Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A food crisis further complicates the army's exit strategy

Photo: Bags to fill before they eat

A different sort of emergency

OUR POLITICIANS were corrupt, but we had enough money to buy food," says Shah Alam, a day labourer in Rangpur, one of Bangladesh's poorest districts, nostalgic for the days before the state of emergency imposed in January last year. He has been queuing all day for government-subsidised rice. Two floods and a devastating cyclone last year, combined with a sharp rise in global rice prices, have left some 60m of Bangladesh's poor, who spend about 40% of their skimpy income on rice, struggling to feed themselves.

In the capital, Dhaka, a debate is raging about whether this is a famine or "hidden hunger". The crisis is not of the army-backed interim government's own making. But it is struggling to convince people that the politicians it locked up as part of an anti-corruption drive would have been equally helpless. They include the feuding leaders of the two big political parties, the former prime ministers Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League.

The state of emergency, imposed to silence riotous politicians and repair corrupted institutions, can barely contain the growing discontent. This week thousands of garment workers went on strike for higher pay to cope with soaring food prices. The crisis has emboldened the political parties, which have been calling more loudly for the release of their leaders.

The army's main headache is Sheikh Hasina, whose party is widely expected to win the election. Her detention on corruption charges has made her more popular than ever. Senior leaders of the League say it will boycott the election if the courts convict her. The threat might be empty. But it is a risk the army cannot afford to take. The patience of Western governments, which backed the state of emergency, is wearing thin. Human-rights abuses continue unabated. And they fear the political vacuum might be filled by an Islamist fringe, whose members this week went on a rampage to protest against a draft law giving equal inheritance rights to men and women.

The election will almost certainly take place. And, unlike in the past, rigging it will be hard. Bangladesh has its first proper voters' list. Criminals will be banned from running. But to hold truly free and fair elections, the army will need to reach an accommodation with the parties. There is talk of a face-saving deal allowing Sheikh Hasina to go abroad for medical treatment, in return for a promise that the League will not boycott the election. Hardliners in the army will not like it. But they have largely been sidelined. With food prices likely to remain high and rice yields half those of India, Bangladesh desperately needs to secure food aid, investment and trade.

It also badly needs to sustain the rising flow of billions of dollars in remittances, which have lifted millions of Bangladeshis out of poverty. This complicates the government's stated plan of considering prosecution of those who assisted the Pakistani army in a campaign that left 3m Bengalis dead in the country's liberation war in 1971. Saudi Arabia, which accounts for 40% of total remittances, objects to an international war-crimes tribunal. If the two big political parties had their way, a large number of leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's largest Islamist party, would stand trial.

It appears unlikely that the army will walk off the pitch and let the politicians run the country without altering the rules of the game. The interim government has already approved, in principle, the creation of a National Security Council, which would institutionalise the army's role in politics. Last month the army chief, General Moeen U Ahmed, extended his term by one year in the "public interest". His term now runs out in June 2009. But many Bangladeshis still doubt that he will go down in history as that rare general who gave up power voluntarily. #

First published in
The Economist, London, Britain, April 17, 2008