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Sunday, July 06, 2014

In Bangladesh, the Steady Pursuit of Justice and Freedom

Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center (third from right), with Grameen Bank members.
Last week, at the invitation of my friend Muhammad Yunus, I traveled to Bangladesh, a truly humbling and inspiring experience. I met so many incredible people struggling to improve their country and their lives. I wrote a letter to my daughters about my travels, which follows:

Dear Cara, Mariah and Michaela,

Visiting Bangladesh has been a lifelong dream of mine, but all that I had heard about a people who love freedom so much that they have withstood great armies, famine and intractable poverty could not prepare me for what I've seen in the last three days. 

The Bengali patriots' courage and endurance in the face of the Pakistani army forty years ago is the stuff of legend in our family. I remember your Great Uncle Teddy telling us about his visit to the Calcutta refugee camps, where tens of thousands lived not in tents but in sewer pipes. The people in these camps had fled the mass killings -- some would say genocide -- that the United States had failed to stop, as the Nixon Administration's official policy was to choose our relationship with Pakistan over those who shared our love of freedom. Great Uncle Teddy promised to return when the country gained independence, and a few months later, he and Uncle Joe were among the first international visitors to the newborn country of Bangladesh.

Given what I'd heard from Uncle Teddy, I suppose I should not have been surprised by the inspiring people that my colleague Lydia Allen and I met in Bangladesh, people who endure extreme hardship for the freedom that they love and that they demand for their country.

In a small wooden room packed with women in bright saris, we met a proud shareholder of the Grameen Bank -- the transformative microlending institution founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus -- who borrowed 5,000 taka (about $80) and bought a rickshaw, and then 20,000 taka ($240) and bought a cow, and then 30,000 taka ($480) and bought land. Thanks to her hard work and the Grameen Bank, she now has a house full of furniture, a field full of food, water, a working toilet, and a television set. She saves 100 taka per month, and this year she will receive 100,000 taka ($750) from her savings.

We met a store owner and her husband, who borrowed from Grameen to buy solar panels, which have allowed them to expand their storefront and provide light to the brick house they share with three siblings and their in-laws. 

We met a young woman on a Grameen scholarship who will be the first woman in her family to go to college. She is majoring in computer science and plans to start a business in the IT sector that will transform her neighborhood.

We met ten women who sit on the board of the Grameen Bank, borrowers all. They're angry at the government and concerned for the future of the bank. The government recently ousted Dr. Yunus from the board of his own bank on the pretense that he had overstayed the mandatory retirement age of sixty. Then, finding no other legal way to do so, the government cajoled the rubber-stamp Parliament to change a banking law for the specific purpose of ousting the impoverished women from the Grameen board and replacing them with ruling party toadies, who, the women fear, will transform the multibillion-dollar bank that has helped so many escape poverty into just another slush fund for kleptocrats to draw upon. 

We met a dozen women, many of them lawyers, all of them leaders of NGOs that address pressing issues like indigenous rights, due process of law, violence against women, dowry battles, rape, and environmental justice. Many have been arrested, and many live under daily threat. One said her husband had been "disappeared" in apparent retaliation for her work. They are scared of the nation's security forces, which are known for kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial executions. And yet they wake up in the morning, kiss their children and their husbands, and return to work, a daily show of quiet courage.

We met a woman who worked at the collapsed Rana Plaza sweatshop who said she never wants to work in the apparel industry again. I met another who said the same thing, but added, "But we are poor, and we must work."

They were among a crowd lining the hallway and sitting at intake tables at the offices of the Rana Plaza Claims Administration, the nonprofit group charged with addressing reparations for the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse. It is an impressive operation, manned by a team of dedicated professionals in labor, law and computer science, intent on making payouts to every single victim for physical and psychological injuries and to the scores of dependents who lost the family breadwinner in the tragedy. They have $17 million to hand out, and calculate the need will be closer to $40 million, but the fund is voluntary and no law compels the brands to pay their fair share. While some have been generous, too many others have refused to participate, because no law compels them to do so.

We met U.S. Ambassador Dan Mozena, a man singularly committed to advancing U.S. interests abroad by protecting basic rights and increasing the prosperity of the people of Bangladesh. He invited me to visit the Edward M. Kennedy Center and the Ted Cafe, a gathering place created by the embassy for NGOs to meet and speak in safety, and for young people to learn about our country. 

Michaela, the book shelf of one entire room was jammed with SAT prep books, looking all too familiar. Thanks to Ambassador Mozena, you will have plenty of competition from young Bangladeshis as you apply for college, determined to gain an education at U.S. schools, and return to their homeland with new hope for the future.

We met Adil Rahman Khan, who has organized a team of 400-plus human rights monitors and defenders across the country to investigate and report on violations of voting rights; on crackdowns on free speech and assembly; and on torture, extrajudicial execution, disappearances, and more--holding the government accountable for its failures to protect the freedom that the Bangladeshi people won at such great cost 40 years ago. Adil seeks accountability in a country where 197 anti-corruption officers are presently under investigation for corruption themselves. For his actions, Adil lives under a constant threat of death. Last year, after issuing a report documenting a massacre by government forces of 61 protestors, he was taken away and held without trial for 62 days in a filthy cell, ridden with bedbugs and rotten food.

How proud Uncle Teddy would be to know that this man, who personifies all the values that Teddy and Grandpa Bobby so admired, will receive the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award later this year.

And, of course, we met with my dear friend Dr. Yunus. He invited us to come to Dhaka for Social Business Day, where people from scores of countries across the globe gathered to share their designs and experiences with creating businesses which seek not profits for shareholders but solutions to problems like housing or food access.

You were still in diapers when Dr. Yunus came to our home nearly 15 years ago and I interviewed him for my book Speak Truth to Power. I have always been struck by the sense of peace and joy he conveys in the many lectures I have since seen him deliver. But I never appreciated how incredible that was until I saw him in Bangladesh. He is under unremitting pressure from a government that seeks to destroy all he has given his life to build. And yet he endures, and invites us to somehow find peace amidst the chaos in our lives and find our joy through service. His steady bearing reminded me of these lines from Rudyard Kipling's poem "If":

"If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
If you can watch the things you gave your life for, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools...

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings -- nor lose the common touch...

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it..."

By this measure, Dr. Yunus has achieved the world.

What an amazing place, what an amazing country. As we in America celebrate our own Independence Day this week, I hope we can take inspiration from the people of Bangladesh and rededicate ourselves to democracy and freedom, knowing that the price may be high, but the sacrifice is well worthwhile.


First published in The Huffington Post, July 7, 2014
Kerry Kennedy is President of Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Bangladesh’s Rotten-Mango Crisis


As an apprentice anthropologist, I once had the misfortune of attempting to converse with the Indian critical theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Professor Spivak, who translated the work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and wrote the famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was visiting Dhaka, Bangladesh, and I went to meet her. After patiently listening while I asked a series of dumb questions about discursive practice, she turned and said, cryptically, “I came for the mangoes.”

Ah, the mango. It may be a cliché pitfall for the South Asian writer, but for this academic, famous for her impenetrable prose, the mango brought the esoteric down to earth. Ms. Spivak is regarded as one of the great minds of her generation, but in Dhaka, she was, like everyone else, there for the mangoes.

In Bangladesh, the obsession with the mango comes from its evanescence. The fruit’s intense seasonality means that even the more prosaic varieties are available for only a few weeks of the summer. The most prized is the langra: Its floral, slightly sour flavor is more complex than the overly sweet chaunsa or Alphonso mangoes. Aficionados love the langra in part because it is almost impossible to catch at its peak — too green and your tongue will swell and itch; a few hours late and its flesh turns to mush.

But this year, the langra is nowhere to be found. The markets are empty of the sought-after mango.

On the roads that lead into Dhaka, the precious fruit lies rotting by the truckload. The reason: chemical poisoning. The langras are said to be contaminated with formalin, a strong solution of formaldehyde that is sprayed on the fruit in an effort to extend its life. The government responded by setting up checkpoints on the roads to the city.

It isn't just the mangoes. Earlier this year, the Institute of Public Health found that 47 of 50 food items tested were adulterated. Formalin is used to preserve both fruit and fish. Turmeric has been found tainted with lead. Since June 18, the police have set up mobile formalin-detection units, confiscating thousands of tons of locally produced and imported fruit.

The fruit industry is up in arms, claiming that the police are using faulty devices and crippling the industry. Last week, the fruit sellers’ association went on strike, and their produce rotted in the warehouses of the port city of Chittagong. In the weeks leading up to the month of Ramadan, the tussle has been fierce, with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations taking place across Dhaka. And the langra has vanished.

The practice of spraying fruit with formalin is one problem, but more worrying is that the entire food chain is compromised — the soil itself contaminated by toxins that are almost impossible to eradicate. Bangladesh was born in the shadow of famine, and since independence in 1971, a series of government measures have put increasing pressure on farmers to keep the rice yields increasing every year. This has meant exploiting the land to its limits: intensive farming, extensive irrigation and the unchecked use of groundwater.

A result is that Bangladesh has made great strides in becoming self-sufficient in food, tripling rice yields in 40 years: In 1970, the rice crop was 0.76 tons per acre; in 2012, it was 1.9 tons. The increase is the result of using high-yield, short-duration varieties, which require the greater application of fertilizers and a huge increase in irrigation. In the last 30 years, the use of fertilizers has grown by 400 percent, and pesticides have been widely overused. And as the water table gets lower, the salinity increases and contaminants like arsenic leach into wells that provide drinking water. The land has borne the cost of our need to climb out of famine.

Dhaka’s brouhaha over contaminated fruit speaks to a growing chasm between the urban and the rural. This broken, congested city is where we have placed all our hopes for a better Bangladesh. The capital is where you will find the budding start-ups, the English-speaking college graduates, the cellphone users, the social networkers — all the engines of economic growth. And as we become more removed from the traditional modes of food production, the agricultural hinterland is being treated as nothing more than the food source for a hungry city.

The great irony here is that Bangladeshis romanticize the rural. The greatest compliment you can pay a Bangladeshi is to say she is “matir manush,” a person of the earth. The country, as the American anthropologist James Ferguson put it, provides “alternative moral images,” a counterpoint to the complexities — the allure, as well as the danger — of rapid urbanization. The rural continues to act as a repository of our fantasies about national identity; it is a favorite subject of every cultural artifact, from poetry to contemporary art. Our touchstone is Rabindranath Tagore, the great bard of the pastoral in Bengali literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But when we place checkpoints on the roads into our city, we are saying that we care only if urban citizens are poisoned; we couldn’t care less if the contaminated fruit is consumed outside of Dhaka. Ms. Spivak may have used the mango as a way to express her rootedness, but a taste for mangoes reveals a person to be among the few who can afford to consume them.

The truth is, the fruit is grown by the rural poor and fed to the urban rich. To keep the city sated with mangoes, the crop must be abundant and it must be beautiful. And for that to happen, formalin must be involved.

As Ramadan approached and the langra disappeared, the fruit sellers and the state came to an agreement. The fruit sellers would end their strike so that the population could sit down to its dates and apples after a long day of fasting; the police agreed to look into obtaining new devices to test the levels of formalin in fruit.

Unless, however, we think critically about the moral economy of food, about sustainability as well as growth, our food will remain tainted. If the rationality of urbanism — the city as the treasured engine of growth, the country merely its fodder — continues to dominate, we will merely be polishing the surface of a slowly rotting core.

First published in The International New York Times, July 2, 2014
Tahmima Anam, a writer and anthropologist, is the author of the novel “A Golden Age.”

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Bangladesh Arms Trafficking: Residual Networks

Veronica Khangchian

In perhaps, the single biggest arms seizure since the April 2, 2004, Chittagong arms haul case where 10 truckloads of weapons had been seized, a huge arms cache was recovered by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) of Bangladesh, over several days, from the Satchari National Park in the Chunarughat Sub-District of the Habiganj District in Bangladesh, adjoining the West Tripura District in the Indian State of Tripura. Officials disclosed that they recovered 184 rocket shells (40mm) and 153 chargers for rocket launchers abandoned inside one bunker on a hillock in the reserve forest, some 130 kilometers from the capital, Dhaka, during the raid on June 3, 2014. Another six more empty bunkers were located on the same day. On June 4, the RAB found another two bunkers and recovered 38 rocket shells, four machine guns, 95 rocket chargers, 1,300 rounds of machine gun ammunition, and over 13,000 bullets of different calibres. RAB recovered more arms and ammunition, including four machine guns in a bunker on June 8, and also found oil used for cleaning firearms. Another two empty bunkers were also located. As it resumed a search operation deep into the reserve forest on the eight consecutive day, RAB made additional recoveries, including one machine gun barrel, 633 rounds of ammunition, and 54 anti-tank shells, from three newly discovered bunkers, on June 9.

The area from where the arms were recovered was once the base camp of the now-defunct Indian insurgent outfit, the Tripura-based All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF). The camp was later captured by insurgents belonging to the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT). The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), with its principal theatre of operations in the Indian State of Assam, abutting Tripura, and ATTF had earlier smuggled a huge quantity of Chinese-made weapons from the Southeast Asian grey market by sea, landed them around Cox's Bazar or Chittagong, and transported these to rebel bases such as Satchari, from where arms were smuggled into India's troubled northeast.

However, some confusion prevails over the present recoveries. Indian security agencies are yet to ascertain whether these belong to any militant outfit active in India's Northeast. Media reports have speculated on the distant possibility of ULFA 'chief' Paresh Baruah asking ATTF to store the weapons in its one-time bases, and this cannot be ruled out. Reports also indicate that ATTF leader, Ranjit Debbarma (now in Tripura jail), who had close ties with Paresh Baruah, had stocked the cache in collaboration with ULFA militants. A June 4 media report suggested that the arms and ammunition belonged to ULFA leader Baruah. Information gleaned by Indian intelligence agencies from Debbarma, and provided to Bangladesh authorities, led to the recovery of the ammunition on June 3, three kilometers off the border. According to the report, arms smuggled from China by Baruah were kept in the Satchari Forest and were sent to Indian militants at opportune moments.

However, Bangladesh State Minister for Home, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, asserted that the haul was based on intelligence collected by local Bangladesh agencies. RAB Media Wing Director Habibur Rahman added that the arms and ammunition recovered in the Satchari Forest were apparently similar to those recovered in Chittagong in 2004, and to a truckload of ammunition recovered at Bogra in June 2003.  It is significant, moreover, that investigators of the Bogra ammunition haul had determined that the ammunition was bound for the Satchari Forest, and had also confirmed its linkages with NLFT and ULFA.

Earlier, a Bangladesh Court had arrived at a significant verdict in the Chittagong arms haul case, nearly 10 years after the incident. On January 30, 2014, a Chittagong District Court awarded the death penalty to 14 accused, including Motiur Rahman Nizami, Ameer (chief) of the Jamaat-e-Islami (Jel), Lutfozzaman Babar of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the then Minister of State for Home, and ULFA-I 'commander-in-chief' Paresh Baruah (in absentia), for smuggling 10 truckloads of arms into Chittagong District in 2004, during the tenure of the BNP-led Government. Investigations revealed that the weapons were manufactured in China and were being shipped to ULFA. The condemned also include former Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) Director Major General (Retd) Rezzakul Haider Chowdhury; former Director General of National Security Intelligence (NSI) Brigadier General (Retd) Abdur Rahim; and three other NSI officials – Director (Security) Wing Commander Shahab Uddin Ahmed; Deputy Director Major (Retd) Liakat Hossain; and Field Officer Akbar Hossain Khan. Others awarded the death penalty in the case are former Additional Secretary (Industry) Nurul Amin; the then Chittagong Urea Fertilizer Ltd. (CUFL) Managing Director Mahsin Uddin Talukder; CUFL General Manager (Administration) K.M. Enamul Hoque; and three businessmen, Hafizur Rahman Hafiz, Deen Mohammad and Haji Abdus Subhan.

In the initial stages of the trial, which commenced in 2005, only some small fry, mostly labourers, truckers and trawler drivers, were implicated, leaving out the big shots as the then BNP-led Government allegedly tried to cover up the involvement of the state machinery, including its Ministers and high officials of intelligence agencies. However, after an Army-backed caretaker Government took charge on January 11, 2007, ahead of the country’s General Elections, the Court of Chittagong Metropolitan Judge ordered further investigations on February 14, 2008. In June 2011, Muniruzzaman Chowdhury, Senior Assistant Superintendent of Criminal Investigation Department, submitted two supplementary charge-sheets, accusing 11 new suspects. While Paresh Barua and former Secretary of the Industries Ministry, Nurul Amin, have been absconding ever since the recovery of the arms, the other nine are behind bars. Baruah and Amin were sentenced in absentia. The verdict of the Special Tribunal observed that the role of the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia in the incident was 'mysterious', and pointed to the direct involvement of then Ministers and top military and civil officials. Judge S.M. Mojibur Rahman also argued that the smuggling of such a huge volume of weapons and ammunition was not possible without Government support, and noted, “They [the intelligence officials] were involved in the conspiracy to destroy the entire nation by putting the country’s existence at stake.”

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has now promised separate investigations into the role of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her party (BNP) in the Chittagong arms haul case, declaring, ‘The trial of 10 truckloads of arms haul is over. We will now probe afresh the conspiracies behind it, from where the arms came, how it was brought to Bangladesh and who had funded it." The Prime Minister added that Bangladesh had become hotbed of activities of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in August 1975.

Analysts note that the death sentence awarded to Paresh Barua will have little impact on the outfit as Barua and most of his cadres have already shifted base out of Bangladesh. Intelligence officials in Assam, however, feel that the elusive insurgent leader will be under greater pressure to come forward for talks, should Myanmar act as Bangladesh did, and evict insurgents from India's north-east, including Barua and his cadres, from its soil. The Assam Police have intelligence inputs that Barua is currently operating out of his base along the Myanmar-China border. Officials in Bangladesh argue that the death sentence would at least ensure that Baruah would not be able to enter Bangladesh without the court’s intervention.

Significantly, the verdict comes at a time when ULFA-I is facing a crisis. Sources indicate that not more than 10 hardcore members of the outfit are inside Assam, and that the group has no more than 180 cadres in camps in Myanmar. Senior leaders who were in the Mon District of Nagaland have been called back to Myanmar after the outfit awarded the death sentence to 'operational commander' Pramod Gogoi alias Partha Pratim Asom. On March 16, 2014 [the party's 'Army Day'], ULFA-I asked its members to re-strengthen the outfit, fearing that certain members had a nexus with the SFs. At least eight ULFA-I cadres, including Pramod Gogoi, were executed on the instructions of ULFA-I's 'commander-in-chief', Paresh Baruah, for 'conspiring’ with Police and Security Forces to engineer a mass surrender of cadres over the preceding four months. Seven cadres had also been executed in December 2013, while they were trying to flee the Myanmar base to surrender to the Police. 'Operational commander' Pramod Gogoi was executed on January 15, 2014 in the Mon District. ULFA-I is said to have a total of around 240 cadres at present.

Significantly, the Goalpara Police recovered a stock of ammunition and detonators from ULFA-I along the Assam-Meghalaya border in the Goalpara District on January 27, 2014. The Police disclosed that a group of ULFA-I militants had entered Hatigaon, a village under the Agia Police Station, with arms and explosive materials, which they stored inside a rubber plantation. Goalpara Superintendent of Police (SP) Nitul Gogoi stated, “We got the information that a group under the leadership of Drishti Rajkhowa brought the ammunition from Bangladesh.”
Coordination between the Meghalaya based Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), one of the biggest procurers of arms in Meghalaya, and ULFA-I, remains a concern. In the latest incident, on June 26, 2014, a militant identified as Dharma Kanta Rai, who was on ‘deputation’ from the ULFA-I to the GNLA, was killed during a rescue operation mounted by West Garo Hills Police at Darekgre near Rongmasugre village in West Garo Hills District, to free four abducted persons from the GNLA and ULFA. The abductions had been carried out on June 25 from Kantanagre village in West Garo Hills District. The deceased ULFA-I cadre was reportedly an improvised explosive device (IED) expert, used by GNLA to target Police movements.

Worryingly, media reports indicate that a large proportion of weapons and ammunition that reach the mushrooming in Meghalaya, are from the armory of insurgent groups presently engaged in peace parleys with the Government. These groups include the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the pro-talks faction of ULFA (ULFA-PTF). According to sources, these frontline militant outfits never divulged the exact composition of their arsenal and, according to one source, “80 to 90 per cent of these arms lie unused for five to six years and just before their life span lapses, these militant groups prefer to dispose of these weapons.”

Further, despite dramatically improving relations between India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), Northeast insurgent groups continue to maintain some 45 hideouts in Bangladesh, mostly belonging to ATTF and NLFT (21 camps), according to BSF Special Director General B.D. Sharma. He added, on June 20, that the insurgents could not be fully wiped out from Bangladesh soil because deployment of BGB was thin compared to requirements, and that, “They are now raising new forces and we hope that the situation would improve soon. Besides, the terrain and riverine border also come in the way of maintaining effective border vigil.” However, Mohammed Latiful Haider, Additional Director General, BGB, has denied the existence of any camps of Indian militant outfits in the country. The denial came on June 25, after the first day of a border coordination conference held between senior BSF and BGB officials at Kadamtala, at BSF North Bengal Frontier Headquarters near Siliguri, under the Darjeeling District of West Bengal.

Bangladesh has now clearly declared that it would not allow its territory to be used against India. The assurance, reiterated to Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on her first foreign visit on June 26, 2014, came as the External Affairs Minister promised to put extra energy into bilateral ties. Swaraj stated that New Delhi sought a comprehensive and equitable partnership with Bangladesh for a secure and prosperous South Asia.  With recent developments, and agreed cooperation between India and Bangladesh, a further significant improvement can be hoped for.

First published South Asia Intelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 12, No. 52, June 30, 2014

Veronica Khangchian is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management