Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Restoring Democracy in Bangladesh

Photo: Military installed interim government chief adviser Fakruddin Ahmed wrapped around by elite bodyguards and flanked by military officers

International Crisis Group Asia Report


The caretaker government, along with the international community, must take credible steps to restore democracy to Bangladesh ahead of the December 2008 general elections. Although the caretaker government insists its plans to stamp out corruption and hold general elections by December are on track, its achievements have been patchy. There is an immediate need for dialogue between the government and the main parties. Ideally, a new consensus would not only cover how to hold elections but also develop commitments on post-election behaviour and democratic functioning. International actors should recognise that the priority is to maintain pressure for timely and credible elections.

Executive Summary and Recommendations


BANGLADESH IS under military rule again for the third time in as many decades. Although the caretaker government (CTG) insists its plans to stamp out corruption and hold general elections by December 2008 are on track, its achievements have been patchy, and relations with the major political parties are acrimonious. Efforts to sideline the two prime ministers of the post-1990 democratic period have faltered (though both are in jail), and the government has become bogged down in its attempts to clean up corruption and reshape democratic politics. Even if elections are held on schedule, there is no guarantee reforms will be sustainable. If they are delayed, the risk of confrontation between the parties and the army-backed government will grow. There is an urgent need for all sides to negotiate a peaceful and sustainable return to democracy.

The army’s intervention on 11 January 2007 was widely welcomed for preventing a slide into extensive violence. Activists of the opposition Awami League had stepped up street protests against efforts by the outgoing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led government to rig elections. Clashes had led to some 50 deaths by the end of 2006, and there was no compromise in sight. The CTG, headed by technocrats but controlled by the military, quickly ended street violence and raised hopes of political change, promising to tackle the corruption, nepotism and infighting that had crippled fifteen years of elected governments. It used wide-ranging emergency powers and argued that the exceptional situation, not envisaged by the constitution, legitimised its extended tenure and ambitious program. Its goals attracted support from key international backers.

Some progress is evident. The creation of a new electoral roll, with photographic voter identity cards, is underway; the government has begun to separate the judiciary from the executive; and it has reconstituted the Election and Public Service Commissions – essential preliminaries to more extensive reforms of the electoral system and the bureaucracy. Its anti-corruption drive has targeted powerful politicians and their protégés. Debilitating hartals (general strikes) that sapped business confidence and disrupted daily life have been banned.

However, despite some continued support from civil society and the international community, the government’s honeymoon is over. There is now fear the government is undermining the very democratic institutions it set out to rescue. In its first year in power, the government made some 440,000 arrests ostensibly linked to its anti-corruption drive, creating a climate of fear in the country. Its poor handling of the economy and natural disasters has aggravated underlying scepticism over its real intentions. The continued state of emergency and efforts to undermine popular politicians and split their parties have left many questioning its sincerity. Former Prime Ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina weathered clumsy attempts to force them into exile. They are both under detention facing corruption charges but still dominate their parties, and their popularity may get a boost if their prosecutions are seen as unfair.

The Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), the military intelligence agency and the engine of military government, has been careful to avoid being front and centre, but serving and retired officers have been placed in critical positions, from the Election Commission to the National Coordination Committee heading the anti-corruption drive. Senior officers assert that the army has no desire to get its hands dirty and would rather stay out of politics altogether. They remember the messy collapse of past military regimes and are concerned about their and their army’s international reputation and peacekeeping role. Still, there have been persistent signals that the army would like to institutionalise a degree of continuing influence after elections. In any event, it will have difficulty extricating itself from politics with its prestige intact, unless it can negotiate a graceful exit strategy with the parties.

There is an immediate need for dialogue between the government and the main parties. Any viable roadmap for elections and a smooth return to democracy has to be agreed by all major actors. The first step must be to address mistrust between the two sides, as well as the acrimonious relations between the Awami League and BNP. Ideally, a new consensus would not only cover how to hold elections but also develop commitments on post-election behaviour (including sustaining institutional reforms and anti-corruption measures) and democratic functioning (including safeguarding human rights and political pluralism).

Failure to negotiate would invite confrontation. Student unrest in August 2007 showed how quickly frustration with military rule can boil over. Two floods, a devastating cyclone and rising food prices have left many Bangladeshis hungry and the CTG struggling to assert that the politicians it imprisoned on corruption charges would be equally unable to handle the food crisis. If the government cannot bring the politicians along to help it cope with soaring food prices, the parties are likely to channel popular discontent into street protests. This would carry the immediate risk of violent clashes; it would also increase the advantage militant Islamists are already quietly taking from the situation.

International actors who have too placidly accepted the government’s rationale and supported its agenda should recognise that the priority is to maintain pressure for timely and credible elections. They should also be prepared to act as a possible guarantor to facilitate a delicate transfer of power and to support a longer-term program of sustainable reforms to put the country’s democracy back on track.

RECOMMENDATIONS
To the Caretaker Government (CTG) and the Military:
1. Lift the state of emergency, including complete cancellation of the Emergency Power Rules (EPR), at least two months ahead of any elections to create conditions conducive for free and fair contests.

2. Carry out the following steps ahead of elections:
(a) immediately rescind the emergency ban on all political party activity and freedom of association, as well as press restrictions, and repeal Section 16(2) of the EPR granting immunity from prosecution to the Joint Forces;
b) continue good faith efforts to adhere to the election roadmap for parliamentary elections by the end of 2008 at the latest, by setting a specific election date and keeping in mind Islamic holidays to ensure full participation;

(c) begin discussions immediately with the main political parties on core political issues not addressed in talks between those parties and the Election Commission;
(d) refrain from using coercive measures to induce and expedite political party reforms and allow sufficient time for party leaders to build support for internal reforms at all levels; and
(e) desist from anti-corruption arrests without warrants or sufficient evidence.

3. Disavow the “minus two” policy as part of the political reform process, and in regard to the trials of Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia:

(a) refrain from interfering and allow them to be held in open court;
(b) conduct them before the general election;
(c) ensure they are speedy and verdicts are delivered in time for the accused to stand for late 2008 parliamentary election if found innocent; and
(d) respect the High Court or High Court of Appeal’s verdicts.

4. Identify and encourage non-partisan national observers to monitor all elections outlined in the roadmap and invite international election observation missions to monitor elections, in consultation with the parties.

To the Parties:
5. Demonstrate a willingness to reciprocate goodwill gestures by the CTG (such as removal of the ban on party activity) by promoting internal party democracy, rejecting those convicted in corruption cases as candidates and forging consensus on an election code of conduct.

6. Promote internal party democracy by:
(a) holding regular elections for all leadership posts at all party levels;
(b) rewarding committed and effective party workers with greater opportunities to rise through the ranks, including running for office, gaining access to funds and other resources for their candidacies and winning promotions to important committees;
(c) selecting candidates to stand for elections who enjoy the confidence of their local party workers; and
(d) determining a quota, in consultation with the Election Commission, for ensuring women’s representation at all levels.

7. Do not boycott the elections, and if they are deemed free and fair by credible observers, accept the results.

To Both the CTG and the Parties:
8. Seek to ensure a smooth transition to democracy and a credible parliamentary election by December 2008 by entering into a dialogue, with a clearly defined agenda from the start, that aims broadly to:
(a) achieve a common minimum commitment on sustaining institutional reforms such as the independence of the judiciary, maintaining a non-partisan public service commission and refraining from political interference in police and army promotions and assignments;
(b) agree on how to ratify actions of the CTG, whether by approving ordinances (which might mean amending current ordinances to make them more acceptable), by a constitutional amendment or by other means;
(c) ensure a smooth transfer of power after elections, with safeguards against retaliatory prosecutions, demotions or transfers of CTG officials and military officers for administering routine ministerial, government and security functions and formulating and implementing institutional reforms such as the Anti-Corruption Commission, Public Service Commission, judicial and other reforms necessary for strengthening democratic functioning, but without foregoing the state’s responsibility under domestic and international law to investigate and prosecute civilian and military officials who have ordered, condoned or directly participated in human rights abuses to enforce the state of emergency;
(d) consider mechanisms for institutionalising pluralism and empowering opposition voices in parliament such as creating a bicameral legislature; repealing Article 70 of the constitution, which imposes rigid party discipline in the parliament; and ensuring meaningful bipartisan participation in parliamentary committees and working groups; and
(e) intensify efforts by the next government to: reduce space for radicalism, cooperate in dismantling terrorist groups and tackle any linkages between violent extremists and state institutions, political parties and politicians, and members of the business community, as well as between violent extremists and organised crime or other sources of domestic and international funding.

9. Include in any agreement a common reiteration of commitment to all fundamental rights, including concrete promises for action in areas such as extrajudicial killings, torture and illegal detention, and protection of minority rights, women’s rights and refugee rights.


10. Hold, upon conclusion of the talks, several roundtable discussions with a wide range of civil society organisations in the six division capitals so as to forge a broader national charter for post-election governance and respect for human rights.

To the International Community, especially Australia, Canada, the European Union, Germany, India, Japan, the UK, UN and U.S.:
11. Maintain pressure on the CTG to hold timely and credible elections, as well as technical support for the electoral process and unity in public and private messages to the main political actors.

12. Consider official visits to Bangladesh in the upcoming months at foreign minister or under-secretary-general level to remind the CTG that its legitimacy depends on meeting its elections target, and the army that its international reputation rests on assisting a smooth transfer of power and remaining outside of politics, and ensure that senior visitors also meet with leaders of the main political parties.

13. Encourage strongly an inclusive dialogue both between the CTG and parties and among the parties, stand ready to assist the resumption of talks if they breakdown and give public support to any agreement reached.

14. Support non-partisan national election monitoring mechanisms, prepare to send electoral observation missions and agree on benchmarks for credible elections, which likely should include:
(a) participation by all major parties;
(b) lifting of the state of emergency at least two months before the elections, including the end of all restrictions on fundamental rights;
(c) minimal pre-election violence; and
(d) minimal candidate and voter intimidation by either the CTG, the military or the parties.

15. Emphasise to the CTG its responsibility to uphold both domestic and international human rights standards, including investigating and holding to account past and present human rights abuses, particularly those committed by the security services, and be prepared to offer technical and financial assistance to Bangladesh’s human rights commission.

Dhaka/Brussels, 28 April 2008

For full report of the International Crisis Group on Bangladesh click: http://www.crisisgroup.org/library/documents/asia/south_asia/151_restoring_democracy_in_bangladesh.pdf

Friday, April 25, 2008

Fresh violence in CHT: Indigenous villages attacked

Photo: Young Jumma girl joins the protest against ethnic cleansing of Jummas in Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh in front of the United Nations, New York in April 2008

BENGALI SETTLERS allegedly supported by a strong Bangladeshi military contingent carried out arson attacks in the four villages of Jumma indigenous people under Sajek Union of Rangamati district. Nine indigenous people were wounded and over 100 houses including a Buddhist temple were burnt down in the attacks begun at 9.45 p.m. and lasted till 2 a.m. on 20 April, sources close to the indigenous people said. Indigenous women and girls were raped during the attacks, the sources added. Details of the incident are yet to come.

There has been a long-standing tension in the area between local indigenous people and new Bengali settlers over illegal land grabbing by the latter. The tension started some three years back with the construction of a road and other infrastructure by Bangladeshi military for settlement of about 5000 new Bengali settler families and control over the remote area rich with forest resources and thinly populated by indigenous people. Local indigenous people supported by indigenous political and human rights organizations protested the move and urged the then Government of Bangladesh to stop it. However, the process of settlement of Bengali settlers in the areas near to the villages continued and still continuing.

On 20 April while settlers were preparing for the attacks in a usual manner, some 60 indigenous people gathered at one point for defending their villages. Military cordoned them and assured them "peace" and "security" in the area. A military man Habildar Mohammad Harun is said to have told them thus: "Since we're here, settlers won't attack you". The Commanding Officer (C.O.) of Baghaihat military camp was also present there. Meanwhile, an organized group of settlers numbering about 100 equipped with spade, dao and heavy stick started setting fire in the Jumma villages namely Gangaram Mukh, Simana Chara, Purbo Para and Baibachara. They raised anti-Jumma slogans, beat up whosoever they found, looted the houses and raped women and girls during the attacks. Military did not prevent them, said the sources quoting local indigenous people.

Quoting police sources some Bangladeshi media (http://www.thedailystar.net/story.php?nid=33251) reported the incident as an attack by unidentified "miscreants" in which nine Bengali settlers were injured. The administration was left with no clue about the 'miscreants". No one responsible for the incident was arrested so far.

Khagrachhari Hill District Council Chairman Monindra Lal Tripura, Deputy Commissioner of Rangamati Md Nurul Amin, Rangamati Police Super Md Abdul Baten and other high level government officials visited the spot yesterday (21 April), said the Daily Star.

The administration deployed police and military to maintain what it called "communal harmony" in the area.

Soon after the incident the military-backed Caretaker Government has become very active in making public statements stating that the Land Commission will be made effective before the end the term of the Caretaker Government (see Raja Devasish Roy's talks to the bdnews24.com, Monday), all land disputes will be settled and detail discussion will be held on this issue etc. But no one knows when the term will be ended, whether or not this "detail discussion" will be translated into action and why the Government is suddenly feeling now, after 11 years of the "CHT Peace Accord", the need to settle land disputes. All these statements seem to be nothing but a deliberate attempt of the Government to divert the attention of the international community from the Sajek violence.

This is the fourth largest arson attack after the Mahalchari (26 August 2003), Dighinala (18 May 2001) and Ramgarh (25 June 2001) ones on indigenous villages by Bengali settlers since the signing of the 1997 "CHT Peace Accord". And it is believed to be part of the Bangladeshi ethnic cleansing policy in the CHT.

The "CHT Peace Accord" signed between the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS=United People's Party) and the then Government of Bangladesh seeks to resolve the decade-old problems of the indigenous people. However, the Government even after 11 years failed to implement the major provisions of the Accord like settlement of land disputes between indigenous people and Bengali settlers, demilitarization of the CHT region, and delegation of power to local government formed under the Accord. The implementation process of the Accord suffered a serious setback with the imposition of Emergency and de facto military rule in Bangladesh since the mid of this year. The Bangladeshi military regime in the CHT has crushed with force all institutions and mechanisms which were defending the "CHT Peace Accord" and the rights of the indigenous people. A many indigenous political and human rights activists have been put into jail. A representative (name not mentioned for security reason) of the indigenous people has been invited to participate in the United Nations Permanent Forum holding from 21 April to 2 May 2008 at the UN Headquarters in New York. However, he was not in a position to leave the country for the fear of being arrested and jailed on return to home. Some indigenous persons who worked closely with the Government of Bangladesh are reportedly attending the Forum.

Historical Background Of The Conflict:
East Pakistan emerged as an independent and sovereign nation-state named 'Bangladesh' in 1971. The Jumma indigenous peoples led by PCJSS have been fighting with the Bangladeshi authorities for recognition and protection of their distinct identity and culture and for self-determination since 1972. In response, the authorities have adopted a policy of demographic invasion or 'Islamization', the term as the local people prefer to use for it, under which hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi Muslim Bengalis are transferred to and settled in the land of the indigenous peoples with government funds and active involvement of state-actors, military in particular. It goes without saying that the policy is aimed at cleansing the indigenous peoples ethnically and culturally. It resulted in killing of over 10,000 Jummas in the 13 major genocides (Sources: Jumma Committee for International Campaign, 1999, http://www.angelfire.com/ab/jumma; PCJSS, An Account of Genocides and Atrocities committed by Bangladeshi Forces and Illegal Muslim Bengali Infiltrators in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, November 1986-19 January 1987, 1987, p. 1) and other forms of human rights violation as well as in an influx of about 70,000 Jumma refugees into the Indian State of Tripura in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It brought about a dramatic change in the demographic composition (of the total population of the CHT, Muslim Bengalis constituted 1.5% in 1941, 6.29% in 1951, 11.77% in 1961, 41% in 1981, 49% in 1991, and 65% in 2001) (Sources: Census reports, 1941, 1951, 1961, 1981, 2001. Indigenous sources believe that the figure shown in 1991 and afterwards is highly manipulated and politically motivated. Muslim Bengalis constituted more than 65% of the total population of the CHT in 2001, and the figure was increasing alarmingly everyday, the sources claim) and social fabric of the CHT. #

24 April 2008 Peace Campaign Group (PCG) RZ-I-91/211, West Sagarpur, New Delhi-110046, India Tel: + 91-11-2 539 8383 Telefax: + 91-11-2 539 4277
E-mail: pcgoffice@yahoo.co.in, pcgonline@gmail.com

Will there be any legacy of this government left to be emulated?

MOZAMMEL H. KHAN

SINCE HER arrest on July 16, 2007 Sheikh Hasina was constantly apprehensive about getting fair trials for all the legal suits that have been brought against her for all the wrong-doings she allegedly have committed a decade or so earlier. In front of the trial judges in the make-shift court houses she repeatedly declared her apprehensions that the verdicts have already been decided and the trail judges, in her words, have no other option but to hand down them regardless of the merits of the incriminations which are expected to be unfolded during the trial proceedings. The justifications of her assertions have been reinforced with the accusations of her counsels that a certain 'agency' has been intimidating them for working as counsels for the former PM. The public disclosure of intimidation was made by no other than Barrister Shafique Ahmed, a respected legal expert, a former President of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) and once again a contender for the Presidency. Barrister Shafique went as far as narrating his conversations with the one from the same agency who questioned him why he is running for the SCBA presidency while working as a counsel for Sheikh Hasina, as if it involves conflict of interest and the particular agency is a watch-dog body to oversee it. The reason for the absence of number reputed legal experts of the country in the counsel-list of Sheikh Hasina is now glaringly clear. If a lawyer of Barrister Shafique's stature could be intimidated by an 'agency', it would not be difficult to extrapolate the pressure that a lower court judge would be undergoing making the premonition of Sheikh Hasina a reality.

Since the installation of second CTG on January 11, 2007 under the leadership of Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, I wrote a number of pieces in DS singling out Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed as the chief asset to the government. In fact, in my judgment, I could not find any one better than Dr. Fakhruddin to lead the CTG, both in quality and objectivity. I was interviewed number of times by local TVs where I reassured the audience that there was no reason to cast aspersion on the integrity of the Fakhruddin Administration to hold a free, fair and credible election. My assertion was intensified by a number of speeches he delivered to his fellow citizens over the months, which are remarkable both in contents and style of delivery. In all of his speeches, the CA emphasized over and over again about establishing rule of law, human rights, good governance, transparency and accountability. He never forgot to reassert his hold on to the government, that he is in charge and the armed forces are only 'assisting' his government, albeit a redundant stipulation, since as an organ of the state, it is bound to 'assist' any constitutional government when ordered to do so. The only exception to his otherwise flawless speeches which he made in Manikganj, the day his government asked for the 'assistance' of around thousand members of the law enforcing agencies, some of them wearing bullet proof vest, who reportedly brought dog squad with them to arrest an unarmed near-60-year-old woman, a former PM, isolated in her home. Boasting at her arrest, the CA declared 'no one is above the law'. The DS editor Mahfuz Anam in his excellent commentary instantly retorted by asserting, "to say that nobody is above the law must also mean that law is not the handmaiden of anybody either."

Contrary to his words and the citizens' expectation, how much did he accomplish in terms of establishing rule of law and transparency and accountability of his government? As the chief executive of the government, he is evidently accountable for the deeds of any one 'assisting' his government to establish good governance, which certainly he as well all his fellow citizens expects any future government to emulate. On October 29, 2007 it was reported in a number of media that an invisible force assembled a number of BNP standing committee members in a house and forced them to form a committee which since then known as 'reformist' group of the party. A few of those members in a sworn affidavit submitted to the high court that they were, in fact, forced by an invisible force to sign on the papers agreeing to the formation of the committee. It has been reported in the media as well as alleged by leaders of pro-Khaleda BNP in the last few days that a few of their standing committee members have been detained (later released) and threatened to withdraw their support from the pro-Khaleda faction of the party. Does any citizen of the Republic want these activities to be emulated by the 'assistants' of any future government?

The way the election of the SCBA and the DUTA have been forced to postpone has no precedence during the tenure of any of our elected, military or quasi-military government. As if that was not enough, a few members of the so-called 'assisting' organ of the state went to the house of the election officer, a Professor of the University, at wee hours of night and threatened him to resign or postpone the election. Even the notorious thugs of any political government, indiscriminate bashing of its rule is a pastime for a few sycophants of the current government, had never dared to tread in that arena.

Only on the other day, an illustrious bureaucrat, one of a few civilian decorated hero of our great war of liberation, who became a house hold name in 1971, was rearrested after he was granted bail by the supreme court and released, on charges of making inflammatory speech at 'Panthapath' after his release. The fact of the matter, as disclosed by his lawyer, that he never went to Panthapath, let alone making a speech, which he was never accustomed to making, since he was a bureaucrat, not a politician. How the IG of police will explain the act of his officer when we hear him making repeated utterances that his forces are now working without any pressure from any quarter? Most of all, how a Princeton educated chief executive will account for this brazen lie when he is tirelessly preaching his determination to establish rule of law and good governance?

The objective behind the arrest of Sheikh Hasina and putting her hurriedly on trial, notwithstanding her multiple illnesses, is now very obvious at both home and abroad. The world renowned Weekly, 'The Economist', in its current issue (April 17, 2008) has rightfully echoed the reality when it said, "The army's main headache is Sheikh Hasina, whose party is widely expected to win the election. Her detention on corruption charges has made her more popular than ever."

I personally felt myself out of touch when I heard many of our compatriots clamouring the separation of judiciary from the executive branch. I only found my views resonating in the words of the octogenarian lawyer Barrister Rafiqul Huq. Before the separation of judiciary at least the high court division of the Supreme Court had the independence if the honourable judges had the desire to avail it. But after the separation of judiciary, as it appears, the independence of the high court division, let alone the lower judiciary, apparently has been striped off by the Appellate division. And today after the verdict by the Appellate division that the court (that includes High Court) cannot grant bail to any one arrested under EPR, in the words of Barrister Rafiqul Huq, "it is the last nail on the coffin of human rights." As President, Justice Shahbuddin Ahmed refused to sign a bill that forbade bail for the accused, passed by the parliament during the tenure of the last AL government.

In a seminar on August 12, 2007 the honourable Chief Justice while lecturing the judges declared, "judges couldn't be compelled to work independently by enacting laws. It has to be in their culture. If a judge is not committed to work freely, law cannot make him/her independent." Quite to the contrary, the nation has witnessed the curtailing of their freedom by staying or overturning most of the verdicts handed down by judges of the high court division by the Appellate division thereby concentrating the whole authority/independence of the judiciary into the apex body. #

Dr. Mozammel H. Khan is the Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Is Dialogue or Election Date Declaration Appropriate To Reduce Uncertainty?

Dr. ABDUL MOMEN

ONCE AGAIN the new game in Dhaka is ‘dialogue or sanglap’-- dialogue with political parties and other interest groups. Have we seen such before? Dialogues of Mannan Bhuiyan and Abdul Jalil of 2006 or past dialogues of CTG Advisors that resigned in 2006 are still fresh in our minds. Question is; will it reduce political and economic uncertainty that plagued the country since 1/11 and brought economic disasters, one after another—double-digit inflation, plummeting investment, increase of joblessness, decrease of business confidence, increase of load shedding and water flow disruption and the like. If the objective of the dialogue is to have a ‘managed election’ or ‘to buy time’ for a new adventure, in that case, such dialogues may end in futility. Is it the reason as to why the newly appointed U. S. Ambassador to Bangladesh warned the military not to take additional burden? Are these dialogues prelude to a new adventure?

It is reported that the military intelligence forces have finalized a list of ‘300 acceptable candidates’ in each parliamentary constituency for the ensuing election. The government will do its best to get them elected. Reportedly, this list is composed of politicians of all shades and opinions, former bureaucrats both civil and military, NGO and civil society leaders, journalists, educators and also businessmen. Necessary arrangements will be made so that none outside this ‘acceptable list’ could be elected. More importantly, if there is any chance of a candidate getting elected outside the list, in that case, all popular tools such as corruption, extortion or terrorism cases will be lodged against such candidate to prevent him/her from contesting. If that does not deter him or her, ‘extra judicial killing’ like ‘encounter, heart attacks’ are still available to achieve the desired end. Will such ‘managed parliament’ deliver benefits to the country? Will they authorize all the actions of the current Caretaker government (CTG) of Dr. Ahmed?

Dr. Ahmed repeatedly declared that he is committed to hold election by December 2008 and he would withdraw the ‘state of emergency’ prior to it. But is he really in-charge and if so, why is he reluctant to declare a specific date yet? In earlier governments, for example, during 1975-81, we all knew that General Ziaur Rahman was in-charge of decision making. We knew that during 1982-90, it was General H. M. Ershad, during 1991-96 and again in 2001-2006, it was Begum Khaleda Zia and during 1996-2001, it was Sheikh Hasina in-charge of decision making. They could take decisions, good or bad. But now who is in-charge, which Ahmeds? Is it Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed or Dr. Moeen U. Ahmed or Dr. Iazuddin Ahmed? Or is it General M. A. Matin, the Home Advisor or Lt. Gen. Hasan Mashud Chowdhury, the ACC Chief or the British or the Indian High Commissioners? Or are they all order takers? Does Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed have absolute command and respect? We don’t know.

Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed is an intelligent bureaucrat. He knows that prolonging emergency will discourage both domestic and foreign investment and will create economic hardships in the country. He knows that the major problems of Bangladesh are (1) food shortage and price spiral, (2) energy crisis, (3) ill governance, (4) poor literacy rate, (5) mistrust between political leadership and military generals, (6) large scale unemployment and (7) corruption. Unfortunately, his government other than some lip service in the area of corruption, failed to initiate projects either to reduce energy crisis, or price spiral, or shortages and/or unemployment. Reportedly 30 million Bangladeshis will suffer from food hunger, malnutrition and starvation. His government failed to take necessary steps to evade the impending crisis. Nor he initiated any projects to help improve governance or to reduce illiteracy. More importantly, his only achievement other than creating an office of a 4-star general is ‘corruption jihad’ and it is basically targeted to punish a ‘select group of politicians and businessmen’ to gain cheap popularity. Sadly no effort has been seriously initiated or taken yet to improve the nation’s dysfunctional system to reduce chances of pervasive corruption and misuse of powers (extrajudicial killing, a form of misuse of powers is still not under control). No wonder, his corruption jihad is blamed as politically motivated and therefore, questionable. His administration is aware of it and therefore, they refrained from trying the cases openly and transparently in any legal court under existing laws. He is trying them in Kangaroo courts under emergency rules. Such is a disservice to the nation more so as their high hopes of ‘corruption-free Bangladesh’ have been virtually shattered and raped. Question is; when the emergency will be over, will such cases be declared null and void? Since many of our judges change their minds with the change of powers like weathers, we are afraid; will such corruption jihad be a waste of public resource and futile exercise?

In Bangladesh, there are mainly two camps; one Awami League (AL) and the other anti-Awami League. The anti-AL groups overwhelmingly supported Begum Khaleda Zia to power in 2001. They had high hopes and many thought, she would do well. Unfortunately, her performance was very poor, worse than her own record of 1991-96. Most of her close associates were highly corrupt and greedy unlike the current CTG. Other than her commendable effort of controlling environmentally non-friendly plastic garbage bags and three-wheel baby taxis off limit to Dhaka, her government’s milestones were looting, misappropriation and ill governance. Many of her supporters that were not die-hard BNP were shocked as well. They were shocked when she tried to defraud the nation with a ‘doctored election’. They disapproved her manipulation of appointing her handpicked President Dr. Iazuddin Ahmed (the current President) as Chief Advisor with an evil motive to cheat the election results. Such attempts created fear, mistrust and rejection. Finding no alternatives, her rival the AL party launched a country-wide agitation for a ‘free, fair, non-violent and credible election’. It was supported by moral majority and the public at large. As a result, the BNP-Jamaat manipulation did not work and 1/11 became a reality. Dr. Iazuddin Ahmed had to resign as Chief Advisor, and he confessed of his government’s wrong doing and voter fraud or manipulation. A new Caretaker government (CTG) backed by army was installed. AL leader Sheikh Hasina welcomed the new CTG of Fakhruddin Ahmed as people’s victory. Dr. Ahmed took the oath of office to hold a ‘free, fair, non-violent and credible election as soon as possible’. But unfortunately, he was misguided and he is taking too much time to hold an election. Question is; will his election be ‘fair, free and more importantly, credible’?

Those that were anti-AL but not necessarily hardcore BNP also welcomed the military-backed interim Caretaker government of Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed. Although most of the advisors of the CTG are anti-AL and they are all beneficiaries of the past BNP-Jamaat government, Khaleda Zia abstained from welcoming the new CTG. For example, Dr. Ahmed who was a retired banker living in Washington D. C. was appointed as the Governor of the Bangladesh Bank by Khaleda Zia. Reportedly, he got the job due to two people; his wife’s elder brother, Enam Ahmed Chowdhury, Khaleda’s Advisor (and then Chairman of Privatization Board) and Dr. Osman Faruq, another World Bank economist who was Khaleda’s Education Minister. General Moeen U. Ahmed was made Army Chief by Khaleda Zia at the advice of Khaleda’s son, Tareq Rahman by bypassing six senior generals. Being beneficiary, they had to compromise. In one end, their ethical and moral minds demand them to punish the looters of the nation i.e. BNP leaders and on the other, such punishment would destroy their own ideological group, i.e., the BNP and anti-AL group, and therefore, they were at a loss. Under such a situation, they could not be straight forward and judicious in their decisions. Therefore, they followed highly complex, non-transparent, discretionary and non-standard approaches creating extreme uncertainty and ambiguity. No one could follow them nor could understand their divergent motives. They moved one step ahead but immediately two steps backward. In fact, they had to devise creative ways and manipulate evidence to punish their targeted ones while causing minimal damage to their own ideological party; i.e. BNP. They tried to balance BNP by eliminating die-hard but corrupt Zia supporters and by encouraging forming a ‘reformed BNP’ party mostly composed of those politicians and ex-bureaucrats that could be easily brought and sold. However, they were hard onto the AL, their perceived-enemy, the party that they dislike. They picked up few corrupt people but left many gurus that support them made their effort questionable.

In addition, they tried to set up new political parties but failed. They used cheap slogan-- ‘political reform’ formula and tried to use ‘stick and carrot’ policy to divide the AL. It also did not succeed much. Now they are using ‘dialogue’ to befool the political parties and the nation. Will that work? However, good news is that finally ‘no dialogue with politicians’ that taboo is over.

Soon they might argue through their opinion leaders that ‘failure of dialogues’ and ‘release of the AL leader Sheikh Hasina and the BNP leader Begum Khaleda Zia’ will lead the nation to a situation prior to 1/11. No one wants to go back to 1/11 and witness a ‘doctored election’ or a ‘managed election’ (now stories are coming out that then Police Chief Anwarul Iqbal was involved in the conspiracy of the deaths of October 28th event. He withdrew police forces from the area in spite of knowing fully-well that such would create law and order problems. As a reward, he became an Advisor). No one wants the nation to go down and derail its process of growth. The current emergency rule has led the nation backward and created vacuum, uncertainty and political mistrust. There is also fear of rise of terrorism. All these can be avoided if the CTG declares an election date right now, and with a view to end mistrust and promote confidence building, releases political leaders both Hasina and Khaleda and withdraw the state of emergency. Let them be tried in normal court of law. Could the CTG rise above partisanship? Does it have the maturity and mindset to be an honest broker?

Let the ACC and the EC be non-partisan and honest brokers as well. It is not easy to be non-partisan----already it is reported that Gen. Hasan Mashud Chowdhury of the ACC had threatened resignation if Hasina is allowed to go free (and allowed to face her cases in normal court of law). The actions of the CTG, the ACC and the EC are all questionable and claimed to be politically motivated although all of them are personally honest and not corrupt to the best of my knowledge. No one can blame that Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, Dr. ATM Shamsul Huda or Lt. Gen. Hasan Mashud Chowdhury is personally corrupt or they have any evil design. They hope to do good to the nation. In spite of this, the EC is being blamed by the ‘Khaleda-BNP’ for division of their party. The ACC is being blamed for ignoring corruption cases against military, and the CTG is being blamed for weakening the political parties under various pretexts. Such partisan mentality and approach has to be given up. Can they do it? Otherwise, the nation may face more uncertainty, more economic deprivation, and surely, more cloudy days. Who knows, will such partisanship lead it into another Afghanistan or Iraq, the land of misfortunate and prolong civil wars and terrorism? Is it prudent for Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed to make an about turn not for himself or Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed but for the nation and its wellbeing? Ahmed must review and reflect one question and it is; ‘becktir cheye dhal boro, na dhal thekey jathi’ ---is the interest of a group or party is bigger to that of an individual ego and is the public interest of the nation bigger to that of a party or a group’? If Hasina and Khaleda are released under street demonstrations not under due process, then many of the achievements of the present CTG will be evaporated. Therefore, he must decide and take appropriate actions now. Remember, one day lost is lost forever. #

First published on April 21, 2008, Boston, USA

Dr. Abdul Momen, a professor of economics and business management, Boston, USA <Sylhet@Verizon.net>

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Life Is Not Ours: Attacks on hill forest ethnic minorities of Bangladesh

Caption: Bangladesh ethnic, cultural and religious minority leaders Moni Swapan Dewan, Sanjeeb Drong, Ratan Barua and others attend the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) in last week of April 2008 - Photo: BAPNews Agency

ON 20TH April 2008 as the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues gathered in New York to hold its seventh session, hundreds of illegal plain settlers attacked seven indigenous Jumma villages in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) of Bangladesh. These villages - Nursery Para, Baibachara, Purba Para, Nangal Mura, Retkaba, Simana Para and Gangaram Mukh of Sajek union under Baghaichari upazila (sub-district) in Rangamati district were attacked for 4 hours from 9.30 pm to 1.30 am on 20 April 2008.

According to the reports of four journalists from Khagrachari who visited the area on 21 April 2008 with local government officials, at least 500 houses in the 4 kilometre stretch from Baghaihat to Gangaram were burnt down. Several indigenous Jummas were wounded and an unknown number of women were raped by the perpetrators. Reports of the mayhem are still coming.

Hundreds of people have been displaced and indigenous Jummas took shelter into the deep forest fearing further attack. Two members of the Rangamati Hill District Council, Deputy Commissioner of Rangamati Mohammad Nurul Amin, Police Superintendent of the district Abdul Baten visited the spot and provided Taka 100,000 (US 1600) to the Commanding Officer of Baghaihat Zone Lt. Col. Sajid Imtiaz to distribute to the victims. Only 10 victims including two women members of the Sajek union came to Baghaihat bazar to receive relief while others refused to come fearing retaliation.

Tension has been mounting in the area since March 2008 when the Army began illegally settling new illegal settlers from plain districts onto the indigenous Jumma people's land at Baghaihat, Gangaram, Massalong areas under Sajek union. Having heard rumours of an impending attack, around 50 - 60 Jummas gathered in Gangaram Mukh village to discuss how to defend themselves. This information somehow leaked to the army who approached the villagers and told them not to worry. As Army personnel led by a Havildar, Harun kept the indigenous Jumma men talking, a group of Bengali settlers began the attack.

The conditions for those attacked have already been precarious. There is a serious humanitarian crisis with many indigenous peoples in these villages starving as a result of bamboo flowering. The flowering of the bamboo has been accompanied by an unusual increase in rodent population which eat up other sources of food, including crops and stored food items leading to acute food shortage in the affected area. There has been no assistance from the government of Bangladesh to assist the affected indigenous peoples and with the burning down of the villages –everything has been destroyed.

ACHR’S EARLY WARNING
On 25 January 2008, in its Weekly Review “Bangladesh: The Army attacks Buddhism to facilitate illegal settlement in the Chittagong Hill Tracts” available at http://www.achrweb.org/Review/2008/203-08.html, Asian Center for Human Rights highlighted the systematic action of the Bangladesh Army to forcibly evict indigenous Jumma people from their lands and the deliberate and illegal implantation of the plain settlers on their lands.

In its earlier WEEKLY REVIEW “Bangladesh: Indigenous peoples living on the edges of riots” (http://www.achrweb.org/Review/2007/182-07.htm) Asian Centre for Human Rights had also highlighted the high levels of tension and the threat of a deterioration of the situation into riots. The riots were prevented only after Chief of Bangladesh Army and de facto ruler of the country, General Moeen U Ahmed visited Dighinala of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) on 28 August 2007.

Since the imposition of the State of Emergency, the implantation of illegal plain settlers has intensified with the direct involvement of Bangladesh army. The Bangladesh Army has operated as the de facto government in the CHTs since 1976. The CHTs Accord of 1997 was supposed to have led to the withdrawal of military camps. But, successive governments failed to implement the provisions of the Accord.

NEED FOR INTERNATIONAL ACTION
This deliberate act of arson, looting, assault and rape, leading to the destruction of seven Jumma villages is reminiscent of similar attacks which forced over 70,000 indigenous Jumma peoples to cross the international border and seek refuge in India in 1985-1986. German anthropologist Wolfgang Mey’s report, “Genocide in the Chittagong Hill Tracts” (IWGIA Document 51 of 1984) highlighted gross and flagrant human rights violations on the indigenous Jumma peoples. These violations were further proven by Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission in its report, “Life Is Not Ours” in 1991. The CHTs Commission headed by Prof Douglas Sanders had visited the indigenous Jumma refugee camps and the Chittagong Hill Tracts with the permission of the government of India and government of Bangladesh.

The latest burning down of over 500 houses in the CHTs was barely covered in Bangladeshi press. It is unlikely to receive international attention either. Given the State of emergency, there cannot be any protests by indigenous Jumma peoples in the CHTs; the protest in mainland Bangladesh so far remain muted and confined to university campuses. It remains to be seen how the Bangladeshi civil liberties and human rights groups address the situation.

Whether the State of Emergency is proclaimed or not, it makes little difference to indigenous Jumma peoples. In the CHTs, the army rules the roost and the civilian authority remains subservient to the Army. Yet, there is no denying that lifting of emergency will provide much needed political space in mainland Bangladesh.

The response of the international community including the United Nations with regard to the proclamation of State of Emergency in Bangladesh since 11 January 2007 remains disturbing. Bangladesh faces nothing which threatens the life of the nation as provided under Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but emergency remains in place.

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is unlikely to be able to address such as the burning down of 7 villages in the CHTs. Lost in UN semantics, in the past, human rights violations such as the burning down of 500 villages were not referred in the Annual Sessional Report of the PFII which consistently focused on manufacturing recommendations.

Therefore, the foreign diplomatic missions based in Dhaka particularly the European Union and Bangladeshi civil society organizations should undertake a visit to the affected areas to assess the extent of the damages caused and address immediate needs of those displaced. Unless international community undertakes such visits, attacks on indigenous Jumma people will only intensify. #

Report by Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), Delhi, India, April 23, 2008

Will the Maitree Express turn out to be a train to nowhere?

Mythic Consolations

SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY

THE ROMANCE of the railroad generated confidence long before strategic writers recognized connectivity as an essential element of bonding. One of history’s best-known examples is British Columbia’s refusal to join the Canadian federation until the Canadian Pacific Railway was built. But romantics on either side of the Bengal-Bangladesh border would be well advised not to be carried away by the heavy symbolism of the flower-bedecked Maitree Express running for the first time in 43 years on Pahela Baisakh.

True, India has no major political problem with Bangladesh, like the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan or the border with China. But the state of mind that generates mistrust is the most dangerous of all dividing factors for it can breed monsters out of trivialities. So, when Pranab Mukherjee told the Bangladeshi daily, Prothom Alo, that “the depth of political relations between our two countries is now as deep as it should be”, it sounded like a realistic admission that, train or no train, there never can be a return to the euphoric high noon that animated the two Bengals in 1971. The external affairs minister’s compliment to the interim government for cooperating with India is even more revealing. Despite its achievements, this government is not politically accountable. It is an executive regime that can take sensible decisions regardless of grassroots reactions but enjoys no popular mandate. Precisely for that reason, it may also run counter to the popular mood. An election may not uphold its values and virtues.

A small detail like the Maitree Express’s change of engine and crew at the border, however cordially carried out, highlights the absence of trust between the two countries. Born on the rail track, as it were, and bred in railway saloons and station retiring rooms, I have a nose for these minutiae. For all the bickering between Singapore and Malaysia, the train from Kuala Lumpur drives right into Singapore’s heart. The quaint little station at Tanjong Pagar, the tracks, rolling stock and staff all belong to Malayan Railways. The same crew and engine serve the entire route. There would be no train if Singapore demanded proprietary rights. In the early Fifties, the vivid green Parbatipur Express, with its huge white Arabic lettering, swept past our bungalow in Kanchrapara as a mobile manifestation of Pakistan’s Islamic personality. I doubt if the engines and crew were Indian.

As a reporter covering Ireland’s Troubles in the late Sixties, I often rode the train from Belfast in British-held, fiercely Protestant Northern Ireland to Dublin, mellow capital of the predominantly Catholic Irish republic, and back. No one was aware of when and where we crossed the border. Yet, those were the days when the Provos, the murderous Provisional Irish Republican Army, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary each defended its pitch with the fervour they devoted to god and Caesar. The railway could be ignored because the substance — Protestant supremacy, Catholic emancipation — mattered more than the symbol.

For Bengalis, the symbol always takes precedence over the substance. The tearful passengers on the train were refugees of the spirit, dwelling nostalgically on the innumerable plates of chicken curry they had devoured (or had heard of being devoured) on the pre-partition Goalundo-Narayanganj steamer. Their objective is not sound political and economic relations between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh with an 89.7 per cent Muslim population whose ‘state religion’ is Islam. They yearn for the consolation of a mythic East Bengal where hilsa was sold as a whole fish, not chopped into pieces, and a goat slaughtered for meat.

I say ‘mythic’ because there are far more East Bengal zamindars in Calcutta today than ever existed in real life east of the Padma. But real or imagined, that lifestyle presumed a communal hierarchy — Muzaffar Ahmed of the National Awami Party called it the “two-hookah” culture — that played no small part in East Bengal’s choice in 1947. Beneath the bravado, Bangladesh lives in neurotic fear of attempts to undo that decision. So does Pakistan. When a sentimental Bengali gushed during the Calcutta visit of Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Pakistan’s suave former high commissioner, that the British mischief of partition should be undone so that India could be united, he saw it as further evidence of Hindus still not being reconciled to Pakistan.

There are some similarities with Russia’s complex-ridden relations with Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Georgia. They have little in common with each other but are strongly united in their suspicion of Russia, of which they were once a part. Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Abkhazia, the secessionist Tskhinvali area of Georgia and Ukraine’s flirtation with the North American Treaty Alliance would not have looked like serious casus belli if it had not been for underlying misgivings. But there is a difference with the subcontinent. Russia aggressively cuts off gas pipelines, threatens NATO missiles and makes open overtures to breakaway regions. India is placatory, overlooking even an estimated 12 to 18 million illegal migrants in our midst.

That does not appease a people who may now have revised their liberation history, but who are haunted by the fear that what was done in 1971 can be done again. That apprehension surfaced within months of Mujibur Rahman’s return to Dhaka, to the disgust of India’s first high commissioner, Subimal Dutt, who was a member of the Indian Civil Service but also from a modest Chittagong family, and culminating in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s visit in August 1974, months before the night of Dhaka’s long knives. Visible linkages like trains do have a place in diplomacy, but mainly to impress and involve the populace in official goodwill initiatives. That counts for little among an effervescent people whose quick changes of mood are woven into my childhood memories of Direct Action Day when it was “Allah ho akbar!” one moment and “Hindu-Mussalman bhai-bhai!” the next.

Even if the next set of elected Bangladeshi politicians retains the present regime’s efforts, there is no guarantee that political exigencies will not tempt them again to change course. Paradoxically, the Bangladesh-India relationship is part of the equation between the two Bengals that is subject to all the emotional vicissitudes captured by Muzaffar Ahmed’s two-hookah analogy compounded by the village-city complex. Dhaka may long ago have far outstripped Calcutta, as rich Bangladeshis never tire of reiterating, but objective fact does not exorcise subjective reaction rooted in the past. If Bangladeshis had not been so mercurial, Inder Kumar Gujral would not have warned, when he was in office, against buying Titas gas direct even from Hasina Wajed’s government, suggesting that only a multinational middleman could absorb shocks. New Delhi’s insistence even now on protecting the train and Mukherjee’s “as deep as it should be” are reminders of strictly limited expectations.

The emotional Bengali public is another matter. Large sections of it imagined in 1971 that Epar Bangla Opar Bangla were about to unite. Even if that hope was belied, they expected free travel without the fuss and bother of passports and visas. That, too, was just wishful thinking, as any Indian who had suffered the indignity of the foreigners’ registration office in Dhaka’s Lalbagh should know. Bangladeshi uniforms have replaced Pakistani uniforms, but the men inside are still the same.

Some caveats must be entered. There has always existed in Bangladesh a substantial, reasonably liberal constituency that harbours only friendly feelings for India. Greater interaction, courtesy Maitree Express and other follow-up forms of communication, may strengthen this lobby and help to dissolve Bangladeshi reserve. On the other hand, too many people from Calcutta, especially non-Bengali traders, may again arouse economic fears. Also, the understandable and unavoidable ambivalence of Bangladeshi Hindus, about 9 per cent of the population, is a permanent irritant. The Maitree Express is an attractive idea, but no one should be surprised if it turns out to be a train to nowhere. #

Sunanda Datta-Ray could be reached at sunanda.dattaray@gmail.com

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Let them eat spuds: potatoes - the world's new staple

ANDREW BUNCOMBE

AS THE Bangladeshi army is ordered to march on potatoes rather than rice, Andrew Buncombe investigates whether the humble tuber, so popular in the West, can really help alleviate the global food crisis

When the order came down from the top brass of Bangladesh's armed forces it sounded like a joke. Some of the soldiers and sailors who were told that from now on their daily rations would include increased servings of potatoes almost certainly did not take it seriously either.

But in a country where rice is overwhelmingly the staple dish, this was no laughing matter. With Bangladesh and the rest of Asia gripped by a rice crisis that has sent governments into panic, last Friday's announcement by the military that it was turning to the potato to supplement its troops' rations was for real. "The daily food menu now includes 125g of potato for each soldier irrespective of ranks," it said.

But it is not just in Bangladesh that the humble spud is being turned to for help. With world food prices soaring and with riots breaking out everywhere from Egypt to Indonesia, experts believe that increased use of potatoes could provide at least part of the solution. Easy to grow, quick to mature, requiring little water and with yields two to four times greater than that of wheat or rice, the potato is being cultivated more in an effort to ensure food security, agronomists say.

Such are the hopes being placed on the tuber that the UN named 2008 the International Year of the Potato. "As concern grows over the risk of food shortages and instability in dozens of low-income countries, global attention is turning to an age-old crop that could help ease the strain of food price inflation," said the world body.

"It is ideally suited to places where land is limited and labour is abundant, conditions that characterise much of the developing world. The potato produces more nutritious food more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major crop."

The emergence of the potato as a potential solution to global hunger comes amid mounting concern about the increased cost of food around the world. The price of rice, wheat and cereals has soared in recent months, as a result of the increasing price of oil, rising demand and uncertain supplies. Many countries have been forced to take special measures to protect their food supplies. India, for instance, recently banned the export of rice except for its premium basmati.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, expressed his own concern about the mounting food prices at globalisation talks in Africa this weekend, saying they posed "a threat to the stability of many developing countries". Meanwhile, the UN's food envoy, Jean Ziegler, went much further, saying they were leading to a "silent mass murder" that he blamed on the West.

Mr Ziegler said that growth in bio-fuels, speculation on the commodities markets and European Union export subsidies meant the West was to blame for the problem. "Hunger has not been down to fate for a long time – just as Marx thought. It is rather that a murderer is behind every victim. This is silent mass murder," he told the Austrian newspaper, Kurier am Sonntag.

"We have a herd of market traders, speculators and financial bandits who have turned wild and constructed a world of inequality and horror. We have to put a stop to this."

Against such a stark backdrop, the global challenge being presented to the potato by its champions could hardly be tougher. And yet, already the potato is quietly going about its business, often in places that one might not normally associate with it. Indeed, around the world it is the third most-produced crop for human consumption, after rice and wheat.

Take China. Already the world's largest producer of potatoes, the country has set aside large areas of additional agricultural land in an effort to increase their cultivation. India has told food experts it wants to double potato production in the next five to 10 years while Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are also working to increase the area under cultivation for potatoes. Belarus currently leads the world in potato consumption, with each inhabitant eating an average of 376lb a year.

In the north-east Indian state of Nagaland, which borders Burma, local authorities are working with NGOs to develop quick-maturing potatoes that can be grown between the region's two rice harvests. It is seen as an additional source of food rather than a replacement and the NGOs are working with the communities to educate people about the benefits of the potato and how to grow it. (Could the chip butty become a Nagaland delicacy?)

The root of civilisation The potato was first cultivated 7,000 years ago by the Incas in Peru and the name is thought to have derived from the Indian word batata. The Incas revered them and buried them with their dead. Spanish conquistadors in search of gold discovered the vegetables in Peru in 1532. They used them on their ships to prevent scurvy. It was not long before farmers in the Basque region began to grow them and the potato spread across Europe throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. It wasn't a smooth path, however. Most people knew more of the potato's disadvantages – the crop hails from the same family as deadly nightshade – than they did of its considerable benefits. The Orthodox Church in Russia rejected it outright as it was not mentioned in the Bible. Potatoes arrived in England towards the end of the 16th century. Although popular legend has it that Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the crop to England, it is more likely that English pirates stole it as booty from Spanish ships. The nutritious vegetable caused a population explosion in Europe, especially in Ireland. But the failure of the Irish crop in 1845 led to a devastating famine. In 1995, the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in space. - Claire Ellicott

In Peru, where the potato was first cultivated, a doubling in the price of wheat in the past year has led to the launch of a government programme to encourage bakers to use potato flour rather than wheat flour to make bread. As part of the scheme, potato bread is being given to schoolchildren, soldiers and even prisoners in a hope that it will catch on. At the moment, there is a shortage of mills that are able to make potato flour.

"We have to change people's eating habits," Ismael Benavides, Peru's agriculture minister, told Reuters. "People got addicted to wheat when it was cheap."

Meanwhile, in Latvia, a sharp increase in the price of bread in the first two months of the year saw sales fall by up to 15 per cent. To make up for the Latvians' shortfall in calories, sales of potatoes increased by around 20 per cent during the same period.

The potato was first cultivated 7,000 years ago high in the Andes close to Lake Titicaca. There are at least 5,000 varieties of potato, of which more than 3,000 are found in the mountains. Ranging in colour from plaster-board white through yellow to aubergine purple, the tuber retains huge practical and cultural significance in South America.

It was taken to Europe by the Spanish, who apparently first encountered it in 1532. Documentary evidence suggests that by 1573, potatoes were already being sold in the markets in Seville. It arrived in India some time afterwards, possibly brought by the Portuguese who seized Goa. Known in Hindi as aloo it is the basis of a number of famous Indian dishes, such as the potato and cauliflower curry aloo gobi.

Experts say the potato has great nutritional value. It is a source of complex carbohydrates which release their energy slowly and have just 5 per cent of the fat content of wheat. They have more protein than corn and nearly double the amount of calcium. They also contain iron, potassium, zinc and vitamin C, and were eaten by sailors in previous centuries as a guard against scurvy.

And yet, for all its nutritional wonders and easy-to-grow charms, the potato seems to suffer from an image problem. It may have to do with the awfulness of the Irish famine, when the crop failed as a result of potato blight and perhaps a million people starved, their fate and suffering exacerbated by the continued export of other foods to England. Perhaps, too, it is linked to the early aversion Europeans had to the potato; when it was first brought back from the New World it was used mainly as a feed for cattle.

"The thing is that in the West we take the potato for granted," said Paul Stapleton, a spokesman for the International Potato Centre, a non-profit group based in Peru that has been working with governments around the world to develop faster-maturing strains of potato. "We just go to the supermarket and buy a bag or else we'll have fish and chips on a Friday night on the way back from the pub."

Speaking yesterday from Lima, Mr Stapleton said he believed potatoes could help solve not just the current food crisis but also the challenges of feeding a world with a population that is growing by 600 million people every 10 years. "It can help with the current crisis and with the population that is coming," he said. "There are no more areas to plant rice or wheat. What is going to happen as the population increases? Either we are going to increase yields of what we are already growing or use marginal land. The potato is perfect for that."

Analysts say that while the price of other foods has increased sharply, one factor that has helped potatoes remain affordable for the world's poorer people is that it is not a global commodity that attracts the sort of professional investment that was so damned by the UN's food envoy, Mr Ziegler. Around 17 per cent of the 600 million tons of wheat produced every year are traded internationally compared to just 5 per cent of potatoes. As a result, potato prices are driven mainly by local tastes rather than international demand, they say.

In such circumstances, the scientists in Lima believe it is in the developing world that the potato will reach new heights. From Kenya and Uganda to Nepal and Bangladesh, they envisage increased cultivation of potatoes and a situation where farmers will grow them either as cash crops to sell in the market or else to feed their families. "The countries themselves are looking at the potato as a good option for both food security and also income generation," said the centre's director, Pamela Anderson.

Confronted by such a challenge, could this really be the time of the potato? #

First published The Independent, London, United Kingdom, April 21, 2008

A food crisis further complicates the army's exit strategy

Photo: Bags to fill before they eat

A different sort of emergency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Bangladesh's long wait for justice

Photo: Bangladeshi authorities claim that three million people were killed, while a Pakistani government investigation put the figure as low as 26,000 civilian casualties

TONY BIRTLEY in Dhaka

"Some things that happened are reminiscent of the Holocaust. This is a never ending list of atrocities, violence beyond imagination"
- Dr M.A Hasan, War Crimes Fact Finding Commission


HE STOOD rigid like he had seen a ghost which he probably had. His face was expressionless, devoid of emotion, belying the inner turmoil that Tapan Kumar Das was obviously wrestling with.

We stood at culvert number 337, one kilometre down the tracks from Saidpur railway station, a small Bangladesh town close to the Indian border.

It was the first time 62-year-old Kumar Das had stood here since that day, June 13, 1971. Within a few minutes it all came flooding back to him. And the story he told me made me understand why he had never come back since.

During the war of Liberation with Pakistan he was rounded up along with another 430 men women and children, all of them Hindus.

Their captors were fellow Bengalis, but Muslim supporters of Pakistan who were fighting against secession.

The train slowed to a halt, he told me, and then Hindus were brought out of the carriages.

"Men with swords and knives were waiting," he said. "And they were crying 'help me help me, save me save me, oh god save me' but no one there, no one there. They killed us one by one. Only 21 people, 21 young men we jump from the train and narrowly escaped."

Das said that Pakistani soldiers were waiting on the other side and opened fire as he and the 20 young men ran.

Family lost
He has never forgotten what happened, forgiven those who did it, nor travelled on a train since.
Das says he lost 13 members of his family that day including his father, elder brother, uncle and cousins, cut down by swords and bullets in a preplanned execution.

His story is but a small part of a greater picture of horror that happened during nine bloody months as the war of liberation was won with the help of India and the nation of Bangladesh came into being.

But it came at a terrible cost.

According to Bangladeshi activists up to three million people were killed by Pakistan and its local allies. Pakistan denies the allegations and claims just 25,000 people were killed.

The full story of what happened those 37 years has largely been suppressed, in part by international manipulation during the Cold War era, and in part by delicate domestic politics and concerns.

This could change however. There is a growing momentum within Bangladesh for pressure to get an international war crimes tribunal convened to try those accused.

Evidence collected
A group called the War Crimes Fact Finding Commission was started a few years ago to collate evidence.

"Some things that happened are reminiscent of the Holocaust. This is a never ending list of atrocities, violence beyond imagination" said Dr. M.A Hasan one of the leading members of the commission.

His brother was killed during the war and he has devoted 19 years of his life to the pursuit of justice.

"We have tried for reconciliation. If the perpetrators, if they don't open their minds how can you forgive, how can we get dialogue," he said.

"They need to open their minds and confront the truth or they should feel guilt and then the victim can say we push for reconciliation."

There have been half hearted moves before to get justice but these all petered out.

But this time however, there is added momentum with the backing of a group of formers senior military officers known as the Sector Commanders Forum.

"We cannot have reconciliation without truth, we cannot base reconciliation on falsehood so we want the truth and truth can only come out through trial so we want the truth, we want the light, we want to come out of the darkness we are living today," A.K. Khandker, retired air vice-marshal, said.

He was a sector commander in the Pakistani army in 1971 and said he saw how civilians were brutally murdered.

But Khandker says that he and other officers were spurred to join the calls for a tribunal because of what he calls "the denials and lies" being offered by some about what happened in 1971.

War crimes
The Fact Finding commission has documented thousands of incidents of alleged war crimes, taken thousands of statements from survivors and eye witnesses and collected video and photographic evidence.

It has resulted in a total of 1,600 people being official accused of war crimes. This number includes 456 Pakistani soldiers as well hundreds of locals who fought with Pakistan.
These include some from major Bangladesh religious parties, some of whom have served in government as ministers. But the accusations are completely denied.

Abdur Razzaq is a London trained barrister who is also assistant secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islam.

He said: "These are mere allegations. The onus is on them to prove these allegations. As far as we are concerned it was a political decision, we have never been involved with any of those crimes.

"Yes we supported Pakistan but we are not involved with any of the crimes - rape, murder or looting, and no one has bee convicted."

Up until recently, there was little to show for that dark period; a few monuments but no official museum. It has been left to a few private individuals to start their own Museum of the War of Liberation, containing memorabilia from that period including human skulls and bones of victims.
Akku Chowdhury is trustee of the museum.

"There were people didn't know about the liberation war, they didn't even know about the genocide because there was a systematic policy of erasing that part of history after 1975," he told Al Jazeera.

"So due to that vacuum we decided to start this museum so that at least we could show to the new generation how the nation was born, what price we had to pay for this flag, for this independence."

Rape allegations
There are many examples of the human price that was paid.

Hasina Begum remembers 1971. She says she was wounded by Pakistani soldiers who shot dead her mother and then smashed her two young brothers into a wall until dead.

"As they burst into our room my father said 'it is the end of the universe' and we started to read the Quran" she said while wiping tears from her eye.

"The Pakistani soldiers were like devils. I only survived because I played dead."

It is claimed that 450,000 women were raped during the nine months of hostilities.

Some committed suicide, others had abortions. Those who gave birth gave their babies up for adoption in countries like Canada and the United States. Few received any counselling or help. Some were even shunned by the conservative society.

That is what happened to Butul Rani. She says she was taken to Dhaka prison by Pakistani soldiers and was raped twice in three days. She was 13 years old.

"If I had a weapon I could have killed them" she said.

"Every human being has got some dignity and after I was raped my dignity was destroyed. Many people said unkind things after the incident."

It is clear that a growing number of people feel the dignity of Bangladesh has suffered because no has been held accountable for what happened all those years ago.

UN tribunal
The only way for the damage to be repaired is for a United Nations tribunal to be convened.

A.K. Khandker, a former air vice-marchal, agrees.

"If the United Nations is involved for this trial, the trial will carry credibility and second thing that once the United Nations is involved no political party coming into power will be able to stop it or cancel it," he said.

That has happened in the past but the momentum this time may be too much for any political party to stop.

"Those who are responsible for killing three million people should be behind bars," Shahriar Kabir, a writer and journalist, said.

"The important thing is criminals should face the trial, they should be punished so that such crimes cannot be repeated."

But, standing on the railway tracks at Saidpur, Tapad Kumar Das, fears that justice may be put off once more.

"They must come before the law," he said almost pleading. "Justice, yes justice. If not they will come again, they will organise and come again. No doubt".

Before the UN can consider setting up war crimes tribunal there must first be an official request from the government.

Bangladesh will not have a government to replace the current emergency caretaker administration until next January, but many parties are already indicating they will include the issue of a tribunal in their mandates.

It is not certain if Bangladesh will get justice and its day in court. But until it does it will be difficult for many to move on, away from the memories of the terrible cost that was paid for the birth of a nation. #

First published in AlJazeera

Bangladesh military chief Gen. Moeen's Potato Philosophy

RIPAN KUMAR BISWAS

ALTOGETHER THIRTEEN courses were served at the lunch following the army chief's meeting with the national editors at the army headquarters on April 8, 2008. The menu included potato soup, French fries, potato corn curry, potato kopta curry, potato roller gravy, potato with spinach, potato malai curry, potato navaratna, potato pudina, and potato pulse.

The key to a successful lunch meeting is making people feel comfortable. During the lunch, the army chief made a 5-point appeal to the press to help bring down prices of essentials, hold credible elections, encourage people to diversify their food habit, improve the rule of law and security and highlight rural news. Behaving graciously throughout the meal, he stressed the need for the nation to consume potatoes alongside rice to alleviate the food crisis and requested the press to spread the slogan “potatoes alongside rice every day (Bhater pashe aloo protidin)” throughout the country, which is according to him, already a common slogan in the army itself.

According to a new WB-IMF report from Washington through a video conference connecting Dhaka, New Delhi, and Islamabad on Tuesday, April 8, 2008, sharp rise in food grain prices in recent times will worsen poverty situation in most of the South Asian countries including Bangladesh, leaving UN development goals (fixed in the UN Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight globally agreed development goals, by the given timeframe) by 2015 in the developing countries uncertain. As there's a lot of fear and greed out there, the Philippines, the largest rice importer, recently urged China, Japan, and other Asian nations to attend an emergency meeting on the region's food crisis to try to reverse export curbs that have driven prices to a record. Governments of those countries are getting afraid of unrest.

Shortage of supply, international price-hike, extreme weather events, and government incompetence are responsible for the present food price hikes. According to the economists’ suggestion, country should try hard to increase the supply of the most demanded commodity and in the mean time divert the food habit to an unmet demanded commodity for the time being.

Potatoes are best known for their carbohydrate (approximately 26 grams in a medium potato). Starch is the predominant form of carbohydrate found in potatoes. A small but significant portion of the starch in potatoes is resistant to enzymatic digestion in the stomach and small intestine and, thus, reaches the large intestine essentially intact.

Many critics felt sad as one of the General from the independent Bangladesh now recommended eating potato. They might recall the history while the then late General Ayub Khan once advised the East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) people to eat bread instead of rice. But everybody should have to keep in mind that the time is totally different as the then East Pakistani people had been advised or forced to change their mother language, their heritage, their culture, and their nationalism.

Potatoes contain a number of important vitamins and minerals. A medium potato (150g/5.3 oz) with the skin provides 27 mg vitamin C (45% of the Daily Value (DV)), 620 mg of potassium (18% of DV), 0.2 mg vitamin B6 (10% of DV) and trace amounts of thiamine, riboflavin, foliate, niacin, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and zinc. Moreover, the fibre content of a potato with skin (2 grams) equals that of many whole grain breads, pastas, and cereals. In addition to vitamins, minerals and fibre, potatoes also contain an assortment of photochemical, such as carotenoids, and ploy phenols.

A single serving of a potato can provide a person with 40% of the daily value needed of vitamin C; this will help keep the body from bruising easily. Also, the potato can give 20% of the potassium needed for the body each day; it is a needed element for everyone. It helps stabilize the body when it is being over worked. Though not likely to cause serious harm, green skinned potatoes can taste bitter and may result in temporary digestive discomfort.

The potato, a name derived from the Native American Indian word "Batata," was first cultivated by the Inca Indians in Peru over 7,000 years ago. It was introduced to Europe around 1700 and subsequently by European mariners to territories and ports throughout the world. Historical and genetic evidence suggests that the potato reached India not very much later than Europe, taken there by either the British or the Portuguese. Genetic studies show that all 32 varieties of potato grown in India derive from the Chilean subspecies. The earliest unequivocal reference to the potato in India is in an 1847 British journal.

In recent decades, the greatest expansion of potato has been in Asia, where as of 2007 approximately eighty percent of the world potato crop is grown. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, China has become the world's largest potato producer, followed by India. Potato is the world's most widely grown tuber crop, and the fourth largest food crop in terms of fresh produce — after rice, wheat, and maize (corn).

Last year, eight million tons of potatoes were produced in Bangladesh but there is capacity of preservation of only two million tons. According to the army chief, eating potato will not only help to reduce sharp rise of food grains but also potato growers will get fair price and will be encouraged to cultivate potato next year.

The United Nations have officially declared the year 2008 the International Year of the Potato in order to “increase awareness of the importance of the potato as a food in developing countries.”

Of course, there is nothing tasty, traditional, or important in compare to rice and people of Bangladesh cannot take anything instead of rice. But potatoes are one of the most nutritious staple crops discovered by man and can be habituated along with rice. #

First published on April 16, 2008, New York Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York. Ripan.Biswas@yahoo.com