Source: South Asia Intelligence Review
Bibhu Prasad Routray
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management
If the Army-backed Interim Government has its way, the days of glory for the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which alternately ruled Bangladesh for 16 long years, appear effectively to be over. Under a carefully structured strategy, the Interim Administration is replacing the existing system of Parliamentary Democracy with one in which the primacy of the men in uniform would be second to none. And, to the extent that they appear to have discovered an able partner in the radical Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), the latter appears set to benefit immensely from its association with the country’s new power centre.
The grand strategy of the Interim Administration, functioning under Emergency provisions since January 11, 2007, is being articulated through steps purportedly undertaken against the pervasive corruption in the country, the implementation of extensive reforms in the political parties and assistance to the Election Commission (EC) in its tasks of preparing voters’ list as well as chalking out the roadmap for the parliamentary elections. It is evident that in the manner of accomplishing each of these objectives, the Government is seeking to impose a radical transformation in the country’s politics.
Since the Interim Government extended its authority under Emergency provisions in January, more than 170 politicians and businessmen have been arrested and prosecuted for involvement in corruption. Among the arrested are the country’s foremost leaders and members of their families, the last in the list being the AL chief and former Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, on charges of extorting Bangladesh Taka (BDT) 29.6 million from a private company. A similar fate awaits her bete noire, BNP Chief Khaleda Zia, who has been charged with several extortion and murder cases and has been summoned to appear in court by August 26 on tax evasion allegations. Other prominent individuals who are currently under detention include former Minister of State Lutfozzaman Babar; Khaleda Zia’s son and BNP General Secretary Tarique Rahman; former BNP minister Brigadier General (Retired) Hannan Shah; former BNP State Minister for Civil Aviation, Mir Mohammad Nasiruddin; AL General Secretary Abdul Jalil; former BNP Minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury; Fazlur Rahman Patal, former-AL parliamentarian; Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim, former-BNP parliamentarian; Partex Group Chairman M.A. Hashem; and former Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry president, Abdul Awal Mintoo.
Similarly, under the programme for carrying out reforms within the political parties, immense encouragement has been provided by the Interim Administration to potential dissident groups within leading parties. However, while hounding out the existing and no-doubt corrupt leadership, the ‘reform process’ has done little to avoid the danger of installing persons with similar antecedents at the helm of affairs. While the AL’s reform process, largely headed by the party’s presidium member, Abdur Razzak, has been halted since Hasina’s arrest, the changes in the BNP are being headed by people who have themselves been accused of heinous crimes including extortion and murder. For example, the party General Secretary, who has emerged as the frontrunner to grab the chief’s post in the ‘reformed’ BNP, presided over the Cooperatives and Local Government and Rural Development Ministry, one of the most corrupt departments during the BNP’s rule. A case has been filed against Bhuiyan for illegally registering 10 acres of land in the southern port city of Cox's Bazaar. Another top pro-reform leader Sayeed Iqbal Mahmud Titu is accused of nexus with Islamist militants and the killing of the BNP’s student wing, Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD), leader Khokon at Zahurul Haq Hall in Dhaka University. Former parliamentarians including Syed Abul Hossain and Mosharraf Hossain Mangu have been named by the ACC as corruption suspects. Reports indicate that threats of prosecution have been used effectively by the Government against such leaders to nudge them to continue their activities against the existing leadership.
Clearly, the existence of strong political parties is inimical to the interests of the Army. In a bid to curtail the absolute power of the parliamentary boards of political parties to nominate party candidates for parliamentary election, the EC has drafted a new proposal on June 17, 2007. Henceforth, two or more candidates will now be selected through a secret ballot by the grass-roots workers of the registered parties, one of whom would be selected as the final candidate by the party's Central Parliamentary Board.
The Government’s initiatives have been boosted by the rather ambiguous constitutional provisions regarding the unique authority of the ‘non-party caretaker government’ (Part IIA) and the ‘emergency provisions’ (Part IXA). While the gap between the expiry of the term of a Parliament and the constitution of another is prescribed to be a maximum of ‘ninety days’, Article 58-B vaguely describes the duration of the Caretaker Government as "the period from the date on which the Chief Adviser of such government enters upon office after Parliament is dissolved or stands dissolved by reason of expiration of its term till the date on which a new Prime Minister enters upon his office after the constitution of Parliament." The duration of emergency ceases to operate "at the expiration of one hundred and twenty days" without the approval of an elected parliament [Article: 141-A-2(c)]. However, the same article indicates that the imposition can go on indefinitely and would cease to operate "at the expiration of thirty days from the date on which Parliament first meets after its re-constitution". An extended absence of an elected Parliament and a process of ‘preparation’ for elections that has been prolonged to more than two years, were clearly not envisaged by the framers of the Constitution.
The non-party Caretaker Government is empowered to "discharge its functions as an interim government" and "carry on the routine functions of such government". The Constitution explicitly restricts the non-party Caretaker Government from making policy decisions "except in the case of necessity for the discharge of such functions" [Article: 58-D-1], However, under Emergency provisions, the powers of the Government assume wider proportions, including the abrogation of basic and fundamental rights of citizens [Article: 141-C].
Taking advantage of the popular mood against corruption, the seven-Division 110,000-strong Army has virtually entrenched itself in every segment of the Administration. Two of the ten advisors to the Interim Government have an Army background: Maj. Gen. (Retd.) M. A. Matin, Advisor to the Ministry of Communications, Shipping, Civil Aviation & Tourism and Liberation War Affairs, is a former head of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and is known for a strong anti-AL stance. Maj. Gen. (Dr.) A.S.M. Matiur Rahman (Retd), is advisor to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Water Resources and Religious Affairs. Two of the key institutions of the Interim Government are also headed by former Army officials. While Brigadier General (Retd.) M. Sakhawat Hossain heads the Election Commission (EC), the powerful Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is headed by Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury.
Notwithstanding the July 15 announcement by the EC regarding the tentative parliamentary election in December 2008, there are several indications that the Interim Government may well be preparing for a long stint in power – or, at the very minimum, for a radical transformation of the equation of power in Bangladesh. In spite of promises by Chief Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed and the Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed, that the Caretaker Government would not extend its term beyond December 2008, the Government put its seal on a proposal to expand its structure on July 4, 2007, appointing a number of new officers to assist the Advisors. The Government spokesperson explained the move as intended to "unburden the council of advisers of the huge workload". Earlier, in May, the Army Chief had elevated himself to a four star rank, ensuring that that he would stay on as Army Chief beyond his original retirement date of June 2008, at least into 2009, beyond the December 2008 deadline for the scheduled elections.
The Army’s apparent craving to extend its stay in power does not appear to spring entirely from a desire to ‘clean up the mess’. In fact, the ‘incorruptible’ Army stands to make significant economic gains from its prolonged engagement in civil administration. The growth of the Army’s corporate character and financial autonomy, which started during General H.M. Ershad’s regime (1982-90), has since channelled several sources of economic windfall to the Force, and created a regime where the Army’s supremacy is virtually unchallenged, and is, further, best suited for its expansion. Bangladesh Army officers are known to have invested heavily in several businesses. Thus, the Global Trust Bank Limited, a commercial bank established in 1999, with 20 branches and a total asset of BDT 14,807,905,231 (Approximately USD 216 million, as on December 31, 2005) was an Army-sponsored endeavour. The Sena Kalyan Sangstha (Army Welfare Foundation) has a stake in the Raddison Hotel in Dhaka, runs a flour mill, an ice cream factory, a hosiery mill, a fabric-manufacturing factory, a textile factory, a Compressed Natural Gas project, a bakery, an electricity products manufacturing unit, a television manufacturing plant, and has stakes in real estate, among other enterprises.
Nevertheless, if the lacklustre protests against Sheikh Hasina’s arrest are any indication, the Government’s anti-corruption moves continue to enjoy rock solid popular support. In fact, such actions appear to have provided this country of 150 million a much-needed vent to years of frustration against an unrelenting succession of inept and corrupt regimes.
What is worrisome, however, is the currently trajectory of the expansion of the arbitrary authority of an unelected Administration and its military backers. Worse, there is evidence of the consolidation of the mullah-military nexus in the country, as the Government soft-peddles on the radical Jamaat-e-Islami, in spite of the latter’s well-documented links with Islamist terrorism and organised crime. Such a policy is a natural corollary to the ‘minus-two plan’, which aims to throw the twin ‘battling begums’ into the dustbin of history. In view of the apparent failure of the Interim Government to prop up new political entities to replace the AL and the BNP, hobnobbing with the dangerous, though electorally marginal, Jamaat – the party has never has received more than 12 percent of popular votes – appears to have become an indispensable part of the strategy.
Thus, in recent months, the Government’s steps against the autocratic control of party affairs have stopped with the AL and the BNP, even though the Jamaat is not known to be any different as far as its stranglehold over cadres and territories is concerned. Reform within the Jamaat has remained an untouched area for the Government. Indeed, Jamaat leaders have been treated as a special category, as compared to their counterparts in the BNP and the AL. At least 13 of the 17 Jamaat parliamentarians in the previous BNP-led coalition Government are alleged to have been involved in several criminal activities. However, till July 25, only three of them had been arrested. In addition, the top leaders of the party have managed to secure favours even from the ‘stringent’ judiciary. On May 8, 2007, the Jamaat Chief, Matiur Rahman Nizami, managed to secure bail in a case involving the killing of a Workers’ Party activist in capital Dhaka on October 28, 2006. Further, Jamaat Secretary General and former Social Welfare Minister, Ali Ahsan Mojaheed, was allowed to go to Turkey in the second week of June 2007, in spite of charges brought against him on June 5, 2007, in connection with the August 21, 2004, grenade attack on an AL rally in Dhaka. Previously, on May 3, 2007, an extortion case had been lodged against Mojaheed in a court in Sylhet. Interestingly, on July 25, Communications Adviser Maj. Gen. Matin came up with the most incredible of explanations regarding the soft-handed official approach towards the Jamaat: "It might well be that they were never involved in any corruption."
Apart from providing such protection, the Government is also seeking to hoist a bunch of Jamaat supporters in key positions in the administration as well as in the military ranks. The newly appointed Director General of the DGFI, Maj. Gen. Golam Mohammad, is known to be a Jamaat sympathiser and his mother is a rokon (registered member) of the Jamaat. The former Deputy Chief of the DGFI, Brigadier General Abdullahil Azmi, who has been relocated as the head of the National Defence College is the son of the former Ameer (chief) of the Jamaat, Golam Azam, a votary of Pakistan’s rule in pre-independent East Bengal and one of the principal collaborators in the genocide of 1971. Another staunch Jamaat sympathiser, Golam Arshad has been appointed as the Press Minister in the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington DC.
The Government is also contributing directly to the extension of the Jamaat’s sphere of influence. On July 2, 2007, the EC took a decision to involve the Bangladesh Mashjid (mosque) Mission (BMM) in encouraging people to enrol themselves in the voters’ list. Established in 1973, BMM functions on an agenda of a ‘Mosques-based integrated community development’ programme. BMM was founded by Maulana Alauddin Al Azhari, brother in law of Golam Azam. BMM’s nexus with the Jamaat continues till date. It was from a BMM-organised function in Dhaka on December 24, 2005, that the Jamaat chief Nizami, had blamed India for the August 17, 2005, country-wide bombings.
Similar favours appear to have been extended to the Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), the Jamaat student body. Apart from three arrests of ICS activists on minor charges, little attempt has been made to curb its radical activities. Reports in 2007 have indicated that the ICS continues to run a number of guest houses in the vicinity of various universities where it provides residential facilities to out-of-station students who fail to find accommodation in the universities’ residential halls. Reports indicate that there are more than 50 such houses in Shahbagh, Paribagh, Kantaban, Palashi, Nilkhet and adjoining areas near Dhaka University. Armed ICS activists with links to Islamist militants are reported to have been sheltered in these houses. Whereas fees charged from students getting accommodation in these guest houses is nominal, all of them are required to attend tutorials and training sessions, including classes on militant Islam and on strategies to run clandestine organisational activities, in addition to courses on the radical Islamist ideology. Some students who attend these training programmes are also promised seats in the university halls, while some have been promised jobs by the ICS.
It is, however, the case that the Interim Government has continued efforts to neutralise the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), which were actually responsible for the August 2005 serial bombings across Bangladesh, and the top leadership of these organisations has been executed after conviction and sentencing, and some others involved have been handed out long prison sentences, under the interim regime.
Action against alleged left-wing extremists has also been relentless, and it is difficult to differentiate between the previous BNP-led coalition, which targeted the ‘outlaws’ with a vengeance, and the present Interim Administration. The much disparaged fake encounter deaths targeting left-wing extremists continue. On July 11, human rights organisation, Odhikar, stated in a report that a person fell victim to extra-judicial killing in the country every 38 hours, while 1.1 persons have been arrested every minute, on the average, by law enforcement agencies since the declaration of the state of Emergency on January 11. The Institute for Conflict Management database indicates that, in 2007 (till July 25), 47 left-wing extremists were killed in the country, compared to only six Islamist militants. At the same time, no steps have been taken against the Harkat-ul Jehad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), which continues to be the vehicle of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency’s anti-India operations, and that has carried out several terrorist strikes targeting Indian urban centres over the past over two years.
Little attention has been paid by the foreign powers, including India, to the developments in Bangladesh. The image of existing political parties has been sufficiently tarnished both domestically and internationally, and there are few voices in favour of their restoration to power. Unfortunately, the dangerous liaisons of the uniform and religious radicalism have been largely missed out, buried under the Interim Government’s rhetoric of reform and reconstruction. General Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan is an ongoing reminder of the catastrophic consequences of such a nexus and its disastrous impact on democracy. Despite this, however, it appears, there are still many in Bangladesh who are willing to invest their faith in a radical-authoritarian regime under the pretext of curing the evident ‘ills of democracy’.