HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH /ASIA OVERVIEW
Human Rights Developments
In terms of human rights, Asia in 1996 was marked by major setbacks, minor progress and much unfinished business. On the one hand, there was an obvious deterioration of the human rights situation in Burma, Cambodia, China, and Indonesia. In addition to the arrest of over 1,000 supporters of the democracy movement in Burma during the year, forced labor and forced relocations in Burma=s eastern provinces led to a massive exodus of refugees and migrants to Thailand. China=s particularly harsh treatment of democracy advocates like Wei Jingsheng, serving a fourteen-year prison sentence, and Wang Dan, a former student leader who Adisappeared@ in 1995 only to surface in custody and be formally tried and sentenced to eleven years in prison on subversion charges in October 1996, were part of a more systematic effort to crush the political opposition. At the same time, China=s arrests of business and banking executives during the year demonstrated that arbitrary detention was not restricted to political activists. The utter disregard for the rule of law by Chinese authorities, even as some legal reforms were undertaken, did not bode well for Hong Kong and its transition to Chinese rule in 1997. Many activists in Hong Kong were already concerned by Chinese government statements and actions that signaled strict controls of the press and of political participation after the transition. In Indonesia, dozens of student activists under the age of thirty faced trial and certain conviction on political charges for taking part a nonviolent leftist political organization that the Soeharto government, with no evidence, charged with masterminding serious riots in Jakarta, the capital, in July.
If the level of state repression was high during the year, the demand from Asian citizens for basic civil liberties was greater than ever. If 1988 was the year of the pro-democracy movement for Burma, 1989 for China, 1990 for Nepal, 1992 for Thailand, 1993 for Cambodia, and 1995 for Hong Kong, 1996 was a banner year for Taiwan and Indonesia. The elections in Taiwan in March, in which 14,000,000 Taiwanese voters for the first time chose their president by direct and secret ballot after an open and lively campaign, were a stunning refutation of the AAsian values@ argument that Asians care more about strong, efficient government than about popular participation. The elections also demonstrated that there was nothing inherently incompatible about Confucian cultural traditions and respect for civil liberties. The Indonesian democracy movement developed a new cohesion with the formation of an independent election monitoring group in March and the demand for accountable leadership that led to mass support for Megawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia=s first president, as an alternative to President Soeharto.
Major human rights problems remained unresolved in the region. In Kashmir, despite the holding of elections in May and September and a reduction in the frequency of confrontation between the military and various groups of armed insurgents, the level of summary executions of suspected militants by Indian security forces remained high. In Sri Lanka, initial optimism that the government of Chandrika Kumartunga, which was largely supportive of human rights, would be able to prevent violations of humanitarian law as its army waged war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was waning at the end of the year. The LTTE, whose violations of a cease-fire in April 1995 led to the resumption of the war, was responsible for serious violations of humanitarian law in the territory it controlled. In Bangladesh, all political parties were responsible for widespread violence and civil strife prior to elections in February and June.
Religion frequently intersected with human rights in Asia, often with negative consequences. The Chinese government saw Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and millenarian sects, for different reasons, as serious threats to the legitimacy of the Communist Party and intensified efforts to regulate all. Clashes between Muslims and Christians, originating in unsolved political conflict and unprosecuted human rights abuses, erupted in East Timor in June as they had in 1995. A rash of church-burnings in Java in June, September and October, that the government failed to prevent, and the efforts, with clear communal overtones, of the Indonesian army in August to whip up anti-communist sentiment among Muslim groups following the arrest of members of a student leftist party, all suggested that the much-vaunted reputation of the Indonesian government for religious tolerance needed to be reconsidered. The taking of Kabul by the Muslim militia calling themselves Taliban or Astudents@ signaled a period of grave discrimination against women; the group=s seizure of former Prime Minister Najibullah from a U.N. compound and the subsequent torture and execution of Najibullah and his aides boded ill for human rights in Afghanistan. In Burma, the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council persisted in a pattern of discrimination and abuse against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Arakan, in the north of the country.
At the same time, the fact that Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo of East Timor received the Nobel Peace Prize was recognition of the critically important role religious figures can play as protectors of human rights. And there was some progress toward prosecuting communal violence in India, with the reinstatement of a commission looking into the role of the police in Hindu-Muslim riots in Bombay in 1993. In September, one Hindu man was prosecuted and convicted for killing two Sikhs in the course of a massacre of over 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 in which police and ruling party officials took an active role; it was the first such conviction in relation to that massacre.
Several regional issues came to international attention during the year. The problems of migrant workers in MalaysiaCBangladeshis, Indonesians and Filipinas in particularCwere highlighted with the trial beginning in June of Irene Fernandez, a Malaysian human rights activist charged with Afalse reporting@ for her efforts to document abuses of migrants in Malaysian immigration detention centers. If her trial represented the efforts of one part of the Malaysian government to silence public criticism of the problem, other parts of the government took constructive steps during the year to curb abusive practices of labor recruiters.Thailand=s cabinet, in part because of pressure from a labor-starved business community, adopted a resolution in July giving temporary legal status, and therefore protection of some Thai labor laws, to almost 900,000 illegal migrant workers, mostly from Burma, Laos and Cambodia. But that welcome development was offset by the failure of the Thai government to crack down on illegal recruiters sending Thais, many of them women, to Japan and other countries. Of all the human rights issues in Southeast Asia, migration was one of the few on which systematic talks at an intergovernmental were taking place, both among national human rights commissions, within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and at a bilateral level between foreign and labor ministers of sending and receiving countries. In the Human Resources Development Working Group of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), on the other hand, there was strong resistance to addressing the problem of migrant laborers, despite attempts by the Philippines government to get it on the agenda.
Bonded labor continued to be a major issue in South Asia. Both India and Pakistan failed to enforce laws prohibiting bonded labor, but in both countries, local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had produced a range of recommendations for governments and donor agencies for the identification and rehabilitation of bonded laborers, particularly children, and there was some prospect of greater international scrutiny of government enforcement procedures.
Another regional human rights issue, that of the Vietnamese boat people spread among camps in Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Indonesia, came to a violent close at the end of the year with the formal end of the Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multilateral plan for repatriation and resettlement of Vietnamese asylum-seekers, on June 30. As first-asylum countries rushed to close down their camps, their security forces often used disproportionate force against Vietnamese resisting forced return, although the resistance itself was often violent. Incidents of excessive force occurred throughout the first-asylum countries, including the January shooting death of one Vietnamese in Sungai Besi, Malaysia and the beatings of Vietnamese in Palawan, Philippines in February. Detention conditions for Vietnamese in Hong Kong continued to be a major concern, where some of the camps were expected to remain open in 1997 despite stepped-up efforts to repatriate those remaining. In a humanitarian move that could have been a model for other first-asylum countries, the Philippines in August permitted the remaining 1,000 Vietnamese to integrate locally.
Domestic and international advocacy efforts forced the issue of trafficking of Asian women and children for prostitution onto the agenda of governments in the region. In August, for example, Thailand announced a ten-year plan, the "National Policy and Plan of Action for the Prevention and Eradication of the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children," distributed at a world conference on the subject in Stockholm. While welcome, the plan focused only on those under eighteen, leaving the problems of older victims unaddressed, and it was not clear how implementation would proceed. The plan, however, gave too little attention to the prosecution of traffickers and promoters of commercial sex. Thailand has been a center of trafficking for prostitution, with Burmese and Chinese women trafficked into the country, and Thai women trafficked out.
One other development in the region was worth noting. Increased access by human rights organizations and pro-democracy activists to the Internet facilitated international advocacy campaigns on everything from Burma to bonded labor, but Asian governments for the most part treated the Internet with great suspicion. In January, the State Council in China issued a draft set of rules to regulate use of the Internet; subscribers were ordered to provide a written guarantee that they would not use the Internet for purposes "harmful to the state." In September, Chinese authorities deployed sophisticated technology to block subscriber access to as many as one hundred English and Chinese sites on the World Wide Web. In June, the South Korean government warned that the draconian National Security Law could be applied to attempts to circulate material about North Korea on personal computers; the warning came after a local newspaper carried an article on a Canadian Web page with a picture of Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader. In July, Singapore announced a new licensing system designed to regulate the Internet and censor any material that might Aundermine public morals, political stability and religious harmony.@ On September 4, the ASEAN countries announced an agreement to collectively regulate communication on the Internet. In the same month, Burma issued a new law which entailed a fifteen-year sentence for anyone importing, purchasing or using modems or fax machines without governmental permission. No known restrictions were placed on the use of the Internet in South Asia.
The Right to Monitor
Human rights organizations continued to be effectively banned in -- and international human rights organizations banned from -- North Korea, Burma, Vietnam, Brunei, Bhutan, and China/Tibet. In China, however, university-based legal aid organizations took on some functions of rights protection. Singapore had no human rights organizations operating freely in the country, but access to the country by international organizations was not a problem. Human rights monitoring continued to be a dangerous profession during the year, with two monitors killed in India: Kashmiri human rights lawyer Jalil Andrabi was abducted by Indian security forces and murdered in March, while Parag Kumar Das, an editor and activist from Assam, was killed in May. Fernando Reyes, a human rights lawyer, was killed in Zamboanga del Sur, the Philippines, and Kalpana Chakma, secretary of a women=s organization in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh, was abducted by army gunmen in June and not seen thereafter. In Burma, twenty-one political prisoners who had attempted to send information about prison conditions to the U.N.=s special rapporteur on the country were beaten and given additional sentences of five and twelve years. In Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Nepal, human rights monitors faced various degrees of persecution and harassment.
National human rights commissions in the Philippines, India, and Indonesia continued to play an important role despite restrictions in their mandates, particularly in the case of the latter two. India=s commission focused national attention on the problem of custodial violence; it was far less successful in raising concerns about abuses by security forces in Kashmir or the northeast. The Indonesian commission helped bring about prosecutions of soldiers in several key incidents during the year and issued a brief but stinging report on the government-backed storming of opposition party headquarters that led to the Jakarta riots in July
The year saw increasing joint action of NGOs across national boundaries, especially on Burma. From May 1 to 17, the Bangkok-based NGO coalition, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, sent a delegation of two Thais and two Filipinas to Burma to investigate human rights abuses. In a report issued from Manila in July, the group called on ASEAN countries to ban aid and investment and ban Burma from membership in ASEAN. At the trial of Irene Fernandez in Malaysia, international observers from Indonesia and Bangladesh as well as the United States were in attendance. In February and March, NGOs in Nepal hosted a series of meetings which brought together hundreds of Asian activists to coordinate advocacy on wide range of human rights concerns, from labor rights, the environment, health, and development, to protection of civil society and conflict resolution. November saw one of the largest gatherings of Asian human rights organizations for a regional meeting since the 1993 Asian preparatory conference for the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, as hundreds of groups convened in Manila in conjunction with the APEC summit. Labor rights issues were high on the agenda.
The Role of the International Community
Security and commercial concerns dominated the international agenda in Asia throughout 1996, and most governments saw pressure on human rights concerns as jeopardizing those interests. The European Union held its first E.U.-Asia summit meeting in Bangkok in early March, at which the phrase Ahuman rights@ was barely mentioned. The U.S. maintained its low profile on human rights concerns in South Asia, with the exception of the child labor issue. Ensuring continued access to Asian markets and maintaining existing investments there were far more important to the industrialized countries than challenging Beijing, sanctioning Rangoon, conditioning Korea=s entry into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on labor rights improvements, or protesting crackdowns on the political opposition in Indonesia.
As the World Trade Organization (WTO) prepared to hold its first ministerial meeting in December in Singapore, Asian NGOs debated the pros and cons of trying to include in the WTO Charter a Asocial clause@C a way of linking trade benefits to adherence to basic labor rights standards. Asian governments were virtually united in their opposition to an effort led by the U.S. and France to set up a working group on labor and environmental standards at the Singapore meeting that would address many of the concerns raised by social clause proponents. The issue was also expected to be debated in the margins of the APEC summit in
Manila in late November.
The United Nations was much more visible as a human rights presence in Asia than in previous years. The Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Centre continued to maintain an office in Cambodia, and its term was extended for another two years in an agreement between the center and the Cambodian government. Justice Michael Kirby stepped down as the special representative for human rights in Cambodia and was replaced by Thomas Hammarberg, former secretary-general of Amnesty International.
In July, Louis Joinet, head of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, visited China to begin discussions about the possibility of a more in-depth visit by the working group in 1997. Special Rapporteur on Torture Nigel Rodley visited Pakistan in February, but his effort to obtain permission from Indonesia to investigate torture in East Timor was unsuccessful. In Burma, a new special rapporteur was appointed by the Commission on Human Rights to replace Prof. Yozo Yokota, but as of November, SLORC had not permitted the new appointee, Rajsoomer Lallah from Mauritius, to visit.
No new ratifications of major U.N. conventions on human rights took place during the year, but a campaign was underway in Indonesia among NGOs and the government-appointed National Human Rights Commission for ratification of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The hearings in Geneva of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child drew international attention to abuses against children in China and Burma, and in October, the hearing of the Human Rights Committee on the compliance of the United Kingdom with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, particularly with respect to Hong Kong, was a useful means of raising international concern about China=s determination to avoid such reporting once Hong Kong returns to Chinese control in 1997. China also submitted a report to the U.N. Committee Against Torture on the steps it had taken to prevent torture. The report was used by NGOs to focus on the steps China had not taken and on the ongoing problem of torture in Chinese prisons.
The U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva suffered a severe blow to its credibility and effectiveness when, during its April 1996 session, the Chinese government used commercial threats and blandishments to block any discussion or vote on a resolution expressing concern about human rights abuses in China and Tibet.
The ASEAN ministerial conference in Jakarta in July, and the expanded ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)Ca forum for discussion of security issues, which included India, China, and Burma (as an observer)Cresulted in a standoff on strategy towards Burma, as ASEAN reaffirmed its commitment to Aconstructive engagement@ despite pressure from mostly western countries to use its influence to bring more pressure to bear on SLORC to improve its human rights practices. Later in the year, however, as conditions in Burma further deteriorated, a growing split emerged within ASEAN over how to deal with Burma and how soon to grant it membership.
Human rights proved a particularly thorny issue in European-Asian relations. In March, as noted, Bangkok hosted the first EU-Asia summit, widely seen as an attempt by European leaders to use the APEC model to involve Europe more closely in the economic dynamism of East and Southeast Asia. The meeting involved twenty-five heads of state, and the only human rights issue that surfaced was East Timor, when the Portuguese prime minister and Indonesian President Soeharto held unscheduled bilateral talks. Some key EU countries, including France and Germany, apparently used the meeting to try to find a formula for avoiding sponsorship of a resolution criticizing China=s human rights record at the U.N. Human Rights Commission. When foreign ministers of many of the same European countries met their ASEAN counterparts in July in Jakarta, they were roundly criticized for focusing too much on human rights issues, particularly on Burma and East Timor.
Japan continued to play a cautious role on human rights in the region, using the leverage of granting, suspending or resuming Official Development Assistance (ODA) to advance human rights concerns only in the case of Burma, while security issues were the clear priority in its bilateral relations with China. This was also the case in South Asia, where Japanese authorities engaged India on nuclear discussions but refrained from directly addressing specific human rights problems such as Kashmir. Tokyo asserted its role as the world=s leading aid donor by hosting, together with the World Bank, two international donor consortiums in 1996, on Cambodia and India.
Donors and Investors
The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank made little demonstrable progress in 1996 towards implementing their respective Agood governance@ policies, although the World Bank did show some interest in addressing the bonded child labor issue, especially in India.
Demands for increased corporate responsibility in Asia in terms of protecting human rights increased both domestically and internationally. The demands on footwear manufacturers, such as Nike, and mining companies, such as Freeport-McMoRan, both of which have operations in Indonesia, were particularly public. Light export-oriented industries, such as the manufacture of textiles, garments, and toys, and other industries such carpet-weaving, became more sensitized to the issues of child labor and worker rights abuses. In Burma, international investment became the target of selective purchasing legislation in several U.S. cities and states and of consumer boycott campaigns in other western countries, leading to the withdrawal of several companies from Burma. Apple Computers and Heineken were among those that pulled out. In some cases, companies responded with either cosmetic gestures or more serious efforts to monitor their own operations, but few were willing to work with local or international NGOs to assist in carrying out social audits or monitoring of internal guidelines, and the lack of transparency and accountability by the private sector remained a key obstacle to enhanced corporate responsibility.
An important emerging issue for the business community was the upcoming transfer of Hong Kong in July 1997, and how foreign investors would respond to human rights developments after the transfer. As the year ended, some U.S. business interests were already playing a positive role by sending clear signals to Beijing on the importance of maintaining the rule of law, protecting free expression, and stopping the spread of corruption from the mainland to Hong Kong.
The Work of Human Rights Watch\Asia
The year was marked by new initiatives on both research and advocacy, while Human Rights Watch/Asia continued to follow up on past work. On countries with strong NGOs, we worked with local groups to set priorities: bonded labor and migrant labor in South and Southeast Asia became research priorities in this way. But even in countries with no human rights organizations, such as China and Burma, the scope of our work widened beyond the traditional and ongoing concerns of arbitrary detention, torture and violations of freedom of expression and association. A major study of abuses in China=s orphanages during the year sparked international outrage and provided new insights into how the impact of a repressive state apparatus can reach beyond political and religious dissidents to touch the country=s most vulnerable citizensCabandoned, orphaned and handicapped childrenCin a way that violated the most fundamental human rights. With regard to Burma, a report released in September on the human rights violations suffered by the Rohingya Muslim minority served as a follow-up to two earlier reports on that issue, but in focusing as much on repatriation and protection of returned refugees as on abuses inside Burma per se, it provided a new way of examining the problem. It also provided new opportunities to seek accountability from the Burmese government, including through international humanitarian and development agencies.
We continued to respond swiftly to particularly grave cases of abuse, issuing press statements and briefing materials, appealing to U.N. bodies, or meeting with officials of donor governments as the case warranted. The massive arrests in Burma in May and September, the crackdown on student and labor activists in Indonesia in August and September, and the formal indictment and trial of Chinese dissident Wang Dan in October were all occasions for emergency interventions. Likewise, whenever Asian human rights monitors abroad were attacked, we responded immediately, as in our protests over the killing of Kashmiri lawyer Jalil Andrabi in March and our decision to send a series of observers to the trial of Malaysian activist Irene Fernandez in Kuala Lumpur.
Hong Kong received particular attention during the year, as the transition to Chinese sovereignty approached in 1997. Our office in Hong Kong continued its emphasis on China, but staff also worked with local monitoring groups to generate more international attention to the steps taken by China that had or were expected to have deleterious effects on civil liberties.
While our research output was considerable in 1996Cten short reports, four book-length reports, two of them in collaboration with the Human Rights Watch Children=s Rights Project (CRP)Cwe devoted an equal amount of staff time and resources to advocacy efforts. An example was the campaign on bonded child labor in India, based on the report The Small Hands of Slavery, issued in September. The report itself involved three months of intensive research. When it was ready for publication, we undertook a process of detailed consultation with our Indian colleagues on the policy recommendations and on plans for follow-up. We then sent letters summarizing the recommendations to the key donor governments and agencies attending the annual meeting on development assistance chaired by the World Bank, which convened in Tokyo in September; we also discussed the issue with Japanese Foreign Ministry officials in advance of the meeting. Responses from several agencies including the World Bank suggested that some of the recommendations could be incorporated when projects to support industries known to employ bonded child labor, such as sericulture, came up for renewal. The report was used as evidence by local NGOs in Tamil Nadu in a case before the Supreme Court to abolish bonded labor in that state. A joint campaign of local, regional and international NGOs to eradicate the practice of bonded labor was expected to continue well into 1997.
Asia was a major focus of work at the U.N. during the year. We joined with other NGOs in lobbying for a resolution criticizing Burma=s human rights record at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which ultimately succeeded. Despite the best efforts of our New York, Washington, Brussels and Hong Kong offices, however, and those of many activists worldwide, a resolution on China failed to come to a vote. In the course of intensive press work and discussions with European Union members on the China resolution, however, the Brussels office managed to secure a resolution from the European Parliament that helped force the E.U. countries at the commission to take a stronger position than they would have otherwise; that action provided a useful basis for further European lobbying on China. We raised several Asian issues in written submissions at the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva in April, including abuses in Chinese orphanages, concerns about trafficking of women from Burma to Thailand, and concerns about migrant workers in Asia. Staff submitted evidence on Burma at the hearing on the Committee on the Rights of the Child. In July, as in previous years, we submitted a petition on human rights abuses in East Timor to the U.N. Committee on Decolonization, noting that any discussion of East Timor=s political status must be informed by an understanding of the pattern of human rights violations there.
The Washington, London and Brussels offices played key advocacy roles during the year. Human Rights Watch gave evidence on forced labor in Burma before the European Commission in Brussels and testified before the U.S. Congress four times on China and once each on Hong Kong, Indonesia/East Timor, and Pakistan. We also testified before the U.S. government=s Presidential Commission on U.S.-Pacific Trade and Investment Policy. Through our Washington office, we maintained close and regular contact with embassies of Asian countries as well as with the World Bank, U.S. government agencies and the U.S. Congress. In July, a staff member traveled to Tokyo to meet with government officials, members of parliament, NGOs, journalists and others to continue a dialogue on human rights issues in the region and Japan=s official human rights policy. We also published op-eds in Japanese newspapers during the year, as well as providing information about human rights concerns through other articles in the regional press.
In sum, the year in Asia was marked by increasing cooperation of local, regional and international NGOs, especially on issues such as labor rights and women=s rights. Arbitrary detention and punishment of peaceful dissent continued to be major problems in countries where NGOs were not allowed to function, but condemnation of these practices from NGOs and governments in other Asian countries was increasingly common. The political manipulation of religion by governments and opposition groups in many Asian countries raised the spectre of communal conflict in the years to come. Among donor countries and trading partners of Asian countries, business concerns continued to overshadow human rights, and the fear of losing contracts became a powerful incentive for many countries to avoid criticism of human rights abuses.
Human Rights Developments
Political violence among Bangladesh=s major political parties dominated events in 1996 and led to widespread human rights abuses. A mid-year election ended the immediate crisis, but because authorities failed to disarm party cadres and prosecute leaders responsible for inciting the violence, it erupted again within a few weeks, although on a smaller scale. The conflict over land in the Chittagong Hill Tracts continued to take a toll on civilians as both the Bangladesh government forces and the guerrilla army, Shanti Bahini, carried out indiscriminate attacks. Army troops were also believed responsible for the Adisappearance@ of human rights activist Kalpana Chakma in June.
The political crisis stemmed from a longstanding dispute between the governing Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the opposition, led by the Awami (People=s) League, over charges of government corruption and vote-rigging. On November 25, 1995, after a yearlong boycott of parliament by the opposition, President Abdur Rahman Biswas dissolved parliament. Fresh legislative polls were announced for February 15, 1996, but all of the opposition parties pledged to boycott the polls unless Prime Minister Zia resigned beforehand; in the weeks leading up to the elections, they stepped up their campaign of strikes and street protests to force the government to accede to their demands. As the February vote approached, the political deadlock erupted in violence as supporters, youth wings and student fronts of all political parties battled with each other, and opposition groups fought with police, paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) C both under the control of the Home Affairs Ministry C and the army, which had been called in by the election commission to retrieve illegal arms ahead of the election.
On February 4, still before the vote, at least 200 uniformed soldiers armed with guns and batons conducted indiscriminate raids in Charsayedpur village, taking three villagers into custody, rounding up and interrogating scores of others, and beating at least 200 residents, including women and children. The detainees were beaten and tortured with electric shocks. To Human Rights Watch=s knowledge, the soldiers responsible were never prosecuted. In another incident, on January 31, 1996, some 150 students were injured and about ninety-five arrested as police, backed by BDR troops, raided Jagannath Hall, Dhaka University=s dormitory for religious minority students and a stronghold of the Awami League student wing. Approximately thirty students were hospitalized as a result of the police attack. The police raid followed an exchange of fire between pro-government and anti-government factions on the university campus.
The polls themselves were marred by violence among rival political factions, intimidation of voters, and attacks on polling centers by opposition activists and credible allegations against the ruling party of vote-rigging in the uncontested election. At a protest rally in front of the national Press Club in Dhaka prior to the election, a speaker from the Awami League warned, "Anyone who goes to vote will come back dead." On and immediately before election day, several hundred polling stations across the country were gutted by opposition militants. Nationwide, an estimated sixteen people were killed and 500 injured in violent incidents over the two weeks leading up to the polls, forcing authorities to postpone voting in some areas.
In several incidents during the weeks before and after the February 15 election, journalists were assaulted, harassed or arrested either because of their suspected ties to the opposition, or because they were reporting on or photographing police shootings and other abuses. On February 10, a photojournalist for the Dhaka-based daily newspaper, Janakantha, was severely beaten by BDR troops when he attempted to take a picture of the family of a ten-year-old boy who had been detained. A reporter for the daily Banglarbani was also badly beaten, and both men had their cameras confiscated. Another photojournalist with the Dhaka-based daily Ajker Kagoj (Daily News), was beaten by police after taking photographs of a clash between violent Awami League supporters and the police. He sustained a deep wound to his head. On February 29, 1996, Ajker Kagoj=s chief reporter was arrested under the Special Powers ActCa law which provides for detention without charge. The arrest was apparently meant to put pressure the newspaper=s editor, Kazi Shahid Ahmed, an outspoken critic of the government, who was in hiding. The reporter was released on bail on March 31.
Gross mistreatment of criminal suspects by both police and judiciary were a problem outside the political sphere as well. In one case, Vladimir Lankin, a Russian citizen, remained on trial for the third straight year in 1996 on criminal charges. Neither the fact that he had been tortured into confessing by use of electric shock nor the illegal length of his trial moved the judge to speed sentencing; on the contrary, in mid-year, the judge himself caused an additional delay by taking a four-month Aretraining@ course. During the hiatus, Lankin=s health deteriorated to the point that he had to be hospitalized.
The BNP won all but two of the 207 seats for which results were declared; new voting was ordered in the remaining ninety-three constituencies because of various irregularities and charges of vote-tampering. The opposition, led by Sheikh Hasina, declared the election "illegal" and organized strikes throughout the country to force a new election on its terms. On March 9 the opposition declared an indefinite non-cooperation movement that brought the economy to the brink of collapse. The country's emerging export-oriented garment-manufacturing industry suffered a heavy toll from lost production and from the closure of Chittagong port. In the first three months of 1996 alone, the fighting among supporters of rival parties, encounters between protestors and the police, BDR and army, and bomb and arson attacks by various political groups led to an estimated 120 deaths, thousands of casualties and widespread property damage.
Zia was sworn in as prime minister for a second term on March 19 while the opposition's non-cooperation movement gathered momentum. On March 28 thousands of civil servants staged a sit-in at the main government secretariat building in Dhaka, demanding the installation of a caretaker authority. On March 30, as the opposition prepared to orchestrate a siege of the presidential palace by thousands of supporters, President Biswas dissolved the newly-elected legislature and, as Zia stepped down, appointed ex-Chief Justice Habibur Rahman as chief adviser to head an interim government that presided over fresh national elections on June 12, 1996.
The polls were considered generally fair, although there were consistent reports of intimidation of the Hindu minority and in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a largely tribal area. The vote brought the Awami League to power under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. Tensions between the new government and the army surfaced on August 13 when the government used the Special Powers Act to arrest three former army officers in connection with the 1975 assassination of Sheikh Hasina Wajed=s father, former Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and most of the members of his family.
Violence between rival student factions erupted again in August. On August 22 in Bogra, a clash left one student and one policeman dead. Police called in paramilitary units after students attacked a police station in Bogra on August 24. They opened fire on the students, some of whom were also allegedly firing guns; two students were killed. Prime Minister Hasina Wajed promised a judicial probe into the incidents. On August 25, after several days of student violence, hundreds of police raided residence halls at Dhaka University, arresting alleged outsiders and seizing numerous weapons. Opposition legislators staged a walkout of parliament denouncing Aunprecedented police barbarity@ against opposition students and supporters. September by-elections in several constituencies were also marked by violence, as the BNP raised uncorroborated allegations of vote-rigging.
In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a low-intensity conflict continued between Bangladesh government forces and the Shanti Bahini, a guerrilla force that took up arms in 1973 after Bangladesh rejected their demand for autonomy and began settling Bengalis in the area. Officials say up to 8,000 soldiers, rebels and civilians have been killed in the protracted insurgency. Human rights groups have documented torture and extrajudicial executions of suspected Shanti Bahini supporters. These abuses and attacks by settlers drove thousands of tribal families to flee to northeast India. On August 14 the Tripura state government in India resumed the repatriation of 50,000 refugees. On September 11, Shanti Bahini militants killed thirty Bengali settlers, beheading most of them, in the Rangamati district of the Hill Tracts. Settlers= organizations vowed revenge.
In June, outspoken tribal rights activist Kalpana Chakma was abducted by unidentified gunmen and has not been heard from since. (See below.)
In August, protests broke out over a longstanding dispute between Bangladesh and Pakistan over the citizenship of Bengali-speaking residents of Pakistan who claim to be Bangladeshi, and Urdu-speaking ABiharis@ in Bangladesh who claim to be Pakistani. Both countries deported Aillegal@ immigrants while failing to resolve the issue. On August 14, Pakistan=s independence day, hundreds of ABiharis@ scuffled with police in Dhaka, and a few tried to burn themselves alive to protest a delay in their repatriation to Pakistan.
The treatment of refugees from Burma remained a concern during the year. Bangladesh, though not a signatory to the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, became a member of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Executive Committee in 1995. This did not stop the government denying new arrivals the right to seek asylum. The strikes during February and March virtually halted all repatriations of the remaining 50,000 Rohingya Muslims who had fled to Bangladesh in 1992. During this period, when international aid agencies and staff of the UNHCR were unable to travel to the refugee camps, there were reports of beatings and food deprivation in the two southernmost camps. By April several thousand new arrivals began entering Bangladesh, reporting an increase in forced labor and other abuses in Burma. (See section on Burma.) In an attempt to stem the flood, Bangladesh authorities jailed new arrivals or prevented them from reaching Bangladesh. In one incident in April, twenty-five asylum-seekers, most of them women and children, drowned as their boat was being towed back to Burma by the Bangladesh Border Rifles. By the time the rains began in June, some 10,000 new arrivals had entered Bangladesh. By the end of the year some 250 Rohingyas remained in appalling conditions in Cox's Bazaar jail (which had a capacity of one hundred) and the Bangladesh government continued to deny the UNHCR and nongovernmental organizations access to all new arrivals, most of whom had taken shelter in the jungle.
The Right to Monitor
NGOs for the most part operated freely in Bangladesh. On the eve of the June 12 general elections, however, armed gunmen abducted Kalpana Chakma, organizing secretary of the Hill Women=s Federation, along with her two brothers, from their family home in New Lallyaghona village in Rangamati district. The gunmen attempted to shoot the two brothers, who managed to escape unhurt. One of Chakma=s brothers identified Lieutenant Ferdous, an officer from the Ugalchhari army camp, as one of the abductors. The army denied involvement in the kidnapping. As of November, there was no word on Chakma=s whereabouts. In late August the government constituted a three-member committee to investigate the Adisappearance@ of Kalpana Chakma and identify the those responsible. The committee was also asked to propose suitable legal action and steps to prevent future incidents.
The Role of the International Community
Bangladesh=s donors expressed alarm at the country=s slide into chaos in the early part of the year. The U.S. attempted without success to bring together the leaders of the BNP and Awami League to negotiate an end to the stalemate. Embassy personnel also privately expressed concern about the rising violence and electoral abuses during the February general elections. During the riots in Chittagong, the British ambassador visited several of the businesses destroyed or damaged by the mobs, and raised concerns with local authorities about the failure of the police to act promptly to protect citizens and property. A number of countries sent delegations to observe the June elections, including Japan, the European Union and the U.S.
Despite the violence committed by security forces, arms transfers to Bangladesh from the U.S. and other governments continued. In Fiscal Year 1996, the U.S. was estimated to provide US$4 million in foreign military sales, plus another $2.4 million in commercial sales, in addition to International Military Education and Training (IMET) assistance budgeted at $250,000.
In July the Council of Europe approved a negotiating brief presented by the European Commission to begin negotiations for trade and cooperation agreements with four Asian countries: Laos, Cambodia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. All agreements were to comprise a Ahuman rights clause@ whereby cooperation may be suspended in case of violations of human rights. On October 11, the European Commission announced that it was likely to start negotiations with Bangladesh in early November. The agreement would seek to create a climate favorable to investment and exchanges between private sectors while strengthening the base for human rights. European negotiators announced that they expected some difficulties with the human rights clause.