Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Undoing the wrongdoings

MOZAMMEL H. KHAN

IT WOULD possibly take years for any future government with noble intention to undo the wrongdoings committed by the past BNP-Jamaat government during its tenure from 2001 to 2006. Its design was aimed primarily to keep the alliance's firm grip on all organs of the state in order to perpetuate its rule and to shield allied wrong-doers from any potential prosecution and subsequent conviction. Two of the casualties of their arrogance of state power were the history of our liberation war, which otherwise could have been the rallying milestone of our nation, and the higher judiciary, the last refuge for citizens to seek justice.

From its inception, the BNP-led government started to cleanse the administration out of any suspected sympathisers of its main opponents. Even the members of the armed forces and the judges of the High Court (HC) were not spared.

Dozens of armed force officers were given the forced retirements and in an unprecedented move, 15 of the additional judges of the High Court appointed by the previous AL government were not confirmed by the BNP-Jamaat government sidetracking the positive recommendation of the chief justice in favour of their confirmation.

Instead, the BNP-Jamaat governments appointed around 40 or so additional judges, many of whom, according SCBA, are incompetent, and were allegedly appointed solely under political considerations.

Terming the appointments a "serious storm" over the higher judiciary, the then chief justice Mohd. Ruhul Amin told a function in Noakhali last year that its effect would remain in the judiciary for more than 20 years.

Since the assumption of state power on 1/11 by the current caretaker government (CTG), it has undone many of the wrongdoings committed by the BNP-Jamaat government. The most visible one was the reconstitution and reformation of the EC and getting rid of not only the partisan and incompetent members of this constitutional body and the preparation of the new voter list that corroborated the allegation of the around 12 million false and fictitious voters created by the erstwhile EC.

Many of the wrongdoings were undone either through executive order or through the promulgation of ordinances.

To get the long-awaited benefits of the independent judiciary, there were demands from many quarters to remove the incompetent and blatantly partisan judges through a Supreme Judicial Council.

In a relevant context, a welcoming verdict was delivered by a three-member special bench of the HC on July 17, directing the government to reappoint (with seniority) the 10 judges who were not confirmed by the BNP-led government within one month.

Implementation of the verdict, apparently, should strengthen the government endeavour to de-politicise, neutralise and equilibrate the higher judiciary with competent judges.

However, it is, indeed, paradoxical that the government has filed an appeal against the verdict. This is tantamount to condoning the wrongdoing committed by the BNP-Jamaat government, which, in the observations of the HC judgment: "non-compliance with the chief justice's recommendations in this regard will be violation of the constitution.”

In addition, in an unprecedented move, nineteen judges of the HC and a lawyer (how could he be an aggrieved party?) affiliated to Jamaat-e-Islami filed separate applications with the Supreme Court against the HC judgment.

In the other front, in its effort to belittle the leaders of our independence movement, institutions after institutions which were named to pay due recognition to their contributions to the creation of our nation, were renamed.

Arrogance of the absolute state power, for instance, made the then finance minister question the identity of Syed Nazrul Islam in the national parliament, the acting president of the provisional Mujibnagar government, while renaming a bridge named after him.

One of its most despicable acts was to cancel August 15 as a national day of mourning, a public holiday, the day on which Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated along with most of his family members in a military coup led by a group of disgruntled army officers. It had also prohibited flying of the national flag at half-mast for paying respect to the memory of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation.

Upon a writ petition filed by three lawyers, a division bench of HC on July 27 declared illegal the immediate past BNP-led 4-party alliance government's order for cancelling observance of national mourning day and a public holiday on August 15 and prohibition of flying of the national flag at half-mast for paying respect to the memory of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the greatest Bengali of all times.

The landmark HC verdict has been hailed by the political leaders from all spectrums including a few senior leaders of the BNP. This is indeed a positive phenomenon and should set a rallying precedence in the current government's declared effort to create a national consensus on certain issues that must not divide the nation.

Last year on August 15, after placing floral wreaths and paying homage to the great leader at the grave of Bangabandhu at Tungipara in presence of the chiefs of the three services, the Chief Adviser Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed wrote: "On behalf of the government and myself, I pay my deepest respects to his [Bangabandhu] memory and pray for the salvation of his soul. It is my strong believe that everyone irrespective of parties and opinions will come forward unitedly to implement Bangabandhu's dream of building a happy, prosperous and progressive golden Bangladesh."

Through his words of sagacity, the CA has rightfully echoed the sentiment of the whole nation. The present CTG has recognised Bangabandhu's contribution to the independence of Bangladesh and decided to propagate the real history, including Bangabandhu's contributions, in the textbooks.

Likewise, hopes and aspirations of the masses have been solemnly reflected in the current verdict of the nation's highest court. Its immediate implementation would undoubtedly add an extra grandeur to the CTG's own feat to put the history of the nation to its true perspective. It must not attempt to undo the High Court's undoing of the other's wrongdoings. #

First published in the Daily Star, Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 30, 2008

Dr. Mozammel H. Khan is the Convener of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh. He could reached at: mozammel.khan@sheridanc.on.ca

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Daughter's Tribute to Our Guiding Light Tajuddin Ahmad

SHARMIN AHMAD

TAJUDDIN AHMAD and the birth of Bangladesh are interwoven in the collective memory of people who are in harmony with truth and justice. As his birthday on 23 July approaches, when he would have been 83 years old, if he were alive, a question looms large. How would Bangladesh look like if he had lived a few more years to lead and guide his beloved nation? He was a natural leader, endowed with the rare humane qualities of humility, compassion, commitment, integrity and a bird's eye vision to take Bangladesh to its new height. The nine glorious months of our liberation war is a testimony to his able leadership of gigantic scope and breadth. His untimely death, at the hands of the assassins, was not only a national loss but it also cast a shadow of hopelessness on the national psyche. Tajuddin was a rare breed of a leader in the ocean of moral bankruptcy whose ideals can still guide our nation to peace and prosperity. On Mahatma Gandhi's death (January 30, 1948), twenty two year old student-activist Tajuddin wrote in his journal, 'The man whom we mourn today was one who travelled his long way through darkness to light. Sometimes he had to hover in the darkness for light. He searched for light and lo! He himself was a light. A light can't be destroyed. What of that! The Pole star though unimaginably distant from us is always and the only guide for the people of ages in the dark arctic region.'

Little did young Tajuddin know as he wrote that particular entry, that one day, he would be destined to guide Bangladesh during the nine months of liberation war and lead it to victory. Just as he said, 'A Light can't be destroyed,' noble deeds and ideals are that inextinguishable light to guide us forever. Tajuddin, like all great world leaders, masters and seers, was such an immortal light.

On his birthday, I welcome you, dear reader, to take a glimpse of the website www.tajuddinahmad.com which celebrates the life and works of this great leader who was larger than life itself.

Sharmin Ahmed eldest daughter of Tajuddin Ahmed presently lives in Washington DC

Links on his life
TAJUDDIN AHMED : AN UNSUNG HERO [PART 01]
Video Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpzTCoUvkok

TAJUDDIN AHMED : AN UNSUNG HERO [PART 02]
Video Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbblQuf1ODk

TAJUDDIN AHMED : AN UNSUNG HERO [part 03]
Video Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3aKLLqjqOI

World Bank Shots on Corruption

THE WORLD Bank is nothing if not persistent. In recent weeks, the bank has announced low-interest loans of $320 million apiece to Bangladesh and Vietnam, despite their awful corruption records.

Since May, Bangladesh's military-backed government has arrested an estimated 12,000 people without charge and confined them to overcrowded prisons. Human Rights Watch reports "well-documented patterns of torture and mistreatment of detainees." The government has cancelled plans for a December election over the objections of the two main political parties, whose leaders have also been in and out of jail.

None of this has deterred the bank from going forward with a $200 million "transitional support credit," which it says the government needs to deal with rising commodity prices and last year's Cyclone Sidr. There is also a $120 million "power sector development policy credit" that will "support the government's overall power sector reform program." The bank justifies these loans partly on account of the "impressive economic and social gains" it claims Bangladesh has made, and partly because it thinks more money would actually help address the corruption problems.

For a reality check, the bank might have consulted its own experts. According to the bank's internal data on "governance indicators" in Bangladesh, measures of government effectiveness, political stability, "voice and accountability," regulatory quality and control of corruption all declined between 1998 and 2007. A report from Transparency International reaches similar judgments.

Under former President Paul Wolfowitz, the bank cancelled 14 road contracts in Bangladesh after evidence came to light of corrupt bidding. But with Mr. Wolfowitz gone, bank lending to the country under President Robert Zoellick has doubled in the past year alone, to $753 million.

Vietnam, too, has seen its cut of World Bank funds rise by more than $1 billion since 2004, to $4.1 billion this year. Mr. Zoellick is a particular fan of the country, having made Hanoi his first foreign port of call after coming to the bank last year. The bank's latest bequest consists of a $150 million budgetary support credit similar to the transitional credit given to Bangladesh. Another $170 million will go to something called the Northern Delta Transport Development Project.

This new cash is flowing despite a confidential 2007 report by the bank's anticorruption unit (INT) about two corrupt roads projects in Vietnam. In the $232 million Road Network Improvement Project -- which remains active today -- bank investigators found that "over one-half of the contracts reviewed were confirmed to have indicators of irregularities in contract procurement."

Bid-rigging, collusion and fraud also marked Vietnam's $110 million Second Rural Transport Project. This case is particularly striking because the precursor project, known as RTP1, had already been investigated by INT, which found the usual indicators of corruption. No matter. The bank is now moving ahead with RTP3, for an additional $106 million.

This corruption might be less objectionable if the projects had at least resulted in better roads for the poor. The INT found otherwise. "Inferior materials and little or no compaction gave the embankments little chance of surviving flood conditions," it reported about a road in Long An Province. In hilly Quang Binh province, "instances of poorly implemented drainage indicated poor supervision and testing regimes and/or possible corruption."

A bank spokesman says the latest Bangladesh loans will be "heavily focused on tackling critical and long-festering weaknesses in core governance functions," and there are the usual anticorruption bells and whistles in the Vietnam projects. That is what the bank always says. The problem is that it also always resumes lending, regardless of the track record, so the borrowing countries know there is no penalty for misusing bank money.

A year into his tenure, Mr. Zoellick has yet to suspend a single loan on account of corruption. #

First published in The Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2008; Page A16

Send your opinion or comments: http://forums.wsj.com/viewtopic.php?t=3412

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Improper law enforcement, questionable local government polls

NIRMAL L. GOMES

IT IS observed that a wide-ranging people at home and abroad, and also world leaders are keen regarding the present army backed caretaker government (CTG) of Bangladesh effort to restore democracy through holding elections. The crucial initiatives taken by the present government to wipe corruptions from the country, justice of the corrupt politicians, businessmen, individuals, and organizations, maintaining relationship with political groups, price control of essentials, improve foreign relations, justice for detainees, holding free, fair and neutral ensuing local government, upazila, general elections. To hold the local government election is one of course the first challenging initiative and widely discussed at home and abroad.

Earlier the CTG and Election Commission (EC) have published their amended electoral rules for the local government polls. The electoral rules is apparently supportive of electing honest, dedicated, patriot, knowledgeable, and skilled candidates. In the beginning of the process the government announced that seven electoral laws would be the guideline for candidates submitting nomination. The nomination forms have to filled properly. If the candidates submit forms with incorrect or wrong information which will be deemed incompatible with the electoral guidelines. Thus the nomination forms will be cancelled. The EC promises to maintain “zero tolerance” for all candidates as it will be their first test for holding credible polls.

By now various electronic and print media have reported that a number of alleged convicts and corrupted candidates have submitted their nominations for contesting for positions of mayors and city councillors. On July 13, a leading independent Bangla newspaper Prothom Alo reported that 16 mayoral candidates and validated by EC for the August 4 polls are accused for 34 criminal cases. Many of the councillors who have submitted their nominations and accepted by the district EC office face various charges including murder, extortion, and corruption. As Prothom Alo reported on July 20, that many of the candidates did not fill-up the nomination form correctly and many forms were incomplete, but the EC mysteriously remains silent. Though, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) expressed satisfaction with the overall compliance with the code of conduct of the candidates. However, CEC frustrates everybody to overlook the quality of candidates, as argued to the press. Till CEC expects to hold a neutral and accepted election polls in the local government elections as well upcoming upazila and general election. The CEC however, emphasized the importance of the implementation of the strict electoral rules.

It is not understood whether candidates could be disqualified from contesting polls those who have failed to fulfill the election guidelines, specially those who have conviction by a trial court for offences involving moral turpitude, or be allowed to contest in polls while candidate appeals against the verdict, pending in court. It shows that the EC has decided that a convicted person is eligible for contesting the election while the candidate’s appeal is pending in a court, but legal experts say that a convicted person becomes disqualified on conviction by a trial court. The Constitution in Article 66(2) (d) states: "A person shall be disqualified for election as, or for being, a member of Parliament who has been, on conviction for a criminal offence involving moral turpitude, sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than two years, unless a period of five years has elapsed since his release."

In my earlier article titled “Local government polls a challenge/an experiment for the EC” published in various print and news portals, it was stated “for last thirty six years that thousands of rules and laws the previous governments discussed and announced, but very few of rules and law properly implemented and acted by the government, law enforcement, and citizens. Many times laws have misused and that’s resulted of 1/11 in the nation.” If there are laws then it must be implemented and also law enforcement must abide by the rules. The EC should be more proactive to implement the electoral laws. According to the reports, outcomes are not positive for the EC. What is going to make a difference in the upcoming local government election polls if the laws do not work accurately? The way things are progressing in the upcoming local government polls nomination process is incomprehensible and raises questions. If the law enforcement hesitates to implement the written electoral laws which was circulated publicly, than who can challenge or dare to disobey? If the law enforcement disregards electoral rules or any laws, then the citizens would also take advantage to misuse other laws to achieve their objectives. Thus the EC will losses its credibility to hold free, fair, neutral and credible elections.

This issue has risen when the government reiterates commitment to hold fair, neutral, and accepted polls in upcoming election. The chief adviser and the army chief urged the people to apply their wisdom and fair judgment in electing competent and honest candidates in the upcoming polls. If the corrupt and alleged criminal’s are declared eligible by the EC to contest, what would be the moral judgment to exercise wisdom to elect those “rogue” candidates? The voters have limited choice to choose or reject the candidates. Whereas, the government have approved the nominations of alleged corrupt and criminals. Moreover as the election day is coming closer, doubts of holding fair, neutral, and accepted election is fading among the general people and expatriate Bangladeshis. There is a general perception that an attempt is being made by the alleged muscle-man and corrupt people to creep into the public stage through secured election process. As there is still time for the government to take necessary measures against those alleged “candidates” who have violated electoral rules should be disqualified for the local government election. People expects the government and EC will pass the test of August 4 polls, demonstrate their credentials to hold the upazila and general election with flying colours. #

Washington DC, July 20, 2008

Nirmal L. Gomes is a freelance journalist, international scholar, and graduate student in education, specialty with admin., curriculum, foundation, and policy studies in the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. He could reached at: Gomes@cua.edu or Nirmalgomes@aol.com

Monday, July 07, 2008

‘National Security Council cannot be good for democracy’

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa Agha, a Pakistani academic and author of Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, talks to Syeed Ahamed and Faisal Ghazi of the Drishtipat Writers’ Collective

Drishtipat Writer’s Collectives: National Security Council is a looming spectre for Bangladesh. What is your view on the matter?

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa: A national security council will only institutionalise the military’s role in Bangladesh’s policy process. In every case, this Turkish model which has already been used ineffectively in at least three countries, Turkey, Pakistan and Chile, has undermined democracy by establishing a top-down authoritarian model. No matter what the intention is, the outcome of military authoritarianism cannot be good for democracy.

What has been the role of the NSC in Pakistan and how has it affected civilian administration?

When General Musharraf came to power, he immediately sought the help of the civil administration. The bureaucracy is very self-serving and responds positively to authoritarian rule. It does not have a political agenda and is far happier living with military bureaucracy. Bangladesh must have experienced the same during the 1980s. However, whenever the military starts to expand its control over the civil administration, civil bureaucrats become uncomfortable and non-cooperative.
Some say a meddling military is to be expected in weak democracies like Bangladesh and Pakistan and, therefore, we might as well institutionalise their role through an NSC. What is your view on this?

Both Bangladesh and Pakistan were ‘created’ without any major plan. We always compare ourselves with India. But the Indian Congress was exposed to a certain level of political accountability even during the First World War. Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, which was the result of a bargaining movement of Muslim elites who had no social development agenda. The elites did not even go for land reforms. In East Pakistan, the separation movement also started without an agenda and even until the late 1960s there was no plan beyond provincial autonomy. So ultimately, Bangladesh also inherited the problems which Pakistani politics faced when it was created. Also worth bearing in mind is that the majority of the original officers of the Bangladesh military were repatriated officers from Pakistan. What is common between Pakistan and Bangladesh is that politicians never learn from history. You cannot have true democracy with a top-down centralised political system in place. You need to revamp the political system considerably to ensure a multiple structure within the political system.

You have made repeated warnings to Bangladeshi politicians before the events of January 11, 2007. In the current political reality, why should the people of Bangladesh want the failed politicians back?

Yes, it is understandable that the politicians did not act responsibly which might have prompted the military to step in. However, Bangladesh was heading towards an NSC anyway and I could even sense the growing role of the military when I visited Bangladesh in 2006. Bangladesh needs to address the long due political reforms which it requires to ensure grassroots participation, change of political culture and devolution of democracy with local level political institutions (such as panchayet in India). Bangladesh’s political parties are an absolute mess at the moment and the military cannot be blamed for their total disorder. However, if Bangladesh fails to take the long road to political devolution and institutionalisation, and resort to the quick-fix solution of introducing an NSC, the situation is going to be a lot worse.

Civil society in Bangladesh welcomed and then accepted the army intervention just like their counterparts did in Pakistan. The relationship has now soured and the disenchantment is now palpable. What role should civil society play in Bangladesh now?

Bangladesh has a stronger and more progressive civil society than Pakistan and they have a rich history of revolting against authoritarianism. My question is: Where has this civil society been during this period? Didn’t they see it coming? Apparently, the educated middle class have been very frustrated with the politicians, but this short-cut solution of NSC will only worsen the already weakened democratic system. Civil society thought it would be able to use the military to overhaul the decaying political system. But the military is not a toy which can be thrown aside after you use it. Once used to bring change, it will start to demand its own share of the power. I guess, like in Pakistan, civil society has been thoroughly lazy by taking these shortcuts to reform. This will only be destructive in the long term. It is a mistake Pakistan has made and Bangladesh seems all set to follow.

What are, in your opinion, the most damaging aspects of an NSC in a weak democracy that are not communicated to or not allowed to be discussed by the public?

A national security council will not only institutionalise an authoritarian political system, once the military becomes part of this system, the system will become less transparent as well. Hence reforming that authoritative system will be much more difficult than reforming the existing political system.

Some say the establishment of an NSC directly affects the rise of religious right wing (Islamist) politics. Would you say that there is a link between the two phenomena in the context of Pakistan and Bangladesh?

Since military power does not have a development agenda, religion systematically becomes the power player in politics. Once religion enters the political system, it looks different. The BNP used it and the AL did not oppose it properly. The fear is, if Bangladesh uses an authoritarian system like the NSC, this political Islam will become more dominant. Another concern is the overwhelming connection between military and de-facto religious fundamentalism. The military has always promoted religious groups. Ziaur Rahman was active in rehabilitating these groups when he was in power. In Pakistan Islamist groups are linked with the intelligence services, ISI (Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, also known as the Inter-Services Intelligence). What I also noticed in Bangladesh is the rise of anti-Indian sentiment. This is exactly the kind of thing that will force the military to cooperate with the religious right. There has always been an informal link between military and the religious right. An NSC is going to strengthen that link. And inevitably, you will witness how civil liberties will gradually be taken away.

Does an NSC have any benefits and, therefore, can there be any such thing as [the] best case scenario?

Giving military a role in the development process is not a bad idea. But giving them a role in the policy process is probably not a constructive idea either. Last time Bangladesh experienced a military takeover, it ended in 1990, after fifteen years in power. However, the military is far more disciplined and commanding than political institutions. Over the years, the Bangladeshi military has evolved from a ragtag revolutionary force to a hierarchically organised bureaucratic institution. The new structure makes it politically more potent and lethal in pushing back civilian institutions. If the military is given an institutional role in the political system, it will eventually overstep politicians to create an elite power structure of its own. So, it is a bad idea to give it more power and to use it as a powerbroker. #

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent security analyst of Pakistan and is currently teaching at the University of Philadelphia. She is the first civilian to be the director of the Naval Research Institute of Pakistan. ayesha.sidiqqa@gmail.com

First published in the New Age Published in the July 7, 2007

Lesson for Pakistan from the Debacle in East Pakistan in 1971

Photo: At the fag end of collapse Pakistan army, dreaded Islamist Al-Badr's death squad responsible for murders of scores of Bangla-speaking intellectuals

USMAN KHALID

IT IS indeed amazing that every section of Pakistani public opinion has embraced the Indian version of the events of 1971. It is commonly believed that Pakistan could have been saved if Yahya Khan had handed over power to Sheikh Mujib after the 1971 Elections. That is a lie. The truth is that Yahya Khan did ask him to form the government and even publicly announced that Sheikh Mujib would be the next Prime Minister. But Sheikh Mujib double-crossed him. He was keeping all his options until he got the 'green light' from India.

Dr Mu'min Chowdhury, from East Pakistan, in his chapter titled 'The creation of Bangladesh' in the Book - Authentic Voices of South Asia - writes on page 245:

"Mujib had told foreign press reporters that his announcement of the 7th(March 1971) would be equivalent to (declaration of) Independence (UDI). ...Yahya Khan sent a message to Mujib not to take hasty decision and told him he had a scheme in mind that would more than satisfy his Six Points. Next day, Farland (US Ambassador in Pakistan) saw Mujib and pressed him into talks with Yahya Khan. ... Mujib's announcement of the 7th stopped short of UDI; it left its imminent possibility dangling...

"Other than Yahya Khan's overtures and (Ambassador) Farland's efforts, Mujib had a more compelling reason to play for time: he was yet to get confirmation that all the preparations across the border had been completed. On 6 March he sent Tajuddin to see the Indian Deputy High Commissioner, K.C. Senegupta. Unable to confirm (that India was ready and willing to invades), he dashed to Delhi. Separately, Mujib also wrote to Indian parliamentarian Samar Guha to obtain the confirmation. On 10th March he sent three UK Awami Leaguers to meet the Indian High Commissioner (in London). On the 12th Appa Pant brought the needed reply. Senegupta also brought back the confirmation on the 17th. Remarkably, on the same day the Indian Ambassador briefed the US Secretary of State that 'Indian policy was to stay out of East Pakistan'.

"Within a week of or so of the Pakistan Army's crackdown (on 25th March) Field Marshal Manekshaw got instructions from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to prepare for an all out war on behalf of Bangladesh. Only on Manekshaw's advice did she agree to wait until the winter."

The lesson to be learnt from the fiasco of 1971 is that 'insurrection' is rarely decisive by itself; it paves the way for foreign invasion. Even Sheikh Mujib knew that. He kept his option to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan open until he was assured that India would invade at the proper time. Becoming the Prime Minister of Pakistan was his second option, which he declined when he was assured that India would invade East Pakistan.

The insurrection in Baluchistan or the NWFP can be contained, negotiated out of, and even defeated if India, America and Afghanistan can be prevented from intervention. Since Afghanistan is an occupied country, the USA would be giving the green light for an invasion. Neither India nor America would be dissuaded by show of weakness or bravado (like that of Yahya Khan); these are the two sides of the same coin called 'fear and appeasement'. They would be dissuaded by Pakistan's civil and military leadership showing competence in handling the affairs of the state - in effective use of the media, the military and mediation. #

Usman Khalid is Director London Institute of South Asia

Thursday, July 03, 2008

With U.S. forces preoccupied in Pakistan, Al Qaeda affiliate gaining power in Bangladesh

Get a grip on Dhaka

SELIG S. HARRISON

WHILE THE CIA and the Pentagon search in vain for Osama bin Laden in the mountains of northwest Pakistan, an Al Qaeda affiliate has been quietly building up terrorist bases in the jungles of Bangladesh under the protective aegis of a new military regime in Dhaka allied with Islamist forces.

The founding leader of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami in Bangladesh, Fazlur Rehman Khalil, was one of the six signatories of Bin Laden's first declaration of holy war against the United States on Feb. 23, 1998, and a U.S. State Department study reports that Harkat "maintains contact with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan."

Bush administration officials privately endorse mounting Indian evidence that Bangladeshi Harkat agents spearheaded a series of terrorist attacks in India -- in Mumbai and Banaras in 2006, in Hyderabad in 2007 and in Jaipur in May. But the United States has conspicuously failed to press Bangladesh's military ruler, Gen. Moeen U Ahmed, for a crackdown on Harkat and for the removal of highly placed intelligence officials with Islamist ties.

Ahmed staged a bloodless coup in January 2007, forcing a figurehead president to give him emergency powers. He has pledged to hold elections in December and return power to a civilian government. The Bush administration, while formally urging him to hold the elections on schedule, has so far ignored his increasingly blatant efforts to rig them.

Ahmed is maneuvering to break up the two biggest secular political parties, the Awami League, which actively opposes Islamist influence, and the Bangladesh National Party. He barred political activity by their popular leaders, Sheik Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia, and is organizing a new army-controlled political party to challenge them. Invoking his emergency powers, he is rounding up grass-roots leaders of the two parties and muzzling the media. Harkat, Jamaat-i-Islami Bangladesh and other Islamist groups that support the military regime are operating unhindered.

By its silence in the face of Ahmed's power grab, the Bush administration is signaling that it sees little hope of ending direct or indirect military rule. But it is much too soon to write off the prospects for democracy in Bangladesh, where almost everyone was politicized during the independence struggle against Pakistan. Since then, three free elections have been held, and two previous military regimes have proved to be short-lived.

As the fourth-largest Muslim country in the world, with 150 million people, Bangladesh matters to the United States in security terms because Harkat and its allies have direct links to anti-U.S. Islamist forces in Pakistan. These links predate the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. The Islamists in Bangladesh supported Islamabad during the independence struggle and have subsequently been used by Pakistani intelligence agencies to harass India.

When respected Bangladeshi journalists have attempted to write about Islamist sympathizers in the military regime and their links with Islamabad -- naming names -- they have faced death threats and assassination attempts. This has been fully documented by the U.S.- based Committee to Protect Journalists. The most notorious case is that of Tasneem Khalil, who worked as a correspondent for CNN and others in Dhaka. Khalil was held incommunicado last year for 22 hours, beaten and forced to leave the country after exposing Islamist influence in the military intelligence agency.

Defenders of the military regime point out that four Islamist leaders were executed last year, but they gloss over the fact that the executions occurred after the four had contacted the media to expose their links with the intelligence agency.

The army contends that past civilian regimes were hopelessly corrupt and practiced only a "feudal democracy" in which corruption, cronyism and the use of private militias by leading politicians were rampant. The military takeover in 2007 was unavoidable, it says, because the last civilian government, headed by the BNP, was rigging forthcoming elections.

But the Bangladesh Constitution requires elections within 90 days of the dissolution of Parliament and allows for only one 90-day extension of emergency powers. Parliament was dissolved on Oct. 27, 2006; thus, the army regime has been unconstitutional since April 2007.

The U.S. and other aid donors should use their powerful leverage to push hard for an immediate end to emergency powers and for elections by December. It would be a bitter irony if a new Musharraf should emerge in Dhaka just as Pervez Musharraf finds himself increasingly embattled in Islamabad. #

First published in the Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2008

Selig S. Harrison is director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars