Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bangladesh political decapitation

Source: Asian Tribune
August 11, 2007

By Vinod Vedi - Syndicate Features

“Political Decapitation” is the only way to describe what the interim caretaker government of Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed supported by the army chief Gen Moeenuddin Ahmed is doing in Bangladesh. There is acute awareness of the game plan among political activists there and they describe it as “the policy of minus two”. Minus, that is, the two main charismatic leaders of the two most popular political parties- the Awami League of the founder of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib-ur- Rehman and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party headed by the wife of the man who was responsible for his assassination. Sheikh Hasina Wazed, daughter of Bangabandhu, and leader of the Awami League has been arrested on charges of corruption, extortion and murder and Begum Zia-ur- Rahman head of the BNP has been kept in virtual house arrest. Corruption charges are slapped on her also.

This comes after attempts to exile both a la Pakistan with Mian Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto failed because the two ladies saw through the ploy. The offer of allowing Begum Zia to leave for Saudi Arabia was made. Sheikh Hasina, who had gone to the US to see her ailing son, was prevented from boarding an airliner bound for Dacca but the caretaker government had to backtrack in the face of an international outcry.

There is a material difference between the consequences that could accrue to both ladies from these politically motivated cases. Begum Zia’s charges of corruption and extortion could, with some proposed tweaking of the Constitution, lead to her disqualification from holding public office. In the case of Sheikh Hasina the additional charge of murder of four political activists could attract imprisonment for life or, as in the case of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan, a judicial execution.

The caretaker government has acquired a sense of permanence by the many changes it has brought about. Under the Bangladesh constitution, a caretaker government has a limited role. It comes to office once the five-year term of an elected government ends. Its job is to ensure a free and fair election. The Fakhruddin Ahmed led caretaker government, which came to office following a violent campaign by Awami League and its allies, has put off elections to the end of next year. It has placed a blanket ban on political activity even “indoor politics” which is a blatant restriction on freedom of expression and association.

The army, ostensibly supporting the caretaker government from the outside, has its men in critical positions where politics can best be manipulated. The Election Commission is headed by Brigadier General (retd) M. Sakhawat Hossain and the Anti-Corruption Commission is under the control of Lt-Gen (retd) Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury. The Directorate General of Forces Intelligence is playing the role of the Pakistan Army Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and is deeply involved in political engineering to ensure that the decapitated parties split and splinter so that a “king’s party” emerges that will allow the present setup to continue as an extra-constitutional authority after the elections.

Chief of Army Staff Gen Moeenuddin Ahmed by suggesting a Constitution Review Commission appears to be following in the footsteps of General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. Musharraf, it may be recalled, had made a false promise to the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) that he would shed his uniform and secured its support for amendments to the Constitution that helped bring the military permanently to a position within the Cabinet system of government in the form of the National Security Council.

Delhi is alarmed at the turn of events in Dhaka. It has expressed the hope that Hasina’s rights within the law would be protected. The reaction of the caretaker government has been odd to say the least. It has stopped the export of Hilsa fish to Kolkatta citing grave shortages at home. Coming so soon after the Secretary-level talks and the decision to remove non-tariff and para-tariff barriers the Hilsa episode needs to be tackled with some care and without rancour.

There is no gainsaying that Hilsa catch has been diminishing over the years and the practice of catching Hilsa fingerlings has tended to aggravate the ecology and fuel Bengali ire on both sides of the border. Prawn culture in ponds along the delta has polluted the waters downstream with pesticides used in the ponds so there is a problem irrespective of the political developments in Bangladesh. The sudden shut off, however, is suspicious.

Yet the long-term effects on current political developments need to be assessed on a day-to-day basis because the decapitation and political engineering could leave India with two neighbours inclined to Islamic fundamentalism. Well, the present caretaker in Dhaka has had no qualms in hanging the notorious Bangla Bhai whose jehadi postures had had adverse repercussions on this side of the border. But that is neither here nor there and in fact it appears to be a concession grudgingly granted to keep off pressures from the global warriors against terrorism.

Now that a roadmap for elections has been announced and one of the main protagonists taken into custody and refused bail there appears to be an element of tilt on the part of the caretaker government in favour of the BNP. It was with Begum Zia’s son that the caretakers launched their anti-corruption drive—the charge being that he had extorted huge sums of money for contracts placed by the BNP Government.

Between the two parties, AL and BNP, it is the Khaleda Zia party which is amenable to creation of a King’s party. Anti-corruption drive is a powerful tool for political engineering. It makes easier to detect disproportionate assets beyond known sources of income and identify those need to be removed from the political process or made to bend a little bit. Experience of Pakistan is there to see and understand the phenomenon. With military personnel at the helm of affairs it is unlikely that any military man would ever be prosecuted for corruption.

That apart, the insistence by fiat of the Bangladesh Election Commission of ‘democratisation’ of BNP and AL minus their two chiefs is clearly intended to cultivate a new crop of apparatchiks. Obviously the expectation of powers that be is that they would be more amenable to influence. Well, there can be no such expectation from the two Begums. They had battled each other over the decades on very clear-cut political perceptions.

The Election Commission’s directive on reforms has been prefaced with the threat that it would not open a dialogue with any party that does not follow its diktat on the issue. This would tend to have the effect of cutting off large groups from the political process. Also, given the volatility that reigned before the new caretaker government was installed at Sheikh Hasina’s insistence, Bangladesh could very easily relapse into chaos.

- Syndicate Features -

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