Monthly Coupon

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Pakistan and Bangladesh make history: Two big tests for democracy

SOUTH ASIA’S two biggest Muslim-majority countries, with 350m people between them, are poised for general elections. For both Pakistan and Bangladesh that is no mean feat, given their dismal histories (first as one country and then, since 1971, as two) of coups, prolonged military rule and bloody turmoil.

First is Pakistan’s, early in 2013—or just possibly late 2012. Whatever the result, it is cause for celebration. No civilian, elected leader in Pakistani history has ever completed a full term in office and then passed power to an elected successor. That shameful record is about to end.

Nobody expected much of President Asif Ali Zardari, who came to office after the murder of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, at a campaign rally in 2007. He is unpopular, yet has been wily enough to hang on for five years—despite terrorism, floods, a dire economy, the discovery (and killing) of Osama bin Laden on his territory, and bitter rows with generals and judges.

Though a survivor, his re-election is unlikely. Instead, Nawaz Sharif, a Punjabi and a former prime minister, expects to gain. However, he has made enemies in the army. If he seems to be doing well, the generals will be sorely tempted to meddle again in some way. They should restrain themselves.

Then there is a wild card: Imran Khan. A cricket hero turned devout politician, he has grown increasingly popular, with huge rallies, both for opposing all things American—especially drone strikes in Waziristan—and for an anti-corruption drive. Young Pakistanis are fired up. He predicts that a “tsunami” will sweep him to office. At the very least he has made the polls more uncertain.

Meanwhile in Bangladesh general elections loom: they are expected late in 2013. The government of Sheikh Hasina will complete its full term, and the army there is unlikely to step in. She then expects to make history as the first Bangladeshi leader to be voted in for a second successive term.

But the coming months are bound to be tense, with debate over the conduct of the polls. Vitriol and distrust are so strong that usually an independent, caretaker government runs things before and during elections. To the fury of the opposition, Sheikh Hasina scrapped that arrangement when rewriting the constitution in 2011. Her old rival, Khaleda Zia, now threatens to boycott both parliament and the elections, and to use strikes and protests—which means violence—to compete instead.

That bodes ill for Bangladesh. The next election, and its winner, must be credible, which means the voting has to be competitive and fair. Democracy just for show is not democracy at all.

First appeared in The Economist, November 21, 2012

Adam Roberts: Delhi correspondent, The Economist

Friday, December 28, 2012

Bangladesh Firm on Pakistan Apology


IT WAS a five-hour visit to Dhaka but it was long enough to bring Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar face-to-face with a reality that she and her countrymen have long tried to gloss over but the people of Bangladesh have not. Her host, foreign minister Dipu Moni surprised her by bringing up the 1971 genocide committed by the Pakistani armed forces and said that Bangladesh was still waiting for an official ‘apology’ from Islamabad. She added that Bangladesh was not satisfied with the ‘regrets’ expressed by Pakistan over the crimes perpetuated as a part of deliberate official policy of teaching a lesson to the then East Pakistani Bengalis.

Khar tried to wiggle out of the situation by using the familiar refrain that she uses with Indian leaders: forget the past and move on. She had used the same line with S. M. Krishna, her Indian counterpart at the time (since changed) as she told him that that the two countries should ‘move on’ without looking back. Krishna was probably a patient listener. Not so Dipu Moni who insisted that future relations with Pakistan depended on the awaited official apology from Pakistan .

The Bangladeshi minister probably saw through the hollowness of the ‘move on’ plea advanced by her petite Pakistani counterpart. It was only a few months ago that Islamabad was making such a hue and cry about an ‘apology’ from Washington for a drone attack on Salalah post on Pakistani side of the Pak-Afghan border. The US President and others had expressed ‘regrets’ over the incident that claimed the lives of several soldiers. But Pakistan would not accept anything less than an official ‘apology’.

Eventually, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tendered some kind of ‘apology’ although it was not paraphrased as apology. Cash-starved Pakistan , desperate to come out of an awkward situation it had created, accepted the‘apology’ and went to town about it, much to the amazement of many at home and abroad.

Dipu Moni was aware that the Pakistani leadership which talks of ‘forget and move on’ does just the opposite in regard to the so-called Kashmir dispute. Whatever one might say in the current simulated atmosphere of Indo-Pak bonhomie, the fact remains that Pakistan makes it abundantly clear that it was not going to ‘forget’ Kashmir even if it stalls further movement in bilateral relations.

Be that as it may, there is a very strong case for Bangladesh insisting on an official apology from Pakistan . The pogrom ordered by General Yahya Khan, as the military ruler in what was then known as East Pakistan has few parallels in recent history, except perhaps the holocaust of the Jews ordered by Adolf Hitler in Germany .

Though it was the Pakistani military which had unleashed unspeakable atrocities on the Bengalis, the civilians of West Pakistan were equally enthusiastic supporters of the mass murder plan. The reason was the contempt the West Pakistanis had for the Bengali speaking fellow citizens; they were seen as inferior in physique and intellect and, in addition, were considered not Islamised enough.

In December 1970 general election, the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had swept the polls in the eastern wing of Pakistan . Being more populous, East Pakistan sent more members to Parliament (National Assembly), and, therefore, the Awami League qualified to rule the country. The Punjabi military and the West Pakistanis, led by a man called Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, would have none of it. They used to call the Bengalis of East Pakistan ‘monkeys’ and ‘chickens’ who did not share their (West Pakistanis) hatred for India and the Hindus.

When Bengali nationalism, already fuelled by the neglect of their language by the ruling elite, began to assert itself, the military decided to deal with them ruthlessly. Gen Yahya Khan, generally preoccupied with his favourite mistress and a bottle of Scotch, asked his men to mercilessly crush any sign of rebellion in East Pakistan . Men, women, children, old and infirm, none was to be spared by the bullets of the‘patriotic’ Pakistanis.

The Pakistani army went on a killing spree. They did not have to think much about their target. But in many cases they were helped by local religious fanatics, who led them to the ‘traitor’ and Hindu targets. A Pakistani journalist of Goan origin, Anthony Mascrenhas, (he died in London in December 1986), who had worked for Karachi daily, Dawn, wrote a graphic account of the mass murder planned (in East Pakistan ) by Yahya Khan’s ‘Operation Searchlight’.

There is no definite word on the number of people killed but most opinions settle for a seven figure. At one time half of the then 70 million population of East Pakistan was running for the elusive safety. Ten million refugees had poured into India adding to the drain on a fragile economy and forcing the hand of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to take on the US-backed might of Pakistan army.

The Richard Nixon administration backed Islamabad unmindful of its grossest human rights violations. In fact, after Yahya Khan launched Operation Searchlight in March 1971, Nixon sent nearly $4 million worth of arms to Pakistan and also dispatched his naval fleet from the Pacific to the Bay of Bengal.

After the creation of Bangladesh , Pakistan continued to play tricks with the new nation. It refused to accept the Urdu-speaking ‘Biharis’ stranded in East Pakistan who were unambiguous in their allegiance towards Pakistan . That problem still remains as does the question of divisions of common assets.

Taking advantage of the presence of religious zealots, who had collaborated with the Pakistani army during the Bangladeshi war, the notorious ISI of Pakistan began to spread its wing in the new nation. It helped the ISI that the subsequent events in Bangladesh brought to the fore political forces that were opposed to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation. Bangladesh became a major hub of ISI activities that included helping in all possible ways the insurgent groups operating in eastern India, and pumping of fake Indian currency into India either directly or through Nepal.

The ISI network also helped the Islamist groups in Bangladesh who opposed their country wearing the ‘secular’ tag. Prime Minister Sheik Hasina’s government is under threat from the religious fundamentalists and their political pivot, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which is said to have received help from the Pakistani spy agency.

The BNP opposes almost everything that the Awami League does or says. That is why Pakistan never offered an official apology to Bangladesh for the 1971 genocide. It is the opponents of Awami League who are also vehemently opposing the current trial of ‘war criminals’, the collaborators during the liberation war of 1971. But there is a strong public opinion against the pro-Pakistani elements. It is this section that stands firmly behind Hasina. That must have been a factor behind Dipu Moni’s firmness in demanding the long overdue apology from Pakistan —and rejecting Hina Rabbani Khar’s hypocritical plea to forgive and forget. A natural corollary of this firmness was Hasina’s decision not to attend the four-day D-8 summit Pakistan convened in Islamabad from Nov 19.

D8 or Group of developing eight Muslim countries - Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Turkey besides Pakistan -- is a relatively low key forum which meets once in two years. Its bargaining power thus far has been limited but it is determined to leverage the fact that D 8 accounts for almost 60 percent of global Muslim population to enhance their share of world trade by 15 per cent by 2018. Already D8 has achieved trade volumes worth $130 billion, which is double its share of global trade three years ago.

Islamabad summit is geared up to discuss ways to strengthen business and trade relations, and ties between Muslim-majority states. Broadly speaking therefore, D 8 summit holds great significance for Bangladesh too since it is keen to broad base and deepen its trade opportunities. Already Dhaka has become a major investment destination even for Pakistani businessmen, and some of them are shifting their operations from volatile Karachi to Dhaka ’s neighbourhood.

The message from Moni’s snub of Khar is therefore clear. And it is that Pakistan can hope to have a turnaround in relations with Bangladesh only on Bangladesh’s terms. Pakistan must put on trial military and political personalities involved in the 1971 genocide, and tender a public apology. These terms, as Prime Minister Hasina and Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told Hina Rabbani Khar are not negotiable.

Dhaka can afford this luxury as an in-depth analysis on 'Pakistan-Bangladesh Economic Expansion Challenges and Opportunities’ conducted by Pakistan ’s Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) in September shows. Bangladesh is miles ahead of Pakistan with a robust manufacturing base and real GDP at an impressive 6.3 per cent. In contrast, the land of the pure remains dependent on regular IMF bailout and US treasury largesse to avert defaults on loan repayments.

First published in South Asia Analysis Group SAAG, December 26, 2012

Rajeev Sharma is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst who regularly writes for several leading international media outlets. He can be reached at

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Could Bangladesh Politics End In Chaos?


SITUATION IN Bangladesh is moving towards an explosion due in part to violence let loose by the Jamaat-e-Islami demanding the release of their leaders now being tried for crimes against humanity committed during the liberation war in 1971 in collaboration with the occupying Pakistani army.

While the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party(BNP) publicly does not oppose the trial of collaborators they have raised questions about the way the trial is being conducted though distinct from the Nuremberg to the trials at The Hague the accused if convicted in Bangladesh would have recourse to appeal against convictions.

BNP’s main agitation’s focus is the demand for reinstitution of caretaker government for holding the next general election in 2013. It may be recalled that the caretaker system had been declared illegal by the Supreme Court and abolished by the Parliament through an amendment to the Constitution. BNP’s agitation has been violent as were the government’s actions to maintain law and order during the agitations. BNP maintains that governmental police actions have infringed on their fundamental right to protest.

This unending struggle between the two factions is adding to the general public’s discomfiture and proving costly to the business community affecting trade and export of the country. Though the World Bank in its latest report has praised Bangladesh for registering 6% growth despite global economic downturn structural problems remain arresting socio-economic development of the country. In Global Competitive Index for 2012-2013 published by the World Economic Forum Bangladesh has been placed at 118 out of 144 countries surveyed mainly due to inadequate infrastructure, corruption and lack of access to finance. If the situation does not improve chances of foreign direct investment, essential for economic development of cash strapped country would be difficult to attract.

Added is the strained owner-worker relationship currently being displayed in the country’s Ready Made Garment Sector, a remarkable area contributing to growth of GDP and a significant foreign exchange earner. The trust deficit people have in the administration has been demonstrated by The Rule of Law Index for 2012 of the World Justice Project that has put Bangladesh at 87th position in limited government powers, 89th in absence of corruption, 72nd in order and security, 87th in fundamental rights, 89th in open government, 90th in regulatory enforcement, 97th in civil justice and 83rd in criminal justice.

The country scores poorly in government accountability and administrative agencies and courts are extremely inefficient and corrupt. The student and youth wings of major political parties are reportedly engaged in illegal money making projects tolerated and in some cases encouraged by the ruling party, whichever remains in power. In exchange they are used as musclemen to subdue their opponents. Student politics is rarely based on of principles and more on money paid due to services rendered.

A case in point is the ruthless murder of Biswajit Das, an innocent tailor, who found himself in the midst of armed cadre of a political party who killed him on the mistaken belief that he was party to agitation called for opposition political combine against the government. The people throughout the country rose up in disgust demanding exemplary punishment be meted out to the alleged killers. This incident along with several others in recent past has highlighted regression of communicative action essential for the survival of democracy.

Most political scientists and philosophers (German sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas is prominent among them) consider unfettered communication among equally informed citizens necessary to build an informed and consensus based society in which the minority’s views are also considered. In such a society James Madison’s advice is critical to rein in the majority so that their will is not imposed on the minority which could lead to identity politics to the detriment of the growth of democratic polity especially in multicultural society.

This term “multiculturalism” has become debatable of late and Oxford Professor Timothy Garton Ash has suggested that the “term should be consigned to the conceptual dustbin of history”. In the current global narrative after 9/11 multiculturalism has become synonymous with the Muslim “threat” in Europe. For Bangladesh fortunately overwhelming part of the population having same ethnicity and religion persecution of the minority, though not totally absent, is a rare phenomenon. But we have a no less greater problem in the form of acute intolerance of opposing views leading to senseless violence.

A case in point, as mentioned earlier, is the demand for election under caretaker government that is totally opposed by the ruling party. Public debate on this issue resulting in violence has produced concern and anxiety both at home and abroad. Foreign friends of Bangladesh and our citizens alike are repeatedly requesting the feuding political parties to sit for dialogue to thrash out their differences and relieve the country of an uncertain future. One wonders whether the inability of our politicians has its roots in our antecedent.

Some social workers believe that wherever in the world, people have developed through structured educational systems; they are more inclined to continue along that path. Those people who have developed within tribal cultures are less inclined to adapt to formal educational systems. A survey of people from various regions of the world would show a significant difference in their development. Those people who came from structured societies had significant social, cultural and economic adaptability. On the other hand, those people who came from primitive tribal cultures have been more adaptable to the slum and ghetto type environment.

One may trash this point of view on the ground that unlike some countries Bangladesh never had tribal system and as such primitive traits of tribalism cannot exist in our mental makeup. But if “tribalism” were to be interpreted as akin to nepotism, districtism, crony capitalism, blind loyalty to political party and its leader, and other narrow views clouding our judgment then one may not be too far off in tracing the root cause of our political leaders’ inability to compromise, and more so, when such compromise can lead to loss of state power.

Tragedy of the people of Bangladesh lies in the fact that despite repeated broken promises by political leaders they have little alternative but to vote to power the same set of politicians, albeit of different combines, because rule by extra-constitutional forces in Bangladesh on several occasions did not produce the desired results. They too were allegedly corrupt while during their rule the people lost their political liberty. Then again unlimited power given to the chief executive under democratic system in developing countries virtually devoid of checks and balance bestows upon him/her almost regal power to reward loyalty and deny “rewards” to holders of independent thought regarded as “disloyalty” to the leader.

Bangladesh does not have the American system of the Congressional scrutiny and approval of nominations by the President to important positions of authority. Though undeniably in certain cases politics intrudes into this process and excellent candidates may be rejected but such cases are rare. A case in point is the withdrawal by Ambassador Susan Rice from the race of the next Secretary of State as she felt if nominated her approval by the Senate may be delayed due to faux pas committed over the armed assault and the murder of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi. But the possibility that the next Secretary of State may be John Kerry, a distinguished politician with long experience in foreign affairs, would more than compensate the loss of Susan Rice.

The point being driven at is that in the absence of institutional checks and balance in parliamentary system in fragile democracies the chances of abuse of power by the duly elected leader yet exercising powers of an absolute monarch cannot be discounted. Such possibility was evident when the military backed government popularly known as 1/11 tried to implement minus-2 formula aimed at removing from politics the two leaders-namely the present Prime Minister and the present Leader of the Opposition and create a new political party. The endeavor failed miserably and in the general elections that followed the two main political parties was returned by the electorate- one to power and the other to the opposition. This proved that the success of General Ziaur Rahman in establishing Bangladesh Nationalist Party and that of General Husain Mohammad Ershad in establishing Jatyo Party could not be repeated by the military backed government after 1/11.

One can account for the failure of the Moin-Fakhruddin government to recreate Ziaur Rahman-Ershad scenario by the fact that both General Zia and General Ershad retained power much longer than Moin-Fakhruddin duo. Another factor could be that the establishment of BAKSAL in place of multi-party system was controversial. This compression of liberty in no way reflects that fact that the assassination of the Father of the Nation in August 1975 had shocked the entire population of Bangladesh and the trial and conviction of some of the killers have been universally welcomed by the people.

Ziaur Rahman got the lease of life through his rehabilitation of the Jamaat-e- Islam political party and the Rajakars who had fled the country after liberation and the restoration of citizenship to the Jamaat leader Ghulam Azam and subsequent inclusion of Jamaat leaders in the cabinet by his widow who became the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. General Ershad also dallied with the Islam-pasand political parties to remain in power. In short both the BNP and Jatyo Party survived through political association with religion-based parties and by playing with the religious sentiment of the people. Contrarily the capture of power by Mionuddin-Fakhruddin duo, though initially acquiesced by the people lost popular support, particularly of the youth, due to their corruption-ridden administration.

The people also did not like the minus-2 formula and the peoples’ dislike was eminently proved by the overwhelming victory of Awami League in the election of 2008. But for the interruptions by extra-constitutional forces Bangladesh alternated between the rule by either Awami League or the BNP. The initial periods of these extra-constitutional rules were not disliked by the people mainly because of peoples’ perception of corruption by the parties in power and their disillusionment with broken promises. Added was the element of the absence of transformational leaders like the Father of the Nation in the politics of Bangladesh.

Current political leaders appear to be less dedicated to peoples’ welfare and more engaged in conduct of public affairs for private gains. Since public perception is more important in politics than reality our politicians have a grave responsibility to convince the people of the fallacy of their perception. But then it is difficult to guarantee that extra-constitutional forces would not stage a comeback. Historically autocracies have emerged in modern times (barring absolute monarchies of the past) due to ideological reasons (e.g. Communism) with a strong selectorate( e.g. army where a group is not solely dependent on a single leader and the group is capable of replacing a poorly performing leader or Central Committee/Politburo in communist system) if people are dissatisfied with the elected government’s inability to provide economic goods.

From Brazil( 1965-1974) to Chile of Pinochet to Salazar’s Portugal to Franco’s Spain to Pakistan from the late fifties and Bangladesh in the late seventies and eighties have seen autocrats ruling for years. In China, for example, the impressive growth of the economy along with attachment with ideology have strengthened the grip of the Communist Party over the people making it possible for a strong elite to co-opt dissidents. “…Frequently popular uprisings are co-opted or taken over by the members of the existing elite. Sometimes this is defensive, to ensure the elites’ survival, after the sacrifice of a few leaders … other times, as recently in Kyrgyzstan, the revolt was simply an extra-constitutional, intra-elite, reshuffle”( Nick Grono of International Crisis Group). Nick Grono suggests that the army, once in power, should be got rid of as soon as possible because “all too frequently Western nations seem comfortable with this, as the militaries are known entities, create a semblance of order and normality, and their commanders have often been trained at Leavenworth or Sandhurst. But more often than not, the military just ends up undermining democratic development, as in Pakistan.”

It is difficult to believe that the major players in this region and in the international community would accept an extra-constitutional government in Bangladesh. Western nations, in particular the USA, have already expressed their hope for a free and fair election that will result in the formation of a democratically elected government in Bangladesh. President Obama was applauded by his audience at the Cairo University in June 2009 for his unstinted commitment “to governments that reflect the will of the people” and of his belief “that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear”.

As the situation in Bangladesh is dissimilar to the one in Pakistan bedeviled by terrorism it is unlikely that the Western powers and our closest neighbor will support a military installed government in this country. The question, however, remains as to how long friends of Bangladesh will retain patience if the two major political combines refuse to listen to their advice and that of the people of the country to the feuding parties to come to an understanding on the modalities of holding the next elections due next year.

Will the ruling party allow a civil war like situation to evolve in Bangladesh? Can the ruling party be confident that they can pull off an election held on their terms without the risk of a large scale chaos in the country? Can the ruling party be confident that the opposition parties will not get peoples’ support for repeated hartals( closure of business, offices and roads and completely halting transportation of vehicles of all types) though such political actions will mean untold suffering to the people? Can the ruling party be confident that the amendment to the Constitution declaring the caretaker government illegal will have the support of the common people who are not well versed in law and of the sanctity of the judgment of the Supreme Court on this issue? It is difficult to answer many of these questions yet the politico-economic future of the country may depend on satisfactory answers.

Then again though the chances of a Syrian or Arab Spring situation in Bangladesh is not envisaged because of difference in the level of violence and the nature and subjects of protest one has to take into account Jamaat-e-Islami’s destructive agitation that, many suspect, have external financial support and possible rightist-conservative internal support. There is already demand of the left leaning political parties and by the liberals for banning religion-based politics in Bangladesh. Given the religious extremist Islamists’ armed violence and consolidation in some parts of the country in the past, denied by then government in power, the left-center Awami League defeated these forces and hanged some of their leaders.

But the recent violence let loose by the student wing of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party has caused concern in some quarters about the possibility of the resurgence of Islamism in Bangladesh. The international community would be well advised to take note before such a movement gathers momentum and support from among deeply religious, albeit moderate Muslims, of Bangladesh. If the conservative rightists were to capture power on the strength of negative vote against Awami League in the next elections then JI would certainly form a coalition with BNP and such a combine could open Bangladesh territory for trans-border terrorism from Pakistan into India notwithstanding the leader of the opposition’s commitment given to the Indian leaders during her recent visit to India that Bangladesh would not be used as transit point for anti-Indian terrorists.

The failure of the Indian authorities to deliver on the commitments made during Bangladesh Prime Minister’s visit to Delhi and the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka has frustrated people across the political spectrum in Bangladesh. It appears that in the face of opposition by BJP and Trinamul Congress on ratification of Land Boundary Agreement and apportioning of Teesta River water it is unlikely that these two issues can be solved before the general elections in India expected to be held in 2014. Conservative rightists and Islamists may exploit this situation to put Awami League government on the defensive on Indo-Bangladesh relations by pointing out their failure to secure legitimate interest of Bangladesh from India.

Increasingly it may become difficult for the government to convince the public that maintaining best of relations with India will serve the best interests of the country. As both countries will have to face the electorate within the next two years it would be prudent for India to come forward with positive attitude on deliverable issues so that trust deficit of the skeptical Bangladeshis are removed and they are convinced that Indian difficulty in delivering the ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement and on the sharing of the Teesta water may be removed once the Indian elections are over. This optimism is contingent upon the UPA government winning the next elections with convincing majority with parties sharing the present government’s policy towards Bangladesh.

In short Indo-Bangladesh relations may play a part in the Bangladesh elections next year. Yet like in most countries foreign policy will not determine the future course of politics in Bangladesh. Determining factor will be the compromise formula on the mechanism of holding the next elections. Other elements are likely to be poverty reduction, corruption scandals, price rise of both food and non-food items, success and failures of the government in education, health, disaster management, agriculture, manpower export and remittance, law and order situation, religious extremism etc. In short, people may ask themselves whether they are better off today than they were before the Mahajot government was voted to power.

Like the last time the youth is likely to be a major factor in determining who will win the elections and consequently extent of youth unemployment should be watched ( a study reveals that Young people aged 15 to 29 make up one fourth of Bangladesh’s total population. Of 85 million working-age people in the country, 41 % are youths. Some 1.5 million young Bangladeshis are unemployed and 8.5 million are underemployed in the sense of not having work that suits their skills). In gist economic condition and law and order situation are likely to top the concerns of the people on the election day.

First published in SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, December 26, 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

A trial for the future of Bangladesh

Bangladesh independence activists demand trial of war criminals


The war crime tribunals were set up to address a deep-seated national demand for justice, but they are facing a hostile campaign by vested interests at home and abroad

December is a landmark month for Bangladesh. It is the month of the liberation of the country from Pakistan in 1971. And it is also a reminder of a great national tragedy — it was during the same month that year that the marauding Pakistani army and their local agents systematically eliminated hundreds of secular intellectuals just before the liberation on December 16, 1971. It capped a nine-month orgy of violence against civilians in which three million people were killed, 400,000 women were raped and 10 million people fled for bordering Indian States as refugees.

This year, as the country celebrates four decades of its independence, it also faces the task of completing a historic trial against the perpetrators of those horrific crimes.

The trial was long overdue. The events following the bloody coup in 1975 in which Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was assassinated, and the divisive politics thereafter, caused many delays in reckoning with the cruelties. When Sheikh Hasina came to power, this was on her agenda. The move towards justice began on March 25, 2010, under a domestic law framed in 1971. But the path is yet not easy.

In the crucial last year of its tenure, the Hasina government faces, on the one hand, street protests by opposition parties positioning themselves ahead of the elections, and on the other, organized opposition against the trial by the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, the party that had opposed Bangladesh’s independence, supported by the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Jamaat-e-Islami and its militant students wing, Islami Chatra Shibir, have chosen the route of organized street violence. Their aim is clear — they want their key leaders, now on trial in war crimes tribunals, to be set free. Jamaat cadres — no one can forget that the party sided with Pakistan army in all conceivable ways to foil the national quest for freedom — have gone as far as to attack the police, snatching their rifles and setting on fire dozens of police vehicles in Dhaka and across the country. They also attacked the Law Minister's motorcade.

The spate of attacks across the country has left several hundred policemen injured, many of them hospitalized with serious injuries. The government sees these as ominous signs of a plot to destabilise the country and foil the trial. The manner in which the police came under attack was somewhat unprecedented, and astonishingly, in most cases, the police lost the battle to the attackers.

Neither have the arrests of a few hundreds Jamaatis stopped the violence. Jamaat, which has grown over the years to become the most organized cadre-based party both in terms of its funding and structure, launched the offensive from November, continuing it into the nationally sensitive month of December. In the backdrop of sustained street violence, secular, pro-liberation forces are seriously concerned that if such violence in the name of democracy is not checked, it may emerge as a single biggest threat to country’s liberal polity and security. There have been calls for a ban on Jamaat, but there are concerns too that proscription might send the party underground, with more dangerous consequences.

The main opposition BNP has not condemned the actions of its Islamist ally. Rather, it has been providing vital support to Jamaat’s game plan, to the extent that even BNP sympathizers are concerned that the “poisonous weed” of Jamaat’s theocratic and medieval political and social agenda might ultimately eat up the very vitals of what remains of the party’s remaining liberalism.

Alongside the unrest for the release of those on trial, Bangladesh has been witness to a separate set of violent protests by BNP and Jamaat for restoration of the caretaker government system. Pro-government activists, such as the Awami League student wings, have only added to a volatile situation by taking it upon themselves to thwart the opposition protests.

A number of cases in the war crimes courts are awaiting verdict, but the trial process has come under an increasingly hostile campaign at home and abroad. The head of one tribunal stepped down on December 11 after a controversy over his leaked Skype conversations with an expatriate war crimes expert. The tribunal chief’s e-mail and Skype accounts were hacked and the private conversations were published by a pro-opposition newspaper. The resignation, just ahead of case judgments, came as a big shock to vast majority of people who want justice done, but were celebrated as a “victory” by the Jamaat and BNP.

A total of 10 accused — most are Jamaat leaders — are presently in the dock. Jamaat has reportedly deployed significant sums of money to influence the US policymakers against the war crimes trial. Law minister, Shafique Ahmed, alleged that the government has evidence to show that Jamaat has appointed lobbying firms in the U.S. and the U.K. to frustrate the trial. The minister alleged publicly that Mir Kashem Ali, a Jamaat leader now facing trial, and also the key person behind the fast growing Islamic Bank, as also the head of Jamaat’s media house, had paid $25 million to the U.S. lobbying firm Casadian Associates.

These challenges to the war crimes trials have, in one sense, reawakened the “pro-liberation” forces, making them aware that there is no room for complacency. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who sees a conspiracy to malign her government at home and abroad, has vowed to move ahead with the trial to fulfil a national obligation.

While the Hasina government can take credit for some unique achievements towards secularising Bangladesh and improving relations with India, some high profile scams, including alleged corruption in the Padma bridge construction, the high prices of essentials, and the bad image of some ministers and field level activists, have all seen its popularity come down. The opportunity is being utilised by those who want this government to collapse even ahead of the next election, so that the vital war crime trial suffers a setback. The scrapping of the caretaker government system, and the U.S. displeasure over the government’s treatment of the Nobel Laureate and Grameen Bank founder Muhammed Yunus have complicated the scenario for Prime Minister Sheikha Hasina.

It is to be hoped that the fast developing situation will not impede the landmark trial, vital for healing a deep national wound. The trial is not only crucial for Bangladesh, but also for the region. If it stalls, there is every possibility of a resurgence of religious extremism in Bangladesh that is bound to affect its neighbours. Born out of a national war fought against religious bigotries and military chauvinism, Bangladesh cannot allow on its soil the tragedies being experienced by Afghanistan and Pakistan.

First published in The Hindu, Chennai, India, December 24, 2012

Haroon Habib, is a journalist based in Bangladesh, news correspondent for The Hindu  and independence war veteran

Bangladesh – a tale of two women

Image Credit: ©Gulf New

While political parties may be on opposite sides of the spectrum, ultimately the will of the industrious people will move their country forward towards a singular goal of success

IT WOULD be difficult for an outsider today to imagine that underneath the surface, Bangladesh is dynamic and on the move forward. All that most of us are exposed to in the global press is the widespread poverty or calamities and disasters that rain on this country annually leaving many dead or missing.

To top it, there is the diversity in Bangladesh politics, the occasional strikes, and some issues that carry deep emotional scars from 41 years ago during the time of liberation. However, in as much Bangladesh exists as a functioning democracy, that is to be expected.

On the political arena, it would seem that the strong willed personality of the two key female figures in Bangladesh politics is etched in unyielding granite. Both are at odds with each other on just about every issue. As the country moves towards elections towards the end of next year, both these women are hedging for an advantage and verbal sparring is on the rise.

Leader of the opposition party, the BNP, and a former prime minister herself, Khaleda Zia is unquestionably the champion for those who resist the charms of the Awami League headed by Sheikh Hasina. Last week, in a direct verbal onslaught against the ruling party, Khaleda implored the freedom fighters of the country to ‘stage another fight to consolidate democracy and save it from fascist, repressive and corrupt governance.’

She was making these charges during a function honouring the freedom fighters by her party. She continued, “We have started our struggle against this repressive, killer, corrupt government regime. Come and stage another struggle to save the country. The fruits of spirit of independence will be achieved when the country will be freed from this subservient government.”

Alleging that the country was being treated as personal property in a direct and veiled attack on Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father of the nation, Khaleda charged that, “The country is not anyone’s paternal property; it won’t be allowed. It is time for the freedom fighters to wake up and stand against this government. The new generation will join you because they want development of the country; progress for the country.”

Khaleda hammered that “the government is not taking care of these problems of the people as they are engrossed in taking commission from different projects. The government itself and its relatives, ministers and MPs are thieves. All around the government are thieves.”

Sheikh Hasina, the current PM enjoys wide support among the growing youth of the country. The prime minister cautioned the military, her administration and the public against the covert activities of anti-liberation forces who seem to be delaying the progress of the nation with their subversive activities. She countered that caution should be exercised by her constituents against those seeking to promote their hidden agenda, and asked them to work ‘towards securing democracy, development, national independence and sovereignty.’

Referring to the rejection by the opposition to try those suspected of being collaborators during the nine-month siege against the people of Bangladesh just prior to its liberation, she said, “The anti-liberation forces are trying hard to raise their heads again; they are hatching conspiracies to foil the trial of the identified war criminals. They are on a destructive path discarding the democratic principles. Their conspiracies will continue. I urge the patriotic armed forces, civil administration and the people of the country to remain alert.” Sheikh Hasina made no bones of the fact that her government was successful on many fronts. She maintained that the present government has placed much emphasis on a strong and professional armed force that has been the generous recipient of an incremental budget increase for the last four years. Apart from strengthening the armed forces, Sheikh Hasina noted the developments with new medical facilities and upgraded educational institutions among other added benefits for armed forces members and their families.

There are challenges that face Bangladesh such as food, energy, international affairs and the environment which are generic for the 21st century, she said. “If any of these securities becomes vulnerable, national security will be endangered.” She expressed strong confidence in the people of Bangladesh to turn their country into a middle-income country by 2021.

It may appear that with this diversity in political vision and with parties often at odds with each other, driven undoubtedly by the personalities of their two female leaders, that such a vision may not be attainable.

But if one does indeed have any doubts, then a visit to the country will dispel all such uncertainties. The country is only 41 years old; it did suffer a traumatic birth. But the majority if its people are young and growing, and while that may be true of many other countries, one thing becomes apparent very quickly and that is that the people are not idle. They are hard working and productive and given that commitment, the country of Bangladesh will indeed be on the road to success.

While political parties or strong-willed women may be on opposite sides of the spectrum, it is the will of the industrious people of Bangladesh that will move their country forward towards a singular goal of success. In that endeavour, we wish them well.

First published in The Gulf News, Emirates, December 23, 2012

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in JeddahSaudi Arabia

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bangladesh Fire Raises Pressure to Improve Factory Safety

AP Photo: Labor groups say more than 500 people have died in Bangladesh factory fires since 2006. Above, garment workers in a factory outside of Dhaka

SYED ZAIN AL-MAHMOOD in Dhaka, KATHY CHU in Hong Kong and TRIPTI LAHIRI in New Delhi

THE BANGLADESH government, factory owners and foreign retailers are facing pressure from workers to overhaul workplace safety in the aftermath of last month's deadly factory fire.

More than 500 people have died in Bangladesh factory fires since 2006, according to estimates by labor groups. The late-November fire in the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory that killed 112 people, the country's worst industrial accident, was a tipping point.

Garment workers have clashed with police weekly in Ashulia, the northern industrial suburb of Dhaka where Tazreen is located, demanding compensation for victims' families and safer working conditions. Pressure is mounting on big buyers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Hennes & Mauritz AB to tighten systems for monitoring factory safety in Bangladesh.

Fearing social unrest and lost orders, Bangladesh's government is promising action. The stakes are large. The country exported $19 billion in garments last year, second only to China, according to government reports. A recent report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimated that the figure could double in less than a decade.

"The prime minister has ordered us to make sure this never happens again," said Mikail Shiper, an official in Bangladesh's labor ministry. Authorities have begun to review the nation's 5,000 registered garment factories and will rescind permits from those that fail safety evaluations, Mr. Shiper said. The government also is looking to install more fire hydrants in industrial areas, he said.

Skeptics have said Bangladesh's niche as among the world's least-expensive place to make clothing—the minimum wage for garment workers is less than $37 a month—is an obstacle to progress. The country's economy in recent years has been propelled by churning out low-cost garments for the West, which labor groups said has come at the cost of worker safety.

As foreign retailers slash prices to attract shoppers, Bangladeshi factories have to produce for less. A Bangladeshi supplier said prices retailers pay for clothes had fallen 3% in the past five years, while production costs had increased 10%.

"It's hard to continue to improve factory compliance and safety when there's ever-increasing downward pressure on the prices that global retailers are willing to pay," said Ifty Islam, managing partner at Asian Tiger Capital Partners, a Dhaka-based asset-management company.

Pierre Börjesson, the sustainability manager for social issues at fashion retailer H&M, said his company does its own safety inspections in Bangladesh, rather than rely on third parties, as many retailers do. H&M, the largest buyer from Bangladesh by volume, has conducted more than 500 inspections at about 200 Bangladesh factories this year, he said.

"The absolute root cause of fires in Bangladesh factories is the electrical situation," Mr. Börjesson said. Fire-safety authorities need to increase safety standards for electrical wiring, for new as well as old structures, he said.

Labor groups said factory owners, a number of whom sit in Parliament, have blocked efforts to improve working conditions and have sought to ensure that a ban on unionization in garment factories remains in place.

"When we spoke up, we had our [nongovernmental organization] license revoked," said Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. She said the organization has applied to have its license renewed.

Factory owners this year resisted an order from the fire department to dismantle unauthorized rooftop tin structures, according to Ashulia fire inspector Mahbub Hossain. He said fire officials changed the order to allow such structures on three-quarters of a roof, after owners complained they needed the structures for workers' dining areas.

Manufacturers said they improved workplace conditions in recent years, spurred by demands from foreign buyers. "A minority of factories give us a bad name," said Shahriar Alam, a member of Parliament and the managing director of Renaissance Group Ltd., a large Dhaka-based garment manufacturer.

Pressure from retailers has helped improve some working conditions, including the near eradication of child labor in the garment industry, workers' groups acknowledged. But labor activists said about five new factories open each month to meet rising demand, making it difficult for Western retailers to keep tabs on where their clothes are coming from.

About 70% of Bangladeshi factories comply with the country's labor and safety standards, said Belal Hossain, a senior official with Bangladesh's labor directorate. "Compliance is going up," he said. "But the rise in the number of compliant factories is still behind the curve when matched against the volume of orders."

Retailers often rely on third-party suppliers to get garments made. The suppliers are supposed to ensure that items come only from factories that pass regular inspections for safety and working conditions, carried out by global auditing firms.

Wal-Mart disputed that there aren't enough auditors but said it is looking for ways to strengthen its system to avoid subcontractors using factories without the retailer's authority.

"We can put all kinds of controls in place, but if they don't tell us where they're putting our order, then that is a problem" said Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner. "The lack of transparency down the supply chain represents a challenge not just for Wal-Mart, but for the industry overall."

Tazreen, the site of last month's fire, supplied clothes to Wal-Mart and other companies after failing audits. Wal-Mart said after the fire that suppliers did business with the factory without authorization and that Wal-Mart has stopped using the suppliers. Tuba Group, Tazreen's parent, said it wasn't aware that the factory had been deauthorized.

The fire is likely to push retailers to buy more of their goods directly from factories, rather than through suppliers, and to conduct more of their own audits, said Rubana Huq, managing director of Mohammadi Group, a Bangladeshi garment manufacturer. "We are already experiencing retailers tightening their audit processes through their local offices," she said.

—Shelly Banjo contributed to this article.

First appeared in The Wall Street Journal, December 15, 2012