Monday, October 13, 2014

How to Rob a Bank in Bangladesh

Tahmima Anam

In Bangladesh, we sometimes play We Also Have. This is a parlor game in which we can say, with pride, that we now have the things that could previously be found only in other countries.

In the 1990s, it was satellite television (we also have MTV!); in the 2000s, it was shopping malls and high-rise buildings and multiplex cinemas. This year, it was a Hollywood-style bank heist.

In January, a man going by the name of Sohel and his accomplice Idris successfully stole 169 million taka (about $2.2 million) from a branch of Sonali Bank in Kishoreganj, 70 miles north of the capital, Dhaka.

Although “Sohel,” later identified as Yusuf Munshi, his brother Idris Munshi and a number of other accomplices were arrested within days of the robbery, it was all anyone could talk about for weeks afterward. We devoured the details of the heist: how Mr. Munshi had plotted for two years to rob the bank, how he had rented a house next door and dug a 30-foot tunnel to reach the bank’s vault.

It was even reported that he had had an affair with a bank employee as part of his scheme. Social media exploded with comparisons with Hollywood movies such as “The Bank Job.”

It appears Mr. Munshi has started a trend. In March, 3 million taka (about $40,000) was stolen from Sonali Bank’s Adamdighi branch in Bogra, when thieves used the same technique — digging a tunnel into the vault from a nearby furniture shop. And last month, criminals made away with almost 20 million taka ($260,000) from a Brac Bank branch in the small town of Joypurhat by boring a hole from a neighboring building. When renting the office next door, the robbers had claimed to be starting a nonprofit agency called Poor Development. Oh yes, in Bangladesh, we also have irony.

But while our attention is drawn to this proliferation of movie-style heists, the larger irony is that Mr. Munshi and his copycat criminals are not the real bank robbers. No, the bigger thieves are hiding in plain sight, and sanctioned by the banks themselves. They are the loan defaulters: people and businesses who borrow money from banks with no intention of repaying the debt.

The problem, it seems, is the way Bangladesh’s banking sector is organized. There are broadly two types of banks: private banks, which are overseen by the central bank, and state-run commercial banks, which fall directly under the aegis of the Finance Ministry. While private banks have had their share of loan defaulters (sometimes those who sit on the boards of these banks), it is overwhelmingly the state-run banks that have allowed bad loans to multiply to an unsustainable degree. The international standard for loan defaults is currently at about 2 to 3 percent. In Bangladesh, it is over 12 percent. In a recent study conducted by the Bangladesh Institute of Bank Management, the percentage of nonperforming loans in state-run banks is as high as 29 percent.

The situation is only getting worse. The World Bank’s 2013 Bangladesh Development Update states that “weak internal controls, poor corporate governance, and slackening of credit standards resulted in irregularities in loan approvals,” which caused state-run commercial banks to classify more than half a billion dollars’ worth of loans as “nonperforming.” In the past six years, the four major state-run banks have seen sharp spikes in defaulted loans; the total amount of credit in default held by these four banks is about $2.45 billion (not including nearly $2 billion already written off).

This means that an enormous amount of capital is taken out of the banking system, and banks must compensate for this loss by keeping interest rates high. Currently, Bangladeshi banks’ interest rates range between about 9 percent and 16 percent, while deposits earn between 6 percent and 12 percent.

There is much talk about the government’s attempting to crack down on defaults. The new chairman of Basic Bank, one of the worst culprits with outstanding loans of over $1.45 billion, has publicly named and shamed a list of the top 100 loan defaulters. The bank has attempted to recover some of the bad debt, but has thus far been largely unsuccessful. Ultimately, there appears to be little legal recourse because the justice system is overwhelmed: There are more than 800,000 cases against loan defaulters pending in the courts.

The only way to alter this broken system is for the state-run banks to come under the control of a single body that is entirely separate from the executive branch of government. Having a set of banks that are controlled by political appointees, which report directly to the Finance Ministry and run no risk of being audited by impartial agencies, will always result in a corrupt system.

When the rather terrifyingly named Rapid Action Battalion recovered the money that the Munshi brothers had stolen from Sonali Bank, about 20 million taka was missing. Yusuf Munshi claimed to have spent the money buying a truckload of rice for a local religious leader. That money was never found.

Since the Munshis’ heist, the Bangladesh Bank has suggested that banks beef up their security, and yes, it sounds as though their vaults could use some more cement. But while we can barricade bank branches themselves, we need to step up efforts to stop those who steal from within, the sharp-suited businessmen who raid our banks in broad daylight.

First published in International Herald Tribune, October 10, 2014

Tahmima Anam, a writer and anthropologist, is the author of the novel “A Golden Age.”

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Retrogressive Policy

It will throttle media, damage democracy and ultimately damage Bangladesh growth potential

In any conflict between free media and government, the latter wins in the short run while the former wins in the end. But a lot of valuable nation building time is lost in the intermittent period.

Government wins initially because it has all the fund and coercive machinery of state at its disposal to cajole, bribe, intimidate, threat and intern people and force its way.
Freedom and free media win in the end because people rally behind them-which is necessarily a time consuming process- and take them to victory.

This lesson of history our government does not seem to have learnt at their great cost and tragically ours too.

Free media has been one of the most significant gains of independent Bangladesh. It flourished after the restoration of democracy in December 1991. Today Bangladesh has a healthy media environment which is free, responsible and competitive.
Why a new Broadcast Policy?

Of the total media scene, the recent growth of Bangladesh’s broadcast media has been brilliant and stunning. Yes, it has many more hurdles to cross but the progress the broadcast media has made in the last two decades is nothing short of a miracle. Television has changed the way public is habituated to get news. Their “Live” coverage is now widely appreciated by the people and has added to the accountability process of the government. I recall with pride how our TV journalists earned the appreciation of the people of Bangladesh by giving round the clock coverage of all the recent mega events including that of Rana Plaza tragedy that helped to create a global support for our RMG sector. Broadcast media’s live and “from the spot” coverage has brought in a new freshness to news that the public would never have got otherwise.

There is a similar story of the FM radio.

On-line and digital media platforms’ story is slightly mixed, and cannot be covered in the present paper.

All this was achieved without the recently proposed “policy”. TV stations and FM radios were guided by the existing laws, policies, especially the guidelines given during issuing the broadcasting license. So if the existing rules and guidelines helped to create the TV and radio “revolutions” then why go for any new policy, especially when it runs the risk of thwarting the growth process. The only justification of a new policy can be that it will help the “growth of broadcasting industry” even further.

The government says that it was initiated at the request of the journalists’ community. This is a fact. But the demand was for a policy to be formulated by an Independent Broadcast Commission in consultation with all the stake holders especially media practitioners and owners. It was never conceived to be formulated by the bureaucrats with cosmetic representation from stake holders whose suggestions were ultimately largely ignored.

The Broadcast Policy
As the gazette notification shows there are seven main sections (অধ্যায়) of the broadcast policy.

The section on “aims and purpose” (উদ্দেশ্য লক্ষ্য) incorporate some core values that we share. The first five items from 1.2.1 upto 1.2.5 we welcome and endorse. However we feel that it has been unduly prolonged and there are many items that can either be deleted or merged with others.

The second sections deals with the Licensing process which says a detailed guideline on the licensing process will be worked by the Broadcast Commission as and when it is setup.
Sections three, four and five deal with content of the media channels. These sections have nearly 70 items.

The policy goes into details of content much of which can be subjected to multiple interpretations that can easily lead to distorting a free flow of information. Take for example section 3.2.1 which says “ anti-state and anti-public interest” news cannot be broadcast. We could not agree more. But who will decide what constitutes “anti-state and anti-public interest” news. In dictatorships, the government decides but democracy it is left to the media under the overarching principles of the constitution of every country.
Take the next provision 3.2.2. which says in “discussion programmes distorted or false information” should not be given. This any Broadcasting station worth its names will do on their own, as they do now.

Item 3.2.3 …….. We already broadcast speeches of the President and the Prime Minister. Why should there be the other impositions like emergency weather, health bulletin, press note and other “important national events that have public interest” Again anything of public interest the broadcasters will use because they want to hold their audience. So there is no need for such provisions.

3.5.1. says ……” voluntary work and development activities will have to be broadcast”
Why? Each channel will chose content according to its audience. Why should similar content be imposed on all channels?

The policy goes into details of such items as “Development work” “entertainment programmes” “sports and educational programmes etc.

One very dangerous aspect of the policy is the restrictions it imposes on advertising contents. While there must be guidelines on what can and what cannot be advertised, but the specific guidelines given in the policy will heavily restrict the flow of advertisement, affecting revenue of the broadcasters leading to weakening their financial viability. At present no advertisement is carried by TV stations that can be said to have necessitated such a policy.

Under section six deals with “other issues dealing with Broadcasting. This section contains some dangerous elements that can lead to restrictions on freedom of the media. Here are some examples along with our comments.

Item 5.1.4 (Print Bangla version) Any “military, non-military and government information” that can threaten the security of the State cannot be broadcast.

We can understand “military” information but why “non-military and government information” cannot be published.

Item 5.1.5 (print Bangla version) Anything demeaning to the armed forces, law enforcement agencies and government officials who can punish people for criminal offences can't be broadcast.

Imagine the absurdity of this policy. If it was already in place then we could not have written about the ten trucks arms haul where NSI and DGFI (according to confessions of accused) officials were directly involved.

We also could not have written about the 21 August attempted assassination of the present PM in which three former IGPs, two ex-NSI bosses and three former CID officials and high ranking officials of army and navy against whom charges have been framed.

According to policy approved by the cabinet we cannot write about death in police custody or torture, abuse of power by military, RAB, DGFI, intelligence agencies and government officials who can "punish". If this law is enforced then we can never write about cases like the recent 7 murders in Narayanganj where RAB officials were involved, the recent killing of a garment waste trader who was tortured to death by Mirpur Thana SI. We cannot report incidences of cross-fire, torture in remand, etc.

Would Limon – the innocent school boy who was bullet hit by RAB and who the latter tried for months to stigmatize as a terrorist- have ever received justice if media did not expose the RAB?

5.1.9 (use Bangla) Mutiny, chaos, violent incidents ... can't be aired?
"Mutiny" we understand and we may discuss how to cover it.

But what is meant by "chaos" and "violent incidents". According to this policy we cannot cover unrest or show footage of violence. It appears that this policy expects the TV stations to broadcast song and dance episodes while political activist uproot railway lines, burn our factories. So the extensive footage showing the opposition BNP-Jamaat throwing fire bombs into running buses during pre- 2014 election violence was allwrong” and the so-called “loggi- Baitha” related violence of the AL during their movement in 2006 would not allowed in the future?

In the context of our politics it is always the opposition that organizes agitational programmes that often results into violent clashes with the law enforcement agencies. To prevent its coverage will mean basically no coverage of opposition because it will depictchaos” and “violence”. Would coverage of the recent police action against workers demanding area pay that resulted into police beating them be permitted under the present policy?

5.1.7( use Bangla) Broadcasting anything that may hamper friendly relations with foreign countries is to be BANNED.

If this law existed then we couldn't have covered Myanmar’s sending warships to threaten our Navy that was protecting our maritime boundary back in 2007/8. We couldn't have covered the "Felany" incident or the regular incidents (now significantly lessoned) of border killing by Indian BSF. Is writing about our due share of Teesta Water and criticising India for responding to be permitted? Or it would be banned in the name of jeopardizing our friendly relations.

By the same law we could not have covered the news of killing, torture, rape, or illegal detention of our expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Malaysia or any of the foreign countries where they work in the name of “friendly relations”. So all our expatriate workers, on whose remittance we flout the story of "huge reserve" are to be left at the mercy of whims and good wishes of host governments and our most timid and sometimes corrupt commercial attaches?

4.2.8 ( use Bangla) No scene can be shown in advertisements that are not environmentally friendly.

What is wrong with advertisement showing polluted rivers, uncollected garbage, or cutting of tree and urging people to desist from such practices?

6. Misleading and untrue information must be avoided. About “untrue” information, of course they should be avoided. If by chance unverified information is broadcast then immediate corrective steps are taken along with appropriate apology.

About "misleading" information can we match what goes in the name of debate inside the parliament? More often than not, it is the government and not the broadcasters that indulge in half truths and sometimes outright lies.

The truth is the Broadcast Policy passed by the cabinet has had two mindsets working behind it. One is that of bureaucracy who never feel comfortable with the free media.
Now that they have become more partisan than ever and see their future more in sycophancy and less in merit, they prefer a gagged press that will be less prone to doing investigative journalism.

The other mindset is of a political party that sees an “enemy” behind every critical voice. It feels vulnerable to a free spirited media culture and is foolishly moving towards throttling it.

Attitude towards a free media as expressed in the policy is counter to history and the unrelenting march forward of the human spirit that only freedom can fulfill. This policy totally misjudges and is completely under valuing the contribution that the free media have made in Bangladesh's growth over the last three decades under democracy.

Here I would like to draw the government’s attention to the writings of Amartya Sen who has brilliantly articulated how freedom, especially that of the media, assist the process of development. His classic work “Freedom and Development” should be an eye opener to those who have formulated this policy.

Under the section “Miscellaneous” the following provisions need to be examined.

7.1. It says each broadcasting organisation will have to prepare a “charter of duties” andeditorial policy” in light of the present policy announced by the government and nothing the broadcasting channels can do which will be in contradiction with it. After preparing such “charter” and “policy” the broadcasting bodies will have to have them “approved” by the broadcast commission, which will be set up in the future. While waiting the setting up of the commission, the information ministry will have the power to “approve” them.

This is a direct threat to the freedom of the media and practically usurps the power of theeditorial institution” of the media and related freedom of operation. The editors and media personnel will have no right to use their freedom and creativity in running their channels. This also gives direct power to the ministry- read bureaucrats and their political masters- to interfere in the work of the media.

7.3 (put Bangla text)…..
This has been drafted by people who have no idea how broadcast media works. Imagine every TV channel running to “appropriate authority” for vetting every advertisement that they will broadcast. It is as if TV professionals have no “qualification” to judge the appropriateness of ads and that government bureaucrats, who have no exposure to media’s work have better “qualification” to judge the content of the said ad.

7.4 (use Bangla)
It says that information ministry will be the ultimate judge of matters “not covered by this policy” and in all other matters relating to “other policies and laws” that may be existing that are not well known. This provision is vague, too sweeping and covers a vast area. Every ministry and departments may have their own “policy guidelines” which then may be interpreted by the information ministry in a manner that bureaucracy usually does, which is againstpeoples’ right to know”. This provision will greatly hamper the work of a free media.

7.5. Use Bangla
This is in no way conducive to free media freedom.

There is another serious danger that this policy poses, and one which has not been seriously discussed so far. If such a policy or something remotely close to it is adopted then our broadcast media runs the risk of becoming “dull and boring” Devoid of its freedom and chance to go for creative and entertaining programmes our channels will be producing programmes that will fail to attract the modern day viewers who are highly mobile and extremely demanding. This especially true for the young who are the “digital generation” and has no hesitation to shift their choice from channels that are boring to those who are more interesting and entertaining.

This will lead to audience shifting from our local channels to the foreign channels which, as we all know, are enormously popular in today Bangladesh. In fact our present TV channels have, in a big way, retrieved much of that shift through their modern programming. Bu such a policy, as prescribed, will force a switch of viewers which will be followed by a switch of advertisers. Such a shift will virtually cause a huge drop in audience and advertising. This may lead to the “slow death”[ of the local broadcasting industry.

We conclude by saying that we are not opposed to a Broadcasting policy per se. We want is a law that nurtures freedom and helps us to grow as a matured industry where maximum public service can be rendered while upholding the highest ethical standards of an ethical and free media.

To get such a law we think-as does the associations of journalists, association of broadcasters and others-that we should first have an Independent Broadcasting Commission that should frame a new law with the stakeholders as partners and not as victims.

Form the Independent Commission immediately and let it formulate the policy. Government has put the cart before the horse. In the end we say what we said at the start, government can throttle the media for the present, but free media will win in the end.

Mahfuz Anam is a celebrated editor of prestigious newsapaper The Daily Star and General Secretary of Bangladesh Editors Council

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Warsi’s bold step against Gaza atrocities: Could have been as vocal about BD war criminals


Baroness Sayeeda Warsi resigned from the British government on Wednesday in a challenge to Prime Minister David Cameron over Britain’s “morally indefensible” approach to the Conflict in Gaza.

She must have drawn praise for this bold decision from all around the world who have condemned Israeli barbarity in the small Gaza Strip in Palestine.

But people in Bangladesh were bemused by an official statement she had as the first British Muslim Cabinet minister, shedding crocodile tears for indicted Bangladesh war criminals and thus blamed the independence of judiciary.

She was all in “tears” for fugitive war criminal Abul Kalam Azad who had been convicted and sentenced to death by the International War Crimes Tribunal (ICT) for crimes he committed against humanity during Bangladesh’s 1971 War or Independence from Pakistan.

Azad is reportedly living in exile in Pakistan trying to escape the gallows.

Regarding her resignation, the baroness Warsi tweeted: “If I have a view on the economy I’m a Tory..... but on foreign policy it’s because I’m Muslim!”

Earlier in January 2013, the British Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi commented on the first judgement reached by the Bangladesh ICT and the death penalty handed down to fugitive Abul Kalam Azad.

Warsi, a daughter of Pakistani immigrants, stated: “The British Government notes the verdict by the International Crimes Tribunal in the case of Abul Kalam Azad. The British Government supports the efforts of Bangladesh to bring to justice those responsible for committing atrocities during the 1971 War, although we remain strongly opposed to the application of the death penalty in all circumstances.

“The British Government is aware of concerns expressed by some human rights NGOs and legal professionals about proceedings at the International Crimes Tribunal. We hope that the International Crimes Tribunal addresses such concerns promptly and thoroughly to ensure the continued integrity, independence and reputation of the legal process in Bangladesh.”

British Foreign Minister met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina a day after “Butcher of Mirpur” Kader Mollah was hanged on 12 December last year, and stressed UK’s opposition to the death penalty.

Foreign Minister Mahmood Ali during bilateral talks with his British counterpart said that Bangladesh has taken a “bold step” to break the cycle of impunity and bring the perpetrators of sexual violence and crimes against humanity during 1971 war of independence to justice.

The Telegraph, an independent British newspaper, writes: The government came under intense international pressure to halt the execution amid warnings from Western leaders that it will lead to more violence and sabotage talks to persuade Bangladesh’s opposition parties to contest next month’s (January 2014) general election.

Shahriar Kabir, a social justice activist, dubbed Warsi’s statement “outrageous” and “interference” into Bangladesh justice to bring the war crimes suspect on the docks.

As the first Muslim Cabinet minister Warsi adopted some brave stances on a number of controversial issues – such as proposals to ban veils – and had spoken out about wider Islamophobia. Neither stance saved her from abuse and threats of violence from extremist elements in the Muslim community.

To restore her cloudy image among the Muslim community in Britain, it could be a political stunt, an anonymous tweet remarked.

It has been an open secret in Westminster that Warsi has been angered since her demotion from Tory party chair, writes Independent newspaper published from London.

The British officials appeared critical of Lady Warsi's judgment, saying: "This is a disappointing and frankly unnecessary decision. The British Government is working with others in the world to bring peace to Gaza and we do now have a tentative ceasefire which we all hope will hold."

Meanwhile Baroness Anelay, the government's Chief Whip in the House of Lords is to replaced Baroness Warsi as a Foreign Office minister.

Saleem Samad is an Ashoka Fellow (USA), a media rights activists and is a journalist for the Daily Observer, published from Bangladesh

Sunday, July 06, 2014

In Bangladesh, the Steady Pursuit of Justice and Freedom

Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center (third from right), with Grameen Bank members.
Last week, at the invitation of my friend Muhammad Yunus, I traveled to Bangladesh, a truly humbling and inspiring experience. I met so many incredible people struggling to improve their country and their lives. I wrote a letter to my daughters about my travels, which follows:

Dear Cara, Mariah and Michaela,

Visiting Bangladesh has been a lifelong dream of mine, but all that I had heard about a people who love freedom so much that they have withstood great armies, famine and intractable poverty could not prepare me for what I've seen in the last three days. 

The Bengali patriots' courage and endurance in the face of the Pakistani army forty years ago is the stuff of legend in our family. I remember your Great Uncle Teddy telling us about his visit to the Calcutta refugee camps, where tens of thousands lived not in tents but in sewer pipes. The people in these camps had fled the mass killings -- some would say genocide -- that the United States had failed to stop, as the Nixon Administration's official policy was to choose our relationship with Pakistan over those who shared our love of freedom. Great Uncle Teddy promised to return when the country gained independence, and a few months later, he and Uncle Joe were among the first international visitors to the newborn country of Bangladesh.

Given what I'd heard from Uncle Teddy, I suppose I should not have been surprised by the inspiring people that my colleague Lydia Allen and I met in Bangladesh, people who endure extreme hardship for the freedom that they love and that they demand for their country.

In a small wooden room packed with women in bright saris, we met a proud shareholder of the Grameen Bank -- the transformative microlending institution founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus -- who borrowed 5,000 taka (about $80) and bought a rickshaw, and then 20,000 taka ($240) and bought a cow, and then 30,000 taka ($480) and bought land. Thanks to her hard work and the Grameen Bank, she now has a house full of furniture, a field full of food, water, a working toilet, and a television set. She saves 100 taka per month, and this year she will receive 100,000 taka ($750) from her savings.

We met a store owner and her husband, who borrowed from Grameen to buy solar panels, which have allowed them to expand their storefront and provide light to the brick house they share with three siblings and their in-laws. 

We met a young woman on a Grameen scholarship who will be the first woman in her family to go to college. She is majoring in computer science and plans to start a business in the IT sector that will transform her neighborhood.

We met ten women who sit on the board of the Grameen Bank, borrowers all. They're angry at the government and concerned for the future of the bank. The government recently ousted Dr. Yunus from the board of his own bank on the pretense that he had overstayed the mandatory retirement age of sixty. Then, finding no other legal way to do so, the government cajoled the rubber-stamp Parliament to change a banking law for the specific purpose of ousting the impoverished women from the Grameen board and replacing them with ruling party toadies, who, the women fear, will transform the multibillion-dollar bank that has helped so many escape poverty into just another slush fund for kleptocrats to draw upon. 

We met a dozen women, many of them lawyers, all of them leaders of NGOs that address pressing issues like indigenous rights, due process of law, violence against women, dowry battles, rape, and environmental justice. Many have been arrested, and many live under daily threat. One said her husband had been "disappeared" in apparent retaliation for her work. They are scared of the nation's security forces, which are known for kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial executions. And yet they wake up in the morning, kiss their children and their husbands, and return to work, a daily show of quiet courage.

We met a woman who worked at the collapsed Rana Plaza sweatshop who said she never wants to work in the apparel industry again. I met another who said the same thing, but added, "But we are poor, and we must work."

They were among a crowd lining the hallway and sitting at intake tables at the offices of the Rana Plaza Claims Administration, the nonprofit group charged with addressing reparations for the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse. It is an impressive operation, manned by a team of dedicated professionals in labor, law and computer science, intent on making payouts to every single victim for physical and psychological injuries and to the scores of dependents who lost the family breadwinner in the tragedy. They have $17 million to hand out, and calculate the need will be closer to $40 million, but the fund is voluntary and no law compels the brands to pay their fair share. While some have been generous, too many others have refused to participate, because no law compels them to do so.

We met U.S. Ambassador Dan Mozena, a man singularly committed to advancing U.S. interests abroad by protecting basic rights and increasing the prosperity of the people of Bangladesh. He invited me to visit the Edward M. Kennedy Center and the Ted Cafe, a gathering place created by the embassy for NGOs to meet and speak in safety, and for young people to learn about our country. 

Michaela, the book shelf of one entire room was jammed with SAT prep books, looking all too familiar. Thanks to Ambassador Mozena, you will have plenty of competition from young Bangladeshis as you apply for college, determined to gain an education at U.S. schools, and return to their homeland with new hope for the future.

We met Adil Rahman Khan, who has organized a team of 400-plus human rights monitors and defenders across the country to investigate and report on violations of voting rights; on crackdowns on free speech and assembly; and on torture, extrajudicial execution, disappearances, and more--holding the government accountable for its failures to protect the freedom that the Bangladeshi people won at such great cost 40 years ago. Adil seeks accountability in a country where 197 anti-corruption officers are presently under investigation for corruption themselves. For his actions, Adil lives under a constant threat of death. Last year, after issuing a report documenting a massacre by government forces of 61 protestors, he was taken away and held without trial for 62 days in a filthy cell, ridden with bedbugs and rotten food.

How proud Uncle Teddy would be to know that this man, who personifies all the values that Teddy and Grandpa Bobby so admired, will receive the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award later this year.

And, of course, we met with my dear friend Dr. Yunus. He invited us to come to Dhaka for Social Business Day, where people from scores of countries across the globe gathered to share their designs and experiences with creating businesses which seek not profits for shareholders but solutions to problems like housing or food access.

You were still in diapers when Dr. Yunus came to our home nearly 15 years ago and I interviewed him for my book Speak Truth to Power. I have always been struck by the sense of peace and joy he conveys in the many lectures I have since seen him deliver. But I never appreciated how incredible that was until I saw him in Bangladesh. He is under unremitting pressure from a government that seeks to destroy all he has given his life to build. And yet he endures, and invites us to somehow find peace amidst the chaos in our lives and find our joy through service. His steady bearing reminded me of these lines from Rudyard Kipling's poem "If":

"If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
If you can watch the things you gave your life for, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools...

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings -- nor lose the common touch...

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it..."

By this measure, Dr. Yunus has achieved the world.

What an amazing place, what an amazing country. As we in America celebrate our own Independence Day this week, I hope we can take inspiration from the people of Bangladesh and rededicate ourselves to democracy and freedom, knowing that the price may be high, but the sacrifice is well worthwhile.


First published in The Huffington Post, July 7, 2014
Kerry Kennedy is President of Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Bangladesh’s Rotten-Mango Crisis


As an apprentice anthropologist, I once had the misfortune of attempting to converse with the Indian critical theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Professor Spivak, who translated the work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and wrote the famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was visiting Dhaka, Bangladesh, and I went to meet her. After patiently listening while I asked a series of dumb questions about discursive practice, she turned and said, cryptically, “I came for the mangoes.”

Ah, the mango. It may be a cliché pitfall for the South Asian writer, but for this academic, famous for her impenetrable prose, the mango brought the esoteric down to earth. Ms. Spivak is regarded as one of the great minds of her generation, but in Dhaka, she was, like everyone else, there for the mangoes.

In Bangladesh, the obsession with the mango comes from its evanescence. The fruit’s intense seasonality means that even the more prosaic varieties are available for only a few weeks of the summer. The most prized is the langra: Its floral, slightly sour flavor is more complex than the overly sweet chaunsa or Alphonso mangoes. Aficionados love the langra in part because it is almost impossible to catch at its peak — too green and your tongue will swell and itch; a few hours late and its flesh turns to mush.

But this year, the langra is nowhere to be found. The markets are empty of the sought-after mango.

On the roads that lead into Dhaka, the precious fruit lies rotting by the truckload. The reason: chemical poisoning. The langras are said to be contaminated with formalin, a strong solution of formaldehyde that is sprayed on the fruit in an effort to extend its life. The government responded by setting up checkpoints on the roads to the city.

It isn't just the mangoes. Earlier this year, the Institute of Public Health found that 47 of 50 food items tested were adulterated. Formalin is used to preserve both fruit and fish. Turmeric has been found tainted with lead. Since June 18, the police have set up mobile formalin-detection units, confiscating thousands of tons of locally produced and imported fruit.

The fruit industry is up in arms, claiming that the police are using faulty devices and crippling the industry. Last week, the fruit sellers’ association went on strike, and their produce rotted in the warehouses of the port city of Chittagong. In the weeks leading up to the month of Ramadan, the tussle has been fierce, with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations taking place across Dhaka. And the langra has vanished.

The practice of spraying fruit with formalin is one problem, but more worrying is that the entire food chain is compromised — the soil itself contaminated by toxins that are almost impossible to eradicate. Bangladesh was born in the shadow of famine, and since independence in 1971, a series of government measures have put increasing pressure on farmers to keep the rice yields increasing every year. This has meant exploiting the land to its limits: intensive farming, extensive irrigation and the unchecked use of groundwater.

A result is that Bangladesh has made great strides in becoming self-sufficient in food, tripling rice yields in 40 years: In 1970, the rice crop was 0.76 tons per acre; in 2012, it was 1.9 tons. The increase is the result of using high-yield, short-duration varieties, which require the greater application of fertilizers and a huge increase in irrigation. In the last 30 years, the use of fertilizers has grown by 400 percent, and pesticides have been widely overused. And as the water table gets lower, the salinity increases and contaminants like arsenic leach into wells that provide drinking water. The land has borne the cost of our need to climb out of famine.

Dhaka’s brouhaha over contaminated fruit speaks to a growing chasm between the urban and the rural. This broken, congested city is where we have placed all our hopes for a better Bangladesh. The capital is where you will find the budding start-ups, the English-speaking college graduates, the cellphone users, the social networkers — all the engines of economic growth. And as we become more removed from the traditional modes of food production, the agricultural hinterland is being treated as nothing more than the food source for a hungry city.

The great irony here is that Bangladeshis romanticize the rural. The greatest compliment you can pay a Bangladeshi is to say she is “matir manush,” a person of the earth. The country, as the American anthropologist James Ferguson put it, provides “alternative moral images,” a counterpoint to the complexities — the allure, as well as the danger — of rapid urbanization. The rural continues to act as a repository of our fantasies about national identity; it is a favorite subject of every cultural artifact, from poetry to contemporary art. Our touchstone is Rabindranath Tagore, the great bard of the pastoral in Bengali literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But when we place checkpoints on the roads into our city, we are saying that we care only if urban citizens are poisoned; we couldn’t care less if the contaminated fruit is consumed outside of Dhaka. Ms. Spivak may have used the mango as a way to express her rootedness, but a taste for mangoes reveals a person to be among the few who can afford to consume them.

The truth is, the fruit is grown by the rural poor and fed to the urban rich. To keep the city sated with mangoes, the crop must be abundant and it must be beautiful. And for that to happen, formalin must be involved.

As Ramadan approached and the langra disappeared, the fruit sellers and the state came to an agreement. The fruit sellers would end their strike so that the population could sit down to its dates and apples after a long day of fasting; the police agreed to look into obtaining new devices to test the levels of formalin in fruit.

Unless, however, we think critically about the moral economy of food, about sustainability as well as growth, our food will remain tainted. If the rationality of urbanism — the city as the treasured engine of growth, the country merely its fodder — continues to dominate, we will merely be polishing the surface of a slowly rotting core.

First published in The International New York Times, July 2, 2014
Tahmima Anam, a writer and anthropologist, is the author of the novel “A Golden Age.”

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Bangladesh Arms Trafficking: Residual Networks

Veronica Khangchian

In perhaps, the single biggest arms seizure since the April 2, 2004, Chittagong arms haul case where 10 truckloads of weapons had been seized, a huge arms cache was recovered by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) of Bangladesh, over several days, from the Satchari National Park in the Chunarughat Sub-District of the Habiganj District in Bangladesh, adjoining the West Tripura District in the Indian State of Tripura. Officials disclosed that they recovered 184 rocket shells (40mm) and 153 chargers for rocket launchers abandoned inside one bunker on a hillock in the reserve forest, some 130 kilometers from the capital, Dhaka, during the raid on June 3, 2014. Another six more empty bunkers were located on the same day. On June 4, the RAB found another two bunkers and recovered 38 rocket shells, four machine guns, 95 rocket chargers, 1,300 rounds of machine gun ammunition, and over 13,000 bullets of different calibres. RAB recovered more arms and ammunition, including four machine guns in a bunker on June 8, and also found oil used for cleaning firearms. Another two empty bunkers were also located. As it resumed a search operation deep into the reserve forest on the eight consecutive day, RAB made additional recoveries, including one machine gun barrel, 633 rounds of ammunition, and 54 anti-tank shells, from three newly discovered bunkers, on June 9.

The area from where the arms were recovered was once the base camp of the now-defunct Indian insurgent outfit, the Tripura-based All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF). The camp was later captured by insurgents belonging to the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT). The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), with its principal theatre of operations in the Indian State of Assam, abutting Tripura, and ATTF had earlier smuggled a huge quantity of Chinese-made weapons from the Southeast Asian grey market by sea, landed them around Cox's Bazar or Chittagong, and transported these to rebel bases such as Satchari, from where arms were smuggled into India's troubled northeast.

However, some confusion prevails over the present recoveries. Indian security agencies are yet to ascertain whether these belong to any militant outfit active in India's Northeast. Media reports have speculated on the distant possibility of ULFA 'chief' Paresh Baruah asking ATTF to store the weapons in its one-time bases, and this cannot be ruled out. Reports also indicate that ATTF leader, Ranjit Debbarma (now in Tripura jail), who had close ties with Paresh Baruah, had stocked the cache in collaboration with ULFA militants. A June 4 media report suggested that the arms and ammunition belonged to ULFA leader Baruah. Information gleaned by Indian intelligence agencies from Debbarma, and provided to Bangladesh authorities, led to the recovery of the ammunition on June 3, three kilometers off the border. According to the report, arms smuggled from China by Baruah were kept in the Satchari Forest and were sent to Indian militants at opportune moments.

However, Bangladesh State Minister for Home, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, asserted that the haul was based on intelligence collected by local Bangladesh agencies. RAB Media Wing Director Habibur Rahman added that the arms and ammunition recovered in the Satchari Forest were apparently similar to those recovered in Chittagong in 2004, and to a truckload of ammunition recovered at Bogra in June 2003.  It is significant, moreover, that investigators of the Bogra ammunition haul had determined that the ammunition was bound for the Satchari Forest, and had also confirmed its linkages with NLFT and ULFA.

Earlier, a Bangladesh Court had arrived at a significant verdict in the Chittagong arms haul case, nearly 10 years after the incident. On January 30, 2014, a Chittagong District Court awarded the death penalty to 14 accused, including Motiur Rahman Nizami, Ameer (chief) of the Jamaat-e-Islami (Jel), Lutfozzaman Babar of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the then Minister of State for Home, and ULFA-I 'commander-in-chief' Paresh Baruah (in absentia), for smuggling 10 truckloads of arms into Chittagong District in 2004, during the tenure of the BNP-led Government. Investigations revealed that the weapons were manufactured in China and were being shipped to ULFA. The condemned also include former Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) Director Major General (Retd) Rezzakul Haider Chowdhury; former Director General of National Security Intelligence (NSI) Brigadier General (Retd) Abdur Rahim; and three other NSI officials – Director (Security) Wing Commander Shahab Uddin Ahmed; Deputy Director Major (Retd) Liakat Hossain; and Field Officer Akbar Hossain Khan. Others awarded the death penalty in the case are former Additional Secretary (Industry) Nurul Amin; the then Chittagong Urea Fertilizer Ltd. (CUFL) Managing Director Mahsin Uddin Talukder; CUFL General Manager (Administration) K.M. Enamul Hoque; and three businessmen, Hafizur Rahman Hafiz, Deen Mohammad and Haji Abdus Subhan.

In the initial stages of the trial, which commenced in 2005, only some small fry, mostly labourers, truckers and trawler drivers, were implicated, leaving out the big shots as the then BNP-led Government allegedly tried to cover up the involvement of the state machinery, including its Ministers and high officials of intelligence agencies. However, after an Army-backed caretaker Government took charge on January 11, 2007, ahead of the country’s General Elections, the Court of Chittagong Metropolitan Judge ordered further investigations on February 14, 2008. In June 2011, Muniruzzaman Chowdhury, Senior Assistant Superintendent of Criminal Investigation Department, submitted two supplementary charge-sheets, accusing 11 new suspects. While Paresh Barua and former Secretary of the Industries Ministry, Nurul Amin, have been absconding ever since the recovery of the arms, the other nine are behind bars. Baruah and Amin were sentenced in absentia. The verdict of the Special Tribunal observed that the role of the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia in the incident was 'mysterious', and pointed to the direct involvement of then Ministers and top military and civil officials. Judge S.M. Mojibur Rahman also argued that the smuggling of such a huge volume of weapons and ammunition was not possible without Government support, and noted, “They [the intelligence officials] were involved in the conspiracy to destroy the entire nation by putting the country’s existence at stake.”

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has now promised separate investigations into the role of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her party (BNP) in the Chittagong arms haul case, declaring, ‘The trial of 10 truckloads of arms haul is over. We will now probe afresh the conspiracies behind it, from where the arms came, how it was brought to Bangladesh and who had funded it." The Prime Minister added that Bangladesh had become hotbed of activities of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in August 1975.

Analysts note that the death sentence awarded to Paresh Barua will have little impact on the outfit as Barua and most of his cadres have already shifted base out of Bangladesh. Intelligence officials in Assam, however, feel that the elusive insurgent leader will be under greater pressure to come forward for talks, should Myanmar act as Bangladesh did, and evict insurgents from India's north-east, including Barua and his cadres, from its soil. The Assam Police have intelligence inputs that Barua is currently operating out of his base along the Myanmar-China border. Officials in Bangladesh argue that the death sentence would at least ensure that Baruah would not be able to enter Bangladesh without the court’s intervention.

Significantly, the verdict comes at a time when ULFA-I is facing a crisis. Sources indicate that not more than 10 hardcore members of the outfit are inside Assam, and that the group has no more than 180 cadres in camps in Myanmar. Senior leaders who were in the Mon District of Nagaland have been called back to Myanmar after the outfit awarded the death sentence to 'operational commander' Pramod Gogoi alias Partha Pratim Asom. On March 16, 2014 [the party's 'Army Day'], ULFA-I asked its members to re-strengthen the outfit, fearing that certain members had a nexus with the SFs. At least eight ULFA-I cadres, including Pramod Gogoi, were executed on the instructions of ULFA-I's 'commander-in-chief', Paresh Baruah, for 'conspiring’ with Police and Security Forces to engineer a mass surrender of cadres over the preceding four months. Seven cadres had also been executed in December 2013, while they were trying to flee the Myanmar base to surrender to the Police. 'Operational commander' Pramod Gogoi was executed on January 15, 2014 in the Mon District. ULFA-I is said to have a total of around 240 cadres at present.

Significantly, the Goalpara Police recovered a stock of ammunition and detonators from ULFA-I along the Assam-Meghalaya border in the Goalpara District on January 27, 2014. The Police disclosed that a group of ULFA-I militants had entered Hatigaon, a village under the Agia Police Station, with arms and explosive materials, which they stored inside a rubber plantation. Goalpara Superintendent of Police (SP) Nitul Gogoi stated, “We got the information that a group under the leadership of Drishti Rajkhowa brought the ammunition from Bangladesh.”
Coordination between the Meghalaya based Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), one of the biggest procurers of arms in Meghalaya, and ULFA-I, remains a concern. In the latest incident, on June 26, 2014, a militant identified as Dharma Kanta Rai, who was on ‘deputation’ from the ULFA-I to the GNLA, was killed during a rescue operation mounted by West Garo Hills Police at Darekgre near Rongmasugre village in West Garo Hills District, to free four abducted persons from the GNLA and ULFA. The abductions had been carried out on June 25 from Kantanagre village in West Garo Hills District. The deceased ULFA-I cadre was reportedly an improvised explosive device (IED) expert, used by GNLA to target Police movements.

Worryingly, media reports indicate that a large proportion of weapons and ammunition that reach the mushrooming in Meghalaya, are from the armory of insurgent groups presently engaged in peace parleys with the Government. These groups include the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the pro-talks faction of ULFA (ULFA-PTF). According to sources, these frontline militant outfits never divulged the exact composition of their arsenal and, according to one source, “80 to 90 per cent of these arms lie unused for five to six years and just before their life span lapses, these militant groups prefer to dispose of these weapons.”

Further, despite dramatically improving relations between India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), Northeast insurgent groups continue to maintain some 45 hideouts in Bangladesh, mostly belonging to ATTF and NLFT (21 camps), according to BSF Special Director General B.D. Sharma. He added, on June 20, that the insurgents could not be fully wiped out from Bangladesh soil because deployment of BGB was thin compared to requirements, and that, “They are now raising new forces and we hope that the situation would improve soon. Besides, the terrain and riverine border also come in the way of maintaining effective border vigil.” However, Mohammed Latiful Haider, Additional Director General, BGB, has denied the existence of any camps of Indian militant outfits in the country. The denial came on June 25, after the first day of a border coordination conference held between senior BSF and BGB officials at Kadamtala, at BSF North Bengal Frontier Headquarters near Siliguri, under the Darjeeling District of West Bengal.

Bangladesh has now clearly declared that it would not allow its territory to be used against India. The assurance, reiterated to Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on her first foreign visit on June 26, 2014, came as the External Affairs Minister promised to put extra energy into bilateral ties. Swaraj stated that New Delhi sought a comprehensive and equitable partnership with Bangladesh for a secure and prosperous South Asia.  With recent developments, and agreed cooperation between India and Bangladesh, a further significant improvement can be hoped for.

First published South Asia Intelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 12, No. 52, June 30, 2014

Veronica Khangchian is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management