The West Midlands MEP co-hosted round table talks at the European Parliament today, sponsored by the ALDE group, after growing concern at escalating violence between supporters of the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) as the next general election approaches.
Dr Bennion took action after Bangladeshis in Birmingham and the West Midlands, one of the largest diaspora communities in the UK, highlighted their 'frustration and despair' that their country might be sliding towards army rule as violent intimidation and political disappearances mounted. The event brought together the Bangladesh Ambassador in Brussels Ismat Jahan, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, Secretary General of the opposition BNP and a number of Bangladeshi campaigners in talks chaired by Phil Bennion and fellow ALDE MEP Ivo Vaigl.
Phil Bennion said: "There has been a poisonous situation between the two major parties with government supporters making it difficult for the opposition to operate properly, with violence, intimidation and political disappearances. The removal of the mechanism of a caretaker government as used in the last three elections has increased tension.
"What we are looking for is to try and bring the BNP and the Awami League together, not to talk about policies but just about process. There is no problem in Bangladesh of ballot rigging, it is a question of ensuring the freedom of whichever party is in opposition to operate normally and galvanise their support in the election period.
"The caretaker system cannot last forever, but there is a question about when to end it where there is a lack of trust. We need to develop consensus on the systems and procedure, we won't do this unless parties talk to each other on a way forward. The UN and the EU External Action Service are doing a good job in capacity building, their help will be important. Politics in Bangladesh must be normalised.
"Allegations of repression are not entirely unfounded, we cannot however say this is organised by the government but rather by supporters of the government. It is important we are optimistic. The EU could even play a mediation role if asked to do so. Boycotting the election is not the way forward."
After the event, Dr Bennion, who is a member of the European Parliament's South Asia Delegation, said he had come out of the discussions far more optimistic than when he went in.
"Mr Alamgir took a conciliatory position, he has already told me that there are people in the Awami League, not the President but government ministers who take a similar view and think it is time they normalised Bangladeshi politics. There are people we can work with.
"I and the ALDE group of MEPs will do all we can to help bring the parties together and negotiate some agreement about how the next election will take place and assuage doubts in the population that it will be free and fair.
"It will take quiet diplomacy. We can't just go storming in as outsiders. We have helped to build up the widely respected Electoral Commission in Bangladesh with EU money and monitored previous elections. Of course the EU can only do so next time if invited, but I think we can have a role in bringing the parties together to end the BNP's boycotts and end the problems caused by some supporters of the Awami League running riot.
"There has been despair among some of my Bangladeshi constituents but I think those here today were also more hopeful and less angry than when they went in. The meeting helped dissipate some of the tension and I certainly believe it can be built upon.
"I would particularly like to thank Ismat Jahan, the Bangladesh Ambassador in Brussels who attended today to represent the government who did a sterling job. She was in a difficult position but dealt with the questions admirably."