Sunday, June 26, 2011

Islamic republic returns to secular constitution: Bangladesh’s last chance


The prime minister of Bangladesh was voted in on her promise of justice for the crimes of its foundation 40 years ago. This has not quite happened as planned, and has been the excuse for suppression of all political opposition

Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, launched a coordinated assault in January 2010 on the Islamist order that has gripped her country for 30 years. She attacked its legal foundation. In 1979, Islamists had hijacked control of the state, amended the constitution, and transformed Bangladesh from a secular country to an Islamic republic. Through the Supreme Court, Hasina retrieved it: she nullified the 1979 amendment, and the world’s third largest Muslim nation became a secular republic again.

Since then, her centre-left Awami League Party has spared almost no expense to expunge the traces of hard-line Islam. Hasina (as she is known) has spent millions of dollars to rename public buildings that once honoured hard-line Islamists. She has re-written laws to protect women from having to wear Islamic head coverings. The government has granted itself the means to dismantle Islamist militant networks. A war crimes tribunal will address the atrocities committed by Islamists during Bangladesh’s struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971.
But there is a dark side. Hasina is not too concerned about respecting the constitution, so there has been a crackdown on her political opponents, and on the leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami, the most powerful fundamentalist political party, which claims 12 million followers. Hasina has used extreme methods to destroy the Islamists, as well as other regime opponents – methods that are incompatible with freedom, law and democracy. Now, as the state frays, and shortages of water, electricity and gas provoke riots, the crackdown threatens to further ignite the religious and political divisions of this impoverished country of 150 million people. Her radical approach threatens the democratic foundations she purports to uphold.

’So where’s the trial?’
Bangladesh’s Liberation War Museum is a small building in the poor Mirpur section of Dhaka, the capital. It was built to commemorate the victims of Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence against Pakistan. Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujipur Rahman, led the struggle, which was fought so that Bangladesh (then a province of Pakistan exploited by its Islamic rulers) could be a secular, independent nation. Pakistan’s retaliation was catastrophic. In nine months, its military liquidated the leadership of the Awami League. It murdered as many as three million Bengalis and raped some 200,000 women (the exact toll remains unknown and contested). Pakistani soldiers did not act alone: many Bengali Muslims collaborated with the Pakistani army, killing secular Muslims and Hindus in the name of preserving Islam.
Last year I visited the museum to meet survivors. Muhammed Abu Saeed, in his 40s, told me how Pakistani soldiers beat and tortured his brother, who was eventually shot and killed. Sheikh Shariful Islam Bablu was only 15 when a Pakistani mob beat him and then tried to slit his throat. He escaped, but is scarred. All the survivors were angry, but not at the Pakistani soldiers who committed the crimes and are now beyond reach, untouchable by courts or personal retribution. They want a trial of Bangladeshis. Saeed said, “If the Bengali collaborators are tried, the souls of our martyrs will have at least a little peace.”

Their wishes may come true. Bangladesh’s youth, who have had greater access, online, to stories, photos and videos from the war than past generations, now call for truth. “The younger generation have heard stories and have said, ‘It’s a genocide, so where’s the trial? Somebody has to answer’,” said Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University who has written several books on the 1971 war.

Hasina won a landslide election in 2008 by promising a tribunal, which she constituted in March 2010. The decision has been hailed by international jurists, for good reason. Done properly, Bangladesh’s tribunal could help abate the corruption and political squabbling that have crippled Bangladesh since its creation. It could also be an important model for the Muslim world. But instead of using the court’s energy to seek out hundreds of presumed war criminals, Hasina seems to have empowered it only to harass the leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami. The witchhunt promises only more instability.

I met one of the “collaborators”, Muhammed Kamaruzzaman, now in his 50s and the official spokesman of Jamaat-e-Islami, which wants to turn Bangladesh back into an Islamic state. He rarely made a point without citing a supporting statistic or referencing a historical document, yet the facts of his own life do not tally. He therefore perfectly symbolises the role his party plays in Bangladeshi politics.

In 1971 Jamaat-e-Islami actively opposed Bangladesh’s independence struggle. “[It] had this emotional attachment with Pakistan. Because they thought that Pakistan is a homeland for the Muslims. How can we separate this country?” Kamaruzzaman asked. Yet the Pakistani army organised Jamaat-e-Islami as a radicalised militia, a proto-Taliban. Whether it committed war crimes is less clear. Kamaruzzaman was said to have run an interrogation centre where more than 300 secular nationalists were tortured and executed. But even if Kamaruzzaman were to be found guilty, his party cannot be held responsible. Nor were Jamaat-e-Islami members the only war criminals – most belonged to other political and religious groups. Any fair trial would make this clear.

Hasina has intentionally obscured these facts, describing Jamaat-e-Islami as a cabal of murderers, and assuming their guilt. When her government issued a list of 1971’s top 10 war criminals, she singled out the party’s leadership, including Kamaruzzaman. He protested his innocence to me, insisting that Hasina was motivated by political calculus, not facts. “Just for political purposes they have raised this issue. With this issue you can marginalise Jamaat-e-Islami. And for future elections it will be easy, smooth sailing for the Awami League.”

If Hasina harassed his party, Kamaruzzaman insisted, its younger followers might resort to violent militancy: “If Jamaat-e-Islami leaders are arrested…we do not know what will happen. We do not know how my sons, relatives, and friends will react. We are afraid some of them can go for underground militancy, for retaliation.” He has spent most of his career denying that Jamaat-e-Islami has any links to militancy, yet now flaunts such connections.
The controversy begins
In July 2010, Kamaruzzaman and half a dozen of Jamaat-e-Islami’s top officials, including its supreme leader, were arrested and paraded before the national media. Watching it on television felt like the dawn of a new era. But then the controversy began. At first Kamaruzzaman and his colleagues were not charged with war crimes, but with others that had nothing to do with 1971, including blasphemy against the Prophet, and murdering a bystander during a political rally.

The war crimes charges came only after the men were already in prison, and included corruption, money laundering, and links to terrorism. Then, in a move that outraged the Muslim world, Hasina banned the writings of the party’s creator, Syed Abul Ala Maududi, South Asia’s most influential theologian. Now Hasina is toying with the idea of banning religious parties. Observers say that her tribunal looks authoritarian. And it could backfire. “You can’t start labelling parties before the trial has started,” said Ameena Mohsin, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University. “The government is putting the entire process of the trial into question.”
The threat of violence is mounting. Jamaat-e-Islami activists have fought street battles with police, and have been arrested for possession of explosives. Kamaruzzaman’s threats seemed less like bluster and more like prophecy. Last November, unknown assailants threw Molotov cocktails at the Dhaka residence of Bangladesh’s chief justice, who had ruled in favour of restoring secularism to the constitution.

Bangladesh appears to be following repressive secular regimes in the Muslim world, such as Egypt, Algeria and Turkey which all at one time sought to contain Islamist politics through strong-arm tactics.

Wider instability is spreading. Hasina has failed to address daily problems, such as food, water and electricity shortages, which have caused riots. Garment workers, protesting over poor pay, have burned dozens of factories in a vital industry. Recently, Hasina extended her ire to her largest political rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), whose members have been harassed and arrested. The BNP has faced off with Hasina’s party in street battles that have killed dozens and wounded more than 100. The army may be forced out of its barracks again, as it was in 2007, when fighting between the BNP and the Awami League resulted in many deaths. Bangladesh will be back where it started 40 years ago. Time may be running out.

Witnesses are aging and dying. Evidence is fading. “I want a peaceful trial, and very soon,” Bablu said. “There will not be another chance.”

First published in Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris, France, 4 June 2011

Fortress India: Why is Delhi building a new Berlin Wall to keep out its Bangladeshi neighbors?

Indian patrol the "hated" border fences

Felani wore her gold bridal jewelry as she crouched out of sight inside the squalid concrete building. The 15-year-old's father, Nurul Islam, peeked cautiously out the window and scanned the steel and barbed-wire fence that demarcates the border between India and Bangladesh. The fence was the last obstacle to Felani's wedding, arranged for a week later in her family's ancestral village just across the border in Bangladesh.

There was no question of crossing legally -- visas and passports from New Delhi could take years -- and besides, the Bangladeshi village where Islam grew up was less than a mile away from the bus stand on the Indian side. Still, they knew it was dangerous. The Indians who watched the fence had a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. Islam had paid $65 to a broker who said he could bribe the Indian border guard, but he had no way of knowing whether the money actually made it into the right hands.

Father and daughter waited for the moment when the guards' backs were turned and they could prop a ladder against the fence and clamber over. The broker held them back for hours, insisting it wasn't safe yet. But eventually the first rays of dawn began to cut through the thick morning fog. They had no choice but to make a break for it.

Islam went first, clearing the barrier in seconds. Felani wasn't so lucky. The hem of her salwar kameez caught on the barbed wire. She panicked, and screamed. An Indian soldier came running and fired a single shot at point-blank range, killing her instantly. The father fled, leaving his daughter's corpse tangled in the barbed wire. It hung there for another five hours before the border guards were able to negotiate a way to take her down; the Indians transferred the body across the border the next day. "When we got her body back the soldiers had even stolen her bridal jewelry," Islam told us, speaking in a distant voice a week after the January incident.

Other border fortifications around the world may get all the headlines, but over the past decade the 1,790-mile fence barricading the near entirety of the frontier between India and Bangladesh has become one of the world's bloodiest. Since 2000, Indian troops have shot and killed nearly 1,000 people like Felani there.

In India, the 25-year-old border fence -- finally expected to be completed next year at a cost of $1.2 billion -- is celebrated as a panacea for a whole range of national neuroses: Islamist terrorism, illegal immigrants stealing Indian jobs, the refugee crisis that could ensue should a climate catastrophe ravage South Asia. But for Bangladeshis, the fence has come to embody the irrational fears of a neighbor that is jealously guarding its newfound wealth even as their own country remains mired in poverty. The barrier is a physical reminder of just how much has come between two once-friendly countries with a common history and culture -- and how much blood one side is willing to shed to keep them apart.

India did not always view its eastern neighbor in such hostile terms. When Bengali-speaking nationalists in what was then East Pakistan won Bangladesh's independence in a bloody 1971 civil war, they did it armed with Indian weapons. But the war destroyed Bangladesh's already anemic infrastructure and left more than a million dead, presaging the new country's famously unlucky future. Bangladesh is now home to 160 million people crammed into an area smaller than Iowa; 50 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, and the country bottoms out the list on most major international health indicators.

As bad as things are, they can get plenty worse. Situated on a delta and crisscrossed by 54 swollen rivers, Bangladesh factors prominently in nearly every worst-case climate-change scenario. The 1-meter sea-level rise predicted by some widely used scientific models would submerge almost 20 percent of the country. The slow creep of seawater into Bangladesh's rivers caused by global-warming-induced flooding, upriver dams in India, and reduced glacial melt from the Himalayas is already turning much of the country's fertile land into saline desert, upending its precarious agricultural economy. Studies commissioned by the U.S. Defense Department and almost a dozen other security agencies warn that if Bangladesh is hit by the kind of Hurricane Katrina-grade storm that climate change is likely to make more frequent, it would be a "threat multiplier," sending ripples of instability across the globe: new opportunities for terrorist networks, conflicts over basic human essentials like access to food and water, and of course millions of refugees. And it's no secret where the uprooted Bangladeshis would go first. Bangladesh shares a border with only two countries: the democratic republic of India and the military dictatorship of Burma. Which would you choose?

India has a long history of accepting refugees, from the Tibetan government in exile to Sri Lankans fleeing a drawn-out civil war. Faced with the threat of mass migration from the east, however, New Delhi has drawn a line in the sand. Rather than prepare expensive and possibly permanent resettlement zones, India began erecting a fence, complete with well-armed guards, in 1986. After the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won national elections in 1998, the program was ramped up to placate anti-Muslim sentiment among the party faithful. The fence grew longer and the killings more frequent. After years of complaints from Bangladeshi politicians, India made promises on several occasions to switch to nonlethal weaponry, but has rarely followed through on them.

By next year, every available crossing point between India and Bangladesh will have been blocked off by the fence. But while tightened security has made the border more dangerous, it hasn't actually made it much more secure. More than 100 border villages operate as illicit transit points through which thousands of migrants pass daily. Each of these villages has a "lineman" -- what would be called a coyote on the U.S.-Mexican border -- who facilitates the smuggling, paying border guards from both notoriously corrupt countries to look the other way when people pass through.

"Entire villages can cross the border with the right payoffs," says Kirity Roy, head of the Indian human rights organization Masum, which together with Human Rights Watch released a bleak report on the border situation in December. No one is likely to manage the crossing without a lineman's help, Roy explains. "If someone tries to sneak past the linemen without paying, they will find them out and tell the border guards to shoot them." An inefficient bribe system, he says, explains how border guards could kill 1,000 unarmed people in the last decade.

The ugly immigration politics on the western side of the fence, where popular sentiment runs decisively in favor of walling off Bangladesh, have made a bad situation worse. The New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses estimates that there are already 10 to 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India. (By comparison, there are an estimated 11.2 million illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States.)

The rise of global Islamist militancy in recent years has worsened the xenophobic streak in India's already dicey relations with its Muslim neighbors, and Indian politicians have been quick to capitalize on it. By 2009, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram was declaring that Bangladeshis have "no business to come to India." The opposition BJP isn't rolling out the welcome mat either: Tathagata Roy, the party's leader in the Bangladesh-bordering state of West Bengal, has called for lining the border with antipersonnel mines. If the predictions come true for immigration from Bangladesh, Roy says, India's population of 900 million Hindus will have no choice but "to convert or jump into the sea."

The border itself has hardened into a grim killing field. Although border shootings are officially recorded by Indian officials as "shot in self-defense," the Masum and Human Rights Watch report found that none of the victims was armed with anything more dangerous than a sickle, and it accused the Indian Border Security Force of "indiscriminate killing and torture."

Most of the dead are farmers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. In January, Bangladeshi soldiers told us, six Indian soldiers lured a Bangladeshi farmer named Shahjahan Ali into a swath of no man's land along the border. They stripped him naked, beat him, broke his legs, and mutilated his genitals before throwing him back into Bangladesh, where he bled to death from his injuries. "It's like they are drunk," says the Bangladeshi soldier who found Ali. "Like they are on drugs." Powerless to fire back without creating an international incident with their vastly stronger neighbor, the Bangladeshi border guards can do little more than pick up the bodies.
Felani's death, however, galvanized Bangladesh. Graphic photos of her dead body made the front pages of newspapers across the country, and political parties posted her picture with the caption "Stop Border Killing!" on seemingly every available wall in the capital city of Dhaka. Shamsher Chowdhury, a former Bangladeshi foreign secretary and current vice chairman of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, says, "The fence is our Berlin Wall." The shooting seemed to have given India pause as well. In March, New Delhi once again agreed to strip its border guards of live ammunition, and for once actually did it. For the first month in almost a decade, Indian troops didn't kill anyone on the border.
But by April the Indian soldiers had reloaded, shooting a Bangladeshi cattle trader and three others in separate incidents. It was a bleak reminder that while the fence itself may be a flimsy thing, the tensions that make it into a killing zone are remarkably durable.

First published in Foreign Policy magazine, United States, July/August 2011

Scott Carney is author of The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers. Jason Miklian and Kristian Hoelscher are researchers at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. This article was made possible with a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bangladesh ethnic communities protest Islamization of constitution


THE BANGLADESH government’s dramatic turn around from secularism to Islamism has enraged the indigenous population, who are demanding to be recognized in a proposed re-draft of the country's constitution.

The nation is poised to amend the constitution, which is likely to be tabled in the parliament on Thursday. The move has been vehemently protested by independence war veterans, the pro-secularist lobby and social justice activists. Dissent is also being heard from within the ruling party and its pro-left alliance partners.

The superior court, in a landmark judgment last July, asked the government to restore secularism in the spirit of the bloody war of independence of 1971. Secular activists charge the government has deliberately adopted dilly-dally tactics while the charter changes are considered.
Former guerrilla leader Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma a.k.a. Shantu Larma, chairman of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council, on Thursday rejected the proposed Islamization of the constitution and demanded constitutional recognition of the indigenous or Adivasi community, who have resided in the country for centuries.

The guerrilla leader, who fought a bush war for two decades, demanded the government drop a proposal to keep a Koranic verse in the preamble of the constitution -- "Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim (in the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful)" and Islam as the state religion.

"A state can't have a religion," said Larma, who signed the historic peace accord between guerillas and the government 13 years ago. The treaty recognizes the inhabitants of hill forest as indigenous communities, acknowledges its traditional governance system and established regional autonomy. However, the constitution does not acknowledge them as Adivasis.
The matter of recognition of the indigenous people came to the fore recently following denial by a Bangladesh diplomat in the United Nations that there were no indigenous people in the country.

The statement has been construed as another step by the government to further erode the already limited rights of indigenous people.

Since Bangladesh gained independence four decades ago, the 35 ethnic groups that represent nearly 2 percent of the total 158 million majoritarian Sunni Muslims have demanded to be recognized as indigenous communities.

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

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Despite rise of food price in Bangladesh, poverty has also reduced slightly

Photo: Julian Francis/Micro-credit have empowered 13 million rural poor, mostly women

The poor communities in Bangladesh described their eating habits have changed and forgotten the taste of red meat or even lentils. The kitchens, traditionally dominated by women have pieces of chicken and fish species which they never have previously considered to eat.

Despite rise of price of food in Bangladesh increased in first half of 2011, the poverty has surprisingly reduced slightly, an Oxfam survey claims.

The report “Living on a Spike: How is the 2011 Food Price Crisis Affecting Poor People?” said the price hike of 2011 is affecting the poorest most, but it has been generally adverse on the wider society.

While food inflation reached 10 percent, according to the study released on Wednesday, Bangladesh depends on the international market for additional food imports, and changes in global prices are expected to have a local impact.

Bangladesh, a nation of 158 million has reduced poverty levels and improved living standards significantly in recent years despite global economic meltdown and natural calamities, the report said.
The study was designed to explore how poor people experienced the food price hike of 2011 in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya and Zambia. It follows on from research in the same communities in 2009 and 2010.

On the other side, the national poverty headcount rate declined in Bangladesh to 31.5 percent in 2010 from 40 percent in 2005, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistic and the World Bank jointly study launched on Wednesday.

The new survey report revealed that rural poverty declined to 35.2 percent in 2010 from 43.8 percent in 2005, while urban poverty has fallen to 21.3 percent from 28.5 percent in the same period.

Economist Professor Wahid Uddin Mahmud said the poverty rate was 50 percent in 1990 and it came down to 45 percent in 2000 and 40 percent in 2005. The poverty rate has declined by eight percent in last five years, writes private United News of Bangladesh.

He said the poverty has been decreasing gradually in the country keeping pace with the increasing growth of per head national income.

The poorest and most vulnerable try to cope by working harder, eating less, living even more frugally, drawing down any resources and assets and managing on a day-to-day basis, the report said.

Small farmers do not always benefit from high food prices as is supposed, as many sell their outputs at low prices immediately after he harvest to repay loans taken for cultivation; many people believe instead that an increasing number of middlemen and large traders cream off the main profits from high rice prices.

However, the communities under study held the government responsible for failure to protect them against food price spikes.

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bangladesh dramatic shift from secularism to Islamic constitution

Photo: Secularist campaign for trial of war criminals

BANGLADESH ON Monday night decided to make a radical shift from secularism to a pro-Islamic constitution. The move angered pro-democracy, secularist activists and also surprised the nation's moderate Muslim population.

An amendment of the constitution will be brought soon to retain Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim (in the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful) in the preamble of the constitution, freewheel policy to religious biased politicking and inclusion of Islam as state religion.

A meeting of the cabinet ministers chaired by prime minister Shiekh Hasina on Monday approved the amendments to the constitution. The constitutional reforms committee worked for months to recommend several revisions.

Meanwhile, the opposition led by former prime minister Khaleda Zia and Islamist alliance partners launched a countrywide agitation, including strikes protesting abrogation of non-partisan interim government to ensure free, fair, credible polls in the reformed constitution. They fear that the forthcoming general elections due in 2014 could be rigged based on proven track records of ruling party.

Two senior ministers AMA Muhith and AK Khandaker expressed their discontent during a cabinet meeting and protested the inclusion of “Islam as the state religion” of the republic in the reformed constitution. They argued that it will be in conflict with the constitution of 1972 ensuring the state should be secular with equal rights to all citizens practising other religions including Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity.

Commenting on the ministers’ argument, Hasina remarked, “The committee report has been prepared in this regard on the basis of reality as there have been many changes in the past 40 years.”

Secularists argue that state cannot belong to a faith, instead human beings may have a religion or practice a faith.

A year after the bloody war of independence from Islamic Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh (formerly an eastern province of Pakistan) adopted a secular constitution. Despite being the fourth largest Sunni Muslim dominated population, the country banned political activities of Islamic parties.

The 1972 secular constitution guaranteed religious freedom and respect of all faiths was installed by independence leader Shiekh Mujibur Rahman, the father of present prime minister Hasina. Subsequently the military juntas ruled the country for 15 years doctored the constitution, encouraging Islamization of Bangladesh.

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

Monday, June 20, 2011

Gas deal with American energy giant sparks protest in Bangladesh

Photo: Ashraful Alom Tito/UNBconnect: Activists protest against gas exploration deal

A CRUCIAL pact between the Bangladesh government and U.S. energy giant ConocoPhillips for deep sea gas exploration has sparked a dispute in the country as activists and allies announced a strike to protest the deal.

The radical activist group the National Committee on Protection of Oil, Gas and Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, with allies of the left-leaning parties, has dubbed the deal as controversial and against the national interest.
Professor Anu Mohammad, general secretary of the national committee, announced on Sunday a country-wide agitation and a six-hour shut down in the capital Dhaka on July 3 and demanded cancelation of the deal.

A professor of economics, Mohammad told reporters that his organization called a country wide shut-down because the agreement with ConocoPhillips endangered Bangladesh's ownership of maritime resources.

Mohammad claimed the provisions of the deal allowed Bangladesh to have only 20 per cent share of the explored hydrocarbon and eventually pave the way for the U.S. company "having a very poor track record" to export the gas abroad despite the energy-starved country.

The strike call came as the main opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, demanded publication of the full text of the agreement so the deal could be studied.

The government, ignoring dissent within the ruling party alliance and protests by experts, on Thursday inked the production-sharing contract (PSC) for gas exploration in the Bay of Bengal despite an ownership dispute over the territory with neighboring India and Myanmar.

ConocoPhillips was chosen to conduct seismic surveys in blocks 10 and 11, an area of nearly 2,000 square miles.

According to the PSC, ConocoPhillips will get 80 to 85 percent of the lifted gas at the cost-recovery stage. The Texas-based company will ensure a bank guarantee of $160 million in the nine-year deal, with a condition to operate surveys and exploration.
The gas, converted into Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), could be exported if state-owned hydrocarbon corporation Petrobangla is unable to purchase the fuel through laying 174 miles (280 kms) of pipeline away from Chittagong port, the country's energy distribution hub.

Bangladesh will have to lay pipe nearly a mile under the sea in an area regularly visited by tidal surge. Experts argue that laying the pipe, coupled with maintenance costs, will be very expensive for a poor country.

Meanwhile, the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a business, body urged activists to call off the strike. The business leaders reiterated its previous stand on shutdowns, saying such political action aggravates the country's economy, especially the industrialization process for shortages of gas and energy.

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

Bangladesh trade deficit balloons

BANGLADESH'S TRADE deficit swelled by 42.60% year-on-year to $6.43 billion during July to April of the 2010-11 fiscal year due largely to steep rises in global food and fuel prices, an official told the Xinhua news agency Sunday.

The Bangladesh Bank official said the country exported $18.315 billion U.S. dollars of goods while it imported items worth $24.745 billion in 10 months of the current 2010-11 fiscal year, which ends this month.

The overall trade deficit in the same period of the previous 2009-10 fiscal year was nearly $4.509 billion when Bangladesh's export earnings and import payments stood at $12.977 billion and $17.486 billion, respectively, he said quoting Bangladesh Bank data.

In the first 10 months of the current fiscal year, the BB data showed that Bangladesh's export and import earnings surged 41.13% and 41.51% respectively compared to the same period a year earlier.

"Trade deficit keeps widening as prices of oil and food products had a considerable hike in the global market since recession started to recede," the BB official said.

Bangladesh's trade deficit in the last 2009-10 fiscal year ballooned nearly 10% year on year to over $5 billion as the country's imports rebounded since April after months of slump in the wake of the global economic recession, he said.

The official said the huge trade gap had a tremendous pressure on the balance of payment, but comfortable receipts of remittances from over 7 million nonresident Bangladeshis, living and working in over 100 countries, helped the central bank cushion its impact.

Remittances in July-April period of the current fiscal year 2010-11 totaled $9,587.16 million, around 4.30% higher than the same period a year ago, the BB data showed.

"As remittances offset rising trade deficit, its not a big problem for us," the official said, adding that containing inflation largely related to food items particularly staple rice is rather always a matter of big challenge for Bangladesh.
Price increases in food items, particularly the staple rice, is a key concern for the South Asian country's government as nearly 40% of its over 150 million people live on less than two U.S. dollars a day and spend 70%t of their income on food.

According to latest Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics released data, the country's inflation rate leaped to 10.67% in April, the highest since July 2008. In April food inflation grew at 14.36%, hitting a record on a point- to-point basis in the last three years, the BBS data showed.

First published by MarketWatch, June 19, 2011

Controversial book accuses Bangladesh of 1971 war crimes

Caption: The book's conclusions are likely to be vigorously contested in Bangladesh. The book says both sides in the war committed crimes against humanity

Forty years ago Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in a short but brutal civil war in which it was claimed as many as three million people could have died. A book released to coincide with the anniversary has reached some highly controversial conclusions as the BBC's Alastair Lawson has discovered.

Sarmila Bose's book, Dead Reckoning, says that one of the bloodiest wars in the past half-century has been "dominated by the narrative of the victorious side" - Bangladeshi nationalists who won independence in 1971 from Pakistan.

She writes that both sides in the conflict "are still imprisoned by wartime partisan myths".

The introduction of her book does not exonerate Pakistani troops from committing atrocities during Bangladesh's bloody struggle for freedom.

Sharmila Bose
In the terrible violence of a fratricidal war, the victims were from every ethnic and religious group and from both sides of the political divide and so were the perpetrators...
Both sides had legitimate political arguments and their idealistic followers, along with those who indulged in opportunism, expediency and inhumanity.
Many Bengalis - supposed to be fighting for freedom and dignity - committed appalling atrocities.
And many Pakistani army officers, carrying out a military action against a political rebellion, turned out to be fine men doing their best to fight an unconventional war within the conventions of warfare...
A long-standing theme is the state of denial in Pakistan: A refusal to confront what really happened in East Pakistan.
However the study revealed a greater state of denial in Bangladesh.
But in what is certain to be viewed in Bangladesh as an extremely controversial conclusion, it says Bengalis - fighting for and against independence - also committed "appalling atrocities".

Dr Bose, a senior research fellow at Oxford University - and a former BBC presenter - says the Pakistani army has been "demonised" by the pro-liberation side and accused of "monstrous actions regardless of the evidence", while Bengali people have been depicted as "victims".

"This has led to a tendency to deny, minimise or justify violence and brutalities perpetrated by pro-liberation Bengalis," she says.

Already Bangladeshi academics at home and abroad are lining up to attack her book. One, the Dhaka and New York based writer Naeem Mohaiemen, told the BBC that she was guilty of

"pushing her conclusions to an extreme" by arguing that the war was fought between two equally violent sides, "with the Pakistan army using only justified and temperate amounts of retaliatory force".
He has accused her of lacking sufficient curiosity to unpack the more complex issues behind 1971, "such as why the killings began, why the Pakistan state behaved so brutally and why Bengalis reacted violently".

Nevertheless, the book is one of the first by a Western author to subject the war to thorough and independent scrutiny.

Dr Bose went through published documentary evidence, travelled to remote areas of Bangladesh to interview elderly villagers and journeyed to Pakistan to question retired army officers.

'Shocking bestiality'
Her book says the Bengali nationalist rebellion in what was then East Pakistan "turned into xenophobic violence against non-Bengalis" especially against West Pakistanis and mainly Urdu-speaking people who migrated to East Pakistan from India at the time of partition who were known as Biharis.
The bizarre hypothesis of Sarmila Bose's book is that Pakistani army officers are the most objective source to establish their own innocence.
In fact the interviewee list in her book reveals a distinct selection bias. In Pakistan, she interviewed 30 Pakistani army officers, and three civilians.
In addition four Pakistani army officers are listed as not agreeing to give interviews. So her pool of "expert knowledge" on the Pakistani army's actions failed to include anyone from Pakistan who has publicly said there was a genocide.
She also relies heavily on Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report, which was done by the post-1971 Pakistan government with the intention of white-washing the war.
Dr Bose takes some gaps in the popular narrative, and then pushes it to an extreme to argue that 1971 was a war between two equally violent sides, with the Pakistan army using only justified and temperate amounts of retaliatory force.
"In the ethnic violence unleashed in the name of Bengali nationalism, non-Bengali men, women and children were slaughtered," Dr Bose says, arguing such atrocities took place in the towns of Chittagong, Khulna, Santahar and Jessore during and after the 10-month war.

"Non-Bengali victims of ethnic killings by Bengalis numbered hundreds or even thousands per incident... men, women and children were massacred on the basis of ethnicity and the killings were executed with shocking bestiality."

Some of the worst brutalities were among Bengalis themselves, Dr Bose says, between those who were defending the unity of Pakistan and those who were fighting for the liberation of Bangladesh.

While "the killing of pro-liberation professionals by pro-regime death squads in the dying days of the war stands out as one of the worst crimes of the conflict... brutalisation and elimination of those with a different political viewpoint seemed to be the hallmark of nationalist Bengalis too".

There is clear evidence, Dr Bose says, of the violence suffered by "non-Bengali victims of Bengali ethnic hatred".

"Of the corpses reported littering the land and clogging up the rivers, many would have been Bihari... as Bengali mobs appear to have killed non-Bengalis indiscriminately while the Pakistani army appeared to target adult Bengali men."

In one notorious incident examined by the author in the south-western town of Khulna on 28 March 1971, Bengalis "slaughtered" large numbers of Biharis in the town's jute mills.

 'Gigantic rumour'
Dr Bose also examines the widely reported suggestion that three million Bengalis were killed by the Pakistani army. These figures are sacrosanct in Bangladesh, where the overwhelming majority of people continue to honour and respect those who died in the liberation struggle.

Describing the three million figure as a "gigantic rumour", she says it is "not based on any accounting or survey on the ground".

"None of the popular assertions of three million Bengalis allegedly killed by the [Pakistani] army cites any official report," she says.

"Claims of the dead in various incidents wildly exceeding anything that can be reasonably supported by evidence on the ground - 'killing fields' and 'mass graves' were claimed to be everywhere, but none was forensically exhumed and examined in a transparent manner."

Her conclusion over how many died has been roundly rejected by Mr Mohaiemen, who pointed out that Bangladeshis have themselves publicly dissected the problem of "numbers", going back to 1972 when the three million number was first cited.

"Researchers like Zunaid Kazi documented 12 different media estimates of death tolls. Thus, the implied 'hook' of Dr Bose's book, a claim to being the 'first' to dissect the death toll, rings hollow and is self-promotional.

"In any case, whether the death toll was three million or 300,000, does that make it any less of a genocide? That appears to be her intellectually indefensible conclusion."

Dr Bose does not ignore atrocities carried out by Pakistan and its supporters - her book has several chapters on this subject - concluding its army committed political and extrajudicial killings that in some cases were "genocidal".

She says: "Ultimately neither the numbers nor the labels matter. What matters is the nature of the conflict, which was fundamentally a complex and violent struggle for power among several different parties with a terrible human toll."

The Bangladeshi government has so far not commented on her book - but the country's attitude towards those who express dissenting views about the 1971 war was clearly seen in April when a film about a woman's love affair with a Pakistani soldier during the conflict was speedily withdrawn amid suggestions it distorted history.

First published in BBC online, 16 June 2011

The Indian edition of Sarmila Bose's book is being published by Hachette India and is due to be released in mid-June. The book is published by C Hurst and Co in the UK and by Columbia University Press in the US.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

India-Bangladesh: Is the honeymoon over?


AS BANGLADESH prepares to host Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and possibly UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi in Dhaka this July or August, it is not all good news at home for the country's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
After decisively addressing India's security and connectivity concerns by cracking down hard on northeast militants and allowing limited trans-shipment of capital goods to India's northeast through her country's territory, Hasina is now seeking major concessions from India on river water sharing, market access for Bangladeshi products, maritime and land boundary delimitation and import of power, besides other lesser issues. The feeling in Dhaka is that it is payback time and the Bangladesh foreign office is hoping for some major agreements during Singh's visit.

Bangladesh plans to unveil a statue of Indira Gandhi, widely seen as the "liberator of Bangladesh", on a major road in Dhaka to be named after her during Singh's visit in a symbolic gesture of gratitude. More important, Hasina's government welcomes huge Indian investments, especially in infrastructure. Foreign minister Dipu Moni has wished that India's economist prime minister will take captains of Indian industry along with him during the visit.
At home, Hasina finds herself caught in a crossfire between friends and foes that could weaken her control. On one hand, her plans to do away with the caretaker arrangement for holding elections has provoked opposition parties, especially the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to hit the streets. After having called a strike on June 5, the BNP now threatens to follow up with more if the Awami League government does not back off from its plans to switch to the Indian system of holding polls under a ruling dispensation. The BNP and other opposition parties - and even some in the ruling coalition - suspect that the Awami League wants to rig the parliamentary elections in 2013 to stay on in power.

This is the first time since its stunning defeat in the December 2008 polls that the BNP is back on the streets with demands for midterm polls to test the government's popularity, insisting that elections be held under a neutral caretaker dispensation under existing laws. The Awami League dismisses its fears as baseless and points to several recent municipal elections and other by-elections in which ruling party candidates lost though the polls were held under the present government. These losses, especially the defeat of sitting Chittagong municipal corporation chairman A K Mohiuddin, do indicate that the Awami League has lost some of the high ground it had gained in December 2008 when its alliance won 235 seats and the BNP ended up with only 30 seats in a 300-member House. And that has spurred the BNP's demand for a midterm poll.
On the other hand, Hasina's decision not to press ahead with the Supreme Court's verdict to restore Bangladesh's secular 1972 Constitution has upset her friends and allies who feel she is backing out, despite a huge mandate, to avoid confrontation with Islamic hardliners. The 1972 Constitution guaranteed equality of status to all religions and banned religious parties but subsequent amendments by two military rulers introduced "Bismillah" in the Preamble and made Islam the state religion besides allowing religious parties like the Jamait-e-Islami - hated for its support to the Pakistani regime - to re-enter the political stage.

A huge meeting was organised recently by the Sector Commanders Forum, an organisation of 1971 liberation fighters. Chaired by two former army chiefs and one air chief, currently the government's planning minister, it brought together 28 secular groups. The support of these groups was key to the Awami League's 2008 poll victory because they had passionately evoked the "spirit of 1971" among old and young alike. They have now resolved to pressure the Awami League government to restore the 1972 Constitution and press ahead with war crime trials to bring pro-Pakistani collaborators, responsible for large-scale murder, arson and rape, to justice. There are indications that Hasina faces a serious challenge from her own party and alliance if she does not move to restore the secular Constitution that her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman put in place and try the "war criminals" of 1971.
The Bangladesh Left in Hasina's 14-party alliance has cried foul over the retention of Islam as the state religion, with Communist Party secretary Mujahid-ul-Islam Selim alleging that Bangladesh was fast becoming a "half-Pakistan". Some Awami League leaders like former industry minister Tofail Ahmed and planning minister A K Khandkhar have supported the sector commanders' decision to launch protest action if the 1972 Constitution was not restored. "If the BNP can hit the streets, so can we and more effectively," said filmmaker Nasiruddin Yusuf.

Yusuf suggested a strike to push the agenda and was supported by the likes of leading anti-fundamentalist campaigner Shahriar Kabir, who insists that Hasina has no right to betray the "spirit of 1971" for which three million Bengalis died. He says that, without the 1972 Constitution, Bangladesh will become another 'failed state' like Pakistan. Others have even called for a "second liberation war".

So, after just over two years of Awami League rule, Bangladesh appears to have returned to the politics of confrontation, which worries business and citizens alike.

First published in Times of India, India, June 14, 2011

Subir Baumik, PhD is a senior journalist and specializes in conflict and insurgency in Northeast India

Friday, June 17, 2011

Despite protests, Bangladesh inks pacts with U.S. energy giant for offshore hydrocarbon exploration


THE GOVERNMENT of Bangladesh, an energy starved country, inked a contract on Thursday with a U.S. energy giant for offshore oil and gas exploration.

Ignoring protests, state-owned PetroBangla signed a production-sharing contract (PSC) with Conoco Phillips, an U.S. corporation for exploration of oil and gas in two deep-sea gas blocks.

Vice-president William Lafferrandre said his corporation, Conoco Phillips, will immediately begin exploration within Bangladesh’s maritime boundary. The agreement is for nine years.

Conoco Phillips is the world’s fifth-largest private sector energy corporation and is one of the six "super major" vertically integrated oil companies.

Controversy has raged with Burma and India over territorial ocean boundaries. The Burmese military junta has sent warships to threaten Bangladesh not to attempt to explore for energy resources within disputed territory in the Bay of Bengal.
Conoco Phillips is barred from exploring nearly half of the two blocks, said a PetroBangla official.

Bangladesh is awaiting judgment from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to settle the claims over the disputed waters.

The country currently produces around 2,000 million cubic feet (mmcft) of gas per day against a demand of more than 2,500 mmcft. The proven gas reserves are 7.3 trillion cubic feet (tcf) and probable reserves 5.5 tcf.

A citizen’s network called the Committee to Protect Oil-Gas and Mineral Resources, with allies drawn from leftist parties, workers, environmentalists and professionals staged a demonstration and clashed with riot police on Tuesday protesting that the contract would hamper national interests.
Prof Anu Mohammad, leader of the citizen’s network argue that the deal with Texas based corporation would lose ownership of the blocks once the contract was signed, which is nearly 150 miles away from the coast. It which would be suicidal for the nation, observed the economic professor of a state university.

Senior government officials, however, said that Conoco Phillips will not be allowed to export gas unless the country refuses to buy its gas under the contract.

Professional and academics claim the U.S. corporation will have the authority to export 80 percent of the gas, and PetroBangla will acquire the rest, which will have to be carried to the shore at its own cost, a costly proposition for Bangladesh.

PetroBangla chairman Hossain Mansur explained to website on Wednesday that there is nothing against the country's interests in the contract.

The controversy further deepened after whistleblower site Wikileaks revealed that U.S. Ambassador John F. Moriarty in 2010 pressured the Bangladesh prime minister's energy advisor to award the contracts to Conoco Phillips, Halliburton and another American company.

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

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Disregarding the Jumma


THE BANGLADESH government’s continued failure to protect its indigenous peoples has forced them to seek international help.
This year, Bangladesh was a subject of heated discussion at the tenth session, held between 16-27 May, of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). The starting point was a report commissioned by the Permanent Forum. Written by former member of the Permanent Forum Lars-Anders Baer, who went to Bangladesh last year as a Special Rapporteur, the report entitled ‘Study on the status of implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997’ received statements of solidarity from the delegates.

The Permanent Forum, established in July 2000 by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), is a high-level advisory body that deals with indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, environment, education, health and human rights. This is the first UN Forum where indigenous peoples directly represent their own interests. It consists of 16 members, half of whom are nominated by the government and the other half by the indigenous peoples, who advise and report directly to the ECOSOC. It reports and makes recommendations to the ECOSOC, raises awareness and promotes coordination of activities relating to indigenous peoples within the UN system, and prepares and disseminates information on indigenous issues. The members meet once each year for ten working days. Governments, UN bodies and agencies, intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations, and organisations of indigenous peoples participate as observers. In 2010, at the ninth session of the Forum, Chakma Raja Devasish Roy was selected, from the Asia region, as one of the 16 indigenous expert members for the period of 2011-2013.

From the very beginning, indigenous peoples’ representatives from Bangladesh have been participating at the Permanent Forum sessions. However, this is the first time that the 1997 CHT accord has been a focus of deliberation and dedicated discussion. After the presentation by Special Rapporteur Baer, observer countries, international human rights organisations, including Amnesty

International and International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), and other national and international human rights organisations voiced their support to the recommendations proposed by the study and urged the government of Bangladesh to accelerate its efforts in implementing the CHT Accord.
Political concoction
Although representatives of the Bangladesh government, including the state minister for CHT affairs, and other indigenous members of the parliament were scheduled to participate in the Forum discussion, they cancelled at the last moment, and Iqbal Ahmed, the First Secretary of the Bangladesh mission to the UN, responded to the report. The thrust of Ahmed’s argument was that there were ‘no indigenous peoples in Bangladesh’ and as such the implementation of the Accord should not have been a topic for the Forum to discuss. He then went on to discuss the structural work that had so far been done by the government, including setting up of the Regional Council, the Hill Districts Councils, the Land Commission and the National Committee for Implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord. He concluded by saying:
This statement has been delivered for better understanding of everyone present here on the issue which is clearly ‘non-indigenous’ in nature. This effort, hence, should not be misconstrued as a recognition of the authority of the Forum to discuss the issue of CHT affairs. We urge upon the Forum to dedicate its valuable time to discuss issues related to millions of indigenous people all over the world and not waste time on issues politically concocted by some enthusiastic quarters with questionable motives.
Despite one of the members of the Forum, Raja Devasish Roy, being an indigenous person from Bangladesh, it was rather surprising for the first secretary to say that there were no indigenous peoples in the country. Of course this argument has been used before. Although both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have used the word ‘adivasi’ (indigenous) in their commemorative statements, and many older government laws use the phrase ‘indigenous hill-men’, the present government has categorically refused to recognise the existence of indigenous peoples in the national and international platforms. In April 2010, Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni, following a declaration made earlier by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP)-led government, stated that Bangladesh did not have any indigenous population. The Ministry for CHT Affairs also reflected this denial on a memo, in which it instructed district-level officials to stop using the terms ‘adivasi’ or ‘indigenous’ in government documents; replacing the terms with the word ‘upajati’ (sub-ethnicity) instead.

Although in their election manifesto, 2008, the Awami League (AL), which now leads the government, had promised to implement the 1997 CHT Accord in full, the Chittagong Hill Tracts continue to be a militarized area, where arson attacks against the indigenous people are frequent. The security forces including the army, police and the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), are alleged to be covert supporters of these attacks. In the face of such hostility by a government that was initially seen as secular and minority-friendly, the next option for the indigenous population has been to take their issues to the international community through the UN Permanent Forum.

In response to the government’s disavowal of the existence of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh, indigenous expert member Roy said:
It is important to bear in mind the asymmetry in the status of the two parties to an accord: the state party and the non-state party. If the state reneges on its promises, what can the non-state party do but approach the United Nations? The Permanent Forum is mandated to deal with issues of indigenous peoples, irrespective of terms the governments use to refer to their indigenous peoples: ‘tribes’ or ‘ethnic minorities’ or otherwise.
Military bias
The first secretary in his statement had objected to two specific recommendations Special Rapporteur Baer made in his report, calling them ‘out of context’. Both of the recommendations were in regards to the UN peacekeeping forces from Bangladesh. While section 56 of the study recommended that the Department of Peacekeeping Operations of the UN Secretariat (UNPKO) ‘develop a mechanism to strictly monitor and screen the human rights records of national army personnel prior to allowing them to participate in peacekeeping operations under the auspices of the United Nations’, section 58(a) recommended that it also ‘prevent human rights violators and alleged human rights violators within the security forces of Bangladesh from participating in international peacekeeping activities under the auspices of the United Nations’. Bangladesh has been sending troops as part of the UN Peacekeeping Operations since 1988 (the year the UNPKO won the Nobel Peace Prize) and is currently the top Troop Contributing Country (TCC). It has participated in 46 UN peacekeeping missions in 32 countries with approximately 100,000 uniformed personnel. This has been lauded both abroad and at home, and has been a source of considerable pride for the military, the state and citizens.

At the same time, however, indigenous peoples in CHT continue to bring allegations against the Bangladesh Army of its biased stance and actions against them, and of abetting or tolerating human rights violations in the area. For example, in February 2010, settlers burned more than 400 homes of indigenous people in villages across Baghaihat, Rangamati to the ground. The army personnel, who were present in the area in the Baghaihat zone, are accused to have done nothing to stop the arsonists and working instead as a ‘shield’ to protect the settlers. Non-cooperation from the government meant that no independent investigations were conducted into this case. Apart from biased views and actions, the army is also accused of displacing indigenous people from their lands to increase requisitioned land for military garrisons in the CHT.

In the CHT Accord of 1997, an agreement to dismantle all temporary military camps, apart from the six designated cantonments, from the area was reached. A promise to form a functioning Land Commission, which would resolve all land disputes, was also made. However, the present Land Commission and its Chairman’s blatant ‘pro-Bengali’ bias, combined with the continued racial and communal bias displayed by the Bangladesh government and regional administration has meant that the leaders of the indigenous peoples have run out of hope that the Accord will ever be implemented.

Time too is running out for the implementation of the Accord during the tenure of the present AL-led government. The Permanent Forum has provided the Jumma (collective name for the indigenous hill peoples in the CHT) with a platform to reach out to indigenous peoples from different parts of the world and put pressure on the government to implement the accord. However, first, the Government of Bangladesh should recognise that it is its own failure that it could not take concrete steps to execute the clauses of the fourteen-year-old accord and that it could not alter its continued anti-indigenous peoples attitude – which led to the internationalisation of the issue in the first place. Overused statements containing phrases like ‘politically concocted’ will not succeed in shifting the blame.

First published in The Himal magazine, June 15, 2011

Hana Shams Ahmed is a member of the Drishtipat Writers’ Collective. She can be reached at