Monday, March 26, 2007

Fakhruddin Ahmed: The Boss of Bangladesh

GRAFT BUSTER Ahmed has made the battle against corruption the focus of his efforts at reform ABIR ABDULLAH/TIME

FAKHRUDDIN Ahmed doesn't strike you as a tough guy. He's mild mannered and academic in the way you might expect of an economist who has previously served as a central banker and a World Bank bureaucrat. He talks about spending time with his family and watching movies with his wife. He uses words like "epistemologically" and "baneful." But, as Bangladesh's current boss, the 66-year-old Ahmed is showing a steely resolve. Beginning last October, the capital Dhaka was struck by violent street clashes between rival supporters of outgoing Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party and opposition leader Sheikh Hasina's Awami League. In January, a state of emergency was imposed, elections scheduled for that month were indefinitely postponed, and Ahmed was named Chief Adviser—in effect the Prime Minister—of a caretaker government made up largely of technocrats backed by the military. Since then, Ahmed has gone after allegedly corrupt former officials, beefed up the country's antigraft body, initiated measures to make the judiciary more independent, and agreed in principle to establish a human-rights council, something Bangladeshi civil society has long demanded.

For a country widely perceived as one of the world's most corrupt, the most dramatic aspect of Ahmed's rule is his antigraft campaign against the establishment. So far, more than 160 senior politicians, top civil servants and security officials have been arrested on suspicion of graft and other economic crimes. The roundup has netted former ministers from the two main political parties and, most recently, even Zia's own son Tareque Rahman. Last week Rahman, 40, appeared in court to face a charge (which he denies) that he extorted $147,000 from the owner of a Dhaka construction firm. The government has also frozen hundreds of millions of dollars in bank accounts belonging to politicians—money it suspects was illegally obtained.

Bangladeshis have followed the anticorruption drive with a mixture of surprise and glee. Newspaper polls suggest that a clear majority of Bangladeshis support the present government even though it is unelected, has banned all political activity, and has yet to announce a date for fresh elections. On Tuesday, in his first extensive interview since coming to power, Ahmed spoke with TIME's Simon Robinson in a meeting room next door to Zia's old office. Excerpts:

TIME: Why impose emergency rule instead of holding fresh elections?

AHMED: Look at what was happening immediately before we came to power. Elections are meaningful if they're held in a free, fair and credible manner and are based on a voter list that is error-free and prepared by a nonpartisan Election Commission. The absence of these conditions resulted in an impasse, which ultimately led to the declaration of an emergency; under the constitution, we were called in as a nonparty caretaker government ... While we are focused on establishing a level playing field, we are also taking measures for economic reforms to increase economic growth and alleviate poverty—we cannot forget that ... [But] our core objective remains holding a free, fair and credible election. To do that will require carrying out fundamental reforms so that the will of the people will be reflected truly in the outcome of the election.

What's your role?
I look upon myself as a champion or leader to carry out [those] fundamental reforms, to make it possible to hand over [power to] a government elected on the basis of a free, fair election. The objective is strengthening Bangladesh's democratic order.

Some people see the establishment of your government as a military coup by stealth.
Only a lack of understanding and appreciation of the situation in Bangladesh would provoke that kind of a comment. As I said earlier, the conditions under which we came to power are constitutional, and the military in Bangladesh really respects the rule of law and the constitution. Certainly, the military is backing my government. It's called upon to aid the civil administration in times of emergency—natural or man-made. That's not unknown in many [other] countries.

Why launch an anticorruption campaign?
Corruption has emerged as a great threat to good governance and, in fact, to democracy. A really free, fair, credible election has to be held in an atmosphere where corrupt means and practices do not unfairly influence the outcome. What was happening was that money, muscle and misuse of authority—the three Ms—were working to win an election.

You've gone after some big fish.
If we can successfully prosecute some of the known big offenders, we will not only earn thanks from the people but also send strong signals which will work as deterrents against future corruption.

Could either of the two main parties have gone after corruption as you have?
A nonparty caretaker government doesn't suffer from the burdens of political patronage. Whether or not the political parties could have done so, I do not know. But they certainly lacked the political will and the courage in the past.

If you stay in power long enough, you may become part of that patronage system.
As long as we are focused on our objectives, as long as we are transparent in our actions, and as long as we feel that we are accountable to the people, the threat will not be there. We have to constantly think about what our objective is, what our focus is, and the fact that the people are behind us. We cannot let [them] down.

How long do you intend to stay in power?
The Election Commission has to decide when elections will be held. Before that, there is a need to carry out fundamental reforms of the political party systems, including registration and accountability to their own constitutions, and accountability to the people in terms of what they do with the money they collect. The Election Commission is also thinking about technical issues like a voter ID card to ensure that fraud is minimized, [and even] about transparent ballot boxes. All these reforms will take time. We are committed to holding elections in the shortest possible period but there is a wide acceptance in the country that the time that it takes to carry out these fundamental reforms should really be allowed, and then you hold elections. But let me hasten to add that we do not intend to stay in power a day longer than necessary.

Those reforms could take years.
Years? Definitely no. [But] some of those [negative] conditions [need to] be removed once and for all, not just for the next election but for elections thereafter as well.

Bangladesh's recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus says he will form a political party.
Is that a good thing?As an economist, I always think that allowing better choices, whether in politics or economics or any area, is a good thing. This is what was missing earlier: good, honest candidates were prevented or discouraged from coming forward and participating in the electoral process. The more such people do [participate], the better for this country's democracy.

Do you worry about a backlash from the political parties?
Not really. What we are doing has the overwhelming support of the people. Yes, there will be losers. In any reform process there are losers. And they may try to thwart the reform program. But I wouldn't term that as a backlash.

Are you scared for your safety?
No, I honestly don't feel at all threatened.

What do you do to relax?
Work becomes a chore when it becomes not enjoyable. I enjoy my work even if I'm working long hours and during weekends. I do try to spend more time with my wife and family. I watch movies occasionally, but these days I watch more the various talk shows for comments about the government or [the country's] problems. #

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Yunus: His experience in Politics and Politics on his Experience

MOHAMMAD GANI

Very disappointing!

"National search committee for political background check" has recently interviewed Dr. Yunus; a tyro at the game of national politics, for a possible "politician's" position in Bangladesh national politics. In this first round of preliminary interview; the committee asked him, "Mr. Yunus, what do you know about politics?" Nervous Yunus could not get their question properly and said, "Well, I don't know him much but all my friends say, I look like politics". The next question followed with, "What could be your strength and weakness as a national level "politician?". Yunus instantly and boldly added, "Even at this age, in a nationally televised election debate, I have enough muscles to hand down high speed body slams with Hasina and Khaleda together like chickens by myself and my weakness? I have no weakness for them at all, they are no beauty!" So, this former professor at Chittagong University, an occasional supply depot of fake law "certificates" to the sitting judges, received a miserable grade F- in politics.

This stunning development frustrated many of us badly; and now I ask myself, why he didn't take few political science courses in "Gazipur College" or at least few summer courses in a Community College in USA. At this point, I find the most sagacious approach for him is to immediately appear before a district magistrate and make some changes in his name; like adding Sheikh or Zia before or after (his name) to get a waiver of experience requirements. You see, our Sheikh Rehana and Sheikh Joy Wajed should need no experience if they would jump into national politics tomorrow and shall be catapulted to become senior leaders in few days with a rancorous welcome!

So, how much experience does a Bangladeshi national need have in his pockets before-hand while jumping into the podium of national politics and where could he/she get this experience from, as a neophyte? For the first time, we hear some of our "experienced politicians" and few "political philosophers" questioning backgrounds on political experience of Yunus though it was never raised for last 36 years. It is not clear whether they truly mean it or discovering few frivolous issues to smear and discredit Yunus; we shall see this during coming days.

Without citing many examples of national and international leaders and statesman those are not alive today, let us explore briefly the earned political experiences of our few "living politicians" in Bangladesh.

BEGUM KHALEDA ZIA: This legendry national leader and statesman (woman) Khaleda Zia was never born in politics nor politics was ever born in her. Taking a free ride on the public sympathy due to her husband's brutal death, she has become a veteran politician instantly and overnight. Her academic backgrounds are graduating from Dinajpur Government High School (1945) and briefly studied at Surendranath College. At the age of 15, she was married to Ziaur Rahman (1960) and devoted to her private family life as a housewife and spent most of her times raising their two children even after her husband General Ziaur Rahman grabbed power in 1975. Khaleda had no history of political activities during her early life nor taken any interest in politics until 30 May 1981, when Zia was assassinated.

SHIEKH HASINA: This firebrand, a pioneer of "hartal and aborodh" though was born with a silver spoon of politics in her mouth, politics truly was not born in her either. She is the "solid fuel" beneficiary of her father's political capital and so could possibly be fairly appropriate to say for upcoming new Awami League leaders Sheikh Rehana and Joy Wajed. Hasina graduated from Azimpur Girl's High School, Dacca (Dhaka) and then to Government Intermediate College before entering to the Dacca (Dhaka) University. At the age of 21, Hasina married to physicist Dr. M.A. Wajed Mian (1968). Hasina was a member of "Chhatra League" at Dhaka University and Secretary of the Rokeya Hall. That’s it!

We now know of all the glorious public services of these political-dynasty beneficiary politicians and of many of their lieutenants who have been forced to live in "Dhaka Sheraton Hotel of the other kind" with free meals and logistic benefits. May God bless them all.

HUSSAIN MOHAMMAD ERSHAD: On March 24, 1982, this army chief of staff seized the control of the Government in a bloodless military coup. With the parliament under his control, Ershad proceeded with his recondite plans for a presidential election. He quit as army Chief of Staff in August 1986 but remained the chief martial law administrator and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. He officially joined his "homemade" Jatiya Party in September 1982, was elected its chairman and became the party's candidate for president. Ershad earned a Ph.D from Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University!! He is well known for his adroit vacillation, churning political career and a sweet valentine's heart!

NIZAMI and GOLAM AZAM: These religious fanatics and enemy of our freedom have extensive political experience those shall send our sisters and mothers to the kitchen and to underground dark bunkers at once that Hitler desired to. Our founding "fathers" washed off their brutal crime records and since 16 December 1971, government of no political party brought these criminals to justice. They only fooled this nation; touting heavy handed lectures against Golam Azam/Nizami during their uncompromising political campaign in public while clandestinely became sycophant of Jamaat, establishing amorous relationship for "political kickbacks".

TAREQ RAHMAN: A mighty BNP senior leader with 36 years political experience. Sadly and also strangely, our questionable Caretaker Government is now humiliating this ephemeral but prospective and experienced national leader alleging for unfounded offences those he never committed!!

The nation also has produced few "Benjamin Disraeli" like Tofail Ahmed, Shahjahan Siraj, Kazi Zaffar Ahmed, A.S M. Abdur Rob and others and we do not hear their stentorian voice on nationalism and patriotism anymore. These superheated (spirited) and boisterous national leaders probably completed their national patriotic mission of squeezing this impoverished nation at the last drop and have now become very tired! There are ostensible reasons to conclude that they have made their enormous fortunes during their reverent political career, dedicated public services; and their next few generations, thank God, do not have to worry for enjoying profligate lifestyles.

Everyone is a born leader. We must examine the concept of leaders with new eyes. No matter how our "experienced politicians" try to spin Yunus's globe of national politics, the entire nation has decided to see a change, the change of coming out of a corruption ridden all political disgrace for years, nationally and internationally. It could be Yunus or any other alternative for his/her probity but truculent opposition to the above mentioned capricious crooks shall not change. This time, the nation shall not support our "experienced politician's" hegemony and slow-bleed policy that made the country from a bottomless basket to the "most corrupted country in the world".

Mohammad Gani is writer on Bangladesh affairs and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Arrange apparent grounds rather than arbitrary arrests

RIPAN KUMAR BISWAS

After a recent meeting with Election Commission of Bangladesh on March 5, 2007, Jatiya Party chief General H.M Ershad told the press that he is not corrupted and everybody knows it very well.

Speaking about corruption of Ershad’s dynasty is a non-ending tale. General Ershad corrupted the social and political institutions and establishment of militarism by progressively undermining the civil leadership and civic society in Bangladesh. In this regard he was true successors of the Pakistani military dictator, General Ayub Khan.

Soon after the consolidation of his power, Ershad concentrated on the militarization of the civil administration. To stay in power and to secure absolute power, he manipulated the elections and then literally destroyed it. In the upazilla election of 1985, Ershad's party won in 200 centers by means of armed violence carried out by Ershad' musclemen and 8 people (government report, hundreds in reality) were killed. Only 25-30% voters attended that election. The election scored the highest record for terrorism.

He made a big hole in the financial sector of Bangladesh. According to a statistics report of 1989, 22 persons or groups associated with Ershad appropriated 50% of the total loans for industrialization. Members of Ershad’s political party appropriated one third of the total wheat (10,000,000 tonnes) received under the ‘food for work’ in 1985. But it was turned out as ‘food for Ershad’s politics.’ Toadies of Ershad grabbed TK. 80,000,000 in the name of importing cotton in 1987-88.

His well known corruption was TK. 30,000,000 from the Japanese donations to purchase rescue vessels for rescue and protection against flood and natural disasters in 1988. Ershad either himself committed corruption or patronized corruption.

General Ershad rehabilitated the war criminals and the anti liberation political elements in Bangladesh and allowed them to establish political hegemony. He declared Islam as the state religion and made Bangladesh an Islamic republic and to secure political power he used the networks of Islamic spiritual peers (religious leaders). Ershad rejuvenated the Madrassah to promote destructive fundamentalism.

This former general tried his label best to hold the power forever in Bangladesh. But people discredited the result that gave the Jatiya party a two-thirds majority in 1988 election and fuelled the fires of discontent that led to Ershad’s resignation on December 4, 1900. He was arrested on corruption charges eight days later by the interim government, convicted, and imprisoned on corruption charges. Everybody thought his imprisoned ended the movie, but nothing happened according to the expectation of the general people of Bangladesh.

After nearly six years behind bars on firearms and corruption charges, former Bangladesh president Husain Muhammad Ershad tasted freedom for the first time on June 23, 1996 on parole for four hours to take his oath as an MP at Dhaka's Sangsad Bhaban (parliament building), following his re-election in national polls June 12, 1996.

Three weeks later to the day, he was out again and was granted parole to attend the first session of Parliament. Seated on the front bench, he was visibly enjoying the political cross-fire in opening debates.

Although charges against Ershad are stronger enough and lawfully strict, he finally managed his freedom with the help of corrupted politicians and bureaucrat of Bangladesh. And in the last political combat, he played as a striker which finally brought emergency in Bangladesh. If he can find the lack of law and orders of Bangladesh, then what about the present detainees as the charges against them are not even so strong to keep them in jail?

On March 12, 2007, the High Court (HC) of Bangladesh declared illegal the detention of six Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Awami League (AL) leaders under the Special Powers Act. The high profiled politicians are former state minister for civil aviation and tourism Mir Mohammad Nasiruddin, former BNP lawmaker Mosaddak Ali Falu, Chittagong BNP leader Dastagir Chowdhury, former AL minister Engr. Mosharraf Hossain, AL president's APS Dr Awlad Hossain, and Chittagong Port CBA leader Nurullah Bahar.

The High Court division bench comprised by Justice Md. Abdul Wahhab Mian and Justice Md. Emdadul Haque passed orders declaring that the detention of them and ordered the government to release them immediately if they are not wanted in any other case.

In addition, the detention of former lawmaker Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury under the Special Powers Act, 1974 was declared illegal by the High Court on March 11, 2007.

The Supreme Court (SC) of Bangladesh stayed for 17 more days the operation of a High Court (HC) verdict that declared illegal the detention of former Awami League lawmaker Kamal Ahmed Majumder on February 26, 2007.

The Bangladesh authorities failed to respond to the court order except merely submitting the papers issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the HC declared illegal the detention of Majumder on February 26, 2007.

Soon after President Iajuddin Ahmed proclaimed the state of emergency in the evening of 11 January 2007, Majumder along with other politicians, NGO leaders and some other bureaucrats were arrested by the army-led joint forces.

But will it bring any good result to hold them behind bars without any apparent grounds whether frequently their detention are being declared illegal?

Tareq Rahman, son of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and Senior Joint Secretary General of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was arrested on March 7, 2007. Vowing to clean up corruption, the present interim government arrested him with the charge of extortion of TK. 1 crore from a construction firm, Al-Amin Construction, a concern of Amin Mohammad Foundation.

Owner of the construction firm, Amin Ahmed, who got ticket as a BNP candidate from a Noakhali constituency for the cancelled January 22 election, filed the case against him. Analyst said that this charge even mightn’t enough to keep him away from bail.

Furthermore, government shouldn’t forget the bad impact of arbitrary arrests and mass killing which affect human rights. Odhikar, a human rights group in Bangladesh, said in a recent report that at least 50 people were killed by law enforcement agencies and 95,825 people arrested during the first 60 days of emergency from January 12-March 12, 2007.

In addition, US Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2006, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour in Washington Tuesday, March 6, 2007 alleged that Bangladesh government’s human rights record remained poor for what it said numerous serious abuses like extra-judicial killing, arbitrary arrest and detention and politically-motivated violence.

It alleged security forces acted with impunity, and committed acts of physical and psychological torture. “In addition, violence against journalists continued, as did infringement on religious freedoms.”

‘It is praiseworthy that the government of Bangladesh has arrested a number of influential political leaders and bureaucrat, who are allegedly involved in huge corruption and abuse of the power using their governmental positions. Although general people heatedly welcomed these arrests, government should aware of any unlawful detention and human rights for the big interest of the country,’ said the famous filmmaker and journalist Shahriar Kabir in a dinner speech held at a restaurant in Queens, New York on March 10, 2007.

President of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist & Christian Unity Council, USA, INC. (BHBCUC) Rup Kumar Bhowmick briefly spoke in his welcome speech at the seminar ‘Politics, Arrests and Human Rights under the Present Interim Government.’

The Bangladeshi government should take necessary steps to keep real corrupted people behind bars rather than arbitrary arrests. Arrests must be carried out in accordance with the law and due process, not by rounding up huge numbers of people who may or may not have broken the law because people of Bangladesh don’t want to see the result again like Ershad. #

Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York
Ripan.Biswas@yahoo.com

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Position to fight back radical Islamism

SUNITA PAUL

Policy-makers in the US are increasingly worried about "the secular underpinnings of moderate Bangladesh being undermined by a culture of political violence and the rise of Islamic extremists".

With bilateral aid during the next fiscal up for discussion on the Hill, the Congressional Research Service has circulated a report for members of the House and Senate on 'Islamist Extremism in Bangladesh'.

The report comes at a time when the scheduled January 21 General Election in Bangladesh has been postponed indefinitely and Emergency imposed. The interim Government, now headed by economist Fakhruddin Ahmed, has begun to crack down on graft and Islamic extremism, which are often interlinked in Bangladesh, with the help of the newly-set up Anti-Corruption Commission headed by a former Army officer, Lt Gen Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury.

Both Ahmed and Chowdhury command greater credibility with the US and its European allies than the squabbling contenders for power - Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The countrywide swoop on close associates of the two leaders and seizure of their property, cheered by Bangladeshis, is believed to have the blessings of the US.

The US and its allies, which were increasingly alarmed by the rise of Islamism in Bangladesh during Begum Zia's rule, had pinned their hopes on the Awami League to check extremism if it won the scheduled poll. At the last minute, that hope gave way to despair when Sheikh Hasina signed a 'memorandum of understanding' with the stridently fundamentalist Khelaphat-e-Majlish, promising rapid Islamisation of state policy if voted to power.

Sheikh Hasina's decision to nominate Majlish's Maulana Habibur Rehman, an ardent advocate of "Taliban-style rule in Bangladesh", and pro-Al Qaeda Mufti Shahidul Islam, an Afghan war veteran, sent alarm bells ringing in Dhaka's diplomatic circles and hastened the cancellation of election and imposition of Emergency. Rehman and Islam are intimately involved with the activities of the terrorist organization, Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami. The mufti has been arrested by the interim Government.

With Washington and its allies in European capitals showing little or no interest in pushing for an early election, Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia have begun to panic. Recent clippings from Bangladeshi newspapers reported that Sheikh Hasina is now willing to give up some of her key demands -including mandatory voter ID cards -to settle for an early poll. The ongoing crackdown on corruption and Islamism, unless checked, could severely denude the support base of both leaders.

The Congressional report, underscoring the concern of "the US and Britain over the rise of Islamist influence and militancy in Bangladesh", points out that "the roughly even political split between the BNP and the AL has given small Islamist parties a political voice disproportionate with their overall electoral support".

Rather than allow Islamists to play a decisive role, the West seems to be interested in promoting apolitical individuals during the interregnum before election is held. This could explain Nobel peace laureate and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus' sudden decision to float a political party, Nagarik Shakti (Citizens Power) recently.

While US Ambassador to Bangladesh Patricia A Butenis, according to Bangladeshi media reports, is believed to have expressed her "position favoring an early election during meetings with the top two rival political leaders and with the advisers to the caretaker Government", there is no palpable 'push factor' at play. The lack of urgency to push for an early poll is partly explained by the perception, which is gaining ground in Washington, that the main contenders for power are in no position to fight back radical Islamism.

"Bangladesh's form of moderate Islam is increasingly under threat by radical elements while its political and economic development continues to be hampered by the forces of corruption, radicalism and partisan fighting," the report says in a clear indictment of both Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia.

The report suggests that the US and its allies have begun to veer round to the view of security experts in India that Bangladesh has the potential to become a "centre of extremist Wahabi-oriented terrorism". It refers to former US State Department Coordinator for Counter-terrorism Cofer Black's assessment that Bangladesh has the potential to become a "platform for international terrorism". It says, "There is concern that Bangladesh might serve as a base of support to various militant groups."

At the same time, the US and its allies are not keen on a military takeover in Bangladesh, which has been ruled by the Army for 15 of the past 35 years. "Given its past use of Islam for legitimacy, a return to power by the military could create further opportunities for Islamists in Bangladesh," the report says. But, according to South Asian political analysts, generally Bangladesh Army is a secular force promoting peaceful co-existence of people from every religious belief. Moreover, in recent years, the armed forces have attained highest appreciation abroad by having prominent contributions in the US Peace corps. On the other hand, recent remarks by the Chief of Armed Forces in the country quite evidently shows that, the army has no intention in capturing power.

With both early poll and military takeover ruled out, the options narrow down to allowing the interim Government, supported by the Army, to stay in power for some time and work in tandem with apolitical civil society groups like the one headed by Yunus to strengthen them while the Anti-Corruption Commission cuts the Awami League and BNP to size. Huge dollops of Western aid, it is believed, will help this neutralizing process along.

Bangladesh, it seems, is set to become the new center point for yet another Western experiment at promoting secular democracy. #

Sunita Paul writes for Asian Tribune.com

This article was first published in Blitz www.weeklyblitz.net

Hasina-Khaleda: Power from dead men

JUSTIN HUGGLER

Bangladesh has suffered a silent coup. In a country that only a few months ago was celebrating a Nobel Peace Prize for one of its best known sons, Muhammad Yunus, armed soldiers now patrol.

Elections have been cancelled, and political leaders are being rounded up. At least nine former ministers have been arrested without charge. Human rights have been suspended. It is now illegal to oppose government decisions. All political activity is banned.

For the past 15 years, politics in the world's third most populous Muslim country has been dominated by twin matriarchs - divas who hate each other so much they will not cross paths, let alone speak to each other: Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina.

They lead the two big political parties, the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League, and they have alternated as prime minister since democracy was restored in 1991. But the feud between them finally boiled over this year as they refused to wait for elections to decide who should be prime minister next. As Khaleda Zia tried to fix the elections, Sheikh Hasina brought her strongmen on to the streets. At least 45 people were killed.

With the chaos at its peak, President Iajuddin Ahmed stepped in on 11 January, declaring a state of emergency, and cancelling the elections. The international community looked on with relief. But the story that was not told was how the military had seized power: how the generals went to the President and told him to declare the emergency, and how they are behind the "caretaker" government.

A country that only months ago was relishing its emergence on the world stage, with economic growth of 6 per cent, is looking, again, into the abyss of military rule. People are asking whether the era of the grandes dames is finally over. Much has been made of the fact that politics here has been dominated by women for more than a decade. But it was no triumph of feminism. Sheikh Hasina's and Khaleda Zia's power came from dead men. They are relatives of the two most powerful figures in Bangladesh's 36-year history as an independent country.

Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the man who led Bangladesh to independence from Pakistan only to be assassinated for his own authoritarian attempts at single-party rule. The cadres of Sheikh Hasina's Awami League still wear the black coats favoured by him.

Khaleda Zia is the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, who seized power and became military dictator shortly after Sheikh Mujibur's death; only to be assassinated himself. Their dependence on dead relatives did not stop them from putting on airs. Khaleda Zia, in particular, ruled Bangladesh "in an imperial fashion", according to Ataur Rahman, a professor of political science at Dhaka University. The word in Dhaka is that they are now under unofficial house arrest, guarded by security forces for their own "protection".

The issues between them in the run-up to the elections scheduled for 22 January seemed relatively minor. Sheikh Hasina's Awami League complained that the election commissioners were biased, having barred the league's political ally, General Ershad, a former dictator, from standing.

But really, the BNP was blatantly trying to fix the elections, says Professor Rahman. "It wasn't just election engineering, it was election designing," he says. "It shouldn't have been an issue for the BNP. They were winning anyway. They were doing it for five or 10 seats. They must be crying now."

What the parties have done is put the country back in the hands of the military. The chief of the caretaker government, in effect the acting prime minister, is Fakruddin Ahmed. "He has his allies in the World Bank, the UN and donor countries, but he is only one actor," says Professor Rahman. "You need a lot of force to back this government; otherwise the political parties would overwhelm it."

All Dr Ahmed's allies would have been powerless against the well-organized party machines but for the military's backing. Only the army can frighten the party cadres, and that means real power is in the hands of a man who until now has been largely silent and invisible: the chief of staff, Lt-Gen Moeen Ahmed.

Gen Ahmed insisted this week that "the army has no intention of taking over". But elections have been postponed for at least three months, and few expect them to be held that soon. "I don't envisage an election," smiles Professor Rahman. #

Indian Muslim group calls for beheading of writer Taslima Nasreen

LUCKNOW: Nearly seven months after UP minister Haji Yakoob Qureshi raised a storm by announcing a reward on the heads of two Danish cartoonists for lampooning the Prophet, a little-known conservative Muslim group offered a 500,000 rupee (US $11,319) bounty for the beheading of controversial Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen.

Khan said he had declared a reward of Rs 5 lakh for anyone who killed the "notorious woman". He claimed a core body of the board comprising 150 ulema, lawyers, retired IPS officers, doctors and professors had already passed a resolution to oust Nasreen from India. Khan enjoys wide support among the Barelvi sect and the issue is likely to generate heat in coming days, especially with assembly elections round the corner, observers said.

The president of the All India Ibtehad Council, Taqi Raza Khan, said he had declared the reward for anyone who carried out the "quatal" or "extermination" of the "notorious woman."

"Taslima has put Muslims to shame in her writing. She should be killed and beheaded and anyone who does this will get a reward from the council," he said in a statement received in Lucknow, capital of northern Uttar Pradesh state.

The council, based in the Uttar Pradesh town of Bareilly, is a splinter group of the influential All India Muslim Personal Law Board.

Khan said the only way the bounty would be lifted was if Nasreen "apologises, burns her books and leaves."

The bounty was not a fatwa as Khan, while a cleric, is not senior enough to issue Islamic decrees.

But it drew swift condemnation from one of south Asia's most powerful Muslim seminaries.

The clergy of the Sunni seminary Dar-ul Uloom in Deoband in Uttar Pradesh, a state with a large Muslim population, said the call to behead Nasreen was "un-Islamic" and that clergy should not issue such "fatwas."

"Unnecessary edicts increase friction in society and people of other religions start treating Islam as a barbaric religion," Mufti Arif, who sits on the board of the fatwa committee of Dar-ul Uloom, told AFP by telephone.

At the same time Arif backed Khan's call for 45-year-old Nasreen's expulsion from India, where she is seeking permanent residence or citizenship.

What has Nasreen done to ruffle this body? "Yeh aurat behad badzuban hai, aur Shariat par hamla karti rahi hai (this woman has a vicious tongue and has been attacking the Shariat)," said Khan.

Nasreen has incensed conservative Muslims for writing a novel "Lajja" or "Shame" depicting the life of a Hindu family facing the ire of Muslims in Bangladesh. The book is banned in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

Would the decision be reconsidered? Only if "woh mafi mangey, apni sari kitabein jalaye, aur tauba kare (she apologises, burns her books and leaves)," Khan said.

The author was forced to flee her homeland in 1994 after radical Muslims decried her writings as blasphemous and demanded her execution.

There was no immediate comment available from Nasreen, who is also a doctor, who has lived in self-exile in Europe and the United States but who has lately been living in India."We have been hearing that the Indian government is thinking of granting her citizenship. The idea is repugnant to all God-fearing Muslims. #

Reports: Times of India and AFP, Mar 17, 2007

Friday, March 16, 2007

Figure in Bangladesh Coup Arrested in USA

In this photo provided by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, shows Mohiuddin A.K.M. Ahmed, in Los Angeles. Ahmed a former Bangladeshi military officer convicted in absentia for his role in the 1975 assassination of his country's first prime minister has been arrested in Southern California, authorities said Wednesday, March 14, 2007. Ahmed, 60, was arrested Tuesday morning at his Los Angeles home, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lori Haley. (AP Photo/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) (AP)
DAISY NGUYEN, Los Angeles

A former Bangladeshi military officer convicted in absentia for his role in the 1975 assassination of his country's first prime minister has been arrested, authorities said Wednesday.

Mohiuddin A.K.M. Ahmed, 60, was arrested Tuesday morning at his Los Angeles home, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lori Haley.

Ahmed had been sought by Bangladesh's government since he and 14 others were convicted in 1998 for the murder of Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman in an Aug. 15, 1975 military coup. All were sentenced to death.

Ahmed was convicted in absentia because he had entered the United States in 1996 on a visitor's visa. He applied for permission to stay in the country permanently but was ordered to return to Bangladesh to face the criminal charges.

The immigration case dragged on for several years as he appealed a deportation order handed down by an immigration judge in 2002. Late last month, a judge in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco denied his petition to review the case, allowing the order to stand.

Authorities will begin proceedings to return him to Bangladesh, said Brian DeMore, the immigration enforcement agency's deputy field director.

"This case has been followed very closely by ICE," DeMore said. "After the 9th Circuit denied his petition to review the case, (Ahmed) became a fugitive in the U.S."

It was not immediately known whether Ahmed had an attorney.

Abu Zafar, the consul general of Bangladesh in Los Angeles, said he was not aware of Ahmed's arrest and declined to comment.

U.S. authorities said Ahmed represented the Bangladeshi government in a variety of foreign diplomatic posts in the two decades following Rahman's assassination.

Rahman, popularly known as "Sheikh Mujib," led Bangladesh's independence war against Pakistan in 1971. He was gunned down at his Dhaka residence by military men who also killed most of his family and a number of trusted aides.

Rahman's killers granted themselves amnesty. They were not brought to trial until Rahman's surviving daughter, Sheik Hasina, became prime minister in 1996. #

Source: Associated Press, March 14, 2007

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The crassitude of a savant and cyber gadfly!

A.H. JAFFOR ULLAH

Many of us have grown used to participate in myriad forums since 1997 to exchange views, learn a thing or two in the process, etc. However, lately things have changed. I see quite a few deshi forum-goers who are roaming freely in various forums a la "Religious Ox" (Dhormer ShaR) and in the process they post pejoratively written one paragraph just to malign someone. They are what I call the gadflies of cyber forums.

Instead of discussing or proposing new ideas to improve the living conditions of our hapless people, they like to mock writers or participants whose ideas are too radical or anachronistic by their standard. If you happen to critique their newly found hero or role model, you are more than sure to receive response full of diatribes. Casting aspersion is their forte. This is the sport they like.

A post in Vinnomot forum caught my attention. To make a convivial merriment and to prove his crass mentality a Johnny-come-lately cyber forum-goer made some sententious remarks about me in Vinnomot forum where I seldom visit. The other day I did a Google search using my name to track down one particular write-up of mine and I noticed a hit with Vinnomot’s name mentioned next to my name. That is the reason I visited that forum, which earned a name for being the soft-porno site. The operator of the site may have followed the philosophy of Hugh Hefner or Larry Flint to popularize their forum. It is natural that all the dunces and dimwitted acolytes belonging to Bangladesh and West Bengal who among other things like Ritu “Porno” Ghosh’s semi porno movie would click their mouse at least several times a day to get their vicarious thrill over getting closer to scantily dressed Bollywood stars.

I was surprised to note that suddenly I have become a staunch supporter of Hasina Wajed. The gadfly did not know that I was labelled as "BNP supporter" during 1996 through 2001 for critiquing Hasina Government's policy to name both prodigious and obscure buildings, sports arena and whatnot after Bangabandhu. In 1999 I single-handedly started a debate in Daily Star over Hasina’s decision to buy 10-12 aging MiG fighter bombers.

In 1998 I wrote several articles on Grameen Bank and Prof. Yunus to show my disagreement over GB's steep interest rate. In October 2007 when Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize, I immediately wrote a congratulatory note but at the same time I pointed out the gross inaccuracy in the citation made by the organization from Oslo that offered the prize. Is it a crime to call a spade a spade?

On January 19, 2007 an article written by me was published in Daily Star where I mentioned that the Fakhruddin Administration was firmly backed by the military of Bangladesh. Lately, I am writing articles on the legitimacy of Fakhruddin Administration. Apart from rounding up nearly 98,000 ordinary miscreants and 100 top corrupt politicians, this government is a total failure that could not check the price of everyday commodities. Tens and thousands of indigent have become homeless by Fakhruddin’s indifference to the plights of the poor in Dhaka city. Some respected economists from Dhaka are now saying that the GDP growth may become less than spectacular. These developments do not bode well for Bangladesh. I do not see any erudite comments from the military-backed government to put the blame squarely on Bangladesh society which had condoned bribe-taking for years and years. The government is going after the corrupt politicians leaving aside the corrupt governmental high officials, police, custom officials, port officials. The mayor of Dhaka who was the ring leader of dozens corrupt ward commissioners is also roaming free while the Mayor of Chittagong was put in prison. How come not a single ex-military officer who became politician or businessmen was arrested thus far? These are thoughts in my mind and I have written short articles to speak my mind for which I have already earned enough scorn from Fakhruddin-Yunus-Mainul triumvirate lovers.

And specifically what did I receive from the savant of east coast? The cyber gadfly who often dabbles in such serious subjects as politics and society at large of Bangladesh often mentions about his “beautiful wife” in his usual cyber chitchats while flaunting the name of his hometown. People yearning for attention often resort to these kinds of exercise in futility. If someone has unique and revolutionary ideas, which may transform the Bangladesh society by helping our politicians and government servants to get away from their usual recidivious tendencies, I would ask them to share that with others. But why this proclivity for getting even with a harried writer like me?

Yes, yes, I know all my suggestions would fall into a deaf ear. Having a broader perspective on life coupled with maintaining equanimity may help transform a gadfly into a netiquette savvy netizen no doubt. I may foam to my mouth delineating the virtues associated with being a sapient; however, the stark reality may be very different. My earnest beseeching may not produce any meaningful result and I may very well receive another bitter and abusive denunciation through a post. This is the risk one takes while posting articles in a public forum.

Let me bring a closure to my protest note by quoting the English bard, Shakespeare: “Let them hang themselves in their own straps.” #

The harried scribe pens his article from Katrina devastated metropolis of New Orleans

Bangladesh’s new Big Brother, Uncle Sam

KANCHAN GUPTA, New Delhi

Policy-makers in the US are increasingly worried about "the secular underpinnings of moderate Bangladesh being undermined by a culture of political violence and the rise of Islamic extremists".

With bilateral aid during the next fiscal up for discussion on the Hill, the Congressional Research Service has circulated a report for members of the House and Senate on 'Islamist Extremism in Bangladesh'.

The report comes at a time when the scheduled January 21 General Election in Bangladesh has been postponed indefinitely and Emergency imposed. The interim Government, now headed by economist Fakhruddin Ahmed, has begun to crack down on graft and Islamic extremism, which are often interlinked in Bangladesh, with the help of the newly-set up Anti-Corruption Commission headed by a former Army officer, Lt Gen Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury.

Both Ahmed and Chowdhury command greater credibility with the US and its European allies than the squabbling contenders for power - Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The countrywide swoop on close associates of the two leaders and seizure of their property, cheered by Bangladeshis, is believed to have the blessings of the US.

The US and its allies, which were increasingly alarmed by the rise of Islamism in Bangladesh during Begum Zia's rule, had pinned their hopes on the Awami League to check extremism if it won the scheduled poll. At the last minute, that hope gave way to despair when Sheikh Hasina signed a 'memorandum of understanding' with the stridently fundamentalist Khelafat-e-Majlish, promising rapid Islamisation of state policy if voted to power.

Sheikh Hasina's decision to nominate Majlish's Maulana Habibur Rahman, an ardent advocate of "Taliban-style rule in Bangladesh", and pro-Al Qaeda Mufti Shahidul Islam, an Afghan war veteran, sent alarm bells ringing in Dhaka's diplomatic circles and hastened the cancellation of election and imposition of Emergency. Rahman and Islam are intimately involved with the activities of the terrorist organisation, Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami. The mufti has been arrested by the interim Government.

With Washington and its allies in European capitals showing little or no interest in pushing for an early election, Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia have begun to panic. Saturday morning's Bangladeshi newspapers reported that Sheikh Hasina is now willing to give up some of her key demands -including mandatory voter ID cards -to settle for an early poll. The ongoing crackdown on corruption and Islamism, unless checked, could severely denude the support base of both leaders.

The Congressional report, underscoring the concern of "the US and Britain over the rise of Islamist influence and militancy in Bangladesh", points out that "the roughly even political split between the BNP and the AL has given small Islamist parties a political voice disproportionate with their overall electoral support". Rather than allow Islamists to play a decisive role, the West seems to be interested in promoting apolitical individuals during the interregnum before election is held. This could explain Nobel peace laureate and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus' sudden decision to float a political party, Nagorik Shakti (Citizens Power) last weekend.

While US Ambassador to Bangladesh Patricia A Butenis, according to Bangladeshi media reports, is believed to have expressed her "position favouring an early election during meetings with the top two rival political leaders and with the advisers to the caretaker Government", there is no palpable 'push factor' at play. The lack of urgency to push for an early poll is partly explained by the perception, which is gaining ground in Washington, that the main contenders for power are in no position to fight back radical Islamism.

"Bangladesh's form of moderate Islam is increasingly under threat by radical elements while its political and economic development continues to be hampered by the forces of corruption, radicalism and partisan fighting," the report says in a clear indictment of both Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia.

The report suggests that the US and its allies have begun to veer round to the view of security experts in India that Bangladesh has the potential to become a "centre of extremist Wahabi-oriented terrorism". It refers to former US State Department Coordinator for Counter-terrorism Cofer Black's assessment that Bangladesh has the potential to become a "platform for international terrorism". It says, "There is concern that Bangladesh might serve as a base of support to various militant groups."

At the same time, the US and its allies are not keen on a military takeover in Bangladesh, which has been ruled by the Army for 15 of the past 35 years. "Given its past use of Islam for legitimacy, a return to power by the military could create further opportunities for Islamists in Bangladesh," the report says.

With both early poll and military takeover ruled out, the options narrow down to allowing the interim Government, supported by the Army, to stay in power for some time and work in tandem with apolitical civil society groups like the one headed by Yunus to strengthen them while the Anti-Corruption Commission cuts the Awami League and BNP to size. Huge dollops of Western aid, it is believed, will help this neutralising process along.

Bangladesh, it seems, is set to become the new crucible for yet another Western experiment at promoting secular democracy. #

Reforms must for fair and meaningful elections

BADIUL ALAM MAJUMDAR

In his maiden speech to the nation on January 20, Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed expressed his determination to create conducive environment for making the next elections free, fair and credible. He was unequivocal about ending the influence of black money and muscle power on elections. He specifically promised reforms to ensure that all candidates provide details of their income and assets, and authenticate the sources of their finances. Such a stand of the chief adviser, which he subsequently reiterated time and again, will help make the 9th parliamentary elections meaningful, as it is likely to enhance the quality of our elected representatives.

Fortunately, these reforms, which reflect the views of the ordinary citizens of the country, can be implemented through an ordinance amending the "Representation of People Order, 1972" (RPO) -- they will not require constitutional amendment. The president can promulgate such an ordinance, which should, among others, include:

Independence and strengthening of the EC: True strengthening of the EC and making it independent will require decoupling of the secretariat of the Commission from the prime minister's office. The secretariat of the Commission is now viewed separately from the Commission itself. Redressing this will require changing the definition of the Commission in Article 2 of the RPO stating that the Commission shall include its secretariat. Subsequently, a law will have to be enacted and rules framed for governing the actual working of the Commission.

We propose that the Commission takes its decisions unanimously, or by majority opinion, as per last January's High Court judgment. There must also be provisions for the transparency and accountability of the Commission's decisions. We propose the amendment of Article 3 of the RPO to limit the number of commissioners to 3. We further recommend that the president issue an order, as per Article 118 of the Constitution, specifying the qualifications of the chief election commissioner and the commissioners, and the procedure and terms of their appointment.

A panel of qualified nominees, from which the president will make the appointment, may be identified by a committee. There may also be provisions for public hearing before the relevant parliamentary standing committee prior to the confirmation of the appointment. To ensure that the political parties, the contesting candidates and the government functionaries, directly or indirectly involved with elections, abide by the electoral laws and rules, we recommend a legal provision for debarring of candidates, cancellation of election results and the postponement of elections for violations of serious nature.

In order to implement such a legal provision, we propose the formation of six "Elections Misconduct and Disqualifications Commissions" (EMDC) in the six divisions. Appeal against the decisions of the EMDC may be made to the EC, whose decisions shall be final and binding on all concerned. Giving such powers to the EC will require re-inclusion of an expanded Article 91D in the RPO, which was removed by the president, under pressure from political parties, before the 2001 elections.

Under Article 88(b) and (c) of the constitution, the administrative expenses of the EC, and the salaries and benefits of the commissioners, are treated as charges on the consolidated funds of the government. We recommend the amendment of Article 3 of the RPO, as per the authority given in Article 88(f) of the constitution, allowing all expenses of the EC to be charges on the consolidated fund. However, there must be provisions for special audit of the expenses of the Commission.

Preparing an error-free electoral roll: Last April, the Supreme Court directed the EC to prepare the electoral roll for the 9th parliamentary elections by taking into account the existing roll prepared in 2000. The Court also directed the preparation of a database to solve this problem once and for all. In order to comply with the court judgment, we propose the preparation of an electoral roll with photos of voters affixed, which will prevent duplicate registration and fake voting and also make the roll error-free.

We recommend the inclusion of a sub-clause in Article 31 of the RPO to make this possible. In order to make an electoral roll with photos affixed, the Electoral Roll Ordinance, 1982, will have to be amended. It may be pointed out that Shujan has converted the CDs of the 2000 electoral roll, turning it into a database, and put it online (www.shujan.org). This may be used as the basis for the new database.

Compulsory registration of political parties and their reforms: The misconduct of political parties and their nominees is currently the biggest barrier to fair elections. We, therefore, recommend the amendment of Article 90 of the RPO to make the registration of political parties compulsory. Only the registered political parties under the EC will be recognized as political parties. The nominees of non-registered parties will be considered as independent candidates.

Requirements for registration of political parties should include: practice of internal democracy, financial transparency (carrying out financial transactions through bank accounts and publishing audited statements), publication of annual reports, publication of the state of implementation of election manifestos, elimination of all their affiliated bodies (such as their student wings), not nominating anyone without active membership for three years, giving primary members clear say in the nomination process (for example, holding party primaries) etc. We feel that it may even be more appropriate to enact a separate law for political parties.

Qualifications for parliamentary candidates: We propose the amendment of Article 12(1) of the RPO to prevent the convicted criminals, loan and bill defaulters, and retired government officials (for three years after their retirement) and government functionaries retrenched or retired for corruption, from contesting in parliamentary elections. At the same time, we strongly recommend the strict enforcement of the existing restrictions in the RPO on the participation of those businessmen who have business relationship with the government.

We also recommend that the plunderers of government exchequer and godfathers of musclemen be declared ineligible for public offices. No one should be allowed to contest in more than one parliamentary seat, or simultaneously hold more than one elective office.

Provisions for negative voting: We propose the inclusion of negative voting in the RPO in order to redress the problem of undesirable candidates being nominated by political parties due to their "nomination trade." Provisions must be made, by including a clause in Article 31 of the RPO, so that if the negative vote wins the election there shall be new elections with new candidates. We must also consider imposing term limits for elective offices.

In addition, we recommend the inclusion of the photographs of the candidates along with their party symbols in ballot papers, so that voters take into consideration their personal qualities.

Voters' right to get information about candidates: The historic judgment of the High Court, in May 2005, requiring the disclosure of antecedents of candidates running for parliamentary elections must be included in the RPO. The law must also require submission of affidavits by candidates, along with their nomination papers, disclosing their business relationship with the government, their tax returns and statements of life style. Affidavits and statements must be posted on the EC website, and arrangements made to disclose them to the public, using the news media.

Article 12(2) of the RPO must be amended to provide for stern actions, including the institution of criminal proceedings and the cancellation of candidature or election results, against those who do not submit affidavits and statements or hide or provide misleading information. We are in favour of requiring elected MPs to disclose each year the details of their incomes, expenditures, assets, liabilities and their tax returns.
Reducing election expenses: Fair and meaningful elections require reduction of election expenses. Thus, the existing limit on election expenses of Tk 5 lac must be strictly enforced. To achieve this, we recommend the printing of posters by Returning Officers (ROs) on the basis of the information provided by candidates in their affidavits. We also recommend arrangement of projection meetings by the ROs.

Similarly, in order to reduce election expenses, we further recommend strict monitoring of election expenses, including the enforcement of the existing ban on the erection of gates, setting up of booths on election days and wall writings etc. We propose the amendment of Article 44 of the RPO to reduce election expenses. We further recommend the reduction of facilities and benefits for MPs, including the elimination of the benefits of tax-free cars and residential plots etc.

Quick resolution of election disputes: Expeditious resolution of election disputes, preventing the wrong doers from getting away by indulging in unfair practices and committing electoral misconduct, is a prerequisite for meaningful elections. We, therefore, recommend the formation of an adequate number of High Court benches, continuous hearing of cases and disallowing more than two continuations of hearings, so that all disputes relating to parliamentary elections, including the appeals may be resolved within six months.

This will require, among other things, doing away with some privileges of MPs, such as the exemption they enjoy from participating in judicial proceedings when the parliament is in session.

In order to expeditiously complete the appeal process, we recommend the amendment of Articles 57 and 62 of the RPO. At present the parliamentary constituencies are of unequal size. For example, Dhaka-11 has nearly 8,50,000 voters while the number of voters in Dhaka-1 are about 1,61,000, which defies the principle of equal representation for all voters. To remedy this, the constitution gives the EC responsibility to delimit constituencies. The "Delimitation of Constituencies Ordinance, 1976," requires the delimitation of constituencies after each population census, although no such step was taken after the completion of the 2001 census. Thus, we recommend that the reconstituted EC forthwith take up this constitutional responsibility.

Holding local body elections: Article 59 of the constitution requires elected local bodies at each administrative unit. The Appellate Division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision in 1992, directed the government to hold all local body elections in six months, which has, unfortunately, not been implemented during the last 15 years. Thus, in order to abide by both, the constitutional mandate and the Supreme Court directives, we recommend that the government give back the responsibility to hold Upazila elections to the EC, and actually hold the Upazila elections with the parliamentary elections. This will reduce election expenses and will also be attractive to political parties. However, it must be made sure that the local body elections are held on a non-party basis.

We, on behalf of Shujan, are of the opinion that if the above reforms are implemented, the EC will be strengthened and will gain operational independence, making possible free, fair and impartial elections. This will also make the coming elections meaningful by freeing them from the influence of money and muscle power, thus bringing qualitative changes in our leadership. We have already given a draft ordinance to the authorities incorporating these reforms.

We hope that the reconstituted EC will be bold and courageous enough to take advantage of the present opportunity and initiate the process of implementation of the reforms to protect and promote public interest, which must be its utmost priority. Missing this opportunity will be a tragedy of monumental proportions. #

Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar is Secretary, Shujan and country director of Hunger Project

Saturday, March 10, 2007

One Begum down. another cornered

The generals show who's boss
TWENTY-SIX years after the assassination of her husband, General Ziaur Rahman, a former president of Bangladesh, the political career of Khaleda Zia, prime minister until last October, has come to an end. Bangladesh's army, the moving force behind a state of emergency declared in January, is finally baring its teeth. As it promised from the outset, but at first failed to prove, its anti-corruption drive will spare no one. On March 8th it arrested Tarique Rahman, Mrs Zia's son. In recent weeks there were rumours that Mrs Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and one of the “two begums” who have dominated politics, had been trying to negotiate a graceful exit for herself and her two sons. The generals, it now seems, are not open for negotiation.

For good measure, it searched the house of the other begum, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, also a former prime minister and leader of the other big party, the Awami League. But no arrests were made. The military-backed government also published a list of 50 top businessmen and leaders from the two big parties who it wants to arrest. Perhaps most important, the administration has announced plans to create a National Security Council—in effect an admission by the army's top brass that it has become impossible to govern the country from behind the curtain any longer.
Mr Rahman, a senior BNP official, and long Mrs Zia's presumed successor, had in recent years become the symbol in the public mind of kleptocratic rule and the politics of violent retaliation. Most Bangladeshis preferred not to mention him by name, out of fear. Instead they dubbed him “Mr Ten Per Cent”—a reference to his alleged cut on almost any deal done by his mother's government. But the culture of fear is waning. The BNP, the party his mother inherited from his father, is desperately fighting for its survival.

Fear of a possible backlash by BNP loyalists is one reason behind the creation of a National Security Council. It suggests that the army feels that the fiction it has been maintaining—that it is merely helping a civilian administration hold elections—has become unsustainable. The council will include the chiefs of the three branches of the armed forces. To give the arrangement a more acceptable gloss, it will also bring in civilians, and will be led by the head of the interim government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank official.

The “advisers” who have made up Mr Ahmed's administration, which is now in effect defunct, have been hopelessly overstretched. Some have responsibility for no fewer than five ministries. The new council gives the army a formal mechanism for bossing the administration it installed in January. It replaced a supposedly neutral caretaker government that, under Bangladesh's fraught two-party system, normally takes over for three months at the end of a government's five-year term to oversee fair elections. This one had provoked violent protests from League supporters, who accused it of planning to rig the election due in January. The state of emergency meant the poll has been postponed indefinitely.

Dhaka is now in an excited state. The military-backed administration still enjoys widespread public support from a public disillusioned with the corruption and eternal feuding of the big parties. But hopes of a Bangladeshi “velvet revolution”, facilitated by the military, are beginning to fade as the realisation dawns that engineering the army's return to the barracks will be difficult. With most of the former political class now behind bars, the withdrawal of the army from politics and a lifting of the state of emergency would carry the risk of retribution. A total of about 30 former ministers, politicians, businessmen and civil servants are already in prison on charges of corruption. This week a court extended for a further month their detention without charge.

The current army chief, General Moeen U. Ahmed, is likely to be safe from retribution at least until his scheduled retirement in June 2008. The summer monsoon pushes the local elections—likely to be held before parliamentary elections as a test—to the final quarter of 2008 and national polls into early 2009. With the BNP decapitated, there is a political void. One candidate to fill it is Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel-prize-winning microcredit pioneer. But his attempt to build a new political force probably needs the army's backing, which Mr Yunus will want to avoid. Meanwhile, Western governments and donors are happy with emergency arrangements. Like many Bangladeshis, they say a period of 12-18 months would be acceptable. Both foreigners and Bangladeshis might have to learn a little more patience. #

Published from The Economist magazine, Mar 8th 2007

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Why we are not surprised?

WILLIAM B MILAM

IN leaving that world for the ‘dirty’ world of politics will Muhammed Yunus become just like all the other politicians, particularly like the normal Bangladeshi politicians who see self-aggrandisement as the only objective? Or is he a true patriot who is willing to risk his reputation to help the forces in his country that are trying to restore confidence and probity in government and put it on higher planes of political, economic, and social development?

Suddenly the two mortal enemies, the lady leaders of the two major political parties in Bangladesh, are agreeing with each other and saying the same thing. It sounds almost as if they have rehearsed it, though they would have had to be in the same room to have done so. Since that seems unlikely, could they have reached this meeting of the minds through Extra Sensory Perception (ESP)?

There is a large degree of irrationality and superstition in Bangladeshi politics, but an ability to learn by ESP is about the last thing Bangladeshis would believe about these political leaders. They weren’t much good at anything except political disruption for the 16 years that they traded off power. Had they been good at ESP, they certainly would have figured out that the electorate wanted good governance more than anything else. How could the leaders have missed that signal?

So why, all of a sudden, are Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), and Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League (AL), singing the same tune in the same key? It must be because, after a hiatus of 16 years, they both perceive that their interests are again identical. Both are calling for elections soon. Just fix the electoral mechanisms and get on with it, they say to the caretaker government, and to their publics. Could it be that they suspect that the longer an election is delayed, and the more time given to a new third party to develop a platform and make itself known, the weaker are their prospects in that election? Do their interests converge again on a single point: the need to forestall the growth and development of a new party that might take the centre of politics away from them?

They have agreed once before. In 1990, the two ladies and their parties agreed on a one-point agenda to bring down the autocrat ruler of the day, General Ershad. This agenda was for joint action against him and for an interim government to oversee elections once he had fallen. Implicit in the agreement was that they would not to be divided again, as Ershad had so skilfully divided them in the past. The two leaders had scarcely spoken to each other since Hasina returned to Bangladesh in 1981. Ershad, after he took power in 1982 in a military coup, found it easy to keep the opposition divided, because its two lady leaders themselves were so divided to begin with.

Had the two leaders cooperated closely, and remained united, Ershad could not have held on for so long. They learned that lesson in 1990 after many futile attempts, marred by disunity and discord, to bring him down. Now they appear to be together again; rumour has it that they are in touch through intermediaries and aiming to repeat the 1990 scenario. But this time they will be opposing themselves. After their record of the past 16 years, most Bangladeshis, except for the hardcore party faithful, think these two leaders are a large part of the problem, not the solution.

The eight years of sporadic, but often powerful and violent, attempts to bring Ershad down inflicted much damage on the Bangladesh economy and exacerbated the divisions in the society. The public universities were deeply politicised, perhaps beyond repair. Worse, the parliament was turned into an anti-democratic mechanism that both the government and the opposition used to undermine each other and gain the upper hand. It became accepted practice for the opposition to take to the streets at the slightest provocation (or for that matter, without any provocation). Hartals became a common, almost everyday occurrence. Bringing down the government was the be-all and end-all of politics.

These practices continued to be the modus operandi of politics after Ershad had fallen and free and fair elections chose the government of the day. It is interesting to note that all through the eight years of opposition to Ershad, the opposition parties could not agree on anything beyond that one-point agenda. Finding a common enemy did not help the BNP or the Awami League find any common ground other than their hatred of Ershad. Their mutual antipathy continued into the post-Ershad era and was the central theme of Bangladeshi politics and the reason why real democracy could not develop there.

Clearly the two major parties did not adapt to the changed circumstances that their victory over Ershad brought about. They could not conceive, it seemed, of democratic give and take, serious debate in Parliament, and compromise on political issues. Overcoming the political enemy by any means necessary and available remained the central focus; governance and policy implementation were lesser concerns. Both parties remain trapped in ideological struggles of the past and driven by memories of atrocities committed in the name of those struggles.

There is, thus, a vacuum at the centre of Bangladeshi politics which could be exploited by a party truly of the centre which promised to focus on governance. This is the spot that Muhammed Yunus appears to be aiming for with his new party. Whether the new caretaker government and its army backers favour this or not is unclear. They have done nothing to discourage it, as far as I can see. On the other hand, the announcement the other day by the chief of the caretaker government that it could not yet set an election date gives Yunus and his organisers more time to pull it all together.

The question arises among his friends and admirers as to whether Yunus will, by entering politics—especially the dog-eat-dog variety of politics practised until now in Bangladesh—tarnish badly an otherwise unblemished reputation. He is probably, at this point, South Asia’s most celebrated figure, a man who is justly famed for devoting himself to the elimination of poverty and for his creation of microcredit, now used worldwide in the fight against poverty.

In leaving that world for the ‘dirty’ world of politics will he become just like all the other politicians, particularly like the normal Bangladeshi politicians who see self-aggrandisement as the only objective? Or is he a true patriot who is willing to risk his reputation to help the forces in his country that are trying to restore confidence and probity in government and put it on higher planes of political, economic, and social development? Those who know him can only believe the latter.

The other question is whether, with the best of intentions, he is getting in over his head. Politics is a mean game anywhere, and nowhere meaner than Bangladesh — at least until now. The answer to that question depends on how well the caretaker government does its job in cleaning up the political culture so that reformers like Yunus will have a chance to make a difference. #

William Milam is a former US ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. He is currently at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC

The article first published in Daily Times, Lahore, Pakistan
Link: http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2007\03\07\story_7-3-2007_pg3_2

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Canada won’t deport Mujib’s fugitive assassin Noor Chowdhury

SALEEM SAMAD

Toronto, 6 March: Bangladeshi fugitive convicted of killing his country's Prime Minister Shiekh Mujibur Rahman in a bloody coup won't be deported from Canada because he faces a death sentence in his homeland, an immigration board has ruled.

Lt. Colonel SHMB Noor Chowdhury, 57, sought a political asylum to stay in Canada in 1997 but was deemed inadmissible due to convictions in absentia for murder and conspiracy to commit murder, according to an Canada Immigration and Refugee Board.

On 5 March Toronto Sun newspaper, journalist Tom Godfrey writes that the Canadian authority concluded that the fugitive killer won't be deported.

The former lieutenant-colonel in the Bangladeshi military and 18 others were convicted of taking part in an August 1975 coup in which Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 15 members of his family were murdered.

The Board said in a secret ruling made available last week noted that the Noor Chowdhury “participated in a coup ... walking into the victim's home and killing him."
The board noted he faces certain death if he's deported to Bangladesh. "Removal to Bangladesh was not foreseeable as long as the death sentence remained in effect," the board said.

Soon after in 1999, a court sentenced 15 former army officers to death for their roles in the massacre, a man-hunt for fugitives was launched. Bangladesh immediately requested Canada government to deport three wanted fugitives living in Canada. However, Canada and Bangladesh do not have extradition treaty to repatriate criminals.

Chowdhury and two others Captain (relieved) Kismat Hasem and Captain (relieved) Nazmul Hossain Ansari allegedly involved in the coup fled to Canada after years on the run. The two have since obtained citizenship - one lives in Ottawa, the other in Montreal. Whereabouts of Noor in Canada is not known.

Last Sunday outgoing Bangladesh High Commissioner to Canada Rafiq Ahmed Khan speaking at a gathering of expat Bangladeshi community leaders and journalists denied issuance of passport to Noor Chowdhury.

He also said the passport possessed by Noor was forged. About the date and signature of the official contained in the said passport, he reiterated the earlier statement of Foreign Ministry and said no official in that name was employed at the mission at that time. #

Friday, March 02, 2007

Arrange polls, before gets tangled in controversy

RIPAN KUMAR BISWAS

Most of the editorial of the national news media in Bangladesh reflected the present interim government’s intention to hold the 9th general election. All of them quoted recent speech of the Chief Adviser of the government in where Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed once again declined to fix any specific time frame for the next parliament election in Bangladesh.

In an exchange of opinion meeting at Chittagong with various professionals and the city elite on February 27, 2007, the former high profile banker informed everyone that the government is determined to hold election as soon as possible after necessary reforms.

Headed by a widely respected former central bank governor, the new interim government has declined to fix a date for the postponed election. Instead, it has introduced an ambitious package of political and other reforms that call into question just how long it intends to stay in power.

Bangladeshis seem prepared to give the military-backed government a chance. Even the mass arrests do not faze them; many privately voice support for the roundup of perceived troublemakers. Foreign governments, international organizations and even political parties in Bangladesh are now arguing with mild voice against the detentions of high profiled politicians, bureaucrats, business tycoons or even law enforcement officers.

Almost everyone liked the way of work of the present interim government and their war against three Ms-money, muscle and misuse of power. People became happy to see the reform of the Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Public Service Commission which are relatively responsible to hold a free and fair election. The presumed mandate of the interim government is to create an atmosphere to conduct contested and credible elections and prepare a level playing field for all political parties in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, the noted banker Ahmed informed that the reconstructed EC will be the central point of all activities relating to the elections and the government will cooperate.

In addition, the newly appointed chief election commissioner and the election commissioners have undertaken the task of strengthening the Election Commission while the Anti-Corruption Commission and other government institutions including law enforcement agencies are working actively to ensure honest and competent persons' participation in election, which will yield good results in flourishing democracy.

He assured everyone by saying that the government has been working relentlessly to create a level playing field for holding free, fair and neutral elections.

The welcome return to stability, however, has somewhat obscured the basic question of when, or whether, election will be held and democratic rule will be restored in a nation that has experienced more than its share of military meddling. But the interim government didn’t mention any time frame, even tentative.

After autocrat regime of General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, Bangladesh smelled the fragrance of democracy in 1991. As recent experiments in democratization around the world show signs of achieving success, or failure, or more usually something in between, the country’s democracy promotion actors need more awareness to continue its democratic journey.

People mightn’t feel bad to see the intention of Bangladesh military to step in to end the political turmoil. So far, the army's intervention has been fairly low-key and behind the scenes and no tanks rolled in to the street. There are few soldiers on the streets and the maximum of the new government’s members are civilians. Although no senior military figure has put himself forward as the saviour of the country, the people of Bangladesh would have loss their patience to see the chief of army as a political speaker.

During the operation of emergency (that runs for 120 days under Article 141A), certain fundamental rights such as, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of speech and even press are restricted in certain areas. In this scenario, it will be difficult for the political parties to hold rallies and meetings.

However, the declaration of emergency in Bangladesh is also likely to provide some time to EC to update the voter list, a most wanted demand by everyone.

The incumbent Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the opposition Awami League, bitter rivals that rarely agree, have called for an election within three to four months. The Awami League on Wednesday, February 28, 2007 formally requested the Election Commission to set a date, preferably by June, if possible, to hold the ninth parliamentary polls while BNP and its allies will do the same request within a short time after some internal reform in the party. Both the party and their allies are hoping recent polls and they don’t want to be kept in suspense.

Nonetheless, the present interim government has a full support of general people of Bangladesh; timely election is also a popular desire. Election in Bangladesh should be held as soon as possible before even this caretaker government gets tangled in controversy. #

Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York
Ripan.Biswas@yahoo.com