Friday, September 23, 2011

Political Bloodbath Looming In Bangladesh

Judging from the controversial actions being carried out by the government and the reactions of the opposition, most observers believe another period of political turmoil is looming in Bangladesh. The outcome of such turmoil would be anybody’s guess at this point.Anyone who follows events in Bangladesh knows all too well that the country is now pretty much captive to two dynastic families for its politics or governance. Since 1991, state governing power in the country has been alternating between these two families. In a country not known for equality between the sexes, both families are now headed by women who have for all practical purposes remained each other’s sworn enemy.

One of the women, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the current Prime Minister, is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the supreme leader who led the country to the liberation war against Pakistan in 1971. The other, Begum Khaleda Zia, the present Opposition Leader, is the widow of Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the renowned freedom fighter in that same war. Both Mujib and Zia later ruled Bangladesh. Their periods of iron fisted rule were surrounded by many controversies and ended in their murder while in office. Yet, the power vacuums that followed their respective assassinations prompted their die-hard followers to help establish the present family dynastic rule by elevating the two women political novices, the leaders’ heirs apparent, to the leadership positions of their personal parties – Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The two ladies in turn seized the opportunities to consolidate power and assume autocratic rule within their parties.

After the end of dictatorial rule in Bangladesh in 1990, the two ladies alternated state power for an almost equal number of terms. Both of their administrations were, however, marked by huge irregularities. They tolerated the massive corruption and the injustices inflicted by their party members and supporters. This has resulted in the creation of a widening wealth divide in the country with more people falling below the poverty line. Their human rights violations were equally appalling. According to Amnesty International, the special police force, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), established in 2004 has been implicated in the killing of at least 700 people despite repeated pledges by both ladies to end extrajudicial killings.

The grass root support or popularity of both parties seems equal, and neither party was strong enough to grab state power all by itself. So they both enlisted the support of a junior partner, namely the Jamaate Islami Party, at one time or another. When Khaleda Zia was last in power with such alliance, she maneuvered things to put down the opposition and bolster her own re-election prospects. The opposition led by Sheikh Hasina resorted to agitation, leading to political turmoil in 2006. The army promptly took advantage of such turmoil by seizing power in early 2007 under the guise of a care-taker government system that the feuding parties had earlier established for conducting national elections, and ruled for two years.

Given the ferocity of the turmoil preceding the military takeover, the army backed care-taker government enjoyed rare popular support at the time. Hopes were also raised when it swiftly initiated vital democratic reforms in the organization and regulation of political parties, election rules, power decentralization and judicial independence. But sadly such valiant efforts all ended in utter failure. The army backed unelected government gave in to tremendous pressures from both inside and outside. After arranging an election, it handed over power to Sheikh Hasina, who had won the election.

The opposition rejected the election result claiming it was conveniently manipulated and influenced by neighboring India. This claim has since been backed by an article appeared in The Economist on July 30, 2011. The opposition’s argument that Sheikh Hasina has made secret deals with India is also gaining considerable traction after the article detailed the benefits that India would extract from its cozy relation with Bangladesh. In rebuffing the gain that Bangladesh could expect in exchange for the transit facilities for India, the opposition reminds people about the water sharing fiasco that India has indeed created for Bangladesh.

Additionally, Sheikh Hasina is seen to be more interested in using her current parliamentary mandate to find a way to extend her rule by suppressing or eliminating the present or perceived opposition than to properly address the many critical problems facing the nation. These problems are, run-away inflation especially for staple foods, acute gas and electricity shortages, crises with regard to infrastructure, unemployment, rising crime rates, police brutality, campus riots, rampant corruption, and an ongoing stock market scandal.

But to ensure her firm grip on power and to prevent any kind of dissent in her own party, Sheikh Hasina surrounded herself only with loyalists by eliminating the moderate and independent party stalwarts from decision making. All vital decisions in the country, including judicial judgments, must now meet with her approval.

In a clear effort to reduce the power of her nemesis, Khaleda Zia, corruption charges were recently filed against her. Her two sons, who live in exile, were also indicted earlier on similar grounds by the Hasina administration. The charges against them may well be true and the people have the right to know the truth, but they are not at all sitting well with the BNP supporters. Besides, an amendment to the constitution to do away with the earlier agreed upon system of care-taker administrations to oversee elections has been enacted unilaterally. This act was even taken contrary to the wishes of Hasina appointed Supreme Court, which though ruled against the care-taker government system, opined that it should be slowly phased out. In any event, no one expects the opposition to accept such a unilateral change to the constitution for fear of election manipulation.

Sheikh Hasina commissioned a controversial tribunal, which is to begin shortly the trial of the alleged war-crimes during the war of independence of some 40 years ago. The accused are being deprived of any legal help from outside the country. Oddly, her father with his enormous power didn’t envision such a disruptive and unsettling trial. Her apparent target is to wrestle the opposition forces of Jamaate Islami. Although she is trying to justify her action on ground of controlling fundamentalism, many countries including the U.S. have expressed reservations about this trial. She remains unfazed.

She stripped Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus from his position in the Grameen Bank, which he had founded to promote micro-credit among the rural poor, by using trumped-up charges and his age. She did this without even waiting for the investigation report that she had ordered, which later cleared him of any wrong doing. His obvious crime was that he was becoming too popular. Prof. Yunus’s popularity was casting a shadow over Sheikh Hasina’s plan to make her father “the greatest Bengali of the millennium”, and at the same time making him a potential rival in future elections.

These actions clearly epitomize Bangladeshi politics, where such personal vendetta has time and again overtaken national interests! As personal vengeance has now become more fierce and intense, the situation is getting even more precarious day by day.

Currently, there are four major players in Bangladesh politics, and each holds substantial power. They are: the two parties that the two ladies lead and control, the Islamist group of which Jamaate Islami Party is a part of, and finally the army. Given the intensity and scope of the present conflict, the ensuing power struggle is thus likely to turn ugly.

The actions of Hasina’s administration are clearly on collision course, and the response by the aggressive opposition, led by Khaleda Zia, is equally stern. The Islamist group itself is a very formidable force. It has demonstrated its strength in 2005 by successfully exploding over 400 bombs in 300 locations and claiming the lives of judges, lawyers and policemen with their suicide attackers. The group has also been implicated in the notorious grenade attack in 2004 on the rally of the then opposition leader Sheikh Hasina. Though she survived, the attack took the lives of 22 people including the wife of the country’s current President. As to the army, it has so far seized state power on three occasions, the latest one being in 2007.
Democracy was never given a chance to flourish in Bangladesh. Its system of governance, including the army rule, was centered and built on individual leadership cult. It has since given birth to the dual family dynastic rules. The existing system may at best be termed as democratic authoritarianism in which the country seems to be locked in for now.

If the country’s past violent history and the present realities of the Middle East are any guide, the family dynastic rules in Bangladesh will only bring more chaos and confusion where neither democracy nor economy would get a chance to prosper. Yet, with such a well perceived gloomy outlook, no one expects a change in the key players’ stance on any crucial issue. So the world must wait to see what the next political turmoil brings to Bangladesh!

BY : Mahfuz R. Chowdhury.