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Monday, January 14, 2008

Bangladesh 2007: Destruction without Creation


IN a bizarre and tragic way, the semi-destroyed Rangs Building in the heart of Dhaka represents accurately the accomplishments of Bangladesh’s military-led caretaker government. The characteristic that stood out most the last one year can be termed generally as “destruction.”
Reader, before you react instinctively, or before you feel like interjecting with, “well, you have to look at both sides, consider the pros and cons,” et cetera – bear with me. This is a strong criticism to make as the government celebrates its first anniversary; but I also believe that it is a reasonable argument to make. I will elaborate in three areas.

The Constitution
Unless you’re interpreting law as abstract art, the government is operating beyond its mandate specified by the Constitution. It is being run formally by ten advisors and the Chief Advisor and by authority of the President – and that’s about everything that’s constitutional about the government.

The Parliament has not been in session for over ninety days, and the government has not held elections in ninety days, which, according to Article 123(3), is the constitutional reason by which it can exist. Now, it can be considered that in view of the political crisis of pre-1/11, political parties and the people have granted permission for this government to continue. But from where did that assumption come? Was there a public poll, a referendum? If you recall, this argument came from the caretaker government itself, which publicized that corruption would need to be tackled before free and fair elections could be held. But can such permission be extended from ninety days to two years? The only way it could be done is by destroying the meaning of the Constitution as a set of principles by which the nation should be governed.

The destruction of the Constitution by the quasi-military government has allowed it to consider the formation of things like a ‘national government’ of eminent like-minded citizens or a constitutional council to revise the Constitution itself to its liking. It has allowed the government to plan the holding of local elections first, which a caretaker government cannot do if it sticks to the Constitution. The government has not only tinkered with electoral rules, but sought the army’s advice and approval of such rules, a privilege not given constitutionally to the army.

Beyond the façade of the civilian government, key functions for the last year have been run by a set of committees led by military personnel, the most prominent of which is the powerful ‘National Coordination Committee’ against crimes and corruption. It has made, and continues to make, political changes, economic decisions, including large scale purchases using public funds (most recently planning for a $880 million subway in the capital city), and continues to pass laws (signed by the President) – none of which is mandated to a caretaker government under the “routine tasks” it is supposed to do constitutionally.

Can a caretaker government, or any government, contravene the Constitution so grossly? Article 7, titled “Supremacy of the Constitution” clearly forbids it, as you can read on the left.

The economy
Over the last year a record-breaking economic crisis has appeared, almost out of nowhere, and the military government is trying hard to suppress the dissemination of information about the crisis.

Inflation has been galloping ahead, putting food and other everyday items beyond the reach of the majority of the population. In July, 2007 inflation crossed over 10 percent for the first time in 13 years. By November 2007, inflation had crossed 11.2 percent – a 17-year record. The biggest increase was in the price of food, which by January 2008, was increasing by 13.8 percent, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.

The government has blamed all but itself and its policies for this. First it blamed political mismanagement of the previous governments, then it blamed importers and indenters, then unscrupulous traders and middlemen, and more recently, international markets. It has entrusted the BDR, a paramilitary, a key role in food importation and distribution, and extended it several rounds of interest-free loans. It put in the feared RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) to force price controls on traders and food-sellers. Basically it replaced a market economy with ill-conceived military tactics, as if we were fighting a war over food.

The government summarily imprisoned many businessmen without regard to the businesses and the hundreds of thousands employed by them. It asked banks to not transact with blacklisted businesses, without showing reason why they were blacklisted, thereby introducing a credit crisis in the country. Out of the blue, it began to close down jute mills, laying off thousands of workers in the middle of a food and price crisis, and over the last year effectively destroying the jute industry in Bangladesh while similar mills in neighbouring West Bengal continue to thrive.

Arbitrary military tactics do not attract investors. In the first fiscal year since the caretaker government took over, foreign investment proposals dropped precipitously, by 57 percent. What has increased is aid-dependence, with Western donors providing both a diplomatic and economic lifeline to the government. Net foreign aid into Bangladesh increased tenfold, from $23 million in 2006 to $239 million in 2007. What has stayed unchanged is Bangladesh’s low position in the various economic indices: Corruption Perceptions Index (Transparency International), Ease of Doing Business Index (International Finance Corporation), Index of Economic Freedom (Heritage Foundation).

Destruction of political leadership
A revealing recent report in The Daily Star, a mainstream English newspaper, found that the government’s crusade in business as well as in politics have been aimed at individuals. General corruption has remained unchanged.

Most in the country know, but won’t admit in public, that a good number of these individuals have been targeted essentially because various members of the current government at one point or another held grudges against them. The half-a-million arrested by the government essentially represent a political purge, a plan some call an exit strategy, and some, less generous, an election engineering strategy. Why is it election engineering? Because the government has passed laws to declare ineligible to run for public office those whom it convicts, in summary courts and under a suspension of their fundamental rights.

The Rangs syndrome
So here we are. After one year, we have a government that has proven to be adept at destroying legal institutions, political systems, and markets, but woefully incapable of creating anything beyond paper value. When you pass by the Rangs building, think of it as a telling symbol of the government’s tactics and accomplishments the last year: it targeted things that need to be destroyed, it did no analysis of consequences or alternatives, it unleashed its full force with no due process, and then left the job undone and much worse off than it was before. At Rangs, many have lost their jobs, and workers brought in by the government to destroy the building have lost their lives. But just how many have been killed as the building collapsed, that is, what the human costs of the government’s military tactics are – that we will not know, because of intimidation and suppression. #

First published in on January 11, 2008

Abeer K. Mustafa grew up in Bangladesh and studied political economy in the United States. He now works as a consultant at an international organization and considering switching over to become a full-time writer

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