Friday, June 20, 2008

Moeen's vision for order is contested by Bangladesh's political parties

Photograph for TIME by Helen Kudrich
General Command


TO REACH the office of General Moeen Uddin Ahmed in Dhaka's military cantonment, a foreign journalist must pass three security checkpoints and endure the searches of numerous stern soldiers. Broad-shouldered aides then lead you, with hushed solemnity and even a hint of fear, toward the chambers of their commander in chief. One would expect a grim, towering leader behind the headquarters' oak doors, but General Moeen is conspicuously diminutive and unassuming, hardly looking the part of the South Asian strongman he very well may be. Yet Moeen pulls few punches when speaking of his country's politics and its democracy's many failings. "No systems of government are bad in their own right," says Bangladesh's top-ranking military officer with a thin smile. "It's the human beings who make it so."

Little is known about the 55-year-old Moeen other than that he, more than anybody else in this nation of 150 million, is the man who holds the keys to its future. Over a year and a half ago, Moeen's army waded into a turbulent political crisis, postponed parliamentary elections and helped install a caretaker government of state-appointed bureaucrats known as "advisers," headed by a former World Bank executive, Fakhruddin Ahmed. Since then, Bangladesh has remained under emergency rule: civil liberties have taken a hit and thousands of suspected troublemakers picked up in midnight sweeps. Behind all this, it's commonly understood that Moeen and the military really run the show. The Harvard-trained general was made army chief just under three years ago and is coy about the extent of his power. In his first major interview with foreign media, he told TIME of the urgent need to clean up Bangladesh's cynical, venal and corrupt politics. Moeen looks back to what preceded Jan. 11, 2007, when the army intervened, and recalls chaos: "The situation was deteriorating very rapidly. The world saw people dying in Dhaka's streets. Was this the way forward?"

But the way forward looks as murky now as it did 18 months ago. Despite Moeen's insistence that elections will go ahead as planned by the end of this year, the optimism that first greeted his arrival on "1/11," as the epochal event is known there, is gone. Ever since achieving independence from Pakistan in 1971, impoverished, unfortunate Bangladesh has slumped down its path toward democracy. When not under the rule of autocratic generals — as it was twice in the past — it has been the province of two mammoth, bickering political parties, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Their legacy of craven politicking and brazen plundering buoyed the current army-backed regime into power. But few believe Moeen is truly democracy's savior when the military has so consistently impeded its growth in the past. "As Bangladeshis, it's like we're riding a tiger," says Gowher Rizvi, director of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance at Harvard University. "How do we get off?"

The Caged Begums
Two fixtures of the country's checkered politics remain at the center of things in Dhaka. Bangladesh's Parliament complex, designed by the noted American architect Louis Kahn, looms out of a verdant expanse in the heart of the capital, encircled by palm fronds and crisscrossed by waterways. What was meant to be the cradle of Bangladeshi democracy — described by Kahn as "a many-faceted precious stone, constructed in concrete and marble" — has over the past year been the prison ground for the government's most prominent political detainees: Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.

The two women, daughter and widow, respectively, of the founders of the AL and the BNP and still the parties' leaders, have dominated Bangladesh's political landscape for over a decade, swapping spells as Prime Minister. But they ended up behind bars, casualties of an anticorruption drive launched by the caretaker government post-1/11. "Before, it was a free-for-all," says Muzaffer Ahmed, a respected academic and the head of Bangladesh's chapter of Transparency International, which once ranked the country the most corrupt in the world. "Public funds were being extorted, embezzled, misused in all sorts of ways." Prominent figures in both parties have been charged for crimes ranging from tax fraud to murder; dozens of cases prosecuting politicians on graft are ongoing.

It's this history of political dysfunction and avarice that Moeen claims he wants to expunge. The caretaker government has prided itself on its efforts to rebuild Bangladesh's democratic institutions — from cleaning up a voter roll that had some 12 million fake names listed on it to laying the groundwork for more effective regulatory commissions. With such steps and the examples set by the government's anticorruption campaign, Moeen believes Bangladeshis can be weaned off their fraudulent politicians. "The people in the villages are very docile, they are kind-hearted," says the general. "You can be a criminal, but you just need to go and cry, and they will accept you."

The military takeover following 1/11 was widely accepted and applauded at first. In the run-up to parliamentary elections, Zia's incumbent government attempted to manipulate the democratic process. Mass protests from the AL plunged the country into chaos and nationwide hartals, or strikes, paralyzed the country. Such was the exasperation of members of civil society and the international community at the time that, according to an April report of the International Crisis Group, diplomats from a number of Western countries, including the U.S., secretly urged Moeen to intervene. Though Moeen insists he and his top brass are operating purely "in aid of civil power" until elections are finally held, few in Dhaka doubt that anybody but the generals are calling the shots behind the scenes in this interim government.

Camp Rules
In political terms, the military's biggest failure in the many months it has held sway over the country has been its inability to smash the power of the AL and BNP. Efforts to force Hasina and Zia into the type of exile imposed upon Pakistan's late former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, proved abortive. (Hasina, however, was released to much acclaim on parole on June 11 to seek medical treatment in the U.S.) Also unsuccessful have been attempts to lure away party stalwarts. Given the aura of their pedigreed leaders, the two parties still command a vast following among Bangladesh's population — a combined 80% by most estimates — and the length of the two begums' detention has drawn the ire of millions. As elsewhere in impoverished South Asia, populist dynasties hold strong. "Hasina had her shortcomings, but she is a legendary figure," says Abdur Razzaq, a prominent member of the Awami League. "Charisma is very important; it really means something."

As the caretaker government seeks to cleanse the country's politics, many in Dhaka worry about the ensuing assault on democratic rights. By some accounts, a total of 440,000 people have been rounded up under the emergency, with less than a quarter still detained. Journalists formally complained a month ago of a clampdown on press freedoms: some TV talk shows have been suspended, while more than a few editors are practicing self-censorship after receiving communiqués from military intelligence. "Everywhere you look there are watchmen outside your door," says Adilur Rahman Khan, member of Odhikar, an outspoken human-rights group. "Just open your mouth and you're liable to be jailed," says Khondkar Delwar Hussain, secretary general of the BNP. In recent raids across the country over the past few weeks, the government has arrested around 25,000 people, including many local party activists, on vague grounds of curbing criminal activity. An Amnesty International report released last month condemned the "severely restricted" state of human rights in Bangladesh, citing, among other cases, the torture of journalists by state security forces.

Growing frustrations with the military come as Bangladesh is reeling from a colossal crisis in food security. The price of rice has soared 60-80%, a rise that spells hunger for millions. "This is not even a question of choice for the poor," says the AL's Razzaq. It's a global problem, but Moeen knows all too well that in this case, as he says, "bread is as important as freedom." The caretaker government has frantically tried to address the crisis, draining waterlogged lands for cultivation and growing alternate crops like potatoes in between harvests. But little can be done to avert the fact that, over the past three years, rising inflation has led to an additional 8.5% of the country's households falling below the poverty line (nearly half are already there). Uncertainty over the caretaker government's future has also led to a dip in foreign investment compared to previous years, according to a recent study published by the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based think tank.

A Sense of Unease
The political parties have seized upon the government's diminishing credibility. "We're in grave economic peril," says Hussain of the BNP. "It's time for democratic unity." His party and the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party that has existed for decades in direct antagonism to the secular-left Awami League, took the unprecedented step of calling for even Hasina's release from prison. They bridle at the caretaker government's undemocratic attempts to reform democracy from the top down. "Just see the U.S.," says Jamaat's Ali Ahsan Mojaheed. "It took hundreds of years to establish fair democratic norms there. We also need time."

The sense of solidarity that these parties now share flies in the face of their past: since the restoration of electoral politics in the 1990s, Zia's BNP and Hasina's AL alternated divisive spells in power, terms that were marked by bitter partisanship, rampant corruption and little to no sense of national consensus. "We need to reduce the cost of electoral defeat. [Elections] used to be winner-take-all with the loser in the streets," says Foreign Adviser Iftekhar Chowdhury. To that end, the government has attempted to engage political parties in an ongoing series of dialogues focused on constitutional reform, pivotal in the advisers' estimation to strengthening democratic governance. But the main parties, including the BNP and Jamaat, have so far refused to join in the discussion — though with Hasina's recent release, the AL has warmed to government overtures.

Many Bangladeshis suspect that Moeen and the advisers are happy to press ahead with both local and national elections, crafting a government of "national unity" with handpicked candidates and without the backing of any of the major parties. If Hasina and Zia are convicted of crimes before December, they'll be disqualified from competing in the polls. This, reckons one Western diplomat, may finally break the parties and lead to a series of significant defections.

But another scenario is also possible: that the growing outrage among the political parties and their cadres may spill onto the streets in the form of mass people-power protests. "If they want to make trouble," says Moeen, "let them" — but that belies very real concerns on the part of the government of the threat of widespread dissent. Across the walls of Dhaka University's sprawling campus are murals of activists and revolutionaries breaking their chains and fighting the state. Military rule may be encoded in Bangladesh's DNA, but so too is resistance to it.

The government has made no promises about when it will lift the emergency. Shying away from democratic commitments, Moeen is far more eager to talk about building effective leadership in Bangladesh and educating its vast, illiterate masses — as he himself puts it — "so that they don't keep on cutting off their own feet." Such a tone is fitting for a man who styles himself the redeemer of his country. "You can judge the people of a nation by the type of leaders they select," he concludes. Most Bangladeshis are wondering when they'll really get that chance. #

With reporting by Haroon Habib, Dhaka

First published in TIME MAGAZINE, June 19, 2008