Neil Parish MP calls for political dialogue after Bangladeshi election violence

Then MEP Neil Parish with Dr Charles Tannock MEP at a polling station, Dakha, Bangladesh 2008

Neil Parish, Member of Parliament for Tiverton and Honiton, has called for political dialogue and reconciliation following widespread election violence in Bangladesh.

Neil Parish made this call during a backbench business debate on the current situation in Bangladesh held in Parliament on the 16th January 2014.

Neil Parish had previously acted as an election monitor in Bangladesh for the 2008 General Election when he was a Member of the European Parliament. Neil travelled to Bangladesh as part of an Election Observation Delegation for the European Parliament from the 27th to the 31st December 2008. This election saw Bangladeshis voting in record numbers, with the Awami League party, headed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, winning in what was widely seen as a peaceful, free and credible election.

This is in contrast to the general election of the 5th January 2014 which was marred by violence and death with reports of over 20 people killed and more than 100 polling centers set on fire. It is also deeply concerning that because of widespread boycotts by opposition parties that 154 of the total 300 seats were uncontested and the Bangladeshi people were not given the chance to exercise a democratic choice and brings to question the credibility of Bangladesh’s parliament.

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

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

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

Below is the full transcript of Neil Parish MP’s speech in Parliament:

It is good to follow the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who gave a good résumé of the history of Bangladesh. I am pleased to be able to take part in this debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) and the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) for securing this debate.

My interest in the country stems from the fact that I was an EU election observer in 2008, along with Dr Charles Tannock, Nirj Deva and Koenraad Dillen from the Netherlands. What was interesting, and perhaps depressing in many respects, was the great hope that came after those elections. Before them, there had been a huge amount of electoral fraud in the country. In 2008, we saw one of the best electoral rolls ever seen anywhere in the world. There were 80 million photographs of the individuals who were to cast their votes. I expected the electoral roll to contain rather fuzzy pictures from which one might not be able to recognise the voter, but I can assure the House that, although the photographs were quite small they were recognisable.

That election was carried out in a pretty free and fair way, resulting in a landslide for the Awami League. In a way, that is what brought about many of the problems we see today. I find it depressing. In 2008, Sheikh Hasina was under house arrest under the then military Government. She was released to take part in the election, and there was talk about whether the military were going to back off from the government of Bangladesh. All those things came about and there was a transition to a form of democratic Government. As other hon. Members have said today, when we are in government we are not always delighted to get a lot of opposition from the Opposition, but that is how democracy works and how we are held to account. Once a party has 80% or 90% of the seats, there is no opposition. It becomes a dictatorship, albeit by a different route. That is what is fundamentally wrong with what is happening in Bangladesh today. It is ironic that Sheikh Hasina is treating her opponents in exactly the same way as she was treated.

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

It is very difficult for us, as I am sure the Minister is aware—particularly if we are seen in some ways to be the old colonial power—to say that we will tell people how to run their country and how to run a democracy. We have had a form of democracy for 500 or 600 years —or even, one might argue, for nearly 1,000 years, although that is not to say that I think that William the Conqueror was particularly democratic. It has taken us a long time to get to where we are and some might argue that our democracy is not entirely perfect even now, but younger countries with huge divisions find it more difficult to have a democracy. However difficult it is for us to intervene, what we can say is that we give a great deal of money to help Bangladesh and we must consider how the money given to the Government is spent. We expect the Government of that country to show some recognition of human rights, recognition of a free press and respect for opposition. The Minister has the wisdom of Solomon and will, I am sure, be able to provide all the ideas we need, but we need to put the pressure on.

We must also remember, as other Members have said, that the people of Bangladesh are very hard working. They are very poor yet they will work hard to bring themselves out of poverty. We must help them by targeting the areas where we want the Government to change rather than targeting the people. That is always difficult.

Bangladesh is almost one huge river valley, so the soil is very fertile but also prone to flooding. Building anywhere is difficult. My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans made the point that many of the buildings are not structurally sound because of what they have been built on and how they have been built.

Should we as individuals boycott clothing made in Bangladesh? I do not believe that we should, because it makes the situation worse, but we need some checks and balances on where those clothes have come from, what the factories are like, how the workers are treated, how they are paid and what sort of conditions they are in. We are right to debate that in the House.

I agree with the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) that it is not our duty in this House to tell Bangladesh when the next election should be, but we should not ignore the situation. We cannot ignore a Government who were not elected in a free and fair way in the recent elections. If fewer than half the seats are being contested, that is no way to run any form of democracy, and if vengeance is then to be taken on political opponents, that is no way to run a country. Let us put the pressure on where we can and say to Bangladesh that it has to change its ways and go back to the ballot box. The timing is for Bangladesh to decide, but we and the international community must add to the pressure.

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

Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 16 January 2014, c1044)