Devon MP calls for dialogue, reconciliation in Bangladesh

Tiverton and Honiton MP Neil Parish, who was an election monitor in Bangladesh for the 2008 General Election, has called for political dialogue and reconciliation following widespread election violence in Bangladesh.

He was speaking during a backbench business debate on the current situation in Bangladesh held in the House of Commons.

Devon MP
Neil Parish, right, was an election observer in Bangladesh in 2008

Mr Parish previously acted as an election monitor in Bangladesh for the 2008 General Election when he was a Member of the European Parliament. He travelled to Bangladesh as part of an Election Observation Delegation for the European Parliament in December 2008. This election saw Bangladeshis voting in record numbers, with the Awami League party, headed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, winning in what was widely reported as a peaceful, free and credible election, reports Exeter Express and Echo.

This is in contrast to the general election of the January 5, 2014, which was marred by violence and death, with reports of more than 20 people killed and 100 polling centres set on fire. Because of widespread boycotts by opposition parties, 154 of the total 300 seats were uncontested and the Bangladeshi people were not given the chance to exercise a democratic choice.

The election was one of the deadliest since Bangladesh’s 1971 independence, as an opposition alliance led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party attempted to derail the vote.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and a host of smaller parties refused a contest they said would be unfair unless supervised by a caretaker government of the kind seen in the previous four elections. However, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina scrapped this constitutional provision in 2011.

Sheikh Hasina took the oath of office a week after her Awami League party won the election.

Mr Parish said: “My interest in the country stems from the fact that I was an EU election observer in 2008, along with Dr Charles Tannock, Nirj Deva and Koenraad Dillen from the Netherlands. What was interesting, and perhaps depressing in many respects, was the great hope that came after those elections. Before them, there had been a huge amount of electoral fraud in the country.

“In 2008, we saw one of the best electoral rolls ever seen anywhere in the world. There were 80 million photographs of the individuals who were to cast their votes. I expected the electoral roll to contain rather fuzzy pictures from which one might not be able to recognise the voter, but I can assure the House that, although the photographs were quite small they were recognisable.

“That election was carried out in a pretty free and fair way, resulting in a landslide for the Awami League. In a way, that is what brought about many of the problems we see today. I find it depressing.

“In 2008, Sheikh Hasina was under house arrest under the then military Government. She was released to take part in the election, and there was talk about whether the military were going to back off from the government of Bangladesh. All those things came about and there was a transition to a form of democratic Government.

“As other honorable members have said today, when we are in government we are not always delighted to get a lot of opposition from the Opposition, but that is how democracy works and how we are held to account. Once a party has 80 or 90 per cent of the seats, there is no opposition. It becomes a dictatorship, albeit by a different route. That is what is fundamentally wrong with what is happening in Bangladesh today. It is ironic that Sheikh Hasina is treating her opponents in exactly the same way as she was treated.

“I know that it is not always easy to find the Nelson Mandelas of this world in every country, but there comes a time when it would be lovely if someone could stand up and say, ‘Let’s learn from the past, let’s forgive and let’s have some reconciliation.’ The trouble is that that is not happening. Members have clearly made the point today that Bangladesh needs a Government who can rule on behalf of all the people. We want Bangladesh to remain a secular country; we do not want to see the persecution and even perhaps the murder of Christians and Hindus. Those are things that we cannot accept.”

In his closing remarks, Mr Parish said: “I am delighted to have been able to make this speech although I am disappointed that the great hope of 2009, with the landslide and Sheikh Hasina coming into power, has not delivered what we want for Bangladesh. We should not walk away from Bangladesh now, however, as we have to support it through these difficult times. Ultimately, the country has a bright future.”