Friday, May 18, 2007

Bangladesh under emergency rule for 125 days: A dismal report card

A.H. JAFFOR ULLAH

THE big bombshell from the U.S. Senate reached Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed’s desk on May 15, 2007. Fifteen prominent U.S. senators including John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton wrote collectively a letter to the Chief Advisor requesting him to lift immediately the emergency rule, restore full civil rights of people, and disclose a roadmap towards a free and fair election. It will be interesting to note how the caretaker government reacts to this high octane plea.

No one really told the 145 million citizens of Bangladesh to fasten their seat belt for the nation’s uncertain and bumpy ride. And bumpy it was. This article will summarize the triumph and failure of the military-backed technocrat run administration, a first of a kind for this beleaguered nation that has seen many ups and downs in the last 35 years.

Bangladesh started out being a war-torn nation in December 1971 after fighting a bloody war against an occupation force in which an estimated 3 million people lost their lives. The nation became a Peoples’ Republic after a new secular constitution was ratified by the national assembly. A parliamentary election was held in March 1973 to legitimize the first government led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. However, Bangladesh’s journey to democracy was derailed by army on August 15, 1975. The nation was virtually under military rule for the next 15 years during which time two successive military General rule this tiny nation with absolute power. In late 1980s when Eastern European nations one-by-one came out of the Soviet bloc to embrace democracy and free market economy, the whirlwind also touched Bangladesh. Democracy re-entered the nation of about 100 million in 1991. The military leader was not only booted out of office but also disgraced and jailed on corruption charges; in its place came a truly democratic government. Three consecutive democratically elected governments ruled the impoverished nation from 1992 through 2006. I won’t call the democracy as practiced in Bangladesh a perfect system but the nation made a stride to establish various institutions to foster democracy.

Even though the nation made progress in various field notably in food production during 1996 through 2001 and made inroads in garments and apparel industries but politically-backed corruption and graft were on the rise exponentially. The country topped the list of most corruption consecutively for the last 3-4 years as per Transparency International (TI), which assigns the ranking of most corrupt nations on earth. Also, the very political parties that ruled the nation for last 15 years were not practicing democracy themselves. The leadership was confined to two political families and there were no signs in the horizon to indicate that the leadership of two major parties was about to change anytime soon. The corruption was so endemic and deep rooted that the eldest son of Khaleda Zia, the departing Prime Minister earned the dubious distinction of Mr. Ten Percent. The prodigal son ran a parallel government and he took bribes right and left thus becoming a billionaire in a short span of 5 years. A new class of super rich was born in Bangladesh; they all had connection to the past government of Khaleda Zia. Such were the ground realities in Bangladesh.

In October 2006, Khaleda Zia’s government resigned after completing the term and the nation was preparing to hold another parliamentary election on January 22, 2007. The opposition vehemently protested against the holding of election fearing that a level playing field did not exist and the administration and election commission was restructured by departing administration in a way to allow for massive vote rigging. The opposition also complained about the veracity of the voters’ list, which supposedly contained 10% fake voters. A supposedly “neutral” interim caretaker government took power in the last week of October 2006 headed by the partisan president by breaching the constitution. That caretaker government did not do any reform of the Election Commission and nor did they correct the voters’ list that contained enough ghost voters to sway the election result in favor of Khaleda Zia’s party. Consequently, there was a stalemate, which led to the paralysis in government. On January 11, 2007 barely 11 days before the election emergency was declared at the behest of the military. Buckled under pressure, the partisan president, Iajuddin Ahmed, resigned from the position of the chief adviser of caretaker government. A new interim government was formed on January 12, 2007 again breaching the constitution, which was led by 10 technocrats headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed.

The events of last 125 days under the military-backed interim government kept the masses on their toe. The government was set to clean up the Augean stable of Bangladesh politics. A massive campaign by the joint forces of police, RAB, and military netted about 160,000 citizens from the four corners of the country. About 100 political leaders and dozens of top businessmen were also incarcerated. The government is trying to frame cases against the arrested politicians and businessmen. This Herculean task has earned a good reputation for the interim government both inside the country and abroad.

The second task the government took was to reform the existing political parties. They formulated a plan, which was dubbed by the press as "Minus Two" plan. Under this plan the two party chairpersons, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wazed, would be sent to exile and the two major parties, Awami League and BNP, would undergo reform. It was expected that the new leadership will take charge of these two parties. There was another initiative taken by the military-backed government that concerns the birth of a third political party. Bangladesh’s glitterati Nobel Laureate, Muhammad Yunus, was propped up to float a party. The government thought the voters would show their solidarity with Yunus’s new party. However, the high-tech method that Yunus chose to communicate with the masses did not garner him any support from the hoi polloi and the initiative just simply withered in the vine. Rumor is persistent now that the government is trying to float yet another new party headed by Dr. Kamal Husein, the leader of Gono Forum. It is expected that many seasoned politicians from BNP would join the new party. It however remains to be seen what lies ahead vis-à-vis the floating of this third party.

In March 2007 Sheikh Hasina visited America to be with her son and daughter’s family. A month later, the government blocked Hasina’s re-entry to Bangladesh by declaring her a persona non grata. This move by the government eventually backfired. Hasina garnered enough support both inside the nation and abroad and the government swallowed their pride while lifting the ban. The government’s half-hearted effort to force Khaleda Zia to find a safe haven in Saudi Arabia also failed miserably. In a hurry, the government abandoned their “Minus Two” policy to reform the political parties. Hasina triumphantly returned home on May 7, 2007. Defying the emergency rule an estimated 25,000 people flocked to the air port and vicinity to greet her.

The interim government did everything to prolong their grip on power. It spent too much time to accost the alleged corrupt politicians without reforming the election commission. It revamped the anti corruption commission placing a new administrator from military background. However, no real effort was made to change the voters’ list. The government to support their ‘go slow’ policy said it may take 2 years before the election could be held. Sheikh Hasina vehemently protested against the long delay and the US Administration is also applying pressure on the government to hold the election at an earlier date.

The two major areas where the interim government failed miserably are: controlling the price of staples and foodstuffs; gross human rights violation. The spiraling price hike of rice, lentil, and other agro-commodities led to inflationary tendencies in Bangladesh. The government essentially failed to check the inflation. This is causing a great deal of concern among Bangladeshis. There are no signs anywhere that indicate the inflationary pressure is ebbing. If this trend continues, the interim government may become very unpopular and the politicians may foment agitation by their incendiary remarks.

The Fakhruddin Administration has earned a bad name due to their poor human rights record. First, to clean up the capital the government demolished slums that housed tens and thousands of poor people. The poor has no lobby whatsoever; therefore, the government in their zeal to clean up the capital city had displaced thousands of residents. Second, an estimated 170,000 people or even more are now languishing in jail without any formal charge against them. Third, the elite law and order force, RAB, had killed few dozens people under custody. Fourth, the military also killed many people and one such instance had caught the attention of International organizations, Amnesty International that deal in human rights violation. Bangladesh’s premier civil rights organization, Odhikar; is also very vocal on the spate of civil rights violation carried out by government’s forces.

A tribal leader belonging to Garo community was arrested by the military, tortured, and killed in March 2007. This news has already embarrassed the government but a deafening silence centering this gross abuse of human rights has mired the military and the government. The Fakhruddin Administration is acting like the proverbial ostrich by burying its head in the sand. The human rights abuses done by the government agencies may however break the proverbial camel’s back. Bangladesh already had portrayed a bad image in respect to corruption by the powerful bodies and on top of it the nation will surely earn the distinction of most violator of human rights.

In summary, the Fakhruddin Administration is in power for over 125 days. Some say that it is a government that cannot be supported by the existing constitution of the country. While the government is trying to break the monopoly of the two families, the Chief Advisor had appointed three of his family members in the interim government. Some progress has been achieved to apprehend corrupt politicians but the administration is too slow to frame charges against the arrestee. The government’s initiatives to float a new political party centering Yunus had failed and so did the exile attempt on Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. There are persistent rumor that the government is working to float yet another party with the help of Dr. Kamal Husein. The inflationary pressure on foodstuffs has not yet ebbed thus causing price to escalate further. The government gets an F mark in upholding the civil rights of the citizens. The death of Cholesh Richil, the Garo community leader and others who dies under custody may make waves and send a very negative image of the nation. The government is surely acting like a behemoth too slow to prepare the voter list. While the spokesperson for the government had alluded to the media that it may take even two years to hold the election, the major political parties are showing their dissatisfaction to the proposal. And now comes the wake-up call from 15 senior U.S. senators. The road to next election is bumpy and strewn thick with uncertainties. Therefore, stay tuned because more is yet to come. #

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA