Thursday, March 15, 2007

Bangladesh’s new Big Brother, Uncle Sam

KANCHAN GUPTA, New Delhi

Policy-makers in the US are increasingly worried about "the secular underpinnings of moderate Bangladesh being undermined by a culture of political violence and the rise of Islamic extremists".

With bilateral aid during the next fiscal up for discussion on the Hill, the Congressional Research Service has circulated a report for members of the House and Senate on 'Islamist Extremism in Bangladesh'.

The report comes at a time when the scheduled January 21 General Election in Bangladesh has been postponed indefinitely and Emergency imposed. The interim Government, now headed by economist Fakhruddin Ahmed, has begun to crack down on graft and Islamic extremism, which are often interlinked in Bangladesh, with the help of the newly-set up Anti-Corruption Commission headed by a former Army officer, Lt Gen Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury.

Both Ahmed and Chowdhury command greater credibility with the US and its European allies than the squabbling contenders for power - Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The countrywide swoop on close associates of the two leaders and seizure of their property, cheered by Bangladeshis, is believed to have the blessings of the US.

The US and its allies, which were increasingly alarmed by the rise of Islamism in Bangladesh during Begum Zia's rule, had pinned their hopes on the Awami League to check extremism if it won the scheduled poll. At the last minute, that hope gave way to despair when Sheikh Hasina signed a 'memorandum of understanding' with the stridently fundamentalist Khelafat-e-Majlish, promising rapid Islamisation of state policy if voted to power.

Sheikh Hasina's decision to nominate Majlish's Maulana Habibur Rahman, an ardent advocate of "Taliban-style rule in Bangladesh", and pro-Al Qaeda Mufti Shahidul Islam, an Afghan war veteran, sent alarm bells ringing in Dhaka's diplomatic circles and hastened the cancellation of election and imposition of Emergency. Rahman and Islam are intimately involved with the activities of the terrorist organisation, Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami. The mufti has been arrested by the interim Government.

With Washington and its allies in European capitals showing little or no interest in pushing for an early election, Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia have begun to panic. Saturday morning's Bangladeshi newspapers reported that Sheikh Hasina is now willing to give up some of her key demands -including mandatory voter ID cards -to settle for an early poll. The ongoing crackdown on corruption and Islamism, unless checked, could severely denude the support base of both leaders.

The Congressional report, underscoring the concern of "the US and Britain over the rise of Islamist influence and militancy in Bangladesh", points out that "the roughly even political split between the BNP and the AL has given small Islamist parties a political voice disproportionate with their overall electoral support". Rather than allow Islamists to play a decisive role, the West seems to be interested in promoting apolitical individuals during the interregnum before election is held. This could explain Nobel peace laureate and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus' sudden decision to float a political party, Nagorik Shakti (Citizens Power) last weekend.

While US Ambassador to Bangladesh Patricia A Butenis, according to Bangladeshi media reports, is believed to have expressed her "position favouring an early election during meetings with the top two rival political leaders and with the advisers to the caretaker Government", there is no palpable 'push factor' at play. The lack of urgency to push for an early poll is partly explained by the perception, which is gaining ground in Washington, that the main contenders for power are in no position to fight back radical Islamism.

"Bangladesh's form of moderate Islam is increasingly under threat by radical elements while its political and economic development continues to be hampered by the forces of corruption, radicalism and partisan fighting," the report says in a clear indictment of both Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia.

The report suggests that the US and its allies have begun to veer round to the view of security experts in India that Bangladesh has the potential to become a "centre of extremist Wahabi-oriented terrorism". It refers to former US State Department Coordinator for Counter-terrorism Cofer Black's assessment that Bangladesh has the potential to become a "platform for international terrorism". It says, "There is concern that Bangladesh might serve as a base of support to various militant groups."

At the same time, the US and its allies are not keen on a military takeover in Bangladesh, which has been ruled by the Army for 15 of the past 35 years. "Given its past use of Islam for legitimacy, a return to power by the military could create further opportunities for Islamists in Bangladesh," the report says.

With both early poll and military takeover ruled out, the options narrow down to allowing the interim Government, supported by the Army, to stay in power for some time and work in tandem with apolitical civil society groups like the one headed by Yunus to strengthen them while the Anti-Corruption Commission cuts the Awami League and BNP to size. Huge dollops of Western aid, it is believed, will help this neutralising process along.

Bangladesh, it seems, is set to become the new crucible for yet another Western experiment at promoting secular democracy. #