Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Bangladesh Should Learn from Pakistan

Source: Central Chronicle, August 8, 2007

Whether by coincidence or design, Bangladesh's military-backed interim government seems to have chosen the disastrous path adopted by Pakistan's military rulers, Gen Musharraf of eliminating mainstream politicians and introducing a new system of governance that is subservient to the Army. Even though the announcement about the next general election being held in Nov-Dec 2008 is welcome, the attempt to introduce Pakistan-style democracy is a cause of concern for the entire region. Even Musharraf is now repenting his past mistakes and what he had done to his country, which faces a perilous situation. All the more reason, therefore, that Bangladesh's military should refrain from making more mistakes and respond to the people's democratic aspirations by holding free, fair and transparent election with full participation of all secular and democratic political parties and keeping out forces which breed terrorism and want to convert Bangladesh into a caliphate.

Whatever might be the alleged crimes of the two former prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League, and Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and hundreds of other politicians charged with extortion, bribery and corruption, they all deserve a fair trial under due process of law, with respect for their basic individual rights. The setting up of quasi military courts to pronounce pre-determined sentences against inconvenient politicians is itself a negation of the rule of law and freedom of judiciary. Dictatorships seek to eliminate political rivals to remove all hurdles to their rule, without opposition or street protest.

Such being the case, the arrest on extortion charges of Sheikh Hasina has not come as a surprise. Her detention and probable arrest of Khaleda Zia on charges of tax evasion signals the start of the military-backed administrations "mines two" plan of oust these two leading figures from politics. Unfortunately for it, the High Court has halted the proceedings against Sheikh Hasina, granted her bail and asked the government to explain why the action against her should not be declared illegal. Ms Hasina has denied the charges as "conspiratorial". A panel of Supreme Court lawyers is fighting the legal battle on her behalf.

The military backed regime seems to have set before itself a number of objectives. It wants the two leaders to lose credibility with masses and bar them from future election by manipulating their conviction by a kangaroo court. Like Gen Musharraf, it wants to break the two mainstream parties Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party-and restructure them under the military's guidance, or even float another outfit like the ruling PML(Qaid) in Pakistan which is fulfilling the military's agenda. Another assumption is that conviction of Sheikh Hasina would demoralize and disintegrate Bangladesh's seculars and pro-liberation forces as she happens to be their unquestioned leader. Awami League secretary Abdul Jalil was forced by the military to issue a statement dissociating himself from the party, as well as, national politics. The irony is that Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League are bearing the brunt of the military's wrath although they welcomed the takeover by the Fakhruddin Ahmed-led interim government as a "deliverance" from the BNP-laden set-up and a totally partisan Election Commission.

Observers of the scene point out of that Bangladesh inherited an Army that was schooled in the same mentality as Pakistan's military. Thus, it was that Sheikh Mujib's tenure at the helm ended in a military-sponsored blood-bath almost two years before his old sparring partner. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown in Pakistan and eventually executed by Gen Ziaul Haq. It was Hossain Mohammad Erahad who offers close parallels with Zia, not least because he went out of his way to emulate the Pakistani tyrant. He encouraged Islamic fundamentalists, formally ending Bangladesh's status as a secular state and even opted for a referendum along the lines dictated by Zia in Pakistan. Unlike the latter, Ershad was overthrown by a popular uprising and subsequently served a long sentence in prison.

The latest crisis was fuelled in large part by the Awami League's refusal to accept the caretaker set-up bequeathed by the outgoing government headed by Khaleda Zia, because it was headed by a former BNP leader and the Election Commission too was stuffed with BNP supporters who had arranged meticulously to rig the elections in BNP's favour. It was Sheikh Hasina's threatened boycott of the January 22, 2007 election (which were not held) which gave a handle to the military to intervene and install an unrepresentative caretaker administration. Currently Sheikh Hasina, whom the army could not prevent from returning to Dhaka from abroad, is being victimed for asking too many questions of the military dispensation. For instance, she critised the decision to hold elections in late 2008 and saying this was too long a period for the country to be without a democratically-elected government. Last week, she did what was considered undoable in Bangladesh. She publicly accused the Defense Intelligence Agency of meddling in politics, arresting and torturing politicians and engaging in efforts to make or break political parties. Much the same work was done in Pakistan by the ISI and other government agencies to break mainstream parties and promote rootless individuals as leaders, including as prime minister. Under the emergency all political activity is banned and basic rights remain suspended. One can only hope that the embarrassed military will not think in term of again staging a coup, which will be yet another disaster, not only for Bangladesh, but for the whole region.

Bangladesh's election commission says more than a year is needed to revise the defective electoral rolls and make the necessary constitutional amendments. No one has any clue as to nature of the amendments proposed whether something sinister is contemplated to enhance the Army's role and curtail civil liberties. Gen Musharraf too distorted the Pakistani constitution beyond recognition through a series of ordinances, combined the office of President and Army Chief and got the amendments approved by a captive parliament with the support of the Islamists to whom he handed over the administration of two provinces- NWFP and Balochistan- and on whom has banked for support. One wonders is the present rulers in Bangladesh too are set to implement an Islamists agenda in order to create a support-base for a military dispensation.

This is being attempted through elimination of the leadership of two main stream parties and entertaining a complaint by Jaman-I-Islami, a fundamentalist outfit which formed part of the Khaleda Zia- run coalition, accusing Sheikh Hasina of murder. Obviously, the Islamists are waiting in the wings and will jump in to fill the political vacuum, which may be created if the two leading political parties are disintegrated. Again, a Pakistan-style scenario new para it must be admitted, however, that Bangladesh's problems on account of fundamentalism are yet not as serious Pakistan's, not least on account of strong cultural and literary links with India and acknowledging the literary pre-dominance of Rabindranath Tagore along with Kasi Nazrul Islam. But the Jamaat-I-Islami, which was partner in the Khaleda Zia-led coalition government, availed of its stint in power to spread its network throughout the country by appointing its activists to government posts in rural areas. Though they are now lying low, they are very much alive and ready to surface when a signal is given to fill a vacuum sought to be created through disintegrating the AL and BNP.

Since its birth 36 years ago Bangladesh has passed through stormy times, with prolonged spells of military rule and democracy. Successive regimes, however failed to solve the country's problems and fulfill the people's basic needs. It cannot survive another prolonged spell of political uncertainty and military repression. The task assigned to the caretaker regime is to get the electoral rolls corrected, restructure the Election Commission with the inclusion of independent persons, take steps to be prevent rigging and impersonation and order free, fair and transparent elections as soon as possible in which all parties are allowed to participate. Thereafter, power should be handed to a civilian government, care being taken not encourage disruptive, anti-national and fundamentalist forces. The Army should stay where it should- in the barracks.

MK Dhar, NPA

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