Thursday, January 24, 2008

Broken Bangladesh

Photo: Chief Advisor Fakruddin Ahmed, of military backed interim government

Pop quiz: Name a majority-Muslim Asian country, ruled by a military-backed government that has promised to hold national elections this year. Its leaders' success or failure could create an important anchor of stability in the region -- or chaos, and a home for terror groups. No, we're not talking about Pakistan.

Today marks a year of military rule for Bangladesh. The head of government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, pledged last January "to hand over power to an elected government within the shortest possible time after holding free, fair and impartial polls acceptable to all." His government's roadmap, struck in July, promises to do so by December.

There are signs the government means what it says. In recent months, a new election commission has been appointed and bureaucrats are working to clean the electoral roll by registering and photographing voters. A ban on political activity has been partially lifted, if only in the capital, Dhaka. Perhaps most important, the judiciary has been separated from the executive branch.

But there is more to do. The military government's treatment of the leaders of the two main political parties, former Prime Ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, hasn't engendered trust. Both women are being held on corruption charges. In addition, hundreds of businessmen, politicians and civilians are in military custody. The country is still under emergency rule.

Mr. Ahmed would prove his sincerity about restoring democracy by moving quickly to allow the courts to hold transparent, fair trials of those who stand accused -- or let them go. He'll also have to convince the military to drop nascent plans to entrench itself in government. Rising inflation and a series of natural disasters in the past year complicate the task.

Bangladesh, a nation of 144 million people, is one of the world's poorest countries. It is also home to a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement. The longer the government waits to restore democracy, the greater the threat. #

Editorial published in The Wall Street Journal, New York, January 11, 2008