Saturday, September 13, 2008

Suddenly, Bangladesh politics heading for uncharted water!

A.H. JAFFOR ULLAH

THE CAPRICIOUS politics of Bangladesh, which was in doldrums like a boat in a river without any wind to move it in the forward direction, got the much needed gusty wind now — but the direction of the move is unfortunately in the opposite direction. It seems as if the reverie nation with its huddled masses is heading for uncharted water! Thanks to the invisible power that is ensconced in the cantonment, which had been propelling the government run by a bunch of oligarchs for the last 20 months.

Many political observers both inside and outside the country are puzzled by this new direction. Gone are the tough words that used to emanate from General Moeen, the silent dictator who made the coup possible on January 11, 2007. Also, gone are the strongly worded messages from advisors that used to grace the pages of Bangladesh’s newspapers. What lies ahead for this godforsaken nation of 160 million impoverished is quite uncertain.

The outgoing government of Khaleda Zia tried to engineer an election coup by placing election officials all over the nation sympathetic to her party. She also tried to manipulate the selection of advisors of the caretaker government that would conduct the upcoming parliamentary election. This was going on in the aftermath of Khaleda Zia government’s expiry sometime in late October 2006.

President Iajuddin Ahmed, who was a Khaleda Zia’s stooge through and through, took marching order from Hawa Bhavan, the epicentre of Khaleda Zia’s party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). He took the onerous job of the chief advisor of the newly minted caretaker government violating the constitution of the land. That however did not ruffle feathers in him or in BNP leaderships. The opposition parties including the Awami League headed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed took to the streets in retaliation to Iajuddin’s move. Consequently, a state of anarchy was engendered.

While all these were going on, the military of Bangladesh who is the arbiter of politics in this impoverished nation, received a warning shot from the United Nation. The U.N. officials knew that an army coup might come anytime soon. To thwart this unwelcoming development, the U.N. officials told the army in no uncertain term that if an army coup is stage, Bangladesh army stand to lose any future lucrative contract from the U.N. as peacekeeping force. This overseas job brought a steady source of extra income for army officials and foot soldiers who participate in the peacekeeping force in disputed areas throughout the world. The Bangladesh military did not want to lose the contract; therefore, they engineered a silent coup to topple Iajuddin and the advisors from the caretaker government. The chose Fakhruddin Ahmed, an ex-employee of the World Bank, and a handful of ex-military officers and civilians to form the second consecutive caretaker govern for which there is no constitutional mandate. However, in Bangladesh, when the military talks everyone listens.

During the trying times of Bangladesh I penned an article a week after the silent military coup, which was published on January 19, 2007 eight days after the inauguration of the military-backed Fakhruddin Government, in which I clearly pointed out that the new caretaker government, had the tacit approval from the army. To my knowledge, mine was the first article to label the present government as the military-backed unconstitutional government. This extrajudicial government was legitimized because the civil society gave their approval through Center for Policy Development - a non-governmental organization headed by some powerful members of the civil society. This newly minted government also had the approval of Muhammad Yunus, the Grameen bank chief, whose popularity was cresting at the time due to the Nobel Peace Prize which he and his organization received sometime in late October 2006.

The caretaker government promised to make a level playing field for all political party by reconstituting the election commission, a demand waged by the opposition parties. They also promised to clean up the politics by arresting leaders who made theirs misbegotten wealth through bribe-taking, malfeasance, and influence peddling. The civil society gave their approval to this and the nation witnessed a mass arrest of politicians. The military-backed caretaker government also railroaded the Islamists to walk the gallows for killing two judges in Jhalakathi, a town in south Bangladesh. They did not allow the Islamists to talk to the press lest a can of warms comes out to implicate the military and BNP in the spate of bombings all over Bangladesh in August 2006 in which nearly 300-400 homemade bombs were blasted, synchronously. The August 21, 2004 bombing of Awami League’s meeting in Dhaka is an unsolved murder but many observers believe that it was a handiwork of a consortium composed of Islamists, BNP goons and persons from Kurmitola cantonment. It makes hell of a lot of sense as to why the Islamists were sent to gallows so quickly.

The military-backed government spoke mostly through Barrister Mainul Hosein and General Matin. Later, an ex-general Mashhud Chowdhury who got the portfolio of the chairman of a revamped anti-corruption department (ACC or DUDOK in Bangla) became the mouthpiece of the government. This anti-democratic and repressive government ruled Bangladesh tightfistedly for the last 20 months promising to reform many institutions and the politics but instead of solving the problems it has exacerbated the situation. The developmental projects mostly financed by WB and foreign governments came to a standstill. The productivity had slowed down and the economy hardly expanded with an anaemic rate of growth.

The military-backed government promised to wipe out corruption from the government and politics. But it miserably failed. The government arrested in excess of 250,000 ordinary people calling them political hooligans. These incarcerated people were languishing in jail without facing the court. The government also arrested a few notable industrialists and newspaper publishers but failed to prosecute them. In April 2007 the government took a new initiative to send the two leaders, Ms. Hasina and Ms. Zia, in exile but for whatever reasons failed to execute the plan. Then the government tried to break the major parties without much success. It also tried to float new political party one time through Grameen Chief, Muhammad Yunus, and another time through an obscure politician by the name Ferdous Qureshi. This mischievous plan did not bore any fruit, though.

During Khaleda Zia’s five years stint at the helm many of her party men including her two worthless sons have amassed billions of Taka (Bangladeshi currency) through bribery, extortions and whatnot. And we thought finally these vile groups of politicians will pay a price receiving stiff jail sentencing and they will be barred from entering politics rest of their lives. But how wrong was I.

On September 11, 2008 when the world was remembering the victims of 9-11, I read Dhaka’s newspapers to learn to my amazement that Khaleda Zia's corrupt son was released from the jail and he was sent to U.K. for treatment. Khaleda Zia who was the protagonist in Bangladesh's “tragic” political drama was also released from the jail. Sheikh Hasina is also out on furlough now visiting America for medical treatment. The general secretary of Awami League, Mr. Jalil, was also freed from the jail. To add insult to injury, hardly a week ago a few other corrupt BNP politicians were let loose from the confinement by the military-backed government.

All of these new developments, which hardly make any sense, are telling a telltale sign. Why the government did make its volte-face? Did they realize at long last that it will be an arduous job for them to reform the existing political parties?

This writer has always expressed a concern for the oligarchs who ruled Bangladesh rather unconstitutionally for the last 20 months. During that time, the Harvard “trained” army General gave enough hints that democracy as practiced in Bangladesh needs to be reformed. The General being the servant of the government overstepped his authority to pontificate his fellow countrymen.

I have the slightest clue now what prompted this government to give up their reform movement. Maybe, under pressure from Big Brothers abroad the military is finally willing to host the parliamentary election. This is also perplexing to know that all the champions of the reform movement - the CPD, Muhammad Yunus, and the rest of the Civil Society Movement is maintaining their reticence. Rather than maintaining their deafening silence this is the time they should open their mouth to protest the unleashing of corrupt politicians from jail. Why it took so long to take the corrupt politicians to court? Where are Barrister Mainul Hosein, General Matin, and General Mashhud Chowdhury at this critical juncture, now that the nation needs to hear their strongly-worded warnings? Should not they vociferously complain the government’s unwise decision to turn the clock backward? #

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA