Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Don't Mess Up the Cleanup Job in Bangladesh


TO us foreign observers, the authoritarian takeover in Bangladesh seemed necessary. There was no other way to clamp down on corruption. Sheikh Hasina, the former prime minister from Awami League, herself noted that if elected to power, her party could not have done anything concrete against the influence peddlers of Hawa Bhaban.

Tools of the trade
The government’s success against the war of corruption has been based ultimately in two things that would be absent in a usual elected government.

First, a strong and visible military force backed it. Every high-profile arrest was done with precise choreography. Truckloads of soldiers surrounded the site of arrest, disconnected phones and lines, stayed up to 12 hours to “raid” and gather documents, and then apprehended and led away the suspects with calm determination.

Second, the government has been doing all this under a state of emergency with fundamental rights suspended. It is using the emergency as cover also to enact a series of laws to create a special legal environment to try the corruption suspects. As some commentators have noted, the goal seems to bypass due process so that guilty verdicts can be handed down quickly and easily while making it difficult for the defendants to prove innocence.

An inconvenient truth
Neither of these luxuries would be available easily to a normally elected government. But by relying so much on authoritarian methods, the government has been weakening its legitimacy, and many among foreign observers are now beginning to doubt its true motives.

On April 17, the US Under-secretary of State, Nicholas Burns, said, "The interim government in Bangladesh has become occupied with unnecessary issues although its prime business is holding a free and fair elections" and noted that such activities may become unacceptable to the international community.

In a press briefing on April 24, Sean McCormack, spokesperson of the US State Department voiced worries about the situation: "if the caretaker government doesn’t take the right decisions, then this — there is a real possibility that this can threaten Bangladeshi democracy."

The reason is not the anti-corruption drive, but the politicization of it. (In some ways perhaps that is expected -- most things in Bangladesh tend to become politicized quickly.) For savvy observers, a good indication of this is looking at the type of cases being filed.

For example, a surprise inclusion in the government's first round of corruption-related arrests was Dr. Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, a former planning minister in Awami League’s administration who has a history of being vocal against authoritarian governments. The government filed sedition, not corruption, charges against him, probably to silence him by keeping him in jail.

The arrest of Moudud Ahmed also proceeded comically. Newspapers report that the initial charge brought against him is illegal possession of alcohol: 32 cans of beer and a few bottles of liquor.

Filing murder charges against Sheikh Hasina for violence that took place during a large political rally is equally ludicrous. The names listed on the murder charges were hurriedly “corrected” at the last minute, and her name was forcibly included.

Then the government barred her from returning to Bangladesh, but at the same time termed her a fugitive, fleeing from law. Within days, the government reversed its decision, and the police withdrew the charge sheet for further investigation. The only explanation for these shenanigans is political motive, not real charges.

By framing these far-fetched scenarios—treason, murder, drinking—the government is making a mockery of its real effort to fight corruption. Not only do these undermine the integrity of the much-needed cleanup effort, but these, along with the new laws to suppress due process, are also beginning to expose a more malicious intent of "political purging."

Forcing politicians out of politics
Aside from corruption charges and summary trials, intimidation is an additional method of forcing retirement on the old guard of politicians. I am told that Anwar Hossain Monju, a veteran politician has declared retirement from politics under threat. Such pressures have been created apparently on leaders from other parties too.

There can be only one goal for this purge: force existing politicians out of politics and then pick preferred candidates. When I asked a Bangladeshi historian about this, he laughed and agreed, noting that this was the same formula by which General Zia had created BNP and General Ershad had created Jatiya Party.

For this government, the preferred party is probably Nagorik Shakti, led by Professor Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel peace laureate. With its political purge, the government is basically trying to clear the field for him as much as possible. Faced with politicized cases and intimidation, the only way for veteran politicians to survive may be by joining Dr. Yunus’s party.

Stick to the job, please
Voters in Bangladesh, as well as those of us who analyze politics in South Asia, were no doubt fed up with the endemic corruption and political wrangling. So there is strong support for cracking down on corruption, but I believe there is little appetite for these types of political meddling. But that’s what the interim government is creating, by harassing and intimidating politicians on all sorts of questionable grounds.

In addition, if the interim government begins to favor newcomers, it runs the risk of losing popular support. When that happens, the fight against corruption will suffer a premature and tragic death.

So the government will be wise to just stick to its core tasks—getting the country ready for elections and getting well-known corrupt people to justice on the basis of sound and credible evidence. The more "political" the government becomes, the more it will mess up the clean up job, and eventually its own survival. #

Terrence Frazer analyses South Asian politics for a risk research organization. He resides in New York and Singapore, and travels frequently in South Asia. Views expressed here are his own