Monthly Coupon

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cosying up to the Bangla generals

Civil-rights and other abuses notwithstanding, New Delhi is looking at the current situation in Bangladesh with great interest – and actually hope.


AFTER years of turbulent relations, it is ironic that New Delhi is currently basking in a sense of reassurance over the possibility of good-neighbourly relations with Bangladesh, with the army-backed interim government appearing to be firmly in place in Dhaka. Since it took over in January, the tenor of statements emanating from the highest levels in the interim administration have enthused New Delhi for a variety of reasons. In particular, Indian diplomats and security officials have expressed approval for Dhaka’s crackdown on ‘terror’.

Indeed, hopes have been stoked in the Indian establishment that the interim government headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former banker, will eventually take the long-awaited steps that could choke off the insurgents from Northeast India, whom New Delhi is convinced are taking refuge across the border in Bangladesh. But there are also hopes that the current administration in Dhaka will energise Indo-Bangladeshi ties that have been at a low over the past decade. In particular, this could translate into creating an atmosphere of trust and goodwill to boost mutually beneficial economic measures.

To optimistic observers, New Delhi and Dhaka have over recent years maintained a hot-and-cold relationship, largely defined by who has been in power in Bangladesh – either the seemingly secular Awami League, or the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). To a dispassionate observer of South Asian politics, however, India-Bangladesh relations have more specifically been held hostage to the bitter ‘battle of the begums’, between Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina and BNP supremo Khaleda Zia.

Either way, both parties have found it to their benefit to thwart Indian policy. The Awami League early on sought to shake off its pro-India image to please the domestic audience, by not coming out with proactive measures for improving ties with New Delhi. Meanwhile, the BNP, backed by Islamist forces, was able to be significantly more open in its anti-India posturing. Under both parties, New Delhi feels it has received very little cooperation from Dhaka on matters of illegal migration, or shelter for the Northeast insurgents who India says operate out of 200 camps inside Bangladesh. Furthermore, Dhaka has regularly continued to deny India transit facilities from West Bengal through Bangladesh, to service its landlocked northeastern states.

At least on the surface, things have changed significantly since the interim government took over in January and imposed a state of emergency. The army-backed regime called off the 22 January national elections, and has subsequently reconstituted the Anti-Corruption Commission, and arrested close to 200 politicians (and mounting), mostly on graft charges. It has also revived the National Security Council, giving military leaders a platform on which to air their views on governing the country. In the meantime, there has been mounting criticism over human-rights abuses, unconstitutional governance, and clamping down on the media and other bodies urging transparency. But New Delhi seems heartened by the crackdown on militancy, and this may well blind Indian policymakers to a host of problems, the seeds of which are planted in the current bout of activism by its eastern neighbour.

The most ‘reassuring’ signal that the interim government in Dhaka has sent New Delhi came on 30 March, when the authorities executed the most prominent names in Bangladesh’s rising Islamist militancy – chief of the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) Abdur Rahman and his deputy, Siddiqul Islam, alias ‘Bangla Bhai’. With its hands full in Kashmir, India has been extremely wary of the possibility of a new front on its eastern flank, along the 4100-km porous border, particularly in the wake of controversial Western reports that the country was becoming a hub of al-Qaeda-linked Islamist forces.

The 30 March executions were seen as a significant blow to Bangladesh’s first overt militancy campaign, which had rattled the country through a series of coordinated blasts and suicide bombings during 2005. With the BNP-Jamaat alliance government having consistently denied the existence of Islamist militancy in the country, the executions were seen by Delhi as Dhaka’s getting serious about a clear and present danger.

What India can do
Should India cosy up to Dhaka’s new army-backed regime? Some analysts would give an emphatic nod – despite both the strong-arm tactics being employed by the interim administration, and the fact that Dhaka officials have yet to carry out any action against the alleged Northeast-insurgents’ camps. As things stand, the possibility of the Bangladesh Army taking over direct power appears unlikely, particularly given the role its ranks play in lucrative peacekeeping missions. This is all the more reason, then, for India to engage with the interim government, and give it much-needed backing.

The current rulers in Dhaka look set to remain in power for some time, with elections not about to be held for at least a year. Furthermore, the process of comprehensive electoral reforms, including the preparation of the new voters’ list and identity cards for all those above 18 years of age, is yet to begin. This massive exercise, involving between 76 and 80 million voters, is estimated to take at least 12 months to complete. Furthermore, the Bangladesh Army chief, Lieutenant-General Moeen U Ahmed, has vowed no let-up in the hunt for corrupt politicians and militants while the interim government clears the way for a ‘free and fair’ election. That job will be accomplished neither easily nor soon, and so it appears that the army will inevitably carry on ruling Bangladesh by proxy for some time to come.

Aside from keeping contact with the Fakhruddin Ahmed regime, New Delhi must also take into account the possibility that sections from within this interim authority (or a new political force entirely, including fresh faces from the existing political parties) could well come to call the shots during the next elections and beyond – with, perhaps, the backing of the army.
As the larger and more powerful neighbour, India is also in a position to cut some ice with the regime, by taking unilateral, proactive action on a few particular issues. New Delhi can demonstrate its support to Dhaka’s battle against militancy by rounding up Bangladeshi criminal elements who may be operating from India’s border areas. Towards this end, Dhaka has already been regularly furnishing the names of such criminals to Indian officials, just as India has been providing Dhaka with details of Indian militants said to be operating from within Bangladesh.

But the most important area where New Delhi needs to intervene is in correcting the balance of trade between the two countries, which has long been weighted heavily against Bangladesh. In 2001-02, Bangladesh’s exports to India were a meagre USD 50.2 million, while imports from India that year stood at more than USD 1 billion. That trade imbalance continues, with Bangladesh’s exports to India in 2005-06 standing at USD 251.6 million, and imports from India going up to nearly USD 1.8 billion during that period. Part of this process is already underway, and offers an immediate opportunity for the Indian government. Since mid-2006, India has offered duty-free import of seven new items from Bangladesh, and promised to do away with duty on 4200 additional items within three years. New Delhi has also sought a list of all irritants, including non-tariff barriers, that are currently impeding bilateral trade.

During the visit of Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee to Dhaka on 19 February, the Indian government announced unconditional duty-free access to the import of two million pieces of readymade garments from Bangladesh. With a total investment of USD 389.2 million during the period of 1971 to September 2006, India is ranked as the 12th-largest investor in Bangladesh. Now, hopes are pinned on India’s Tata group to finally negotiate its long-pending three-billion-dollar investment in Bangladesh, for a power station, steel plant and fertiliser unit. Talks were suspended last summer, but in mid-May this year the new Board of Investment executive chairman, Nazrul Islam, said that the government was “close to an agreement with the Tatas”. While these assurances need to be taken to their logical end, under the current circumstances India should also consider extending to Bangladesh a free trade agreement, as it has with Sri Lanka.

Once bilateral economic ties improve, and once Bangladeshis begin to see benefits from concessions given by India, the government in Dhaka would be in a better position to pursue an ‘India-friendly’ policy. As for the other bilateral bone of contention, New Delhi need not even push for transit facilities through Bangladesh at this time. After all, India has recently started a USD 103 million development project on the Sittwe port in Burma and the Kaladan River in Mizoram, bypassing its need to access the Chittagong port. If Dhaka-New Delhi relations improve, the two countries would be in a position to work on a strategy to end the most politically potent issue – economic migration from Bangladesh to India – by focusing on how to jointly improve the economy in Bangladesh.

Being the most dominant of Bangladesh’s neighbours, and a democracy to boot, India cannot for long remain a mute witness to widespread reports of the throttling of democratic values by the army-backed Dhaka regime. Apart from everything else, the test for New Delhi will lie in successfully performing a delicate balancing act: between cosying up to the generals in Dhaka, and warning them of the possible consequences of straying too far from the democratic path. This will be a very difficult undertaking, but the latter cannot be accomplished without the former. #

Wasbir Hussain is a Guwahati-based Political Analyst and Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, India

This article was first published in HIMAL magazine, Kathmandu, July 2007

Democracy in Peril in Bangladesh


THE domestic politics of Bangladesh was poised in a delicate position at the beginning of the year 2007. The country was heading towards a general election which was doomed to be a farce. The first caretaker government which, according to the constitutional provision, took over the reins of the government after the expiry of the five-year term of the last elected government of Begum Khaleda Zia, was reconstituted by President Iajuddin Ahmed, following the resignation by a number of members in protest against arbitrary arrests of people in wanton violation of human rights. The reconstituted caretaker government was heavily tilted in favour of the BNP/Jamaat combine. Subsequently this caretaker government was dismissed and the President who had been handpicked for the post by Begum Khaleda Zia and whose allegiance to the BNP was widely known, took over direct control of the government. He decided to go ahead with the elections as scheduled on January 22 in spite of the prolonged agitation, of the Awami League and its allies, for the replacement of the Election Commissioner whose links with the BNP were well-known, and drastic revision in the electoral roll which was heavily rigged. This left the Awami League and its allies no alternative but to announce the boycott of the elections.

In this context, the declaration of emergency, the suspension of the general election and the swearing-in of a new caretaker government on the January 11 came as a great relief to the nation. The head of the caretaker government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, is highly regarded as a person of integrity, probity and quiet efficiency. The campaign launched by the new government to cleanse the Bangladesh society of corruption with a view to creating conditions conducive to holding a free and fair election, evoked widespread support. Senior officials, prominent businessmen and politicians who were initially arrested on charges of corruption and fraud came from the entire range of the political spectrum of the country. This went towards confirming the impartiality and objectivity of the new government. Some of the big-ticket arrests like that of Tareq Zia, the eldest son of Begum Khaleda Zia, and the punitive action taken against some extremist religious leaders proved to be popular and gladdened the heart of the liberal forces in the country.

When Professor Mohammad Yunus, the noted Bangladeshi economist who was last year awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, announced his intention to float a party of his own for contesting the next election, it was universally seen as a step taken under the sponsorship of the caretaker government. Some intellectuals and leaders of civil society organisations enthusiastically welcomed Yunus’s initiative and agreed to work for him. The leaders of the political parties, however, did not seem to be too concerned because they knew that in the absence of grassroots support and party infrastructure, this initiative was unlikely to go very far.

The people were generally carried away by the euphoria of the early success in the crackdown on corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen and by a sense of nemesis against those who had held the country to ransom. There were, however, some big question marks about the new caretaker government which unfortunately did not figure prominently in the political debate in Bangladesh. The people did not take too long to discover that the emergency and the associated changes in the political set-up had been manipulated through the intervention of the Bangladesh armed forces, and that the military was exercising a major influence in the running of the government. Moreover, there was an ambivalence regarding the military’s attitude towards the forces of religious extremism. On the one hand, the higher echelons of the military establishment were seen to be capable of perceiving the long-term danger to Bangladesh polity and society posed by these forces. They are also perhaps under the pressure of major economic powers, particularly the USA and EU, to curb these forces. The chances of the military heeding their advice can be rated high because these countries provide the main market for Bangladesh’s principal export, that is, readymade garments, extend financial and technical assistance, and, above all, determine the extent of Bangladesh’s involvement in UN peacekeeping operations, which has emerged as a major source of foreign exchange earnings by the country. On the other hand, over the last few decades there has been considerable accentuation of religious overtones in the training of the Bangladesh Army. It is also believed in some quarters that the Pakistani external intelligence agency, the ISI, through the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence of Bangladesh, exercises considerable influence on the Bangladesh Army. This has the implication of the Army adopting a softer attitude towards the religious extremist forces if not really supporting them.

It should have been clear right from the very beginning that corruption cannot be eliminated by military measures like mass scale arrests, punishment through trials in kangaroo courts and removal from politics of the leaders of major political parties. Corruption is basically a social and political phenomenon and the only means of curbing it is the adoption of measures of social transformation and widespread popular campaign against it at the grassroots level. Besides, history shows that the military breeds its own brand of corruption, at times more pernicious and ubiquitous than civilian corruption.

Finally, though in view of the deep-seated intolerance of the military dictatorship and strong and volatile urge for democracy among the Bangladeshis, the Bangladesh armed forces may have no appetite for a direct control of the government, a slide towards decisive military influence over the government may become irretrievable in the short and medium run.

The recent developments, particularly the arrest of Hasina on July 16 and the issue of a summons to Khaleda Zia to appear in the court on a charge of corruption, raise further questions regarding the intentions of the Bangladesh Army and of the government supported by it, and the future of democracy and liberal values in Bangladesh. There can be little doubt that these actions are a part of the move by the caretaker government to weaken, if not to decimate, the two major political parties and, in any case, remove Hasina and Khaleda Zia from the leadership positions, before the nation goes to the poll. This move should be seen together with the attempt by the government to trigger reforms in these two political parties with the same objective in view. The principal element of the reforms, being considered by both the parties, is to exclude the possibility of any leader holding the post of the chairperson of the party for more than two terms. Some of the other elements are to eliminate dynastical transfer of leadership and introduce internal democracy in the functioning of the parties.

Seen in this light, the charges of extortion against Hasina and corruption against Khaleda Zia appear to be only a frame-up. Moreover, there was no compelling need under the law of the land to arrest Hasina and keep her in custody before the investigation of her case is completed. She is not the type of person who would become a fugitive from law. Nor is she likely to tamper with the evidence being collected against her with the full backing of the Army. The summary rejection of her bail petition was, therefore, astonishing. That the method of her arrest was unsavoury is very well expressed in the statement on the subject issued by Khaleda Zia the day after the arrest. She said: “I am deeply disheartened to see that being an ex-Prime Minister, chief of a political party, daughter of a national leader, and an aged woman as well as a distinguished citizen of the country, she faced a disgraceful and indecent situation in the court premises.” The arrest was more of a design to humiliate and harass her and tarnish the esteem in which she is held by the people, than to make an example of her for the purpose of rooting out corruption. There is no doubt that of late Hasina and Khaleda Zia have become unpopular in the country except among their loyalists, because they are seen as a symbol of dynastical rule which they are determined to perpetuate, and because of their sordid record of holding the Bangladesh economy and democracy to ransom through frequent hartals and prolonged boycotts of Parliament. The major powers exercising influence in Bangladesh would also like these leaders eased out of politics because of the same reasons.

But it should be realised that the evils which these leaders have come to symbolise are not going to disappear simply by removing them from their positions in their political parties. For, these problems are too deep-rooted in the society and polity of Bangladesh to be amenable to solution by the quick-fix simplistic approach of removing these two leaders. The next rung of politicians in these political parties who would assume leadership after the exit of Hasina and Khaleda Zia, are dyed in the same wool as these two leaders. They may not have inherited leadership on the qualification of dynasty as Hasina and Khaleda Zia have done, but as the example of Indian politics shows, dynastical political inheritance and chronyism prevails pervasively at all the rungs of political leadership in most South Asian countries. Besides, some of the leaders spearheading internal reforms in the Awami League and BNP are not known to be free from the temptation of corruption.

The caretaker government should realise that beyond a point, the action being taken by them against Hasina and Khaleda Zia can prove counter-productive. The arrest of Hasina has already evoked widespread sympathy for her in Bangladesh and abroad and washed some of her presumed sins. The Awami League leaders have for the time being closed their ranks and decided to suspend all reform initiatives until Hasina is released. This has also lowered not only the caretaker government’s but also Bangladesh’s image abroad and has dented the popular support for the caretaker government.

In some of the comments on the functioning of the caretaker government, questions have been raised regarding its attitude towards religious extremist elements. In recent months, the government does not seem to have moved visibly and decisively against these elements. Some of the leaders of extremist religious groups against whom cases of murder are pending, are yet to be arrested. One of the reasons given for lesser activism with regard to dealing with these elements may be that they are relatively less corrupt than leaders belonging to the mainstream political parties. It is also possible that in the Bangladesh society, there may be greater tolerance for religious extremism than for corruption, which may come in the way of a severe crackdown against such forces. However, it should be realised that religious fanatics, though less corrupt, are more dangerous in that they are the purveyors of much of the violence that takes place in the society and because of their link with global terrorist groups. They also pose a greater threat to social cohesion, peace and progress than corrupt politicians.

THE recent political developments in Bangladesh have raised serious questions regarding the future of democracy and liberal values in this country. Going by the schedule of the elections recently announced by the government, it is going to be two years before democracy can be expected to be restored in Bangladesh. This is too long a hiatus in the democratic process. Surely, the revision of the electoral rolls should not take as long as two years.

Cleansing Bangladesh’s politics of corrupt elements in order to pave the way for holding free and fair elections is an open-ended goal the fulfilment of which can take years. This may be used for further extending the life of the caretaker government. Moreover, democracy of the kind that was prevalent in Bangladesh until recently cannot be rebuilt on the debris of the existing major political parties. The alternative arrangement under which the next elections are expected to be held, may very well turn out to be a mockery of democracy. A likely scenario is that the government that would come to power after the election would continue to remain military-backed and controlled, with the difference that the present set of caretakers would be replaced by a new set of “caretakers”, belonging to the sanitised Awami League or the BNP or a new political formation that may be created for this purpose. Such a government may not be averse to and may, in fact, be obliged to seek the support of the Jamaat and other religious elements to remain in power. This kind of government may continue for several years until it is brought down by popular resistance and movement, which would indeed be an uphill task entailing widespread strife and turmoil and tremendous sacrifice by the people.

WHAT should be the attitude of India towards the developments in Bangladesh? On Hasina’s arrest, the Government of India has taken the right stand in urging that “basic human rights should be fully respected in such high profile cases and there should be no violation of the due legal process”. This stand is not very different from that taken by the United States whose representative, in his statement after the event, underscored the general principle that everyone has the right of fair trial and self-defence, and underlined that the cases against Hasina should be dealt with according to the existing laws.

But what is at stake for India in Bangladesh is not the personal safety or the future political role of Hasina or Khaleda Zia but the fate of democracy and of the values which the Indian state stands for. Prospects in this regard do not appear to be bright. In any event, they are highly uncertain. Besides, India has little leverage to persuade the Bangladesh Government to desist from pursuing some of its misconceived notions and plans of how democracy should be restored in Bangladesh, and to hold free and fair elections earlier than scheduled.

Nevertheless, India should convey its concern to the Bangladesh Government in no uncertain terms, but in a proper diplomatic manner whenever there is an opportunity to do so. In any event, India should not give the impression that the caretaker government has India’s support for what it is doing. One gets the impression that some sections of the policy-makers in the Government of India believe that it is possible to do business with the present government in Bangladesh and get decisions taken on issues of concern to India on which no headway had been possible with the governments headed by Hasina or Khaleda Zia. This assessment is misplaced and the sooner it is given up the better it will be for all concerned. The present government in Bangladesh is hardly in a position to muster the courage needed for taking decisions on pending Indo-Bangladesh issues, like handing over ULFA militants who have taken shelter in Bangladesh, granting India transit facilities for its goods to move to other parts of the country through the territory of Bangladesh, and entering into long term arrangement in the energy field. The military is bound to be deeply divided on these issues. Besides, the present Bangladesh Government is too embroiled in domestic political problems to be able to devote the kind of time, attention and energy that is required for resolving these problems with India. #

Muchkund Dubey is a former Foreign Secretary of India & served as High Commissioner to Bangladesh in 1982

This article was first published in Mainstream magazine (VOL XLV, No 32) on 29 July 2007

Monday, July 30, 2007

Institutionalising Military into Politics

Ominous sign for democracy and political institution

It is ironical that, when one of the most institutionalised military establishments in the world, the Turkish army, under pressure from the European Union, is relinquishing its authority to elected representatives, the issue of institutionalising the military in the political process is surfacing in Bangladesh.


ON the first day of the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, Israeli air attack completely destroyed Egyptian air defence system. A large part of the Egyptian air force was destroyed on the ground and the rest incapacitated. It was no surprise attack. A few days back, the then Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had warned the high command of Egyptian military officials of the imminent Israeli air strike. The high command simply failed to act upon the warning. Among two most important reasons often cited in the literature of the Arab-Israeli conflict about the fiasco of the Egyptian military are the transfer of 300 senior military officials to civilian positions and institutionalisation of the Egyptian army in the political process. The transfer, in some cases to get rid of unreliable officials and in other cases to reward the protégés of Nasser with more comfortable jobs of senior officials, dealt a severe blow to the efficiency of the Egyptian armed forces, whereas institutionalisation of the Egyptian military into politics left a force beset with constant bickering for the power pie, with highly corrupt officials and demoralised soldiers. The final outcome of the war was the defeat of the Arab allies to a smaller but more efficient Israeli defence force under the command of an elected government.

The debacle of the Arab coalition in the 1973 war clearly indicates how politicisation of military and relocation of military officials to civilian positions may lead to serious problems during a national crisis like war. It further indicates that despite having a greater military power, a politically ambitious military with lack of professionalism may itself pose a serious threat to the national security of a country.

A previous article of this author (‘The emergence of the tyranny of a non-political status quo’, New Age, July 21) indicated that the current political crisis in Bangladesh is the upshot of a conflict between the syndicates of political parties and non-political establishments. But, the current reform process seems to be completely oblivious to this important aspect of the crisis. Instead, it appears to be selectively downgrading the political parties to a lower hierarchy in the political power game while systematically creating power bases for the syndicates of the military establishment and other non-political interest groups.

There is no denying that the political leadership was utterly insincere in their efforts, unless forced by popular movements, to create a viable and sustainable political institution. But, the failure of the political leadership shall not justify creating, through selective reforms, a status quo of the military syndicate, which, in the past, through indiscriminate appointments of military officials in the civil administration, also contributed significantly to the current crisis in the governance structure. For example, during the military rule of 1975-1990, two generals, Ziaur Rahman and Hussain Muhammad Ershad, systematically positioned military officials in the civilian administration, violating the warrant of precedence of service rules. Under Zia, army officials occupied the positions of 6 of 20 secretaries, 14 of 20 police superintendents, 10 of 20 corporate directorships and 32 diplomats. Under Ershad, 20 senior administration positions, 14 corporate directorships and two-thirds of the diplomatic positions were occupied by senior army officials (see Stanley Kotchaneck, Patron-Client Politics and Business in Bangladesh, 1993, p.58-63).

All these relocation not only served the interest of the military establishment but also benefited incompetent bureaucrats and sycophants of the military establishment. Subsequently, it turned away talented graduates from civil service jobs, which used to be considered as highly respected positions to hold. Indeed, the nation’s bureaucracy, main organ of the governing process, paralysed through such a systematic violation of service rules that started in 1975, is yet to regain its past stature. Today, the same history seems to be repeating. Military officials are again being posted in important civil administration positions, disregarding future and further debilitating consequences on the governing structure.

The issue of the formation of the National Security Council is yet another attempt to manipulate the political process and institution to the benefits of the military syndicate. On July 10, the chief of army staff, General Moeen U Ahmed, at a seminar organised by the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies and the American Centre, referred to corruption as a national security issue. Corruption is undoubtedly a national issue of utmost importance. But, it is not quite clear from the army chief’s speech how corruption threatens national security. Then again, one can easily find a good analogy of tying national security with political ambition in the Bush administration’s use of the national security issue to enter a pre-emptive war against Iraq, which the majority of American people now oppose, and Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf’s abuse of the national security issue to justify his military rule. Similarly, the army chief’s statement is an attempt to convince the people of the importance of the military’s role in the political process through the formation of the National Security Council, which, by the way, is supposed to deal with threats against the sovereignty of the country.

Recent statements of the law and communication advisers to the interim government in the media only reinforce the conviction of this author about the ongoing behind-the-door efforts to institutionalise the military’s role in the political process through the formation of the National Security Council.

It is ironical that, when one of the most institutionalised military establishments in the world, the Turkish army, under pressure from the European Union, is relinquishing its authority to elected representatives, the issue of institutionalising the military in the political process is surfacing in Bangladesh.

No functional democracy authorises military interference in the national political process. For example, the United States National Security Council is dominated by civil administration officials with virtually no decision-making authority of the defence officials. India, which has to live under constant threats of China and Pakistan, two dominant military forces with nuclear capabilities, allows defence officials to serve in the National Security Council only as advisers. Even Israel, the most militaristic democracy in the world, grants the ultimate decision-making authority of the National Security Council to the elected prime minister.

Pakistan, a failed state, perhaps is the only exception to the rule. Pakistani army is virtually the omnipotent guidance for the democratic process in that country. There is speculation that the composition and functions of the National Security Council of Bangladesh are being planned to be modelled on those of Pakistan’s. This possibility raises a set of questions. First, is the proposal, by certain people, of power sharing between the president and the elected prime minister somewhat related to the proposal to have the president lead the National Security Council? Second, will the military have significant decision-making authority in the National Security Council? Third, will the unelected president have the authority to overthrow an elected parliament? (One must remember that two elected Pakistani prime ministers were dismissed by unelected presidents allegedly acting at the behest of the military.) If all the answers are in the affirmative, then it appears that the nation is heading toward a Pakistani style democracy, where power of the elected representatives is subject to the caprice of the military-technocrat oligarchy. And, it would be really unfortunate to see such retrograding of the political institution of Bangladesh in the name of political reforms.

The government must understand that selective reforms would end up making no significant progress in the political institution and competition. Naxalites failed because they waged a wrong war on wrong targets. In the name of wiping out the class system, they tried to eliminate landlords and the outcome was a mutually destructive bloody campaign with many lives lost without any avail to anyone. #

ABM Nasir teaches economics at North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina, US and can be reached at

Friday, July 27, 2007

Bangladesh’s nonchalant Generals and their Deathly Gallows


ONLY a little more than two years ago, on the 15th of June 2005 to be precise, General Moeen U. Ahmed became the Bangladesh Chief of Army Staff. Who knew then this general was waiting in the wings to become an ambitious power monger? Who could visualize then he would follow the same path of his guru Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, who successfully cut the two non-theocratic parties to sizes thus empowering the mulladom? What a historical parallel is being unfolded in Bangladesh by the Pakistani army brass's Bangladeshi junior partners! Without Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif their political parties are nothing short of a boat without a captain. General Moeen knew that at this juncture Hasina less Awami League would be an impotent entity. Similarly a cornered Khaleda Zia will result in simple disintegration of the party.

General Moeen had the audacity to scold whole Bangladehi nation for not paying enough "respect" to the founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He was pointing fingers to the civilian segment of the society. He conveniently forgot that it was the Bangladeshi military that brutally killed Sheikh Mujib, his close relatives, which includes pregnant women and children. The General did not bother to recollect that it was two vile generals, namely, Ziaur Rahman and H.M. Ershad, who very systematically followed a master plan to erase the memory of Sheikh Mujib from the collective psyche of the Bangladeshi people.

General Moeen U. Ahmed blamed the civilian politicians for all the wrong doings that occurred during the last few decades of Bangladesh's existence. His selective memory failed to accommodate one important piece of information. That is, out of the last 36 years since Bangladesh's emergence as a sovereign country, close to 27 years the nation was ruled by Bangladesh army either directly or indirectly. The General can not deny that the outcome of the October 2001 general election brought enough joy to many of the powerful army brass in the Cantonment. Will it be too much of a speculation if someone says, the BNP victory was many generals' wishful thinking?

It is sad to see General Moeen U. Ahmed is showing enough signs of lack of integrity in his public persona. Never had he attempted any degree of self-criticism. May be, self-criticism is not in their lexicon. While he was constantly finger pointing to the corruption epidemic in political circle, never for a single moment he ever uttered any word indicating corruption within the army barracks. It is an open secret, like any social ill, corruption does exist in cantonment in a big way. It is conceivable that many big cheeses in the retired army community became tycoons overnight through illegitimate means. Like any "money grabbing" agency in Bangladesh, Defense Purchasing is an area where corruption has been quite rampant. Can General Moeen deny that?

The military backed current Bangladesh caretaker government's recent drama of prosecuting Sheikh Hasina is the last straw that broke the camel's back. It was an open secret that General Ershad is one of the most corrupt rulers of the country. He remained untouchable to this day. Ironically, a few days before the so-called historical 1/11, this general was indicted by the former regime. Strangely enough, today he remains a free man.

When mullah and military commingle, they make a deadly cocktail. Pakistan is a good example. Ziaul Huq made the country a precursor of a Talibanistic nation. In Bangladesh 's case, Ziaur Rahman and H.M. Ershad started the process of Islamization of once secular nationalist country. When ex-DGFI Chief General Matin says he does not have clue if Jamaatis were corrupt, it gives us enough headache.

The Generals are leading the nation to a deathly gallows, it seems. #

This article was first published in:

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Power Play

Bangladesh’s military-backed government is trying to oust two of the nation’s most prominent politicians. They’re not going quietly.

, Special to Newsweek

Rashed Ahmed / AFP-Getty Images

Hasina’s supporters protest her arrest on extortion charges earlier this month

MORE than 25 years ago, Bangladesh's leading politicians persuaded two housewives to enter the public arena. The women spearheaded agitation, forced a military dictator to quit power and restored parliamentary democracy in their impoverished nation. Then the two arch rivals won elections in popular votes and alternated as prime ministers for more than a decade in the predominantly Muslim country. Now their era of dominance may be coming to an ignominious end.

Khaleda Zia, 62, inherited the political legacy of her slain husband, President Gen. Ziaur Rahman, and Sheikh Hasina, 59, that of her assassinated father, the nation's founding leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Both were top contenders for power in Bangladesh’s next election, scheduled for late 2008. But now both face a permanent exile from politics as even their own supporters accuse them of corruption, cronyism and attempts to establish political dynasties. While both have denied the charges, matters took a new turn with last week’s arrest of Hasina on extortion charges. Hasina is also accused of playing a role in four killings allegedly committed by members of her opposition Awami League during a riot last year.

Hasina’s arrest was the latest step by Bangladesh’s interim military-backed government to force her and Zia out of the country. The seven-month-old caretaker regime, which took charge after 30 people were killed in clashes following the end of Zia's five-year term, has cracked down on corruption and pledged to hold credible elections next year. In recent weeks it has detained more than 170 key political leaders, businessmen and public servants on charges of graft and abuse of power. It has also begun encouraging reformists to challenge Zia and Hasina and patronizing groups that established two new political parties. "[Zia and Hasina] delivered nothing to the nation in [the] last 26 years," says Ataur Rahman, a Dhaka University teacher and president of the Bangladesh Political Science Association. "It is time for them to yield to new leadership.

Hasina argues that the charges against her are false and aimed at keeping her from fighting at the polls. "It's a conspiracy to stop me from speaking for the rights of the people," she told a court that rejected her bail petition and sent her to a makeshift sub-jail last week. "I've done nothing wrong." Hasina's arrest has sparked violent protests and brought strong condemnations from lawyers, teachers, political parties and media. Teachers at Dhaka University—hub of the nation’s political activity—wore black badges and boycotted classes Sunday to protest Hasina's arrest and Zia's harassment. Zia, who is not on speaking term with Hasina, has also condemned the arrest and demanded her release.

Meanwhile, many analysts believe that Zia—currently in virtual confinement at her Dhaka Cantonment house—may be the next to be arrested. The government's anticorruption commission has given the two leaders seven days to submit wealth reports detailing their income and assets. Zia’s elder son, Tarique Rahman, an heir apparent during his mother's reign, is already in jail facing a number of corruption charges. And the election commission is drafting laws to disqualify people from seeking votes if they are convicted on corruption charges.

The big question now is how recent developments could affect Bangladeshi politics in the longer term. One fear: that the instability might give rise to Islamic extremism. Mizanur Rahman Shelley, a social scientist and chairman of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB), compares the situation with the reign of Iran's Reza Shah Pahlavi, who systematically crushed liberal democrats. "The vacancy was filled slowly but steadily by the extremist religious elements, led by mullahs," notes Shelley. "Towards the end, the Shah had some of the confined nationalist leaders to his aid, but it was too late. The extremists took over."

It is unclear just how much support there is for fundamentalists in Bangladesh. However, there are also fears that the military—which has ruled Bangladesh directly or indirectly for 15 years since it achieved independence from Pakistan in 1971—might consolidate its grip on the country. At present, the generals are simply supporting the civilian caretaker administration, but some Bangladeshis favor setting up a security council to give the military a more formal role in government. "There should be a mechanism so that the military can play its role in policymaking," says Rahman. "There is a need for stabilization of the civil-military relationship." The army chief, Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed, is brushing aside such speculation—for now, at least. "We have no intention to take power," he says. "We are supporting the caretaker government. The security council is not a priority issue." Nonetheless, the general feels that the nation's constitution must be rewritten to maintain a balance of power between the figurehead president and the all-powerful prime minister.

Most Bangladeshis have applauded the government's drive against corruption, but they also have other priorities. One example: they complain that the government has hardly taken any step to control price hikes. "There are high prices, tight monetary measures and economic uncertainty," says Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, president of the Bangladesh Economic Association. "The government needs to address them quickly on the reality of the grounds, not on any dogma."

There’s also the issue of party politics. Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Hasina's Awami League are bitterly divided. Reformists within the two parties—encouraged by the government—both want to loosen the vise of their leaders by introducing term limits that would end their control. "A lot of damage has been done to our politics," says A. H. Mofazzal Karim, Zia's adviser and a leading reformist. "We should start a new chapter which will not allow repetition of evildoings of the past." Others, however, argue that such attempts can be counterproductive. "The reform will not bring positive results for the country if it is forced on political parties," says Akbar Ali Khan, a former adviser to the caretaker government. "Solutions will not come if only the parties are split in the name of reforms."

Zia herself believes the government wants to break up the two parties, accusing it of failing to act against those trying to oust her and Hasina. "[The government] imposed restrictions on our movements, but [it is] not touching those who are speaking about reforms, she charged during a conference call with leaders of her party's Australian branch Saturday night. "Their only agenda is to split the party." Both Zia and Hasina still command large followings, and their opponents have neither the mass appeal nor the charisma of these dominant figures. But given the government's determination to be rid of them, that won't be enough to keep them in the center of the political stage much longer. #

Hassan Shahriar is Executive Editor of Bangladesh's leading newspaper Dainik Ittefaq, also correspondent for Newsweek magazine. He is current International President of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA). He could be reached

This article was contribute special to Newsweek and published on July 24, 2007
© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A satiric note on current Bangladesh situation


IT seems that mission of the Army-backed government is to politically finish the family of Bangabandhu first! Case statistics show that number of cases filed against Begum Zia is only two. It gives us an impression that Begum Zia is less corrupt than Hasina, who has championed in Corruption with 12/14 cases with whole family! That is why Hasina is arrested first. But reality contradicts. The govt. was disturbed by a survey of the WEEKLY 2000 (Saptahik 2000) that Hasina has still more acceptance in her party than Begum Zia. It is hard to create a conflict within AL. Being failed, now they are planning to arrest "so-called" reformist leaders. Luckily, couple of them are out of the country. They have saved themselves already playing tricky politics with Army-backed administration.

Now Gen. Moeen is saying that Bangabandhu will be given due place in history. But we afraid the way "might is right" adage is going on, after couple of years they will do a rank of order where Bangabandhu will be in number 5/6!

Sheikh Rehana spoke the right thing "Might is Right". Yes, Army is believed to be the number one SHOT (HONEST) institution in Bangladesh as it is indirectly endorsed by our eminent lawyers. Interestingly at the same time, echoing with Army chief, now Dr. Kamal Hossain is also saying the need of changing the constitution of the country. The problem is that we talked against Hazari, Hazi Selim, Hazari for their muslceman like attitude and arrogance, but like DGFI and talking against Jamaat-Shibir's "Rogkata" bahini in Bangladesh has become a taboo. Whether we like Sk. Hasina or not, at least she always raises her voice against that "Rogkata" bahini. It is hard to find whether our noble peace prize winner Dr. Yunus ever say a word against Jamaat-Shibir and their fundamentalist friends in his public lecture or opinionates or about the state of minority repression in Bangladesh. Does it mean "sometime might is right is justified"? What Army is doing right now, and what Jamaat-Shibir (a very "democratic party" with a captivated Majlish e Shura) usually does, we have to accept that their actions are necessary for the "Honest Democracy" in Bangladesh.

Jamaati top rank leaders and four star generals in Bangladesh should be given next Nobel Peace Prize for re-inventing a new style of (Honest) Democracy in Bangladesh with the support of Guns and Swords. Actually, they are not different than Tarique Rahman (who once told in a news interview that Islam often allows force/violence to get the things done). Who knows there may have a drama going on in Bangladesh? Who knows? May be, everything is very unclear. Because Honest Democracy talks against dynasty but not that much about transparency. Perhaps, Honesty does not require transparency as everybody knows it is a honest system at least when Nobel laureate and the proponent of BD constitution also similarly talk about Honest Politics. In such context, Bangladeshis would love to see our respected doctorates and Prof. Golam Azom work together for Bangladesh. We are waiting to see their dreamy Honest Government (!) in Bangladesh. Then our all doctorates and Ameers of Jihadism will be able to remove the country's name from the list of "most watched countries" in the world!!! Will they?

Who defines democractic change in Bangladesh? Army - students studying in the capital or private universities or abroad - businessmen - civil society people with higher and stable income - Radical Islamists (Bcoz their gurus like Al Quida has already issued a sermon that don't stand by the side of corrupt politicians or governments of Muslim countries). Does anybody talk to or listen to the symbol of our common people "Aijuddin" - "Koshte Achhe Aijuddin"! #

BIMAK MITUL, is post graduate student at Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Monday, July 23, 2007

British leaders protest Hasina's detention

Bangladesh arrest

Sir, Bangladesh, a strategic country of 150 million people, has a proud history of progress under secular democracy since its independence in 1971, punctuated by regrettable periods of regression under authoritarian military rule. We are therefore gravely concerned about the undignified arrest this week of the former Prime Minister and Awami League president Sheikh Hasina. She was seized in the early hours of July 16 and imprisoned under emergency powers that appear to deny her basic legal rights, including legal representation.

Sheikh Hasina returned voluntarily to her homeland in early May to answer accusations of extortion and murder laid against her, even though the Government sought actively to keep her in exile while transiting through London after a family visit to the US. There are widespread allegations that her arrest is politically motivated before the promised elections now unfortunately delayed to 2008 by the caretaker Government. It is also deeply insensitive that she has been summoned to appear before a criminal court on August 15, which is the 32nd anniversary of the assassination of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who founded the modern Bangladeshi state along with 15 other members of her family.

We call upon the authorities to release her on bail so that she can prepare her defence. She has already surrendered her passport and poses no conceivable security risk or risk of attempting to evade justice. Sheikh Hasina must also be afforded a fair and impartial trial in the event that this prosecution is pursued further.

When the caretaker Government was formed earlier this year we all had high expectations that it would follow through on its promises of rapid, free and fair elections, and enable a restoration of the rule of law with full respect for fundamental human rights.

We are friends of a free and democratic Bangladesh and now urge the caretaker Government to live up to its political and moral obligations.



Liberal Democrat

Liberal Democrat



The letter has been published in The Times, London, July 23, 2007

Friday, July 20, 2007

Bangladesh: Lock up your leading ladies

A curious democratic roadmap

IN MOST countries, ambitious generals and unelected governments have a poor track record of delivering democracy. But this is still the promise to Bangladesh made by the generals who assumed emergency powers in January and the pliable administration they installed. This week the election commission published a roadmap to parliamentary elections to be held before the end of 2008. But the government was silent on when the state of emergency will be lifted.

The next day the government reminded people of one reason why their constitutional rights remain suspended. It stepped up its purge of corrupt politicians, officials and businessmen, more than 150 of whom have been arrested since the beginning of the year.

The police arrested and jailed Sheikh Hasina Wajed, prime minister between 1996 and 2001. She is accused of both extortion and complicity in murder. The police also summoned her nemesis, Khaleda Zia, prime minister until last October, but now in effect under house arrest, to appear in court next month. Both leaders will have to submit “wealth statements” to a powerful Anti-Corruption Commission. Unlike Mrs Zia, who has been more or less dropped by her party, Sheikh Hasina is still popular. So security forces were on the alert after her arrest. But protests were patchy rather than nationwide.

The government had earlier tried—and failed—to exile the two “begums”. In April it barred Sheikh Hasina from returning to the country from Britain, but relented under domestic and international pressure. Then it banned her from leaving. If the prosecutions of the two begums fail, it could spell the end of the interim government. The abortive bid to exile the women, who both led kleptocratic regimes, has already badly dented its credibility.

The anti-corruption drive has made the unelected regime relatively popular. But critics are now accusing it of abusing its wide-ranging emergency powers for political purposes. With almost the entire political class behind bars, the fear is that elections staged at the end of the clean-up will produce a puppet regime.

Last week the army chief, General Moeen U Ahmed, said that there was a need to “correct the constitution”, after a new parliament is in place. Though largely unreported, General Ahmed's promotion in May to a four-star rank means that he will stay on as army chief beyond his original retirement date of June 2008 into 2009, beyond the deadline for elections. There is already talk in Dhaka that the army is thinking of changing the constitution along Turkish lines, giving itself a bigger role. This raises a grim prospect of a technocratic, top-down constitutional review, and an outcome few Bangladeshis would accept as legitimate. #

This article is first published in The Economist, Jul 19th 2007

Extortion Case against Sheikh Hasina


THE government has not submitted any case against Sheikh Hasina yet. She has been arrested and imprisoned for indefinite period to prepare a charge-sheet against her, as per the Law Advisor of the military-backed government, Mr. Mainul Hosein. The judge did not entertain any bail petition, instead ordered to produce her before the Court after 30 days. She was taken to jail from the Court in an indecent way. The Law Advisor further stated that unless she was arrested and taken into custody, she would be absconding and therefore, as per law, it was necessary to detain her to prepare a charge sheet [in present day Bangladesh many defendants of murders are allowed to move free even they are allowed to go abroad freely].

The Extortion Case: Background
Sheikh Hasina made many statements asking the interim government to return powers to an elected government quickly and the government did not like those criticisms. The last one was a bomb shell...she stated that the DGFI (Bangladesh military intelligence) is involved in breaking up the political parties and she wanted to know their budget. No wonder, she hit the most sensitive organization and therefore, she must be punished!!

Earlier in last May she came to visit her son and daughter in the U. S. and made few comments. The government did not like those and they therefore banned her return to her own country. As she was determined to return home, a businessman named Tajul Islam Faruq, Country Director of the Westmont Ltd., Energy Company was arrested and was taken into security interrogations.

First Attempt to lodge extortion case against Hasina
Mr. Faruq hurriedly lodged an extortion case of Taka 3 crore (30 million) against Sheikh Hasina with a view to stop her return home. He stated that he took the money in cash in a brief case to the Prime Minister's office and handed over the brief case to her. As the Bangladesh Prime Minister's Office is highly secured and each items are routinely checked many times in a series of checking posts and each appointment are recorded and meetings are video-taped, the government failed to find any collaboration of the event. Moreover, it was determined that a bag of Taka 3 crore (in 500 taka denominations) would weigh over 100 kg that is very difficult to carry by hand. Once Faruq's case did not hold water, they arrested two other businessmen, one Mr. Azam J. Chowdhury and the other, Mr. Nur Ali and they lodged extortion complaints against Sheikh Hasina.

The Second Case
When Azam Chowdhury, a businessman [Chairman & Managing Director of East Coast Group, a fast growing group engaged in International Trading, Manufacturing, Power Engineering, Blending lubricants, LPG Terminal, Mines & Minerals, Information Technology, Real Estate, including investments in Banks, Finance, Leasing, Insurance, etc] was taken into custody by the Security Forces [that are judge, jury and executioner of extra judicial killings in Bangladesh], he submitted a complaint stating that he paid $5.8 million (Taka 2.99 crore) to Sheikh Hasina's cousin, Sheikh Selim, a Health Minister in her cabinet. Mr. Chowdhury reportedly has been absconding since his submission. As per media reports, he further alleged that Sheikh Selim threatened him that unless he pays him the amount, he would get his contract (to build a power plant) cancelled by Prime Minister Hasina. The contract was never cancelled and his office paid Mr. Selim with bank checks in 8 instalments. Sheikh Selim who is also under government custody reportedly confessed in secret interrogation (edited versions of CDs of the secret interrogations have widely been distributed but government officials disowned them) after 'bottle treatment' (inhuman interrogation techniques) that he paid the money to Hasina's younger sister Sheikh Rehana and only in cash. Rehana lives in London, UK. Both Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana denied any knowledge of it.

Since Sheikh Selim, 1st cousin of Sheikh Hasina reportedly received the money in the name of Hasina, therefore, she has been arrested for 'extortion'. Is this a new face of Bangladesh legal system? Will it lead the nation to a new height or questionable outcomes?

Sheikh Hasina stated that she never ever received any money neither through extortion nor through bribe. She further stated that at times many business people contributed money to her party fund or to Bangabandhu Foundation, a philanthropic organization mostly with checks. She helps distressed people from that fund. All the monies that she received while speaking abroad at various universities were sent to that fund as well.

Why Sheikh Hasina has to go?
Unless Sheikh Hasina goes, military or techno-bureaucratic governments cannot rule the country smoothly nor could a 'National Government' comprising military, politicians, civil society, journalists and technocrats be safely established. Therefore, politicians those that have marginal followings or civil society or opinion leaders and civil-military bureaucrats that hardly reach common people or willing to take risks prefer to dump her and dump her for good. Secondly, she has both good and bad; her mouth is wide open, she likes her family but kept them away from Bangladesh politics and she is never afraid of speaking out for common people, the weak and the poor. She is a symbol of democracy and a torch bearer of the rights of the common people, the have-nots and their welfare. She initiated many progressive programs, for example, old-age pension, Mukti-judda batha (allowance), free education for girls, rehabilitation for Tokai (street children), set up the SAARC Fund for the victims of trafficking of women and children into slave like servitude, and signed the Water-Sharing Agreement with India and the Peace Deal with Chittagong Hill Tract and achieved near self-sufficiency in food production. She had the least corrupt government and her record of economic growth is the highest in Bangladesh till 2006. She maintained lowest inflation rate during her tenure out of her sensitivity to common people. She opened the electronic media, the private TV and the telecommunications including the GrameenPhone that brought many positive changes. As she had popular support, she was not weak and subservient either to national or international interest or pressure groups. Like all human beings she had weaknesses but rectified them when approached, for example, Gono Bhaban and the agreement with the Khilafat Party.

Why Good Opportunities in Bangladesh Somehow Turn Into Nightmares?
In 2001 when the Khaleda Zia got single majority unlike the AL, people expected better performance. Unfortunately, it reigned over the worst government that destroyed most of the nation's institutions and brought disgrace to politicians and politics. When former Chief Justice M. A. Hasan declined to take the charge of the Chief Advisor (CA) under public pressure, people hoped that a non-partisan CA would be installed. Instead they ended up with a worse choice, Dr. Iajuddin Ahmed, a highly partisan and ethically immoral CA. When the 1st Voter List under the partisan Election Commission (EC) was declared 'null and void' by the nation's High Court, people hoped to have a fair voter list. But alas! The new one ended up with over 13 million ghost voters. The people of Bangladesh desired to have a 'qualitative change in Bangladesh politics and government' and with the coming of the military-backed interim government, they breathe a sigh of relief. But the new manipulation and reform drama that are being staged is creating doubts among the people. People have started losing their faith and therefore, they want the interim government to hold a 'free, fair, non-violent and credible election' by January 2008.

The interim government did many commendable jobs and it reconstituted the EC, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), the Public Service Commission (PSC) and started a jihad against corruption that was imperative. The political parties needed a real shake up to correctly realize their faults and greed. However since corruption jihad is becoming one-sided, and no institutional reform are in the offing yet unlike South Korea or Singapore, people are doubtful of its sustainability. Moreover, corruption cases are discharged in a way that tantamount to kangaroo courts. For example, Gias Uddin Al-Mamun, a close friend of Tareq Rahman, son of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and a businessman by profession was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment as a loaded pistol was found on his living room sofa on March 26, 2007. He was arrested on January 16 and was under government custody till the loaded pistol was found. People believe it was placed by security forces. He also got another 3 years of jail sentence as he failed to submit his income and wealth statements while he was under military custody. Another former Minister has been sentenced to 5 years of imprisonment for keeping 4 half-empty bottles of liquor belonging to his foreign born son-in-law that was visiting Bangladesh during 1/11. Such verdicts provide reasons for questioning. Unless transparency, judicial fairness and justice are uphold in the corruption cases, this great opportunity for a change would be lost and the nation will suffer.

Following Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf's strategy, the interim government initially tried (1) to exile both Begums; Begum Zia of the BNP and Begum Hasina of the AL party. Once that strategy failed, they (2) tried to form a new party hoping that in the process, Hasina's AL and Zia's BNP would be weaken. But that did not work up to expectation. (3) In order to oust them from party leaderships, they therefore approached a few politicians of the AL and the BNP parties, many of whom are reportedly corrupt or facilitated corruption (BNP's Mannan Bhuiyan doled out maximum amount of grants to party operatives). Since corrupt politicians are vulnerable, they listened to them to avoid jail and submitted reform proposals principally aiming at removal of their two top leaders. Since such strategy known as 'Minus Two" is also finding difficulties especially in the case of the AL, therefore, the government is now trying to create 10 more criminal cases against Sheikh Hasina in order to disqualify her in the next elections (in Bangladesh under duress or payment, witnesses and false documents could easily be manipulated by government or powerful] The government knows that Hasina cannot be brought or sold neither she can be tamed since she has the spirit of her father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of independent and sovereign Bangladesh.

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has asked both Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia to submit their wealth and income statements for the last 60 years by next Monday, and if they fail to do it correctly, they will get 3 years imprisonment each. This should be a warning call to all citizens of Bangladesh to keep their life's wealth and income statements always ready and fresh!!!

Question is: will Hasina's departure bring good for the country? Her father's departure or murder did not bring good for the country. It neither helped achieving her father's dream, a golden Bengal, where rights of all people would be guaranteed, where economic deprivation and injustice would be a matter of the past. However, her father's killing helped Hasina to take the leadership role of the oldest party of Bangladesh, the AL. Will it repeat now? Will this arrest help her son Joy Wazed to get into politics? Will her arrest pave the demise of multi-party democracy in Bangladesh and/or will it lead it to a non-democratic country like most of the Muslim majority countries? Will it unite her party and the nation, and will it make her a real leader like her father who was arrested by Pakistan army as he was uncompromising on the rights of people and their economic welfare? Jailed Mujib was much more powerful than free Mujib. Will history repeat itself again? #

Dr. Abdul Momen, a professor of economics and business management, Boston, USA. He could be reached at:

Boston, USA, July 17, 2007

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Pinning down both Begums could backfire against the Bangladesh authorities


BANGLADESH pro-democracy leader Shiekh Hasina has been arrested by the quasi-military government on Monday (July 16) and observers believe that the axe fell on her for lambasting the dreaded military intelligence agency’s for meddling with politics.

While speaking to journalists last week, the former prime minister raised the bet in this cat-and-mouse game. She did not hesitate to open the pandora box - the hidden ambition of the military intelligence presently running a shadow “interim” government, what has long been regarded as a “taboo” and publicly accused the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence - the DGFI for interfering in state of affairs.

Twice leader of the opposition, Sheikh Hasina accused the military-run DGFI of ''arresting and torturing politicians'' and engaging in efforts to make or break mainstream political parties with a deliberate attempt to the tune of the band of military music.

''It is not the DGFI's business to get involved in politics, to make or break political parties. What kind of intelligence activity is it, when the agency tortures people, and administers electric shocks?'' she asked.

Following her demand to stop DGFI operating beyond its constitutional mandate, a member of hand-picked civilian advisers to run the military-backed government retired military General M.A. Matin frowned at her for grumbling against state security services.

Matin, the former chief of the DGFI on behalf of the government argued that "the government doesn't know the basis of her complaints."

The independent newspaper Daily Star editorial demands that it is an “imperative need of intelligence agencies required to be fully depoliticized and reform to address contemporary challenges.”

District administration with advice from DGFI is once again engaged in the notorious task to set up a “kings party” with “political urchins” laundered as “Mr. Clean” in small towns, as Mahfuz Anam admitted that he disbelieved earlier reports from correspondent’s. Many observers suspect that after the institution building of the “kings party”, only then the election schedule would be announced.

Former Bangladesh guerrilla (Mukti bahini) officers, Anam strongly suggest that this “is no way to strengthen democracy. Just as 'command economy' failed so will 'command politics'. The core of democracy is people's right to choose their leaders and those who will represent them in the government.”

The government has promised to hold elections before the end of 2008. But Sheikh Hasina believes that is too long in power for an unelected administration without any accountability.

Three days later, she was arrested on charges of extortion and graft laid against her over a month ago, which current TIME magazine interprets as netting another “big fish” for extortion.

Earlier, she was charged in a murder case allegedly involving her Awami League party members in the death of four Islamist activists during demonstrations last October. The government is also reviving a number of corruption cases filed against her several years ago during Khaleda Zia’s regime.

Nevertheless the detention of a former Bangladesh prime minister sparked harsh media criticism, including warnings that the move could backfire against the authorities.

Reacting to Hasina’s arrest independent newspaper Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam comments that it “is totally misconceived and smacks of arrogant use of power without due process of law.”

In an angry editorial, Daily Star blasted the government for arresting Sheikh Hasina and said it was “a wrong and unacceptable decision” and also writes: The law is certainly to be applied to everyone equally, but in Sheikh Hasina's case, the action of the government smacks of an arbitrary use of power.

To many observers in the capital Dhaka, it was only a matter of time before she was arrested. Her supporters believe there is more politics than law behind her arrest, writes Sabir Mustafa on BBC online.

Sheikh Hasina, prime minister for the five years through 2001 and accused of corruption during her rule, was taken from her home in Dhaka and sent to a special jail, near the magnificent parliament as her supporters and political activists protested.

Awami League’s chief Shiekh Hasina and Bangladesh Nationalists Party chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia alternatively took turn in governing the country since 1991, after the nine-year old military dictator General H.M. Ershad collapsed in violent pro-democracy protest orchestrated by the two major political parties.

However social scientists, civil society and media intermittently blamed both the regimes of for poor governance, nationwide corruption, poor economic growth, impunity to predators of human rights and press freedom, spiralling price of groceries, and of course failing to contain muscle flexing of Islamist. None of the issues were paid attention which blatantly contradicted electoral pledges, instead intimidated critics, specially the independent journalists.

Star editor speaking his mind said, we accept that our leaders, including Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, betrayed our trust in many cases and over many years. We also agree that we got tired and fed up with confrontational and destructive politics and that we all yearned for a change. But “we never agreed to bargain our democracy for 'knights in shining armour' to save us from dire straits.”

The nation has been in political turmoil since January, when an army-backed government took power after violent protests and strikes by rival supporters of the two women led to elections being cancelled scheduled in last January.

The army-backed interim administration sacked the caretaker government, and imposed state of emergency in mid January. The authority’s banned political and trade union activities, imposed blanket censorship and launched a crackdown on politicians.

Consolidating quasi-military rule, the army chief Lt. General Moeen U Ahmed vowed to clean up the country's notoriously graft-ridden politics before holding new elections in December 2008.

Weeks after the “politico-military” take-over, Bangladesh's army chief lambaste the country's politicians, saying democracy in Bangladesh had so far led to criminalisation of politics threatening the state's survival. He says the country should not go back to being run by an "elective democracy".

The new administration in it’s first attempt netted 170 high-profile politicians businessmen and influential bureaucrats and slammed for graft, abuse of power, extortion, tax evasion, money laundering, and also leading extravagance lifestyle in the 150 million poverty-stricken nation.

Among high-profile politicians including Tareque Rahman, son of Khaleda Zia, have been detained for graft and abuse of power. Khaleda also faces charges of extortion and abuse of power.

The TIME magazine does not hesitate to write: “Many ordinary Bangladeshis applauded the anti-corruption drive when it began and love the fact that the former leaders of a country widely perceived as amongst the most corrupt in the world are finally facing justice.”

None were arrested who were blessed with impunity for being predator of defenders of human rights, independent journalists and violence against religious minorities.

Till now, a handful have been convicted by special fast-track courts and sentenced to between three and 13 years.

In another scenario once again Khaleda Zia has been unofficially placed under house arrest. Except for close relatives, the party leaders have been barred to visit the leader since July 15.

The BNP chairperson now spends time with family members at her home hemmed in by security personnel. The main gate of her home at capital’s military garrison remains locked and can only be unlocked after green light from the intelligence agencies.

House staff member Yunus told journalists that "Madam reads newspapers, says her prayers and recites from the holy Quran."

In April, the government tried to exile Sheikh Hasina by barring her from returning to Bangladesh from the United States, where she had been visiting her only daughter and son and was stranded at London airport ignoring specific international laws that govern international travel.

But the government backed down over the ban and she made a triumphant return welcomed by thousands of supporters.

At the same time, Zia also appeared to be on the brink of being exiled to Saudi Arabia, but those moves also fell through.

Likewise, when she tried to travel to America in late June to see her expectant daughter, the police deployed additional forces and prevented her from going to the airport.

Hasina also made harshest observance that democracy will not be established if the military backed government works with a plan to bring someone specific or some specific forces to power.

All the while, Sheikh Hasina has been campaigning for early elections, suggesting that the military-backed caretaker government did not have a mandate to govern for a long time.

The state has once again plunged into uncertainty and is likely to backfire the reforms the authorities promised to the people. #

Saleem Samad is editor of, a news portal for South Asian diaspora in North America. He is presently living in exile in Canada and could be reached at

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

This is no way to strengthen democracy

Just as "command economy" failed, so will "command politics"


The only reason that the caretaker government has survived six months in power, and the chief advisor acknowledges it every time an occasion arises, is because the general public think of it to be an instrument to strengthen democracy. But now if this very instrument of 'strengthening democracy' becomes a symbol of mindless and arbitrary use of power, then how will the public distinguish it from such previous abusers of power and continue to lend it support?

As a newspaper which supported the reform process of this government, we raise the above question in all seriousness. For we think by arresting Sheikh Hasina on charges that can easily be tried without her internment, the government has put at risk all its achievements of the last six months. To us Sheikh Hasina's arrest is totally misconceived and smacks of arrogant use of power without due process of law. To say that nobody is above the law must also mean that law is not the handmaiden of anybody either.

Examine the arbitrariness with which Sheikh Hasina's has been treated. She was allowed to go abroad and just because she spoke out against some actions of this government, (having earlier promised to ratify everything) suddenly several cases were filed against her. Then, when every government would want an accused to return to the country to face the charges, the government decided that she would not be allowed to come. Why and under what law and whose authority, we still don't know. In a most childish move all foreign airlines were asked not to take her on board, ignoring specific international laws that govern international travel. Then, just as suddenly she was allowed to return to a tumultuous welcome at the airport, which then resulted in cases against 5,000 unidentified attendees. (How these cases will be pursued only God knows).

Things were quiet for a while as the AL chief kept mum. She was allowed some movement but stopped whenever she would make a comment. In the latest instances of arbitrariness, Sheikh Hasina was allowed to visit the ailing Sabina Yasmin but Khaleda Zia was not.

In Khaleda Zia's case a comedy was enacted with her going abroad. The plan was to send her into exile and the bargaining was whether or not she will be allowed to take her two sons with her. We saw the drama of Koko -- being charged with extortion (same as Sheikh Hasina), arrested and then released within a day with the case still pending. The drama continued for days which later turned out to be a farce as the BNP chief did not even have a visa for any country willing to host her. She had to negotiate to visit her husband's grave and seek clearance every time she went anywhere. Again the question is why, and under what law her movements are curtailed.

We trust the chief of staff when he says that the Army is not involved in politics or forming any new party. But what do we do when we receive reports from our correspondents that district administrators are making lists of so-called clean politicians and that many of them are being visited by the powers that be goading them to join the new so-called king's party? What do we do when senior leaders of both the BNP and the AL tell us of powerful visitors asking them to move against their party leaders or face corruption charges?

We would like to strongly suggest that this is no way to strengthen democracy. Just as 'command economy' failed so will 'command politics'. The core of democracy is people's right to choose their leaders and those who will represent them in the government. We accept that we made some bad choices in the past. We accept that our leaders, including Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, betrayed our trust in many cases and over many years. We also agree that we got tired and fed up with confrontational and destructive politics and that we all yearned for a change. But we never agreed to bargain our democracy for 'knights in shining armour' to save us from dire straits.

We repeat that we welcomed the emergency for the simple reason that the election that was looming before us was going to further destroy our democracy, which had been battered by years of partisan politics from both sides. We supported the caretaker government, and we still do, simply because we want to go back to democracy, albeit greatly strengthened and made free of corruption. But arresting leaders at whim and 'punishing' them for making critical comments is no way of doing that.

In reference to the economy our Nobel Laureate Prof Muhammad Yunus had told an earlier government: "We do not need your help, just remove the obstacles and let people do the rest." We say the same thing today about politics to the caretaker government and to the armed forces that are helping them. We don't need your help in doing politics. Just remove the obstacles and let people do the rest. Here obstacles means corruption, lack of appropriate laws, necessary oversight mechanism, independent judiciary, Election Commission, Anti-Corruption Commission, Public Service Commission, depoliticised bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies.

Much of the above the government is doing, and creditably so. But the tragedy is that it is doing something more. It is attempting to manipulate our politics by trying to predetermine who will be and who will not be a part of its future. This is neither desirable nor doable and even if forced, not sustainable. Every leader possessing slightest bit of integrity will shy away from being a part of this process. Those who will be forced to participate in this process will lack credibility to command any respect and thus be unable to provide stability. And those who will volunteer to be part of this process, and there will be many as there has been in the past, will not be worth the paper their names will be written on.

If anybody expects to bring about a dynamic Bangladesh through such group of opportunists can only be termed as being totally devoid of any knowledge of history, especially of this part of the world, and specifically of Bangladesh.

The chief election commissioner's roadmap of Sunday had cleared the air considerably about the coming elections. But yesterday's arrest of Sheikh Hasina brought in some dark clouds over the election horizon. Suspicion has been sown that though the process and mechanics of the coming election may be free and fair, through "command politics" those participating in it may be pre-selected and thereby predetermining the outcome. Simply put "command politics" will yield "command victors" and thus instead of elected government we'll have a puppet government.

We hope that the above nightmarish scenario will not happen. It is imperative that immediate and credible steps be taken to remove all suspicion about it. For a start we think Sheikh Hasina should be set free. Let all credible cases be brought against her and let her face the law and the courts and let the people judge her for what she is. Further, we need lifting of ban on indoor politics. This will allow the reformists and the old guards to fight in the open and give the public a chance to understand the issues and make their judgment. It is our firm belief that there is a groundswell of support for reforms in every aspect of our politics. The leaders who will oppose reforms will be rejected by the voters, if not by the party activists and supporters. But the reform process has to be open and free, and not manipulated.

We conclude by urging the army-backed caretaker government not to jeopardise the whole reform process and the considerable success that this government has achieved in fighting corruption and bringing some institutional reforms by wittingly or unwittingly becoming over-ambitious and taking more on their plate than they can digest. The fundamental mistake committed by past proponents of "command politics" was to underestimate the wisdom of our masses. We cannot afford a repeat of that mistake. #

Mahfuz Anam is a editor of independent Daily Star published from Bangladesh

Friday, July 13, 2007

Bangladesh emergency six months on


THIS week a picture of an 85-year-old man appeared on the front pages of Bangladesh's newspapers.

Monoranjan Roy was shown handcuffed, with a rope tied around his waist, being led away to start a six-month prison sentence. The old man's crime? Failure to repay a loan worth US $132.

So far, so commonplace for poverty-stricken Bangladesh. But Monoranjan's tale has an unusual ending.

He was granted an 11th-hour reprieve from the indignity of jail - not by the mercy of the courts, nor as a result of the generosity of his creditors, but by the Chief of the Army Staff, General Moeen U Ahmed.

Reportedly moved by Monoranjan's plight, the army chief stumped up the cash to cover the debt from his own pocket.

"May God bless him," was the old man's tearful response.

Six months after widespread rioting forced the cancellation of January's general election, Bangladesh remains under a state of emergency.

And six months on there are many people who may feel less kindly disposed towards the philanthropic general.

A series of military raids have seen dozens of senior politicians, many of them former cabinet ministers and household names, arrested and jailed.

Gen Ahmed argues that that is exactly where they should be.

Questions to answer
For a glimpse of what this military-backed emergency government is all about you could do worse than wander along to Dhanmondi police station in central Dhaka.

A peek over the wall reveals that the forecourt has begun to resemble a luxury car showroom, packed with impounded cars belonging to the arrested political elite.

Their owners, many of whom have accrued enormous wealth during their few short years in power in one of the world's poorest countries, are now awaiting trial.

Led by former banker Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, with the military marching in step, the government has vowed to make the crackdown on corruption its priority.

Lt Gen Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, a former army chief, has been appointed head of the reformed Anti-Corruption Commission.

"It is indeed a very big task," he says. "But someone has to start the action."

He says the arrests have so far been focused, by necessity, mainly on politicians.

"There is a saying in this part of the world that the fish rots from the head. So the political leaders must answer first I believe."

But with more than 60 national level politicians arrested so far, Lt Gen Chowdhury insists the net will be cast more widely.

"The only criterion we shall go by is did an individual become rich through unfair means", he says.

Special courts have been set up to hear the cases, and the first convictions have begun rolling in.

But although the emergency government is still enjoying popular support for its anti-corruption drive, some are raising concerns.

'People with guns'
Under the emergency many basic rights remain suspended, and all political activity is banned.

The political parties themselves have accused the emergency government of forcing them to undertake internal reforms.

"With the army what happens is that the top party leadership is probably aware that they cannot do a lot of things," says Sultana Kamal, a lawyer and human rights activist.

"But at the bottom, people with guns and power do not always pay respect to that."

She says she is concerned about the rights of the arrested politicians, but says most people are generally happy at their detention.

"It is the elected politicians who are basically responsible for the condition we are thrown into now."

There can be little doubt that the boundary between the emergency administration and its military backers is very blurred.

This week the army chief found time out from saving old men from prison to give a speech about his view of the future.

Two years, he said, is not enough to "heal the rot of the past 35 years". He called for a review of the constitution after next year's elections to ensure the drive against corruption would continue.

Six months on, Bangladesh's emergency government faces real challenges, not least its ability to demonstrate a desire and ability to hand power back to an elected government.

But for many years the plight of poor men like Monoranjan Roy has been made worse by the graft and greed of some of those in authority.

"The first job is to drive the fear of Allah into the minds of those who have been involved in corruption, or of those who are potentially corrupt," the chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission says.

Bangladesh has long been ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It remains to be seen whether this emergency government really can begin to turn the tide. #

John Sudworth is BBC News correspondent and is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Former prime minister slams military intelligence for interference in state politics


AFTER a long silence former prime minister and also leader of the opposition lambaste military intelligence for interfering into state politics and administration.

Since the military backed interim government took charge in 11 January, in the game of anti-graft drive has been harassing and intimidating politicians and leaders of the two mainstream political parties. Their first attempt was to arrest scores of politicians who were former members of parliament, former ministers, and influential officials with the Prime Minister’s Office and condemned them for corruption, extortion, tax evasion, money laundering, illegally amassing wealth, and leading extravagance lifestyle in the 140 million poverty-stricken country.

Both the women leaders – chief of Awami League Shiekh Hasina and chief of Bangladesh Nationalists Party Begum Khaleda Zia entered politics for their dynasty rule. Hasina’s father Shiekh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh was assassinated in a military putsch in August 1975, while Khaleda took charge of the helms of affairs of BNP after her husband General Ziaur Rahman, a liberation war hero was assassinated by another military putsch in May 1981, few years after he became the President.

Awami League President Sheikh Hasina on July 9 blasted a particular security agency and described that a civilized and democratic society cannot let an intelligence outfit to control everything while it is 'arresting and torturing politicians and intimidating them to tell what the security service like to listen'.

Twice leader of the opposition, she categorically blamed the dreaded Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and asked them to stop operating beyond its constitutional mandate and instead ensure national security.

Promptly an adviser of the military-backed interim government M.A. Matin expressed his surprise and said he is not aware what prompted Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina to grumble against intelligence agencies.

Matin, the former chief of the DGFI explained that "The government doesn't know the basis of her complaints." He told reporters, a day after Hasina accused intelligence services of "intimidating political leaders into divulging details" in custody.

"There was a difference between complaints and the reality. Anyone can complain, but the government is not aware of its grounds," the retired General argued.

Hasina who was once prime minister (1996-2001) threatened to demand of “the caretaker government to stop the agency from carrying out the atrocities and to make it carry out its real responsibilities. It is not their task to indulge in politics or to break up, nor create political parties. The people did not give them such mandate."

In response to trading accusation by Sheikh Hasina, an independent newspaper Daily Star in its editorial writes: Sheikh Hasina's critique on the role of intelligence agencies notwithstanding, we would like to take an overview of the tasks such agencies ought to be performing given their legal duties and responsibilities.

“Unfortunately, national interest came only second to partisan interest during last 15 years of elected government. It is not only during the military and quasi-military rule that the intelligence agencies were used to prop up the regime that enjoyed very little public support, the distressing aspect is that popularly elected governments could not resist the temptation either of employing these agencies to steal a march on the political opponents or harassing them to put them on the back foot.”

However, Star comments that imperative need of intelligence agencies required to be fully depoliticized and reform to address contemporary challenges.

The military intelligence always had an upper hand in state polity, since it was used to form political parties and manipulated to become the ruling parties. The security service (DGFI) was first formed by General Ziaur Rahman, when he grabbed power in 1975, months after Shiekh Mujib was assassinated by military officers.

DGFI was responsible for recruitment and political indoctrination of the political urchins turned politicians who formed the Bangladesh Nationalists Party in 1978, which is presently headed by Khaleda Zia.

After the assassination of President Ziaur Rahman, General H.H. Ershad once again gave responsibility to break up Awami League and BNP to form Jatiya Party, which now led by his wife Rawshan Ershad.

Since than, DGFI interfered into state polity, administration and national policy. The subsequent governments of Khaleda Zia and Shiekh Hasina failed to bring the security agency under parliament scrutiny. The Bangladesh Armed Forces imposed ban on discussion of military budget in parliament too.

DGFI has been blamed for torture, intimidation and harassment of scores of journalists, columnists, members of civil society, NGO leaders and businessmen for last 20 years. Forget about protests, even raising the issue of functions of DGFI invited their scorn face.

"If an undemocratic and unconstitutional government clings to power for long, then the problems of the people are not going to be resolved, rather those will be intensified," the Awami League chief said.

What prompted Sheikh Hasina to react was after the military intelligence released CDs based on interrogation of her party’s General Secretary Abdul Jalil and other senior political leaders including her first cousin Shiekh Fazlul Karim Selim. The CDs were passed to the newsroom of Bangladesh press. The CDs is also found in couple of websites and blogs and also available in stores in London, New York and Toronto.

Hasina questioned if there is any importance of any statement made under detention. "People might say anything under torture, but those statements carry no value at all," she added.

"I have asked my party leaders and activists to say whatever the intelligence agency forces them to say, say things even against me if necessary to avoid torture," Hasina said.

"What kind of intelligence activities are those when the intelligence agent’s torture people, administer electric shocks on detained persons, and threaten them with arrests of their wives and children?" Hasina asked.

If anyone commits a crime, that person should be punished after being proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law, she explained, but scaring the accused with prospects of arrests of their family members including their wives and children, which is no civility. "This is a blatant violation of human rights," she debated.

The AL president is so upset that she even demanded of the government to make public of the budget of DGFI and the purposes of expenditure.

She also questioned whether the budget includes splitting up mainstream political parties and for floating new political platform. "I want an answer," and said that playing with the fate of the people 'will not be tolerated'.

She observed that democracy will not be established if the military backed caretaker government works with a plan to bring someone specific or some specific forces to power. "If the government goes around doing its things with preconceived ideas, the people will not get their rights and there will be no accountability," she said.

The former prime minister said the country has a constitution. "So everyone must abide by the constitution. Defiance of the constitution did not bring good in the past, and it will not bring good in the future either," she said.

Needless to say, the functioning of any state agency, not to speak of the intelligence agencies, is governed by the Constitution and the law with the term of reference clearly spelt out. We cannot overlook the fact that their input is extremely important in determining national policies that go to uphold national interest by ensuring the nation's security, Star editorial commented. #

Saleem Samad is editor of, a news portal for South Asian diaspora in North America. He is presently living in exile in Canada and could be reached at