Myanmar’s Military Catastrophe: Three Years and Counting

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Featured, Gender Violence, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: Sirachai Arunrugstichai/Getty Images

LONDON, Feb 1 2024 (IPS) – The military must have expected an easier ride. Three years ago, it ousted Myanmar’s democratically elected government. But the coup has been met with fierce resistance, unleashing a bloody conflict with no end in sight.


Civil society has scrambled to respond to humanitarian needs, defend human rights and seek a path to peace. Last year, civil society organisations in Myanmar and the region developed and endorsed a five-point agenda that calls for an international response to end military violence, including through sanctions, an arms embargo and a referral of Myanmar to the International Criminal Court – a call the UN Security Council hasn’t so far heeded.

Civil society is also demanding that the key regional body, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), takes the conflict more seriously and engages beyond the junta, particularly with democratic forces and civil society.

So far civil society’s calls haven’t been heard. But intensifying violence proves that the approaches tried to far have failed. Staying on the same path is a recipe for further carnage.

Violence and repression

Three years on from the coup, the military doesn’t control significant sections of the ethnically diverse country. People’s defence forces are fighting an armed campaign in support of the ousted National Unity Government, often in alliance with long-established ethnic militia groups.

In October 2023, three armed groups in Myanmar’s north joined the conflict against the junta, forming the Brotherhood Alliance. The resulting offensive in Shan state saw the rebels capture the border town of Laukkai and cut off key trading routes with China. The UN stated that this was the biggest escalation in fighting since the coup. A ceasefire in the region was supposedly agreed in January following China-brokered talks, but fighting resumed.

It seems clear the junta won’t win this conflict any time soon. Morale among armed forces is collapsing and soldiers defecting, deserting or surrendering in growing numbers. Even pro-junta voices on social media have begun to criticise military leaders.

Pushed into a corner, the military is lashing out, committing mass killings, burning villages and unleashing indiscriminate airstrikes to compensate for its struggles on the ground. The deadliest strike so far came in April 2023, when 168 people, including 40 children, were reported killed in the village of Pa Zi Gyi.

This was no one-off. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar has reported that the junta continues to bomb hospitals, schools, villages and camps for displaced people. Attacks on civilians include mass killings, torture, sexual violence and forced labour, and the junta also obstructs essential humanitarian aid supplies.

In September 2023, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, condemned this violence as ‘inhumanity in its vilest form’. Research suggests that most of the military’s senior commanders are responsible for war crimes.

The humanitarian impacts are deep. By the end of 2023, over 2.6 million people had been displaced, 628,000 of them since the Brotherhood Alliance launched its campaign. The UN assesses that 18.6 million need humanitarian help and 5.3 million need it urgently. But aid workers are being targeted: at least 142 were arrested or detained last year.

The restriction of humanitarian work is part of wider repression. Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights organisation, reports that since the coup 4,468 people have been killed by the junta and pro-military groups. Almost 20,000 people are in detention, among them many activists and protesters charged with offences such as treason and sedition. Torture in prison is widespread, and 34 political prisoners died in detention in 2023.

The junta is doing everything it can to try to control the narrative. It’s believed that 64 journalists are currently detained. Internet shutdowns, website blocking and arrests for social media comments are routine occurrences. Last November, the junta took control of the Broadcasting Council, which oversees TV and radio outlets.

In August 2023, the junta extended the state of emergency, in effect since the coup, for a further six months. The elections that it promised on seizing power are nowhere in sight, and even if they eventually come, they won’t serve any purpose other than trying to legitimise military power.

International action needed

The junta faces strong domestic opposition and has no real international legitimacy but crucially, pressure from the regional body is weak.

ASEAN claims to be following a long-discredited plan, the Five-Point Consensus, which dates back to April 2021. The violence unleashed by the junta against civilians shows it can’t be trusted to act in good faith, but ASEAN still claims to believe it’s possible to involve it in an ‘inclusive dialogue’. At its annual summit in May 2023, ASEAN members reiterated their support for the failed plan, despite civil society’s calls.

ASEAN members are mostly repressive states, and some, including Cambodia and Thailand, have shown signs of seeking to normalise relations with the junta. ASEAN continues to allow junta representatives to attend some of its meetings. This year’s chair, Laos, is an authoritarian state that will have no interest in restoring democracy in Myanmar.

Elsewhere, however, the junta may be running out of friends. China was untroubled by military rule, but it doesn’t want unrest on its border. A potential breakthrough came from the US government in October 2023, when it imposed sanctions on the previously untouchable Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), the state-owned corporation that’s the regime’s main source of foreign income. The European Union also stepped up its sanctions in December 2023, including against two companies providing arms and generating income for the junta.

It remains essential to keep the junta diplomatically isolated and to cut economic relations with the many companies it depends on, including MOGE. It’s vital to stop supplying arms to the junta and, above all, to stop selling it the jet fuel it needs to carry out airstrikes.

A UN Human Rights Council resolution adopted in April 2023 condemned the junta’s violence but failed to call for responses such as bans on the sale of weapons or aviation fuel. Events since then have made it sadly clear that decisive action can no longer wait.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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Serbia’s Suspicious Election

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Europe, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, LGBTQ, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: Vladimir Zivojinovic/Getty Images

LONDON, Jan 26 2024 (IPS) – Serbia’s December 2023 elections saw the ruling party retain power – but amid a great deal of controversy.

Civil society has cried foul about irregularities in the parliamentary election, but particularly the municipal election in the capital, Belgrade. In recent times Belgrade has been a hotbed of anti-government protests. That’s one of the reasons it’s suspicious that the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) came first in the city election.


Allegations are that the SNS had ruling party supporters from outside Belgrade temporarily register as city residents so they could cast votes. On election day, civil society observers documented large-scale movements of people into Belgrade, from regions where municipal elections weren’t being held and from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. Civil society documented irregularities at 14 per cent of Belgrade voting stations. Many in civil society believe this made the crucial difference in stopping the opposition winning.

The main opposition coalition, Serbia Against Violence (SPN), which made gains but finished second, has rejected the results. It’s calling for a rerun, with proper safeguards to prevent any repeat of irregularities.

Thousands have taken to the streets of Belgrade to protest about electoral manipulation, rejecting the violation of the most basic principle of democracy – that the people being governed have the right to elect their representatives.

A history of violations

The SNS has held power since 2012. It blends economic neoliberalism with social conservatism and populism, and has presided over declining respect for civic space and media freedoms. In recent years, Serbian environmental activists have been subjected to physical attacks. President Aleksandar Vučić attempted to ban the 2022 EuroPride LGBTQI+ rights march. Journalists have faced public vilification, intimidation and harassment. Far-right nationalist and anti-rights groups have flourished and also target LGBTQI+ people, civil society and journalists.

The SNS has a history of electoral irregularities. The December 2023 vote was a snap election, called just over a year and a half since the previous vote in April 2022, which re-elected Vučić as president. In 2022, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) pointed to an ‘uneven playing field’, characterised by close ties between major media outlets and the government, misuse of public resources, irregularities in campaign financing and pressure on public sector staff to support the SNS.

These same problems were seen in December 2023. Again, the OSCE concluded there’d been systemic SNS advantages. Civil society observers found evidence of vote buying, political pressure on voters, breaches of voting security and pressure on election observers. During the campaign, civil society groups were vilified, opposition officials were subjected to physical and verbal attacks and opposition rallies were prevented.

But the ruling party has denied everything. It’s slurred civil society for calling out irregularities, accusing activists of trying to destabilise Serbia.

Backdrop of protests

The latest vote was called following months of protests against the government. These were sparked by anger at two mass shootings in May 2023 in which 17 people were killed.

The shootings focused attention on the high number of weapons still in circulation after the wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia and the growing normalisation of violence, including by the government and its supporters.

Protesters accused state media of promoting violence and called for leadership changes. They also demanded political resignations, including of education minister Branko Ružić, who disgracefully tried to blame the killings on ‘western values’ before being forced to quit. Prime Minister Ana Brnabić blamed foreign intelligence services for fuelling protests. State media poured abuse on protesters.

These might have seemed odd circumstances for the SNS to call elections. But election campaigns have historically played to Vučić’s strengths as a campaigner and give him some powerful levers, with normal government activities on hold and the machinery of the state and associated media at his disposal.

Only this time it seems the SNS didn’t think all its advantages would be quite enough and, in Belgrade at least, upped its electoral manipulation to the point where it became hard to ignore.

East and west

There’s little pressure from Serbia’s partners to both east and west. Its far-right and socially conservative forces are staunchly pro-Russia, drawing on ideas of a greater Slavic identity. Russian connections run deep. In the last census, 85 per cent of people identified themselves as affiliated with the Serbian Orthodox Church, strongly in the sway of its Russian counterpart, in turn closely integrated with Russia’s repressive machinery.

The Serbian government relies on Russian support to prevent international recognition of Kosovo. Russian officials were only too happy to characterise post-election protests as western attempts at unrest, while Prime Minister Brnabić thanked Russian intelligence services for providing information on planned opposition activities.

But states that sit between the EU and Russia are being lured on both sides. Serbia is an EU membership candidate. The EU wants to keep it onside and stop it drifting closer to Russia, so EU states have offered little criticism.

Serbia keeps performing its balancing act, gravitating towards Russia while doing just enough to keep in with the EU. In the 2022 UN resolution on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it voted to condemn Russia’s aggression and suspend it from the Human Rights Council. But it’s resisted calls to impose sanctions on Russia and in 2022 signed a deal with Russia to consult on foreign policy issues.

The European Parliament is at least prepared to voice concerns. In a recent debate, many of its members pointed to irregularities and its observation mission noted problems including media bias, phantom voters and vilification of election observers.

Other EU institutions should acknowledge what happened in Belgrade. They should raise concerns about electoral manipulation and defend democracy in Serbia. To do so, they need to support and work with civil society. An independent and enabled civil society will bring much-needed scrutiny and accountability. This must be non-negotiable for the EU.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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Is Bangladesh Sleep Walking to Dictatorship ?

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Economy & Trade, Headlines, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

ROME, Jan 22 2024 (IPS) – The parliamentary elections held in Bangladesh on 7 January, 2024, has created much controversy in the country, terming it an “election of the Awami League (AL) government, for the AL government and by the AL government”, by many. Internationally, China and India have congratulated the government for victory and organization of a fair election. But, several western countries have termed it as unsatisfactory. However, irrespective of the diverse views, everyone agrees that it was not participatory elections. Voter turn out was significantly low and it was boycotted by the main opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP).


Saifullah Syed

Prior to the election, the USA and several western countries indicated that failure to hold fair and free election will have consequences. As a result, Bangladesh’s policy analysts are concerned and discussing the likely implications of the election on the economy and in particular the garment industry.

While international push back are legitimate concerns, what is more worrisome is that Bangladesh may be unwittingly sleep walking to dictatorship under one party rule. Several commentators are suggesting that Sheikh Hasina is becoming an authoritarian ruler from being a champion of democracy and the AL is projecting itself as the sole guarantor of independence, sovereignty and secularism. Everyone else is out there to turn it into a hot bed of Islamic extremism. Such rationales alluding to moral right to rule are perfect ingredients for sleepwalking into dictatorship.

The one-party dictatorships are generally more stable and perverse and the elections legitimizes one party dictatorship by presenting an image of democracy.

History teaches us that one party rule or dictatorship goes against the basic foundation of Bengali values. However, successful moves to stop it can only be launched by understanding why and how it is emerging.

Democracy in Bangladesh

Bangladesh initiated non-party caretaker government (CGT) system for running elections as per demand of the AL in 1991. By all accounts the 1991 election was fair and the CGT worked satisfactorily to hold general elections also in 1996 and 2001. Interestingly, in 1991 the BNP won and in 1996 the AL won and in 2001 the BNP won again.

What went wrong thereafter ? The system ran into difficulties in 2006 due to BNP’s refusal to follow the rules governing the CTG . This led to political crisis of 2006-2008 and brought the military into power. However, a fair election was finally held in 2008 and the AL achieved overwhelming victory. Since then, the AL started getting emboldened and in 2011 it abolished the CTG system. Consequently, BNP launched movement to restore the CTG and started refusing to participate in elections unless it is done. The AL is adamantly refusing to reintroduce CTG, saying it is unconstitutional.

Therefore, it would seem that the core challenge facing our democratic system is two-fold: how to convince AL to introduce the CTG? or how to convince BNP to participate in elections under the ruling government? These challenges may appear easily resolvable through dialogue. Unfortunately, the two parties are mired in deep animosity. For AL, the founder of BNP is linked to the cruel murder of the founder of Bangladesh and his family and the current leader of BNP is accused of master minding the grenade attack on a AL rally on 21 August 2004, killing 24 people and injuring about 200. For the BNP, it has zero trust in AL and considers ditching of the current party leader, Begum Khaleda Zia – with the name Zia, as its existential threat.

Can the civil society or the international community mediate a solution ? Unfortunately, civil society is fragmented along party lines and partly lost its neutrality during the 2006-2008 crisis, when some components stepped into politics. The international community is also divided between the East and the West and a vast majority in the country believes that their call for democracy is motivated by geo-political interests.

Who will blink first ?

Judging from the past, neither is likely to give in under the present leadership. Hence, to save democracy in Bangladesh, everyone concerned needs to come out of hybernation and build a national consensus. BNP leadership must answer for the accusations and face the consequences. Its stalwart leaders should ensure that, instead of slavish subordination. The civil society should shade political color and influence of the ‘funders’, and the international community should accept local dynamics and realities. If all concerned fail to put the country first it will not bode well for democracy in Bangladesh.

The Bengali people will surely rise against one party rule. Success of rebellion will be shaped by the leadership it fosters. Any leadership tainted by criminal accusations and historical misdeeds will fail to obtain broad-based support. People may give the ‘benefit of doubt’ to civil crimes, but may not for criminal crimes, even if portrayed as ‘politically motivated’. Partisan support alone cannot bring down a one party dictatorship. A broad-based national movement is essential. It cannot happen under leadership tainted by criminal accusations. For a democratic Bangladesh, the country needs an opposition led by people who are not and cannot be tainted by criminal accusations and offer AL the moral high ground by default.

The author is a former UN official who was Chief of Policy Assistance Branch for Asia and the Pacific of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

IPS UN Bureau

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Guatemala’s Chance for a New Beginning

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Featured, Headlines, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, TerraViva United Nations

Opinion

Credit: Emmanuel Andres/AFP via Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Jan 18 2024 (IPS) – Guatemala’s new president, Bernardo Arévalo, was expected to be sworn in on 14 January at 2pm –the 14th at 14:00, as people repeated in anticipation for months. It was a momentous event – but it wasn’t guaranteed to happen.


One year earlier, Arévalo – co-founder of the progressive Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement), a political party born out of widespread 2015 anti-corruption protests – was largely unknown, freshly selected as his party’s presidential candidate. He wasn’t on the radar of opinion polls. A long chain of unlikely events later, he’s become the first Guatemalan president in living memory who doesn’t belong to the self-serving elites who Guatemalans call ‘the corrupt pact’, which he has credibly promised to dismantle.

The fear this caused among corrupt elite that has long ruled Guatemala was reflected in a series of attempts to try to stop Arévalo’s inauguration. The huge and sustained citizen mobilisation that came in response can largely be credited with keeping alive the spark of democracy in Guatemala.

Last-minute delays

All the Guatemalan Congress needed to do on the morning of 14 January was certify its newly elected members so the body could swear in the new president. But this routine administrative procedure was dragged on for many hours. The Indigenous movement, at the forefront of the months-long protests that had successfully kept at bay successive attempts to reverse the election results, called on Indigenous communities throughout Guatemala to remain on the alert.

In the late afternoon the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, surrounded by members of numerous foreign delegations, read a declaration calling on Congress to hand over power, ‘as required by the Constitution’, to the president-elect. This signalled that the world was watching.

As tensions mounted, Semilla reached an agreement for one of its representatives to be elected as president of Congress. This allowed the certification process to resume, and Arévalo was finally sworn in shortly after midnight. Night-long celebrations followed.

A coup attempt in stages

Arévalo’s election was unexpected. He only made it into the 20 August runoff because several other contenders not to the elite’s liking had been disqualified ahead of the first round. His candidacy wasn’t blocked because he scored so poorly in the polls. People’s expectations were extremely low, and first place went to invalid votes.

But once Arévalo entered the runoff, his rise was unstoppable. Death threats soon poured in, and an assassination plot involving state and non-state forces came to light days before the runoff.

As soon as the first-round results were announced, nine parties submitted complaints about supposed ‘irregularities’ that had gone undetected by all international observers. Their supporters converged outside the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) calling for a rerun.

The Constitutional Court instead ordered a recount and instructed the TSE to suspend official certification until complaints were resolved. Following the recount, the TSE eventually endorsed the results two weeks later.

But meanwhile, Attorney General Consuelo Porras Argueta, an official under US sanctions for corruption, launched an investigation into Semilla for alleged irregularities in its registration process and had its offices raided. She also ordered two raids on TSE offices, and when the TSE officially announced Arévalo as one of the runoff contenders, she ordered Semilla’s suspension. The Constitutional Court however blocked this order and the runoff ran its course. Arévalo took 58 per cent of the vote, compared to 37.2 per cent for the pro-establishment candidate.

Efforts to stop Arévalo’s inauguration began immediately, with yet another attempt by the Public Prosecutor to have Semilla suspended. The Constitutional Court continued to receive and reject legal challenges until the day of the inauguration.

For 100 days, two different visions of Guatemala wrestled with each other: people eager for change protested nonstop while corrupt forces linked to organised crime strove to preserve their privileges at any cost.

Democracy on life support

Guatemala has long been classified as a ‘hybrid regime‘ with a mix of democratic and authoritarian traits. Under outgoing president Alejandro Giammattei, civic freedoms steadily deteriorated. State institutions grew even weaker, ransacked by predatory elites and coopted by organised crime.

One of the last acts of Giammattei’s predecessor and ally, Jimmy Morales, was to end the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Charged with supporting and strengthening state institutions to investigate and prosecute serious crimes, CICIG helped file over 120 cases in the Guatemalan justice system and its joint investigations with the Attorney General’s Office led to over 400 convictions.

Under Giammattei, the Attorney General’s Office dismantled all anti-corruption efforts and criminalised those in the legal profession who’d worked alongside CICIG. Impunity flourished. Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index found evidence of strong influence by organised crime over politics and politicians, with some crime bosses seeking and securing office.

It’s no wonder that Guatemalans’ trust in state institutions hit rock bottom. According to the latest Latinobarómetro report, in 2021 satisfaction with the performance of democracy stood at a meagre 25 per cent.

Challenges ahead

Arévalo came to the presidency on a credible anti-corruption platform. But dismantling dense webs of complicity, rooting out entrenched corruption and rebuilding state institutions are no easy tasks.

Among the many challenges is a highly fragmented Congress in which 16 parties are represented, with Semilla on only 23 out of 160 seats. A large majority of Congress remains on the payroll of the interests Arévalo has promised to take on, along with most of the justice system. The 14 January events made clear that the ‘corrupt pact’ will do anything it can to stop Arévalo.

Arévalo’s to-do list is long, ranging from reducing political spending and improving social services to reversing laws that criminalise protest and establishing an effective protection mechanism for human rights defenders. At the top is forcing the resignation of Attorney General Consuelo Porras, the highest official presiding over a judicial network set up to ensure the impunity of the ‘corrupt pact’.

Arévalo can’t remove the Attorney General unilaterally, and so will have to negotiate her departure. This will be a key early test of the hope invested in him to keep democracy alive. Many more are sure to come.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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Hindu Woman Doctor Confident of Election In Pakistan Polls

Asia-Pacific, Democracy, Editors’ Choice, Education, Featured, Freedom of Expression, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Population, Religion, TerraViva United Nations, Women in Politics, Women’s Health

Women in Politics

On the campaign trail: Dr Saveera Parkash, a nominee for the Pakistan People’s Party. She is the first Hindu woman to run in Pakistan's general election Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

On the campaign trail: Dr Saveera Parkash, a nominee for the Pakistan People’s Party. She is the first Hindu woman to run in Pakistan’s general election Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

PESHAWAR, Jan 18 2024 (IPS) – A woman medical graduate from the Hindu community is making waves, as she is the first minority woman to contest the Pakistan Parliamentary election for a general seat, and she does so in the face of deep-rooted religious traditions and wealthy political opponents.


Dr Saveera Parkash, a nominee of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for the February 8 polls, is sure of her victory despite her religion.

“I have been witnessing the support that I am getting from the Muslim-dominated district of Buner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province,” Parkash told IPS in an interview. 

“My slogan is addressing issues of pollution, women’s empowerment, gender equality, female representation, and their health issues, in addition to ensuring respect for all religions,” she elaborated.

Born to a Christian mother and Hindu father, she has lived in a Muslim-dominated community; therefore, interfaith harmony is on her wishlist.

“Interfaith harmony is extremely significant because we have seen enmity among different religious sects on flimsy grounds.”

“We have to inculcate a sense of brotherhood among all schools of thought and pave the way for lasting peace in the area. We have to respect our religious places and shun differences, as all religions advocate peace and harmony,” she says.

Candidates in Buner, one of the 36 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that remained thick with militants from 2007 to 2010, are likely to witness a hard contest as the women and youngsters have shown support for the first-ever minority female candidate.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, one of Pakistan’s four provinces, has 145 elected members, 115 regular seats, 26 reserved for women, and 4 for non-Muslims.

Pakistan is home to 4.4 million Hindus, which is 2.4 percent of the total population.

Her father, a medical doctor and late leader of the PPP and twice Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated by militants in December 2007 in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, inspire her, she says.

“While my ideal is Mother Teresa, my main focus will be women’s education. The overall literacy rate is 48 percent, but only 25 percent of females are literate; therefore, I want to spread awareness about the importance of women’s education,” she says.

Additionally, it is very important to end favoritism and nepotism and ensure merit in the appointment of teachers, especially women.

After completing medical education in July 2022, she saw the issues women visiting hospitals faced and decided to enter politics instead of continuing her career as a doctor, as she believed issues needed to be resolved at the policy level.

“We need more women doctors, nurses, and paramedics to encourage female patients to visit hospitals. Currently, the number of female health workers is extremely low, due to which most of the women don’t come to hospitals because they don’t want to be seen by male doctors,” she says.

“My big advantage is that I belong to a middle-class family, and the people will vote for me because I am approachable to my electorate.”

The promotion of women’s rights is her main objective.

“We have to scale up awareness regarding women’s rights to property inheritance and their right to education. I sense victory in the polls, as I know the people listen to me and would reject opponents for their bright future.”

So, how does she feel the run-up to the election is going?

“In our district, 75 percent of voters are under 30, and they are well-informed about the issues they are facing. I may be lacking wisdom and knowledge compared to senior politicians, but my sincerity will lead to my success,” says the 25-year-old, who routinely wears a headscarf.

Because she is trying to reach a young electorate, her campaigning includes the wide use of social media, apart from the traditional approaches of public meetings and house-to-house canvassing.

Highlighting corruption is also part of her election campaign.

At the moment, she is concentrating on a smooth run-up so she can win popular support in her constituency

“Voters in my constituency call me ‘sister’ and ‘daughter,’ which gives me immense strength,” she said.

Parkash said she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, Oam Prakash, a retired doctor, and serve the people.

Securing a space for women is vital for development, as they have been suppressed and neglected in all areas.

She said “serving humanity is in my blood” due to her medical background, highlighting that her dream to become an elected legislator stemmed from having experienced poor management and helplessness in government hospitals as a doctor.

Most people in the area endorse her candidacy, regardless of her Hinduism or political affiliation. Voters appreciate her bravery for challenging traditional policies

The Election Commission of Pakistan makes it mandatory for all political parties to award 5 percent of seats to women in general seats.

Political analyst Muhammad Zahir Shah, at the University of Peshawar, said that Parkash has created history by contesting the general election.

“We have been seeing women becoming members of the assembly on reserved seats. They don’t contest elections but are nominated by parties on the basis of the seats they win in the election,” Shah said.

In the past, some women have fought elections, but they were Muslim; therefore, they don’t draw as much media and public attention, but the case of Parkash is unprecedented.

She is well educated and belongs to the Hindu community while standing for vote in an area where 95 percent of the voters are Muslims.

“She is contesting on the PPP’s ticket, which isn’t a popular political party, but it seems that she will make her presence felt during the electioneering,” Shah said. Already, she has hit headlines, and if the election takes place in a fair and transparent manner, there is a greater likelihood that she will emerge victorious,” he said.

IPS UN Bureau Report

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Bangladesh: Election with a Foregone Conclusion

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Opinion

Credit: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, Jan 12 2024 (IPS) – Bangladesh just held an election. But it was far from an exercise in democracy.

Sheikh Hasina won her fourth consecutive term, and fifth overall, as prime minister in the general election held on 7 January. The result was never in doubt, with the main opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), boycotting the vote over the ruling Awami League’s refusal to let a caretaker government oversee the election. This practice, abolished by the Awami League government in 2011, was, the BNP asserted, the only way to ensure a free and fair vote.


The BNP’s boycott was far from the only issue. A blatant campaign of pre-election intimidation saw government critics, activists and protesters subjected to threats, violence and arrests.

At the government’s urging, court cases against opposition members were accelerated so they’d be locked away before the election, resulting in a reported 800-plus convictions between September and December 2023. It’s alleged that torture and ill-treatment were used against opposition activists to force confessions. There have been reports of deaths in police custody.

Police banned protests, and when a rare mass opposition protest went ahead on 28 October police used rubber bullets, teargas and stun grenades. Following the protest, thousands more opposition supporters were detained on fabricated charges. As well as violence from the notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) – an elite unit notorious for excessive and lethal force – and other elements of the police force, opposition supporters faced attacks by Awami League supporters. Journalists have also been smeared, attacked and harassed, including when covering protests.

As a direct result of the ruling party’s pre-election crackdown, in December 2023 Bangladesh’s civic space rating was downgraded to closed by the CIVICUS Monitor, the collaborative research project that tracks the health of civic space in every country. This places Bangladesh among the world’s worst human rights offenders, including China, Iran and Russia.

Civil society’s concerns were echoed in November 2023 by UN human rights experts who expressed alarm at political violence, arrests, mass detention, judicial harassment, excessive force and internet restrictions.

All-out assault

Such is the severity of the closure of Bangladesh’s civic space that many of the strongest dissenting voices now come from those in exile. But even speaking out from outside Bangladesh doesn’t ensure safety. As a way of putting pressure on exiled activists, the authorities are harassing their families.

Activists aren’t safe even at the UN. A civil society discussion in the wings of the UN Human Rights Council in November was disrupted by government supporters, with Adilur Rahman Khan, a leader of the Bangladeshi human rights organisation Odhikar, subjected to verbal attacks.

Khan is currently on bail while appealing against a two-year jail sentence imposed on him and another Odhikar leader in retaliation for their work to document extrajudicial killings. Following the session in Geneva, Khan was further vilified in online news sites and accused of presenting false information.

Others are coming under attack. Hasina and her government have made much of their economic record, with Bangladesh now one of the world’s biggest garment producers. But that success is largely based on low wages. Like many countries, Bangladesh is currently experiencing high inflation, and garment workers’ recent efforts to improve their situation have been met with repression.

Workers protested in October and November 2023 after a government-appointed panel raised the minimum wage for garment sector workers to a far lower level than they’d demanded. Up to 25,000 people took part in protests, forcing at least 100 factories to close. They were met with police violence. At least two people were killed and many more were injured.

Seemingly no one is safe. Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank that has enabled millions to access small loans, was recently convicted of labour law offences in a trial his supporters denounced as politically motivated. Yunus has long been a target for criticism and threats from the ruling party.

Democracy in name only

The quality of Bangladesh’s elections has dramatically declined since the Awami League returned to power in the last reasonably free and fair election in 2008. Each election since has been characterised by serious irregularities and pre-voting crackdowns as the incumbents have done everything they could to hold onto power.

But this time, while the Awami League victory was as huge as ever, turnout was down. It was almost half its 2018 level, at only 41.8 per cent, and even that figure may be inflated. The lack of participation reflected a widespread understanding that the Awami League’s victory was a foregone conclusion: many Awami League supporters didn’t feel they needed to vote, and many opposition backers had no one to vote for.

People knew that many supposedly independent candidates were in reality Awami League supporters running as a pseudo-opposition to offer some appearance of electoral competition. The party that came second is also allied with the ruling party. All electoral credibility and legitimacy are now strained past breaking point.

The government has faced predictably no pressure to abide by democratic rules from key allies such as China and India, although the once-supportive US government has shifted its position in recent years, imposing sanctions on some RAB leaders and threatening to withhold visas for Bangladeshis deemed to have undermined the electoral process.

If the economic situation deteriorates further, discontent is sure to grow, and with other spaces blocked, protests and their violent repression will surely follow. International partners must urge the Bangladeshi government to find a way to avoid this. More violence and intensifying authoritarianism can’t be the way forward. Instead Bangladesh should be urged to start the journey back towards democracy.

Andrew Firmin CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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