We, the delegates attending the 5th International Conference on Genocide: Bangladesh and the Pursuit of Justice, February 27, 2015 to March 1, 2015, arrived at Dhaka International Airport to beautiful bouquets of flowers and swarms of hungry mosquitos. Fortunately for the international visitors the mosquitos showed a distinct preference for dining at the airport. And, if I consider the metaphor of this early dawn moment; it is a fitting symbolic crucible upon which the next week of progressive international dialogue and domestic political extremist brutality and backlash intertwined.
The Liberation War Museum (LWM), our conference organizer (which includes the esteemed board of trustees as well as a cadre of intelligent, inquisitive, dedicated and organized volunteers), has genuinely blazed a path for a nation-wide scholastic platform for justice processes public education and victim rehabilitation and reparation in post conflict justice, not only in the case of Bangladesh, but in linking the case of Bangladesh to international cases around the globe. To be sure, the challenges are huge for this young nation with a literacy rate of 57.7 percent and 72 universities serving the approximately 160 million citizens. But the heroic efforts and vision of the LWM, since its establishment in 1996 has forged a truly national agenda in the history of independence in Bangladesh and an emerging interdisciplinary educational platform in genocide studies at their new Centre or the Study of Genocide and Justice.
My invitation as a delegate to the conference was by way of a tenured professional friendship with Mofidul Hoque, executive director of the LWM, whom I came to know some 15 years ago when reaching out to the museum for information about the ‘71 genocide.
The conference was attended by 19 international delegates and well over 100 students and citizens; and what was crystal clear about the attendees was their enthusiasm, commitment to justice and efforts to learn and understand difficult and often paradoxical truths about genocide and post conflict social issues. This is a nation with 44 years of personal experience resurrecting social normalcy in the aftermath of attempted annihilation. So as delegates we were distinctly privileged to learn about the experiences and efforts of the Bangladeshi community, and especially the efforts of the Liberation War Museum in creating public, academic and judicial platforms in “the pursuit of justice”.
The focus of the conference centered around formal and informal paths toward justice processes in the aftermath of mass atrocity, domestically and internationally with an emphasis on dialogue, discussion and finding links and lessons learned to advance these processes within Bangladesh and the region as well as to address unmet needs of the population. The current judicial hearings now underway in Bangladesh (International Crimes Tribunals of Bangladesh ICT-BD) and comparative practices, theory and history of other international trial processes which are unfolding around the world, post conflict, was a central topic of presentation by international and domestic professionals. Contributions from esteemed international judges from the Argentinian Tribunals, the ECCC, Cambodia and the, ICT-BD presented historical overviews and their professional experiences of each of these proceedings; and importantly met together in informal sessions where practices and legal codes were compared in the light of international standards of legal conduct and judicial proceedings.
Broader issues of reparations, social and health related support for victims, with emphasis on crimes of sexual violence and remedies for survivors also played a significant role in the conference proceedings. Domestic media discourses, gender stereotypes, representations and realities of the Birangona (war heroines) with discussion on rehabilitation practices domestically and internationally were presented by esteemed delegates representing domestic and international efforts and challenges. A special and moving session was established to listen to the “Victim’s Voice for Justice” which, for me, was especially powerful as these dramatic testimonies reveal a universal and deeply emotional appeal to take these matters to heart.
The roles of the media, the arts, memory, memorialization and memorial sites, research and documentation, scholars’ and religious organizations, policy think tanks, public education, as well as the roles of the United Nations and the International Criminal Court were all subjects for presentation and evaluation.
On the day of our arrival, one day prior to the conference, several of the international delegates were treated to an afternoon tour of Dhaka’s “sites of conscience” including the LWM’s current site located in a modest 3000 square meter, two story building, and a walkthrough of the new “under construction” LWM; an eye boggling 30,000 square meters. Sceptics may have to acquiesce their reservations because, in this writers’ estimation, the vision, dedication and influence of the humble LWM board of trustees to fashion the new LWM as a peoples museum and a beacon of justice and democracy in a tolerant and pluralistic Bangladesh is inexorably underway.
And make no mistake about the steep challenges that lay ahead for this intrepid and globally savvy board of trustees as the daily paper revealed the next morning after our arrival. Humanist, Bangladesh born, US citizen and popular blogger Avijit Roy was violently massacred while visiting the Ekushey Book Fair not two hours after we, ourselves meandered the stalls and sights of the packed fairgrounds. His vicious street murder, charged to ”fundamentalist blogger” Farabi Shafiur Rahman, unleashed a backlash of protest of secular activists who took to the streets in massive demonstrations at the outset of our conference deliberations. The bitter divisions between secular and conservative Islamic national trends in freedom of speech and pluralist tolerance drew the curtain to the stage setting for the conference and the perplexing paradoxes of this young nation.
On my taxi ride to the airport at 4:30am our intrepid driver’s car console caught my eye with a hardcover book written in Bangla with a photo portrait of Adolf Hitler prominently on the cover. The book was a copy of Mein Kampf translated into Bangla. Had it not been so early in the morning I would have taken the opportunity to learn more about how the driver came to learn about this work and what he thought of it. I also would have recommended that he visit the travelling Anne Frank exhibition currently installed in the Bangladesh National Museum (BNM) and co-organized by the LWM the BNM and the Anne Frank House. But I was short of cognition and coffee that early in the morning, and was thereafter whisked away to Istanbul and then final destination Boston.
I am, overall, heartened by what I observed this past week in Dhaka, in-spite of tragic and terribly vicious violence we were so close to. Bangladeshis have matters firmly in their hands and a profound commitment to peaceful, democratic processes are a native virtue steeped in their ancient history with the likes of King Ashoka as national legends. I am privileged to have had the opportunity to receive this “bouquet” of domestic insight and action in jurisprudence, respect and concern for pluralism, tolerance, interest and adherence to international standards and practices in genocide tribunals academic and public education and victim rehabilitation that is the vision of the LWM. In spite of the terrible sting of the murder of a beloved countryman who represents the causes of “secularism and science” I do believe that Bangladesh is emerging as a leader for the entire region with the establishment of the agendas set out at this conference. Joie Bangla!