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Cablegate: Southwest Bangladesh: Security and the 2006-07

VZCZCXRO9858
RR RUEHCI
DE RUEHKA #3555/01 1660936
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 150936Z JUN 06
FM AMEMBASSY DHAKA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 8752
INFO RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD 1167
RUEHLM/AMEMBASSY COLOMBO 7480
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI 9162
RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU 8582
RUEHCI/AMCONSUL CALCUTTA

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 DHAKA 003555

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL PGOV PHUM BG
SUBJECT: SOUTHWEST BANGLADESH: SECURITY AND THE 2006-07
ELECTION

REF: DHAKA 3321

1. Summary: PolOff and PolFSN recently visited the
Southwestern area of Bangladesh, which for over thirty years
has seen some of the worst ultra-Maoists violence and where
numerous atrocities were committed against minorities during
the 2001 election. While civil society expressed concern
about the possibility of violence during the upcoming
election cycle, political leaders denied any significant
communal tensions and local people were unconcerned about an
election they saw as far distant. The government has improved
the local law and order situation over the last five years,
making economic and environmental issues the current biggest
concerns. END SUMMARY.

2. PolOff and PolFSN visited the southwestern districts of
Jessore, Khulna, Satkhira, Bagerhat and Golpanganj from May
30 through June 1 to get local input on the upcoming
elections, communal relations, and other issues of concern to
the local population. Local political and law enforcement
leaders welcomed the visit as an opportunity to showcase a
positive local situation.

Peaceful Contrast to 2001 Elections
-----------------------------------

3. The southwestern region of Bangladesh has been prone to
political violence since the country's founding, especially
from ultra-Maoist groups. This traditionally pro Awami
League region also witnessed significant election related
violence during and immediately following the 2001 elections.


4. PolOff and PolFSN visited several sites of past
violence, including a Catholic church in Baniarchar where in
2000, ten people were killed during a bomb blast and a Hindu
farm where a local AL leader was killed and female members of
his family raped shortly after the 2001 elections. Given the
history of violence against minorities in this region, Poloff
and PolFSN also visited numerous area Hindu and Christian
villages.

5. Residents at all these sites expressed little fear of
the upcoming elections. Christians and Hindus said they
enjoyed relatively peaceful relations with their Muslim
neighbors. The Hindu family in Bagherhat said they believe
the attack on their family was personally, not politically
motivated, and the BNP government has posted police
protection at their home constantly since the attack. The
leaders of the bombed Church are convinced that "Bangla Bhai"
is responsible for that attack. Now that he has been
arrested, they feel their relations with the neighboring
Hindu and Muslims communities are peaceful, and there is
little reason to fear violence as the election season
progresses.

NGOs Concerned and Nervous
--------------------------

6. Civil society NGO's expressed a higher level of concern
to us. Leaders of Uttoron and Rupantor, two large NGOs in
Khulna, said the minority communities in their service area
are beginning to feel "shaky." Rupantor claims minorities
were scared by local gangs into voting for fundamentalist
candidates in 2001 and could again be targets of
intimidation. Uttoron says there are patterns of
discrimination in the voter rolls and minorities are not
getting enumerated. Most NGO's believe areas not visited by
enumerators were overlooked not because of malfeasance but
rather due to enumerator incompetence.

7. In Jessore, there was evidence of some of the pressure
minority groups and NGO's are facing. At the first NGO
visited, Banchte Shekka, there was an open discussion about
the upcoming elections and discussion of their programs.
This was in marked contrast to our visit to Rights Jessore,
an NGO particularly known for anti-trafficking activities.
(Jessore is the closest city to Benapole, the largest land
border crossing in Bangladesh.) Our scheduled visit with the
NGO's executive director and two junior staff members was
short and no substantive information was exchanged.

8. A call to the executive director later in the day
confirmed our suspicions: one of the "junior staff members"
was an officer from the Director General of Forces
Intelligence (DGFI). The executive director asked to meet us
at our hotel, where he claimed that the four-party alliance
will lose three or four of its current six southwestern

DHAKA 00003555 002 OF 003


parliamentary seats in a free and fair election, but that the
MP from Jessore -- the current Environment and Forestry
minister -- would use his ties to illegal organizations to
intimidate local minority voters.

Residents Praise Improved Law and Order Situation
--------------------------------------------- ----

9. The consensus from residents spoken to on this trip was
that law and order had improved dramatically in the last four
years. Residents of small villages, business leaders in
Khulna, and even NGO leaders talked about the ultra-Maoists
gangs that have operated there for over 30 years. These
gangs, an offshoot of the Naxalites of West Bengal, engaged
in theft, extortion, assault and murder with little
interference from local government. In 2001, for the first
time, the vast majority of the Southwest voted for the BNP
and Jamaat Islami, in hopes that they would succeed where
other governments had failed in stopping these criminal
activities.

10. Residents say that through Operation Clean Heart, use
of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and other police
activity, the security situation has dramatically improved.
Business is again growing, people are less afraid to
participate in activities after dark, and the murder and
violent crime rates have dropped significantly. Civil
society rightly protests the extra-judicial killings,
torture, and other human rights abuses committed by RAB.
Ordinary residents, however, appear confident that RAB and
the police were targeting genuine "bad guys" and were not a
threat to society at large.

Everyday Concerns, Environment Uppermost
----------------------------------------

11. Since most people seem unconcerned about violence or
the elections, PolOff and FSN asked what the biggest problems
the area faced were. Villagers in all areas talked about the
rising prices of food, petroleum products and other essential
commodities. There were also specific local concerns,
primarily around the larger cities.

12. In Jessore, we heard about "water logging" caused by a
government sponsored engineering project. In an effort to
reduce the damage from seasonal flooding, the government has
constructed a series of dikes and levees which brought
year-long standing water to thousands of formerly arable
acres. Many people allege that money for projects intended to
alleviate the water logging has been stolen by corrupt
politicians.

13. In Khulna, the biggest concern was the environmental
and social impact of the shrimp industry. While providing a
substantial source of revenue to the region and the country,
dedicating former farmland to salt-water shrimp raising is
having a huge impact on the future ability to grow anything
in that region. There is also some concern that the benefits
of the shrimp ponds is not trickling down. In fact, the
increasing salinity of the land and streams is having a
negative economic impact on village families, who complain
that local government is not responsive to their needs.

Indigenous People Struggle for Land Rights
------------------------------------------

14. Indigenous people in the southwest face the same issues
of land grabbing that they face elsewhere in the country. In
the Kashipur village in Satkhira district, Munda villagers
spoke about recent violence over ownership of a small plot
(less than an acre) next to their homes. The Munda are a
relatively small indigenous group in Bangladesh who practice
a Hindu-influenced form of animism. Like many indigenous
people, they do not have clear title to the land which they
have traditionally occupied, making them vulnerable to
displacement. Their village was once surrounded by small
farms; it now sits like an island in the middle of many
shrimp ponds, inaccessible by cars or rickshaws. When an NGO
recently tried to erect a sanitary latrine on this piece of
land, a relative of the local JI MP claimed he bought that
tract in 1994; the seller's job, not coincidentally, was
listed as "deed writer." Several villagers were injured by
thugs hired to drive off the NGO and intimidate the village
residents. Cases have been filed at the local police
station, and an investigation is under way.

15. The village is divided in its attitude toward the local
MP. Leaders believe the JI MP was not involved in the

DHAKA 00003555 003 OF 003


attempted land grab, and claim he has been honest and fair in
dealing with the villagers. This is similar to the level and
type of support seen for Golam Parwar, a Jamaat Islami MP
whose constituency is almost 40% Hindu (see reftel). About
half of the Kashipur village families, however, support the
former AL MP, going so far as to drop their own Munda last
name and adopt his Hindu name.

Comment
-------

16. Significantly, in what has been a violent section of
the country for 30 years, only a handful of NGO leaders are
concerned about attacks against minorities. Even previous
targets of attacks seem satisfied that relations between
groups are healthy and the BNP has sufficiently restored law
and order. Because elections are still many months away,
most villagers seemed more concerned about everyday issues
than the elections. One priest told us that we should expect
to see fears rise as the elections near, and post will
continue to monitor this area. NGO's are prepared to post
observers before, during and after the elections.

17. It is also unusual to hear local villagers discussing
the importance of environmental issues. The destruction of
farmland in this heavily populated country is a matter of
survival for these villagers, and the BNP needs to address
these issues if they expect to retain these seats, as well as
averting any further ecological destruction.
BUTENIS

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