‘Civil Society’ Mediation to Bangladesh Problem: A Theoretical Evaluation

Osiur Rahman*

Famagusta, February 26, 2014 (Alochonaa):

In Bangladesh 52 people were burned to death in arson attacks on public vehicles and 19 more were victims of extra judicial killings as the nation wide strikes continues for 42 days.[1] The United States, UK, U.N, HRW and Amnesty have all expressed their concerns and asked for peace but there have been no developments to this day.

Now, finally, it seems that Bangladesh’s civil society has jumped into the chaos under the banner “Concerned Citizens’’ with a call for dialogue between the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League to restore peace in the country. Bangladesh is a developing state and a practicing electoral democracy since 1991. The current crisis emerged between the two major parties of Bangladesh over the electoral process. Although the latest civil society initiative has brought a wind of hope among the citizens, who are terrified by the level of violence and socio- economic difficulties, I have some serious doubts about whether this mediation process will be fruitful.

The reason for my pessimism stems from scholarship in mediation studies. First of all, mediation is an art which can be practiced only upon the consent of the disputing parties. Successful mediation entails more than helping to fashion a fragile peace agreement. It means a tangible, long-term commitment to all the key components of a stable peace.

The question today is whether the time is right for mediation. Conflict resolution scholar and famous mediator, William Zartman, proposed that there is a “ripe moment” for mediation between two conflicting parties. According to Zartman, a conflict is “ripe for resolution” when there is a “mutually hurting stalemate.”[2] A mutually hurting stalemate is when the parties in conflict reach the point when they can no longer escalate their way to victory and when the costs of countering efforts of the other side leads to a costly deadlock. He continues by stating that “When this realization has taken hold, the situation is ripe for resolution and if the parties in conflict lack this perception it is the role of the mediator to persuade them that any escalation to break out of the deadlock is not possible.”[3] A summation of Zartman’s concept of the “moment for resolution” is the following formula: “The success of mediation is tied to the perception and creation of a ripe moment in the conflict – either when the parties are locked in a mutual, hurting stalemate marked by a recent or impending catastrophe…or when the ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ start to shift their relative power positions.” [4]
In the current Bangladesh case, can we claim that the current moment is ripe for resolution? Problematically, at least one of the sides has not yet realized that the situation has become unbearable. The BNP is certainly hurting. They have been out of power for the last 9 years. Their leader, Khaleda Zia, is virtually locked in her office and a second top leader, Tarek Rahman, is in exile, the court having issued a ban on his speeches in the national media. Also, many of the party’s top brass are in prison, and most of their activists are in hiding or falling victim to extra judicial killings. This is why they have announced their willingness to participate in dialogue.

As for the ruling party, the Awami League, their party leaders and activists are issuing continuous threats to the BNP. And chiefs of country’s law enforcement agencies have made it clear through several speeches that their position is parallel to the Awami League’s position[5]. In my view, the current status of our conflict is only hurting the public and the BNP at the moment. The Awami League might potentially fear losing governing in the future but, at the current moment, there is no mutually hurting stalemate.

Given that, is it possible for the mediators, potentially ‘Concerned Citizens’ to pursue the Awami League? The Awami League is currently holding the upper hand and that’s why they are rejecting calls for dialogue with the BNP. They believe that they can handle the situation by the use of violence and the security agencies. In absence of a mutually hurting stalemate, it is difficult to accept that the current situation is ripe for resolution unless the mediator can convince the Awami League that any escalation to break the deadlock will not work.

Assuming for a moment that Bangladeshi Concerned Citizens’ will not give up the goal of mediating between the BNP and the Awami League in the current crisis, how much can be expected from them? First, let’s look at the potential mediators and their powers.

Jeffery Rubin argued in 1992 that mediators enjoy six different bases of power: (1) “reward power” which enables the mediator to offer the disputants side payments in exchange for changes in behavior; (2) “coercive power” which relies on threats and sanctions in order to change disputants’ behavior; (3) “expert power” which derives from the mediator’s knowledge and expertise on relevant issues; (4) “legitimate power” based on legal authority or international law; (5) “referent power” which stems from the relationship between the mediator and the disputants; and (6) “informational power” which positions the mediator as a message carrier between the disputants.[6]

In my view the Concerned Citizens’ hold only numbers 3 and 6 as bases for negotiating power. This makes their position very weak against a party unwilling to give consent for opening a dialogue. However, Christopher Moore believes the mediators have a more hopeful but limited role. To him, the mediator is “an acceptable, impartial and neutral third party who has no authoritative decision-making power to assist disputing parties in voluntarily reaching their own mutually acceptable settlement of issues in dispute.”[7] Hopefully, members of Concerned Citizens’ might be seen as impartial to the conflict betwen the BNP and the Awami League but, since Concerned Citizens’ started to call for dialogue, the son of the Prime Minister and other top Awami League leaders criticized civil society members harshly and questioned their authenticity. A senior minister of the government, Mr. Tofayel Ahmed, claimed the citizens who called for mediation are also the ones who supported the military-backed regime in 2007. The only hope remaining is the one given by Zartman, which says that “when the conflict is at its most violent phase, where ‘we–they’ images of the other have hardened and the parties are locked into a continuing struggle, mediation is most likely to be successful.”[8] As of today, we know that government vehicles are being escorted by law enforcement agencies and there is a ban on buses operating on the highways after 9 pm. The government clearly senses danger. Even if it is not the most violent phase of the conflict, it could become unbearable. Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FBCCI) has estimated the loss as BTD 75.000 Crore in the economy by the one month strikes[9]. 1.5 million students who are taking part in the S.S.C board exams are in horrible situation as their exam dates are regularly postponed to unknown dates due to the strikes. 13.000 men were arrested from Dhaka alone in last one month. As a result of transportation problem due to the strikes, agro product’s prices are rising high and stock is sharply declining. Many exporters are unable to ship their pre orders and thus losing foreign clients & currency. Education, social security and the whole transportation sector is now paralyzed because of the nationwide strikes and violence. If it continues like this, then we fear non-democratic forces to rise and even capturing governing power, thus the situation becoming unbearable rapidly.


Dr. Kamal (left) and Mahmudur Rahman Manna (right and now arrested in the allegation of treason) were at the forefront of civil society mediation to resolve conflict-goole image

To resolve the current conflict in Bangladesh we need coercive mediation. The concept of coercive mediation, as Saadia Touval calls it, is that “Mediators often exert pressure on disputing parties in order to induce them to change their policies… When a conflict is not ripe, mediators have been known to manipulate the situation so as to produce a mutually hurting stalemate.”[10] If they are lacking leverage, Bangladeshi concerned citizens’ could seek support from domestic and international actors which hold power to create a mutually hurting stalemate in this conflict or at least make the Awami League realize that this conflict cannot escalate further. In my opinion, International actors like United Nations or other western countries holds much more leverage as Bangladesh is a member of several intergovernmental organizations’ which can condemn or exert pressure upon the ruling party to sit for dialogue. For example, Bangladesh is member of UN or commonwealth and beneficiary of the EU’s fair trade policy. These organizations can use their organizational tools by reviewing the human right situation and revise the position of Bangladesh’s position in UN peace operations, considering Bangladesh’s memberships and benefits unless peace restored in the country. Also, they can guarantee Awami League a place of their concerns on party members’ safety and future status in the politics to the negotiation table.

Thus, international actors holds much more remedy than our civil society group, Concerned Citizens’. Also, calls from IGOs or international NGOs have soft powers in their hand which can manipulate the situation to create a mutually hurting stalemate so that Awami League sits for dialogue. Recently as the UN secretary general wrote a letter to both parties and mentioned that Mr. Oscar Fernandez Taranko has been appointed to look after situation in Bangladesh once again since 2013[11], it gives us more hope about mediation. Unless the ruling party realizes the necessity for engaging in a dialogue to defend their interests, they won’t give consent to the mediation process and this consent is the power which they have in their hand as a party in the conflict. So, the successful mediation by civil society depends whether they are able to pursue the Awami League’s consent for dialogue or can gather coercive powers in their hand to convince the parties that they reached the peak of this conflict and that it is now time to resolve it.

*Osiur Rahman is a Masters student in International Relations at Eastern Mediterranean University. He is the President of Bangladesh Student Society in Eastern Mediterranean University and lives in Famagusta, North Cyprus. Also, he writes in various Social Medias in on socio-political issues.

**Download the bibliography from here—osiur-ref

 ***Alochonaa.com is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of Alochonaa.com’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at alochonaa@gmail.com

Categories: Politics

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