There are good reasons why women are less likely than men to be at the front of student-led protests making a stand against the regime of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Bangladesh’s steely prime minister, which is wielding truncheons and a patronage system based on graft to extend its 13 years in power.
Young men picked up by the security forces can expect a beating. Young women fear being raped. In a conservative Muslim country, the mere fact that a woman has entered a police station or jail unescorted generates a special stigma.
Fiancés’ families often cancel planned weddings. Reza Kibria, a former imf official trying to turn student protests into a political opposition, describes his unexpected role as matchmaker for women caught up in the security forces’ dragnet.
Until recently, any challenge to the regime looked nearly hopeless. The powerful security forces—which have made or broken governments, when not ruling themselves—have firmly backed Sheikh Hasina, helping her win the last election amid claims of vote-rigging.
Their support for her was not inevitable. The army assassinated her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was also the founding father of Bangladesh, in a coup in 1975, along with many of her family. Sheikh Hasina’s political career has been about avenging their deaths.
In opposition she was a fierce critic of the security services and of their onetime paymaster (and her arch-rival), Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (bnp). Today Mrs Zia, infirm and under house arrest, poses no threat. Sheikh Hasina has purged the army and police of bnp supporters, promoting instead loyalists with a sense of impunity.
The impunity extends, above all, to violence. The most notorious unit of Bangladesh’s thugocracy is the Rapid Action Battalion (rab). Supposed to go after drug gangsters and terrorists, this paramilitary force has as often settled political scores and hounded the opposition.
It is said to have killed over 1,300 Bangladeshis in what are known euphemistically as “crossfire” incidents (read: extrajudicial killings) and abducted hundreds—many of whom later turn up dead.
Yet the stroke of an American pen has brought about a striking shift. Pressed by Congress, the administration of President Joe Biden in December imposed sanctions on the rab for its human-rights abuses, as well as on a handful of top security officers with links to it, including the country’s police chief.
Some speculate that other individuals could be next, including the prime minister’s powerful son, Sajeeb Wajed, who has US residency. An atypical silence has descended on the elites, including the normally voluble Mr Wajed. More striking: the number of extrajudicial killings has fallen to zero.
Abrar Chowdhury, who recently retired as a professor from Dhaka University, says the government is “rattled”. Many among the elites send their children to Western universities, funnel ill-gotten cash to Western bank accounts and hope to retire to properties in America, Australia, Britain or Canada. With these perks at risk in the United States, and possibly elsewhere in future, suddenly the elites’ support of Sheikh Hasina at the next election, due by the end of next year, can no longer be taken for granted.
Nor, more crucially, can the complicity of the security services. Senior officers are not the problem. They run massive business interests and enjoy all kinds of swag. Silver from a stream of Chinese loans and arms sales has flowed into generals’ pockets. The poorly paid lower ranks, in contrast, have only one real route for financial betterment: a tour as un peacekeepers, of which Bangladesh’s are the world’s most numerous. Yet calls are growing, both within the Biden administration and by human-rights groups, for the un to suspend Bangladesh’s peacekeeping force until rab elements are expunged from it.
The American sanctions will not end Sheikh Hasina’s aversion to democratic norms. Other Western powers are not guaranteed to back America up. Britain’s post-Brexit approach, emphasising former imperial connections, is shamefully limp on human rights. Meanwhile, new regulations crack down harder on social media in Bangladesh, while a draft law erodes further the accountability of an already gutted election commission.
Still, as Mr Kibria puts it, the sanctions mark an easy—and, with ordinary Bangladeshis, wildly popular—victory for America. The victory, in turn, has offered civic groups and democratic-minded politicians an unexpected glimpse of a more hopeful future.