Thursday, October 04, 2007

War on Rampant Graft Brings Pain, Promises

In Bangladesh, 'a Quiet Revolution'


DHAKA, Bangladesh -- It's been called Bangladesh's war on corruption, a revolution in this South Asian nation once persistently ranked as the most kleptocratic in the world. It's a place where extorting cash was so ingrained in the social fabric that even the Bureau of Anti-Corruption accepted a "ghoosh," or bribe.

Now, though, two former prime ministers -- rival politicians who have dominated this country's politics for 16 years - are behind bars, awaiting trial for allegedly siphoning off millions of dollars from the government. Also incarcerated on graft, tax-evasion and corruption charges are 170 members of the ruling elite, along with an estimated 15,000 political underbosses, local government officials and businessmen.

In one way or another, they are all alleged to have stolen from a population of 150 million people who have long languished in abject poverty.

The list of accused includes not only former prime ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina but also Zia's eldest son, Tarique Rahman, who was known as "Mr. 10 Percent" until recently. Rahman skimmed close to $1 million from government coffers, according to Bangladesh's freshly mandated Independent Anti-Corruption Commission, and is now being called "Mr. 110 Percent."

Rahman, Zia and Hasina all deny wrongdoing.

The arrests this year are unprecedented for South Asia, a region with a reputation for widespread impunity when it comes to thievery in government. Corruption experts say bribes are routinely offered -- and taken -- to push forward a water project, a new road, a sari business or a passport application. Even relief funds for victims of cyclones and flooding have mysteriously disappeared. Since Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan in 1971, an estimated $40 billion in international aid has been stolen, analysts say.

"It's completely surreal and was unthinkable in South Asia that a country's demigods are now in jail, and that's what we are seeing here," said Iftekhar Zaman, executive director of the Bangladesh branch of Transparency International, a leading anti-corruption watchdog, which has its largest chapter in the world in Bangladesh. "For many people, what matters is daily life, and corruption was so deep-rooted here . . . that there has to be a painful transition. But in the long term, it has to happen."

The transition from a system in which corruption rules to one in which institutions do has indeed been difficult. Prices for daily essentials such as rice and fish, staples of the Bangladeshi diet, have increased. The reason, according to some analysts, is that businesses are finally paying taxes levied on their products and passing on the costs.

Bangladesh's military-backed government, which assumed power Jan. 11 following months of unrest, is responsible for the crackdown. It declared emergency rule, banning political activity and protests, and said it would root out corruption by any means necessary before allowing elections to be held in 2008.

Critics, who say the anti-corruption campaign has been taken too far, have called the government's takeover "Bangladesh's 1/11." Arrests are often made in the middle of the night, according to relatives of those charged.

"Since 1/11, we are passing sleepless nights," said Abu Motaleb of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, which recently held a seminar advising business leaders on the crackdown.

Many business leaders say that what used to get through with a call to the right contact, a slap on the back and an envelope of cash now requires paperwork in triplicate and rounds of approvals. On Dhaka's traffic-clogged streets, fruit and fish dealers are learning about new tax codes and fees that need to be paid to get their products to market.

"This is all news to us," said Kazzim Uddin, 37, a father of four who swatted the flies away from his silver trays of sardines and white fish. "We don't have to pay bribes anymore. But we do notice the prices are so much higher. Long-term, it is so much better. But short-term, it hurts the family budget."

The interim government says these are normal growing pains, and the only way to change the system. For decades, a small elite has controlled scarce resources while the poor have suffered; that, the government says, must change.

"Even a little corruption is bad because it sets a tone that anything goes," said Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission, which has replaced the now-defunct, and corrupt, Bureau of Anti-Corruption. "Corruption is tied to poverty. Africa has its Big Men, with their sycophants who benefited from their power. Well, Bangladesh has its Big Women and their blind followers. And why should we all be too afraid to take back what our citizens lost?" Zia and Hasina, both women, dominated politics here for years.

Some Bangladeshis say they are optimistic but cautiously so. They point to neighboring Pakistan, whose military-led anti-corruption drive in recent years ended with the military fixed in power.

Some in civil society say that there have been too many arrests and that those who have been arrested have not been provided with due process. Those are accusations that the interim government says are untrue and unfair.

"What about the rights of the Bangladeshi citizens that were stolen from and kept in terrible poverty? What is happening here is nothing short of a quiet revolution without violence," said Mainul Hosein, the caretaker government's key law and justice official. "At least we are trying to establish an honest government." #

This article was first published in the Washington Post, Washington, USA on Wednesday, October 3, 2007; in section A16