Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Political Purging in Bangladesh

AP Photo/Pavel Rahman: Former Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia arrives at Dhaka court in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Monday, Sept. 3, 2007. Authorities jailed Zia on Monday in a corruption case involving container terminal contracts, the second former premier detained in the interim government's crackdown on graft in Bangladeshi politics


TO the surprise of nearly everyone in Bangladesh, the mighty appear to be falling fast in a corner of Asia where power and impunity have long gone hand-in-hand.

A military-backed government is trying to stamp out the corruption that permeates nearly every layer of Bangladeshi society _ from getting a hospital bill (a few dollars) to opening a factory (millions) _ and, in the process, undermine the two politicians whose rivalry is widely blamed for the country's rampant graft.

The soldiers and technocrats who assumed power nine-months ago moved a step closer to their goal Monday with the arrest of former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, picked up nearly two months after her rival, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, was jailed.

The arrests have been welcomed by many in the country that long-ago grew weary of watching the pair trade premierships while corruption worsened and strikes and protests intensified, shutting down everything from urban markets to the garment factories that churn out J. Crew and Banana Republic shirts.

"These people are our Al Capone, people you would never have imagined being taken to task," said Sara Hossain, a Supreme Court lawyer, in a telephone interview from Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital.

But with Zia, Hasina and more than 200 former government ministers, politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats now imprisoned on corruption charges, concerns are also beginning to grow about who or what the generals envision filling the political void.

For Bangladesh's 150 million people, the stakes are clear. Bringing graft under control would go a long way to solving the country's myriad problems, especially it's poverty _ 2-3 percent of its economy, or $1.5 billion, is estimated to be lost to corruption each year, according to the Berlin-based corruption watchdog Transparency International.

For the rest of the world, the stakes are also high. Zia and Hasina's rivalry has left Bangladesh, a country roughly the size of New York state but with more than seven times as many people, barely governed in some parts, raising concerns about instability in this strategic, largely Muslim corner of Asia already contending with Islamic militancy.

"We all know that they did it. But can a convincing case be made?" asked Nazim Kamran Chowdhury, a former lawmaker from Zia's party.

"If not, everything that is going on now, the crackdown on corruption, the promise of effective government, goes down the drain," he added. "We could easily go back to where we were a year ago."

That is, back to a democracy so riddled with problems that many in Bangladesh _ with its history of brutal military rule _ cheered when the military-backed interim government canceled January's elections and imposed emergency rule after months of street violence between supporters of Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Hasina's Awami League.

Bangladesh's problems existed before and after 1971, when it became independent from Pakistan. It was political instability that led to the assassinations and coups which brought Zia, 62, and Hasina, 59, to prominence.

But their rivalry, which emerged after democracy was restored in 1991 following more than a decade of military rule, has done nothing to improve things.

Zia was elected in 1991, Hasina in 1996, and Zia again in 2001. And after each election, a well-worn pattern emerged: the winner distributed plum jobs and lucrative contracts to supporters; the loser did their best to make the country ungovernable through strikes and protests.

Their disdain for one another runs so deep that no one has seen saw the two speak to each other _ not a "hello," "how are you?" or "goodbye" _ for years, making it nearly impossible for their two parties to work together as political rivals often do in better-functioning democracies.

Only the most die-hard Zia and Hasina supporters are sorry to see those days go.

But with the initial euphoria that accompanied the imposition of emergency rule wearing off, concerns are growing about what the generals plan to put in the place of the political elite that it's working so hard to discredit.

A brief foray into politics by Muhammad Yunus, an economist who last year won the Nobel Peace Prize, quickly foundered. And with the soldiers not saying much publicly, a number of theories, most based on nothing more than rumor, abound.

But there are two heard most often _ and given the most credence by experts.

The first, usually offered by optimists, is that the authorities are hoping reformists in Zia's and Hasina's parties will take over. "If the reformist are successful in taking over the parties, I think we could be on the road to elections in 2008," as the government has promised, said Chowdhury, the former lawmaker.

The more pessimistic theory sees the generals trying to draw politicians from the two parties to form a third front closely tied to the military.

"It's a complicated time here, and its dangerous," said a lawyer with ties to the current government who asked not to be named for fear of upsetting authorities. "You can't rewrite the politics here immediately _ and that could keep the interim government from holding elections next year, or the year after or longer."

Most, however, agree corruption is easing.

A French businessman who runs garment factories in Bangladesh said that while he still has to offer small bribes to low-level customs officials and other bureaucrats to get his goods out of the country, "we're not sending envelops of cash to Dhaka right now."

He asked not to be identified because passing bribes is a crime. "One never knows who can come back to power," he said. #

Matthew Rosenberg is a journalist with Associated Press in New Delhi, India bureau, additional contribution is made by AP writer Parveen Ahmed from Dhaka, Bangladesh

The article was first published by AP on September 5, 2007