Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bangladesh likely to make U-turn from secularism to Islamic hegemony

SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH, A Sunni Muslim majority country in a dramatic u-turn from secularism will adopt Islam as state religion and allow religion-based political parties to function.

Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina on Tuesday has expressed herself in favor of retaining Islam as the state religion, moving away from the secular provisions in the constitution that were incorporated when country gained independence in 1971, writes Indo Asian News Service.
The poorest nation of 150 million is the world’s third largest Muslim country. While Hindus is nine percent and rest are Buddhists and Christians. For centuries the minority religious communities faced persecution. The worst political-genocide bled the nation when India and Pakistan partitioned in 1947, triggering mass migration of Hindus to neighboring India and Muslims into Pakistan.

Pro-secularist advocates argue that the rural population and urban middle-class are largely moderate Muslim and practices tolerant Sufi Islamic philosophy. The moderate Muslims will be tormented by the Islamist political groups, which have an upper hand in state polity.

The rights groups and the independent press vigorously debated the summersault of the ruling Awami League, which is champion of secular politics for decades.


After a bloody war of Bangladesh independence from Islamic Pakistan, the new nation adopted secularism and enshrined in the constitution drafted under the founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, incidentally father of Hasina, the prime minister.

Subsequent military juntas’ after Rahman was assassinated in August 1975 doctored the constitution and incorporated religious expressions between 1975 and 1990.

Critics argue that such decision tantamount to defiance of the highest court’s landmark judgment in July last year. The court asked the government to restore the principles of secularism in the constitution.

Taking a new departure from the 1972 constitution, Hasina said that the Arabic phrase Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim will remain above the preamble of the constitution ‘Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim’ or In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate.


Sheikh Hasina told a special parliamentary committee formed to study amendment in the constitution in the light of supreme court verdicts that she would also like to see religion-based political parties to function.

Earlier, Hasina stated in the parliament that her government would keep Islam as the state religion, ignoring the emotions of the overwhelming secular population. However, her aides explained that the ethos of the majority of the population could not be tampered.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Monday, May 30, 2011

Bangladesh plans to reduce poverty by half

Photo: Hard core poor queue for subsidised cereal food
SALEEM SAMAD

THE WORLD'S poorest country, Bangladesh, envisions alleviating poverty by half and dramatically increased human development budget by 28 percent.
Planning minister A.K. Khandaker told journalists on Sunday that beginning July 1 government will invest in health services, education and infrastructure development. While power, energy and transport sectors received top priority, independence war veteran Khandaker said.

After years of under-investment in the power generation, the impoverished nation of 150 million has a daily shortfall of 2,000 megawatts, with rolling blackouts hitting the private sector, particularly manufacturing, hard.

The National Economic Council (NEC) chaired by prime minister Shiekh Hasina on Sunday has approved a 460 billion taka ($6.3 billion), of which 251.8 billion Taka, or 55 percent, will be its own money, which aimed at accelerating development activities, writes state-run news service Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha.

The remaining 41 percent or USD 2.54 billion will be from development partners as foreign aid, Khandaker briefed journalists after the meeting.

The World Banks says Bangladesh needs annual economic growth of 8.0 percent to achieve its goal of becoming a middle income country by 2021.

Nearly 13 percent has been budgeted for free primary schools and subsidies for controversial Koranic schools, while much talked about rural development and rural institutions have received nine per cent and 8.57 per cent for health, nutrition, population and family welfare.

The government after several hiccups finally approved a national health policy on Monday to keep pace with visible success in reaching the health-for-all goal.

Opposition and economist are critical of the government, regarding the slow and non-implementation of scores of development projects. The planning minister had no explanation to this widespread criticism, but said steps have taken to vigorously monitor the performance of the projects.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Video Conferencing: From Bangladesh to St. Mary

Photo by Craig Ostroff: Students in Denise Sozda's second-grade class use Skype to talk with J.P. Feldmayer, who lives in Bangladesh. Feldmayer is the uncle of Sozda's student, George Fassnacht

CRAIG OSTROFF, Managing Editor, Montgomery News

STUDENTS IN Denise Sozda’s second-grade class at St. Mary Catholic School, Schwenksville, had a guest visit their class all the way from Bangladesh … and he never even needed to leave the comfort of his own home to do so.

J.P. Feldmayer, the uncle of Sozda’s student George Fassnacht, lives in Bangladesh and works at the United States Embassy. Feldmayer, joined by his daughter Nalia, bridged the distance and the time difference (the session took place at 10 a.m. at St. Mary’s, or 8 p.m. in Bangladesh), to speak to the students about the similarities and the differences of life in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

“Here in Bangladesh, the weekend is not Saturday and Sunday,” Feldmayer told the students during the 25-minute Skype session. “The weekend here is Friday and Saturday. So on Sunday, we go to work and we go to school. In Islam, the holy day, the special day — like Sunday is for Christians and Catholics — is Friday.”

Despite living in a country in south Asia in which 80 percent of the population is Muslim and 12 percent are Hindu, Feldmayer said it’s not difficult to remain true to his Catholic faith.

“No matter where you are in the world, the seven sacraments are the seven sacraments and they’re all there,” he told the students.

“I’m glad he brought up that Mass is the same no matter where it’s celebrated in the world, and that his children are receiving sacraments just the way we are,” Sozda said following the session. “It’s great to see that common bond, and also to learn about other religions. I think it’s a very valuable learning experience and something kids are not exposed to every day.”

The idea for the Skype session came about after reading the “Beginner’s World Atlas.” While looking at a map of the world, George mentioned that his uncle lived in Bangladesh.

“So we found it on the map and saw how far away it was and we thought it would be very interesting if we could connect with him and learn some things about the country,” Sozda said.


A few e-mails were exchanged with George’s mother, and then with Feldmayer to iron out a time and date, and then the magic of the Internet helped bridge half a world and brought the visitors into the classroom.

“It was a really long time” since he’s seen his uncle and cousins in person, George said, though he added that he sees them often via Skype. “It was really cool to let everybody see my uncle and family.”

After learning about the history of Bangladesh and the customs and traditions, the inquisitive students had the opportunity to ask their own questions about life, pets and, of course, fast food.

“Do you have Palermo’s Pizza in Bangladesh?”

“Do you have Wendy’s?”

“Do you eat turkey?”

“Do you they have Gummi Bears?”

For the record: There is no Palermo’s or Wendy’s, though Feldmayer said there is a Pizza Hut and KFC. Turkeys are rare in Bangladesh, although Feldmayer said he did see them in Pakistan. And alas, there are no Gummi Bears to be found.

“It’s funny because you see what’s important in their lives,” Sozda said. “And it’s hard for them to relate, because in our country we’re so blessed and we have so much, it is hard for them to
understand that other people don’t have as much as we do, so it’s good for them to realize that they don’t have all these things that we have.”


Sozda said she and the students were thrilled with the ease and the access granted by Skype and that she would absolutely like to use it again as a learning tool in the future.

“One click of the button we were connected — it’s amazing,” she said. “And it’s free. It’s truly amazing what we can do nowadays.”

First published in Montgomery News, Fort Washington, PA, United States, May 28, 2011


© 2011 Montgomery News, a Journal Register Property

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Engaging Bangladesh: Beyond Confidence-Building Measures

MD JAWAID AKHTAR

INDO-BANGLADESH relations in recent months have gained momentum with both sides taking steps to create a congenial atmosphere that could ultimately pave the way for broader bilateral, sub-regional and regional cooperation. Of late, there have been a number of interactions between leaders of the two neighbours in order to maintain the momentum. These interactions have resulted in positive developments in a number of areas, including political and border issues, economic relations and transit facilities. The apparent signs of optimism in India-Bangladesh relations emphasize a need to build on this momentum and sustain relations.

Indian Commerce and Industries Minister Anand Sharma recently visited Bangladesh. Talks with the minister’s Bangladeshi counterpart, Faruk Khan, in Dhaka, recognized that there has been a significant increase in bilateral trade. In the first three quarters of 2010-11, Bangladeshi exports to India have outstripped the total figure of last year, having touched US$359 million. Last year the figure stood at US$304 million. As part of the measures to promote trade and economic cooperation, India has raised the duty-free quota of readymade garments by 25% and countervailing duties on all jute exports from Bangladesh has been lifted. Anand Sharma also announced that private sector investment from India to Bangladesh to the tune of US $3.5 billion was in the pipeline. In addition, 50 Indian investors, including Tata, Birla and TVS Group, have sought a special economic Zone (SEZ) to be set up in Bangladesh for joint ventures. These steps would not only help balance the trade gap but also provide new employment opportunities and value addition to Bangladeshi exports to the rest of the world.

Transit has been a thorny issue in Indo-Bangladeshi relations for a long time. Both sides would reap the benefits of transit facilities once put in place. It is also likely to open fresh avenues for regional connectivity. Developments on the issue of transit have been encouraging, with the Sheikh Hasina government agreeing to grant transit to India. As per the agreement, Bangladesh will allow the Mongla and Chittagong seaports to be used for the movement of Indian goods, transported through rail and road linkages. India and Bangladesh have also agreed to restore railway links in order to enhance people-to-people contact and boost bilateral trade and investment. Initially Bangladesh and India proposed a rail link between Agartala in Tripura and Akhura in Bangladesh; later, however, the link between Agartala and Gangasagar (in Bangladesh) was finalized to avoid passing through densely populated areas near the Akhura junction. The Indian Railways’ Northeast Frontier Railway is also conducting a survey to extend the railways up to Sabroom in Tripura and to set up connectivity with the Chittagong Port in Bangladesh, which is just 72kms away.

India and Bangladesh are also gearing up to solve the protracted cross-border land conflict issue. Swap of enclaves seems to be very much on the cards; this could end the contentious issue of a total of 162 enclaves (115 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh, and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in the Indian Territory) located in each other’s territories. Since India has more land in Bangladesh than Bangladesh in India, India is likely to lose about 10,000 acres of land. However this would help straighten the boundary, making policing and possible fencing of the boundary much easier. Currently, neither the police nor development agencies can enter these enclaves on either side of the border. As a result, these territories are grossly-underdeveloped and lacking in basic infrastructure and education facilities. Now that elections in West Bengal are over, the Centre is likely to approach the Cabinet Committee on Securities (CCS) to get clearance for the execution of a land treaty with Bangladesh. The deal could be signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s upcoming visit to Bangladesh.

Another important development in terms of resolving border tensions has been announcement by the BSF to use non-lethal weapons in sensitive areas of the Indo-Bangladesh border region on an experimental basis. In this regard, Bangladesh had raised the issue of the killings of its nationals along the border. India has also decided to allow Bangladesh 24 hours’ access to the enclaves of Dahagram and Angorpota enclaves through the Teen Bigha Corridor. It has been agreed to put in place all necessary arrangements, including infrastructure and security, expeditiously.

So far, the measures taken have essentially been to develop confidence on both sides, which need to be built on urgently. Efforts to enhance economic activities and the determination to resolve long-standing bilateral issues will help reduce common misperceptions and contribute to sustainable India-Bangladesh relations. The climate of goodwill and understanding, along with expanded bilateral cooperation, will also allow sub-regional and regional cooperation.

First published in Euroasia Review News and Analysis

Md Jawaid Akhtar is Research Officer, Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). He could be contacted by email: akhtarjawaid120@yahoo.com

Yunus laments Bangladesh prime minister was badly advised

SALEEM SAMAD

NOBEL LAUREATE Professor Muhammad Yunus, the founder and former chief of microfinance bank Grameen Bank, lamented that the Bangladesh prime minister was wrong to criticize him.

In an interview with the BBC's Lesley Curwen broadcast on Wednesday, Yunus said he was forced to stand down last month. He said prime minister Sheikh Hasina had only done so because she had been "badly advised".

Yunus for the first time spoke to news media, since he was forced out of Grameen Bank following a brief spell of legal battle.

Microcredit guru, Yunus was charged with allegation of siphoning money from Grameen Bank, prime minister Hasina on Dec. 5 last year told journalists that he was sucking blood of the poor, writes wire service bdnews24.com.

Hasina, criticizing Yunus, said "there is no difference between a person who enjoys taking interest on money and one who takes bribe".

The pioneer of microfinance contested the prime minister’s observation that bank of the poor failed to play its role to eradicate poverty.

An estimated ten million rural women, beneficiaries of modest loans from the Grameen Bank were empowered and have broken the threshold of poverty. Tormented by the Islamist in the villages, these rural women voted a secular and democratic party to power, which is led by current prime minister Shiekh Hasina.

Meanwhile, Dr Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, a former president of the Bangladesh Economic Association on Thursday said he believes it is difficult to overcome poverty through traditional ‘recovery-based’ micro lending activities. ‘Microcredit alone cannot bring in changes,’ he stressed.

Dr. Ahmad, chairman of a the World Bank supported microcredit funding agency Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) told English daily New Age that that introduction by the Microcredit Regulatory Authority certain conditionality for microfinance operations from June will streamline microcredit operations to some extent.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Bangladesh ambitious plan to reach Vitamin A to 19mi children

SALEEM SAMAD

Bangladesh in an ambitious plan will dispense of Vitamin A doses to nearly 19 million children aged below five years from Sunday.

In a nationwide campaign, thousands of volunteers, also school students will provide life-saving Vitamin A supplements to combat chronic deficiency, which cause night blindness, a sign of severe malnutrition.

Health workers and volunteers from 150,000 health centers, schools, and buses, country boats and train stations will also distribute de-worming tablets to 17 million children aged between two and five to reduce child growth retardation, writes bdnews24.com.

Apart from night blindness, vitamin A deficiency increases the risk of diseases like measles and diarrhea, both contributing to more than a third of child deaths in Bangladesh.

An estimated vitamin A doses annually save the lives of more than 30,000 children in Bangladesh, said Prof. Fatima Parveen Chowdhury, director of the Institute of Public Health Nutrition.

Quoting a national nutrition survey, the health official argues that night blindness among children has significantly declined from 3.7 percent two decades ago to 0.04 percent.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Bangladesh envisage regional power trade with India, Burma to ease electricity crisis

SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH HAS undertaken an ambitious plan to augment the energy starved nation through import of 4500 megawatt of electricity by 2030, subject to setting up of interconnectivity regional power grid.

Experts, however, describe the mega plan as unrealistic and impractical. They said the ambitious plan needs huge investment for cross border electricity trade through difficult areas for construction and transmission of power.

Bangladesh oil and natural gas fields are quickly depleting for power hungry export industries. The government is under immense political pressure from the investors and entrepreneurs’ apex body to augment power transmission or provide compensation package for their export losses.

The government led by Shiekh Hasina is contemplating to import power from neighboring India and Burma. The prime minister’s representative held parleys with the two neighboring governments in the last two years.

The government is planning to import 500 MW of electricity from India by 2013. Another 500 MW of electricity would be imported through north-west route by 2018. Other imports of 250 MW, 750 MW, and 1000 MW would be made possible from north-east Indian states.

Presently, Burma does not have enough facility to export power. However, Burma has agreed to install two hydropower plants aiming to export 500 MW of electricity to Bangladesh from the troubled Rakhine state by 2017.

Meanwhile, the import of 250-MW of electricity from India has already missed the schedule in last March. The signing of the deal with India will be furthered delayed as the governments of the two countries failed to reach any settlement over the dispute regarding transmission of electricity.

Professor of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) Professor M. Tamim, also former energy adviser to an interim government, said the import of electricity depends not only on good regional relationships, but for budget crunch for establishment of infrastructure for import of electricity from other side of the border.

He told English newspaper The Daily Sun, “The government could not implement some crucial power projects due to fund constraints.”

Professor Izaj Hossain of BUET said the 4500 MW electricity import is possible through regional power exchange agreement by 2030. The purchase of electricity would be expensive from neighboring countries, as it would be costly for construction and maintenance of the grid, he remarked.

Power Division secretary Mohammad Abul Kalam Azad told The Daily Sun, that once the regional power grid connectivity is ready, it would be possible to import 4500 MW by 2030.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Sunday, May 22, 2011

PM should speak up for Bangladeshi workers

 KEVIN THOMAS

OTTAWA IS demonstrating its strong ties and deepening friendship with Bangladesh with an official visit this week from Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. But, as those ties grow stronger, it’s time for Stephen Harper to raise the growing international concerns about the country’s harsh treatment of labour and human rights advocates, and the dangerous and unacceptable working conditions that plague the country’s garment industry.

This is especially important now, as Canada becomes more and more implicated in that country’s garment trade: Canadian imports from Bangladesh, primarily apparel and textiles, have increased dramatically in the past five years, to the point where 10 per cent of all the clothing we import comes from the South Asian country. Garments account for nearly 78 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports.

While increased Canadian trade may have created more jobs in the country’s garment sector, it has not resulted in better wages and working conditions. Bangladesh remains the lowest-wage country in the global garment industry. Workers make just pennies an hour despite working upwards of 12 hours a day sewing clothes for well-known Canadian and international brands.

Last July, anger and frustration over poverty wages finally boiled over in massive and sometimes violent worker protests in Dhaka when the government proposed a new minimum wage still well below what experts estimate is needed to meet their basic needs.

In the wake of the protests, Human Rights Watch raised concerns about torture, mistreatment, arbitrary detention and legal harassment against labour activists accused of inciting the unrest. Police executed arrest warrants against hundreds of workers and labour rights leaders, including leaders of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), a non-governmental organization which had been drawing attention to the abysmal working conditions in Bangladeshi factories. Founded and led by former garment workers, BCWS is an internationally known and well-respected advocate for workers’ rights.


Even before the protests, labour rights advocates were already facing a government crackdown on their activities. Last June, the BCWS had its official registration revoked, its bank accounts frozen, and one of its leaders detained and tortured. After the July protests, two other BCWS leaders were arrested, beaten, threatened with death and detained for a month before being released on bail. They are still facing baseless charges which could result in life in prison or the death penalty.

The government’s harsh treatment of the BCWS and other labour rights organizations and labour leaders has drawn condemnation not only from human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but also from business associations like the American Apparel and Footwear Association. In Canada, the Retail Council of Canada and the Canadian Labour Congress have each called on the Canadian government to take action to protect and promote human rights in Bangladesh.

This same collection of businesses, unions and human rights organizations has also repeatedly raised concerns about working conditions in the factories that make our clothes. Poverty wages are just one of the problems Bangladeshi garment workers face. Last year, at least 49 workers died in two devastating factory fires, adding to the hundreds of workers killed in similar incidents in recent years. Excessive working hours, abusive supervisors, child labour, and a myriad of health and safety violations have been uncovered by journalists and by organizations like the BCWS.

That’s part of what makes the crackdown on labour leaders so worrisome. As the Retail Council of Canada wrote, “Civil society groups like the BCWS play an important role in meeting our industry’s goal of providing garment workers safe and equitable working conditions.” Ensuring that workers’ right to organize and speak on their own behalf is fully respected is the best way to ensure that the benefits of Canada’s increased trade are felt by the country’s poorest citizens, and that Canadian businesses and consumers aren’t being implicated by proxy in worker rights abuses.


There’s no doubt that Canada has been getting closer to Bangladesh. In February, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dipu Moni made a formal visit to Ottawa, and in March Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall concluded a visit to Bangladesh to discuss closer trade and investment relationships. Bangladesh is also one of Canada’s focus countries for foreign aid, receiving more than $100 million in Canadian aid last year.

Foreign aid and diplomatic relationships are welcome, as is trade that promotes greater respect for workers’ rights.

But before this friendship goes any further, Mr. Harper, some difficult issues have to be put on the table.

First published in the Toronto Star, Canada, May 19, 2011


Kevin Thomas is the director of advocacy for the Maquila Solidarity Network, a labour and women’s rights organization based in Toronto

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bangladesh let international company to sell natural gas to private sector

SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH FOR the first time allowed an Australian energy company to sell gas to the private entrepreneurs within the country, amidst widespread criticism by social justice activists.

The state-owned energy exploration company Petrobangla, after protracted delays signed on Monday a gas purchase and sales agreement (GPSA) with international oil company Santos Limited.

The gas demand in Chittagong port and industrial city in south Bangladesh is 420-430 million cubic feet per day (MMCFD) against gas supply from possible sources reduced from 280 to 240 MMCFD.

Santos can now provide directly to gas starved Chittagong market to sell its share of natural gas to willing downstream consumers.

Petrobangla was scheduled to sign the GPSA in July last year, but it was delayed as the government Energy and Mineral Resources Division failed to take decision and finalize official formalities in time.

Petrobangla Chairman Prof. Hossain Monsur told reporters that the industrial production and commercial activities in Chittagong was facing serious crisis due to gas supply shortage, adding that he was hopeful about resolving the gas crisis in Chittagong by 2012 with support from the international oil companies, writes English daily The Sun.

Under the amendment to GPSA will allow gas starved industries in Chittagong. The export processing zones (EPZ) in Chittagong and a Japanese fertilizer factory have expressed to negotiate gas purchase directly from Santos, source said.

John Chambers, President of Santos Sangu Field Limited told English daily The Sun that he has received proactive responses from businesspersons in Chittagong who have already invested millions of dollars in infrastructure sector. But could not begin operation of their industrial productions due to gas crisis.

Entrepreneurs and investors in Chittagong demands primary fuel at any price to accelerate economic growth, Santos executive said.

Last year Santos acquired U.S, energy giant Cairn Energy Sangu Field Limited, which entered into Bangladesh in 1993. There is another stake of Sangu field which belongs to multinational company Halliburton.

Santos has plans to invest $120 million for the wells, drilling and connecting to national gas grid and complete in two years, 2012.

Economics Professor Anu Muhammad and activist of National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Port and Power said the bureaucrats in connivance with politicians were bent on giving away production sharing contracts to international energy giants. Whereas, the state-owned BAPEX was competent for oil and gas exploration, as they have demonstrated their skills, observed the activist.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bangladesh poised to offer Nobel laureate Yunus a position in the bank he founded

SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH GOVERNMENT is contemplating to propose Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus a respectable position in the bank he founded, possibly after series of global uproar.

Hours after Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus announced his resignation from the Grameen Bank as managing director on Thursday, government is considering to offer him an honorable position.


Microfinance pioneer Yunus announced Thursday his 'resignation' from the bank he founded as managing director, after two and a half months when he was forcibly removed by the central bank.

Last month, the United States and France exerted diplomatic pressure on Bangladesh to negotiate an honorable exit for Prof. Yunus. Robert O. Blake, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs threatened the Yunus issue will cause dent in US-Bangladesh relationship.
Finance minister A M A Muhith told BBC Bangla Service radio on Friday night that government is considering to offer Prof Yunus the position of emeritus member of the bank in recognition of his contribution to the institution.

He did not elaborate the roles and responsibilities of an emeritus member. But said, if necessary the Grameen Bank ordinance will be amended to have the new position in the bank.


Nevertheless, the minister said Yunus is a pride of the nation and the government wants to ensure a respectable departure for him.

In a letter of the central bank on Mar. 2 Yunus, 70, had no legal authority to act as the micro-lender's managing director, and alleged that its board had not obtained the central bank's sanction to re-appoint him beyond the bank's official retirement age, reports news portal bdnews24.com.

Yunus is confident and said that his resignation would not interrupt the operation of Grameen Bank. He believes that the eight million beneficiaries of the bank, mostly rural poor women will not be subjected to any difficulty.

Earlier Bangladesh finance minister A M A Muhith announced that deputy managing director Nurjahan Begum will be the stand-in managing director until the position is filled in by the board.


The Nobel laureate echoed Muhith’s statement, adding that Nurjahan would hold charge until a managing director is appointed in accordance with the Grameen Bank ordinance.

The government, however have rejected the Grameen Bank employees demand for making Prof Yunus chairman of the microfinance institution.
Yunus resignation announcement follows his losing a series of determined court battle against his 'removal' as the micro-lender's managing director for flouting rules when he was reappointed in 1999.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Globe & Mail Editorial: Banker to poor and microfinance pioneer forced to resign

THE DECISION of Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus to give in to government pressure and step down from the Grameen Bank should not be seen as a victory for opponents of microfinance. Mr. Yunus is the victim of a mean-spirited campaign, and of the complicated internal politics of Bangladesh. He resigned as the bank’s managing director, as he said in a statement this week, to prevent more damage being done to the bank he founded 34 years ago, and to its 8.3 million customers.

The Bangladeshi government moved against Mr. Yunus on the grounds of corruption, accusing him of spending years “sucking the blood of the poor.” However, the facts do not support that conclusion.

Microfinance, which offers small loans to poor people who lack access to formal financial institutions, has proven to be an effective poverty-alleviation tool, despite recent criticisms of usury. Interest rates are high because of the high cost of collecting payments on millions of tiny loans. The Grameen Bank, which has lent $10.3-billion since its founding, boasts a 97-per-cent loan-recovery rate. Most of the borrowers are women.

The Bangladeshi government may well be resentful of the bank’s prestige and influence, and of Mr. Yunus’s abortive attempt to establish a political party in 2007.

In India, the government has cracked down on micro-lenders in the state of Andhra Pradesh, following the suicide of several borrowers who became overly indebted after seeking loans from multiple micro-creditors. As the industry develops, more regulations and checks and balances may be needed.

However, reforms and new regulatory frameworks are possible without vilifying the industry’s dedicated founder. Unless the Bangladeshi government knows something it has not yet made public, Mr. Yunus, who will continue fighting unproven allegations against him through the courts, will survive this crisis, reputation intact. [ENDS]

Editorial published in Globe and Mail, Canada, May. 13, 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bangladesh anti-crime unit kills with impunity, despite promise to curb extra-judicial killings

SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH DESPITE broken promises to curb the elite anti-crime unit has ignored to hold the organization responsible for extra-judicial killings, torture, abduction, and other abuses.
New York based Human Rights Watch on Monday blamed the elite anti-crime unit for an estimated 600 extra-judicial killings since March 2004 it was formed and dubbed Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) as a death squad.

The 53-page report “Crossfire”: Continued Human Rights Abuses by Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion," documents abuses by RAB in and around the capital, under the current Awami League-led government. Nearly 200 people have been killed alone during RAB so-called anti-crime operations since January 6, 2009, when the government assumed office.

At a news conference in capital Dhaka, Brad Adam, Asia director at HRW advise the Bangladesh authority to make major steps towards RAB accountable and reform in the next six months or disbanded it.

He urged United States, Britain and Australia to immediately withdraw assistance and

cooperation unless dramatic improvements of RAB’s behavior and attitude. Responding the question of reporters, Adam argued that the victims of extra-judicial deaths none were terrorists.

Although the government has made numerous commitments to end the killings and to punish perpetrators, no RAB officer or official has ever been prosecuted for a "crossfire" killing or other human rights abuse. "Crossfire" is a blanket term used to justify most of the unit's killings.

RAB kills with impunity, even when the detained person is in custody, Adams concluded. [ENDS]

For full details of the HRW statement:
http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/05/10/bangladesh-broken-promises-government-halt-rab-killings

Monday, May 09, 2011

Bangladesh: Islamic Fundamentalist Backlash

SANCHITA BHATTACHARYA

A RASH of Islamist fundamentalist violence has broken out across Bangladesh. On April 3, 2011, Railway Madrassa students took out processions in Jessore. When the Police intercepted the procession, the madrassa (seminary) students attacked the Policemen. In the retaliatory action, a madrassa student was shot dead and 30 people were injured.

On April 4, 2011, a dawn to dusk hartal (shut down) was observed across the country. The hartal was called by Mufti Rashidul Hasan Fazlul Haq Amini, leader of the Islami Ain Bastabayan Committee (IABC, Islamic Law Implementation Committee). The IABC is linked to the Islami Oikko Jote (IOJ), a political party which has openly been vocal about its support for the Islamist militants, the Taliban and the al-Qaeda. The IOJ is allied to the main opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP). The ruling Awami League's (AL) General Secretary, Syed Ashraful Islam claimed the BNP and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) sponsored the hartal and Aminee was used strategically to implement their political programme. He also alleged that BNP-JeI were on the streets during the strike. Meanwhile, Amini, on April 15, had threatened to paralyse the country, declaring, "We can create an impasse in the country by a one-hour notice as there are 20,000 madrassas which will respond to our call immediately."

Violence erupted in Dhaka, Chittagong, Chandpur, Barbaria, Faridpur, Feni, Moulvibazar and Khulna during the April 4 hartal. While, 250 people, including 16 Policemen, were injured and another 200 people were detained, in the wake of mass attacks on vehicles, public transport and Security Forces. In a fresh wave of violence on May 1, hundreds of Islamic activists, belonging to Islami Andolan Bangladesh (IAB, Islamic Movement Bangladesh) wearing the traditional white Muslim dress and sporting copies of the Quran, marched in Dhaka, where the Police had imposed a ban on political rallies. A Police spokesperson said nearly 200 protestors were wounded during clashes with riot-Police. An estimated 150 Islamic activists were detained, whisked away in prison vans.

The apparent provocation of this unrest is the National Women's Development Policy (NWDP) 2011, declared by the Government on March 7, 2011, which includes, among others, a provision of an equal share for women in property and opportunities in employment and business. Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, State Minister for Women and Children's Affairs, stated, "The approval of the NWDP has created a great scope for the advancement of women empowerment". Women's rights groups have also backed the Government, urging an early implementation of the policy.

Unsurprisingly, the NWDP has provoked the fundamentalists, who have rejected it as 'anti-Islamic' and 'anti-Quran' , and have orchestrated mass agitations across Bangladesh, demanding its withdrawal. An umbrella Islamist group, the Islamic Law Implementation Committee (ILIC), further threatened to paralyse the country if the Government did not scrap what it termed "anti-Islamic provisions" in the NWDP.

The NWDP is a revival of the 1997 Women's Development Policy, and is the fulfillment of an Election (2009) pledge by the AL. The 1997 Policy was formulated during the previous tenure of the Sheikh Hasina Wajed led AL Government (1996-2001). The Begum Khalida led BNP coalition Government (2001-2006), of which JeI was a part, approved another Women's Development Policy in 2004, deleting crucial provisions, such as "equal right", "equal and full participation", "right to land", "inheritance" and "property", or replacing them with "constitutional right", "preference" and "greater participation".

Meanwhile, in 2008, the then Caretaker Government had announced another Women's Development Policy, guaranteeing equal rights, including property rights for women, which was also opposed by a section of Islamic clerics. As a result, the then Government had constituted a 20-member Ulema (Islamic experts) Committee on March 27, 2008, to identify any potential "inconsistencies" in the Policy. On April 17, 2008, the Ulema Committee submitted its recommendations, strongly opposing the grant of equal rights to women, recommending deletion of six sections of the policy and amending 15 others which, the Ulema claimed, "clash" with the provisions of the Quran and Sunnah (sayings and examples from the life of the Prophet). Suggesting the inclusion of guidelines "in the light of the Quran and Sunnah" while taking any decision regarding women's rights, the Ulema Committee recommended abolishing the section that recommends steps to implement the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The Committee also asked the Government to cancel the initiative to reserve one-third of parliamentary seats for women and the application of comparable reservations to local elections.

Hafez Maulana Ziaul Hasan, Chairman of Sammilito Islami Jote (United Islamic Alliance), a liberal Islamic organization, on April 28, 2011, however, noted, "The review (Ulema) committee could not pinpoint any verse in the Quran that the Women's Development Policy contradicts. It also failed to show any provision of the policy that contradicted the Quran and Sunnah ."

Resistance to the hue and cry against the NWDP is significant. The leaders of Gausul Azam Maizbhandari Parishad [GAMP. Gausul Azam Maizbhandari Shah Sufi Moulana Syed Ahmadullah was a Sufi saint who started the Maizbhandari Sect. GAMP preaches his religious practices and works for the development of society], an Islamic social organization, on April 12, 2011, criticized IABC for creating an 'anarchic situation' in the country during protests against the women's development policy. Syed Saifuddin Ahmed Maizbhandari, Secretary General of the organization, stated, "Creating anarchic situation and sufferings for people are considered as the most heinous activities in Islam. Amini and his followers have done such heinous activities on the hartal day (April 4)."

However, IABC's Amini has identified the policy's Section 23.5, which speaks about opportunity and participation in employment, wealth, market and business for women, as 'un-Islamic'. Further, Section 25.2, which seeks to give women full control over the wealth they accumulate through earning, inheritance, loans and market management, is also declared 'anti-Islamic'. Amini insists that the IABC was not opposed to policies for the development of the women, but these must be formulated in the light of the holy Quran and Sunnah.

Various scholars have contested Amini's claims. Maulana Mohammad Ziaul Hasan, an Islamic academic from the Islamic Foundation argues, "Any literate person will understand that the word 'wealth' in Section 23.5 does not mean inherited wealth. Similarly, the word 'inherit' in section 25.2 does not imply equal share of property to women." Noted educationist Prof. Sirajul Islam Chowdhury declared, on April 18, "Amini's comments are very objectionable and tantamount to treason for denial of the Constitution." Professor Chowdhury asserted that Amini had taken a direct stand against the Constitution, which guarantees equal rights for all, irrespective of gender. Besides, other scholars noted, the women's development policy is not a law, but a guideline upholding the Constitution and existing laws.

Rattled by the protests, however, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sought to appease the fundamentalists and announced, on April 20, 2011, that her Government had removed all contradictions from the NWDP to make it 'confusion-free': "After going through the Quran, especially Surah an-Nisa, we have removed contradictions from the policy." Hasina reiterated, further, that AL would never enact any law or adopt any policy which conflicted with the Quran or Sunnah. She added, further, that the Government would also append to the policy, the religious and social reservations mentioned in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. At the same time, she asserted that vested political groups were carrying out propaganda against the women and education policies in the name of religion and urged Islamic scholars to remain alert about such attempts. Again on April 26, the Prime Minister noted that a certain quarter "trading on religion" had been trying to mislead people by misinterpreting the NWDP, although Islam as a religion never approves inequality between man and woman.

Significantly, on December 7, 2010, the AL Government had approved the National Educational Policy (NEP) 2010, which prescribes a uniform curriculum and syllabus to be followed in general, madrassa and vocational education. Quami madrassa (private seminary) administrations were asked to form a commission and determine what they want to introduce in their institutions. All educational institutions were required to register with the Government to gain legality.

The Islamists, who favour the implementation of the Sharia have clubbed both NWDP and NEP together, and have opposed these measures as an unwarranted interference in their religious affairs.

The successful implementation of the NWDP and NEP could mark the beginning of a new era for Bangladesh, where Democracy has been restored and carried forward by two women Prime Ministers. Nevertheless, given the complex range of initiatives that the Sheikh Hasina Government has introduced to curb the activities of Islamist terrorists, extremists and fundamentalists, a delicate balancing act will be necessary to ensure that the system, long perverted by dogma and extremist ideologies operating at the very centre of power, is not tipped over into a fundamentalist backlash that would wipe out the gains of the past year.

First published in SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 9, No. 44, May 9, 2011

Sanchita Bhattacharya is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management

Monday, May 02, 2011

Hundreds of Islamic activists clash with police in Bangladesh, 200 detained

SALEEM SAMAD

HUNDREDS OF Islamic activists in traditional white Muslim dress, wearing skull caps and sporting copies of Muslim holy book, the Koran marched in capital Dhaka, where the police imposed ban on holding political rallies from Sunday.

Riot police wearing bullet-proof vest and armed with batons, tear gas and shot guns clash with Islamist who vowed to besiege the city center on Sunday for 48 hours.

Police spokesperson said nearly 200 were wounded during the class with riot-police and an estimated 150 Islamist were detained. The arrested Islamists were whisked away in prison vans.

Eyewitnesses said police lobbed tear gas canisters and water cannon to flush the agitating Islamist, when they refused to vacate the area prohibited for assembly of people.

The Islamist threw brickbats and chanted “Allah O’Akbar” (God is great) and fought pitch battle with police. Scores of police and few journalists were wounded during the clash. None of the victims were wounded from police firing, a senior police officer Krisnapada Roy said.

The supporters and activists of Islami Andolan Bangladesh (Movement for Restoration of Islam in Bangladesh) are opposing secular policies of the government, especially recently proposed gender equality and education policies.

Earlier, the Islamist party declared on Friday that if the government thwarts their planned protest rally, they would call for general strike in a bid to paralyze the country.

Prime minister Shiekh Hasina slammed the Islamist and argued that despite her government adhered to secular policies, but does not contradict the basic tenants of Islam. The Islamist, however, accuses the democratically elected government two years ago as anti-Islamic and vows to overthrow and establish controversial Sharia laws and Islamic constitution. [ENDS]

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com