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Sunday, April 29, 2007

The world can't afford Bangladesh's going Taliban

IS Bangladesh headed into the black hole that consumed Afghanistan under the Taliban? Fears are mounting, as official and fundamentalist religious forces now seem to operate with impunity - and the apparent support of local police, the ruling Bangladeshi National Party (BNP), and local authorities.

For many years Bangladesh was an exception in the Islamic world, pursuing an independent course in a peaceful, secular and democratic fashion. Traditionally, under Bengali Sufi mystical teachings, the majority Muslim population lived peacefully with other religions, and Bangladesh had a good record on education and civil rights for women. Until recently, Muslim fundamentalists were discredited, because militias such as "Al-Badr" and "Razakar" had supported atrocities against civilians during the civil war of 1971.

That began to change in 2001, when Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, the widow of the assassinated military strongman General Zia, replaced secularism in the Constitution with the "Sovereignty of Allah." Encouraged by this change, the BNP's junior coalition partner, Jamaat-e-Islami, which has links with the militias and remains close to Pakistan, has been calling for imposition of Sharia, or Islamic law.

The BNP appears to view religious extremism as a tool to break the power of the opposition Awami League, which is largely supported by the secular and urban middle classes. Similarly, the massive rise in the number of madrassas, or religious schools, financed by Saudi and Gulf money - totaling roughly 64,000 and operating under the same fundamentalist Deobandi Islam that inspired the Taliban - is part of a clear effort to change Bangladesh's culture of religious tolerance.

The danger inherent in Bangladesh's course is very real. Indian intelligence officials allege that the leader of a BNP coalition partner, Mufti Fazlul Haq Amini, maintains ties to the banned armed Islamist group, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, or Huji, which in turn is allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda. In 1999, Huji members attempted to assassinate the moderate poet Shamshur Rahman with an axe. Forty-four Huji members were arrested, two of whom claimed to have been sent from South Africa and Pakistan by Osama bin Laden to distribute money to the extremist madrassas.

Bangladeshi migrant workers in the Gulf states who return home imbued with radical Wahhabi and Salafi teachings fan the fires even more. Competing for influence among radical Islamist leaders in northwestern Bangladesh is Bangla Bhai, who in 2004 attempted an Islamist revolution in several provinces bordering India. Supported by local police and 10,000 followers, the rebellion ended only after a government crackdown.

The NGO Taskforce against Torture has documented over 500 cases of torture and intimidation by radical Islamists, who also have murdered supporters of the Communist Party, such as Abdel-Kayyam Badshah. Indeed, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists have been targeted as well, and religious extremists more recently have attacked Sufi shrines deemed to be idolatrous, and even Bengali cultural events that unite all religions in a common identity. For example, during Ramadan prayers in October 2004, a mob of a 1,000 people razed a mosque of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The 100,000 members of this Muslim sect, which believes that Mohammad was not the last prophet, have been declared infidels. The government outlawed their publications until the ban was reversed by the Bangladeshi High Court. Hindus, Ahmadiyyas, and tribal people in the Chittagong hills, fearful for their safety, have been leaving the country in droves.

The atmosphere of violence is palpable in other ways. Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League's leader and the daughter of Bangladesh's founding father, survived a grenade attack last summer that killed at least 20 people and injured hundreds more. The killers have never been apprehended. Britain's High Commissioner in Bangladesh was wounded in a similar bomb attack this May.

To their credit - albeit under pressure from donor countries - the Bengali authorities seem to sense that their country is drifting toward becoming a failed state and are making greater efforts to arrest Islamist killers, despite some of them being part of the ruling coalition. Two radical Islamist groups have also been banned. But piecemeal arrests will not be enough to reverse the drift if a culture of intolerance is allowed to fester.

One encouraging note is that annual economic growth has been a steady 5 percent for the past few years. But now many Bangladeshis fear for their livelihoods, owing to unlimited Chinese textile imports following the end of quotas last year. Economic deterioration in Bangladesh would only worsen inter-communal tensions and provide a fertile breeding ground for jihadists. However, the reforms needed to head off decline are often blocked by political infighting and opposition boycotts.

The world cannot afford a second Afghanistan in Bangladesh, where Huji members are believed to have given sanctuary to many Taliban fighters after the fall of their regime. Pressure from India will not be enough to force the Bengali government to adhere to the tolerant form of Islam that the country pursued during its first three decades of independence. All of Asia's powers, including China and Japan, will have to play a part in stopping Bangladesh's drift into fanaticism and chaos. The rest of the world should support them before it is too late. #

Charles Tannock is vice president of the human rights subcommittee of the European Parliament. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project, Thursday, July 21, 2005

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bangladesh: moving towards or away from democracy?


POLITICS is suspended in Bangladesh. Since a state of emergency was announced at the start of 2007, all political activity has been banned, along with trade union activity, and with powers available to the military-backed caretaker government to censor the media, if it chooses to exercise them.

And yet, three months after the Bangladesh military encouraged the president to announce a state of emergency on January 11 (so cancelling general elections due on January), many of Bangladesh’s liberal commentators are broadly supportive of developments as is much of the wider public. Politics, so the argument goes, had become so corrupted, that the only route to revive real democracy in the country was to suspend the corrupted version of democracy for some time.

But the big unanswered question is whether, and how fast, Bangladesh will return to democratic rule, and whether a genuinely new uncorrupted democracy can be established.

The Corrupting of Political Life
For the last 16 years, Bangladeshi politics has been dominated by its two main parties and their two leaders – the “two begums” – Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League (AL), and Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in power from 2001 to autumn 2006. But the current state of emergency already appears to have spelt the end for these two leaders’ political roles, and possibly too for that of their parties.

Hossain Zillur Rahman, executive chairman of a Dhaka think tank – the Power and Participation Research Centre – argues that the electorate “emerging as a quiet force” has had enough of turbulent national politics: “If you looked at the discourse of the political parties, who created their own spokesmen in many different spheres, you would see the country as composed of two big blocs and a battle to death going on. But on January 11, we saw that this was not the case. There were the two parties with some supporters and the greater majority of the electorate did want competitive politics but not this extreme short-sightedness and corruption.” And he goes on: “there was a very strong and visible view of the electorate that whatwas happening was not in that way it set the ground for intervention by institutional actors like the armed forces.”

Other commentators emphasise the undermining of the very basics of democracy by the behaviour of the two parties. Leading barrister Kamal Hossain, who was involved in drafting Bangladesh’s democratic constitution, asks why the constitutional set-up did not work. Bluntly answering his own question, he says “because they were making party politics something you cannot believe. You do not expect that ‘winner takes all’ means literally all, including taking the police as your private militia, the civil service as party lackeys and using any law as pure patronage for party loyalists, with no other criterion for appointments but party loyalty.” For a democratic system to work, says Hossain: “A minimum political morality is necessary… you cannot just use political authority as patronage…or with absolute impunity.”

For Daily Star, current affairs editor, Syed Badrul Ahsan, inefficiency rather than corruption has been the bigger problem in Bangladesh politics during the 1990s. Of the most recent BNP government, he says: “From 2001 to October 2006, corruption seemed to become institutionalised at all levels down to the rural level, including the politicising of civil servants.”

Kamal Hossain calls the appointment, on October 29, 2006, of the president as leader – chief adviser – of the caretaker government (meant to take the country through to the January elections): “a civilian coup” and “ a comedy of the absurd”, since the caretaker government was meant to be politically neutral, while the president had been voted in by the BNP. And last autumn, explains Hossain, the BNP “suddenly produced an electoral register with 93 million voters, not 73 million as five years before…so it was palpably obvious it was a bogus list so any residue of confidence disappeared and the electoral commission lost all credibility.”

A State of Emergency
As violent street protests and strikes continued through 2006, the Awami League announced it would boycott the elections. The international community was also starting to express its concerns – on January 10, the European Union announced it would be withdrawing its election monitors and that the EU would re-assess the full range of its relations with Bangladesh if the elections went ahead.

Debapriya Bhattacharya, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Bangladeshi think tank, says that: “a one-sided election on January 22 was about to be bulldozed through…we saw the results were predetermined and the outgoing government was going to give itself another five years and then hold on by other means.” He also admits that: “There was a fear that the army would be used by them [the BNP] to abet them in this usurping of power. But I think the army saw the light– and patriotism and a sense of self-preservation must have helped.”

Some observers see the hand of the US in developments – presumed to be worried at the instability and the potential growth in violent Islamist activities already visible since a bombing campaign in 2005. In the day or two before the state of emergency, the United Nations had apparently threatened to delist the Bangladeshi army from UN peacekeeping duties – a rather lucrative and prestigious occupation. More than one western observer suggests this was a trigger, or perhaps an excuse, for the army to push the president to call the state of emergency.

From January 11, the new military backed caretaker government started work under the leadership of former Bangladeshi central bank governor – and one time World Bank official – Fakhruddin Ahmed, together with 10 other “technocratic” cabinet appointees. In the subsequent three months, the government – and military – embarked on a major anti-corruption campaign, arresting around 1,00,000 people, including many senior party political figures, and other leading professional and official actors. Not least among these was the son of Khaleda Zia, Tarique Rahman, accused of major corruption, with many saying he effectively ran a parallel government.

Many leading Awami League figures have also been arrested. Sheikh Hasina was by the start of April on a “private” visit to the US with many speculating both whether she will come back and whether Khaleda Zia may also be “encouraged” to leave the country.

Journalist Badrul Ahsan thinks it is important for the political parties to restructure “and to get out of the grips of families and dynasties. If Sheikh Hasina does not come back then that will suggest maybe we are going in for some radical changes.” Departure of the “two begums” many say, would be a very positive signal. Commentators also emphasise that the focus on anti-corruption has been welcomed by the public. Ahsan says: “Dealing with corruption has struck a chord. So far people seem pretty satisfied.” He suggests that if people do not like the direction the country is going, their mood will get expressed: “Bengalis have a history of losing patience politically.”

Think tank director, Hossain Zillur Rahman makes a similar point: “If the current government goes very much against the electorate in certain policies, you would immediately see a transformation of the situation and you would see much less ease of action; there is a tacit endorsement at moment.” Debapriya Bhattacharya too thinks that those who say the public will become restless in three months “are indulging in wishful thinking”. He goes on: “The government is unelected but still very popular – it will have to renew its legitimacy everyday with good work and without big mistakes.”

Questions Remain
Even so, the rapid and aggressive move in the first three months to demolish thousands of illegal roadside and pavement businesses and slum homes, leaving people homeless and/or penniless, is seen by many as an excessive approach to anti-corruption and one hurting the poorest rather than those higher up the corruption change. And the hanging of six Islamist militants, at the end of March (convicted of a series of bombings that took place in 2005), while welcomed by many, was also criticised for the haste with which it was carried out and the failure to follow through on information the six have supposedly given to police of senior political and professional names involved in masterminding their activities.

Others also point to corruption in defence deals and question whether the military can really differentiate itself as not part of the corrupt previous system. Moreover, many admit there is an open question as to whether the military will withdraw from its current increasingly powerful political role as and when the caretaker government moves to restore democracy, or whether it will get a taste for political power, Pakistan-style.

Badrul Ahsan argues that: “The armed forces are doing a pretty good job, hopefully they will not come in but stand behind and support the government. There could be questions of army corruption but generally they are above the fray.” But according to an article in The Economist (April 7, 2006): “the distinction General Ahmed [head of the army] wants to draw between corrupt politicians and honest soldiers is bogus. Senior army officers say in private that corruption is institutionalised in the armed forces.” And Zillur Rahman admits that there can be downside risks too, despite his careful optimism: “In certain quarters there could be overambition or it could be taken in directions not in line with expectations. Those dangers are there.”

But Barrister Kamal Hossain suggests that: “It’s too early to have any real suspicions on those lines [of the army]…and I’ve a feeling that some of those trying to project these suspicions are from the old political parties.” But one Dhaka journalist takes another view: “The army is getting restless. And the current government cannot run this for another two years, with just 11 people...they are non-elected and very hesitant on some steps…and the army has got personal ambition.” He suggests that in the coming period there may be a national unity government, which could be a positive step: “Then we would have some consensus for what is going on and put some reins on the army.”

Next Steps
Whether the state of emergency continues to get such widespread support will depend, according to many, on key decisions andsignals in the next three to six months.

In terms of the anti-corruption drive, there is a strong sense not only that it must be seen through and people brought to justice but that it is also vital for it to follow transparent and due processes. At present, bail has been suspended for all those charged with criminal and anti-corruption offences. And there have been a number of deaths associated with security forces since January 11, while Human Rights Watch drew attention recently to the Bangladesh security forces past reputation for torture and extrajudicial killings.

So many will be watching internally and externally for the restoration and exercise of rights and civil liberties, and for a freeing up again of political and trade union activity, and for a lessening or absence of any implicit or explicit media censorship.

People are also waiting for a clear timetable, including a prospective date for when local and national elections will be held. While it is understood that it may take some time to produce credible new electoral lists – possibly with photo identification and identity cards – the risks of drift and of time passing in a democratic vacuum are also emphasised by some.

Zillur Rahman says a short-term road map is needed soon: “an idea of the calendar – is it two years for the reform period? And so [we need] a date by which competitive elections are expected to return.” But while some may live comfortably with the vague and delaying announcement, at the start of April, by the Bangladesh Chief Election Commissioner that even 18 months may be too soon to be ready for new elections, others do not want to see a long delay. Kamal Hossain thinks it vital to see in the next few months how purposefully the administration is going ahead with the restoration of the election process and machinery. “I do not want to project forward two years” says Hossain “the pressure should be there for everyone including ourselves.”

As well as concerns that the army may decide it likes political power, and even go down a “Musharraf route” in the months ahead, the other big question is whether and how the party political system can be effectively restructured. Some hope that with the ‘two begums’ out of the way, some renewal can begin. Some look to Nobel Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus’ new party as a way forward, though so far it has not taken off rapidly.

Zillur Rahman calls it a time of both opportunity and danger, saying that political actors know the direction needed, but the question is whether, how and to what extent reforms are carried through: “How politics will come back is a challenge to society at large, a challenge to political parties to reform themselves…and it’s a challenge to the current drivers, the caretaker government and the army, of finding how to move ahead. We are in an experimental stage and so outcomes are very open.” But he concludes: “The danger is if it loses direction – aimlessness – and that risk is there.”

Bangladesh is clearly at a political turning point. The first three months of the state of emergency have rested on considerable public support, not least due to relief at an end to strikes, violence and instability, along with the drive against corruption. But there are already some danger signals suggesting the road forward to renewed democracy may be bumpy indeed. Whether that road is at least seriously attempted or whether the military will attempt to go down another route entirely will become clear in the next few months. #

This article was first published in Economic & Political Weekly, April 14, 2007

Kirsty Hughes, former Eurocrat turned freelance writer, is traveling through South Asia over the next two months. A former Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) and coordinator for the European Policy Institutes Network (EPIN), she writes a political travel blog while on her travels. See:

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Need to end climate of impunity, bring to justice the perpetrators of violence & harassment towards journalists

Bangladesh: World Press Freedom Review 2006

WITH elections originally scheduled for 22 January 2007, the international community is focused on the difficulties and the dangers faced by Bangladeshi journalists seeking to report independently. Later, the elections were first postponed, and then cancelled. A state of emergency was imposed when the "caretaker" government stepped down under military pressure at the beginning of February 2007.
Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank official, who took over the government in early February 2007, along with 10 advisors and no functioning parliament, pledged to hold elections quickly. However, at the time of writing, a date has yet to be set.
A resolution adopted by the European Parliament, in mid-November 2006, condemned, "the physical attacks on journalists […] and the violence related to the forthcoming general election and the transitional arrangements." The resolution also stated that Bangladesh’s government should "guarantee media balance during the election campaign." To this end, authorities should "put an end to the climate of impunity and […] bring to justice the perpetrators of violence and harassment directed towards journalists in Bangladesh."
The electoral system in Bangladesh foresees the introduction of a three-month administration by a "caretaker" authority charged with leading the country to fresh elections. This system, designed to minimize elections frauds and to ensure the neutrality of the electoral preparations, has worked well in the past three elections. Democracy was originally restored in Bangladesh in 1990 after 15 years of military rule.
However, physical as well as legal attacks against the media have not stopped even after the "caretaker" authority led by Iajuddin Ahmed replaced Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia at the end of her five-year mandate.
The case of imprisoned journalist, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, was also highlighted in the European Parliament’s resolution.
Salah Uddin Shoaib Chaudhury, editor of the weekly tabloid Blitz, was arrested in November 2003 at Dhaka airport while he was leaving Bangladesh to attend a conference in Israel organised by the Hebrew Writers Association. Bangladesh has no diplomatic relations with Israel and travel to Israel is illegal for Bangladeshi citizens. Authorities found the text of the speech he was going to hold at the conference as well as reports on Bangladesh’s human rights situation. Chaudhury, a moderate Muslim, was accused of having links with Israeli intelligence and charged with sedition, which carries a maximum penalty of death or thirty years’ imprisonment. It is likely that the charges against Chaudhury are in connection with articles he wrote advocating dialogue between religions, calling for the recognition of the state of Israel and warning about radical Islam and the rise of al-Qaeda in Bangladesh. The final subject is one that the government has no wish to see discussed in the media.Chaudhury was released on bail in May 2005 after spending 17 months in prison and has since been awaiting trial on charges of espionage, blasphemy and sedition. In the past year, Chaudhury has been the victim of various attacks. He reportedly received telephone death threats on 26 February from a man claiming to be Bangla Bhai, the alias of Islamist militant leader Siddiqul Islam, who was sentenced in absentia in February to 40 years in prison for a bomb attack that killed two judges in November 2005. Chaudhury said that he received no response to his complaints to the police about the threat.
On 5 July, two small bombs exploded outside the office of Chaudhury’s Weekly Blitz in Dhaka, and two more devices were found unexploded inside the office. Although no one was injured and the explosions caused only minor damage to the office facilities, the attack followed threats against Chaudhury and his newspaper that were once again reportedly ignored by police. On 29 June, few days before the attack, Mufti Noor Hussain Noorani, leader of the radical movement Khatmey Nabuat (KNM), threatened Chaudhury on the phone after the Weekly Blitz ran articles critical of KNM On 5 October, a group of 40 people attacked the journalist in his office, breaking one of his ankles and stealing approximately US$4,000. The Writers in Prison Committee reported that leading members of the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) were allegedly among the attackers.
While Chaudhury’s case is appalling and rightly deserves international attention, he is only one of the many journalists attacked and harassed this year in Bangladesh; Bangladeshi authorities are apparently unable to bring those responsible for these attacks to justice. Unpunished attacks against journalists in Bangladesh have only encouraged further attacks, in a media environment where journalists do not give up on their right to report injustices, corruption and their government’s shortcomings.
While in recent years, there has been an increase in the attacks against the press by members of radical Islamist groups, a large number of the violent attacks against journalists are carried out either by supporters of the ruling BNP or BNP’s youth wing or other activist groups. These attacks are in retaliation for criticism or exposure of crimes by the journalists.
One journalist was killed this year in Bangladesh due to his profession, according to IPI. Bellal Hossain Dafadar, a correspondent for the Khulna-based daily newspaper Janabani, died in hospital on 14 September after being stabbed by five unknown assailants.
A second journalist was almost killed when, on 1 March, the room where he was sleeping was set on fire by a group of unidentified people. When Nur Siddique, student and correspondent for the daily Prothom Alo, tried to escape the fire, he found that the door of his room had been locked; some neighbours managed to rescue him. Nur Siddique believes that supporters of BNP from within the university attacked him because of his recent articles about the student branch of the political party.While the Bangladesh constitution supports press freedom, members of the government do not reflect this duty in their own actions. The cancellation of a journalists’ seminar on 13 April following threats and pressures by local BNP leader and MP Manjurul Ahsan Munshi is ample evidence of this attitude.
The seminar, organised by the Debidwar Press Club, was going to discuss torture against journalists in Bangladesh and abroad. It was closed when approximately 15 people stormed the hall shortly before the forum was due to begin, forcibly removing guests from their seats and confiscating broadcast equipment, according to IFJ reports. Senior journalists and media personnel were verbally assaulted during the altercation.
Only three days before the attack, Munshi was convicted for harassing Debidwar Press Club member and journalist for the daily Prothom Alo, Atiqur Rahman Bashar. He was sentenced to six months in prison, but released on bail.
While threats and attacks against journalists happen almost every day in Bangladesh, the country’s journalists have shown a strong will to resist such threats and to protest against them. On different occasions this year, journalists throughout Bangladesh took to the streets to protest violence against the media; sadly, these demonstrations often lead to further violence.
In one of these cases, on 29 May, over 20 journalists were assaulted by BNP members during a demonstration taking place in the city of Kushtia. According to reports, BNP activists threw bricks, sticks and chairs at the 150 journalists who staged the demonstration in support of three journalists who had received threats from a BNP MP.
Hasan Jahid, a correspondent for the daily Manabzamin, Munshi Tariqul Islam, correspondent for the daily Shamokal, and Al Mamun Sagor, correspondent for the daily Jugantor, had been forced to flee Kushtia on 10 May following threats by MP Shahidul Islam after they published articles criticising the MP.
The journalists were returning to Kushtia on 29 May. Shahidul Islam also brought legal actions against them, claiming they tried to extort money from him in return for a promise not to print the articles. The three journalists denied such allegations and said they were being targeted because they exposed Islam’s alleged corruption.
On 3 June, about 60 people staged a counter protest in Dhaka, claiming to be victims of extortion and beatings by Islam supporters. According to the Daily Star, the protesters, mostly employees and supporters of the BNP, demanded Islam’s expulsion from the party and his arrest.
On 30 May, BNP members attacked the offices of a printing press, damaging the press, threatening employees and seizing documents. The editors of the daily Dainik Andolaner Bazar, which was being printed at Quality Press when the office was attacked, suspended publication fearing threats to staff safety, according to CPJ. Local media said that MP Shahidul Islam was behind the attack; however, he later denied any responsibility.
On 31 May, police injured eight journalists during a demonstration in which a group of journalists marched from the Satkhira Press Club to the courts to protest the attack on Dainik Andolaner Bazar and demand the arrest and persecution of those responsible for it.
At the end of November, another BNP member, Hazi Mujib, reportedly threatened to kill Subrata Deb Roy Sanjay, a journalist for Dainik Khabor and Dainik Sylheter Dak, because of Sanjay’s reports on Mujib’s alleged illegal business affairs. In recent years, Mujib has filed two defamation cases against Sanjay. Police did not react to the alleged death threats.
Journalists working in Bangladesh are not only attacked by BNP members and BNP activists, there are many other groups that harass journalists and media outlets whose reporting they dislike. Impunity is a major problem in Bangladesh and the main reason for the continued attacks.
In this light, the 16 November European Parliament resolution urging Bangladesh authorities "to put an end to the climate of impunity and to bring to justice the perpetrators of violence and harassment directed towards journalists" is welcome. The hope is that this kind of international pressure, and the outcome of the forthcoming election, will change a situation that has existed in Bangladesh for many years is thin. The world should not ignore the gross human right violations committed against Bangladesh’s over 150 million inhabitants. #

The IPI World Press Freedom Review 2006 is the Vienna-based International Press Institute’s annual review of press freedom in over 180 countries around the world, published on 25 April 2007

The interim government has no tenacity; Hasina’s exile saga ends with a whimper


THE military-backed interim government of Bangladesh by now knows only how to roil things up. They undoubtedly deserve a reprimand after messing with Sheikh Hasina’s return to her motherland and Khaleda’s government sponsored exile to Saudi Arabia when she did not want to step outside the country.

The government earned a negative rating after the news came out that Hasina would become a persona non grata as per government's dictum and Khaleda Zia will be shoved from her motherland to become a refugee in the holy land. I could not find any supporters for the government in any cyber forums, which does not bode well for Fakhruddin Administration.

In the last week (April 19 through April 25) the Internet was abuzz with Hasina’s abortive attempt to secure a seat in a Dhaka bound British Airways flight and Khaleda Zia’s silent fight against her forced exile to Saudi Arabia. While Hasina was made voluble by government’s rejection to let her enter Bangladesh, Khaleda became mournful and reticent as she lead a quiet life inside the restricted military zone. Undoubtedly, today’s decision by the government would make both the rivals happy and elated.

There is a sense of relief in Bangladesh and a plethora of newspaper reports all point to that direction. Until the revocation order for Hasina’s exile and Khaleda’s isolation in her house was made public, a pall of gloom descended in Bangladesh’s sky. To make the matter worse, Hasina mentioned in sympathetic language the plight of her archrival, Khaleda. Immediately, the BNP reacted positively and some leader even commented that the two largest party would jointly fight against the military-backed interim government for easing political activities and holding parliamentary election. Perhaps the government took into cognizance the verbal threat as a real one and that hastened the decision by the government to lift the ban against both Hasina and Khaleda.

The government has certainly helped to elevate the stature of both Hasina and Khaleda and in retrospect it was not a wise move by the government to force the two leaders into exile a la Benazir Bhutto and Mia Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan. After today’s event, the government gave the impression that things are in disarray and it has lost the focus. Another big question looms everywhere in Bangladesh - who is in control? Did army take the hard-line position? Is the civilian government making the final decision after army is messing things up with their hard-line position concerning dynastical nature of the main political parties?

The two advisers, Mainul Hosein and MA Matin, who earned enough bad reputation, should go into hiding for few days to cool things off. These two advisers have diminished their reputation by saying contradictory things with 24 hours. Were they expressing the views of the civilian government or the military? These are the questions that went unanswered. The chief adviser, Fakhruddin Ahmed, would do a great favour to his administration if he sidelines the two vocal advisers for the time being. For they have created enough miasmas and those did not help at all to establish a sense of fair play by the government in respect to Hasina or Khaleda.

Of all politicians, Sheikh Hasina was in an enviable position because she was getting an audience and sympathetic ear wherever she went in America or Great Britain. Especially in England she met quite a few British MPs and she told them in clear and straightforward language about her plights in the hands of the military-backed interim government.

In summary, the interim government of Bangladesh has earned some bad reputation as it tried to block Sheikh Hasina’s return to her motherland; it also tried in vain to hasten the departure of Khaleda Zia to Saudi Arabia. The government’s ill-conceived plan fell flat and all it saw was resistance from all sides. The Bush and Blair government uttered some harsh word and the government became scared stiff and finally backed down from their original plan to oust both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia from their respective party by inducing them to seek exile. This plan did not materialize and it simply fizzled up giving a black eye to the interim government. So whose reputation and image was tarnished? Fakhruddin Administration should learn a thing or two from this exile fiasco. First, do not pay any attention to the Kurmitola crowd and second, muzzle in both Mainul Hosein and MA Matin because their unbridled remarks are earning this administer more foes than friends. #

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA

Bangladesh people were let down by Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed


THE conspiratorial regime of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) through their usual intrigue led the entire country into chaos and confrontation. One after another, the conspiracies to manipulate the election results and to control the caretaker government through an obedient and obsequious President Dr. Iajuddin Ahmed brought suspicion among the people of Bangladesh. That resulted in the overwhelming participation in the mass demonstration against the tyrannical influence of BNP and JI on the past caretaker government. The main objective was to bring about a drastic change in the government high-up in terms of neutrality, transparency, fairness, and honesty. The BNP and JI leaders/workers/supporters were hell-bent on continuing the status quo so that none of the factors were implemented for ensuring free and fair election. Under this backdrop, emergency rule was imposed, which BNP-JI wanted on their own terms because to them anything but Awami League was fine. It was unfortunate for them that the emergency rule was not established under BNP-JI's terms.

The people of Bangladesh had high expectations from this government under Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed for bringing reforms and necessary changes within a shortest possible time to pave the way for a free and fair election. It was really a good feeling when I watched the first speech of Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed. It was promising, brief but adequate, and inspiring. Most of the time our head of the government delivered speeches so long that sometimes the speeches were annoying. I must say that Dr. Fakhruddin's speech was a new type in Bangladesh, which was brief but eloquent and complete. Naturally, the conscious people both inside and outside Bangladesh expected very high output from his administration such as in terms initiating rule of law, upholding human rights, and ensuring civil norms in the country as a whole. I reckon no government could establish these things fully. They could take initiative in such a way that the successive governments will have to let these processes continue to progress with time. Like me, many conscientious people thought that the present government under Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed would initiate and establish the foundation for these processes.

On the contrary to the expectation of the people, recently a few missteps taken by the government has become a matter of concern for the political future of Bangladesh. Many have already questioned whether Bangladesh is going to follow the path of Pakistan, where ultimately anarchy and religious extremism will grow in the absence of organized deep-rooted liberal democratic parties. The attempt of the government to send Mrs. Khaleda Zia in exile and at the same time preventing Mrs. Sheikh Hasina to enter Bangladesh has not been taken in good spirits by those, who always supported the liberty and human rights of individuals in the country where they were born. In particular, the case of Mrs. Sheikh Hasina is very tragic and sensitive. During the past five years under the rule of BNP-JI, she had to lose many of her party leaders and workers in the hands of the killers aligned to the former rulers. She herself survived critically from a grenade attack.

As one can assume, the first case under the influence of the government was out of the blue. A person by the name Tajul Islam Farook filed a case against Mrs. Sheikh Hasina few days ago for extortion of three crore taka. The case became questionable after being evaluated by a good number of people. Some analysts thought it was not possible for Mr. Farook to deliver that much money in one suitcase. It was not possible for him even to carry the money alone. Especially, it was not possible for someone to deliver the money in a big suitcase in Ganabhaban (Prime Minister's Office) to a sitting Prime Minister. As it appeared, the strategy was later changed by those who wanted to scare Mrs. Sheikh Hasina. A few days later, a murder case was brought against her. That also did not dissuade Mrs. Sheikh Hasina to return to Bangladesh. The resolve of Mrs. Sheikh Hasina to go back to Bangladesh is probably the reason why the policy makers issued letters to the airlines as a last ditch effort for not carrying her to Dhaka.

All these things centering the return of Mrs. Sheikh Hasina is occurring while we have a chief of the caretaker government, who inspired many of us (including me) because we thought that Bangladesh was going to be in the hands of a well-educated, well-experienced, and well-articulated person. It was our expectation that the rule of law and basic rights of all individuals would be honoured. Unfortunately, our hopes are vanishing fast as we observe the dealings of the government with Mrs. Sheikh Hasina and Mrs. Khaleda Zia in a totally unlawful manner. Especially, Mrs. Sheikh Hasina has been denied her basic rights to go back and defend herself in the court of law. On one hand, the government is filing cases but on the other hand, the same government is not allowing her to go back. In fact, the government should let her go back so that the law enforcement agencies can take steps against her and at the same time she can take steps to defend the charges against her. This is not what we are observing now. Instead, we observe the unlawful and contradictory steps taken by the government under none but Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, whom the people trusted with high esteem.

As it appears, the policy has been adopted following the steps taken by the military rulers of Pakistan. In Bangladesh, our people are more conscious and more mature politically than the people of Pakistan. Bangladesh was born by fighting against a regime that suppressed the basic democratic rights of the people. The same people are fighting again and again for the same cause. If the basic democratic rights of the leaders are not honoured, then it is obvious that the rights of the common people are going to be violated. We may not agree on the corrupt policies adopted by Mrs. Khaleda Zia but we cannot support her deportation under pressure to any other country. Similarly, we cannot support the obstruction against Mrs. Sheikh Hasina on her return to her country. It is so frustrating that a number of highly contradictory steps violating human rights were taken by the government, wittingly, under Dr. Fakhruddin from whom we expected a lot of thing to achieve. For good reasons, many do not expect very high from the political leaders. Are we getting better from an esteemed well-educated Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed? Then, why do the snobbish educated gentlemen always blame the politicians? #
Shabbir Ahmed writes from USA and he could be contacted

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bangladesh political history of exile


I had thought of not writing on Bangladesh for a while but then the stars seemed to have willed otherwise. On April 22, Sheikh Hasina, who had then an arrest warrant for murder - since stayed by a court - issued against her, was not allowed to board a British Airways flight from London to Dhaka. Bangladesh's caretaker Government, the airline's authorities reportedly told her, would not allow the plane to land if she was on it. With the report that Begum Khaleda Zia's impending exile was delayed by the unavailability of an 'appropriate' flight, delay in getting visas, and uncertainty about the Government finding ways to fund her stay abroad, questions pertaining to Bangladesh's political future have again sprung to the fore.

Neither development - provided Begum Zia is despatched into exile - was entirely unexpected. Many in Bangladesh's civil society and public spheres have held for a long time that the rivalry between the two leaders was destroying Bangladesh and both parties should throw up other, more rational leaders. Understandably, moves are under way for doing precisely that. But then, it is one thing for the civil society and business leaders to wish, and quite another for the wish to be fulfilled. By all accounts, the enterprise is having trouble getting off the ground. Hence, according to the proverbial knowledgeable sources, the 'Operation Exile'.

While the fate of the operation remains to be seen, the question arises: Is the present regime trying no more than pushing the two leaders abroad? Is the military, as the Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen Moin U Ahmed, said at a gathering of civil administration and civil society leaders and journalists at Bandarban cantonment on February 8, merely helping it to put Bangladesh back on the "right track through the concerted efforts of all"? His assertion on the same occasion that the Army had no intention of capturing power, has lost some of its credibility following his reading of the keynote address - 'The Challenging Interface of Democracy and Security' - at a regional conference of the International Political Science Association in Dhaka on April 2. He said in the paper that Bangladesh would have to construct its own brand of democracy recognising its own social, historical and cultural conditions with religion being one of the several components of its national identity.

According to the General, "own brand of democracy" meant a system marked by a balance among the powers of the Government, President and Prime Minister ensuring transparency, accountability and a sense of responsibility. Terming the armed forces as a "silent partner" of the people, he also said that power should not be concentrated in the hands of a dynasty or a party. "I believe the aspiring democratic process of Bangladesh and the current transition period allow us an opportunity to develop a new concept and find a new sense of direction to the future politics of Bangladesh," he said.

The impression that a drastic systemic overhaul is underway is clearly conveyed by the war against corruption, crime and violence that the Government seems to have launched and the tall poppies that have been felled. The ability of authoritarian governments to change societies root and branch through surgical operations from above is, however, rather limited. Peter the Great and Kemal Ataturk, for example, could not modernise Russia and Turkey respectively. Since it will not be easy for the present Government to meet the high expectations it has aroused among the people, discontent is bound to grow and, over a time, lead to political protest. This is all the more likely to happen because, Lt Gen Moin U Ahmed's talk revived memories of Field Marshal Ayub Khan's concept of a "basic democracy" and President Soekarno of Indonesia's concept of a "guided democracy". While the former was dubbed - and rightly so - as a "basic fraud", the latter bore the stamp of Soekarno's own "guidance" rather than of democracy. Both established authoritarian orders which failed.

The impression that the present regime is striking roots and is seeking to craft a political order different from a parliamentary one is suggested by the uncertainties that now prevail over the holding of parliamentary elections in Bangladesh. In his maiden address to the nation over radio and television on January 21, Mr Fakhruddin Ahmed, who had assumed office as Chief Adviser to the caretaker Government on January 12, pledged to transfer power to an elected Government at the earliest through holding a free, fair and credible general election after reconstituting the Election Commission (EC) and preparing a flawless electoral roll. While he did not mention any timeframe, the emphasis was clearly on holding the election at the earliest. Chief Election Commissioner Shamsul Huda, however, said on April 5 that no election would be held before at least 18 months, the time required for preparing voters lists and photo identity cards. He could not say whether the election would be held immediately after 18 months as there would be a lot of other things to do, including the creation of a congenial atmosphere for the poll.

Mr Ahmed has doubtless provided a definite indication of sorts when he said during his second address to the nation on April 12, "I would like to categorically state that the present caretaker Government will not stay in power a day longer than it is necessary. I strongly believe, it will be possible to hold the much-awaited parliamentary election before the end of 2008". If things work according to schedule, the next parliamentary election will be held almost two years after the present caretaker Government took over on January 11, 2007. Much has happened since then and much will no doubt happen before 2008 is over.

New Delhi needs to watch the situation carefully - particularly whether the caretaker Government curbs the continuing illegal migration from Bangladesh and departs from the earlier Government's policy of fomenting insurrection and terrorism in north-eastern India - and not go overboard in welcoming it. Civilian Governments propped by military power generally prove to be ephemeral. In Bangladesh, Lt Gen Ziaur Rahman had no trouble removing Khandkar Mushtaq Ahmed and Abu Sayem as President and becoming President himself. Nor did Lt Gen HM Ershad have any problem following the example after defenestrating Presidents Abdul Sattar and AFM Ahsanuddin Chowdhury. While hoping for the best, India needs to strictly follow a policy of quid pro quo with the present regime in Bangladesh. It must retain bargaining chips for future contingencies, particularly since the Bangladesh Army now has a substantial Islamist component and it is no stranger to coups. #

Hiranmay Karlekar is a columnist for The Pioneer, New Delhi, India

Bangladesh: Democracy Saved or Sunk?


Many in Bangladesh are relieved that the military stepped in to liberate them from political chaos. But this move has set the country on a slippery slope to authoritarian rule. In the long run, the best formula for success is to build Bangladesh into a showcase for democracy in the Islamic world.

On January 11, Bangladesh began yet another tumultuous political transformation. A caretaker government backed by the military took over power, declared a state of emergency, and postponed national elections. Most Bangladeshis sighed relief.

Within weeks, the newly installed government began a “war” against corruption, arresting scores of top politicians in dramatic midnight raids and sending them straight to prison. Most Bangladeshis became exuberant, and many are demanding summary trials for the corrupt.

While stressing that democracy needs to be restored eventually, foreign diplomats also cheered on the new government’s assertive line. The British High Commissioner said he was “pleased with the approach that was taken,” and more recently, the U.S. assistant secretary of state said his country was “strongly supportive of the reform steps.” After a 16-year experiment with democracy, Bangladesh’s return to authoritarianism feels to many like a refreshing change.

It wasn’t always like this. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations used to hail Bangladesh as an example to the rest of the Islamic world: a moderate Muslim democracy. As recently as 2002, public support for democracy was overwhelming in the country, as several surveys showed. Bangladesh enjoyed secular institutions and a growing economy. It held regular elections, and power rotated between the two major parties, the center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the center-left Awami League. But, despite the public’s commitment to democratic institutions, contempt was growing against the many politicians who regularly subverted those institutions.

That contempt peaked toward the end of BNP’s 2001–06 tenure. The party’s reign had been anything but democratic. With its Islamist allies, it had gone on a rampage against political and religious minorities. Its feared paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion, operated with impunity, and extrajudicial deaths jumped to nearly 400 in 2005, a 20-fold increase from the average during the Awami League administration (1996–2001). Corruption had become so rampant that Transparency International rated Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in the world four out of the last five years. Extortion was commonplace, especially for businesses. Some could not even pay their utility bills without bribing someone. Gruesome terrorist attacks took place, but the cases went mysteriously unsolved. Finally, BNP tried to rig the January 2007 elections, a move that was protested en masse by the opposition, and the country came to a standstill. That’s when the military intervened.

With these conditions, Bangladeshis could be forgiven for welcoming their new military rulers with open arms. After the chaos of the past six years, who can blame them?

The new caretaker government’s stated goal is to “save” democracy by ensuring “a level playing field” before holding elections. In the process, it wants to change the system comprehensively, involving everything from how political parties operate, to the authority of the courts, to the balance of power between the president and the prime minister, to even considering a “National Charter” to rival the Constitution.

All this is a familiar refrain. From Burma and Pakistan in the 1950s to Thailand or Fiji in 2006, saving democracy or saving the nation through enacting large-scale reforms has been the common pretext for authoritarian power grabs. Bangladesh itself experienced such takeovers in 1975, 1977, and 1982.

Already, there are troubling signs that the country’s new authoritarian order may be more than just temporary. The caretaker government’s drive to “clean up” politics has reached far beyond the top rungs of power. As of early April, more than 70 people have been killed extrajudicially. More than 100,000 people— many of them mid-level workers of various political parties—have been detained so far, often without charges, and thousands more are being added every day in what amounts to a massive political purge.

To speed up the process, the government has substantially increased its authority to arrest without charges, deny bail, and conduct summary trials. It has curtailed the right of citizens to appeal its verdicts. Military personnel now head most of the important administrative committees, such as the Anti-Corruption Commission. A powerful National Security Council is in the works that will allow authorities to interpret political issues as security issues.

As for elections, the civilian face of the government has dismissed any possibility of holding them in the next year and a half. The Army chief has gone much farther, declaring outright in a recent speech, “We do not want to go back to an elective democracy,” and proposing that some kind of a homegrown system be devised as an alternative.

This is exactly what Islamists, happy to see the principle of popular sovereignty eviscerated, want to hear. But a homegrown system could be disastrous for both national and regional stability. Accustomed to political freedom, Bangladeshis would eventually resist authoritarianism, ushering in another round of violent conflict.

This unsavory outcome can only be nipped through continuous pressure on the temporary government. But because political activity is banned and fundamental rights are suspended, it’s up to outside powers to take the lead, especially in four key areas.

First, Western diplomats should keep pressing the government to announce an election date soon. The caretaker government is going well beyond its initial mandate of organizing elections. It is making major policy decisions that should be the preserve of an elected government.

Second, international organizations and trading partners should resist the urge to cut easy deals. Sensing quick wins, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are pushing policy reform initiatives, while individual countries, like India and China are dangling lucrative business agreements. Big contracts signed away from the public eye will reopen doors for corruption.
Third, Britain, the United States, and the European Union should insist that the government restore fundamental rights. Its current path of rule by fiat threatens to destroy the very political and legal institutions that need to be revived from the damage wrought on them in the last six years.

Finally, Western powers should support the democratic process and resist the urge to pick preordained winners. The entry of Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the microfinance pioneer and Nobel Peace laureate, who wants to form a political party in which power would be decentralized, has shaken up the dinosaurs of BNP and Awami League. The ongoing political purge will improve his electoral prospects. Some, however, want to hold off elections in favor of an appointed, Palestinian-style “national unity government.” More extreme would be a Pakistan-style outcome, in which a secular military dictatorship acts as a U.S. ally in its war on terror. As tempting as these options may be, the West must let Bangladeshis decide for themselves through free elections, held reasonably soon. For a working democracy that protects fundamental rights would be a much better showcase for the larger Islamic world than another pliable regime whose domestic legitimacy is becoming increasingly questionable. #

This article was first published in FOREIGN POLICY magazine, April 2007

Jalal Alamgir is assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Islamic militancy in Bangladesh can remember its geometry


A shape memory alloy is a metal that remembers its geometry. After a sample of smart alloy has been deformed from its original atomic configuration, it regains its original geometry by itself during heating or, at higher ambient temperatures, simply during unloading (pseudo-elasticity or super elasticity).

If a car made of this kind of metal was damaged in a collision, its outer shell could be restored after being heated in boiling water.

Islamic militancy in Bangladesh is just like metal memory which can be regained its original geometry by itself in any where, anytime.

Or it can be better described as amoeba that can change its shape anytime according to its necessity.

The recent execution of six top label Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) kingpins on March 30, 2007 didn’t uproot the Islamic fundamentalism from the country. Speakers in a seminar on April 11, 2007 titled 'Militancy in Bangladesh: Against Democracy, Rule of Law and the Spirit of Liberation War,’ organized by Bangladesh Heritage Foundation and Democracy and Human Rights Research at Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs auditorium, mentioned that the Islamic militant activities are still running in full swing in every corner of Bangladesh. Hijbut Tahrir, Hijbe Abu Omar, Hijbut Tawhid, Al Ferdous or Party of Allah. These are some active Islamic militancy organizations after JMB.

According to the intelligence sources, JMB cadres are regrouping to carry out their organizational activities under the leadership of Hannan Uddin and Mawlana Mohiuddin Faruki in different names like Hijbut Tahrir, Hijbe Abu Omar and Hijbut Tawhid in the southern part of Bangladesh, Barisal.

Both the leaders are returnees from Afghan war and explosives experts.

In an another nabbing, police in Gaibanda district arrested 17 militants of Party of Allah from Mouja Malibari village of Maibari union on April 7, 2007.

Islami Biplobi Command council, a Chittagong based Islamic militancy organization; recently send a death threat to a correspondent of a national daily for his exclusive reporting about their activities.

Actually, around 100 Islamic militancy groups are active across the country. They usually come in front line when they need.

Some times they change their way of work, their dressing, their address or their identity.Even their family member can hardly figure out their works and activities.

On April 11, 2007, security forces in Bangladesh arrested a senior leader of JMB from Goalkandi Bazar in Bagmara upazila, Rajsahahi.

The arrestee, Mokarram Ali, was involved providing trainings to use bomb and arms to JMB cadres while Abul Kalam Azad was arrested from Cox's Bazar for his suspicious movement.

A number of Islamic militants of Hizbut Touhid including a unit chief Anisur Rahman were arrested at Gangni upazila, Meherpur on April 13, 2007. Like those arrestees, around 1,200 trained cadres of Hizbut Touhid are active in greater Kushtia including Kushtia, Meherpur, Chuadanga and Jhenidah. Most of them are madrasa students or imams of mosques and they are operating their militancy under cover of Tabliq Jamaat (proselytizing group). Abdur Rashid, a JMB leader of Hamirkutsa village of Rajshahi, was arrested for attempting murder of Sripur union Chairman Makbul Hossain and police assault on April 9, 2007. And the numbers of arrestees are increasing day by day in every corner of Bangladesh. On April 6, 2007, law enforcement agencies arrested 10 militants of a newly formed Islamic militant group called Hijbe Abu Omar from their dens in the capital Dhaka, (southern) Barisal and northern Bhaluka town. According to the arrestees, they formed new group after deserting the Islamic militant group Harkatul Jihad which were responsible for a spate of bombings at cinemas and non-governmental organization offices in Bangladesh. They do kidnapping to raise their funds and their militants are usually sent to battlegrounds abroad with an aim to become strong militants. Very few may dare to take any steps against Islamic militancy groups after observing the recent killing of the public prosecutor (PP) of Jhalakathi District Judge's Court and chief counsel of the case filed against JMB militants for killing two Jhalakathi judges Advocate Hyder Hossain on April 11, 2007. He reportedly told to the law enforcement agencies about the threats he was receiving after execution of six top level militants at different jails on March 30, 2007. Meanwhile, both the families of senior assistant judges Jagannath Pandey and Sohel Ahmed who were killed in a suicide bomb attack at Purba Chadkati in Jhalakathi town on November 14, 2005 by JMB militants are getting numerous threats from different Islamic militancy groups. Their daily lives are becoming more hectic and dangerous after seeing the end of Hyder Hossian. Having power to restore its original geometry at any time, any where is irrelevant to its original source. And the sources are almost known to see.

High profile politicians, Islamic parties, Islamic NGOs, Foreign Aids or even some personnel from law enforcement agencies are patronizing the Islamic militancy in Bangladesh. Their training camps are being financed by Middle Eastern charities and organizations and some local financial institutes. Jamaat-e-Islami at present controls around 60 percent mosques and mosque-based educational facilities in the country. The party has already set up at least one madrasa in every village to provide Islamic education. In addition, Bangladesh has dense jungle and highly populated urban areas which allow radical Islamists to hide their training and operations from sophisticated surveillance and help to protect them from the threat of capture- elaborate escape and evasion plans are enforced.

It is a laboratory for the disastrous consequences of Islamist participation in the democratic process.

Operating in this labyrinthine environment, terrorist trainees have developed elaborate escape and evasion plans.

They have systematically developed their organizational structure so that they can change their shape any time, any where like amoeba or can restore their geometric shape after any destruction like memory metal. #

Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York

Monday, April 23, 2007

Emergency is offensive and inimical to democracy


EMERGENCY is always considered as a dangerous thing. Such government is the result of necessity, of the sheer imperative of survival. The greatest danger with such a form of government, and its related institutions and laws, is that they can remain with wrong direction after the crisis has abated.

It was a very bad time for Bangladesh, its general people and democracy when both former Bangladeshi prime ministers and their supporters didn’t pay any tolerance towards each other that kept the country in permanent turmoil.

And the journey moved democratic regime to another emergency following violent street clashes between rival political groups over electoral reforms and a neutral caretaker government which left more than 30 people dead.

On January 11, 2007, President Professor Iajuddin Ahmed of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh proclaimed emergency in the country, postponed national elections planned for January 22, 2007 and banned all political activities.

Bangladesh failed to continue paying gratitude towards Dr. Shamsul Alam Khan (was joint secretary of Bangladesh Medical Association, died November 27, 1990), Noor Hossain (a worker of Awami Jubo League, died 1987), and many other injured participators in an anti-autocracy movement for democracy on December 6, 1990.

Although emergency law is an obstacle on the road to political and democratic reform, people of Bangladesh accepted it due to the last volatile political combat.

Last couple of months, people of Bangladesh became happy to see the end of more than 160 corrupted politicians, bureaucrats and criminals being detained and expelled in the anti-graft drive.

But when the questions are about law, democracy, equal rights, fair judgment and anti-corruption movement, everyone should be treated equally by the present interim government of Bangladesh whether it’s for a general people or a big personality.

Begum Khaleda Zia and her political archrival, former Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wazed, chairman of Awami League, have been blamed for steering the country into political chaos and government wants them to retire from politics.

The state of emergency, in its legal context, exceeded the law of emergency, and it negatively affects the soul of the legislative structure of any country. People of Bangladesh may not want to see a broken legislative structure in the future.

As part of the present interim administration's efforts to clean the country's corruption-riddled politics, government wants to send former Prime Minister, opposition leader and chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Begum Khaleda Zia into exile.

It was a rumor at the very beginning of the present military-backed interim administration that government might send both of them into exile.

To make it unbiased and appreciable step, government did some home work and after arresting elder son of Begum Zia and joint secretary of BNP Tareq Rahman, they detained her younger son Arafat Rahman to make a pressure on her to go into self-exile.

After a fruitful negotiation and having release of Arafat Rahman, Begum Zia agreed to go into self-exile. In a different angle, government has partially admitted that the decision to go into exile in Saudi Arabia is her personal matters whereas it’s almost open the real intention of the government.

Since the arrest of her elder son on March 7, 2007, Begum Zia is now under virtual house arrest.

According to the emergency law, the executive authority has wide authorities related to restricting the freedoms of individuals and their constitutional rights, like restricting the right of individuals to peaceful assembly, transportation, residence, arresting suspects according to the likes and dislikes of the security forces, detention and inspecting persons and places without reference from the law or the Penal Code rules.

Everyone in Bangladesh accepted above those restrictions with thinking that Bangladesh will have a good shape of democracy in future. But unfortunately democracy becomes a farce in any case of emergency.

In an interview with B.B.C on April 18, 2007, former opposition leader Sheikh Hasina is adamant to return to the country whereas government has clearly blocked her return by mentioning her "provocative and malicious" remarks against the caretaker government and the law enforcement agencies at different meetings abroad.

In a press note on April 18, 2007, government of the present interim administration of Bangladesh has banned her return from the US on April 23, 2007 and in view of that government ordered a clear instruction to all airports, land ports, immigrations and customs officials and in addition government urged all the Bangladesh bound airlines not to carry her.
Moreover, according to the note, Sheikh Hasina and her party had completely upset law and order in the recent past and they may trigger another round of disturbance in the country.

Earlier, Sheikh Hasina was charged with murder of four rival political activists in street clashes in October last year and accused of taking bribes from a businessman to allow his company to build a power plant in 1998.

No need to mention that it’s a fundamental right to live in his/her native country whether he/she is a criminal or not. And by sending someone outside of the country is not a process of cleaning corruptions.

In a recent address towards nation, chief adviser of the care taker government Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed mentioned that his government is working hard to restore country’s democracy by the end of next year.

But the interim government should keep in mind that democracy works best in times of peace, when there is debate, compromise, and deliberation in forming governing rules, regulations and policies and of course holding basic human rights for everyone.

Since January 11, government is always trying to give an assurance that the law and orders will be imposed equally to everyone. Country may not be pleased to see the rough use of law and order by the government recently.

Meanwhile, in a SMS message to all media in Bangladesh, Government forbade to publish any reports, comments or interviews of Sheikh Hasina.

Of course, the very concept of an "emergency" is offensive and inimical to our political thinking as citizens of a democracy.

The history of democratic governments, from the ancient republics of Greece and Rome to the modern states that have replaced earlier totalitarian governments, show that governing by committees, or legislative bodies, however never works in times, but at least it holds public opinions and debates.

Any form of government in Bangladesh should need to realize the big interest of the people otherwise the future is very dark. #

Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York

One hell of a vindictive government; arrest warrant for Hasina proves the assertion


THE illegal and unconstitutional military-backed interim government of Fakhruddin Ahmed is so desperate to bar Sheikh Hasina from returning Bangladesh that it hurriedly issued an arrest warrant against her. This move by the illegal and self appointed government was done solely to scare Hasina. Perhaps the government is worried that she would embark on a plane and head for Dhaka. To this effect, she met quite a few MPs and other influential people in England. And this is causing concern among Fakhruddin-Mainul-Matin-Moeen gang. They now think that the issuance of arrest order would bar Hasina from boarding the British Airways flight destined for Dhaka.

The autocratic ruler in Dhaka has no idea how tough Hasina is. When I met her on April 13, 2007 in Falls Church, Virginia, she told a select crowd that she will find a way to be with her people. Lest we forget, in 1968 Ayub Khan, the then autocratic ruler of Pakistan framed Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujib, in a bogus treason case by the name Agartola Mamla (litigation), which was broken asunder by Mujib’s lawyer. The public opinion went against the government so much that Mujib was freed from jail and it catapulted him into national scene and made him a hero.

And history might repeat itself after 40 long years. Sheikh Hasina’s resolve to return home will earn her more sympathy among Bangalees not only in Bangladesh but also worldwide. Here is a woman in her sixties who lost her parents and family members in a bloody coup d'état in August 1975 and who served later as the Prime Minister during 1996 through 2001. Many independent analysts have written that considering all the obstacles Bangladesh faced during 1990s, she ran a very successful government when the impoverished nation achieved self sufficiency in food and women rights were strengthened in a society dominated by men. Thus, many people in rural Bangladesh have a soft corner for her. It is her standing among people especially in rural areas that concerns the autocratic regime of Bangladesh. That is precisely why the government is dead set on her return. They wrongly think she should not be allowed to set her feet in Bangladesh.

The government who came to power without peoples’ mandate on January 11, 2007 is living in a make belief world depicted by Lewis Carroll in his book Alice-in-wonderland. The government’s view has serious disconnection to reality. The power behind this unconstitutional government wrongly thinks that if the two female leaders are driven out of Bangladesh, then the nation will chart a course of prosperity never seen before. This is at most a very simplistic thinking. They forget to take in cognizance that politicians are the product of the land. Corruption is rampant and unchecked in Bangladesh not because of Hasina and Khaleda but because Bangladesh society condones bribe giving, bribe taking, malfeasance, etc. a big time. This cancer has been growing for the last 4-5 decades and no one really gave a damn about it. All of a sudden, the corruption and the growth of its tentacles in Bangladesh society have become a hot topic. A civil society is formed not in a day, month, or year. It takes decades to slowly build a society based on sound ethos. Every which way one looks in Bangladesh these days, one would see people with crass mentality managing the country. This goes for both politicians and civil bureaucrats.

The military is also a very much part of the society. However, they wrongly think that they are one notch above the public and their image is pristine. It is not a tightly kept secret that Bangladesh military is one of the most politicized institutions in the world and its officers receive generous perks when it comes to housing, subsidized food, healthcare, etc.

The government that came to power on January 11, 2007 unconstitutionally was never challenged in the court of law because Iajuddin, the partisan president was playing the game of charade with his ten advisers for nearly 80 days. The people of Bangladesh were sick and tired of his vile game; therefore, when he resigned in disgrace from the position of Chief Adviser of caretaker Government, people heaved a long sigh of relief. They welcomed the new administration with open arms hoping that all the wrongs done in the past two and a half month will be made right and the new administration would make a level playing field so that every political party will have an equal chance of winning the election. Furthermore, this new government was pledge-bound to hold election within a short but unspecified time after re-constituting the Election Commission and preparing a voters’ list acceptable to all political parties. However, little did Bangladesh people know about the conspiracy that was hatched in Kurmitola Cantonment to hang onto power for indefinite period? Isn’t that called Musharafism? We thought Bangalees parted Pakistanis nearly 36 years ago. Why then follow a Pakistani model?

The military-backed government took some super ambitious project to reform Bangladesh society. Some of them are indeed commendable but others were questionable. Bangladesh people accepted the idea of the newly formed government to arrest 100 or so corrupt politicians and businessmen who became super rich through their association with the ex-ruling party politicians but what the nation witnessed in horror was the arrest of 169,000 people. Many wholesale traders were arrested too or were threatened by the joint forces of police and RAB (another branch of elite law and order force) and consequently the equilibrium between supply and demand was disturbed. This led to spiraling increase in agricultural commodities and essential kitchen items price allover Bangladesh. Fakhruddin Ahmed, the chief adviser, is being touted as an ex-World Bank employee but even he failed to understand that a massive police drive to catch dishonest traders may lead to generate enough static in the market. Because of this flawed policy, people are suffering in both rural and urban areas paying an inflated price for foodstuffs. And if this continues unabated for a while, this government will lose its credibility among common people.

The failure of the government also shows up strongly in the area of litigation. They catch a few politicians without having enough evidence and the let them go scot-free. One such person was the youngest son of Khaleda Zia who was arrested and released after 24 hours. Now the news analysts say that it was done solely to scare the ex-Prime Minister who they are urging to go into exile in Saudi Arabia.

This autocratic regime is showing their true face as the days are passing by. The chief spokesperson of the government, Mainul Husein said the other day nonchalantly that his countrymen have no civil rights because of the emergency rule. The government has given the newspapers the rights to publish all kinds of news including the political one, but the people are not allowed to speak their mind. Needless to say, the democratic rights of Bangladeshis are breached and no one really knows how long this suffocating environment will last.

The present Bangladesh government is really an oligarchy in every which way one looks. Bangladesh’s people have not given this authority a mandate to put the two female leaders into exile. Is not it a sexist act by Fakhruddin government? Let the people decide who stays and who goes.

My dire prediction for Bangladesh is that the government’s action following their misguided policies is going to foment trouble. People have limited patience and they will protest when the time is appropriate. The days of subjugation is almost over and people are not going to sit tight witnessing all the wrongs done by this undemocratic administration.

Finally, it is fair to say that Sheikh Hasina has large followings in rural Bangladesh and the government will set a trap for itself from which it will be difficult to extricate when push comes to shove. Let us wait and see how long this charade continues in Dhaka and Kurmitola. For, the game cannot continue forever. #

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Is Bangladesh Following the Foot Steps of Pakistan?


Pakistan is the 2nd largest Muslim country and it is mostly ruled by military junta. Its major political leaders were either hanged or forcibly exiled. The founder of new Pakistan, Z. A. Bhutto was hanged by Gen. Ziaul Haque, the military dictator that introduced anti-women Hudood Law in Pakistan. The democratically elected Prime Ministers of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was denied entry to her homeland while she went on a private trip abroad and Newaz Sharif was forced into exile under pretext of corruption. In spite of their expulsion, corruption is still pervasive. Newaz Sharif is currently living in Saudi Arabia and Benazir in UAE. Same story is now being repeated in Bangladesh, the 3rd largest Muslim country, which was once a part of Pakistan. Until recently, it had a ‘partly free’ democracy for last 15 years. Its founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated by a group of military in 1975 and thus democracy was replaced by military oligarchy until the end of 1990 when nation-wide mass movement toppled military dictator Gen. H. M. Ershad. Now it is again being ruled by a military-backed technocrat government. Following Pakistan, it denied entry to its ex-Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (daughter of 1st Prime Minister Sheikh Mujib) who went abroad on a private trip like Benazir. The government also lodged corruption cases against the sons of immediate past Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and now putting pressure and cutting deals for her exile to Saudi Arabia similar to that of Newaz Sharif of Pakistan.

To have public support, the military governments generally promote religious groups and fanatics that lead to rise of fundamentalism. No wonder, under successive military governments where ‘rule of law and human rights’ were weak and religious politics become dominant, Pakistan became an epicentre of global terrorism. Bangladesh is also fast moving to that direction and becoming another hub. Recently, the Bangladesh government hanged six terrorists. However, it refused to disclose the names of their mastermind or their associates that bombed the public rally of the opposition party leader Sheikh Hasina killing 23 of her supporters, and rocked the country with panic by blasting 493 bombs simultaneously across the nation. Both in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the terrorists are ever increasing in spite of governments’ tough talks. In fact, after the Middle East region, as per U. S. data, both the terrorist attacks and fatalities have increased maximum in South Asia especially in Bangladesh and Pakistan since 9/11.

No one knows who are really involved in terrorism. In absence of transparency, rumours are ripe that security forces and military intelligence are involved in terrorist training and supplies.
In any society where there is no ‘rule of law’ and ‘respect for human rights’ are subdued, such society can easily turn into a state of anarchism and lawlessness, for example, Afghanistan under Taliban, and Somalia under warlords. In today’s Bangladesh ‘human rights’, ‘rule of law’ and ‘corruption’ are being compromised. The consequences of such situation might be disastrous especially for an impoverished country where half of its 147 million live on $2 a day income.
In fact, in today’s Bangladesh, the security forces are the ‘juror, the judge and the executioner’. They have executed over 800 people without any due process of law. After Iraq, Bangladesh tops in terrorism especially in extrajudicial killing. Extrajudicial killing is a form of state terrorism.

When the army-backed government of Dr. Fakruddin Ahmed took power on January 11, 2007, there was hope that such extrajudicial killing would stop soon. Unfortunately, such killings have not stopped yet. Over 89 people have been executed since Ahmed took over, nearly 30 in each month. His Foreign Advisor Dr. Iftikhar Ahmed Chowdhury who is also his wife’s brother eloquently stated that his government’s top priority is ‘upholding human rights’. Unfortunately, such eloquence has not been materialized yet nor there is any ray of hope.

Instead, the situation is worsening. When Manzoor Elahi, President of the Bangladesh Businessmen Association demanded the government not to harass or arrest businessmen under false pretexts or lockup their business ventures without due process of law, Dr. Mirza Azizul Islam, the nation’s Finance Advisor stated that such could not be assured. It is reported that due to fear of harassments and illegal appropriations of properties and businesses and seizure of bank accounts, the nation’s business is at stake. No investments either foreign or domestic are forth coming under such uncertainty and danger. Technically, a country that fails to guarantee ‘property rights’ and personal security cannot expect to have increasing investment or business activity. Therefore, it is no wonder that business activity in Bangladesh has slowed down sharply and scarcity of essentials causing price hike and misery to its fixed income earners.

Ninety eight days ago when the new government took over to evade a national crisis that resulted owing to then Caretaker government’s failure to hold a fair and free election on January 22, the nation sighed relief and welcomed it. The new government assured the nation to deliver ‘a free, fair and credible’ election and it also bowed to create a ‘level playing field’ echoing the demands of opposition parties and the development partners. As the new government started implementing the demands of the nation’s major opposition party, the Awami League (AL) and the wishes of the civil societies, it got tremendous support. Like the Ahsanullah Chowdhury government of 1982 under Lt. Gen. H. M. Ershad who launched a jihad against corruption and arrested 230 people including a Deputy Prime Minister and five top Ministers, the Ahmed government under Lt. Gen. Moeen also launched jihad against corruption and arrested top fifty leaders. As it successfully implemented Election Commission Reform, reorganized the Anti-Corruption Commission and expedited the process of independence of judiciary and started jihad against corrupt politicians, it received overwhelming support including that of the AL.

Unfortunately such overwhelming support is fast eroding because of its divergence from its promised goal. With a view to root out ‘family leadership’ [Sheikh Hasina, President of the AL is the daughter of the founder of the nation President Sheikh Mujib and Khaleda Zia, President of the BNP is the widower of President Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the military dictator. Her son Tarique Rahman became a BNP leader] not from within but from outside, the new government is now seemingly dedicated to destroy and weaken the major political parties of Bangladesh, the AL and the BNP. Initially it engaged Nobel Laureate Dr. Mohammed Yunus to launch a political party and as it did not flourish, that died out. Now reportedly, it is trying to form a new party consisting of senior leaders of AL and BNP excluding their top leaders. As a first step, they banned Sheikh Hasina, the former Prime Minister and the leader of the largest and oldest political party of Bangladesh, the AL, to return home. To keep her away, the government initially lodged two fabricated cases against her and as she wanted to face them legally in Bangladesh, the government hurriedly banned her return to homeland and issued circulars instructing media not to cover her statements, interviews and the like. They imposed press censorship. When the government’s Law Advisor Mainul Hossain was asked how they could deny the basic fundamental rights of Sheikh Hasina to return home, he replied ‘no fundamental rights are allowed’ now. Therefore, the current military-backed government can do or undo anything they like. In fact, the verdicts of the nation’s highest courts ordering the government to release many detainees have not been honoured yet and nearly 145,000 are under detention. Such created a chill and many investment houses are fast leaving the county.

The Ahmed government is also trying hard to force the immediate past Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to go on exile to Saudi Arabia. It arrested her two sons under various corruption and extortion charges apparently with a view to cut a deal. People initially believed in the government’s crusade against corruption as they did in 1958, 1969 and 1982 coups and supported them. But now due to ‘behind the scene deal making’, they are fast losing their confidence. Khaleda Zia is expected to leave the country any moment with her extended family just like Newaz Sharif of Pakistan. It appears Bangladesh is just following the Musharraf strategy.

However, problem is; in case of Pakistan Gen. Musharraf was in-charge. He was military chief and he assumed Presidency by overthrowing Prime Minister Sharif. Under U. S. pressure, he agreed to hold an election in 2008. In case of Bangladesh, Dr. Fakruddin Ahmed, a technocrat is now in-charge. Like Pakistan, under the U. S. pressure, he also assured election before the end of 2008. By that time, the sensitive TATA-investment deal, the Chittagong Port deal and the likely lucrative troop sending contracts in Afghanistan and Sudan are would be over.

Once that is done, will the Bangladesh military Chief Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed come out from the shadow? If history is any lesson, in 1975, then Chief Justice A.S M. Sayeem survived nearly 18 months as the President and the Chief Martial Law Administrator backed by Gen. Zia. Justice Ahsanullah Chowdhury also served few months in 1982. Can Dr. Ahmed survive next six months? Can he maintain his credibility that long? If his government loses credibility, the next election may not be credible either. That would be a loss to a nation that loves democracy most. Therefore, should he allow election by January 2008?

In the last 15 years (1991-2006), there has been accelerated economic growth under political leadership in spite of polarization and rivalries. Empirically, it surpassed all the macroeconomic records of achievements under military rule from 1975 through 1990. More importantly, people’s awareness and political maturity sharpened dramatically under political rule and free media. Question is; is Bangladesh heading towards another Martial Law regime that would reverse its growth to another 30 years backward and become a hub of terrorism like Pakistan?
Bangladeshis are not Pakistanis. They love multi-party democracy and therefore, there is still hope. #

Dr. Abdul Momen, a professor of economics and business management, Boston, USA

Rahul Gandhi insults a nation and its people


LATELY an important piece of news has gone unnoticed by most of the mainstream news media of Bangladesh. In a recent political campaign, Rahul Gandhi, a member of the Indian parliament and son of a former Indian prime minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi, has solely credited his family for the division of Pakistan in 1971, which led to the independence of Bangladesh. While campaigning for a candidate in the state of Uttar Pradesh, considered India’s heartland, Mr Gandhi managed to say, ‘Once my family decides on something, it doesn’t go back. Whether it’s about India’s freedom, dividing Pakistan or taking India to the 21st century.’ The remark clearly implied that it was a family vendetta against Pakistan that drove the division of the erstwhile East Pakistan and led to the creation of Bangladesh. It ignored the systematic genocide of three million Bengalis by the Pakistani army, the rape and humiliation of hundreds of thousands of Bengali women and the cascade of events preceding 1971 such as the language movement of 1952, six-point based agitation of 1966 and the Bengali people’s revolt in 1969 against Ayub Khan.

While the incident did not merit any attention within Bangladesh for reasons that are completely unknown, condemnation both within India and from Pakistan was immediate and vociferous. The only public protest from a Bangladeshi voice was that of the exiled author Dr Taslima Nasrin who spoke at a press conference in Bhopal and listed the 1952 killings of Bangladeshis for asking that Bangla be made a state language and of the mass movement that began against the country’s Pakistani rulers in 1969. While she did not condemn the casual callousness with which these remarks were issued, she could not, because she is a resident of India and hopes to get Indian citizenship someday, it was clear that she did not approve of the cynical attempt by Mr Gandhi to suggest that the sacrifices of the Bangladeshi people did not mean anything, that it was his grandmother’s anti-Pakistan vendetta that actually split the country up.

In the meantime, the exiled Pakistani doctor and humanist, Dr M Younus Sheikh, who lives in Switzerland, released an open letter to members of the Indian parliament, condemning the ‘foolish and immature’ remarks that Mr Gandhi had issued. Dr Sheikh has authored articles on the repression in Bangladesh under Pakistani rule, was one of the first Pakistanis to protest what he clearly called ‘genocide’ against Bengalis by the Pakistani army, and for this as well as several other reasons he was jailed and sentenced to death under completely trumped up charges in Pakistan until international pressure forced the government to release him from prison and exile him to Switzerland where he lives today.

Curiously, the response from Dhaka has been muted, to say the least. The Bangladesh high commissioner to India would only remark that he was grateful to India for its support in the struggle for independence and there was no statement at all from Dhaka until the writing of this article. Indeed, in comparison to the angry voices both within India as well as from Pakistan (albeit for completely different reasons, because the Pakistani government now claims that it now has evidence that the whole struggle in Bangladesh was merely an Indian inspired secessionist plot) the silence from Dhaka has been deafening. Few countries are as proud of their language and, therefore, of their struggle to form a nation based on the suppression of their language as Bangladesh, and yet, the attempt by Mr Gandhi to suggest that the now well-documented horrors of the struggle for independence were little more than a task that his grandmother had decided to take up to gain personal revenge against Pakistan did not receive a single note of protest in response.

One must not mix up the issue of acknowledging India’s generous role and humanitarian effort during 1971 by Bangladesh with the condemnation of Rahul Gandhi’s infantile remarks. While Bangladesh, as a nation, does not have any valid reasons to forget India’s help during our liberation struggle in 1971; welcoming Rahul Gandhi’s comments by the Bangladesh government — as it was reported in some Indian newspapers — would not only be just self-degrading, it will also be a dishonour to the memory of three million martyrs of 1971.

Perhaps, it is because of the current political situation within Bangladesh that this silence continues, more than two days after the remarks attracted the flak that they did in the rest of South Asia. Perhaps, at a time when relations between the three major nations of South Asia have been visibly improving, no one in Dhaka would like to rock the boat. The fact, though, is that neither the spokespeople in Pakistan nor the segment of the Indian political and media establishment that criticised these remarks believes that criticizing Rahul Gandhi’s ridiculous claims is likely to set the process of rapprochement back. Criticising a callous statement that demeans the struggle of an entire nation and its people to emerge from severe political repression and hardship to enjoy their independence as a people does not amount to a declaration of war. It is unfortunate that no voice has been raised in Dhaka about these remarks yet. The silence speaks as poorly about those who choose not to speak about the remarks as it does about Rahul Gandhi’s personal callousness. #

Jahed Ahmed, based in New York, and Mehul Kamdar, originally from Tamilnadu, India and now settled in Chicago, are co-moderators of, an online network of South Asian humanists