BANGLADESH, A South Asian nation of 160 million people, is once again being pushed towards turmoil by a vengeful and authoritarian leadership. The current administration, run by the Awami League party, is beginning to resemble, in terms of style, strategy and operation, the very first government that was established, also by the Awami League, after Bangladesh gained independence in 1971. Not only is the Awami League in power now as it was then, the leader who is in power now is the daughter of the leader who was in power then. The current administration’s policies are guided by the same ideology, and it applies the same iron fist tactics to suppress the opposition and the press. The only question remaining is whether the present government will end in violence, the way the first one did.
The Awami League played a pivotal role in the fight for the independence of Bangladesh. Following independence in 1971, the party’s supreme leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was entrusted with enormous power to govern the country. People were prepared to accept his word as the law of the land. But in spite of such popular mandate, his heavy-handed approach and orientation in ruling the country clearly failed to reflect the true wishes of the people, which, many believe, have eventually sealed his fate.
In 1975, he was assassinated along with many members of his immediate family. He was survived by his two daughters, and the eldest, Sheikh Hasina, later inherited the leadership of the Awami League, and is now the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. The big irony is that it took Sheikh Mujib’s daughter more than 30 years to consolidate enough power to bring her father’s assassins to some kind of justice. And after having reached the pinnacle of her power, the daughter is now relentlessly following the same fatalistic policies of her father.
The father, Sheikh Mujib, after assuming state power, swiftly transformed Bangladesh into an authoritarian state by establishing one party rule. He sidelined his party stalwarts, who no doubt deserved respect, used his personal army to ruthlessly oppress his opponents, and closed a number of newspapers that were critical of his administration. He put his family’s interest before everyone else’s, including that of the nation. In fact, his administration was marked by so much brutality and atrocity that his brutal assassination failed to generate any spontaneous hostile reaction from the public towards the assassins. People felt a kind of relief that his authoritarian rule was somehow ended, though in such an atrocious way.
But the mayhem that followed the assassination of Sheikh Mujib ultimately put the military in power, which then perpetrated its authoritarian rule for the next 15 years. During this time, the country went through many changes. And one of those changes involved Sheikh Hasina’s ascension to party leadership in 1981, due to bickering among the party elders. She has since remained firmly entrenched in that position.
After the fall of the last of the military rulers, when Awami League grabbed state power in 1996 it was, to some extent, on shaky ground and consequently it behaved with some restraint. The election of 2008 clearly changed that situation after the party obtained an absolute majority in the parliament. This election strengthened Sheikh Hasina’s authority over both her party and the government. In an effort to further solidify her authority, she quickly removed the party stalwarts from the decision making process in the government. To retain her absolute authority over the country she also refused to grant or delegate any power to the local governments. And the parliament has been effectively turned into a rubber stamp for her sinister policies.
After assuming state power in 2009, her first order of businesses included legislation to secure police protection for her extended family members in perpetuity like royalty, rewriting the constitution and the history books, and re-naming key institutions in the country after her family members. Furthermore, she ordered a commission to appropriate precious farm land to build a new international airport—to be named after her father!—near the capital, even though the existing Dhaka international airport’s capacity utilization is only about 25 per cent.
Like her father, she gained authority through the democratic process, but having gained absolute power, she promptly abandoned the very democracy that brought her to power. Now, every important policy, together with all vital judicial decisions, must meet with her approval. She has used all kinds of tactics to suppress the opposition. Even newsmen do not seem to escape her wrath. She is not at all fazed by the fact that the opposition has boycotted the parliament for a long time to protest her atrocious policies.
Here are some notable examples of her acts: Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, an opposition party leader and an MP, has been kept in jail without due process for openly criticizing the government’s policies. Amnesty International finds the allegations of his torture in jail to be credible. Mahmudur Rahman, a prominent newspaper editor, dared to publish a report on her family’s involvement in siphoning a huge amount of state money during her first term as Prime Minister. He was jailed for over 9 months as punishment. Transparency International of Bangladesh, a subsidiary of German based organization, published a report that called the judiciary the most corrupt institution in the country. Its key executives were immediately subjected to a number of law suits followed by arrest warrants.
The most menacing and despicable act of her administration is the treatment of the country’s well respected and internationally recognized personality, Dr. Muhammad Yunus. He is the famous micro-credit pioneer and founder of the Grameen Bank, whose work earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. But his global fame was too much for Sheikh Hasina to bear, and so he became a victim of her jealous rage. In an effort to belittle and discredit him, she ordered an investigation into his work, offered a most slanderous remark about him, made him appear before a magistrate on a trumped-up charge, and finally directed Bangladesh Bank, the supervising authority of Grameen Bank, to strip his name from the organization that he had founded, without even waiting for the report of the investigation she had ordered.
People all over the world were outraged by the way the Hasina administration treated Dr. Yunus, as evidenced by the international media’s coverage of the events. Condemnations of her appalling act poured in from all over the world. Concerned observers, including former and current government leaders, prominent legislators, economists, lawyers and academics, denounced the treatment of Dr. Yunus. But Sheikh Hasina remained unfazed. Now the obvious question is, if an internationally revered personality like Dr. Yunus is treated like this, one could only imagine how this administration treats other lesser people in Bangladesh.
As usual, the effect of authoritarian rule in Bangladesh is being reflected in an increase in corruption and serious crimes. There have also been critical economic repercussions in the country. The country has plentiful resources to achieve true economic growth, but corruption, looting and mismanagement of its resources have held it back all these years. Things will not change in Bangladesh unless the people actually rise up and take appropriate action. One might hope that the current wave of resistance to authoritarian rule in the Middle East will somehow catch up with the people of Bangladesh.
In fact, the main opposition party in Bangladesh is speaking out against Sheikh Hasina’s administration. However, it will be folly to expect that things will change if they come to power as their past record of administration is also pretty dismal.
Bangladesh can only prosper as a true democracy, and not with the kind of family dynastic rule it has been subjected to. Until the people, especially those who are blindly supporting the current system, come to realize this crucial fact and act to stop the current authoritarianism, no improvement could actually come in the way of Bangladesh. The country has suffered enough. Let’s hope it will not have to wait too long for a change. [ENDS]
Mahfuz R. Chowdhury is an author and teaches economics at Long Island University and SUNY Farmingdale, New York