Saturday, April 21, 2007

Is Bangladesh Following the Foot Steps of Pakistan?


Pakistan is the 2nd largest Muslim country and it is mostly ruled by military junta. Its major political leaders were either hanged or forcibly exiled. The founder of new Pakistan, Z. A. Bhutto was hanged by Gen. Ziaul Haque, the military dictator that introduced anti-women Hudood Law in Pakistan. The democratically elected Prime Ministers of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was denied entry to her homeland while she went on a private trip abroad and Newaz Sharif was forced into exile under pretext of corruption. In spite of their expulsion, corruption is still pervasive. Newaz Sharif is currently living in Saudi Arabia and Benazir in UAE. Same story is now being repeated in Bangladesh, the 3rd largest Muslim country, which was once a part of Pakistan. Until recently, it had a ‘partly free’ democracy for last 15 years. Its founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated by a group of military in 1975 and thus democracy was replaced by military oligarchy until the end of 1990 when nation-wide mass movement toppled military dictator Gen. H. M. Ershad. Now it is again being ruled by a military-backed technocrat government. Following Pakistan, it denied entry to its ex-Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (daughter of 1st Prime Minister Sheikh Mujib) who went abroad on a private trip like Benazir. The government also lodged corruption cases against the sons of immediate past Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and now putting pressure and cutting deals for her exile to Saudi Arabia similar to that of Newaz Sharif of Pakistan.

To have public support, the military governments generally promote religious groups and fanatics that lead to rise of fundamentalism. No wonder, under successive military governments where ‘rule of law and human rights’ were weak and religious politics become dominant, Pakistan became an epicentre of global terrorism. Bangladesh is also fast moving to that direction and becoming another hub. Recently, the Bangladesh government hanged six terrorists. However, it refused to disclose the names of their mastermind or their associates that bombed the public rally of the opposition party leader Sheikh Hasina killing 23 of her supporters, and rocked the country with panic by blasting 493 bombs simultaneously across the nation. Both in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the terrorists are ever increasing in spite of governments’ tough talks. In fact, after the Middle East region, as per U. S. data, both the terrorist attacks and fatalities have increased maximum in South Asia especially in Bangladesh and Pakistan since 9/11.

No one knows who are really involved in terrorism. In absence of transparency, rumours are ripe that security forces and military intelligence are involved in terrorist training and supplies.
In any society where there is no ‘rule of law’ and ‘respect for human rights’ are subdued, such society can easily turn into a state of anarchism and lawlessness, for example, Afghanistan under Taliban, and Somalia under warlords. In today’s Bangladesh ‘human rights’, ‘rule of law’ and ‘corruption’ are being compromised. The consequences of such situation might be disastrous especially for an impoverished country where half of its 147 million live on $2 a day income.
In fact, in today’s Bangladesh, the security forces are the ‘juror, the judge and the executioner’. They have executed over 800 people without any due process of law. After Iraq, Bangladesh tops in terrorism especially in extrajudicial killing. Extrajudicial killing is a form of state terrorism.

When the army-backed government of Dr. Fakruddin Ahmed took power on January 11, 2007, there was hope that such extrajudicial killing would stop soon. Unfortunately, such killings have not stopped yet. Over 89 people have been executed since Ahmed took over, nearly 30 in each month. His Foreign Advisor Dr. Iftikhar Ahmed Chowdhury who is also his wife’s brother eloquently stated that his government’s top priority is ‘upholding human rights’. Unfortunately, such eloquence has not been materialized yet nor there is any ray of hope.

Instead, the situation is worsening. When Manzoor Elahi, President of the Bangladesh Businessmen Association demanded the government not to harass or arrest businessmen under false pretexts or lockup their business ventures without due process of law, Dr. Mirza Azizul Islam, the nation’s Finance Advisor stated that such could not be assured. It is reported that due to fear of harassments and illegal appropriations of properties and businesses and seizure of bank accounts, the nation’s business is at stake. No investments either foreign or domestic are forth coming under such uncertainty and danger. Technically, a country that fails to guarantee ‘property rights’ and personal security cannot expect to have increasing investment or business activity. Therefore, it is no wonder that business activity in Bangladesh has slowed down sharply and scarcity of essentials causing price hike and misery to its fixed income earners.

Ninety eight days ago when the new government took over to evade a national crisis that resulted owing to then Caretaker government’s failure to hold a fair and free election on January 22, the nation sighed relief and welcomed it. The new government assured the nation to deliver ‘a free, fair and credible’ election and it also bowed to create a ‘level playing field’ echoing the demands of opposition parties and the development partners. As the new government started implementing the demands of the nation’s major opposition party, the Awami League (AL) and the wishes of the civil societies, it got tremendous support. Like the Ahsanullah Chowdhury government of 1982 under Lt. Gen. H. M. Ershad who launched a jihad against corruption and arrested 230 people including a Deputy Prime Minister and five top Ministers, the Ahmed government under Lt. Gen. Moeen also launched jihad against corruption and arrested top fifty leaders. As it successfully implemented Election Commission Reform, reorganized the Anti-Corruption Commission and expedited the process of independence of judiciary and started jihad against corrupt politicians, it received overwhelming support including that of the AL.

Unfortunately such overwhelming support is fast eroding because of its divergence from its promised goal. With a view to root out ‘family leadership’ [Sheikh Hasina, President of the AL is the daughter of the founder of the nation President Sheikh Mujib and Khaleda Zia, President of the BNP is the widower of President Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the military dictator. Her son Tarique Rahman became a BNP leader] not from within but from outside, the new government is now seemingly dedicated to destroy and weaken the major political parties of Bangladesh, the AL and the BNP. Initially it engaged Nobel Laureate Dr. Mohammed Yunus to launch a political party and as it did not flourish, that died out. Now reportedly, it is trying to form a new party consisting of senior leaders of AL and BNP excluding their top leaders. As a first step, they banned Sheikh Hasina, the former Prime Minister and the leader of the largest and oldest political party of Bangladesh, the AL, to return home. To keep her away, the government initially lodged two fabricated cases against her and as she wanted to face them legally in Bangladesh, the government hurriedly banned her return to homeland and issued circulars instructing media not to cover her statements, interviews and the like. They imposed press censorship. When the government’s Law Advisor Mainul Hossain was asked how they could deny the basic fundamental rights of Sheikh Hasina to return home, he replied ‘no fundamental rights are allowed’ now. Therefore, the current military-backed government can do or undo anything they like. In fact, the verdicts of the nation’s highest courts ordering the government to release many detainees have not been honoured yet and nearly 145,000 are under detention. Such created a chill and many investment houses are fast leaving the county.

The Ahmed government is also trying hard to force the immediate past Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to go on exile to Saudi Arabia. It arrested her two sons under various corruption and extortion charges apparently with a view to cut a deal. People initially believed in the government’s crusade against corruption as they did in 1958, 1969 and 1982 coups and supported them. But now due to ‘behind the scene deal making’, they are fast losing their confidence. Khaleda Zia is expected to leave the country any moment with her extended family just like Newaz Sharif of Pakistan. It appears Bangladesh is just following the Musharraf strategy.

However, problem is; in case of Pakistan Gen. Musharraf was in-charge. He was military chief and he assumed Presidency by overthrowing Prime Minister Sharif. Under U. S. pressure, he agreed to hold an election in 2008. In case of Bangladesh, Dr. Fakruddin Ahmed, a technocrat is now in-charge. Like Pakistan, under the U. S. pressure, he also assured election before the end of 2008. By that time, the sensitive TATA-investment deal, the Chittagong Port deal and the likely lucrative troop sending contracts in Afghanistan and Sudan are would be over.

Once that is done, will the Bangladesh military Chief Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed come out from the shadow? If history is any lesson, in 1975, then Chief Justice A.S M. Sayeem survived nearly 18 months as the President and the Chief Martial Law Administrator backed by Gen. Zia. Justice Ahsanullah Chowdhury also served few months in 1982. Can Dr. Ahmed survive next six months? Can he maintain his credibility that long? If his government loses credibility, the next election may not be credible either. That would be a loss to a nation that loves democracy most. Therefore, should he allow election by January 2008?

In the last 15 years (1991-2006), there has been accelerated economic growth under political leadership in spite of polarization and rivalries. Empirically, it surpassed all the macroeconomic records of achievements under military rule from 1975 through 1990. More importantly, people’s awareness and political maturity sharpened dramatically under political rule and free media. Question is; is Bangladesh heading towards another Martial Law regime that would reverse its growth to another 30 years backward and become a hub of terrorism like Pakistan?
Bangladeshis are not Pakistanis. They love multi-party democracy and therefore, there is still hope. #

Dr. Abdul Momen, a professor of economics and business management, Boston, USA