Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Bangladesh’s Political Reform:

Bangladesh’s Political Reform:
Facts Behind Facts
Dr. Abdul Momen*

Bangladesh an impoverished country of 147 million people with a rich history and heritage is currently facing great uncertainties- --- political uncertainty, business uncertainty, and legal uncertainties. Other than uncertainty three more things are currently predominant and these are; (1) Political Reform business, (2) Arrest business and (3) Transfer business. The political reform business refers to negotiation between selected leaders and powers in eliminating the top two leaders of the two major political parties, especially former Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League (AL) and Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The other important activities are the business of bribing strategic officials either to keep one’s name ‘out of arrest list’ or to ‘drop one’s name from the arrest list’, and third is the business either to get better appointment or to cancel one’s undesirable transfer. In the process, new investment, inflation, job creation, economic activity, energy crisis and nation’s growth took a lower priority. Therefore, economists predict if such continues, unemployment will go up and the nation’s GDP growth rate will be short of its target rate.

As per CIA Fact book 2006, Bangladesh is the 8th highest in global labor force, 36th in global natural gas reserve, 59th in global GDP growth rate (6.1%), and unfortunately, 5th in corruption perception (in 2006), 151st in Press Freedom among 167 nations (Reporters Without Borders, 2006), and 174th in per capita GDP income. A comparative analysis of its macro economic variables for the period 1975-2006 show that its political governments in spite of their shortcomings was much better in terms of growth and prosperity vis-à-vis that of its non-political or civil-military technocratic governments. While it’s GDP per capita income growth rate for 1975 through 1990 was 3.9% per annum under non-democratic rule, it achieved over 5.9%, nearly double under multi-party democracy during 1991 through 2006. More importantly both national savings and investment went up from an average of 11% and 12% during military rule to 38% and 21% respectively under political governments. In spite of such achievement, because of their corruption, they are facing toughest time in their history.

This paper analyzes the current situation of Bangladesh, a moderate Muslim democracy that is heading towards a ‘controlled democracy’. The fear is that if multi-party democracy is not allowed to function freely in Bangladesh, it might turn into a fundamentalist state. Currently in the name of political reform, its military-backed interim government is trying to weaken the major political parties, guillotine their moderate leaderships, and such manipulation may lead it to uncertainty and political vacuum which may create a congenial environment for rise of jihadi terrorism. Already a moderate country like Bangladesh where Islamic fundamentalist party like Jamat-e-Islam (JI) hardly used to have any following is becoming a political force and with the current manipulation, its position would dramatically improve. It analyzes that rise of such forces will turn Bangladesh into a non-democratic country like most of the Muslim majority states.

Bangladesh Heading Toward Uncertainty
Bangladesh is the 3rd largest Muslim populated country. In spite of its weak political leadership and extreme political polarization, it maintained imperfect multi-party democracy for the last 15 years. The economic and social achievements under such imperfect democratic governments (1991-2006) far exceeded that of its past military or/and techno-bureaucratic governments (1975-1990). The U. S. policy makers termed it ‘a moderate Muslim democracy’. The current interim government desires to impose ‘a superior democracy’ in Bangladesh---a new kind of democracy that would be flawless and Platonic. Unfortunately, flawless democracy is still a myth and our fear is, in the process of imposition, Bangladesh may lose its ‘multi-party democracy’ and it may head toward becoming a near totalitarian country like most of the other Muslim countries, for example, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the like.

Currently, Bangladesh has an interim techno-bureaucratic government backed by military and it promised to return multi-party democracy by the end of 2008. It took over powers on January 11 2007 when the former Caretaker government of Dr. Iazuddin Ahmed was about to hold a one-sided fraudulent election on January 22, 2007. As all the opposition parties boycotted that election and there was fear of civil war and bloodshed, under military and international pressure, Dr. Iazuddin Ahmed resigned as the head of the Caretaker government and a former banker, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed was installed as the head of the new interim government. The new government took many commendable initiatives and it successfully implemented many of the major demands of the opposition parties and the civil societies that became the focal issues in the last few years. For example, the opposition parties demanded (1) reform of the partisan Election Commission (EC), (2) reform of the electoral process, (3) revision of concocted voter list which, as per Washington-based NDI had over 13 million fraud votes, (4) punishment of corrupt pubic officials, (5) elimination of the influence of black money and mastans in the election, (6) reform of all national institutions that were destroyed and made partisan such as the Public Service Commission (PSC), the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), the Police Force, the Judiciary, the Civil administration, et al. The new government replaced most of the partisan office holders of the EC, ACC, PSC, and it also replaced many top partisan bureaucrats. It launched a jihad against corrupt politicians. Over 70 political bigwigs have been arrested on corruption and extortion charges. People applauded such efforts.

Unfortunately now the government is involved first to eliminate the top leaders of the major political parties namely, Sheikh Hasina of the AL and Begum Khaleda Zia of the BNP, two former Prime Ministers as they believed without their elimination, political reform is difficult. This is commonly known as ‘Minus Two” strategy. In order to achieve it, it tried to exile Begum Zia to Saudi Arabia and denied entry to Sheikh Hasina to Bangladesh while she went abroad to meet her family members in the U. S. This reminds us of the policy of General Parvez Musharraf of Pakistan who exiled Pakistan’s former Prime Ministers Nawaj Sherif to Saudi Arabia and refused entry to Benazir Bhutto. Such initiatives of the government failed as Begum Zia refused to go abroad and they had to allow Sheikh Hasina to return home owing to both domestic and international pressure. Afterwards, government lodged a number of questionable corruption and extortion cases against Sheikh Hasina. Sheikh Hasina termed them as false and manipulated and she challenged the allegations. The government is also threatening to lodge corruption cases against Begum Zia but yet no case has been submitted. However, it arrested her elder son Tariq Rahman known as “Mr. 10%’ and launched corruption cases against him. It did arrest her second son, Arafat Rahman Koko but released him to negotiate her exile. Interestingly, it allowed her brother Major (retired) Said Iskhander, known as highly corrupt to go abroad free. Critics believe that it might be because as Said Iskhander and Lt. Gen. Masud, the Chief Corruption Coordinator and the man behind the military backed interim government are related. Their wives are sisters.

As their 1st strategy did not work, it got involved in creating a new political party and inspired Ferdous Qureshi of the BNP to float a new party. In spite of government efforts, top leaders of the major parties, the BNP and the AL did not switch their allegiance yet to the new party. Earlier they tried with Noble Laureate Dr. Mohammed Yunus but that failed.

In addition, an unethical strategy adopted by the current emergency government to render the established political parties and their leaders unpopular and dysfunctional is a travesty of the system of the rule of law. They are circulating concocted stories of corruption and extortion ascribing them to so-called confessional statements made by many, among them a number of their brokers or people under pressure many of whom said to be medicated or/and hypnotized. It is ethically wrong and disallowed by the judicial process to disclose confessional statements before they are formally aired in courts and it is universally wrong to carry out character assassination in the media. But this is what is being done in Bangladesh now and selected journalists are performing at the bidding of the powers to do media trial of important persons – mostly politicians - not officially or directly accused of. This is a very unpleasant development for healthy political development in the country and may perpetrate the rule of jungle that is attempted to be reined in.

The government’s Law and Information Advisor, Moinul Hossain stated that ‘unless there is acceptable reform completed within the political parties’, the national election might be delayed. The government now appears following a two-prong strategy in order to eliminate the Begums, Hasina and Khaleda. First, it had adopted a ‘pick and choose policy’ regarding corruption cases. Second, it is encouraging ‘selected political leaders’ of the AL and the BNP to bring reform in their own parties aiming at removal of their top leaders namely Hasina and Khaleda. It refrained from launching corruption cases against their ‘selected politicians’ and encouraged them to have political reform meetings in order to oust Hasina and Khaleda. This is a sharp departure from its strong emergency rule that prohibits gathering of more than 4 people even indoors. It arrested nearly 40 expatriate British and Canadian citizens of Bangladesh origin only a month ago as they assembled at a house warming party in Bangladesh. No wonder many known corrupt political leaders are now busy in ‘party reform drama’ and they are organizing big meetings and gathering in houses, public places and hotels. For example, BNP’s Secretary General Abdul Mannan Bhuiya, known as a patron of corruption is allowed to arrange meetings and press conferences. He submitted his 15-points reform proposals aiming at removal of Khaleda Zia, their Chairperson. Amir Hossain Amu, a wealthy Presidium Member of the AL party, whose sources of income are considered in some quarters to be disproportionate to his wealth, was allowed to organize reform meetings [it was rumored that the government had an understanding with the RATS; Razzaque-Amu- Tofail-Suranjit of the AL to dump Hasina]. Two AL leaders Razzaque and Tofail Ahmed have already placed reform proposals to eliminate Hasina and it is expected that Suranjit Sengupta would do the same as per secret agreement. These are in sharp contrast to the treatment meted out to Hasina and Khaleda. They are under virtual house arrest ----no one is allowed to meet them and their phone lines are restricted. They are not allowed to take part in reform discussions or proposals which is contrary to their party constitutions and guidelines. In the process, it is believed that the major political parties could be broken into a number of pieces especially the AL, the largest and the oldest grass root political party of Bangladesh. Already, two coalition partners of the AL-led Mohajote that forced the cancellation of the January 22 election namely the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) and the JP (Jatiyo Party) are now in the process of splintering and oblivion. They have been fragmented into a number of small groups and the BNP is in the process of following them. Under such a situation, if the AL, a party that strongly opposes fundamentalism could be fragmented then the party that would emerge untouched and strong would be the Jamat-e-Islam, a fundamentalist party linked to terrorism. The new government refrained from putting any pressure on them also.

Good Opportunities Always Turn Soar in Bangladesh
In 2006 when controversial former Chief Justice M. A. Hasan declined to take the charge of the Chief Advisor (CA) under the AL pressure, people hoped that a non-partisan CA would be installed. Instead they ended up with a worse choice, Dr. Iajuddin Ahmed, a highly partisan and ethically immoral CA. When partisan Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) M. A. Aziz went onto leave vacation under public pressure, people wished for a non-partisan CEC. They ended up with a more dubious character, Mahfuzur Rahman. When two other partisan Election Commissioners (ECs) resigned under mass movement, people believed that they would get two credible ECs. Unfortunately, they were replaced by two other equally non-credible ECs. When the 1st Voter List under the partisan EC was declared ‘null and void’ by the nation’s High Court, people hoped to have a fair voter list. But alas! The new one ended up with over 13 million ghost voters. The people of Bangladesh desired to have a ‘qualitative change in Bangladesh politics’ and with the coming of the military-backed interim government, they breathe a sigh of relief. But the new manipulation and reform drama that are being staged is creating doubts among the people. People have started losing their faith and therefore, they want the interim government to hold a ‘free, fair, non-violent and credible election’ at the earliest.

Point of No Return
The past political coalition government of BNP-JI became so unpopular owing to their ill governance, top-to-bottom corruption, wide spread manipulation, extortion, torture, extra-judicial killings, looting, land grabbing, persecution of the opposition parties and the minorities, and in the process, they reached a ‘point of no return’. Therefore, they adopted many mischievous steps only to return to power to save their skins. Otherwise, they were expecting public lynching on the streets. When Tariq Zia, the 1st Joint Secretary General of the BNP was arrested and he was paraded in the TV wearing the RAB-helmet as the notorious terrorists Shayek Abdur Rahman and Bangla Bhai did, it is interesting that the viewers were jubilant instead of feeling sympathy and awkward. In order have sympathy for such alleged criminals the critics believe that the emergency government is launching weak cases against them leaving the real ones. For example, former Law Minister Mouded Ahmed who reportedly compromised convictions for money has been charged only for keeping 5 liquor bottles that belonged to his foreign born sons.

Bangladeshis are by and large very emotional. They hailed Ayub’s Martial Law in 1958 but later forced his ouster. They hailed Gen. Ershad’s military coup but later ousted him through a nation-wide mass upsurge and then convicted him on corruption charges.

Laws and judges are at times manipulative in Bangladesh ----for keeping 4 half-empty liquor bottles in his home, Anwar Hossain Monzu, former Minister and estranged brother of current Law Advisor Moinul Hossain has been convicted for 5 years imprisonment plus fines. As per the World Bank the most corrupt departments in Bangladesh in order of priority are Police Dept followed by Education, Health, Energy, Public Works, Judiciary, etc and most corrupt public officials for example, are customs, taxation, and police officers. Unfortunately, none of these officials yet been arrested for corruption charges or any investigation is launched to identify the depth of corruption in various sectors in the government’s jihad against corruption. In fact, the government’s corruption jihad is rather funny and gives rise to questioning of their sincerity. There has never been such corruption and ill governance in Bangladesh in its history that the nation experienced during the last BNP-Jamat coalition government. But there are not really any punitive steps against those that presided over the destruction of nation’s institutions and values. Rather some of the culprits such as Abdul Mannan Bhuiya who doled out the largest amounts of block grants are encouraged to set up new parties. The punitive and more appropriately the character assassination measures are disproportionately targeted to the AL politicians that led the most efficient and least corrupt government in 1996-01 rather than immediate past government of Khaleda Zia of 2001-06. At the same time no systematic actions seems to be directed to corruption in the various departments of the government. No corruption or extortion charges lodged against Jamat-e-Islam party leaders or against Islami Okkiyo Jote (IOJ) party although investigative news reports showed that IOJ leader Fazlul Huq Aminee linked to terrorism has amassed huge wealth through improper means. The leaders of the JI also usurped large properties and manipulated lucrative businesses under political patronage. They also distributed unethical favors while in power. There is no information on any government plans for action against such dealings. Although there is wide gap between legal income and actual expenditure of many corrupt civil and military officials or there is allegation of corruption in the purchase of military equipment, jeeps and trucks, no investigation has yet been launched in such areas. Neither the government initiated any institutional reform as did South Korea or Singapore to eliminate corruption. More importantly, although criminal case is pending against Ali Ahsan Mujahid, the JI leader, he was allowed to go abroad free while AL leader Sheikh Hasina was refused on the same ground. Such double standard is raising questions about the credibility, fairness and motive of the government. Adil Khan, an UN expert on Governance wrote, “History tells us that application of ad hoc, arbitrary, and sometime populist means of combating corruption, without due regard to the rule of law and without strategic visioning, does precious little to overcome this serious societal illness. On the contrary, ad hoc and stand-alone interventions of corruption control without accounting for other supporting reforms tend to do more harm than good and most alarmingly, once the initial euphoria of populist interventions of corruption control evaporates, the malady returns with much greater vengeance (Forum, July, 2007)”.

If the current government is forced to continue manipulation by the shadow then things might reach to a ‘point of no return’ like that of the BNP-JI and in that case, it would be a disaster for the nation and its people. If that happens, the country may face a much worse situation in future. There would be political vacuum, increasing unemployment, insecurity, corruption, run away inflation, and economic deprivation leading to lawlessness, hopelessness, anarchy and rise of fundamentalism. If the interim government of Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed is replaced by a military government from shadow owing to failure of Moinul Hossain’s manipulation, and if the history is any guide it may take 8/10 years for Bangladeshi people to regain multi-party democracy.

Democracy finds difficulty to sustain in Muslim countries. Out of 57 OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries) countries, only a handful is truly democratic. Bangladesh was one of such luminaries. But now it has a non-elected non-representative interim government backed by military. More alarming is that this non-democratic government is trying to impose a ‘controlled democracy’ where the military intelligence forces will pre-determine the eligibility of political candidates. More importantly, the leadership that fails to meet their hidden criteria would be excluded from competing in the next general election. Question is; will such controlled democracy help improving the quality of life for its people and meet their aspirations? Alternatively, will such form of government lead them to isolation and further economic, political and social downswings and frustrations?
*Abdul Momen, Framingham State College, Massachusetts, USA.

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