Wednesday, November 28, 2007

After Cyclone, Bangladesh Faces Political Storm

SOMINI SENGUPTA

THE political storm that preceded nature’s latest assault on this country still swirls overhead.

Nearly a year into an army-backed state of emergency, basic freedoms remain suspended, a sweeping anticorruption drive has stuffed the jails with some of Bangladesh’s most influential business leaders and politicians, and a fragile economy is tottering under the pressure of floods at home and rising oil prices abroad.

The soaring cost of food is potentially the most explosive challenge facing the military-backed government that has run this country since Jan. 11, when, after debilitating political protests, scheduled elections were scrapped and emergency law was imposed. Climbing inflation was compounded by an unusually harsh monsoon, which destroyed food crops along the flood plains in July.

Then, the Nov. 15 cyclone destroyed acres of rice paddy, ruined the shrimp farms that dot the southern coast, and, according to the World Food Program, left roughly 2.3 million people in need of urgent food aid.

Storm relief is now the government’s most pressing test, including averting famine and disease outbreaks, and ensuring that aid distribution is perceived to be fair and without corruption. The government estimates that six million people were affected by the storm.

“This is going to be the real defining challenge for them,” Rehman Sobhan, the chairman of the Center for Policy Dialogue, an independent research group based in Dhaka, said of the administration. “A huge effort is going to be required.”

Bangladesh is among the world’s poorest nations, with a Muslim-majority population of more than 140 million and nearly half of its youngest children suffering from malnutrition. Polls indicate that even before the cyclone, confidence in the caretaker government was declining.

The way the ordinary Bangladeshi is being pinched every day was on stark display the other day in a working-class quarter of Dhaka called Begunbari, a crowded warren of tenements amid the roar of factories that supply cheap clothes for sale abroad, including in the United States.

Abdul Aziz, 63, a security guard who was buying vegetables at the local market, quietly confessed that even with three grown daughters working in the garment industry, his family was finding it harder to put enough food on the table. On this afternoon, he bought half as many winter beans as he had hoped to and one small head of cauliflower instead of two. Those purchases, along with the staple rice and lentils, would have to feed his family of seven. “We will make do,” he said. “Everyone will have a little bit.”

A tailor who serves the neighborhood said his business had plummeted from about 50 orders a day to barely a couple. Few can afford new clothes when the basics — onions, oil, cauliflower — have become so much costlier.

Firoza Begum, the wife of a civil servant, said the government had failed to curb food prices, even as she gave it credit for cracking down on graft.

“They have caught some corrupt people — we can see that,” she said. “But we also want them to reduce prices of our daily needs, so we can somehow manage our households.”

She said that she had all but given up buying milk and meat for her family because they were too expensive.

In her neighborhood, Election Commission workers were going door to door this afternoon taking names and addresses so they could compile a fresh list of those eligible to vote. Fakhruddin Ahmed, the civilian leader of the country’s military-backed caretaker administration, has promised national elections by the end of 2008.

But exactly how soon elections will take place and under what circumstances, remain mysteries, considering that several major politicians are in jail or in exile. The leaders of the two top political parties, Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and Sheik Hasina Wazed of the Awami League, are in custody on various graft and extortion charges. Whether they will be allowed to take part in the election is anyone’s guess.

Under emergency rule, the press is prohibited from publishing anything deemed “provocative” and political activity is banned, including demonstrations. Holding a political meeting outdoors is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The restrictions were loosened slightly in September when indoor political meetings were allowed to resume, but only with permission from the police and with no more than 50 people in attendance.

According to a monthly public perception survey by a consortium of civil society organizations called the Election Working Group, the share of Bangladeshis who expressed high confidence in the caretaker government fell between March and September, while the share of those who had low confidence sharply increased. This was true of respondents from “ordinary” and “elite” socioeconomic groups.

In the latest survey, conducted in face-to-face interviews in late September, the rising price of essential commodities was identified as the biggest concern, and even as the government got good marks for cracking down on corruption, respondents were divided about whether the government had any bearing on their daily lives: 42 percent of them said they were “better off” but about the same percentage said they were “worse off or that there has been no change in their personal situation.”

The government’s anticorruption crusade continues to be seen as a turning point for Bangladesh, which has consistently ranked at the bottom of the annual Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.

Bank accounts have been frozen. Luxury cars have been impounded by the state, or hidden indoors by their owners for fear they will be taken. Nearly 100 prominent politicians and business people have been taken in for questioning, and an unknown number of people have been detained without charge, which is legal under the new emergency laws. A little more than a dozen have been convicted by anticorruption courts, and how quickly, or fairly, the other cases will be tried is unclear.

If entrenched corruption was seen as damaging the economy, the crackdown has also sent shocks through the private sector. The government appears to be retreating from its initial wide sweep and has in recent months, released some detainees.

“Informally, the government wants some sort of reassurance for the business community that they will be allowed to function,” said Akbar Ali Khan, a retired senior government official. He declined to grade the government’s overall performance (criticizing the government is now a punishable offense) except to say that it was vital for the government to prepare for elections and restore business leaders’ confidence in the country.

“The economic problems are very serious and acute,” he said. “These will have to be addressed with more vigor.”

Abdul Awal Mintoo, the chairman and chief executive of Multimode Group, was among the most prominent millionaires taken into custody in May on a vague charge of destabilizing the government, then released six months later. Mr. Mintoo said that while he was in custody he was interrogated less about his own assets than about what evidence he could furnish against Ms. Hasina, the Awami League leader and a former prime minister with whom Mr. Mintoo was friendly.

A naturalized United States citizen, Mr. Mintoo returned to his native Bangladesh 27 years ago and established a number of businesses, from dealing in agricultural seeds to real estate. He estimates his assets in Bangladesh to be $30 million.

Mr. Mintoo, 58, insists that he did not bribe anyone in government in exchange for contracts. But he concedes that he did what he says everyone else has long had to do in this country: grease the wheels of politics and government to get basic things done, including installing a telephone line and getting imported machine parts out of customs. If that were the grounds for his arrest, he said, then “50 million people, every adult male” should be arrested.

“It’s aimless what they’re doing,” he said of the government in an interview, and added that he planned to divest himself of his investments in the country slowly. “I’m not sure how this will end up. I don’t want to take a risk and live in uncertainty.”

“If you take blood out of the arteries,” he added, “it just paralyzes.”

The only charge remaining pending against Mr. Mintoo accuses him of extorting about $700 from a private citizen. Mr. Mintoo laughed at the charge, saying it was too paltry a sum for him to demand of anyone. #

Somini Sengupta, a New York Times staffer recently visited Bangladesh to report on the storm SIDR, which hit the coastlines in the mid-November 2007

First published in The New York Times, New York, USA on November 26, 2007