-19 mitigation policies. While COVID-19 increased the protection risks of gender-based violence, government funding for gender-based violence prevention and response services significantly declined. The IRC report notes: "In 2020, just 16.8 percent of GBV sub-sector funding requirements and only 50.8 percent of protection sector funding requirements were met by the end of the year."
The lockdown the government instituted to contain COVID-19 led to an increase in IPV as women were trapped in in domestic settings with their abusers. According to the Rohingya refugees interviewed by the IRC in July 2020, rape and sexual assault also increased during the lockdown. The IRC also reports that because of social, cultural and psychological barriers, the number of gender-based violence incidents and victims are underreported.
A UN Joint Response Plan Mid-Term Review noted that during this time, the closing of community facilities, learning centers and other safe spaces, and limited access to livelihood and vocational skills training led to increased violence for children and women. The IRC concludes that from the onset of COVID-19 mitigation measures in March, the decision by the government to suspend GBV prevention activities had a clear and significant impact on the level of reporting in the camps. It stated, based on these findings, that GBV prevention activities must continue even during a lockdown, making changes to accommodate social distancing.
The problem with Aung San Suu Kyi —and Sheikh Hasina
Huq emphasizes that the international community must play a greater role in offering financial assistance for the camps—and ensuring Rohingyas are able to return to their homeland in Burma's Rakhine State without fear of reprisal.
“I think there should have been absolute, unequivocal, universal condemnation of the Myanmar government and the military," Huq says. "That condemnation should have been followed by some serious sanctions. The military is so confident they will get away with this. They are happy to get the Rohingya out of their country because they don’t think the Rohingya have a right to get citizenship in Myanmar. It seems to me the international community is OK with letting Bangladesh handle the problem. We will throw a few dollars at Bangladesh to feed and look after the Rohingya refugees. This is a big issue. The international community hasn’t put enough pressure on the military in Myanmar. And now with the military coup in Myanmar, the problem has become even more complex."
Huq discusses her mixed emotions about those who have protested the coup while still supporting Aung San Suu Kyi.
"I'm surprised young people in Myanmar continue to idolize Aung San Suu Kyi," she says. "Of course, I'm concerned about the loss of life in these protests, and I'm impressed with the numbers who have come out to protest. I support their protests against the military, but I can't support them holding up Aung Suu Kyi as the alternative to the military. In my view, she is no different from these military men who took over."
Aung San Suu Kyi, once lionized as a human rights icon, shocked many of her supporters with her defense of the Tatmadaw, Burma's military. Huq was not surprised.
"I was in the courtroom in the Hague when she stood there with a stony face and defended the military. I think she is another example of someone who was a champion of the oppressed and deprived who then later turned into a tyrant herself."
Huq's discomfort with seeing protesters champion Aung San Suu Kyi left her with a difficult decision when the Women for Peace Network—an NGO that comprises community leaders, peace activists and lawyers who promote human rights in Burma—asked Huq to sign a letter on behalf of Naripokkho opposing the military coup and supporting the protesters. Huq says she agreed to sign the letter after ensuring that language about the widespread rape of Rohingya women by the Tatmadaw was included.
"I have signed, and I have asked others to sign on as well," Huq said. "At the end of the day, one cannot abandon the protests against the military dictatorship."
She harbors similar feelings regarding the recent sympathy for the Rohingya from other ethnic groups in Burma who have been protesting the military coup and the regime's human rights violations. She expresses admiration for the Rohingya leadership who accepted this support despite the lack of solidarity shown to them earlier.
"It's only when the Rohingya issue went to the International Court of Justice in December 2019 in the Hague that some other groups woke up. Until then they had not supported the Rohingya. I thought it was gracious of the Rohingya leaders to say 'We welcome the support of the Shan, Kachin, the Karen. We will welcome them, and we will all fight under the same banner.' I admire that."
Huq says she didn't think Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina would criticize Suu Kyi, admired by many in her own country because of the similarities between the two leaders. Both women are the daughters of men who are the fathers of their respective countries—Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh and Bogyoke Aung San in Burma. Both also spent time under house arrest for opposing dictatorial regimes before coming to power, and then defending or rationalizing actions once practiced by governments they opposed.
"Our 'mother of humanity,' a title bestowed on her for her magnanimous decision to give shelter to the Rohingya, has had a similar fall from grace," Huq says of Sheikh Hasina. "I think our prime minister is uncomfortable criticizing Aung San Suu Kyi in any way. I think she has a certain empathy for her."
While Huq gives her government credit for taking in the large influx of Rohingya refugees, she worries this has led other governments and the international community to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses being carried out by the ruling Awami League government.
"They chose to overlook what this government is doing inside Bangladesh," Huq said.
Free speech under attack
One of the most chilling examples of Bangladesh government's abuses has been its crackdown on freedom of speech. It has used the controversial Digital Security Act to justify this crackdown. The DSA includes wording so vague and provisions so broad that the government has been able to use it to silence dissenters. The law criminalizes engaging in "propaganda" against the "spirit" of the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence. It also criminalizes criticism of the country's founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Even some of the country's most famous citizens have been severely punished under the law. Renowned Bangladeshi photographer and human rights activist Shahidul Alam was imprisoned for criticizing the government's repressive response to a student-led protest of road accidents via Al Jazeera and Facebook. The arrest sparked an international outcry and Alam was released after spending 107 days in jail. To his credit, after his release, he drew attention to the conditions of others who remained in prison for exercising their freedom of speech.
Shuddhashar, a non-profit organization committed to promoting human rights and freedom of expression, reports that the government has weaponized the DSA during the COVID-19 epidemic. Journalists, lawyers, doctors and health workers, teachers and students, and garment workers have faced detention and arrest for criticizing the government's handling of the crisis. Article 19, a London-based rights organization, recorded at least 197 cases under the DSA in 2020—including writers and journalists, several of whom were arrested. Seven journalists were indicted under the law in the first four months of the present year.
Huq herself faced a contempt of court charge along with 48 other activists including Shahidul Alam in 2014 for criticizing the controversial International War Crimes Tribunal which sought to bring those guilty of war crimes in Bangladesh's bloody war of liberation to justice.
The tribunal has received widespread support and its mission, on the surface, is laudable. Bangladesh's liberation from Pakistan in 1971 came at a heavy cost. The Pakistani Army's pogroms in what was then East Pakistan reached genocidal proportions with independent researchers estimating between 300,000 to 500,000 civilian deaths and the Bangladeshi government putting the figure at three million. An article written by a brave Pakistani reporter named Anthony Mascarenhas, which was printed in the UK Sunday Times, uncovered many of these atrocities. Mascarenhas and his family secretly left their home in Karachi and settled in London before the story was printed to ensure their safety. The brutal repression led Archer Blood, US consul general in Dhaka at the time, to send the State Department a cable titled Selective Genocide. Blood became a staunch critic of the Nixon administration’s pro-Pakistan tilt during this period and incurred the wrath of both Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger for his dissent. The Awami League-led government set up the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in 2010 with the ostensibly commendable goal of ending impunity for those guilty of atrocities during the conflict. Unfortunately, the tribunal has been tainted by the government's intolerance of dissent.
"The trial had a lot of popular support and people felt justice would finally be done," Huq said. "But the standards in the trial were questionable. And the people who questioned any aspect of the Tribunal were immediately labeled anti-national and anti-liberation. These were easy labels to place on people to destroy their credibility and ability to speak."
For example, when British journalist David Bergman questioned aspects of how the Tribunal was operating, the government charged him with contempt of court.
"Forty-nine of us signed a statement condemning the allegations against him," Huq said. "We were charged with contempt of court."
The trial also has brought to the surface the question of whether real or alleged crimes committed by certain pro-liberation forces will ever be punished. While much smaller in number than atrocities committed by the Pakistani army, pro-Bengali elements have been credibly accused of killings and rapes against members of the Bihari community, who were perceived as being pro-Pakistani.
While free speech and the future of the Rohingya refugees will remain contentious issues for some time, one thing remains certain: Huq will remain the principled and passionate human rights activist she has been for several decades.
Photo of Shireen Huq (left) and fellow activists outside the International Crimes Tribunal via Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal blog
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