Thursday, August 30, 2007

Bangladesh in turmoil again

Source: Asian Tribune
August 30, 2007
By Tukoji R Pandit
- Syndicate Features

It looks ominously familiar. First, a surge of enthusiastic welcomes then a deluge of angry protests leading to increasing violence, unrest and eventually ouster of the regime. That is how the Bangladesh scenario looks now. The emergence of military-sponsored caretaker government in Dhaka was almost universally welcomed after the end of five years of lawlessness, poor governance, rising radicalisation and bitterness that had prevailed under the rule of Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. In less than a year clear signs have emerged that the people have had enough of the surrogate military rule.

Of all the things, a football match apparently brought about a U-turn in the people’s mood when some students of Dhaka University protested against their manhandling by the police. Soon the students were demanding withdrawal of troops from the campus. Even as the demand was met the students were getting bolder and demanded an apology from no less a person than Gen Moeen U Ahmed, the army chief who is the de facto boss of the country, and punishment for the soldiers who had allegedly manhandled the students during the football match.

In no time there was a spurt in protests and it began to resemble the beginning of a popular movement for the restoration of democracy. The response from the rulers in Dhaka was panicky: university and colleges in six large cities were closed down, students were asked to leave the hostels, teargas shells were lobbed at a women’s hostel, TV channels were asked not to highlight the street violence and at least for most part of a day, all mobile networks in Dhaka were shut down.

The swift developments were a clear hint that the people’s honeymoon with the country’s military was almost over. How similar does it all look to the uprisings against two previous military rulers of Bangladesh, Ziaur Rehman and Muhammed Ershad?

Towards the autumn last year, the army was seen as a saviour when the tension-ridden rule of Begum Zia ended to pave the way for the general election that was to take place before the winter was over. Much of the nervousness in the country was caused by an unending personal feud between the outgoing prime minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, and her predecessor, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League.

While the two Begums had apparently taken a vow never to reconcile with each other, the steep rise in corruption and a tacit backing for the radicals and religious fanatics by the BNP government had added considerably to the woes of the people.

The Bangladesh constitution provides for a ‘caretaker’ or interim government that assumes office about three months before the general elections so that the polls are seen as fair and free. Even though the caretaker government, formed after some initial hiccups, appeared to be handpicked by the army, people were more keen to see the end of the poor civilian rule. Their happiness increased further when the interim government went about the business of rounding up senior politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen who were widely perceived as corrupt and responsible for the loot of the country over the past many years.

The earnestness of the temporary regime was proved when the process of trial and convictions of these arrested people began to roll out quickly. What is more even the two powerful Begums, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina was refused immunity from action by the interim regime. There was hardly any backlash, feared by some, after the government swung into action against them.

Obviously, the caretaker government of President Fakhruddin Ahmed was perhaps carried away by the popular response it had initially received. The men in uniform more so. While everyone was swearing by the commitment to restore democracy at the earliest, latest by the end of 2008, the army chief was not very discreet in creating an impression that he was keen on the top job in the country.

The Army Chief went about telling the people that the ‘rot’ set in by the previous civilian governments in the last 36 years could not be cleared in a matter of one or two years. He had mistakenly thought that the people’s anger had permanently crippled the class of politicians, robbing them entirely of mass following.

Restraining Begum Zia or Sheikh Hasina is one thing, but forcing a leader into exile can be counter- productive. The Pakistani dictator is discovering it belatedly. Curbing all dissent and opposition voices in Bangladesh coincided with rising prices which affected the common men and women. Add to this their hardship from natural disasters like the (annual) floods and cyclone. The cheer was fast fading away from the faces of the very people who had said goodbye to the civilian regime of Begum Zia and accepted its replacement by a military-sponsored civilian government so ecstatically.

The caretaker government in Dhaka, particularly the power that propped up the ‘civilian’ government did not read correctly the mood of the people. They should have drawn lessons from the past when knee jerk reactions to students’ unrest helped it snowball into a forceful movement for the restoration of full democracy and civilian rule.

It should be a matter of deep concern to the present rulers how suddenly in a matter of less than six months the people have revised their opinions about them. In Pakistan, of which Bangladesh was a part till 1971, the disillusion with the surrogate military rule set in only after nearly seven years. Is it that even after their traumatised separation, the destinies of the two countries on India’s east and west flank is interlocked?

- Syndicate Features -

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