Advocating for basic human rights appears to have resulted in a vigilante death sentence yet again in the majority Muslim country of Bangladesh. The latest victim was Xulhaz Mannan, a worker at the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka, the BBC reported. In addition to his work at the embassy, Mannan was a gay rights activist and an editor at Bangladesh’s sole gay rights magazine.
Homosexuality is illegal in Bangladesh and is a hot button social issue. Mannan, and a second victim named as Tanay Mojumdar by the Bangladeshi media were both openly gay. They were also were behind the annual “Rainbow Rally”, held on Bengali New Year, 14 April, since 2014. This year’s rally was banned by police as part of widespread security measures.
The past year has been a dangerous time for activists and advocates for liberal social values in Bangladesh. Violence has cost the lives of a law student and four secular bloggers. All of the victims were hacked to death with machetes.
According to a BBC report, the bloggers appeared on a list of 84 atheist bloggers that had been circulated by Islamic groups. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the latest murders, as has Al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Islam, but following a familiar pattern, the Bangladeshi government pinned the deaths on opposition parties.
On Monday night, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami group, were “involved in these killings and committing these murders” as a way to destabilise Bangladesh.
Past killings have also been blamed on the banned, homegrown Islamist groups Jamaat-ul Mujahideen and the Ansarullah Bangla Team. The government has disputed claims by so-called Islamic State or al Qaeda-linked groups for the attacks, instead often blaming opposition parties or local Islamist groups it accuses of seeking to destabilise the country.
With a rising body count many believe that the government is not doing its part to bring killers to justice. These beliefs are fueled by comments from Prime Minister Hasina. Last week, she issued a stern warning to anyone who criticised religion, saying: “I don’t consider such writings as freethinking but filthy words. Why would anyone write such words? It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions.”
For Bangladesh the implications here could go beyond the suppression of basic human rights. In failing to protect secular activists and bloggers from machete wielding thugs the Bangladeshi government has failed to establish rule of law and is empowering extremists. With its glaring inability to perform this very basic function the Hasina administration has eroded public confidence in its ability to govern.
The situation in Bangladesh reeks of a weak government, and IS and Al-Qaeda have both demonstrated a frightening ability to establish a foothold and seize power in Muslim majority countries where instability runs rampant. A bird’s eye view of the political situation in Bangladesh reveals a brewing tempest.
It is not outside of the realm of possibility for either Al-Qaeda or IS to bring local Islamist groups together under a unified flag and set their sights on seizing power in Bangladesh. For the Hasina administration Iraq and Syria should serve as case studies for what can happen when terror organizations take advantage of instability. The examples may represent the extreme, but if Bangladesh ignores them it will be at their own peril.