Monthly Coupon

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Bangladesh: Corrupted democracy


Bangladesh’s worsening problems are the result of systemic political failure. Even as anger mounts in the midst of pre-election jockeying, however, the truth of the matter is that little will change after Bangladeshis head to the polls in January. Regardless of who wins, it won't be the people.

This coming January, Bangladesh will go to the polls to elect a government for the fifth time since military rule ended in 1990. During each past election, apart from the discredited February 1996 poll, strong anti-incumbency sentiment has resulted in a change of government, thereby allowing the two main parties, the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to alternate in power.

Despite a strong record of formal democracy, both Bangladeshi and international analysts are expressing strong concerns about January's polls. Many fear that the results will be so marred by violence and corruption as to render them unacceptable. Some even worry that the existing situation may disallow the possibility of an election at all.

Politics, like much else in Bangladesh, has always been characterised by violence. After the bloody War of Independence in 1971, the country's first two prime ministers, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, (Ed: Ziaur Rahman was first military dictator, later turned president) were both assassinated. Between 1974 and 1990, the country was governed largely under states of emergency or martial law. Intertwined political and familial histories have subsequently blighted the country's political landscape. Even as the upcoming election looms, the leaders of the two main political parties -- the AL's Sheikh Hasina (daughter of Mujibur Rahman) and the BNP's Begum Khaleda Zia (wife of Ziaur Rahman) -- are not able to so much as have a talk together about the national state of affairs.

The past three decades of deep personal animosity between the two leaders has stifled political discourse in Bangladesh generally. The Parliament is routinely boycotted by the opposition, so issues are fought out street-side through anti-government general strikes. Though these have become increasingly frequent, and perhaps more violent, in recent years, the pattern of the opposition eschewing dialogue in Parliament in favour of confrontation on the streets has held true no matter who sits in power.

Despite the uncertain political climate, Bangladesh has enjoyed an enviable growth rate averaging five percent over the past several years. However, rising economic performance has also resulted in an increasing polarisation between the country's rich and poor an inequality that potentially adds to instability. Penniless beggars stand outside Bashundhara City, the mega-mall in central Dhaka that is claimed to be the largest shopping complex in South Asia.

In rural areas, meanwhile, the situation has changed little. Bangladesh is doing better than other countries in the region at achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the UN in 2000. The World Bank in Bangladesh states that the country "has made remarkable progress on several MDGs and is already on the verge of achieving the targets in gender parity. It also has a good chance of reaching other targets in areas such as under-five mortality and consumption poverty." Many Bangladeshis are openly astonished when they hear of such 'successes', however, being aware of the high levels of insecurity experienced by people of all classes in the country. At the end of the day, economic growth has not resulted in any increase in physical security for Bangladeshis; indeed, it may have promoted increasing insecurity through a rise in criminality and impunity.

In recent times, Bangladesh has come to international attention through the lens of Islamic extremist violence and terrorism. However, the threat posed by systemic corruption of the political, business and justice structures poses a greater and more immediate threat to the security of Bangladeshis, and to the integrity of democracy in the country. Bangladesh is a very politically aware country, but one where survival requires political patronage at all levels. The politics that is practiced is complex, multi-layered and opaque, and political relationships frequently include 'protection' that reaches into both the criminal sector and the justice system itself.

Mastaans and godfathers
Corruption is not so much endemic as systemic in Bangladesh, and the country has now topped the Transparency International corruption index for several years running. Corruption is also directly linked to criminality, violence and impunity. The social system in Bangladesh remains somewhat feudal, and both social and business relations are based on patronage relationships that have assisted organised crime to capture many aspects of the state and governance, law enforcement and the judicial system. It also pervades business practice. Mastaans, organised criminals, run wide-ranging 'protection rackets' through a complex system of payment and collection. Even street beggars pay for protection.

Mastaans have developed relationships and linkages with politicians, who in turn benefit financially. Some of these politicians, known as 'godfathers', hold high-ranking positions, and extend political and judicial protection to the mastaans. Some mastaans have become legitimate businessmen, while others have themselves entered politics each maintaining his own coterie of goondas. As such, the lines between politics, business and organised crime have become increasingly blurred in Bangladesh. Honest businessmen and politicians are often isolated and powerless, as the prevailing atmosphere makes it difficult to remain unsullied by corruption and patronage.

The success of the political-criminal nexus in Bangladesh is underpinned by impunity. The godfather-mastaan system enforces endemic corruption, and protects those engaged in its organisation. Furthermore, protected mastaans enjoy impunity from both police and the justice system, though in recent years this safety has been threatened by other extrajudicial means.
In October 2002, police claimed that 10 people were being killed every day by crime syndicates with links to politicians. The government subsequently launched Operation Clean Heart, an army programme that arrested over 11,000 people, of which only 2400 were listed as alleged criminals. There were 44 deaths reported during the operation, which ended in January 2003. The government immediately passed an ordinance granting indemnity to all the security personnel who had been involved in the excesses. Although there was a strong outcry from human rights organisations and Western governments at this use of the army and lack of due process, Operation Clean Heart was an immediate popular success. Dhaka thereafter instituted the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a paramilitary force almost entirely composed of military personnel but reporting to the Home Affairs Minister. The RAB operations were 'legalised' by investing it with the powers of civilian police.

Numerous criminals have been killed in 'crossfire' by the RAB, to the extent that 'being taken to the crossfire' is entering the language in much the same way as 'being disappeared' did in Latin America in an earlier era. The RAB still enjoys high popularity, as many Bangladeshis view it as their only hope against preying criminals. Many RAB officers have been on UN peacekeeping missions, and therefore fully understand human rights norms; in the war against the mastaans, however, they do not see these as applicable. Currently, the RAB seems to be efficient, disciplined and relatively incorrupt, but their actions offend every precept of due process and rule of law. Even within some parts of the army itself, questions are being asked as to who will ultimately be able to control this proud, elite, popular force.

Impunity and enforcement of the rule of law are key issues to many of the country's governance, security and business ills. Unfortunately, many of those benefiting from the system are also those to whom one would look in the fight against impunity, criminality and corruption. A more successful process needs to be systematic, long-term, and one that harnesses the will of Bangladeshis.

Turn to conservatism
Unlike other parts of South Asia, Bangladesh was converted to Islam by the Sufis prior to its incorporation into the Mogul empire during the 17th century. The more spiritual, rather than clerical, approach of the Sufis resulted in a blended, syncretic Bengali culture. Though Islamic by religion, these cultural forms celebrate singing and dancing from the Sufi tradition, and also incorporate many aspects of Hinduism.

This traditional Sufi-based faith has been increasingly challenged, however, by both Deobandism from Pakistan and India, and some Wahabism from West Asia, both of which are stricter and more clerically based. The West Asian influence has been strengthened by investment of oil money in Bangladesh since the 1970s, as well as by Bangladeshis returning from work in the Gulf. Increasing worldwide Islamic consciousness and geopolitical events have also played a part in introducing more clerically based trends. Thousands of Bangladeshis are believed to have fought against the USSR in Afghanistan, subsequently returning home after the Soviets left.

The increasing conservatism of Islam in Bangladesh is noticeable in the transformation in dress of women and men, as well as in the conspicuous pious acts in which political leaders of all parties increasingly engage. The AL is traditionally seen as the party of secularism, while the BNP, which removed secularism from the Constitution, is perceived as more favourable to Islam. This is particularly so in the current context, as the present BNP-led government is an alliance that includes two Islamic parties, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Islamic Oikkya Jote.

JI's percentage of the popular vote has remained below 10 percent in successive elections. After allying with the BNP in 2001, JI secured 18 out of 300 seats in Parliament, and now holds two cabinet ministries. This is the first time that the party has been in government, and the advantage it has been able to garner from this exposure will only be clear after the 2007 election results are known. The acrimony between the two major parties has left the population disillusioned with almost all their political leaders. As such, there were fears that JI's image as a party with a clear agenda and relatively free of financial irregularity would attract disillusioned voters. However, it seems that the activities of violent Islamist groups may have boomeranged against the party, and a JI election upset now appears unlikely.

International headlines, meanwhile, have focused on the threat of violent extremism, particularly in the wake of the bombings between August and December 2005 associated with the militant Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Despite widespread media reports, however, the government continued to deny JMB's existence for months, until strong international pressure forced Dhaka to ban the group in February 2005, one day before a high-level international donor meeting was slated to take place. After the JMB was suspected in the 459 near-simultaneous countrywide explosions in August that year, it was again international pressure that resulted in the incident being taken seriously.

During subsequent attacks that targeted members of the judiciary, investigations and arrests did indeed proceed. This resulted in several long jail sentences being handed down in February, and two leaders being sentenced to death in May. However, recent reports state that other trials have been frustrated by the authorities failing to produce the accused in court.
Furthermore, during the judicial process links have been discovered between the accused and Shibir, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, as well as with JI itself. In addition, there have been reports of strong links with leading politicians in both the major parties. Some Bangladeshis believe that the JMB leadership has had 'godfather' protection, particularly in its earlier activities in northern Bangladesh.

In 2004, the leader of the terror outfit JMJB (Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh) known as 'Bangla Bhai', whose real name is Siddiqul Islam, held a press conference in a local government office in Rajshahi. Locals also observed cooperation between the police and the JMB, who were hunting down supposed communists and leftists. However, the actions by the security forces against the JMB have convinced most Bangladeshis that the Mujahideen has, for the moment, been broken although few believe that they are finished.

Prior to August 2005, there was much confusion about the extent of support that groups such as the JMB might have. The public reaction to the exhibitions of violence that month, however, indicated a clear rejection. Indeed, JI's profile has suffered badly as a result of the JMB's activities. This bodes well for countering further threats of Islamic violence in Bangladesh. However, the underlying spectre of Islamic conservatism 'laying the foundation' for an Islamic state appears to be one that Bangladeshi political parties are unwilling to publicly take on board, lest they offend Islamic sensibilities among the electorate. At the same time, the international community is simply unable to do so, constrained as they are by a mixture of excessive liberalism on the one hand, and judicious caution that they may inflame sensitive anti-imperialist and/or Muslim sentiments among Bangladeshis on the other.

New popular will It can now be seen that Bangladesh's formal democracy has been gradually undermined by the impunity and failure of the rule of law inherent to both the godfather-mastaan system and the politics of patronage. Yet over three previous elections, the first two were thought to be free and fair, while a third reflected the will of the people despite overt violence in some areas; a fifth poll was dubious, but was rejected by the people, and a new government was installed within five months. Critical to this has been the non-party caretaker government system, which has been held up as a model for other countries in democratic transition. Recent irregularities surrounding this system, however, have led to a wide coalition of opposition parties drawing up an Electoral Reform Agenda (See accompanying story, "A crippled caretaker").

The AL has threatened to boycott the election if the reforms are not adopted. The government agreed in principle to a discussion, and for a while it looked as if the absence of dialogue in Bangladeshi politics might suddenly be broken. But that hope was short-lived. The AL wanted direct talks with the BNP, and stated they would not hold discussions with the government's alliance partners, the JI and Oikkya Jote. The BNP subsequently put forward a dialogue team that included members from all alliance parties. As such, there has still been no dialogue, leading commentators and activists to believe that the government and opposition are on a collision course that can only end in violence.

Meanwhile, most of the country's voters appear to be disillusioned with both of the major parties, and harbour an active distrust of all politicians. The parties themselves have ignored the people's needs between elections, other than to use the public against each other. In the villages, there is an increasing polarisation between those who seek solace and social welfare from the new mosques, and those who cling to the traditional Sufism and embrace NGO programmes.
But as the political parties swing into election mode over the spring and summer of 2006, the people have begun to take things into their own hands. Popular local demonstrations, neither orchestrated by nor linked to any political party, have occurred spontaneously around a variety of non-political issues. In the volatile political atmosphere of present-day Bangladesh, these could continue to grow.

Though there had previously been some popular protest around energy and environmental issues, particularly in those areas that were devastated by gas blowouts and fires in the country's northeast, these had always been utilised by opposition parties for their own purposes against the government. For many, no electricity means no water; the high level of electricity outages has subsequently caused huge frustration, resulting in these large and public protests in Kansat and Demra villages during the first four months of this year. The national press estimated that over 1000 people were injured at Kansat, forcing the government to issue a public apology. Regardless, there is little that Dhaka can do to improve the electricity situation in the short term.

In late May 2006, the protest focus turned from electricity to industry, when workers across the garment sector violently rioted in what began as a dispute over dismissals in a single factory and quickly spread to engulf whole industrial areas. This is another example of the extreme volatility of contemporary conditions in Bangladesh. With no political party having the credibility to give leadership or direction to such protests, street turbulence lacking in any national leadership is likely to increase.

Little will change Getting through the next election is a necessary but not sufficient condition to stabilising Bangladesh. Despite the widespread disillusionment with the political parties, without doubt it is important that January's elections take place and, as far as possible, are conducted freely and fairly. The international agencies in Dhaka are already cooperating with Bangladeshi organisations to ensure that there is a good distribution of trained monitors, both local and international, throughout the country. If the elections cannot take place and there is no mandate for governance, the possibilities are all grim.

Bangladesh has a history of military government. Currently, the armed forces do not seem to have political ambition, they enjoy some political influence without any responsibility, and they earn well from UN missions and business deals. However, if the civilian political parties are unable to establish a credible government, their intervention may be welcomed as a stabilising factor both within and outside Bangladesh. Previous military governments originated under a similar guise of 'saving the country'.

As such, the 2007 elections are crucial for Bangladesh, despite the fact that their actual outcome will change little. The country's problems are systemic, and have come about through the lowering of people's expectations of government and of political parties. The latter, meanwhile, have managed to hollow out the state through corruption and nepotism. Both the AL and BNP are complicit in this negative process, and both have allowed the 'godfather system' to become so entrenched that it is questionable whether they can ever totally extricate themselves from it.

While these problems need to be articulated in the public domain, that has proven a dangerous task, as many Bangladeshi journalists have discovered for trying. But it is not until the corruption of Bangladeshi politics is addressed publicly that a corrective process will be able to begin. Only at that point will Bangladeshis be able to start developing systematic responses to the governance challenges the country faces. And only then might the people of Bangladesh be able to look to a more secure future. #

Himal SouthAsian is a progressive magazine published out of Nepal focussing on issues related to the South Asia. The present article is one of the many from the cover story of August 06 issue which is devoted to Bangladesh

No information about al-Qaeda presence in Bangladesh: US

News Update Service
Friday, August 4, 2006 : 1015 Hrs

No information about al-Qaeda presence in Bangladesh: US

Washington, August 4 (PTI): The US has said it does not have any specific information about the al-Qaeda network's presence in Bangladesh.

Commenting on a media report that the al-Qaeda may have found its way into Bangladesh, State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said Washington was as concerned as Dhaka about the issue of terrorism in the South Asian nation.

"We're concerned about terrorism in Bangladesh as is the Bangladeshi government. And we certainly stand ready to work with them. I don't have any particular information about the presence of al-Qaeda individuals in Bangladesh," McCormack, said at a media briefing yesterday.

"We do know that they have had in the past a worldwide network. So we do have cooperation on the counter-terrorism front with Bangladesh," he added.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

A New Hub for Terrorism?In Bangladesh, an Islamic Movement With Al-Qaeda Ties Is on the Rise

By Selig S. Harrison

Wednesday, August 2, 2006; A15

While the United States dithers, a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement linked to al-Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence agencies is steadily converting the strategically located nation of Bangladesh into a new regional hub for terrorist operations that reach into India and Southeast Asia.

With 147 million people, largely Muslim Bangladesh has substantial Hindu and Christian minorities and is nominally a secular democracy. But the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) struck a Faustian bargain with the fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami five years ago in order to win power.

In return for the votes in Parliament needed to form a coalition government, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has looked the other way as the Jamaat has systematically filled sensitive civil service, police, intelligence and military posts with its sympathizers, who have in turn looked the other way as Jamaat-sponsored guerrilla squads patterned after the Taliban have operated with increasing impunity in many rural and urban areas.

To the dismay of her business supporters, the prime minister gave the coveted post of industries minister to Matiur Rahman Nizami, a high-ranking Jamaat official who has helped promote the growth of a Jamaat economic empire that embraces banking, insurance, trucking, pharmaceutical manufacturing, department stores, newspapers and TV stations. A study last year by a leading Bangladeshi economist showed that the "fundamentalist sector of the economy" earns annual profits of some $1.2 billion.

Now the BNP-Jamaat alliance is rigging the next national elections, scheduled for January, to prevent the return of the opposition Awami League to power. Voter lists are being manipulated, and the supposedly neutral caretaker government and the commission that will run the election are being turned into puppets.

The BNP argues that coalition rule helps moderates in the Jamaat to combat Islamic extremist factions. But the reality is that Jamaat inroads in the government security machinery at all levels, starting with Home Secretary Muhammad Omar Farooq, widely regarded as close to the Jamaat, have opened the way for suicide bombings, political assassinations, harassment of the Hindu minority, and an unchecked influx of funds from Islamic charities in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf to Jamaat-oriented madrassas (religious schools) that in some cases are fronts for terrorist activity.

With some 15,000 hard-core fighters operating out of 19 known base camps, guerrilla groups sponsored by the Jamaat and its allies were able to paralyze the country last Aug. 17 by staging 459 closely synchronized explosions in all but one of the country's administrative districts. When the key leaders of these groups were captured, they were kept by the police in a comfortable apartment, where they were free to receive visitors. A cartoon in the Daily Star of Dhaka on July 24 showed them lounging on a rug, conducting classes in bombmaking. Their fate and present place of confinement is uncertain, and all of the major guerrilla groups are back to business as usual.

The bitterness of Bangladeshi politics is often attributed to a personal vendetta between two strong women, Prime Minister Zia and the Awami League leader, Sheikh Hasina Wajed. But the roots of the current struggle go back to 1971, when Bengali East Pakistan, led by the Awami League, broke away from Punjabi-dominated West Pakistan to form the nation of Bangladesh. The Jamaat, which originated in the western wing, opposed the independence movement and fought side by side with Pakistani forces against both fellow Bengalis and the Indian troops who intervened in the decisive final phase of the conflict.

For Pakistan's intelligence agencies, especially Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the legacy of the independence war has been a built-in network of agents within the Jamaat and its affiliates who can be utilized to harass India along its 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh. In addition to supporting tribal separatist groups in northeast India, the ISI uses Bangladesh as a base for helping Islamic extremists inside India. After the July 11 train bombings in Bombay, a top Indian police official, K.P. Raghuvanshi, said that his key suspects "have connections with groups in Nepal and Bangladesh, which are directly or indirectly connected to Pakistan."
A State Department report cited evidence that one of the Jamaat's main allies, the Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islami, also headquartered in Pakistan, "maintains contact with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan." Bangladesh Harakat leader Fazlul Rahman was one of the six signatories of Osama bin Laden's first declaration of holy war against the United States, on Feb. 23, 1998. Since the October 2002 Bali bombings led to repression of al-Qaeda, some of its Indonesian and Malaysian cells have shifted their operations to Bangladesh.

What makes future prospects in Bangladesh especially alarming is that the Jamaat and its allies appear to be penetrating the higher ranks of the armed forces. Among many examples, informed journalists in Dhaka attribute Jamaat sympathies to Maj. Gen. Mohammed Aminul Karim, recently appointed as military secretary to President Iajuddin Ahmed, and to Brig. Gen. A.T.M. Amin, director of the Armed Forces Intelligence anti-terrorism bureau.

The respected journalists in question cannot write freely about the Jamaat without facing death threats or assassination attempts. The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists has published extensive dossiers documenting 68 death threats and dozens of bombing attacks that have injured at least eight journalists. "We are alarmed by the growing pattern of intimidation of journalists by Islamic groups in Bangladesh," the committee said recently. "As a result of its alliance with the Jamaat-Islamiyah, the government appears to lack the ability or will to protect journalists from this new and grave threat."

The Bush administration has yet to speak with comparable candor. The latest State Department annual report on terrorism mentioned only one of the three Jamaat militias as a terrorist group and avoided direct criticism of the BNP for its coalition with the Jamaat, referring only to the "serious political constraints" that explain the government's "limited success" in countering "escalating" terrorist violence. On July 13 the U.S. ambassador called Bangladesh "an exceptional moderate Muslim state."

The United States and other donors gave Bangladesh $1.4 billion in aid last year. There is still time for the administration to use aid leverage and trade concessions to promote a fair election by calling openly and forcefully for nonpartisan control of the Election Commission and the caretaker government. In addition to implicitly threatening an aid cutoff if it is rebuffed, the administration should offer the powerful incentive of duty-free textile imports from Bangladesh if Prime Minister Zia cooperates.

In Pakistan, the United States has been gingerly pushing Gen. Pervez Musharraf for democratic elections because it needs the limited but significant support he is giving against al-Qaeda and fears what might come after him. But what is the excuse for inaction in Bangladesh, where the incumbent government coddles Islamic extremists and a strong secular party is ready to govern?

The writer, a former South Asia bureau chief of The Post and the author of five books on South Asia, has covered Bangladesh since 1951. He is the director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.