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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Taliban warns Bangladesh over Afghan deployment


THE DREADED Taliban of Afghanistan on Monday (Sept 27) warned Bangladesh to refuse a request of the Americans to deploy combat troops in Afghanistan to ensure security and stability in the war-ravaged country.
United States Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke made a request recently before Foreign Minister Dipu Moni at a bi-lateral meeting in New York. Dipu Moni assured the US envoy of further talks on the issue.

Two days after the request was made the SITE intelligence group published a report with the headline "Afghan Taliban reacts to US requesting troops from Bangladesh" on September 27, reports The Daily Star.

The undaunted Talibans responded by posting messages in Arabic and Pashto on its website while Jihadist forums called on Dhaka to spurn the US request, the USA authoritative monitoring service SITE said.
"(We) believe that the leader of Bangladesh has enough Islamic knowledge and political wit not to involve his people in the fight against Islam and against the Afghan people by sending a few hundred soldiers to Afghanistan," the message said.

"Assuming that the leader would commit such a historic mistake, the religious Muslim people of Bangladesh will not allow their leaders to assist the eternal enemy of Islam against an Islamic neighboring country."

Bangladesh is yet to accept the proposal to assist the coalition forces fighting them in Afghanistan.

Diplomatic analysts in Dhaka, however, say it is risky to send troops to Afghanistan right now and the decision of sending troops should be made after consulting the United Nations and other Muslim-dominated countries, reports BDNews24.

In a decade Bangladesh deployed combat troops in Haiti and Kuwait at the request of Washington.

Muslim majority Bangladesh is a major contributor to the United Nations peacekeeping missions across the world. It has no troops in Afghanistan, except for aid workers engaged in school education and medical doctors in the villages in strife-torn Kandahar province. [END]

First published in, September 28, 2010

Saleem Samad, is a journalist based in Bangladesh, an Ashoka Fellow for trend-setting journalism and recipient of prestigious Hellman-Hammet Award. He has recently returned from exile in Canada. He could be reached at

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Media bashed in Bangladesh Parliament


SEVERAL MEMBERS of Parliament (MPs) have voiced annoyance, vengeance and demanded action against four newspapers including their editors in the parliament on September 21.

The heated discussion was participated by the speaker, three ministers, and six lawmakers. The ruling party and its alliance lawmakers several times lauded and supported speeches castigating the newspapers by thumping desks. The opposition remained abstain from the session.

The lawmakers expressed their outrage over several news articles, commentaries and cartoons critiquing lawmakers and cabinet ministers for controversial practices and controversial statements.

The three ministers – Local Government Minister and also General Secretary of Awami League Syed Ashraful Islam, Jute and Textile Minister Abdul Latif Siddqui and Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan and other lawmakers asked the Speaker of the Parliament to summon the editors for tarnishing the image of the parliament. The lawmakers named Prothom Alo, Dainik Samakal, Amadher Shomoy, and Dainik Inqilab.

The dailies recently published articles on issues of tax-free cars for lawmakers, tax-free remuneration and allowances and their “half-hearted interest” in the law-making process.

Awami League MPs Suranjit Sengupta, Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim, Nurul Islam Sujon, Jatiya Party MPs Fazle Rabbi, Mujib-ul-Haque and JSD MP Moinuddin Khan Badal took part in an unscheduled discussion during question-answer session.

Apparently addressing the media the ministers said, they are not given licence to say whatever they like. They suggest to legal action against the fourth estate and their editors.

"Summon Prothom Alo's editor MATIUR RAHMAN (m) and ask what was his role was during the state of emergency (2007-2009)," angry Abdul Latif Siddqui demanded. He questioned many print and electronic media role during the state of emergency. "We will be harsh against them."

Informing the parliament the Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan said that recently a human-chain was held demanding arrest of Prothom Alo's editor Matiur Rahman in connection with his alleged involvement in the August 21 bomb attack on now Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina (f).

Speaker Abdul Hamid, cited a news item recently run by Dainik Samakal on legislators' tours abroad. He said lawmakers going abroad and taking part in international conferences cannot be considered "trips of luxury".

The speaker also cited a news headline of Amader Shomoy which tantamount to "slur" on him (Speaker). He cited another article of Dainik Inqilab and accused it of distorting his comments made in parliament.

Awami League lawmaker Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim (m), however, said time has come to enact privilege act for the parliament and its members. He said it is possible to take legal action against anybody on contempt of parliament based on constitutional provisions.

However, there is no privilege acts to punish the print and electronic media practitioners.

Defending freedom of the press, freedom of expression and democratic tolerance veteran parliamentarian Suranjit Sen Gupta (m) explained that "we do not want to take action against anybody. We want a friendly relation with the media, not enmity."

Gupta said newspapers are considered the fourth estate so "We (lawmakers) should all act responsibly". He said there may be criticism but there should not be any hostility. He urged the MPs not have animosity towards the media.

"The parliament is sovereign," he said, adding that this parliament has to protect its dignity.
He said contempt of parliament is tantamount to contempt of the speaker, and democracy cannot be protected with contemptuous attitude toward parliament.

Moinuddin Khan Badal (m), spoke differently. "I think we should accept that media will criticise the MPs as they are public figures," he remarked and said the journalists could write whatever they thought in a democratic system.

The Speaker despite his criticism on the media did not issue any ultimatum or directives as urged by the ministers and parliamentarians.

Bangladesh Information Minister Abul Kalam Azad (m) assured the media practitioners and information rights groups not to worry for some “isolated comments.” He reiterated that Bangladesh government is committed to absolute freedom of press and making best efforts to establish the right to information. [END]

Saleem Samad, is a Bangladesh based journalist, an Ashoka Fellow for trend-setting journalism and recipient of prestigious Hellman-Hammet Award. He has recently returned from exile in Canada. He could be reached at

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bangladesh Anthrax Scare Threatens $400 Million In Exports


Special to All Headline News

Dhaka, Bangladesh (NewsBahn)

BANGLADESH REMAINS on high alert for reports of fresh anthrax infections creeping far and wide in the countryside amid a significant fall in consumption of beef and mutton.

Fisheries and Livestock Minister Abdul Latif Biswas has declared a nationwide anthrax threat.

The government, fearing the panic taking deep roots in the economy, has formed a national committee for control of anthrax infection before the Eid-ul-Azha, the Moslem festival of sacrifice of cattle in November.

Manufacturers of finished leather and leather goods, who yearly make nearly half a billion dollars in export earnings, are equally nervous. Last year earnings from exports of finished leather amounted $226 million and exports of leather shoes and leather goods earned more than $200 million.

Usually beef and mutton is in high demand during the festival of Eid-ul Azha. Nearly 40 per cent of the annual supply of rawhide is procured during the festival, said Mohammed Aftab, president of the Bangladesh Hides and Skin Merchants Association.

The anthrax infection, which began in a northern Bangladesh village Aug. 20, has gradually spread to half the country. Public health officials have raised the number of confirmed infections to nearly 600. The current outbreak has been described as the biggest in the country in two decades.

Health officials visiting the affected areas blamed consuming beef from sick cows that were not vaccinated as the cause of the anthrax spread.

Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) said no one had died from the infection and all affected persons were under treatment.

Anthrax is a potentially lethal bacterium that exists naturally in the soil and commonly infects livestock, which ingest or inhale its spores while grazing. It can be transmitted to humans who handle or eat infected animals.

Anthrax commonly affects hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep and goats, but humans who come into contact with the infected animals can get sick.

Abu Hadi Noor Ali Khan, professor of the veterinary department at Bangladesh Agricultural University, said the outbreak could not be contained without an adequate supply of anthrax vaccine.

“Only the government produces anthrax vaccines and the vaccines produced so far this year can vaccinate less than 5 per cent of the cattle,” Khan told English daily The New Age.

Most of the consumers in cities and small towns deliberately avoid beef curry and beef kabab from their daily platter for fear of being infected. Young people have resorted to ordering chicken or vegetarian menu, especially in popular hangouts such as KFC, Pizza Hut and other fast food outlets.

IEDCR director Mahmudur Rahman said all the cases were not anthrax, as many panic-stricken people are dubbing regular infections or any skin abnormalities as anthrax infections.

Meat traders have threatened to strike the capital if the government does not come up with an effective solution against anthrax within two weeks.

“No anthrax patient has been found in the city yet. Instead blamed the media and the government for creating panic over the infection,” claimed Golam Mortuza Montu, president of Bangladesh Meat Traders Association.

A cattle market on the fringe of the capital Dhaka is empty of livestock for sale. The number of cattle coming to the city has dropped radically. Many butchers have hung "no meats available" signs in front of their shops while others have barely managed to sell their stock. #

First published in All Headlines News (AHN), September 20, 2010

Saleem Samad, is a Bangladesh based journalist, an Ashoka Fellow for trend setting journalism and recipient of prestigious Hellman-Hammet Award. He has recently returned from exile in Canada.

Monday, September 20, 2010

All America is hallowed ground for freedom


RECENTLY, I returned to Baltimore after spending a summer researching Islam, finance, and politics in Bangladesh. I still haven't unpacked--I want to preserve the memories of hospitality and gratitude that couldn't be captured in my field notes. The smell of wood smoke on clothes worn as my village host prepared me an elaborate Ramadan fast-breaking meal. The parting gift of pungent spices from an Islamic bank officer who accompanied me across my rural field site, answering my questions for hours. And when I arrived home, an email from one of Bangladesh's most senior figures in Islamic banking and politics was waiting for me, asking if I made it back safely.
As I recovered from jet lag the day after my return, a passenger asked a cab driver in New York City if he was Muslim. When the cab driver responded affirmatively, the 21-year old passenger offered the traditional "Assalamu alaikum" greeting, then apparently slashed the driver's throat and stabbed his arms and face. According to news reports, this horrific act will be charged as a hate crime.

The cab driver was an immigrant. He came to America 25 years ago from Bangladesh.

Critics of the proposed "Ground Zero" Cordoba House insist that America is exceptional because opposition to different religions and religious institutions is expressed peacefully. This is not true. Violence against Muslims is not systematic or state-sponsored, but it still occurs. These individual violent acts are all but sanctioned by media and political figures who undermine the humanity of Muslims by calling their religion inherently violent, or an existential threat to "American values," or an innate threat to national security.
A less severe position is that Muslims can be good Americans, but projects such as Cordoba House are insensitive. According to these critics, constitutional rights should be subject to good taste.

Commissioners Richard Land and Nina Shea of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom(USCIRF), a federal advisory body, have opposed Cordoba House as insensitive and as a potential security risk, respectively. USCIRF commissioner chair Leonard Leo directs a Tea Party group collecting signatures against Cordoba House, billed on its website as an "affront to decency and common sense."

The irony of American advocates of religious freedom opposing a Muslim community center would make for pitch-perfect political comedy a l� The Daily Show if it wasn't so deeply troubling. As a former USCIRF employee, the deep disconnect between these commissioners' overseas advocacy and their domestic intolerance of the religious freedom of Muslims suggests to me that Islamophobia has worked its way well into the mainstream.

During my tenure at USCIRF from 2007 to 2009--first in communications and then as South Asia researcher--commissioners defended the right of religious minorities to build and maintain their religious institutions, no matter the popular objections or prevailing social norms. Among the countries in my portfolio, commissioners argued for the rights of Christians to maintain churches in Orissa, India, despite strong anti-Christian sentiment grounded partially in the fear of "forced conversions." In Pakistan, commissioners defended the right of persecuted Ahmadis to call themselves Muslims and call their houses of worship mosques--despite the widespread, impassioned belief that Ahmadis are not 'real' Muslims. Commissioners criticized Sri Lankan government for citing security concerns while restricting the freedom of individuals to worship where and how they pleased.

Indeed, USCIRF advocacy is generally dedicated to upholding Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that every individual has the right, "alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." Commissioners Land, Leo, and Shea should protect Cordoba House under Article 18 with the same vigor they have extended to foreign countries.
In Bangladesh this past summer, I met many Muslim Bangladeshis who excitedly told me about friends or relatives living in the United States, while gamely answering my probing questions about Islam. How shameful that being Muslim in the United States is now suddenly enough to have one's religious freedom restricted via popular pressure--or even to get one killed.

To my host community in Bangladesh, and to my fellow Americans: that cab driver's life is just as innocent and just as valuable as any of the 3,000 lost on September 11, 2001. All of America is hallowed ground for the freedoms that have made this country great. There is no greater affront to decency than to allow the slow erosion of our commitment to tolerance. #

First published in The Washington Post, August 30, 2010

Bridget Kustin is a doctoral student and member of the Drishtipat Writers' Collective

Thursday, September 09, 2010

A coyote in a sheep’s clothing


NOWADAYS WE are hearing more and more that lofty terminology “moderate Muslims”. Is there any such thing called moderate Muslims? When I think about the mindset of the expatriat Bangladeshi Muslims, I tend to think it is indeed a rarity.

In my opinion, when any Muslim starts to talk about Sharia or rant “Islam is a way of life”, the moderation in his or her world view immediately evaporates. The Islamic tradition encourages politicization of the theological belief. Some critics of Islam say Islam comes with the whole package where jihad and politics are integral part. I would say it is still possible to defang the entity of political Islam. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has not convinced me he is a socalled moderate Muslim.

Last night in an interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien his sly oratory indicated he was slickier than a cunning fox. He was no sheep; he is rather a coyote in a sheep’s clothing. The Imam brought the bogeyman of radical jihadists in his argument against moving the Ground Zero Mosque.

The question is, aren’t we fighting the radical elements of the Middle East? So, do we have to care if they dislike the move? The Imam said, he was against politicizing any religion. I thought it was Imam Rauf, the charlatan who was boastfully bragging USA was a Sharia compliant country.

Any sufi and aplolitical individual has no business in delving into Sharia business. It is the political Islamists who are always concerned of the draconican Islamic law. Imam Feisal in his 2001 Sixty Minutes interview said bluntly, the USA was partly responsible for the 9-11 attack: Did he show any indication that he deviated from his past thinking?

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is out and out a dishonest person. And, of course, he is anything but a moderate Muslim. #

Jamal Hasan is Bangladesh born social justice activist and advocate of trial of crime against humanity. He is presently living in Washington DC

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Bangladesh Leads Way With International Crimes Tribunal

Graphics: Most of the suspects of the crime against humanity is in prison awaiting trial by International War Crimes Tribunal


AS CRITICISM over the lack of progress in Sri Lanka’s war inquiry is mounting and a defiant military regime in Burma resists increasing pressure for a UN war crimes inquiry, Bangladesh has high hopes for a war crimes tribunal that has been 40 years in the making.

Bringing to justice key perpetrators of atrocities committed during Bangladesh's 1971 liberation war for independence is the only way the nation will ever be able to heal, rights activists say.

“We must have this tribunal, not just to move the nation forward, but also for the crimes that were committed. For the nation to move forward, this must be taken care of,” said Akku Chowdhury, who fought in the war.

Chowdhury, who is now trustee of Bangladesh’s Liberation War Museum, took up arms against the rampaging Pakistani military at age 18.

The 1971 war saw up to three million people killed and 400,000 women raped at the hands of Pakistani forces and their collaborators, while up to 10 million fled their homes and sought sanctuary in India, authorities say.

“On March 25, 1971, the Pakistani army unleashed a military operation which they called Operation Searchlight. This operation resulted in the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Dhaka city [the capital of Bangladesh, then East Pakistan],” he said, adding that while many who were responsbile are dead or have fled to Pakistan, an unknown number remain in Bangladesh.

An International Crimes Tribunal was set up in Bangladesh in March and five leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic political party, are on trial for their alleged collaboration with Pakistani forces.

Struggles in Other Countries
Elsewhere in Asia, Sri Lanka’s government-backed inquiry into alleged war crimes committed during a decades-long civil war that claimed the lives of up to 100,000 people has been criticized as a failure so far.

The US state department last month slammed investigators for failing to produce results after being tasked with looking into alleged war crimes committed in the closing stages of the conflict, which ended last year.

Questions over the impartiality of the government-appointed team were raised by the state department, while rights groups’ calls for an international investigation have been ignored by the government.

In August, the US supported calls for the UN to set up a war crimes inquiry in Burma, where the ruling military regime stands accused of violently cracking down on ethnic minorities.

In November, Burma will hold its first election in two decades, but, in a country where more than 2,000 political prisoners including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi are forbidden from participating in the poll, human rights campaigners are unconvinced it will do anything more than attempt to legitimize military rule in a country.

Burma’s leadership has a history of reacting negatively to criticism from international circles and, unsuprisingly, calls for a war crimes inquiry have not been well received by the nation’s leadership.

In Timor-Leste, calls for an international tribunal to investigate alleged crimes against humanity committed during a bloody 24-year occupation by the Indonesian military have been dismissed by the governments of both countries.

More than 100,000 people died in Timor-Leste between 1975 and 1999, and much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed by the departing Indonesian army and its collaborators.

Hopes for a Fair Trial in Bangladesh
Bangladesh’s war crimes trial has its own points of concern.

“It’s important to have the tribunal function properly and it’s important to have a fair and just trial in respect of the atrocities committed during our liberation struggle,” said Adilur Khan, secretary of human rights NGO Odhikar.

“There are lots of concerns how far it’s going to be a standard trial free from politicking,” he added.

“We are not sure how much they have succeeded in getting evidence. They have newspaper documents, they have other printed documents, but they haven’t developed much on the forensic side.”

There are also concerns about Bangladesh’s International Crimes (Tribunals) Act of 1973.

Last year, citing changes in international criminal law since the 1970s, Human Rights Watch wrote to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina saying, “additional amendments to the 1973 law are necessary to ensure that trials under the Act are carried out in accordance with Bangladesh's international human rights obligations, international criminal law and Bangladesh's constitution.”

Making a Stand
Despite worries about how the trial will play out, Khan says it is essential in any country to bring war criminals to justice to avoid perpetuating a culture of impunity.

“Any killing which goes without proper trial or ensuring justice keeps room open, space for impunity,” he said.

Between January and June this year, 61 people in Bangladesh were killed extra-judicially, 29 allegedly by the Rapid Action Battalion force and 25 allegedly by police, according to Odhikar.

Trying war criminals not only sets a precedent against such killings, but also shows a clear stance against religious violence, says journalist and human rights activist Shahriar Kabir.

“Bangladesh is a poor country. We know that. We have a lot of agendas—addressing poverty, corruption, day-to-day problems—but if you look into the election result of 2008, it was mainly because of the commitment to try the war criminals,” he said.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League pledged to set up the tribunal and subsequently won the 2008 general election with an overwhelming majority.

Bangladesh’s Supreme Court in July announced it was restoring secularism in the country’s Constitution, rejecting amendments made in 1975 that allowed religious political groups.

“Since the killers got impunity in 1971, they became very powerful in Pakistan and later they controlled everything in Pakistan and finally they created Al-Qaeda,” Kabir said.

Members of the Pakistan army responsible for the 1971 atrocities continued to dominate Pakistani politics with little international attention, bolstering a culture of extremism that rights groups want to cut out of Bangladesh.

“The trial is needed if you want to end killing in the name of political Islam,” he said.

Letting the World Know
After Bangladesh won its Liberation Struggle with support from India and the Soviet Union, Pakistan’s Cold War alliance with the United States meant that there was little pressure from the international community to investigate the atrocities.

“It’s important to establish the fact there was a genocide to the international community,” Chowdhury said.

“Globally, because the Vietnam war was at its height and there was Cambodia and all this came into focus, what the Pakistanis did in Bangladesh was overshadowed by the global scenario,” he said.

On the streets of Dhaka, everyone from fruit vendors to cigarette sellers is watching the tribunal's progress intently. Rickshaw puller Masud Rana, 32, said his father was lucky to escape with his life after becoming a freedom fighter during the liberation war.

“I support and want this trial, but I want it done properly. There was so much severe crime at that time so we all want justice,” he said. “There has to be a proper investigation.”

First published in The Irrawaddy (Covering Burma and Southeast Asia), September 4, 2010

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Bangladesh army’s advancing business interests

Photo: The five star Radisson Water Garden Hotel Dhaka - which offers guests use of the nearby deluxe army golf course - is owned by the Bangladesh Army Welfare Trust (AWT) and was established on military land. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/ Majority World


THE ARMY is becoming increasingly involved in business activities. The Bangladeshi army has over the years played a key role in the country’s political life, but it has now also emerged as a major player in the business arena, with interests spread across all the major sectors of the economy.

Following the example of the Pakistan army, it has been thriving under successive civilian governments. But there are now signs of unease about it within the force itself and within wider society. Evidence of the army’s wealth and influence is not hard to find. The five star Dhaka Radisson hotel – which offers guests use of the nearby deluxe army golf course – is owned by the Bangladesh Army Welfare Trust (AWT) and was established on military land.
‘Commercial advantage’
There are five other top hotels in Dhaka, but none can provide a package that exploits military real estate.

The military’s interests include the hotel and hospitality trade. Capitalising on its success with the Dhaka Radisson, the AWT is now building another five-star hotel in the port city of Chittagong.

A leading hotelier who did not wish to be identified told the BBC that the use of cheaper military-land amid sky-rocketing land prices in Dhaka has given the army a clear commercial advantage against other players.

In addition to a recently-built fast-food shop aimed at the affluent middle class in Dhaka, the army’s other big business these days is the Trust Bank. Set up under civilian rule, it has now grown into a fully-fledged commercial bank with about 40 branches nationwide.
In 2007, the military-backed caretaker government granted it exclusive rights to receive fees for passports. Former senior civil servant Akbar Ali Khan says that this is against the government’s procurement rules – and there should have been an open tender to ensure that the cheapest and best passport service was selected.

Impropriety denied
While bank officials say it played by the rules and received no special favours from the government, its audited accounts – first released in 2007 – caused much controversy. They revealed that the-then army chief, Gen Moeen U Ahmed, got loans several times larger than the rules allow. The army’s business empire is thought to be worth around $500m. At the time, he was chairman of the Trust Bank by virtue of the fact that he was head of the army. And Bangladesh was being ruled by an army-backed interim government. Gen Ahmed denies any impropriety, arguing that questions over the size of the loan are an attempt “to malign” him.

And there are other parts of the forces which have their own banks. The Civil Defence Force runs the Bangladesh Ansar and Village Defence Party Bank – known as the Ansar VDP Bank. This bank, set up in 1995 by the government, has not yet received any banking licence and functions like a credit society.

But the army’s interests do not end here.

Ice cream sales
If you are buying any ice-cream in rural areas of the country, you may be getting a product of an army-owned business, that of the Sena Kallyan Sangstha (SKS). The SKS is a welfare foundation whose function is to care for the welfare of veterans and family members of servicemen. Among other things, the SKS now owns concerns in food, textiles, jute, garments, electronics, real estate and travel.

It is now evident that the Bangladeshi armed forces have been largely following the business model developed so successfully by their Pakistani counterparts. In Pakistan, the military’s Fauji Foundation has a huge involvement in trade and industry.

Using the Pakistani model, the AWT was founded in 1998 during the previous rule of the Awami League led by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The irony is that military business interests have thrived more under civilian rule than under martial law regimes.

The growth of military involvement in commerce has had serious repercussions for the armed forces themselves. The official probe into the country’s worst ever mutiny by the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) border guards in 2009 – which left at least 68 high ranking military officials dead – bears this out.

Commission Chairman M Anisuzzaman Khan said that the mutiny was partly fuelled by resentment among the BDR’s rank-and-file over the corruption of army officers engaged in the retail sale of consumer items. It recommended that no forces – military or civil defence – should be allowed to engage in commercial or business activities. ”Law and order forces are meant for defending the country, they are not supposed to run factories or business units,” Mr Khan said.

But an empire worth at least $500m is growing daily and becoming stronger. Plans obtained by the BBC reveal that the army’s business ambitions include power plants and even the insurance businesses – no potential business sector seems out of its sights. Critics argue that the army should concentrate on serving the country. Although the army headquarters agreed to respond to the queries made by the BBC, our repeated requests for interviews did not materialise and no response was actually made. But a number of retired generals have expressed their unease over the army’s extensive exposure in the fields of trade and industry.

Lt Gen (Retired) Mahbubur Rahman – who entered politics few years back and served as the chairman of the standing committee on the Ministry of Defence in the previous parliament – told the BBC that the military “should keep within its charter of duties and not engage or get involved in any financial transactions – especially for business”. ”We have witnessed how such activities can bring disaster,” he said.

A number of leading figures in business and civil society have admitted that many army-owned businesses are virtually indistinguishable from other commercial enterprises in the way they operate. But as its ambitions develop, it seems that the debate about whether or not the army should engage in such activities will also grow. #

First published online in BBC News, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Friday, September 03, 2010

'Caretaker Parties' in intensive care


POLITICAL PARTIES that sprouted up during the tenure of military-installed interim government (2007-2008) have become sidelined since the Awami League government took office.

The parties that appeared to have become serious contenders at the national political stage faded away almost as soon as the larger players came into the scene in the warm-up to the national elections of Dec 2008.

The interim government's anti-corruption agenda, evidently targeted against political leaders, and the regime's bid to get the heads of the two main parties out of politics — what soon came to be dubbed as the 'minus two formula' — gave rise to formation of parties by quarters close to the military-controlled government and the then military chief, Gen Moeen Uddin Ahmed.

At different times during the nearly two-year state of emergency Syed Muhammad Ibrahim, a retired major general and decorated freedom fighter, formed the Bangladesh Kalyan Party, Moeen's relation and former BNP leader Ferdous Ahmed Quraishi floated the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) and former Jatiya Party leader Sheikh Shawkat Hossain Nilu floated the National People's Party (NPP).

Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus had also tried to float a political party, dubbed Nagorik Shakti, roughly meaning 'Citizens' Power', but gave up after a few briefings due to a lukewarm response.

These parties were active during the unconstitutional regime often flouting the state of emergency but seldom causing the ire of authorities quite unlike the mainstream parties.

The bar on political activities strictly imposed on the major parties seemed to become rather flexible and in fact non-existent when it came to the activities of these new parties.

The caretaker government, headed by former Bangladesh Bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed, was installed after the promulgation of state of emergency on January 11 in 2007, when the Awami League's resolve to boycott and prevent the national elections scheduled barely two weeks later were threatened with widespread violence and chaos.

The fact that the caretaker government headed by president Iajuddin Ahmed, a BNP crony, who also appointed himself the de facto prime minister of the caretaker regime, hardly helped matters either.

Quraishi announced formation of PDP on June 21, 2007. The party held different political programmes, including regular press briefings on Saturdays, during the state of emergency.

But other than a press conference on Wednesday, the party has not held any political programme after the Awami League-led government assumed office in Jan 2009.

In Wednesday's presser, Quraishi demanded the trial of the deposed military ruler Hussein Muhammad Ershad for usurping power in 1982.

Asked why the party was inactive, Quraishi said: "We've gone through major changes after the (last) general elections. We took time to observe the situation. Moreover, many of our members left the party after the elections."

He said the party was being reorganised and would become active after the Eid-ul-Fitr, which falls in mid-September.

Asked about the party's active nature during, or rather, despite the state of emergency, the PDP chief said: "We followed what other parties did at that time. Nothing more."

Gen Ibrahim floated the Kalyan Party on Dec 4, 2007. Very active at that time, the party has had no activities for a long time.

Ibrahim, however, claimed that the party did have activities and that they were at a social level and nothing too large to be noted.

He said their activities included distribution of winter clothes, organising founding anniversary programme and Iftar gatherings.

Asked why his party is less active, the Kalyan Party chief said: "There was no fear of the big elephants during emergency. But now the sheep are in great distress and in much fear of the big elephants."

He said politics could not be changed unless the voters were made aware of their rights and responsibilities.

Yunus sought people's opinions on February 11, 2007 about the formation of Nagorik Shakti. Two and a half months later, he publicly announced abandoning his political move in an open letter to the countrymen.

In the letter, he said: "I'm not getting the kind of support from people who can contribute to formation of a strong and bright alternative (to the present political parties)."

Nilu announced formation of National People's Party at a meeting at the Election Commission in 2007.

NPP, however, has not carried out any political programmes during the present government other than a recent roundtable.

He could not be contacted for comments since he was abroad.

Two major political parties — ruling Awami League and opposition BNP — do not see any significance of the parties founded during the caretaker government.

Awami League presidium member Obidul Kader said: "Some parties always emerge during emergency. But those without public support will eventually vanish."

He suggested exploring the public support base of the parties.

BNP standing committee member Nazrul Islam Khan said indicating the small parties as well as the ruling Awami League: "The people will decide about those who took undue benefit by manipulating the constitution and democracy as well as about those who claim caretaker government is the result of their movement." #

Syndicated by, September 2, 2010

Shamim Al Amin is correspondent