Region: 'The Year of Living Dangerously''


Dr Bina D'Costa

The President, Iajuddin Ahmed, declared a state of emergency in Bangladesh, suspending fundamental rights and indefinitely delaying the elections for the 9th parliament on 11 January, 2007. Nearly seventeen years ago, the former military dictator H. M. Ershad, had declared the last state of emergency, in November 1990. His authoritarian regime was ousted from office in December, 1990. Although parliamentary form of democracy had been established in Bangladesh from 1991, the deeply embedded anomalies within the system were difficult to weed out. Bangladesh Nationalist Party, BNP, with the support of Jamaat-e-Islami (1991-1996), Awami League (1996-2001) and the last 4-party alliance of BNP and Jammat (2001- October 2006) have all had their share of tyrannical rule, grave injustice and corruption. However, when in opposition, these political parties have also been responsible for violent demonstrations and hartal (strikes) overlooking people's interests. In the name of democracy, successive regimes have been involved (albeit in various degrees) in nepotism, extortion, discrimination against minorities, and violence, that resulted in the insecurity of people and senseless political chaos. As a consequence, irreparable damages have been done that would take decades to respond to, for any government, which is sincere in addressing these concerns.

When Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank employee, was appointed as the chief advisor of the interim non-party caretaker government (CTG) on 12 January, 2007, Bangladeshis breathed a sigh of relief. Over the following months, however, it had become clear that the major power behind the CTG was the defence force of Bangladesh. Also, General Moeen U Ahmed, the Army Chief, emerged as one of the key players in recent politics.

Following the Economist's lead with headlines ridiculing Khaleda Zia of BNP and Sheikh Hasina of Awami League as 'Bangladesh's two leading ladies' (8 February, 2007) or even worse, 'Battered Begums' (12 April, 2007), major newspapers in the country have also published articles blaming personality cults for recent political and economic crises in Bangladesh. Putting aside the complex gendered questions, and concern about journalistic ethics and responsibilities these rhetorics evoked, the media reports have also ignored historic, economic and social complexities that are now entrenched in Bangladesh's political culture. The government received strong support from its citizens and from Western governments for its 'minus-two' solution which meant ousting these two political leaders from politics for good and cleansing Bangladesh's political system.

Following several political dramas to force both of the former PMs into exile, the government decided to employ other measures. Now, they both face criminal charges of corruption and abuse of power; Sheikh Hasina was arrested on corruption charges on 16 July and restrictions were imposed on Khaleda Zia's movements.

When this interim government began its drive against corruption, it received overwhelming support from the people. Some powerful lawbreakers were arrested including Khaleda Zia's son Tareque Rahman, which further raised the expectations of Bangladeshis. According to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), the government has detained or questioned nearly 200 people (see BBC interview with ACC chief Lt General, retd, Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury). However, in its overzealous drive to fight corruption, the government neglected governing the country. The law and order situation deteriorated, prices of food and basic products skyrocketed and millions of people were left to deal with their own insecurities because of the recent floods (A. S. Huque, 27 August, 2007, The Daily Star).

Bangladeshis also started to become impatient and frustrated, as the government has not been successful in dealing with day-to-day concerns of ordinary citizens. What appeared to be a minor incident of Dhaka University students demanding the removal of an army camp from the campus, spilled into the streets on 22 August, and at least 400 people were injured in the street battles between student protesters and security forces. Concerns were raised about responsibilities of certain stakeholders behind these organised violent clashes, and resonated in the Chief Advisor's comments that some 'evil forces' were behind these chaos. A curfew was imposed on 22 August which was finally lifted on 28 August. However, cases have been filed against more than 3,000 people (The New Age, 25 August, 2007) including many students, and several University teachers have been arrested. Despite protests from the civil society it is still unclear whether the government would take the path of further repression or responsive negotiation with aggrieved interest groups.

WATCHPOINT: Although Bangladesh's future remains uncertain at the time of this writing, democratic accountability, and political representation in a genuinely participatory and impartial political process are required to address these crises in the country. The current interim government cannot afford to use repressive measures again, and has to respond to public concerns and take effective measures for the smooth running of the state.


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