Monthly Coupon

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Bangladesh could face a protracted political crisis

Bangladesh: Back to the Future

Bangladesh could face a protracted political crisis in the lead-up to the 2013 elections unless Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government changes course and takes a more conciliatory approach towards the political opposition and the military. In December 2008, following two years of a military-backed caretaker government, the Awami League (AL) secured a landslide victory in what were widely acknowledged to be the fairest elections in the country’s history. The hope, both at home and abroad, was that Sheikh Hasina would use her mandate to revitalise democratic institutions and pursue national reconciliation, ending the pernicious cycle of zero-sum politics between her AL and its rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Three and a half years on, hope has been replaced by deep disillusionment, as two familiar threats to Bangladesh’s democracy have returned: the prospect of election-related violence and the risks stemming from an unstable and hostile military.

Instead of changing the old pattern of politics, the AL government has systematically used parliament, the executive and the courts to reinforce it, including by filing corruption cases against Khaleda Zia, the BNP chairperson, and employing security agencies to curb opposition activities. Most worrying, however, is the AL-dominated parliament’s adoption of the fifteenth amendment to the constitution, which scraps a provision mandating the formation of a neutral caretaker administration to oversee general elections. The caretaker system was a major practical and psychological barrier to election-rigging by the party in power. Removing it has undermined opposition parties’ confidence in the electoral system.

The fifteenth amendment carries other dangers as well. For example, anyone who criticises the constitution may now be prosecuted for sedition; new procedures have rendered further amendments virtually impossible; and the death penalty is prescribed for plotting to overthrow an elected government – a thinly veiled warning to the military, which has done so four times in as many decades.

The fallout from these changes is already clear. The BNP gave an ultimatum to the government to reinstate the caretaker system by 10 June 2012 or face battles in the streets. To this end, it rallied 100,000 supporters in Dhaka in March for a protest that turned violent. With the deadline passed and no action from the government, it is now calling for nationwide political agitation. A BNP-led boycott of the 2013 general elections may be in the offing.

Meanwhile, the military is visibly restive. On 19 January, it announced it had foiled a coup by mid-level and retired officers who sought to install an Islamist government. This followed an assassination attempt on an AL member of parliament in October 2009 by mid-level officers seething over the deaths of 57 officers in a mutiny by their subordinate paramilitary border guards the previous February. Large-scale dismissals, forced retirements, deepening politicisation and a heavy-handed approach to curb dissent and root out militants have created an unstable and undisciplined force. While a top-level coup is unlikely, the prospect of mid-level officers resorting to violence to express their suppressed anger is increasingly high.

Should the situation deteriorate to the point that the army again decides to intervene, it is unlikely to be content to prop up civilian caretakers and map a course to fresh elections as it did in 2007. This time the generals could be expected to have more staying power, not to mention less reluctance to carry out “minus two” – their previous plan to remove Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia from politics.

Even if such a worst-case scenario seems remote, it is clear that a new electoral stalemate threatens to erode Bangladesh’s democratic foundations.

On 29 December 2008, the Awami League (AL), led by Sheikh Hasina, swept to power in a landslide, winning 229 of 300 seats and putting an end to a two-year military backed caretaker government. The enthusiasm that greeted the restoration of democracy has since been replaced by a familiar fear over its future. The country faces two potentially destabilizing challenges: protracted political violence and a restive military hostile towards the government. In June 2011, the AL government abolished a key safeguard against electoral fraud – a constitutional provision mandating a neutral caretaker government to oversee general elections. If the AL does not reverse course and accept such a caretaker, the chances of an opposition boycott of the 2013 elections are high and with it a return to the depressingly familiar pattern of zero-sum political competition between the AL and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) that led to violence in the streets and military intervention in 2007.

Three and a half years ago there was palpable hope for change. It has now been emphatically crushed. Since taking office on 3 January 2009, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has been marked by the usual poor governance indicators: high levels of corruption, a partisan judiciary and bureaucracy and worsening human rights violations. Sheikh Hasina has used her mandate to restrict democratic space, prevent constitutional change and stack state organs with party sympathisers. She has also alienated the military.

It is no surprise that the public has now slowly turned against the government or that the BNP has regained much of its strength. In a major show of force on 12 March 2012, 100,000 people attended a BNP rally in Dhaka, even though the government virtually cut nationwide transport links to prevent supporters from joining. But more violent political confrontations loom if no accommodation between the two parties is reached. The military is also showing signs of frustration. It is not clear how serious the coup plans it alleges were being made at the beginning of the year were in fact, but senior officers say disaffection and anger are widespread and rising.

Based on extensive interviews and other sources, this report looks at why public trust in the AL government declined and examines the risks another prolonged electoral deadlock in 2013 would pose.

First published by International Crisis Group, 13 Jun 2012

Dhaka/Brussels 13 June 2012

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

India: Abuses by Border Force Increasing

Photo: Villagers ripped apart by the border divide
Broken Pledges by India to End Killings, Torture at Bangladeshi Border

Authorities in India should investigate fresh allegations of human rights violations by the Border Security Force (BSF) along the Bangladesh border and prosecute those found responsible, says Human Rights Watch.

Despite assurances to the Bangladesh government and public orders to exercise restraint and end unlawful killings and attacks on suspected smugglers, evidence documented and published by Indian and Bangladeshi nongovernmental organizations suggest that the BSF is once again committing abuses including extrajudicial killings, torture, and ill-treatment of both Indian and Bangladeshi border residents.

“The Border Security Force has reverted to its previous tactics of unilaterally punishing suspects, defying orders from Delhi issued last year to exercise restraint and protect the right to life,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But the central government is also responsible, since it has failed to hold perpetrators accountable. Justice is the best deterrent against further violations.”

In December 2010, Human Rights Watch released “Trigger Happy, Excessive Use of Force by Indian Troops at the Bangladesh Border,” which documented nearly 1,000 killings by the BSF over the last decade. In January 2011, the Indian government assured Bangladeshi officials that it would order the BSF to exercise restraint and encourage the use of rubber bullets instead of more lethal ammunition, steps welcomed by Human Rights Watch.

Although BSF attacks decreased significantly over the next year, the new evidence presented suggests that Indian border troops continue to frequently abuse both Bangladeshi citizens and Indian nationals residing in the border area. The recent allegations claim that in order to get around the restrictions on shooting at sight, BSF soldiers have been subjecting suspects to severe beatings and torture, resulting in deaths in custody.

Efforts by local residents and activists to file complaints and secure justice have resulted in threats and intimidation. The National Human Rights Commission has sought responses when allegations are filed, but without adequate witness protection complainants end up risking further abuse.

Large numbers of killings and other abuses have been reported in 2012. Odhikar, a Dhaka-based nongovernmental organization, has documented as many as 13 killings by the BSF since January 2012. Kolkata-based nongovernmental organization Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), has documented five other killings during the same time period, based on statements from witnesses and families of victims.

In one recent example, MASUM reported to the National Human Rights Commission of India that on April 22, 2012, soldiers from the BSF’s 91st battalion chased and shot 21-year-old Babu Seikh in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal. According to MASUM, Seikh, along with three of his companions, was walking toward the marshland in the evening when they were chased by BSF soldiers who fired at them without warning. After a bullet hit Seikh, MASUM says that one of his companions saw the soldiers drag an injured Sheik to their camp nearby, where he later died in custody without access to medical attention. In another case, MASUM reported that on January 1, 2012, four Indian teenagers, accosted while smuggling cattle, jumped into a rivulet to avoid punishment. The BSF soldiers allegedly beat them when they tried to come out of the water. All four boys, severely injured because of the beatings, eventually drowned.

In another case, Odhikar reported that Mohammad Mizanur Rahman, a cattle trader who bought cows from India to Bangladesh and lived in West Khodaipur village of Dinajpur district, died on February 14, 2012, due to alleged torture by BSF soldiers. Rahman was caught by BSF soldiers when smuggling cows from India. According to Okhikar, he was then severely beaten near the border at Aboiter in Hili Thana, Gangarampur district in India. He was later taken by his companions to the Upazila Health Complex in Bangladesh for medical help, where he died at around 5:30 a.m. on February 14. The post-mortem report says Rahman died due to injuries to his head. At the time of death his right eye was missing; his right jaw, ear, and gums were crushed; and some brain matter had come out through a deep wound in his upper jaw.

Last year, MASUM released a video showing BSF soldiers brutally beating a Bangladeshi national caught smuggling cattle in West Bengal state. Eight soldiers were suspended but no further information is available regarding their prosecution or punishment.

Human Rights Watch knows of no cases in which BSF soldiers have been prosecuted for violations committed along the India-Bangladesh border. This includes a highly publicized case in which a 15-year-old Bangladeshi girl trapped in the wire fencing at the border was shot by the BSF in January 2011.

“While the Indian government claims that it holds its forces accountable, it produces no information to show that this is actually happening,” said Ganguly. “There appears to be complete impunity for BSF soldiers – even in the most egregious cases. Unless the government orders an independent investigation and ensures the prosecutions of those against whom credible evidence is found, such acts of brutality will continue.”

The India-Bangladesh border is heavily populated and very poor, with large numbers of people moving back and forth to visit relatives, buy supplies, and look for jobs. Others engage in petty and serious cross-border crime. The border force is mandated to address illegal activities, especially narcotics smuggling, human trafficking for sex work, and transporting fake currency and explosives. However, instead of arresting suspects and handing them over to the police for trial, BSF soldiers have taken it upon themselves to punish suspects.

Human Rights Watch called on the Indian government to do more to ensure compliance with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Given the failure of the BSF’s internal justice system to prosecute its members for human rights abuses, personnel of all ranks implicated in serious rights abuses should be investigated by civilian authorities and tried in civilian courts. This is particularly important because the BSF is now being deployed in security operations against Maoists in central and eastern India. Considering the widespread tendency to subject local residents at the Bangladesh border to verbal and physical abuse including severe beatings, the government should ensure a transparent system of accountability that will prevent violations in these areas.

The Bangladesh government, after initially failing to address this issue, finally began to call for the protection of its citizens. In March 2011, at a joint border coordination conference, Maj. Gen. Rafiqul Islam, head of the Bangladesh border guards, called on the BSF to respect the right to life and said that individuals “must be treated innocent unless and until he or she is proved to be a criminal or offender.” BSF director-general Raman Srivastava promised “to maintain utmost restraint on the border” and also provide troops “with non-lethal weaponry.”

“It is time for the Indian government to keep its promises to end abuses and hold its forces accountable,” said Ganguly. “At the same time, Bangladeshi government should publicly demand that the Indian government end this scourge of violence along their border.”

Published by Human Rights Watch
New York, June 12, 2012

To read the December 2010 Human Rights Watch report “Trigger Happy,” please visit:

Friday, June 01, 2012

Bangladesh turns from ship-breaking to ship-building

Bangladesh, known worldwide as a place for breaking up old ships, is making a push to grab more of the global shipbuilding business, slashing corporate tax as an incentive for its more than 100 shipyards to expand.

The National Board of Revenue of Bangladesh has approved a 12-year tax rebate facility under which corporate tax is cut to 10% from 18.75% effective July 1. In the event of any shipbuilder becoming listed, it will have to pay only 5% corporate tax. The government hopes the move will help to create 1.5 million additional jobs and lead to as much as US$2 billion in export earnings by 2015. 

Companies such as Western Marine Shipyard and Ananda Shipyard and Slipways are seeking to attract more buyers of small vessels as the world's leading shipbuilders in China and South Korea increasingly focus on large vessels such as ever-bigger container carriers and specialized ships such as transporters of liquefied natural gas. 

Bangladesh's 124 shipyards, with more than 100,000 skilled and 150,000 semi-skilled workers, can easily secure a substantial share of the global small shipbuilding market, according to a World Bank study published in March. 

If the country can capture even 1% of the $167 billion global shipbuilding market, "exports will be worth $1.6 billion", the World Bank noted earlier this year. Total export orders can easily exceed a billion dollars within a year or two "if we succeed in maintaining our present momentum despite the worldwide economical turmoil", Mohammad Shahidul Bashar, public relations deputy manager at Western Marine, told Asia Times Online. The industry at present has orders to build 42 ships worth around $600 million, he said. 

Export earnings from ships, boats and floating structures rose to $40.4 million in the 12 months to last June from $12.7 million in the year to June 2009, according to the Export Promotion Bureau. The latest tax incentive comes after a dip in exports to $9.3 million in the 2009-10 fiscal year. 

The World Bank's "Bangladesh - Diagnostic Trade Integration Study" released in March said the sector accounted for 0.57% of the global market by 2008, up from 0.08% in 2006 and 0.35% in 2007. 

The shipbuilding industry could become the country's third-largest foreign exchange earner in less than 10 years if the government provided support relating to bank guarantees and declares export-oriented shipyards as export-processing zones, the Bangladesh Foreign Trade Institute says. The country's exports are dominated by textiles and ready-made garments, at around 70% of value. 

The Association of Export-Oriented Shipbuilding Industries has for the past three years been urging the government to ease taxes to make the industry more competitive. Association president Abdullahel Bari, in a written proposal to the government, earlier forecast that global ship manufacturing capacity would rise to 10,000 vessels by 2015 from 7,500 at present and that "the traditional shipbuilders will come to new builders like Bangladesh in the coming years to meet the rising demand". 

Present buyers of Bangladesh-made vessels come from as far afield as Europe and Africa. On March 21, German buyer Grona Shipping took possession of the last two of eight 5,200 deadweight tonnage (DWT) ice-class cargo vessels ordered from Western Marine. Each vessel was sold at $9.74 million. 

Western Marine has also delivered six vessels to buyers from Denmark, Pakistan and Finland, said Bashar. "The shipyard has also built more than 60 ships including ferries, tankers, cargo vessels and dredgers for coastal and inland use in Bangladesh," he said. 

Ananda Shipyard and Slipways (ASSL) in April handed over the $12 million Enzian, a 6,100 DWT multi-purpose ship, to German's Komrowski Maritim. ASSL has also sold ocean-going vessels to buyers from Germany, Denmark and Mozambique. Other local shipbuilders winning international orders include Highspeed Shipbuilding, Dhaka Dockyard and Engineering Works, Khan Brothers Shipbuilding and Karnaphuli Shipyard. 

Bangladesh is historically noted for its ship-breaking industry, which competes with India, China and Pakistan to be the world's largest, but it appears unlikely that the steel garnered from old hulks will make its way into new vessels destined for the world's oceans. 

"Ships built for foreign buyers and even local owners comply with a set of standard guidelines set by the International Maritime Organization [IMO]," said Bashar of Western Marine. "Classification societies work under the IMO to monitor each new building project. Therefore all machinery and equipment used and installed in new building must be class approved. According to this, parts from expired ships are not permissible."

First published in Asia Times online, Jun 2, 2012

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is the Editor of Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age, in Bangladesh

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