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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Bangladesh's 'year of surprises'


It has been a year of surprises in Bangladesh.
When a state of emergency was declared on 11 January 2007, no-one could have imagined that peoples' basic rights would still be suspended 12 months later.

A caretaker government, made up mainly of retired officials, but backed heavily by the powerful military and important donor countries like the UK, is still in charge.

The former prime ministers and leaders of the two main parties, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina are in custody, charged with extorting money when they were in power.

Credible vote
The "battling Begums'" are being held in detention in the grounds of parliament in Dhaka.

The chamber itself has been silent all year - at least some things stay the same as it has been boycotted by successive oppositions for much of its existence.

The interim government cancelled elections due to be held in January last year, after several months of street protests.

The violent aftermath of recent elections in Kenya are a reminder of the direction Bangladesh was heading.

The caretaker government said it would take many months to organise a truly fair, peaceful and credible vote.

They have now promised to hold it before December 2008.

It has embarked on preparing an entirely new voter list, promising to re-register every one of the country's 90 million voters.

Reforms of the legal system, the police and political parties are underway.

The beefed-up Anti-Corruption Commission meanwhile, has gone after the old political class.

It says that close to 80 former ministers, civil servants and businessmen are now in detention.

They include one of the most feared and loathed men in Bangladesh, Tarique Rahman, son of Khaleda Zia.

"We are now moving towards the second phase - moving towards the denouement of the caretaker government's regime," Foreign Minister Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury said in an interview with the BBC.

"We are moving slowly towards the holding of elections.

"The main goal of the government is to create those institutions which will create a society which is the most stable and peaceful, in a region which is one of turbulence."

Few would argue with that aim - however the government's plans for 2008 have raised some uncomfortable questions.

Meetings banned
Firstly - how can the parties campaign for elections with their leaders behind bars and the emergency powers still in place?

These allow the security services to hold anyone, without charge, for an indefinite period.

Political parties can only hold private meetings in their offices in Dhaka and public meetings are banned.

"The emergency will of course be lifted before the elections," Dr Chowdhury says, "but exactly at what point in it will be lifted is difficult to say at this point."

Then there is the role of the military. The army has ruled the country for about half its existence, so many Bangladeshis are deeply suspicious of its motives.

The fierce response of the security forces to rioting students in August reminded many people of past military dictatorships.

Officially the men in uniform are just "supporting" the civilian government.

But they are involved in many of the most important things it does, such as selling food to the poor, organising the voter registration and co-ordinating aid efforts after last November's cyclone.

An army man is head of the cricket board, a retired officer runs the Anti-Corruption Commission.

Photographs of the head of the army, General Moeen U Ahmed, appear most days in the newspapers. He is often pictured in civilian dress, discussing non-military matters, such as the state of the economy.

"A deliberate effort is discernable in the post-emergency period to maintain the pretence of a civilian administration," NM Harun, a contributing editor of the New Age newspaper, wrote this week.

"But in practice it is General Moeen who calls the shots and Dr Fakhruddin (Ahmed, the head of the caretaker government) has been obsequiously following the lead of the military and running a puppet show."

If anything interrupts Bangladesh's peaceful return to democracy in 2008, however, many people believe it is likely to be the spiralling price of food.

In the past two weeks the cost of a kilogramme of rice, the staple, has gone up by about one fifth.

The food ministry says its stocks are half full and running out. It blames the devastating impact on November's cyclone and floods last year, as well as record global food prices.

But businessmen also blame the government. Its anti-corruption drive, some say, has at times resembled a witch-hunt and so scared away legitimate investments.

Whatever the causes, the government's reputation for competence has dropped as the prices have risen. So far, the public has largely supported the caretaker government. That could easily change if the food crisis continues. #

Mark Dummett is with BBC News, based in Dhaka, Bangladesh

First published in BBC NEWS, January 10, 2008

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