Protests in Bangladesh demanding the severance of diplomatic ties with Pakistan threatens to strain the relationship between the south Asian nations and affect regional cooperation on security and counterterrorism efforts.
Protesters gathered today at Dhaka's Shahbagh Square after police cleared them from in front of the Pakistani Embassy on Thursday. Twenty people arrested Thursday evening were released overnight.
Hundreds of protesters have been gathering outside the Pakistan Embassy since Wednesday, led by members of the so-called "progressive youth." The movement earlier this year pushed the Bangladesh government to enforce stricter punishments on alleged war criminals from Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.
The protesters' outcry was in response to a resolution passed Monday by Pakistan’s parliament expressing concern for the hanging of Bangladesh politician Abdul Quader Mollah last week. A war crimes tribunal in Dhaka convicted Mr. Mollah for committing crimes including murder and rape during the war.
“We demand that all diplomatic relation with Pakistan be severed until Pakistan says sorry for 1971 and for indulging into the internal affairs of Bangladesh,” says Maruf Rosul, a student at the University of Dhaka.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, meanwhile, criticized Bangladesh government, saying Mr. Mollah's execution was “opening old wounds.”
Bangladeshi authorities are also concerned over an alleged terrorist plot to blow up the Bangladesh Embassy in Islamabad. Security officials in Pakistan confirmed Wednesday a local newspaper report that known terror group – Tehrik-e-Taliban – threatened to attack the embassy in retaliation for Mollah’s execution.
“We have brought to [the Pakistan authority’s] notice the reported threat and they assured us about the safety and security of our mission and officials,” says Shameem Ahsan, director general of external publicity at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangladesh.
Relations between the two countries have never been particularly warm. In 1947, the British split their colonial holdings in South Asia between Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, which consisted of two regions: East and West Pakistan. With different languages, different religious and cultural traditions and a separation of more than 1,800 miles, the two regions were regularly at loggerheads until 1971, when a brief war that included intervention by Indian military forces resulted in Bangladesh's independence.
Bangladeshi authorities estimate that 3 million people were killed and 200,000 women were raped during the conflict. Independent estimates put the death toll between 300,000 and 500,000.
Fallout between the two south Asian neighbors could hamper regional cooperation on security and counterterrorism policies, which the United States, the European Union, and other international organizations have been pushing.
Bangladesh and the United States signed a cooperation initiative on Oct. 23. Increased friction between Pakistan and Bangladesh could hinder US and EU goals of integrating more south Asian nations into counterterrorism agreements, analysts worry.
This will be a concern for the United States as instability among the countries “could lead to the rise of fundamentalist strengths,” says M. Shahiduzzaman, a security analyst and a professor of international relations at the University of Dhaka.
Bangladesh – one of the world's largest Muslim countries with a population of 160 million – has cracked down on militant activities since Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh carried out bomb attacks throughout the country in 2005. Law enforcement officials have arrested at least 20 operatives suspected of belonging to the Pakistani militant organization Lashka-e-Taiba, which was blamed for the 2008 attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai.
The two countries share a nominal trade volume. In 2010-11 the total export and import between Bangladesh and Pakistan stood at $983 million, mainly based on Pakistan exports to Bangladesh. Over the past decade, Pakistan’s exports to Bangladesh grew at an annual average rate of 27.6 percent, while Pakistan imports from Bangladesh grew at 9.2 percent.