Monthly Coupon

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Bangladesh’s toxic politics: Hello, Delhi

It is up to India to try to stop Sheikh Hasina ruining Bangladesh

THE Punch-and-Judy show of Bangladeshi politics, in which the ruling party—run by the daughter of a former president—bashes the opposition—run by the widow of a former president—before swapping places with it, has been running for decades. The outside world rarely pays attention because nothing seems to change.

Recently, though, the squabbling has turned into a crisis ( which threatens to make life still worse for the 170m poor Muslims who suffer under one of the world’s worst governments. Since Bangladesh’s political leaders show no interest in their fate, outsiders need to do so.

When Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League and current prime minister, and Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), alternated in power in the 1990s, things were pretty bad, but in the past decade they have got worse. The administration Mrs Zia headed from 2001 to 2006 was a brutal kleptocracy. It was followed by army-backed unelected technocrats. Then in 2008 the Awami League swept to power in a landslide victory. The League has 229 of 300 parliamentary seats compared with 31 for Mrs Zia’s BNP. Sheikh Hasina has used this mandate to consolidate power and hound her enemies, real and imagined.

There has been a spate of mysterious disappearances. This month 33 senior members of the opposition were arrested on charges of vandalism and arson. A war-crimes tribunal to investigate the atrocities in Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971—some of the bloodiest in modern history—now looks like an attempt to discredit the BNP and its Islamist allies. And the hounding of Mohammad Yunus, a pioneer of microfinance, creator of the Grameen Bank and a Nobel laureate, is seen as payback for his temerity in 2007 in trying to launch a “third force” in politics. Meanwhile, journalists and activists face intimidation and worse, and the vibrant NGOs that keep the spirit of democracy alive worry that proposed legislation would leave them at the mercy of government whims.

Last year the League did away with the provision that caretaker administrations should oversee elections. The arrangement was not ideal. In January 2007 protests led by the League, convinced that the BNP would rig an election, led to a coup. But without some assurance of fair play the BNP will boycott the next election, due in 2014. So there is the prospect of yet more protests, which in Bangladesh often take the form of crippling strikes. There is also the real prospect of utter political paralysis, risking even worse turmoil on the streets.

The only voice in Dhaka
The outside world is trying to do its bit. The World Bank has scrapped a deal to pay for a big bridge because of its suspicions of corruption. EU ambassadors have denounced the treatment of Mr Yunus and the harassment of activists. Hillary Clinton flew to Dhaka this month to stand by Mr Yunus.

But the government seems unmoved. In a snub to Mrs Clinton, it announced a review into ownership of Grameen, a move to take over (and probably destroy) the bank. The only country to have much influence in Dhaka is India. Until recently the regional superpower tolerated Sheikh Hasina’s excesses, in part because Bangladesh has cracked down on Islamists. India now seems to be hedging its bets between the two parties. But if it still wants to have a functioning democracy next door, it needs to speak out far louder in favour of it.

First published in The Economist magazine, May 26th 2012

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Community radio cuts disaster risk in flood-prone Bangladesh

Radio stations that broadcast in local dialects along Bangladesh’s coast warn residents about storms and help farmers cope with erratic weather


DHAKA, Bangladesh

New local-dialect community radio stations in Bangladesh’s coastal districts are warning residents about cyclones and helping farmers cope with erratic weather patterns.

The new radio stations are part of an initiative to reduce loss of life and damage to livelihoods from natural disasters and unpredictable weather.

“The radio [stations], run with the active participation of local people, have already gained popularity and are telling people how to adapt to climate change impacts,” said A.H.M. Bazlur Rahman, chief executive officer of the Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication.

Approval was given for 14 community radio stations in coastal and inland areas in April 2010, and six are now broadcasting from coastal districts. A further 22 applications have been filed with the government. The stations are mostly funded by nongovernment organizations and individuals.

The radio programs focus primarily on disaster risk reduction and climate variability, Rahman said. He attributes their growing popularity in part to programs being broadcast in local dialects.

“People in the countryside, most of whom are illiterate, can easily understand weather bulletins and other instructions” when they are provided in local languages, he said.

During a tsunami watch in early April, in countries bordering the Indian Ocean, including Bangladesh, the new radio stations transmitted national weather forecasts in local dialects, said Manir Hossain, station manager of Lokobetar community radio, based in Barguna district in the south of the country.

“Through our programs we advised people what they needed to do for their safety during the emergency,” Hossain said.

Although no tsunami took place, heavy rainstorms have struck Bangladesh as the rainy summer season commences, claiming at least 20 lives in April in different parts of the country.

Eunus Ali Hawlader, a Lokobetar listener who makes his living fishing at sea, said, “The station suggests carrying a radio set with us so that we can hear weather bulletins and start returning in time to avoid any danger.”

Lokobetar also broadcasts plays, songs, and talk shows to raise awareness about climate change impacts and issues such as education and health services, said Hossain, who strives to ensure that programming is relevant and approachable.

“We have also included community people, the fishermen, boatmen, farmers, and other locals in our programs,” he added.

In Khulna district in the country’s southwest, Sundarban community radio warns people to send women and children to elevated storm shelters immediately when cyclones approach, and to keep adequate stocks of dry food.

Tarun Kumar, head of Sundarban community radio, said the station plans to provide a free solar-powered radio to each cyclone shelter so people can receive government instructions during disasters.

Kumar is also concerned that climate change is causing rivers in the area to dry up, threatening the livelihoods of fishing communities.

“Through our programs we advise fishermen [on how] to find alternative livelihoods, and draw the attention of policymakers to take steps so that fishing communities do not remain unfed,” he said.

Sharif Iqbal, station manager of Barguna’s Krishi radio, said his station’s main goal is to help people with disaster preparedness and risk reduction, but that offering agricultural advice is also important because of the difficulty of farming on land vulnerable to flooding from the sea.

“For the farmers we broadcast expert opinions on what steps they need to take, and when, to get a better yield,” he said. “We suggest to them what types of seeds they should choose and which one will be suitable for saline-affected lands.”

Real-time information is vital for farmers, according to Iqbal, because land in the area only allows for a single harvest each year.

“If they lose the crop, they will starve,” he said.

Amal Babu, a farmer and listener of Krishi radio, has no illusions about the difficulty of making a living and believes the broadcasts could help.

“This area is prone to disaster. The crop yield is comparatively good here but salinity, drought, flooding, and cyclones destroy [it],” he said. “If the farmers can get advance information on calamity and advice about farming tools they will be able to get a good yield.”

Babu has already taken the advice of a program broadcast on Krishi Radio about a salt-tolerant variety of rice paddy that can survive more than three weeks under water.

“Farmers have started to cultivate the variety and are now less worried about losing crops,” said Babu.

The convener of Bangladesh’s national climate change negotiation team, Quazi Khaliquzzaman Ahmed, agreed that community radio can play a significant role in explaining how to adapt to the effects of climate change and helping people improve their preparedness for disasters.

“In Bangladesh there are 45,000 volunteers ready to act when disaster hits. The community radios can inform them as well as [other] people ... what to do before and after the disaster strikes,” he said.

First published by AlertNet, the Thomson Reuters Foundation humanitarian news service, May 23, 2012

Syful Islam is a journalist with the Financial Express newspaper in Bangladesh. He can be reached at: This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network

Friday, May 18, 2012

Governments and Politics: A brief history of Bangladesh


BANGLADESH IS one of the few democracies among the Muslim countries despite chronic problems with dysfunctional political system, weak governance and fettered by pervasive corruptions. This nation regards democracy as an important denouement, legacy of its bloods for independence and people participate in all election process in large numbers. But the concept, understanding and practice of democracy in Bangladesh are most often shallow. Bangladesh is a force for moderation in international forums and a long-time leader in international peacekeeping operations. Its participations and activities with other Governments, global organizations and regional partners to promote human rights, democracy and free markets are also well coordinated and of high profile. Bangladesh became a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council in May 2005.

Tajuddin Ahmed, April 1971- January 1972
The "Independent, sovereign republic of Bangladesh" was first proclaimed in a radio message broadcast from a captured station in Kalurghat, Chittagong on March 26, 1971. Two days later, the "Voice of Independent Bangladesh" announced that Major Zia would form a new government with himself occupying the Presidency. Zia's self appointment was considered brash and quickly realizing that his action was unpopular, he yielded the office to then incarcerated Sk. Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of the nation. On 17 April 1971, a provisional government was established by a number of leading Awami League members. This "Mujibnagar" government then formally proclaimed the independence of Bangladesh and named Sk. Mujib as its president. The oath taking ceremony of the first Government of Bangladesh took place on the soil of Bangladesh in Meherpur, Kushtia, also on 17April 1971. As the first Prime Minister, Tajuddin led efforts to organize a guerrilla war of civilians, armed forces and to win international support. On 6 December 1971, India became the first nation to recognize the new Bangladesh Government. 10 days later, the West Pakistani surrendered but it was not until December 22 those members of the new government arrived in Dhaka. Representatives of the Bangladeshi Government and the "Mukti Bahini" were absent from the "ceremony of surrender" of the Pakistani Army to the Indian Army on 16 December 1971. Bangladeshis considered this ceremony insulting to them and imputed acerbic relations between Bangladesh and India.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: 1972-75
On 10 January1972, Sk. Mujib arrived in Dhaka to a tumultuous welcome. He first assumed the title of President but vacated it in two days to become the Prime minister. Intrepid Sk. Mujib came to the office with an immense personal popularity but had difficulty in transforming his popular support into the political strength needed to function as the head of government. The new Constitution that came into effect in December 1972 created a strong executive prime minister, a largely ceremonial presidency, an independent judiciary and a unicameral legislature on a modified Westminster model. The 1972 constitution adopted the Awami League's four basic principles of nationalism, secularism, socialism, and democracy as the state policy.

Awami League won massive majority victory in the first Parliamentary elections held in March 1973 under the 1972 Constitution. In December 1974, impecunious Sk. Mujib government realized that continuing economic deterioration and mounting civil disorder required strong measures. After proclaiming a "State of Emergency", he used his parliamentary majority to win a "Constitutional Amendment" limiting the powers of the legislative and judicial branches, establishing an executive presidency, instituted a one-party system (BAKSAL) that required all civilian government personnel to join the party. The fundamental rights enumerated in the Constitution ceased to be observed and Bangladesh, in its infancy was transformed into a personal dictatorship. Mujib had an unfailing attachment to those who participated in the struggle for independence. He showed favoritism toward those comrades by giving them appointments to the civil government and also in the military. Despite substantial foreign aid, mostly from India and the Soviet Union, food supplies were scarce and there was rampant corruptions and black marketeering. Sk. Mujib then launched a mass drive against hoarders and smugglers backed by the "Rakkhi Bahini. These actions temporarily ameliorated the legitimate economy of the country but corruptions in high Government offices continued and became the hallmarks of Sk. Mujib administration. His economic policies also directly contributed to the country's economic chaos. Mujib's large-scale nationalization of Bangladeshi manufacturing, trading enterprises and international trading in commodities strangled Bangladesh entrepreneurship into its infancy.

On the early morning of August 15, 1975, Sk. Mujib and several members of his family were brutally murdered in a coup orchestrated by a group of young and disgruntle army officers. Some of the officers in the plot had a personal vendetta against Sk. Mujib. His popularity had fallen precipitously by the time of his assassination and his death was lamented surprisingly by few. His daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana were out of the country. A new government headed by Mujib's close associate Khandakar Moshtaque Ahmed was formed.

Ziaur Rahman, 1975-81
Successive military coups resulted in the emergence of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ziaur Rahman as strongman. He pledged the army's support to the civilian government headed by President Chief Justice Sayem. Acting at Zia's behest, President Sayem instituted martial law, dissolved the Parliament and promised fresh elections in 1977. Working behind the scenes of the Martial Law Administration, tenacious Zia sought to invigorate government policy and administration. While continuing the ban on political parties, he sought to expiate the situation by revitalizing the demoralized bureaucracy, began new economic development programs and emphasized family planning. In November 1976, Zia became Chief Martial Law Administrator and assumed the presidency upon Sayem's retirement 5 months later, promising national elections in 1978.

Keeping his promise to hold elections, Zia won a 5-year term in June 1978 election with 76% of the vote. In November 1978, his government removed the remaining restrictions on political party activities in time for parliamentary elections in February 1979. The AL and BNP, founded by Zia emerged as the two major parties.

In May 1981, Zia was assassinated in Chittagong circuit house by dissident elements of the military. The attempted coup did not spread beyond Chittagong and the major conspirators were either taken into custody or killed. In accordance with the Constitution, Vice President Justice Abdus Sattar was sworn in as acting president. He declared a new national emergency and called for an election of a new president within 6 months. Sattar won the election as the BNP candidate, was a complaisance of his predecessor and retained essentially the same cabinet but the army stepped in once again.

Hussain Mohammed Ershad, 1982-90
Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. H.M. Ershad assumed power in a bloodless coup in March 1982. Like his predecessors, Ershad suspended the Constitution and declared martial law, citing endemic corruptions, ineffective government and economic mismanagement. The following year, Ershad assumed the presidency, retained his positions as army chief and CMLA. Ershad sought public support for his regime in a national referendum on his leadership in March 1985. He won overwhelmingly but the turnout was small. 2 months later, Ershad held elections for local council chairmen; pro-government candidates won a majority of the posts. Political life was further liberalized in early 1986; at the same time the Jatiya Party (JP), his political vehicle for the transition from martial law was established.

Despite a boycott by the BNP, Parliamentary elections were held on schedule in May 1986. The Jatiya Party won a modest majority of the 300 elected seats in the National Assembly. Participation of the Awami League lent this election some credibility, despite widespread charges of voting irregularities.

Ershad resigned as Army Chief of Staff and retired from military service in preparation for the presidential elections, scheduled for October 1986. Both the BNP and the AL refused to put up opposing candidates. Ershad easily outdistanced the remaining candidates with 84% of the vote. Despite government's claim of turnout of more than 50%, opposition leaders and much of the foreign press estimated a far lower percentage and alleged voting irregularities. In November 1986, his government amended the constitution and confirmed the previous actions of the martial law regime. The President then lifted martial law and the opposition parties took their elected seats in the National Assembly.

In July 1987, the government pushed through a controversial legislative bill to include military representation on local administrative councils, the opposition walked out of Parliament. Passage of the bill sparked an opposition movement that quickly gathered momentum, uniting opposition parties for the first time. The government began to arrest many opposition activists under the country's Special Powers Act of 1974. Despite these arrests, opposition parties continued to organize protest and nationwide Hartals. After declaring a State of Emergency, Ershad dissolved the Parliament and scheduled fresh election for March 1988.

All major opposition parties refused government overtures to participate in these polls, maintaining that the government was incapable of holding free and fair elections. Despite the opposition boycott, the government proceeded. The ruling Jatiya Party won 251 of the 300 seats. The Parliament, while still regarded by the opposition as illegitimate, passed a large number of bills. The opposition to Ershad's rule then began to regain momentum, escalating by the end of 1990 in frequent hartals, increased University campus protests, public rallies and a general disintegration of law and order.

Ershad resigned on 6 December 1990 and on 27 February1991, the "interim government" headed by Acting President Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed oversaw what most observers believed to be the nation's most free and fair elections to that date.

Khaleda Zia, 1991-96
The BNP won a plurality of seats and formed a government with the support from Jamaat-I-Islami; Khaleda Zia became the Prime minister. The electorate approved more changes to the constitution, formally re-creating a parliamentary system and returning governing power to the office of the prime minister, as in Bangladesh's original 1972 constitution. In October 1991, members of Parliament elected a new head of state, President Abdur Rahman Biswas.

In February 1996, Khaleda Zia was re-elected by a landslide in an impetuous national election that boycotted and denounced as unfair by the 3 other main opposition parties. In March 1996, following escalating political turmoil, the sitting Parliament enacted a constitutional amendment to allow a neutral "Caretaker Government" to assume power and conduct new parliamentary elections; former Chief Justice Mohammed Habibur Rahman was named Chief Adviser in the interim government. New parliamentary elections were held in June 1996, the Awami League won plurality and formed the government with support from the Jatiya Party led by deposed president Ershad; party leader Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister.

Sheikh Hasina, 1996-2001
Sheikh Hasina formed what she called a "Government of National Consensus" in June 1996 that included one minister from the JP and another from the JSD. JP President Ershad was released from prison on bail in January 1997 and JP never entered into a formal coalition arrangement with AL. Ershad withdrew his support from the government in September 1997. Although international and domestic election observers found this June 1996 election free and fair, the BNP protested alleging vote rigging by the Awami League. However, BNP decided to join the Parliament but immediately charged that police and Awami League activists were engaged in large-scale harassment and jailing of opposition activists. At the end of 1996, the BNP staged a parliamentary walkout over this and other grievances but returned in January 1997 under a four-point agreement with the ruling party.

In July 2001, the Awami League government stepped down to allow a Caretaker Government to preside over Parliamentary elections. Political violences that had increased during the Awami League government's tenure continued to increase through up to the election. In August 2001, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina agreed during a visit of former President Jimmy Carter to respect the results of the election, join the Parliament regardless of winning or losing, foreswear the use Hartals as political tools and successful government would allow more meaningful role for the opposition in Parliament. The caretaker government was successful in containing the violence that allowed a Parliamentary general election held on 1 October 2001.

Khaleda Zia, 2001-2006
The four-party alliance led by the BNP won over a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Begum Khaleda Zia was sworn in as Prime Minister on October 10, 2001. Despite Sk. Hasina's August 2001 pledge and all election monitoring groups declaring the election free and fair, Hasina became heretical, condemned the election, rejected the results and boycotted Parliament. However, in 2002 she led her party legislators back to Parliament but the Awami League again walked out in June 2003 to protest derogatory remarks about Hasina by a State Minister and allegedly partisan role of the Parliamentary Speaker. In June 2004, the AL returned to Parliament again without having any of their demands met for an apology to Sheikh Hasina and guarantees of a neutral Speaker.

In February 2006, the AL raised demands for early elections and requested significant changes in the electoral and Caretaker Government systems to stop alleged moves by the ruling coalition to rig the next election. The AL blames the ruling party for several high-profile attacks on opposition leaders and asserts that the ruling party is bent on eliminating Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League as a viable force. The BNP and its allies accuse the AL of maligning Bangladesh at home and abroad out of jealousy over the government's performance on development and economic issues. Dialogue between the Secretaries General of these main ruling and opposition parties, Jalil and Bhuiyan was adumbrated initially but failed in sorting out the electoral reform issues. Awami League then called "lagathar Hartal" and "Aborodh" those attributed to miserable sufferings to ordinary citizens and lawlessness with hostility and violences throughout the country.

Caretaker Government, October 2006-Present
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution required the president to offer the position of the Chief Adviser to the immediate past Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice K.M. Hasan. The AL opposed Justice Hasan, alleging that he belonged to ruling BNP in his past life and that the BNP government in 2004 amended the constitution to extend retirement age for the Supreme Court judges to make sure that Justice Hasan became the Chief Adviser during the next elections to help BNP win the election. Justice Hasan declined the position and after two days of extremely violent protests, President Iajuddin Ahmed assumed the role of Chief Adviser to the Caretaker Government besides his President position.

On 3 January 2007, the Awami League announced that they would boycott the January 22 parliamentary elections. The Awami League planned and declared their renewed country-wide Aborodh and Lagahtar Hartal.
On 11 January 2007, President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a State of Emergency under the Constitution, resigned as Chief Adviser and indefinitely postponed Parliamentary elections. On January 12, former Bangladesh Bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed was sworn in as the new Chief Adviser and his cabinet advisers were also appointed. Under emergency provisions, the government suspended certain fundamental rights of the citizens as guaranteed by the constitution and detained a large number political leaders and top bureaucrats for alleged involvement in corruption and other crimes. The current government has banned all political activities and has yet to set a date for elections. But the government has announced that the elections will occur in late 2008. #

Mohammad Gani is writer and contributes articles on Bangladesh current affairs. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bangladesh: America’s new strategic cynosure in South Asia


“It has for one thing, moved the level of bilateral relationship to a higher degree and, for another, formally brought Bangladesh on the strategic radar of the United States. Clinton’s comments covered both the internal political situation as well as the strategic compulsions” ----The Daily Star, Bangladesh,  Editorial of May 7 2012 on US Secretary of State visit to Dhaka on May 5, 2012

Bangladesh’s emergence on the United States strategic radar reflects the United States coming to grips with the changed geostrategic and geopolitical realities in South Asia. To some measure it also reflects the US strategic pivot to Asia Pacific in that America is in quest for new strategic partners in the region.

The new stronger American focus on Bangladesh can be gauged from American media and other documents. In one recent Wall Street Journal article it was written that “Bangladesh is the standard –bearer of South Asia”. In a Congressional Research Paper it was reflected that not surprisingly, Bangladesh is the ‘partner of choice for the United States in many of the foreign policy priorities of President Obama”

Bangladesh eminently qualifies as the United States new strategic partner in South Asia to replace its erstwhile focus on Pakistan with which the United States currently stands disillusioned. Bangladesh is a moderate Islamic country which under the current PM Sheikh Hasina has boldly demonstrated ‘zero tolerance’ for Islamist extremists by liquidating them and nor does it present any prospects of Talibanization like Pakistan.

In the overall geopolitics of South Asia any US strategic relationship or strategic partnership with Bangladesh does not create policy complexities for the United States in relation to India and the US-India Strategic Partnership.  Unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh and India are not in an adversarial or confrontational ode even though some irritants exist especially on water-sharing.

Therefore, the ‘Joint Declaration of Bangladesh-United States Dialogue on Partnership’ signed by the two nations during US Secretary Of State Clinton’s visit to Dhaka on May 05 2012 needs to be viewed in this light and without any misgivings.

Bangladesh and the United States have for some time been engaged in security cooperation including joint exercises and the United States supplying surplus military equipment to Bangladesh. In mid-April both Bangladesh and the United States had undertaken a closed doors high-level security dialogue in Dhaka, possibly as a prelude and preparatory discussion for the signing of the Joint Declaration last week.

The main purpose of the Joint Declaration seems to be putting Bangladesh-United States security dialogues and strategic discussions on a regular higher level and in a structured mode.

The major questions that arise from the United States strategic cynosure on Bangladesh and the Joint Declaration will logically what it portends for India and China and how would a Bangladesh-United States Strategic Partnership once fully consummated impact on the security interests of India and China?

As far as India is concerned there are two opposing portents that come to the fore. The first being a positive one in hat India views this development as one of a logical extension of the US-India Strategic Partnership transplanted onto a wider strategic canvass carrying positive security advantages for all three nations. It carries the nucleus of a US-India-Bangladesh Strategic Trilateral emerging.

The opposite portent, a highly improbable one, is that a Bangladesh-United States Strategic Partnership as a bipartite security understanding at some later stage may emerge on the same pattern of United States security linkage with Pakistan and all the attendant negative security connotations in its wake for India.

However, what is definitely intriguing is the American emphasis on Bangladesh’s role in the maritime security of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. One would have thought that the United States under its Strategic Partnership understandings with India would have acceded that role to India as the dominant naval power in the region. What maritime role for Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal is the United States envisaging?

The biggest impact of any evolutionary Bangladesh-United States strategic partnership would be on China with which Bangladesh has a Strategic Partnership Agreement. In Bangladesh policy circles, despite a lack of geographical contiguity, China was viewed as a countervailing power to India as the outsized and predominant power in the region.

In Chinese strategic perceptions, the coupling of the United States-India Strategic Partnership with increasing security cooperation between Bangladesh and the United States is going to be perceived as hostile.

Bangladesh would have to indulge in some very tight balancing between its China policy and the new directions unfolding in its increasing strategic engagement with the United States. Concurrently, both the United and India would have to be wary as to how China responds.

Bangladesh did not indulge in any hype on the signing of its Joint Declaration with the United States, and this may be due to avoid generating any negative responses from China. However, the underlying strategic messages from this Joint Declaration between Bangladesh and the United States do carry some strategic rings for the region and China.

 In terms of domestic politics, this is a big triumph for PM Sheikh Hasina and her policies of moderation and zero tolerance for Islamist terrorism. Also in terms of domestic dynamics the linkage to the United States may rob the India- baiters of some of their rationale for berating India and thereby distorting Bangladeshi foreign policies.

Concluding, what needs to be said is that this is a positive gain for the South Asian security environment even if in the process India may have to marginally subordinate its role in Bangladesh. The better way of looking at it would be that the United States may have elected for India and the United States to bat together in complementary roles for security and stability on South Asia’s eastern flank.

First published in South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG), 15 May 2012

Dr Subhash Kapila is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email:

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Politician's disappearance fuels Bangladesh crisis

THE NIGHT watchman was dozing in a wooden chair just after midnight on a deserted Bangladeshi street when he was startled by a scream. A group of men were pulling two people from a car and forcing them into a black microbus; "The two guys were shouting, 'Save us,'" before the car pulled away, Lutfar Rahman said.

The abductions of an opposition politician and his driver last month have sparked Bangladesh's biggest crisis in years, raised hostilities between the most prominent leaders of its fragile democracy and highlighted a series of seemingly political disappearances.

The opposition has blamed the government, launched nationwide strikes and fought with police in street clashes that have killed five people and injured scores. Homemade bombs have exploded on the streets of Dhaka, including one inside a compound housing government ministries. The government has charged 44 top opposition leaders in connection with the violence.

On Wednesday, the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its 17 allies would demonstrate across the country to restart its paused protests.

No one has claimed responsibility for Elias Ali's abduction, and no ransom has been demanded, the usual practice of criminal gangs in Bangladesh.

Security forces told the High Court this week they had no role in Ali's disappearance, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina accused the opposition of hiding Ali to create an excuse to cause mayhem.

Hasina, however, later pledged to do everything possible to find Ali, when his wife and children met her seeking her intervention.

"The conflict is pushing Bangladesh toward a dangerous situation," said Adilur Rahman, secretary of Odhikar, a rights group.

Hasina and her archrival Khaleda Zia have alternated in power since a pro-democracy movement ousted the last military regime in 1990. Zia leads Ali's Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

The abductions of Ali and his driver as they returned home from meeting supporters at a hotel April 17 also has highlighted an increasing number of disappearances that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have blamed on security forces.

At least 22 people have disappeared this year, according to a local human-rights group, Ain-o-Salish Kendra. Odhikar reports that more than 50 people have disappeared since 2010. Many of the disappeared were politicians.

During her visit to Bangladesh last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised Ali's disappearance and the killing of labor leader Aminul Islam with the government, reflecting international concern over the issue.

Islam, who recently led a campaign for higher wages for the country's 3 million garment workers, was found dead along a highway April 5. His family blames the killing on law enforcement agencies.

Even before Ali's disappearance, tensions were high between Hasina and Zia over the conduct of the general election due in 2014.

Hasina has scrapped a constitutional provision requiring the government to step down before polls and transfer power to a neutral caretaker administration to oversee the voting within 90 days. The government says it acted to comply with a court ruling that the caretaker provision was undemocratic, but it means Hasina will be overseeing the next balloting.

Zia has refused to take part in any election overseen by Hasina, fearing fraud. The government says it is open to discuss alternatives, but the opposition says they will sit across the table only if the previous sytem will be restored. The government rejects that.

A similar dispute in 2006 prompted the powerful military to declare a state of emergency that remained until the 2008 election. Both Hasina and Zia were put behind bars during the emergency rule.

Many businessmen also were jailed pending tax evasion and fraud trials, and some fled to avoid arrest. But the cases were withdrawn or not heard when the political government took office.

"We don't want to return to any emergency rule," said A.K. Azad, president of the Federation of Bangladesh Commerce and Industry. "What we want is our leaders to work together so there is no more strikes and clashes."

Ali, 50, has lived dangerously since becoming a student at Dhaka University, considered a breeding ground of Bangladesh's politicians.

He was recruited into a student political group by the country's last military dictator Hussein Muhammad Ershad, according to friends. He then joined a group allied with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, sparking feuding and occasional gunfights among rival factions of Zia's party.

He was briefly arrested, later elected to Parliament and then swept out in 2008 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League party.

The opposition, which suspended its street protests in a gesture of goodwill during Clinton's visit, has vowed to resume strikes if Ali is not found.

His family wonders if he is even alive.

"We have left his fate to Allah," said Ali's teenage son, Abrar Elias, "The Almighty is our last resort."

First published by Associated Press, published on May 09, 2012 by Fox News

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

In Defence of Press Freedom in South Asia: Journalists Organise for a New Deal

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and partners in the seven-country South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN), affirm their mutual solidarity as the campaign for decent wages and working conditions for journalists in the region gathers momentum.

World Press Freedom Day on May 3 was marked by journalists’ unions and associations in the region with diverse observances. SAMSN would like to underline while the mood lasts, that all the sentiments expressed and resolutions adopted on the occasion will have little substantive impact, as long as journalists continue to be denied their rights.

Physical safety has justifiably gained attention as a necessity for press freedom in a region which has proven among the most hazardous for journalism. SAMSN reaffirms at this juncture, that security of employment and the assurance of decent wages and working conditions – the all too often neglected dimensions of press freedom – are also of extreme urgency in the South Asian context.

A number of journalists’ struggles for fair wages and decent working conditions are currently underway in the region. Most recently, Bangladesh’s journalists forged a common platform, the Sangbadik Shramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad (SSKOP, or United Committee of Working Journalists and Newspaper Employees) and organised in early March to demand the formal notification of a new wage fixation body by March 10.

This followed the failure of Bangladesh’s Ministry for Information to formally constitute the Eighth Wage Board for the newspaper industry through gazette by the end of February, despite an assurance given by Information Minister Abul Kalam Azad to the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) on January 22.

Within days of Bangladesh’s journalists resolving to press their demand for a new wage deal, the Newspaper Owners’ Association of Bangladesh (NOAB) mobilised in opposition. "Forming a new wage board three and a half years after the seventh wage board award will put the newspaper industry into a big crisis," NOAB said in a statement issued on March 19.

The SSKOP responded within a day with the suggestion that the newspaper owners, rather than resist the formation of a body mandated by law, should adopt a strategy of cooperation in a spirit of transparency and openness.

Seven wage boards have been formed so far under a law adopted by Bangladesh’s Parliament in 1974. The newspaper industry has resisted each of these and only complied with the statutory wage awards decreed after losing legal battles that have reached the country’s highest courts. The record of compliance remains patchy and uneven, with several of the new media outlets that began operations in recent boom years choosing to ignore the imperative of decent wages.

The Eighth Wage Board was announced by the Government of Bangladesh after representations from the country’s journalists about increasing costs of living and growing job insecurity. A chair has been nominated for the board and the various stakeholders from the side of news industry employees, including both sides of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ), have named their representatives for the board.

Yet the formal notification remains to be issued and the news industry owners continue to resist.

SAMSN calls on the Government of Bangladesh to do what is fair by the country’s media professionals and act as a force for positive change.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), a SAMSN partner and IFJ affiliate, recently won a significant victory when the Supreme Court of Pakistan directed the body charged with implementation of statutory wage scales, to submit a report on the level of compliance in the news industry within a month.

The decision was handed down by a three-member bench of the court, headed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, on March 22. At the urging of the PFUJ, the bench summoned the chairperson of the Implementation Tribunal for Newspaper Employees (ITNE), Nasir Hussain Haidri, to explain the situation. The report that the Supreme Court has asked for, remains to be filed.

On May 31 last year, the Sindh High Court in Karachi, dismissed identical petitions filed by the All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) – the apex body representing the industry – and the Herald Media group, which sought to quash the Seventh Wage Award for journalists and newspaper workers, announced in 2000.

In welcoming this decision, SAMSN and the IFJ had called on the newspaper industry to accept the judicial ruling in good faith and implement the long-delayed wage award. The South Asian collectivity also endorsed the PFUJ demand that the Eighth Wage Board be constituted without further delay.

The matter though, has gone in appeal to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which has declined to issue any form of temporary restraint against the implementation of the Seventh Wage Award. While hearings proceed, the ITNE would be authorised to ensure that the fair wage mandate is implemented, without prejudice to the final judicial outcome.

Nepal’s journalists gained significant recognition with the major amendments to the Working Journalists’ Act (WJA) that were enacted in 2007. The law as amended has important provisions on security of employment and periodic wage revisions for media workers. A basic minimum wage can be specified under the act, subject to periodic revision. The law also makes it mandatory that working journalists be issued letters of appointment by all media establishments, assuring them of security of tenure. Short-term contractual employment would be permitted when circumstances warrant, but would not under any circumstances, exceed 15 percent of the total number of working journalists in the news organisation.

A committee formed under the WJA pointed out in a report submitted November 24, 2010, that 37 percent of the country’s journalists are paid below the prescribed minimum wage, while 45 percent are working without letters of appointment. Among the media houses surveyed, 48 percent had failed to introduce basic measures such as retirement and welfare funds, medical cover and insurance.

Among the media groups reported by the FNJ to be in default on basic obligations under the WJA is the government-owned Gorkhapatra. Though statutory wage levels are formally notified within this group, which publishes the Nepali language Gorkhapatra and the English-language Rising Nepal, a large number of working journalists – well beyond the 15 percent limit sanctioned under the WJA – are believed to be employed on contract.

SAMSN partner and IFJ-affiliate, the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court of Nepal on January 26, seeking a direction to government to fully implement the provisions of the WJA in state-owned media organisations.

The FNJ petition highlighted that state-owned media enterprises in Nepal have been conspicuous defaulters on their obligations under the law. The media organisations named in the FNJ petition are the broadcasters Radio Nepal and Nepal Television, the newspaper publisher Gorkhapatra Corporation, the news agency Rastriya Samachar Samiti, and the Office of the Press Registrar.

No fewer than 45 percent of the journalists working in government owned media houses and 37 percent of the entire community of journalists in Nepal still do not enjoy the minimum salary fixed by a duly empowered committee. Only 14 percent of Nepali journalists have been receiving regular salaries.

In India, where the process of wage fixation through statutory bodies began as far back as 1958, the status of the most recent wage award remains ambiguous. On October 25 last year, India’s Union Cabinet formally approved the recommendations of the G.R. Majithia Wage Boards for Journalists and Non-Journalists, which laid the ground for an all-round increase in wages for newspaper workers.

India’s newspaper industry, both individually and collectively through the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) filed a petition before the Supreme Court of India, claiming an infringement of their fundamental rights in the statutory wage fixation process. It emerged at the first hearing of the petition in May 2011, that the administrative ministry of the Union Government dealing with the matter, had not provided copies of the report, submitted in December 2010, to the INS.

In July 2011, the Supreme Court declined to order a stay on the implementation of the wage award, preparing the ground for its formal acceptance by the Union Cabinet.

The record of implementation though, remains indifferent so far, with only two newspaper groups – Assam Tribune in the northeastern Indian state of Assam and Madhyamam in the southern state of Kerala – having done so. The Assam Tribune group has had a tradition of maintaining an open and cooperative relationship between management and unions. The state government in Assam has also been proactive in ensuring that newspaper managements remain accountable in terms of their statutory obligations.

In September 2010, the Assam state government constituted two “joint inspection teams” to survey the newspaper industry in the state and assess the level of compliance with the wage board stipulations. Each team comprised representatives of the larger newspapers, those belonging to the small and medium category, the government, as also the main journalists’ unions in the state – the Journalists’ Union of Assam, the Assam Union of Working Journalists, the Assam Tribune Employees’ Union, among others. All newspapers were given a date when they would be visited by the inspection teams and told to keep relevant records ready.

Following a comprehensive process of inspection and assessment, the two teams concluded early in 2011, that barring two – the Assam Tribune and Prantik – no other newspaper had implemented the wage scales proposed by the R.K. Manisana Singh wage board as far back as 2002. They recommended that the state government initiate measures, if necessary by withdrawing advertisements and other forms of implicit support, to induce a more cooperative attitude on the part of the newspaper industry.

Other sanctions were recommended against the newspaper groups that had failed to provide the needed information to the inspection teams.

Alarmingly, news agencies such as the Press Trust of India (PTI) and United News of India (UNI), have departed this time from their tradition of being among the first to implement wage awards. On April 20, 2012, employees nation-wide at PTI went on a day’s strike to protest this unexplained delay.

The Maharashtra Media Employees' Union (a composite union, i.e., one that includes both journalists and other employees of the Mid-Day group of publications) has filed suit in an industrial court in Thane, near Mumbai, asking for immediate implementation of the new wage award. And the Indian National Press Group Employees' Union (representing the Free Press Journal and Navshakti publications) has filed another in the Mumbai Industrial Court
The National Confederation of Newspaper and News Agency Employees, meanwhile, continues to argue its case before the Supreme Court.

As a positive incentive for honouring the wage award, the state government in Goa announced a matching grant to newspaper groups that implement the wage board award. This incentive was worked out after negotiations with the Goa Union of Journalists and is supposed to help media groups overcome the initial dent in its financial balances till the revenue streams adjust to the rise in employee costs.

The record of implementation of the Majithia wage award – especially the example set by the Assam Tribune and Madhyamam – which are both on the lower side of the medium newspaper category --  shows that it is not revenue that is the constraint here. Rather, the insistence of the bigger newspapers that they will not implement the award is more about their determination to keep independent journalism on a tight leash.

SAMSN and the IFJ believe that these struggles of South Asia’s journalists for decent wages and working conditions have a wider resonance, most notably in Sri Lanka. In other countries of the region – Afghanistan, Bhutan and the Maldives – media industries remain weakly institutionalised, though the enforcement of core wage and labour standards should be an integral component of any effort to legislative an enabling and regulatory environment for media development.

SAMSN believes that the campaigns and struggles underway in South Asia have much to learn from each other. In the years ahead, SAMSN intends to function as a platform coordinating strategies and sharing experiences between its member countries.

International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) published the statement on 08 May 2012

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 131 countries

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Friday, May 04, 2012

Bangladesh Is South Asia's Standard-Bearer

The former 'basket case' is more moderate on religion and more pragmatic on development than its peers


Despite its 160-million strong population, Bangladesh can find it hard to elbow its way onto the global stage. It's in an area where India is cast in the lead as the dominant economy, Pakistan plays the intermittent villain, and Sri Lanka and Nepal feature in cameos as countries with uncertain futures. Yet when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touches down in Dhaka Saturday—the highest ranking American official to visit in nearly a decade—she'll encounter a country that can teach a lesson or two to all other regional actors.

The world's third-most populous Muslim-majority country stands out as a model of moderation. Unlike in virtually every other country in the Muslim world, Islamists in Bangladesh are on the defensive. Seven people, including high profile leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, South Asia's most powerful Islamist group, face war crimes charges for their role in slaughtering Bangladeshi patriots, Muslim and Hindu alike, during the country's 1971 war of independence against Pakistan.

Current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920-75) led that struggle, which claimed 3 million lives according to the Bangladesh government. The trial reveals the government's willingness to deal with one of the most painful episodes in the young nation's history. It also shows its refusal to allow Islamists to label the regime as "anti-Islam" for pursuing them, a form of blackmail that often obstructs justice in other places.

In a similar vein, Bangladesh can boast one of Asia's best records of fighting Islamist terrorism. The South Asia Terrorism Portal estimates that only nine people have lost their lives since Ms. Hasina swept to power at the end of 2008. In the four years before that, terrorists claimed 56 lives at home, while the Bangladeshi terrorist group Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (or HuJi-B) carried out high-profile terrorist strikes in India.

Much of Bangladesh's success in confronting the most intolerant elements within its own society comes from crafting an inclusive national narrative. Unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh does not define itself by faith alone. Most Bangladeshis see no contradiction between being proud Muslims and proud Bengalis. This self-confidence gives the country the ability, which some other Muslim societies lack, to push back against extremism.

Then there's the down-to-earth pragmatism present in Dhaka's approach to development. Over the past five years, the economy has expanded on an average of 6% per year. Unlike India, which is hobbled by socialist-era labor laws that interfere with hiring and firing, Bangladesh has built a world-class apparel industry that employs more than 3.5 million people and supplies global brands like H&M, Walmart and Tommy Hilfiger. Thanks to this, the country is already the world's second largest exporter of readymade garments after China. If it plays its cards right, Bangladesh, more than any other South Asian nation, could attract a fresh wave of labor-intensive manufacturing looking for cheaper alternatives to China. Goldman Sachs lists Bangladesh among its "Next 11," countries that have the potential to become major economies.

And after years of tensions with its bigger neighbor, Bangladesh is now being practical and seeking to normalize ties with India. The two countries have already settled long festering territorial disputes and opened up trade. A landmark transit agreement would place Bangladesh at the heart of a potentially dynamic growth corridor encompassing northeastern India and a newly democratizing Burma. This is currently being stymied by Indian politician Mamata Banerjee, who as chief minister of the West Bengal state that borders Bangladesh opposes an allied water-sharing agreement with Dhaka.

Still, Dhaka and New Delhi are pushing for this agreement and it could succeed, possibly ushering in a new peace dividend in the region. At any rate, Dhaka's pragmatism in its foreign relations stands in contrast to India, which can't always suppress its preachy rhetoric of nonalignment (toward the West), as well as Pakistan, which often sputters in a sea of Islamic fundamentalism and knee-jerk opposition to India.

That said, Bangladesh is hardly free of problems. Ms. Hasina and her chief opponent, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's Khaleda Zia, have created a poisonous zero-sum politics, which has come to the fore again in recent days. The BNP is up in arms at the disappearance of one of its leaders last month and they blame Ms. Hasina's ruling party. They have shut down the country with crippling national strikes four times in the past month.

No one knows how the BNP official in question disappeared, though, and a string of similar disappearances reflect a deteriorating law and order situation. Either law enforcement is engaged in extra-judicial actions, or vigilantes can roam free with impunity. Neither is encouraging.

Meanwhile, the Islamist threat has been reduced but not eliminated. The BNP remains at best ambivalent and at worst actively sympathetic toward Islamist forces similar to those that have helped drag Pakistan in a downward spiral. And though Bangladesh's army deserves some credit for keeping its distance from politics since late 2008, it's by no means certain that the country's latest experiment with democracy, barely three and a half years old, will last. The military first seized power in 1975, and has done so repeatedly since.

But for now, these worries can take a back seat. This weekend, a country once dismissed by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a basket case, gets to show one of his successors how wrong it has proven him.

First published in The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2012

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, and a columnist for Follow him on Twitter @dhume01