Friday, June 13, 2008

Bangladesh ex-PM trip points to political shift

ANIS AHMED

IN A move that could ultimately help Bangladesh's army-backed government achieve credible elections, former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina left Dhaka on Thursday for foreign medical treatment.

Hasina's Awami League, one of the country's top political parties, has been at loggerheads with the self-defined "interim authorities" over her detention on graft charges, and reluctant to commit to participating in a parliamentary election set for December.

But that has changed now that Hasina has been allowed to fly to the United States for medical treatment on an 8-week parole.

Before leaving, she briefly met senior leaders of the Awami League at the airport.

"We assured her of the party's unity," Syed Ashraful Islam, general secretary of Awami League, told reporters. He said Hasina also asked them to prepare for the December election.

Political analysts said Hasina's freedom, temporary though it may be, had moved the Awami League and government towards a "win-win situation" that would push the political process forward.

"People would now hope the government might offer a similar olive branch to Hasina's rival Begum Khaleda Zia and release her from detention," said Professor Ataur Rahman Khan, president of the Bangladesh Political Science Association.

Khaleda heads another leading group, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), whose participation the government also needs to convince foreign governments the December poll is a legitimate one. Like Hasina, she faces graft charges.

"The government is trying to (say) that the judicial process and politics can continue side by side, and the parties may buy it in good faith," Ataur told Reuters on Thursday.

The country's leading English newspaper, the Daily Star, termed the government move on Hasina a "new beginning for a genuine transition to democracy."

"The standoffishness, perhaps even hostility, which in these last many months characterized relations between the government and the political parties has now led to a breather," it said.

Some other Bangladeshis saw signs of hope in the news.

"I am delighted that something is cooking up to suggest that the country may have political peace, at least in the short run," said Tabibur Rahman, a small businessman.

UNCERTAINTIES LOOM
However, despite the happiness in various quarters over the move on medical treatment for Hasina, who suffers from a variety of ailments, some say obstacles remain on the path to credible and peaceful elections in the impoverished nation of more than 140 million.

"It's too early to be optimistic," said Delwar Hossain, a veterinary doctor. "We have had a history of lost hopes, so (it's) better we be cautious."

Political analyst Ataur said: "despite an offer of goodwill, uncertainties loom large."

"What or how much the government can do for the fellow former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia will be a major decider."

Khaleda, also in detention since last September on charges of corruption, has rejected advice by a separate medical board to go abroad for treatment.

But she has asked the government to let her ailing sons, Tareque Rahman and Arafat Rahmanm, travel abroad for care.

Khaleda said during a court hearing on Thursday that the BNP might join talks with the government "if it could prove its neutrality of purpose and in dealing with political parties."

Hasina has said she expects to return immediately after her treatment to actively take part in politics in the run-up to the election. But there is concern among some analysts she will not be allowed back, and that if Khaleda left that would be her fate.

That might enable the military-backed interim government to re-shape Bangladesh's politics, dominated by the two women and their parties for some 15 years until the interim government took over early in 2007.

If the ex-prime ministers and their followers remain the major forces in Bangladesh politics, the corruption and political violence seen during their alternating terms -- which the interim authorities pledged to end -- could flare up again.

"We don't want the government to make a compromise over corruption in exchange for anything," said another businessman, Aminul Islam.

"Finish trial of all those detained, ensure they get justice ... and make clear to the nation that the law spared no one who indulged in wrongdoing." #

Anis Ahmed is bureau chief of Reuters, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Additional reporting by Serajul Islam Quadir; Editing by Jerry Norton

First published in The Washington Post, June 12, 2008