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Bangladesh: journey of fear towards an uncertain future

The two large parties in Bangladesh have already turned to the worst sort of dynastic politics. At the same time, Islamist influences and left wing groups are becoming ever more involved with the dominant political forces. Alongside this, parliament has become totally ineffective

The Arab Spring has brought the issue of constitutional rights, and their violation, to the fore in Egypt, Tunisia, and most recently in Syria. Now this problem is affecting a country further East, Bangladesh, for the first time since it gained independence. Bangladesh’s ruling party, Awami League, claims to espouse Abraham Lincoln’s vision of government for, by and of the people, but has instead shown the worst face of autocratic leadership. It has used its own party hooligans as enforcers and made the capital Dhaka into a dangerous place.

The government has also imposed restrictions on all electronic media and used its intelligence forces to hinder the broadcasting of a major speech by the Leader of the Opposition. He had addressed a mammoth rally of at least five hundred thousand people, gathered to express their frustration and anger at a series of failures by the government. Three private television channels were switched off by the intelligence agencies without any prior notice simply because these channels were broadcasting footage of the rally in Dhaka. Through these actions, which violate articles 36 and 37 of the Bangladeshi constitution, the Awani League has finally revealed itself as an opponent of the people.

Following these incidents on March 12 of this year, Mahfuz Anam, a respected journalist and editor of The Daily Star, wrote a front page editorial expressing anger over these violations of rights of the country’s citizens. In an article titled “Awami League’s Moral Defeat”, he wrote: 

“When does a government strangulate its capital city by preventing almost all modes of transport from reaching it? When does a government bring to a virtual halt almost all internal city movements? When does a government create such a panicky situation that traders do not open shops out of fear of vandalism? When does a government prevent its own citizens from carrying out their day to day activities? When do government leaders tell blatant lies on television while the truth is clearly the opposite? When does a ruling party let loose its goons upon normal citizens on suspicion that they might attend the opposition rally? When does an elected government adopt the most oppressive measure to prevent the opposition from holding a public rally?” 

He continued: 

“Only when it is unsure of itself. A party confident of its popular base, sure of its public support, certain of the efficacy of its policies and surefooted about its public record would never have done what the ruling Awami League did yesterday to prevent the BNP from holding its public rally. What the ruling party did over the last two days to prevent mass participation in the opposition rally reveals a political party frightened of the strength of the opposition and loath to allow it to show it. In its massive show of strength the Awami League looked its weakest.”

Return of the hartal ghost to a troubled economy 

While journalists, think tanks, other members of civil society and the general populace are angered at the hostility of the ruling party towards the citizens of the country, they are also unhappy with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party [BNP] and its coalition partners for calling a general strike on March 29. General strikes, known as hartal, are the most disruptive and destructive activities undertaken by opposition parties in Bangladesh. When the Awami League was in opposition, it also followed the same route of calling regular hartals day-after-day, causing tremendous damage to the country’s economy in the process. 

It is worth noting that the Bangladeshi economy is in a worse state than it has been for several years, due to a major decrease in foreign exchange earnings as well as a lack of foreign investment in the country caused by an acute power crisis. The current government has totally failed to cope with the power shortage in the country over three and half years, and has not delivered on the specific promises made in its electoral manifesto made before winning a landslide victory. (Opposition parties have always rejected this huge victory, saying the election was ‘engineered’ by the policymakers of the military controlled interim regime, which now evidently enjoys a cosy relationship with the ruling party.) 

Even the foreigners are not safe 

For the duration of the current government’s administration, the law and order situation in the country has gone from bad to worse. Incidences of campus violence perpetrated by the ruling party’s student front, extortion, abduction, murder, extra-judicial killing, rape, oppression of religious minorities, and harassment of citizens have each surpassed all previous records. In one recent incident, the ruling party failed on all counts to properly investigate the murder of a journalist couple in Dhaka. Though the Home Minister and the Prime Minister repeatedly made commitments to investigate the case fully, there have in reality been no developments, which has already forced the journalistic community in Bangladesh to unite in demanding an investigation aimed at targeting the perpetrators. It was rumoured in the media that influential members of society were behind this brutal murder, with the blessing of the ruling party.

The worst insight into the country’s current law and order situation came to light when a Saudi diplomat was murdered in the diplomatic enclave in the capital city. Khalaf bin Mohammed Salem al-Ali (45), was killed by unidentified gunmen during the late hours of March 5, 2012. This is the first time in the history of the country that a foreign diplomat has been killed in the capital. Referring to the diplomat’s killing, opposition chief Khaleda Zia once again claimed that the law and order situation in the country is in a bad way. "The country is in a very precarious condition today. The lives and properties of the people are not safe. There is no security at our homes or outside. Even the foreigners are not safe," she said.

Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation, enjoys good relations with Saudi Arabia, which is a top destination for Bangladeshi migrant workers. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest donors to Bangladesh. Following the murder of the Saudi diplomat, a real crisis is feared, if the government fails to identify the culprits within a short space of time. Should the government demonstrate the same inability or unwillingness to progress this investigation as they did with the murder of the two journalists earlier in the year, the primary concern is that the Saudi authorities will be offended and expel the two million plus Bangladeshi workers currently working in their country.

Since the current government came to power in January 2009, the flagrant robbery of small investors is taking place on the Bangladesh stock exchange. The government has not taken any action against the culprits, again believed to hail from the inner circles of the ruling party. Another scheme to embezzle wealth comes from the fraudulent multi-level marketing companies now in operation in the country. To give a sense of the scale of this embezzlement, one of the biggest multi-level marketing companies in Bangladesh, Destiny 2000 Limited, is believed to have already robbed $8bn from the people by selling fake schemes. 

High profile corruption 

It is widely rumoured that many of the leading political figures in Bangladesh are engaged in corrupt activities, as has been the case throughout all the previous governments of the country since independence. The tendency towards corruption in Bangladeshi politics reached its pinnacle in 1982 when military dictator General Hussain Muhammed Ershad led an authoritarian regime for nine years. Most of the cabinet of this military dictator, along with his inner circle, including his numerous girlfriends and concubines, were involved in corruption and looted the country’s wealth. Following the fall of General Ershad, and when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party formed government in 2001, corruption continued. The Hawa Bhaban, which was known as the “power house” of the government, was filled with bunch of criminals. But subsequently when the military controlled interim regime charged many leading politicians (including two former Prime Ministers) with corruption charges, it was always expected by the people that the culture of corruption amongst Bangladesh’s political class would change.

However the reality is that the past three and half years have not seen the slightest progress. Evidence of high-profile corruption and the smuggling of millions of dollars out of the country by society powerbrokers has been ignored by policymakers and the country’s intelligence agencies. The facts of one case of such corruption make for interesting reading. They relate to  a retired Colonel named Md.Shahid Uddin Khan (Army No: BA002428, Course: 8-BMA, Commission Date: 10-06-1983) of the Bangladesh Army, a man from the same army graduation batch as the Prime Minister’s Defence Advisor. He is allegedly party to a series of crimes, embezzling millions of dollars and transferring them abroad through a company which counts the Defence Advisor’s wife and daughters as documented partners. There is also substantial evidence to suggest that, though retired, Khan was exerting undue influence over members of the army, the Rapid Action Battalion, Defence Ministry and other civil and military offices while making a huge amount of money by simply influence peddling his association with the Defense Advisor. He is further accused of occupying a foreign-invested power plant in Bangladesh. Despite repeated complaints against him, the authorities have failed to take action against him, simply because he is the business associate of the Defence Advisor Major General [Retired] Tareque Siddique. It is suggested by some that Khan has transformed his residence in Dhaka into a mere lobbying house, where businessmen and civil and military officials regularly visit with the hope of getting his blessing. 

Uncertainty reigns 

A huge question mark hangs over what happens next in Bangladesh and what the fate of the country’s democracy will be. People were already frustrated with the political parties, which fail to impose due democratic processes even in their own internal setups. The two large parties in Bangladesh have already turned to the worst sort of dynastic politics. At the same time, Islamist influences and left wing groups are becoming ever more involved with the dominant political forces. Alongside this, parliament has become totally ineffective due to the opposition’s year-long boycott of the sessions. There is a bleak set of circumstances at play, and the people of Bangladesh are journeying towards a future of uncertainty and fear. 

About the author

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is the editor of the Bangaldeshi tabloid, The Weekly Blitz, a columnist, author and peace activist who won the PEN USA Freedom to Write award in 2005, the first of a series of awards for moral courage in the media.


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