Thursday, January 31, 2008

Attacks against ethnic Buddhist minorities at Chittagong Hill-Tracts: Bangladesh Army’s involvement alleged

Report by KAMAL RAJAPAKSE

Comment: HRCBM has not independently verified the allegation however, the organization will enquire about the allegation immediately.

ACHR WEEKLY REVIEW

THE ARMY (the de facto government) is actively involved in the ongoing settlement policy. There is no protection under the law: the rule of law in Bangladesh is subverted to political interference, weak institutions and an indifference to human rights. And the history of grave violations of human rights and ongoing arrest and torture and extra-judicial execution of Jumma activists means any protest carries a high risk."On 25 January 2008, indigenous Jumma peoples are scheduled to hold a large religious gathering at Sarnath Arannyo Kuthir, a Buddhist temple at Karallyachari in Khagrachari Hill district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs). The Bangladeshi authorities have banned the meeting. It is unclear if the meeting will go ahead. As we upload this Weekly Review, the Deputy Commissioner of Khagrachari district is holding a meeting with the local Jumma elders of Karallyachari to decide the fate of the religious gathering while the Bangladesh army personnel have been seizing the bikes and other vehicles. But if the meeting takes place it is likely that the government will use violence to suppress it.

The government’s actions at the temple are a microcosm of an ongoing and long established State policy to establish a homogenous Bengali Muslim society; a policy that implies the destruction of the identity of the indigenous Jumma peoples through a process of illegal and often violent settlement of the Bengali Muslim settlers. With international community's attention focused on Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections the care-taker government is free to execute the ethnic cleansing policy in the CHTs without external interference. Background to the Sarnath Arannyo Kuthir: The banning of the religious gathering comes as part of a pattern of wider attacks on the religion of the indigenous communities. On 14 January 2008, the Bangladesh Police arrested Reverend Arya Jyoti Bhikkhu, Head Priest of Sarnath Arannyo Kuthir, after a settler, Abdul Majid, son of late Akad Zaman from Karallyachari cluster village, filed a First Information Report (No. 1 of dated 11/1/2008) under sections 143, 447, 379, 427, 506 and 109 of the Bangladesh Penal Code. The complainant accused about 500 indigenous peoples including Rev Aryo Joti Bhikkhu and Late(!) Tumbo Chakma of committing offences of illegal gathering, theft and destruction to private properties.

In reality, it appears that these indigenous Jummas were making temporary houses to accommodate the Buddhist monks and the devotees within the temple premise. On 21 January 2008, the Additional District Magistrate of Khagrachari Mr Manindra Kishor Majumder in a communication (je.pra.kha/je.em/tin-75/2008-63) ordered the Officer-in-Charge of Mahalachari Police Station area to issue show cause on the headmen and Karbaris (traditional village chiefs) of Karallyachari area as to why they had failed to notify the administration about the religious programme. He also ordered that the court examine the land documents of the temple and threatened legal action against the headmen and Karbaris if they failed to provide satisfactory documentation. On 21 January 2008, Bangladesh army personnel prevented local people from constructing a makeshift bridge over the river Chengi at Karallyachari - Paujjyachari area under Mahalchari Police Station.

The bridge was being prepared for the religious programme. Targeting of the Buddhist temples: The events at Sarnath Arannyo Kuthir are not isolated. Across the CHTs, Buddhist temples have been targeted for destruction by the authorities. Indigenous Buddhist Chakmas and Marmas usually live in and around their temples. Once temples are destroyed the area can be more easily cleared for illegal plain settlers.

In August 2007, illegal settlers and the Bangladesh army personnel tried to take over the lands of the Sadhana Tila Buddhist temple of Babuchara area under Dighinala upazila in Khagrachari district. As national and international protest grew, the de-facto ruler of the country General Moeen U Ahmed visited Dighinala on 28 August 2007 and assured locals that the temple will not be destroyed. On 12 September 2007, Khagrachari district authorities banned the “construction of new Mosque, Hindu temple and Buddhist temple” in Mahalchari sub-division without prior permission of the authorities. While the order does not specifically target any religious group, given the long history of well documented evidence of violations against the Jumma peoples the political reality is that the order is targeted at the indigenous peoples and their religion i.e. Buddhism. On 5 November 2007, Major Qamruzzaman, Commander of Babuchara zone, summoned Sneha Moy Chakma and Santosh Jibon Chakma to his camp and ordered them not to use loudspeakers to announce the Katin Chivor Danotsav, the Buddhist festival that follows the end of the rain retreat of Buddhist monks. On 31 December 2007, a group of army personnel led by Captain Sohel, Commander of Shuknachari Indra Singh Karbari Para camp of the Bangladesh Army, demolished Bhujulichuk Kuthir, a Buddhist meditation centre in Lakshmichari Upazila in Khagrachari district. Captain Shohel threatened witnesses on a prior attack that : “We will not tolerate any Buddha house here; we want only Allah's house”. On 17 January 2008, the Commanding Officer of Baghaihat zone in Rangamati district threatened Reverend Dwip Bongshaw Bhikkhu, the Head Priest of Bishwa Moitri Bouddha Vihar at Hazachara village in Baghaihat. The Commanding officer threatened to demolish the temple if the priest did not leave.

The motivation for taking land of the Sadhana Tila Buddhist temple and its surrounding areas is simple: further illegal settlement. Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) is in possession of a letter dated 19 November 2007 issued by Md. Sulut Zaman, Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs (MoCHTA). It orders the Deputy Commissioner of Khagrachari district to illegally settle 812 families into the lands of the indigenous Jummas at Babuchara area, Baghaichari mouza under Dighinala upazila (sub- district) in Khagrachari district. Land grabbing: There are many other recent incidents of forcible land grabbing. In December 2007, illegal plain settlers led by Md. Wahab from Burighat under Rangamati district forcibly grabbed 25 acres of land belonging to the indigenous Jumma people at Hatimara village under Burighat Mouza in Rangamati district. During March 2007-November 2007, a total of 399.22 acres of land belonging to 133 Jumma individuals and a primary school in 14 villages under four Unions of Mahalchari police station and Khagrachari Sadar police station under Kagrachari district have been illegally and forcibly grabbed by the illegal plain settlers with direct help from the army. At a press conference in Dhaka on 19 January 2008, representatives of the Committee for Protection of Land in Bandarban called upon the government to cancel the ongoing process of acquiring 9,560 acres of land for the purpose of expansion of Ruma Garrison. The government is presently at the final stage of acquiring 9,560 acres of land for the purpose of expansion of Ruma Garrison in three Mouzas of Galenga, Pantola and Sengum under Ruma Upazilla in Bandarban. Out of the total land to be acquired, 1,569.06 acres belong to the indigenous peoples and 4,000 acres belong to the Forest Department. The project will lead to displacement of 4,315 indigenous persons from 644 families. Way back in 1988, a joint study team of Bandarban District Administration and the Bangladesh Military stated that the project would be disastrous for the local indigenous peoples.

Background to the CHTs crisis: The root of the CHTs crisis lies in the policies of the government of Bangladesh which seek to establish homogenous Bengali muslim society. This implies the destruction of the identity of the indigenous Jumma peoples. 'Jumma' is the collective name for the eleven tribes of the CHTs. Over the last 50 years, hundreds of thousands of Bengali settlers have been moved onto Jumma land. Successive regimes in East Pakistan, and later Bangladesh have supported the influx of Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants into the 5,000 sq km Hill Tracts, which is sparsely populated in comparison to the rest of the country. The settlement has been carried out with varying degrees of violence, including in earlier periods massacre. Today, as a result of the aggressive settlement policy, the Chittagong Hill Tracts has a population of 900,000 which is evenly divided between Muslim homesteaders and the indigenous Jummas. On 2 December 1997, the government of Bangladesh and the Jummas signed a peace accord that brought an end to the long running insurgency. It committed the government to removing military camps from the region and to ending the illegal occupation of Jumma land by settlers and the army.

Since emergency rule was declared in Bangladesh in January 2007, arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings of Jummas have escalated. Jumma activists have been targeted by the Bangladesh military taking advantage of the emergency. Since the declaration of Emergency on 11 January 2007, at least 50 Jumma activists have been arrested, including 20 members of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity ( PCJSS) and 10 members of United People's Democratic Front (UPDF). False cases such as extortion, kidnapping, murder etc have been lodged against arrested jumma activists. During raids, the Bangladesh military plant arms and ammunitions and claim to have recovered the same from the houses of the indigenous activists to provide grounds for arrest. Most cases have been filed under Section 16(b) of the Emergency Power Rules of 2007 which denies release on bail to the accused during the enquiry, investigation and trial of the case. Prospects: The state has been carrying out illegal land grabbing in CHT since independence. There should be no doubt about the central government’s long term intentions in the CHT. The deliberate destruction of religious centres and intimidation of the priests is part of the political strategy to realize the aim. The Army (the de facto government) is actively involved in the ongoing settlement policy. There is no protection under the law: the rule of law in Bangladesh is subverted to political interference, weak institutions and an indifference to human rights. And the history of grave violations of human rights and ongoing arrest and torture and extra-judicial execution of Jumma activists means any protest carries a high risk. Jumma culture centres around the religion and the community derives a sense of protection from the religion. Attacking the religion is intended to dissipate Jumma communities. The attacks facilitate a climate of fear that undermines what remains of any organized peaceful resistance to the settlement policy. The international community: Despite the increasing rate of illegal settlement and blatant human rights violations, international concern is hard to discern. Even Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International omitted reference to the CHTs in their Annual reports 2007. In more ways than one, international community is responsible for the gradual extinction of indigenous Jumma peoples in Bangladesh. They had funded the programmes for implantation of plain settlers into the CHTs. While speaking about peace in the CHTs, they continue to remain mute witness as the government of Bangladesh continues to provide free rations only to the illegal plain settlers. The failure to condemn state sponsored racism has given a free hand to the authorities in Dhaka to take measures that will eventually destroy the identity of the indigenous Jumma peoples. #

This was revealed by Dhaka-based human rights group, the Hill Watch Human Rights Forum after conducting a fact-finding investigation in November 2007

Press conference held against land acquisition in Bandarban, CHTnews.com, News No. 01/2008, 19 January 2008

Posted by Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities (HRCBM), January 30, 2008

US Group Anti-sweatshop investigator arrested, held incommunicado in Bangladesh

Global Campaign Sparked as 178-member U.S. University Labor Rights Consortium Raises Alarm

The arrest by the Bangladeshi government of an investigator for a leading America labor rights watchdog group has sparked a global campaign to secure his release.

Mehedi Hasan, field investigator for the Washington D.C.-based Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), was arrested by government security forces on January 24th and has since been held in detention, incommunicado. The WRC is a Washington, D.C.-based labor rights monitoring organization working on behalf of 178 universities and colleges.

Human rights groups and labor rights advocates around the globe have joined the WRC in demanding Mr. Hasan's release. The US government and major apparel brands and retailers that produce clothing in the country have also weighed in with the Bangladeshi government.

Mr. Hasan's arrest appears to be part of a broader campaign of repression by the government against labor rights advocates in the wake of recent demonstrations by apparel workers in Dhaka, the capital city. An employee of the AFL-CIO's office in Dhaka was arrested a week earlier than Mr. Hasan and there are reportedly arrest warrants out for a number of Bangladeshi worker rights advocates.

Bangladesh is run by a military-backed "caretaker" government and the country's human rights practices have come under increasing criticism. The security forces are operating under "emergency rules" decreed by the government, which suspend basic civil liberties. Mr. Hasan's family's repeated requests to see him have been denied. The authorities apparently plan to subject him to a range of bogus criminal charges.

Said WRC Executive Director, Scott Nova, "There is no legitimate reason for Mehedi Hasan's arrest and we call upon the government of Bangladesh to effect his immediate and unconditional release. We are deeply concerned for his safety." Nova cited fears that Mr. Hasan may have been subjected to physical mistreatment while in custody.

Mr. Hasan's job is to monitor compliance with labor rights codes of conduct that the WRC's member universities apply to the production of clothing bearing their names and logos. The organization also does labor rights monitoring for the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. The kind of monitoring work done by Mr. Hasan is commonplace in Bangladesh and in other apparel exporting countries and plays an important role in ensuring that goods imported into the US are not made under sweatshop conditions.

Mr. Hasan's detention appears to be retaliation for his efforts, on the WRC's behalf, to protect the rights of workers in apparel factories in Dhaka that sell to US brands. Said Nova, "The government's actions are an attack on the independent labor rights monitoring that is essential to ensuring that the clothing worn by US consumers is made under decent working conditions."

Another WRC employee, Bent Gehrt, a Danish national, was in Dhaka with Mr. Hasan during the week of January 20. Mr. Gehrt was detained at Zia International Airport in Dhaka while attempting to board a flight to Bangkok. Mr. Gehrt was subjected to an aggressive interrogation, during which his interrogators made it clear that he and Mr. Hasan had been under surveillance by the security forces for several days. Mr. Gehrt was ultimately allowed to board his flight and leave the country.

In addition to arresting Mehedi Hasan, the government has seized a WRC computer containing records of confidential worker interviews. The WRC stated that it is concerned not only for the safety of Mr. Hasan, but of the workers who provided confidential testimony to the WRC in course of labor rights investigations.

"The government of Bangladesh should recognize that harassment of factory monitors, labor rights advocates, and workers who participate in labor rights inquiries will do serious damage to the country's international reputation," said Nova. "Brands and retailers that buy clothing overseas do not want their products associated with this kind of behavior. If the government of Bangladesh wants to drive away business and undermine the viability of the country's main export sector, this is a good way to do it." #

We condemn this illegal detention of Mehdi Hasan and ask the army backed Caretaker Government to release him immediately. Bangladesh can not afford any more incidents of human rights breaches that will draw international condemnation and alienation. We hope international community, human rights activists and bloggers will come forward to demand Mr. Hasan's immediate release

Posted by Deshi Blogger

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Bangladesh, India & Pakistan writers on 1971

Fault Lines: Stories of 1971
Ed. Niaz Zaman and Asif Farrukhi
2008
English
University Press Ltd.
Dhaka, Bangladesh

Finally the book is out! Fault Lines: Stories of 1971 edited by Niaz Zaman and Asif Farrukhi has been published by the University Press, Dhaka and is being distributed by Oxford University Press in Pakistan. Copies are already available in Karachi bookstores.

Fault Lines includes 37 stories from Bangladesh and Pakistan. It also includes stories written in/ from USA, Britain and India related to the events of 1971. This is probably the first time that stories from both sides of the divide are presented together and such a proposition is not without difficulties, as the introduction highlights. The stories from Pakistan include stories written in Urdu, English, Sindhi and Punjabi.

The writers whose work is selected include such prominent names as Intizar Husain, Masood Ashar, Asad Mohammed Khan, Hassan Manzar, Ibrahim Jalees, Masood Mufti, Amar Jaleel, Umme Umara, Saleem Akhtar, Tariq Rehman, and Ahmed Salim among others. The translators include Muhammad Salim ur Rahman, Durdana Soomro, Samina Rahman and Shah Mohammed Pirzada. The stories from Bangladesh include the work of Urdu writers Gholam Mohamed and Ahmed Saadi, voices often ignored or avoided. One of the most poignant stories for me is by Mohan Kalpana, the Sindhi writer, who was born in Karachi but migrated to India after 1947 and it is from this perspective of shifting boundaries that he ahs written his story.

Apart from the hard work and trekking down of stories, the introduction was particularly difficult and painful to write. After much debate (some of it rather heated) Niaz Zaman and I decided to write our separate versions. We understand that this book may rake up painful memories on both sides, but we hope that it does more than create controversies. We hope that there is debate and discussion leading to a better understanding of not simply the political events but the stories of the people who were affected by the events.

As you can imagine this has been a tough going but a very interesting one, which has made me “read” 1971 again and try to look at it with a fresh or different perspective. #

Fault Line: Stories of 1971 is available with Vedam

Ending the downward spiral in Bangladesh

IRENE KHAN

AS British Airways flight BA144 takes off from Zia International Airport in the darkness of the night, I look out of the window of the airplane and think of the metaphorical darkness from which the people of this country are seeking to escape.

For decades, Bangladesh has been caught in a downward spiral of corruption, insecurity, political violence and organized crime in which human rights and the rule of law have been the first casualties. Political leaders have shown more interest in abuse of power for personal gains than in poverty eradication. The powerful and the privileged have acted with impunity, with no fear of being called to account by weak and ineffective state institutions.

Repressive laws, including laws granting special or emergency powers, have been used and abused by successive governments. Police and other state officials have sided with the affluent and the influential, so that the most vulnerable--women, minorities, the poor and the marginalized--have been the least protected.

The declaration of the state of emergency and the installation of a Caretaker Government (CTG) in January 2007 were desperate measures to save the country from ever-increasing levels of insecurity and political violence, further bloodshed and mayhem, and set on track free and fair elections for a democratic government.

During the Amnesty International visit to Bangladesh, journalists constantly asked if the human rights situation in 2007 was better than that in 2006. They were disappointed when I refused to give a simple "yes" or "no" answer. And so, sitting on the plane, I turn on my laptop in the hope of penning a more satisfactory response than I have given so far.

Of course there has been an improvement in physical security and a dramatic decline in human rights violations related to political violence in 2007 as compared to previous years. Government figures also show a fall in the number of extra-judicial killings by RAB and other security forces from 195 in 2006 to 93 in 2007.

These developments are welcome but it would be wrong to endorse them as indicators of improvement in the human rights situation without probing more deeply into what is being done-- and what more needs to be done--to ensure that these positive trends will endure beyond the life of the CTG.

We need to analyse more carefully the quality of change being brought by the CTG to ensure that they are not merely cosmetic. And we need to ask-- indeed demand-- that the political parties will uphold human rights and the rule of law when they come to power so that what is being done now is not undone in the future.

In a country where the state machinery-- courts, police and military-- not only fails to deliver justice and security but is often the instrument of persecution, institutional reform is necessary to convert perpetrators into protectors. The CTG must be commended for taking some much-needed, long-awaited reform measures but it needs to undertake or at least set in motion some other measures to ensure that the reforms are truly effective.

Guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary requires not only separation from the executive but also other measures to ensure proper recruitment, appointment and security of tenure of judges without political interference. A new Police Ordinance will not end police brutality and inefficiency unless it includes clear provisions for independent scrutiny and greater accountability, for instance through the establishment of an independent police complaints mechanism.

The National Human Rights Commission must be given real teeth to investigate and take action against all organs of the state, including the Joint Forces and RAB. The CTG must appoint individuals to the National Human Rights Commission who are not only competent and qualified but command such a high degree respect and credibility that no future government will dare to sideline or undermine their work.

These institutional changes, if carried out properly, will make a real difference to the range of human rights violations, from police brutality to gender violence, that plague the lives of ordinary people.

There are two key factors that will determine the ultimate success or failure of the human rights reform agenda: first, the CTG's willingness to close its credibility gap on human rights, and second, the readiness of the main political parties to embrace the changes and commit themselves to upholding human rights and the rule of law.

How can the CTG's initiative to separate the judiciary from the executive be taken as a true commitment to creating an independent judiciary when there is widespread perception that the same government is manipulating the criminal justice system to deliver some pre-ordained outcomes in high profile political cases?

When I stressed the need for the government to be seen to be respecting due process, the Chief Advisor responded that this government is using existing laws and existing courts. Surely, that is not a satisfactory answer when it is well-known that these same laws and courts have been subject to substantial political interference in the past and so open to the same level of interference now. A government committed to the rule of law must show scrupulous regard for due process.

How can the government's commitment to freedom of information be taken seriously when overt and covert pressure is exerted on the media? The government was keen to point out to me that although the emergency rules impose far-reaching restrictions, they are not being enforced rigorously. So, why leave them hanging like Damocles' sword over the heads of media, creating uncertainty and encouraging self-censorship?

With such emergency regulations in existence, the chilling effect of a telephone call from a Directorate of General Forces Intelligence (DGFI) official to a TV station owner, or from the local RAB commander to a district correspondent should not be underestimated. Add to that a case like that of Jahangir Alam Akash, who claims to have been detained and tortured by RAB and charged in 2007 with extortion allegedly committed in 2004, days after he reported an incident implicating local RAB officials in an attempted extra-judicial killing.

Democratic institutions cannot develop in a climate of self-censorship. A period of transition and change must be informed by a diversity of views. That is why the government must immediately lift the restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association, including restrictions on the media.

How can people have confidence in the CTG?s drive to create a culture of transparency and accountability when the government has failed to be transparent and accountable about investigating reports of serious human rights violations by RAB and the Joint Forces? Torture allegations made by Rang Lai Mro, a prominent leader from the Chittagong Hill Tracts remain uninvestigated, as do the allegations by Jahangir Alam Akash, or the death of Dulal in Bhola reportedly at the hands of the Navy.

After much adverse publicity, the government set up a one-man judicial commission to investigate the death of Cholesh Richil, a Garo leader, allegedly tortured by a Joint Forces unit in March 2007, but has so far failed to publish the report or open any criminal prosecution. I welcome the statement by the Chief Advisor that the NHRC should have the power to investigate human rights complaints against military and security officials, including RAB, in the future. But justice delayed is justice denied.

The Richil case cannot wait. Only by publishing the report of the judicial commission and by following it up with criminal investigation and prosecution in an open court of law can this government show that it is determined to end the culture of impunity that has hamstrung the rule of law in this country.

The past year has been marked by a creeping expansion of the role of the armed forces in activities that should rightly be carried out by a civilian administration, from law enforcement to electoral registration and investigation of extortion cases. I was told by the Army Chief that this is because of the lack of capacity and competency in the civilian administration. Be that as it may, principles of transparency and accountability, which lie at the core of human rights, require that all activities by the armed forces should be circumscribed by law and put under civilian scrutiny and accountability.

If the CTG has the courage to confront and close these credibility gaps, then it will go a long way in creating public confidence in the human rights reforms agenda that no future government will be able to undo. Turning now to the political parties, I fully agreed with the Chief Advisor when he said to me during our meeting that institutional change is a long term process and its success depends not only on the CTG but on the commitment of future governments.

That is why Amnesty International?s recommendations on human rights reform are addressed not just to the CTG but also to political parties. That is why we asked all political parties represented in the previous parliament to meet with us, and the Awami League, one faction of the BNP (the other one led by Saifur Rahman did not return our call for a meeting) and Jamaat agreed to do so.

In these meetings, my colleagues emphasized our call for political parties to include a human rights agenda in their manifesto, and to support human rights reforms when they are in parliament. The test of the commitments which they declared to have for human rights will be in what they will say publically and will do in Parliament.

Regrettably, human rights have yet to enter the lexicon of political parties. They have little understanding about the relationship of human rights to democracy and good governance, and even less of their role as political leaders in upholding human rights and the rule of law. They are primarily preoccupied with protecting the human rights of their leaders who are feeling the brunt of the law.

They are yet to fully appreciate the irony that they themselves created and nurtured the laws, systems and practices of which they are now complaining. Now that they are at the receiving end of these repressive laws, policies and practices, let us hope that they will take more seriously Amnesty's oft-reiterated recommendations, including repeal of the Special Powers Act and the introduction of basic safeguards against torture and ill treatment of detainees.

Knowing the role that democratically elected governments played in the past in undermining the rule of law and human rights, civil society must be vigorous in demanding that political parties demonstrate a clear commitment to human rights. They must call on the political parties to set out their vision on human rights and to insert clear commitments in their electoral manifesto. In the run up to the elections, there is an opportunity to educate the political leaders on human rights as a means of good governance, and I believe the more astute and progressive leaders are ready to learn.

So, the right question is not whether the human rights situation today is better or worse than last year. It is whether one should be more hopeful or less that this country will turn a corner on human rights.

And there I am optimistic. The public today is more aware of human rights than ever before. Civil society is more determined than ever to hold their political leaders to account. The call for democracy is not simply for free and fair elections but for a new style of governance that is transparent, accountable and responsive to the needs, demands and rights of the people.

I leave Bangladesh with a sense of hope, not because of what the CTG has done, or what political parties promise to do, nor even what civil society is determined to do, but because of the growing realisation and determination of ordinary people to stand up for their rights.

The day labourers in my ancestral village in Sylhet, the women in the legal literacy projects in the village in Tangail, the fruit seller from whom I bought oranges on the street corner in Gulshan, the CNG driver who drove me to the market-- they spoke to me frankly and simply with no sophisticated understanding of law or politics. But in their voices I heard the uncompromising demand for justice, equality and a decent life and livelihood for all. No government, caretaker or democratic, no leader, elected or unelected, can afford to ignore that call.

The flight is about to land at Heathrow and I must turn off my laptop. But before I do that, I remember the words of the man guarding the door of the passenger terminal at Dhaka airport. As I entered the building with my luggage trolley, he recognised my face from TV and newspaper pages, and came running after me. "You have said what many of us want to say," he said. "We all want to see change in Bangladesh." Then, as I waved goodbye, he called out, "Apa, please do not forget us."

How can I ever forget people like him who give me hope that the struggle for human rights in Bangladesh will endure! #

Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International

Friday, January 25, 2008

Is it dissent to speak political rights in universities?

REHMAN SOBHAN

HOPEFULLY, by the time this article appears in print good sense will have prevailed and the teachers and students of Dhaka University will have been released from jail. I am writing this in anticipation that some lessons have been learnt and that such a pointless and regrettable episode will not repeat itself during the remaining tenure of the caretaker government (CTG).

Since most, if not all, members of the CTG have been students at Dhaka University they should know something about the climate of dissent, which characterises universities in general and Dhaka University in particular. Universities are a place where young and old think, argue and periodically disagree with the established order.

In the turbulent history of the subcontinent, political movements have been incubated in the universities, and the campus has been a source of resistance to established authority. From the Language Movement to the Liberation War Dhaka University has been at the vanguard of resistance to the suppression of democratic rights. Such movements have periodically invoked official repression (1952), regime inspired violence (1960s) and, eventually, the prelude to the genocide of 1971.

A politically conscious and articulate university campus is an integral feature of a strong civil society. Politics on the campus has, thus, been an essential instrument in the democratic struggle of South Asia, and particularly in Bengal. The university or college campus brings together a small but more politically conscious segment of the population in one place, which facilitates collective action.

This is advantageous for political activism, particularly where political parties command limited organisational reach, as tends to be the case in many Third World countries. I remember making this same, rather unoriginal observation, when I was invited in 1961 to give evidence before the Justice Hamoodur Rahman Commission on the university system in Pakistan. The good justice was particularly exercised by the salience of politics in Dhaka University, but surprisingly appeared to lack any understanding of the dynamics of politics in East Bengal.

The Commission's report inspired the government of East Pakistan to pass an order barring university teachers from participating in politics. This order was challenged in the East Pakistan High Court by Professor Abdur Razzaq, one of Dhaka University's must venerated teachers. His case was argued by Pakistan's most eminent jurist, A.K. Brohi, assisted by Dr. Kamal Hossain as his junior, before a Bench presided over by Justice Mahbub Murshed, which eventually upheld the right of university teachers to participate in politics. Teachers such as myself became a beneficiary of this judgement. Otherwise, we might have had to choose between our careers at Dhaka University and our right to exercise dissent.

It is unthinkable that teachers or students in Dhaka, or any other, university would not regularly express themselves on the political issue of the day. As a young teacher of Dhaka University, I was one of these who expressed himself through writings in the media or in various academic and public fora, on a variety of subjects of a political nature. My views were rarely to the taste of successive regimes in Pakistan.

My first paper on two economies, which has since earned me some notoriety, was presented when I was a 26 years old teacher at Dhaka University, at a seminar in Lahore in October 1961, convened by the Bureau of National Reconstruction. Pakistan was then experiencing its first exposure to Martial Law under Field Marshal Ayub Khan. My session was chaired by a judge of the West Pakistan High Court, who was appalled by my implied assault on the integrity of Pakistan, and by the concluding suggestion that if nothing was done to correct the deprivation of East Pakistan, two economies may end up as two nations. The justice enquired from a friend who had accompanied me to the meeting as to whether I was aware that Pakistan was under Martial Law and that my speech were potentially treasonable!

Those of us teachers at Dhaka University in the 1960's, who expressed themselves on public issues, were rarely conscious of the consequences of our writings and utterances. We were, thus, honoured by recognition in the intelligence files of the Home Department. But I was never invested with the privilege of being arrested, in spite of my rather well publicised writings and utterances against the policies of the government. Nor were any other university teachers arrested during the two tenures of Martial Law, and even during the notoriously oppressive regime of Governor Momen Khan in the 1960s.

Indeed, since the arrest of Professors Munier Chowdhury, Muzzafer Ahmed Chowdhury and others in the wake of the 1952 Language Movement, no university teacher, to the best of my knowledge, was arrested by the government of Pakistan; although NSF hoodlums, patronised by the Monem Khan regime and the Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University, severely assaulted Dr. Abu Mahmood, Chairman of the Department of Economics and Professor Shamsuzzoha was killed in a firing at Rajshahi University during the movement against the Ayub regime in 1969.

The most conspicuous attempt to arrest teachers and eventually murder them began with the genocide initiated by the Pakistani army in March 1971. After all my confrontations with successive regimes in Pakistan, from 1961 to 1971, the first time anyone came to arrest me was on the afternoon of March 27, 1971, when a squad of the Pakistan army, led by a Col. Saeeduddin, who had earlier arrested Bangabandhu from his home in Road No. 32 on the night of March 25, come to my Gulshan residence to take me away to the cantonment.

As evidence came in of the massacre at Dhaka University I had been advised by friends to leave my residence that morning, after the curfew had been lifted. Had the Pakistan army come for me 24 hours earlier they would have found me at home, along with every other teacher of Dhaka University. None of us, even at that late hour, thought we might be detained, let alone subjected to execution, which awaited Professors Guha Thakurta, G.C. Deb, Maniruzzaman and others, who were all staying at home in their campus flats, as the genocide unfolded around them. Some other teachers of Dhaka University, who stayed on at campus during 1971, were picked up by the Pakistan military or their local collaborators, and a number of these teachers never returned home alive.

I have provided this short bio-history to educate contemporary readers and policymakers to the fact that upto March 26, 1971, the ground rules of an autocratic and oppressive regime, twice operating under Martial Law, left university teachers immune from arrest. This awareness invested teachers with a false sense of security upto that fateful night in March 1971, which cost some of them their lives. 98% of teachers at Dhaka and other universities at that time and even today do not say anything, or say little to generate sleeplessness amongst our rulers.

The few who did speak out with varying degrees of provocativeness were never deemed to be a sufficient threat to the state to warrant their detention. The carrot rather then the stick was always seen by the Pakistan government as a more effective weapon to deal with teachers. This suggests that our Pakistani rulers had a greater sense of their own power to be unduly disturbed by the writings of academics. It may not have been very flattering to the sense of self-esteem of young firebrand teachers who spoke our mind, that we were never deemed worthy of arrest.

The ruling elite reckoned correctly that the real challenge to their power always originated from the political parties whose leaders and workers were periodically subjected to detention and other acts of oppression.

This tradition of dealing with university teachers as licensed critics, who could be denied the carrot but rarely exposed to the stick, was perpetuated in post-liberation Bangladesh under the militarised regimes of Ziaur Rhaman and H M Ershad, as well as the political regimes, so that few if any teachers were exposed to arrest throughout this period. This history of the treatment of teachers under various regimes does not imply that such regimes were paragons of liberalism, but reflects on their notions of threat perception.

It is argued that it was only when the regime really felt threatened, such as by a national uprising, where even teachers were seen as part of a wider political struggle as in 1971, that pro-active university teachers lost their sense of immunity from arrest. When a regime feels compelled to arrest teachers it, thus, reflects on their own sense of self-assurance and indicates the weakness rather than the strength of the regime.

Today, when teachers are being arrested, perhaps for the first time since 1952, is their rhetoric more incendiary than those of the teachers of the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s? Have our teachers graduated from talkers and scribblers into political organisers capable of instigating acts of violence by their students or anyone else?

With all due respect to their oratorical and literary skills, the evidence filed against the teachers currently in detention, suggests not. All that the teachers are accused of was speaking out against Emergency Rule. If it is a crime, which warranted arrest, to speak against Martial Law, or the incumbency of a particular regime, I would have spent quite a few years of my teaching career in the 1960s, in detention.

Certainly, in the 1960s students came to me for guidance on how they should argue their case politically against the undemocratic and militarised ruling junta's from West Pakistan. I offered such advise freely to the students. But neither did I suggest nor was I asked, how to organise violent dissent against the regime of the day for the simple reason that I lacked competence in this area, no matter how many books I had read by Chairman Mao and Che Guevara on the mechanics of armed struggle.

Again, I doubt if those teachers in detention today have offered or were requested by their students to offer, advise on making firebombs or the technology of stone throwing. In such circumstance, to criminalise university teachers for voicing dissent, whatever may be the prevailing laws, appears to be not only unwise but impolitic and could prove costly to the CTG in the days ahead.

There is much that is wrong with our universities today. Student politics has been largely held captive by leaders who function more as armed businessmen and janissaries for their favoured political party rather than as political activists serving a cause. The tradition of student leadership set by Abdur Razzaq, Sirajul Alam Khan, Rashed Khan Menon, Motia Chowdhury, Tofail Ahmed, Mujahidul Islam Selim and many others like them, which empowered the students of Dhaka University to play a vanguard role in democratic politics, may be much weaker today. But there are many students today who are also aware of the state affairs in the country, have strong views and emotions on various subjects and, when offered the opportunity or given a provocation, are likely to express themselves on such issues in a variety of ways, mostly but not always, peacefully.

In the same way, the partisanisation of the teaching community may have perpetuated their political divisions, compromised the professionalism of the recruitment and career advancement process of the teachers, and impacted adversely on the quality of public education. As part of this partisanisation of the campus, some university teachers may have identified themselves with one or another political party. But it would be wrong to believe that all teachers have politically affiliated themselves for career advancement.

Many have chosen political sides out of strongly felt political feelings, which reflect the ideological fault lines which today divide the Bangladesh polity. Most teachers, however, do not have clear political affiliations though many do have political views and will occasionally express them where the occasion demands. In such circumstances, it is best to recognise the campus as an arena where dissent will be registered by teachers and students. Some of this dissent may be motivated or instigated from outside the campus. But much dissent will be spontaneous, originating in genuine grievances, whether indigenous to campus affairs or inspired by outside events. This space for dissent within the campus should always be left open, lest such voices go underground and engage themselves in rather more sinister forms of resistance.

In spite of the best efforts of the CTG Bangladesh continues to face a variety of problems, such as rising prices, power shortages, even corruption, which will extend beyond the capacity and tenure of the CTG to resolve. The longer they stay in office the more political decisions will have to be taken by them. It will, therefore, be sensible for the CTG to recognise that in the days ahead, public dissatisfaction will be voiced on the persistence of such problems and the political implications of their actions. Some of this discontent will spill over into dissent on the campus. It will be a measure of the maturity of the CTG as to how it handles such dissent.

It is hoped that Emergency Powers will be lifted soon so that dissent may be openly expressed without invoking official wrath. However, even if Emergency Powers prevail, it should not be misused to suppress _expressions of dissent, in print or vocally, particularly if registered in-house or on-campus and is peacefully manifested.

Regimes, which engage in political actions cannot expect to be immune from criticism or to be held accountable for their acts of commission or omission. An effective system of governance needs to ensure that all governments, whether elected or unelected, permanent or interim, civilian or militarised, always remain exposed to such challenges otherwise a nation degenerates into mal-governance and eventually tyranny. #

First published in the Daily Star, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Professor Rehman Sobhan is Chairman, Centre for Policy Dialogue

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

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bangladesh Army attacks Buddhism to facilitate illegal settlement in the Chittagong Hill Tracts

Photo: Army camp at Shuvolong overlooks the picturesque Kaptai lake, which apparently does not look scenic


ON 25 January 2008, indigenous Jumma peoples are scheduled to hold a large religious gathering at Sarnath Arannyo Kuthir, a Buddhist temple at Karallyachari in Khagrachari Hill district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs). The Bangladeshi authorities have banned the meeting. It is unclear if the meeting will go ahead. As we upload this Weekly Review, the Deputy Commissioner of Khagrachari district is holding a meeting with the local Jumma elders of Karallyachari to decide the fate of the religious gathering while the Bangladesh army personnel have been seizing the bikes and other vehicles. But if the meeting takes place it is likely that the government will use violence to suppress it.

The government’s actions at the temple are a microcosm of an ongoing and long established State policy to establish a homogenous Bengali Muslim society; a policy that implies the destruction of the identity of the indigenous Jumma peoples through a process of illegal and often violent settlement of the Bengali Muslim settlers.

With international community's attention focused on Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections the care-taker government is free to execute the ethnic cleansing policy in the CHTs without external interference.

Background to the Sarnath Arannyo Kuthir:
The banning of the religious gathering comes as part of a pattern of wider attacks on the religion of the indigenous communities. On 14 January 2008, the Bangladesh Police arrested Reverend Arya Jyoti Bhikkhu, Head Priest of Sarnath Arannyo Kuthir, after a settler, Abdul Majid, son of late Akad Zaman from Karallyachari cluster village, filed a First Information Report (No. 1 of dated 11/1/2008) under sections 143, 447, 379, 427, 506 and 109 of the Bangladesh Penal Code. The complainant accused about 500 indigenous peoples including Rev Aryo Joti Bhikkhu and Late(!) Tumbo Chakma of committing offences of illegal gathering, theft and destruction to private properties. In reality, it appears that these indigenous Jummas were making temporary houses to accommodate the Buddhist monks and the devotees within the temple premise.

On 21 January 2008, the Additional District Magistrate of Khagrachari Mr Manindra Kishor Majumder in a communication (je.pra.kha/je.em/tin-75/2008-63) ordered the Officer-in-Charge of Mahalachari Police Station area to issue show cause on the headmen and Karbaris (traditional village chiefs) of Karallyachari area as to why they had failed to notify the administration about the religious programme. He also ordered that the court examine the land documents of the temple and threatened legal action against the headmen and Karbaris if they failed to provide satisfactory documentation.

On 21 January 2008, Bangladesh army personnel prevented local people from constructing a makeshift bridge over the river Chengi at Karallyachari - Paujjyachari area under Mahalchari Police Station. The bridge was being prepared for the religious programme.

Targeting of the Buddhist temples:
The events at Sarnath Arannyo Kuthir are not isolated. Across the CHTs, Buddhist temples have been targeted for destruction by the authorities. Indigenous Buddhist Chakmas and Marmas usually live in and around their temples. Once temples are destroyed the area can be more easily cleared for illegal plain settlers.

In August 2007, illegal settlers and the Bangladesh army personnel tried to take over the lands of the Sadhana Tila Buddhist temple of Babuchara area under Dighinala upazila in Khagrachari district. As national and international protest grew, the de-facto ruler of the country General Moeen U Ahmed visited Dighinala on 28 August 2007 and assured locals that the temple will not be destroyed.

On 12 September 2007, Khagrachari district authorities banned the “construction of new Mosque, Hindu temple and Buddhist temple” in Mahalchari sub-division without prior permission of the authorities. While the order does not specifically target any religious group, given the long history of well documented evidence of violations against the Jumma peoples the political reality is that the order is targeted at the indigenous peoples and their religion i.e. Buddhism.

On 5 November 2007, Major Qamruzzaman, Commander of Babuchara zone, summoned Sneha Moy Chakma and Santosh Jibon Chakma to his camp and ordered them not to use loudspeakers to announce the Katin Chivor Danotsav, the Buddhist festival that follows the end of the rain retreat of Buddhist monks.

On 31 December 2007, a group of army personnel led by Captain Sohel, Commander of Shuknachari Indra Singh Karbari Para camp of the Bangladesh Army, demolished Bhujulichuk Kuthir, a Buddhist meditation centre in Lakshmichari Upazila in Khagrachari district. Captain Shohel threatened witnesses on a prior attack that : “We will not tolerate any Buddha house here; we want only Allah's house”.

On 17 January 2008, the Commanding Officer of Baghaihat zone in Rangamati district threatened Reverend Dwip Bongshaw Bhikkhu, the Head Priest of Bishwa Moitri Bouddha Vihar at Hazachara village in Baghaihat. The Commanding officer threatened to demolish the temple if the priest did not leave.

The motivation for taking land of the Sadhana Tila Buddhist temple and its surrounding areas is simple: further illegal settlement. Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) is in possession of a letter dated 19 November 2007 issued by Md. Sulut Zaman, Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs (MoCHTA). It orders the Deputy Commissioner of Khagrachari district to illegally settle 812 families into the lands of the indigenous Jummas at Babuchara area, Baghaichari mouza under Dighinala upazila (sub- district) in Khagrachari district.

Land grabbing:
There are many other recent incidents of forcible land grabbing. In December 2007, illegal plain settlers led by Md. Wahab from Burighat under Rangamati district forcibly grabbed 25 acres of land belonging to the indigenous Jumma people at Hatimara village under Burighat Mouza in Rangamati district.

During March 2007-November 2007, a total of 399.22 acres of land belonging to 133 Jumma individuals and a primary school in 14 villages under four Unions of Mahalchari police station and Khagrachari Sadar police station under Kagrachari district have been illegally and forcibly grabbed by the illegal plain settlers with direct help from the army. [1]

At a press conference in Dhaka on 19 January 2008, representatives of the Committee for Protection of Land in Bandarban called upon the government to cancel the ongoing process of acquiring 9,560 acres of land for the purpose of expansion of Ruma Garrison. The government is presently at the final stage of acquiring 9,560 acres of land for the purpose of expansion of Ruma Garrison in three Mouzas of Galenga, Pantola and Sengum under Ruma Upazilla in Bandarban. Out of the total land to be acquired, 1,569.06 acres belong to the indigenous peoples and 4,000 acres belong to the Forest Department. The project will lead to displacement of 4,315 indigenous persons from 644 families. Way back in 1988, a joint study team of Bandarban District Administration and the Bangladesh Military stated that the project would be disastrous for the local indigenous peoples. [2]

Background to the CHTs crisis:
The root of the CHTs crisis lies in the policies of the government of Bangladesh which seek to establish homogenous Bengali muslim society. This implies the destruction of the identity of the indigenous Jumma peoples. 'Jumma' is the collective name for the eleven tribes of the CHTs.

Over the last 50 years, hundreds of thousands of Bengali settlers have been moved onto Jumma land. Successive regimes in East Pakistan, and later Bangladesh have supported the influx of Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants into the 5,000 sq km Hill Tracts, which is sparsely populated in comparison to the rest of the country. The settlement has been carried out with varying degrees of violence, including in earlier periods massacre.

Today, as a result of the aggressive settlement policy, the Chittagong Hill Tracts has a population of 900,000 which is evenly divided between Muslim homesteaders and the indigenous Jummas.

On 2 December 1997, the government of Bangladesh and the Jummas signed a peace accord that brought an end to the long running insurgency. It committed the government to removing military camps from the region and to ending the illegal occupation of Jumma land by settlers and the army.

Since emergency rule was declared in Bangladesh in January 2007, arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings of Jummas have escalated. Jumma activists have been targeted by the Bangladesh military taking advantage of the emergency. Since the declaration of Emergency on 11 January 2007, at least 50 Jumma activists have been arrested, including 20 members of Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity ( PCJSS) and 10 members of United People's Democratic Front (UPDF).

False cases such as extortion, kidnapping, murder etc have been lodged against arrested jumma activists. During raids, the Bangladesh military plant arms and ammunitions and claim to have recovered the same from the houses of the indigenous activists to provide grounds for arrest. Most cases have been filed under Section 16(b) of the Emergency Power Rules of 2007 which denies release on bail to the accused during the enquiry, investigation and trial of the case.

Prospects:
The state has been carrying out illegal land grabbing in CHT since independence. There should be no doubt about the central government’s long term intentions in the CHT. The deliberate destruction of religious centres and intimidation of the priests is part of the political strategy to realize the aim.

The Army (the de facto government) is actively involved in the ongoing settlement policy. There is no protection under the law: the rule of law in Bangladesh is subverted to political interference, weak institutions and an indifference to human rights. And the history of grave violations of human rights and ongoing arrest and torture and extra-judicial execution of Jumma activists means any protest carries a high risk.

Jumma culture centres around the religion and the community derives a sense of protection from the religion. Attacking the religion is intended to dissipate Jumma communities. The attacks facilitate a climate of fear that undermines what remains of any organized peaceful resistance to the settlement policy.

The international community:
Despite the increasing rate of illegal settlement and blatant human rights violations, international concern is hard to discern. Even Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International omitted reference to the CHTs in their Annual reports 2007.

In more ways than one, international community is responsible for the gradual extinction of indigenous Jumma peoples in Bangladesh. They had funded the programmes for implantation of plain settlers into the CHTs. While speaking about peace in the CHTs, they continue to remain mute witness as the government of Bangladesh continues to provide free rations only to the illegal plain settlers.

The failure to condemn state sponsored racism has given a free hand to the authorities in Dhaka to take measures that will eventually destroy the identity of the indigenous Jumma peoples. #

[1] This was revealed by Dhaka-based human rights group, the Hill Watch Human Rights Forum after conducting a fact-finding investigation in November 2007. [2] Press conference held against land acquisition in Bandarban, CHTnews.com, News No. 01/2008, 19 January 2008

First published by ACHR*, January 23, 2008

*Asian Centre for Human Rights based in New Delhi, India is dedicated to promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the Asian region

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What Pakistan thinks today, Bangladesh thinks tomorrow

Dhaka on the Path to Islamabad?

MANEEZA HOSSAIN


ONE year ago, on January 11, 2007, Bangladesh's troubled constitutional government was replaced by military rule. Since then, Bangladeshis have lived under a state of emergency: their constitutional rights have been suspended, civil liberties limited, and hundreds of thousands -- ranging from former prime ministers to ad hoc peddlers --arrested under the banner of "fighting corruption."

Instead of fulfilling a promise to establish better, truer democracy, the unelected, paraconstitutional government of Bangladesh can claim credit for two appalling developments: the politicization of the army, which has blurred the lines between the army and civilian administration, and the creeping delegitimization of democracy, which has occurred as various undemocratic actions -- arrests of perceived enemies, the exclusion of duly elected leaders from political life, the ban on "indoor politics," which forbids private political discussions -- are normalized under the army's rule.

All quiet on the Western front
In the West, and even among some in Bangladesh, there is denial rather than despair. Some reject the idea that a military coup took place, for the uniqueness of this particular event unlike Bangladesh's two previous military takeovers, is that the military hand is hidden in the velvet glove of a civilian, technocratic team.

Perhaps Western democrats are quiet about this coup because new global risks have prompted the international community to accept an unelected government in Bangladesh: the belief that Islamism must be contained at all costs is taken to justify support for this new order, even if it means the indefinite suspension of democracy.

It is hard not be reminded of Pakistan. Bangladesh, once known as East Pakistan, is afflicted by many of the same ills: Islamism is a rising threat; corruption has eroded the political system; democracy appears a luxury too dear for the present; and the military, as the foremost professional institution, is deemed the most trustworthy partner against the rise of Islamism.

One difference between the two is in the response of Western diplomats. When Pervez Musharraf declared the state of emergency in Pakistan in November 2007, other democratic governments expressed their disapproval. "The people of Pakistan deserve the opportunity to choose their leaders," declared John Negroponte when he flew over to Islamabad.

But a year has passed since the military assumed power in Bangladesh, and the silence of much of the world amounts to complicity in the destruction of Bangladesh's democratic potential. While the West remains silent, Bangladesh sinks deeper into crisis. The country's currency has lost a sizeable fraction of its value, leading businessmen are kept behind bars, the price of everyday commodities has shot up, and hunger is increasing alarmingly, putting further burden on the country’s poor.

The dangers ahead
If these trends continue, a Pakistan-like outcome is not unlikely. Years from now, a politicized military may still be holding the reins of power in Bangladesh, with the final say in social, economic, and political affairs. The political class may be shrunken and exhausted from losing its leaders to exile, trial, intimidation, or worse. Political corruption may be replaced by that of the military.

The other effect is likely to be a growing grassroots movement that appeals to urban as well as rural populations, that provides services parallel to the government's, and that--under the banner of an ever-radicalizing Islamism--offers an outlet for venting frustration with corrupt politicians and dire economic circumstances.

The current unelected government claims to pursue genuine democracy, respect for political pluralism, and avoidance of radical intolerance, but the course it is now following is not conducive to the fulfillment of these goals.

Still, Western governments seem inclined to continue their tacit support for the actions of the Bangladeshi Caretaker government--contingent on a timetable to elections. In turn, the Caretaker is adamant about excluding both former Prime Ministers ("the feuding ladies") from any future political role. What remains to be seen is whether the Bangladeshi electorate is willing to go along with this exclusionary stand.

Not the right cure
Instead of containing Islamism and paving the way for the blossoming of democracy, the current arrangement has delegitimized democracy in practice as well as in culture, and in doing so has helped to consolidate and strengthen Islamist movements.

A sensible approach for the current government of Bangladesh would be to adhere to its formal task of preparing for elections using technical, not political, criteria. It should also immediately stop attempting to force reforms within political parties; this is a task that should be left for the electorate.

Democrats worldwide, notably in India, Europe, and the United States, should unequivocally demand that the state of emergency be lifted at once in preparation for the restoration of democracy.

The Bangladeshi experimentation with democracy was riddled with problems. But that is the nature of democracy. A democracy's problems have to be resolved within the context of democracy, not within the context of military rule. #

First published in ProgressiveBangladesh.org, January 14, 2008

Maneeza Hossain is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and author of Broken Pendulum: Bangladesh's Swing to Radicalism (Hudson Institute Press, 2007)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Bangladesh 2007: Destruction without Creation

ABEER MUSTAFA

IN a bizarre and tragic way, the semi-destroyed Rangs Building in the heart of Dhaka represents accurately the accomplishments of Bangladesh’s military-led caretaker government. The characteristic that stood out most the last one year can be termed generally as “destruction.”
Reader, before you react instinctively, or before you feel like interjecting with, “well, you have to look at both sides, consider the pros and cons,” et cetera – bear with me. This is a strong criticism to make as the government celebrates its first anniversary; but I also believe that it is a reasonable argument to make. I will elaborate in three areas.

The Constitution
Unless you’re interpreting law as abstract art, the government is operating beyond its mandate specified by the Constitution. It is being run formally by ten advisors and the Chief Advisor and by authority of the President – and that’s about everything that’s constitutional about the government.

The Parliament has not been in session for over ninety days, and the government has not held elections in ninety days, which, according to Article 123(3), is the constitutional reason by which it can exist. Now, it can be considered that in view of the political crisis of pre-1/11, political parties and the people have granted permission for this government to continue. But from where did that assumption come? Was there a public poll, a referendum? If you recall, this argument came from the caretaker government itself, which publicized that corruption would need to be tackled before free and fair elections could be held. But can such permission be extended from ninety days to two years? The only way it could be done is by destroying the meaning of the Constitution as a set of principles by which the nation should be governed.

The destruction of the Constitution by the quasi-military government has allowed it to consider the formation of things like a ‘national government’ of eminent like-minded citizens or a constitutional council to revise the Constitution itself to its liking. It has allowed the government to plan the holding of local elections first, which a caretaker government cannot do if it sticks to the Constitution. The government has not only tinkered with electoral rules, but sought the army’s advice and approval of such rules, a privilege not given constitutionally to the army.

Beyond the façade of the civilian government, key functions for the last year have been run by a set of committees led by military personnel, the most prominent of which is the powerful ‘National Coordination Committee’ against crimes and corruption. It has made, and continues to make, political changes, economic decisions, including large scale purchases using public funds (most recently planning for a $880 million subway in the capital city), and continues to pass laws (signed by the President) – none of which is mandated to a caretaker government under the “routine tasks” it is supposed to do constitutionally.

Can a caretaker government, or any government, contravene the Constitution so grossly? Article 7, titled “Supremacy of the Constitution” clearly forbids it, as you can read on the left.

The economy
Over the last year a record-breaking economic crisis has appeared, almost out of nowhere, and the military government is trying hard to suppress the dissemination of information about the crisis.

Inflation has been galloping ahead, putting food and other everyday items beyond the reach of the majority of the population. In July, 2007 inflation crossed over 10 percent for the first time in 13 years. By November 2007, inflation had crossed 11.2 percent – a 17-year record. The biggest increase was in the price of food, which by January 2008, was increasing by 13.8 percent, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.

The government has blamed all but itself and its policies for this. First it blamed political mismanagement of the previous governments, then it blamed importers and indenters, then unscrupulous traders and middlemen, and more recently, international markets. It has entrusted the BDR, a paramilitary, a key role in food importation and distribution, and extended it several rounds of interest-free loans. It put in the feared RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) to force price controls on traders and food-sellers. Basically it replaced a market economy with ill-conceived military tactics, as if we were fighting a war over food.

The government summarily imprisoned many businessmen without regard to the businesses and the hundreds of thousands employed by them. It asked banks to not transact with blacklisted businesses, without showing reason why they were blacklisted, thereby introducing a credit crisis in the country. Out of the blue, it began to close down jute mills, laying off thousands of workers in the middle of a food and price crisis, and over the last year effectively destroying the jute industry in Bangladesh while similar mills in neighbouring West Bengal continue to thrive.

Arbitrary military tactics do not attract investors. In the first fiscal year since the caretaker government took over, foreign investment proposals dropped precipitously, by 57 percent. What has increased is aid-dependence, with Western donors providing both a diplomatic and economic lifeline to the government. Net foreign aid into Bangladesh increased tenfold, from $23 million in 2006 to $239 million in 2007. What has stayed unchanged is Bangladesh’s low position in the various economic indices: Corruption Perceptions Index (Transparency International), Ease of Doing Business Index (International Finance Corporation), Index of Economic Freedom (Heritage Foundation).

Destruction of political leadership
A revealing recent report in The Daily Star, a mainstream English newspaper, found that the government’s crusade in business as well as in politics have been aimed at individuals. General corruption has remained unchanged.

Most in the country know, but won’t admit in public, that a good number of these individuals have been targeted essentially because various members of the current government at one point or another held grudges against them. The half-a-million arrested by the government essentially represent a political purge, a plan some call an exit strategy, and some, less generous, an election engineering strategy. Why is it election engineering? Because the government has passed laws to declare ineligible to run for public office those whom it convicts, in summary courts and under a suspension of their fundamental rights.

The Rangs syndrome
So here we are. After one year, we have a government that has proven to be adept at destroying legal institutions, political systems, and markets, but woefully incapable of creating anything beyond paper value. When you pass by the Rangs building, think of it as a telling symbol of the government’s tactics and accomplishments the last year: it targeted things that need to be destroyed, it did no analysis of consequences or alternatives, it unleashed its full force with no due process, and then left the job undone and much worse off than it was before. At Rangs, many have lost their jobs, and workers brought in by the government to destroy the building have lost their lives. But just how many have been killed as the building collapsed, that is, what the human costs of the government’s military tactics are – that we will not know, because of intimidation and suppression. #

First published in ProgressiveBangladesh.org on January 11, 2008

Abeer K. Mustafa grew up in Bangladesh and studied political economy in the United States. He now works as a consultant at an international organization and considering switching over to become a full-time writer

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Tajuddin is a role model for all Bangladeshi patriots

Shimin Hussain Rimi, daughter of the first Prime Minister of Bangladesh Tajuddin Ahmed, was in Canberra, Australia last Sunday as the key speaker at the ongoing series titled Itihash Kotha Koy (History Speaks).

The initiative was made out of concern over attempts to distort Bangladesh's history. After decades of such distortion, time has come to fearlessly speak the truth and reinstate pride at the core of our national psyche. It was also born out of a belief that a nation misled by lies, ruined by immorality and corruption will never be able to stand up as a sovereign, self-dependant and confident power.

Shimin Hussain's speech reminiscing the life and politics of Tajuddin Ahmed provided the perfect role model for a patriot who would inspire a new generation of leadership. She recalled how her father led a simple lifestyle and was willing to commit himself to the cause of liberation and Bangladesh at the cost of spending less time with his family.

Rimi said that Tajuddin's commitment was unwavering even in the face of conspiracies hatched by Khandakar Mushtaque and his cohorts. Reminding the audience that the same people killed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family, Rimi said it is imperative that the nation learns from history on how to identify friend and foe.

But, she lamented that Tajuddin's contribution has not been properly evaluated until now and the time has come to reveal the story of Tajuddin to inspire a new generation to fight the reactionary, communal and anti-liberation forces in Bangladesh. Rimi also quoted from her book "Itihasher Pata Theke", a compilation of Tajuddin's speeches.

It was a great opportunity for the local community to meet Rimi and hear her stories of how her father led the liberation movement to success. It was his unique quality as a great organizer and an inspirational leader which helped the leaders of the interim government in 1971 to lead the liberation forces in the absence of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Local community leaders, who spoke after Rimi, said that visionary leaders like Tajuddin need to come forward to lead the nation. Bangladeshis need to find intelligent and courageous individuals who need the people's encouragement and support to achieve the nation's demand.

The speakers urged listeners to not only focus on the corrupt in the country, but also recognize the honest and sincere leaders and activists in the country who can bring progress and prosperity.

They also said that it was the responsibility of the state and the public to research Tajuddin's life which would have helped enlighten generations of Bangladeshis to use his example for their political lives.

The speakers also appreciated Shimin Hussain Rimi's efforts to compile Tajuddin's life story in the form of his interviews, speeches, diaries and important highlights of his illustrious life. She also took the courageous step of revealing the details of the jail killings by meeting and interviewing numerous jail mates of Tajuddin and jail officials.

This work is crucial in understanding the loss of Tajuddin to the national life and how the country has lost its desired direction after the assassination of Bangabandhu and the jail killings.

The community leaders said story of Tajuddin needs to be narrated at this crucial juncture for Bangladesh as the current leadership is inadequate in providing the vision and leadership to reach the dreams of an independent Bangladesh.

Bangladesh needs courageous, dedicated, sincere and committed leaders like Tajuddin ahmed and speakers urge all social and political activist in Bangladesh and also non-resident Bangladeshi to uphold and follow Tajuddin Ahmed as role model in our patriotic work.

The discussion was moderated by Kamrul Ahsan Khan and was attended by a large presence from the local Bangladeshi community. Those participated in discussion programe were namely Mr Joinal Abedin, Dr Kamaluddin,Anamul Bhuiayan.Dr Nilufar Jahan. Sahadat Hussain Manik,Dr Mainuddin, Nahida Bhuiyan, Dr Ajoy Kar, Dr Parag Das and Mr Mostaque.

Special thanks was given to Mr. and Mrs. Parag Das for hosting the event. The discussion was followed by a screening of a documentary on the life of Tajuddin Ahmed titled "AN UNSUNG HERO" directed by award winning Tanvir Mokammel. Few copies of the DVD were also distributed among the community members courtesy of priyoaustralia.com.au hosted by Sahadat Manik

The first discussion on the series paid respect to the Father of the Nation and tried to reveal the historical background of his assassination. The second installment in the series sought to engage the new generation in the future of Bangladesh and discussed the assassination of the four national leaders by right-wing and anti-liberation forces, backed by 'foreign forces', in November 1975. #

Press Release

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Bangladesh's 'year of surprises'

MARK DUMMETT

It has been a year of surprises in Bangladesh.
When a state of emergency was declared on 11 January 2007, no-one could have imagined that peoples' basic rights would still be suspended 12 months later.

A caretaker government, made up mainly of retired officials, but backed heavily by the powerful military and important donor countries like the UK, is still in charge.

The former prime ministers and leaders of the two main parties, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina are in custody, charged with extorting money when they were in power.

Credible vote
The "battling Begums'" are being held in detention in the grounds of parliament in Dhaka.

The chamber itself has been silent all year - at least some things stay the same as it has been boycotted by successive oppositions for much of its existence.

The interim government cancelled elections due to be held in January last year, after several months of street protests.

The violent aftermath of recent elections in Kenya are a reminder of the direction Bangladesh was heading.

The caretaker government said it would take many months to organise a truly fair, peaceful and credible vote.

They have now promised to hold it before December 2008.

It has embarked on preparing an entirely new voter list, promising to re-register every one of the country's 90 million voters.

Reforms of the legal system, the police and political parties are underway.

Denouement
The beefed-up Anti-Corruption Commission meanwhile, has gone after the old political class.

It says that close to 80 former ministers, civil servants and businessmen are now in detention.

They include one of the most feared and loathed men in Bangladesh, Tarique Rahman, son of Khaleda Zia.

"We are now moving towards the second phase - moving towards the denouement of the caretaker government's regime," Foreign Minister Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury said in an interview with the BBC.

"We are moving slowly towards the holding of elections.

"The main goal of the government is to create those institutions which will create a society which is the most stable and peaceful, in a region which is one of turbulence."

Few would argue with that aim - however the government's plans for 2008 have raised some uncomfortable questions.

Meetings banned
Firstly - how can the parties campaign for elections with their leaders behind bars and the emergency powers still in place?

These allow the security services to hold anyone, without charge, for an indefinite period.

Political parties can only hold private meetings in their offices in Dhaka and public meetings are banned.

"The emergency will of course be lifted before the elections," Dr Chowdhury says, "but exactly at what point in it will be lifted is difficult to say at this point."

Then there is the role of the military. The army has ruled the country for about half its existence, so many Bangladeshis are deeply suspicious of its motives.

The fierce response of the security forces to rioting students in August reminded many people of past military dictatorships.

Officially the men in uniform are just "supporting" the civilian government.

But they are involved in many of the most important things it does, such as selling food to the poor, organising the voter registration and co-ordinating aid efforts after last November's cyclone.

Obsequious
An army man is head of the cricket board, a retired officer runs the Anti-Corruption Commission.

Photographs of the head of the army, General Moeen U Ahmed, appear most days in the newspapers. He is often pictured in civilian dress, discussing non-military matters, such as the state of the economy.

"A deliberate effort is discernable in the post-emergency period to maintain the pretence of a civilian administration," NM Harun, a contributing editor of the New Age newspaper, wrote this week.

"But in practice it is General Moeen who calls the shots and Dr Fakhruddin (Ahmed, the head of the caretaker government) has been obsequiously following the lead of the military and running a puppet show."

If anything interrupts Bangladesh's peaceful return to democracy in 2008, however, many people believe it is likely to be the spiralling price of food.

In the past two weeks the cost of a kilogramme of rice, the staple, has gone up by about one fifth.

The food ministry says its stocks are half full and running out. It blames the devastating impact on November's cyclone and floods last year, as well as record global food prices.

But businessmen also blame the government. Its anti-corruption drive, some say, has at times resembled a witch-hunt and so scared away legitimate investments.

Whatever the causes, the government's reputation for competence has dropped as the prices have risen. So far, the public has largely supported the caretaker government. That could easily change if the food crisis continues. #

Mark Dummett is with BBC News, based in Dhaka, Bangladesh

First published in BBC NEWS, January 10, 2008
© BBC MMVIII

Dhaka Dilemma, a year after military rule in Bangladesh

MANEEZA HOSSAIN

TODAY marks the first anniversary of the momentous events of January 11, 2007, when Bangladesh's constitutional government was replaced by military rule. For 365 days, Bangladeshis have lived under a state of emergency: their constitutional rights have been suspended, civil liberties limited, and hundreds of thousands--ranging from former prime ministers to ad hoc peddlers--arrested under the banner of "fighting corruption." One year after taking power, the military "caretaker" government's promises to implement a better, truer democracy have not been fulfilled.

To the contrary, the unelected, para constitutional government of Bangladesh can claim credit for two appalling developments: the politicization of the army, which has blurred the lines between the army and civilian administration and has introduced into the army the same corruption rampant in Bangladeshi politics; and the creeping delegitimization of democracy, which has occurred as various undemocratic actions--arrests of perceived enemies, the exclusion of duly elected leaders from political life, the ban on "indoor politics," which forbids private political discussions--are normalized under the army's rule.

Despair is setting in among many Bangladeshis. But in the West, and even among some in Bangladesh, there is denial rather than despair. Some reject the idea that a military coup took place. Bangladesh's two previous military takeovers both had a visible military face. The uniqueness of the new takeover is that the military hand is hidden in the velvet glove of a renowned technocratic team, led by Fakhruddin Ahmed, an internationally acclaimed, world-class economist.

But the refusal to recognize the coup as a coup goes deeper than that. Perhaps Western democrats never believed Bangladesh really capable of democracy, or perhaps they are willing to endorse a fictional democracy if doing so is in line with perceived international interests. Or perhaps new global risks have prompted the international community to accept an unelected government in Bangladesh: the belief that Islamism must be contained at all costs is taken to justify support for this new order, even if it means the indefinite suspension of democracy.

It is hard not be reminded of Pakistan. Bangladesh, once known as East Pakistan, is afflicted by many of the same ills: Islamism is a rising threat; corruption has eroded the political system; democracy appears a luxury too dear for the present; and the military, as the foremost professional institution, is the most trustworthy partner against the rise of Islamism. In both countries, moreover, reform will depend on the government bureaucracy and the expatriates.

One difference between the two, however, is in the response of Western diplomats. When Parvez Musharraf declared the state of emergency in Pakistan in November 2007, governments of democratic nations expressed their disapproval and dismay. "The people of Pakistan deserve the opportunity to choose their leaders," declared John Negroponte when he flew over to Islamabad. But a year has passed since the military assumed power in Bangladesh, and the silence of much of the world amounts to complicity in the destruction of Bangladesh's democratic potential. While the West remains silent, Bangladesh sinks deeper into crisis. The country's currency has lost 10 percent of its value, leading businessmen are kept behind bars, and the price of commodities such as edible oil and rice are being forcibly kept down by the army's experiment in state-controlled economics.

Husain Haqqani, a Pakistan expert and advisor to the late Benazir Bhutto, has referred to the "Pakistanization" of Bangladesh. A decade from now, we may see in Bangladesh a politicized military that holds the reins of power, controls the economy, and has the final say in social, economic, and political affairs. We can likewise expect a shrunken and weakened political class exhausted from losing its leaders to exile, trial, intimidation. The other effect is likely to be a growing grassroots movement that appeals to urban as well as rural populations, that provides services parallel to the government's, and that--under the banner of an ever-radicalizing Islamism--offers an outlet for venting frustration with corrupt politicians and dire economic circumstances. We may even witness Western powers arranging for the return of a former prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, in response to the military's failure to contain the Islamist threat.

The current unelected government claims to pursue genuine democracy, respect for political pluralism, and avoidance of radical intolerance, but the course it is now following is not conducive to the fulfillment of these goals.

Still, Western governments seem inclined to continue their tacit support for the actions of the Bangladeshi Caretaker government--contingent on a timetable to elections. In turn, the Caretaker is adamant about excluding both former Prime Ministers ("the feuding ladies") from any future political role. What remains to be seen is whether the Bangladeshi electorate is willing to go along with this exclusionary stand. From the military's point of view, this remains a sine quo non. Political change will be limited to tinkering with the current configuration of façade players.

Instead of containing Islamism and paving the way for the blossoming of democracy, the current arrangement has delegitimized democracy in practice as well as in culture, and in doing so has helped to consolidate and strengthen Islamist movements. A sensible approach for the current government of Bangladesh would be to adhere to its formal task of preparing for elections using technical, not political, criteria. It should also immediately stop attempting to force reforms within political parties; this is a task that should be left for the electorate. Democrats worldwide, notably in India, Europe, and the United States, should unequivocally demand that the state of emergency be lifted at once in preparation for the restoration of democracy.

Yes, the Bangladeshi experimentation with democracy was riddled with problems. But that is the nature of democracy. A democracy's problems have to be resolved within the context of democracy, not within the context of military rule. #

Maneeza Hossain is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and author of Broken Pendulum: Bangladesh's Swing to Radicalism (Hudson Institute Press, 2007)

© Copyright 2007, News Corporation, Weekly Standard, January 11, 2008