Monday, August 27, 2007

Which way now?

Source: Daily Star
August 27, 2007

Ahmed Shafiqul Huque

This is the first time a non-partisan caretaker government had to use repressive measures to quell disturbances in Bangladesh. An incident between army personnel and students on Dhaka University campus erupted into a major show of disenchantment with the government. Only a short while ago, this government enjoyed unprecedented public support.

What could have led to such a drastic change? In his address to the nation, the chief adviser attributed the disturbances to the efforts by certain quarters who were taking advantage of a minor event to destabilise and discredit the government. This explanation is not too different from the excuses used by governments in the past whenever they were unable to contain violence on the streets. However, the sabotage of communication cable around the same time in a remote area of Chittagong and the images on television of men on rampage who appeared to be non-students lend some credence to the chief adviser's claim.

An overview of recent developments and the style of governing can provide insight into the causes that contributed to the severe outburst of dissatisfaction. Earlier in the year, the government received strong support for helping the country get out of an extremely difficult situation. The citizens heaved a sigh of relief at being rescued from the tyranny of strikes and violent clashes between supporters of political parties who competed to demonstrate strong muscle power at every opportunity.

Leaders of the Awami League were delighted at the turn of events, extended full support to the government, and claimed credit for bringing the new government into power. They were delighted with the arrest of a number of leaders from the rival BNP, and did not protest too strongly about same fate of some of their own party leaders. The government decided to come down hard on corruption, and raised the hope of Bangladeshis by putting behind bars some of the most powerful lawbreakers. No tear was shed for the arrested and absconding corrupt people, and work was progressing on the arrangements for holding free and fair elections.

The government became overzealous in fighting corruption, and neglected the critical task of governing the country. Food prices spiraled, law and order deteriorated, and floods affected the purchasing power and employment prospect of millions of people. Ruthless eviction of hawkers with no arrangement for rehabilitation added to the ranks of the dissatisfied. On the political front, there were hints of impatience as political parties were not allowed to function, and they were unable to play a role in assisting with the governing process. It was impossible for a group of eleven advisers, however capable, to deal with the numerous problems that descended upon Bangladesh within a very short time.

Instead of rearranging the priorities in view of the changing circumstances, the government pushed forward with the mission of "cleaning up" the political system. Fresh rounds of arrests brought in new interns, the most notable being Sheikh Hasina. Statements from an adviser hinting the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami to be free from corruption and stern warnings from another adviser to prevent corrupt politicians from returning to power even before they were convicted, weakened the position of the government. The government was losing its impartial status, and the perception was strengthened by the apparently biased way in which the allegedly corrupt people were treated.

Confidence slid further as it was revealed that Khaleda Zia and Saifur Rahman had not declared a substantial part of their income for years. In spite of clear instructions that close relatives of arrested or allegedly corrupt people would not be allowed to pay a penalty on back taxes and get exemption from prosecution, both the former prime minister and her finance minister were allowed to do so. It is common knowledge that members of both families are alleged to be severely corrupt. It has also been reported that Saifur Rahman not only condoned corruption among his family members, he is also accused of using public funds to decorate his villa in Moulavi Bazar, and persuading the government to build a connecting road from the highway for his benefit.

Students have genuine reason to be dissatisfied, as they suffered the most over the years. Completion of education takes much longer than planned, and students are exploited for serving the interests of political parties. Corruption in the Public Service Commission precludes the possibility of employment after graduation and adds to the frustration of students and their families. While students have been sacrificing their career to fight for the interest of political parties, they do not receive anything in return. No government has made sincere efforts to identify the needs of the students with the intention of addressing them.

As the caretaker government started the campaign against corruption, there was high expectation among students that those responsible for damaging the universities and educational institutions would be brought to task. Several vice-chancellors appointed on political considerations are alleged to have committed massive corruption. Excepting one or two of the former vice-chancellors who are absconding, the others seem to be enjoying immunity from prosecution and they have been allowed to return to their original posts.

How can students have trust in a government that chooses not to prosecute corrupt people in the universities, while coming down hard on a select group of politicians? What are the reasons for according special treatment to former vice-chancellors who committed corruption? A government must not only be fair, but must also be seen to be fair.

Reports in the media are harbinger of worse to come. The personnel deployed to enforce curfew regulations seem to be out of control. Citizens, including media workers and students trying to reach home after getting evicted from dormitories, are receiving harsh treatment from the security personnel. It would be good for the government to rein the overzealous security personnel in, and bear in mind that such treatment of students on Dhaka University campus triggered the crisis.

The government has taken some steps in the right direction. The withdrawal of army camp from the university was swift and the decision to apologise for the unfortunate incident appropriate. The relaxation of curfew for longer hours reflects a mature approach, but it needs to be withdrawn completely.

Some measures can be suggested to help defuse the tension. The first and foremost task is to bring back normalcy in the life of citizens. Curfew and constant harassment by security personnel is not normal. If the government has specific information on the "instigators" of disturbance, they should be promptly taken into custody. That will make it possible to withdraw the curfew and allow people to resume normal life.

The formation of commissions to conduct enquiries is known to the public as a strategy used to buy time and wait for the crisis to pass. The current situation calls for a different approach. As a state of emergency is in force, it should be possible to conduct a quick trial and hand down appropriate punishment to the person who were instrumental in triggering the crisis. This act will demonstrate the willingness of the government to adopt tough measures to protect the interest of students as well as establish firm control over security personnel who step out of line.

The next task should be to restore the confidence of the citizens in the government. This requires a demonstration of fairness in dealing with corruption. If the government is serious about combating corruption, all allegations must be carefully investigated and all leaders accused of corruption should be treated in the same manner. Support from the citizens has dwindled as they witnessed differential treatment for those alleged to be corrupt.

It is believed that anger directed at the government emanated from the frustration of people affected by the constantly increasing price of essential commodities. This problem needs to be addressed and placed high on the list of government priorities. The government will have to work in collaboration with traders and retailers to resolve the crisis. The business community can be a vital partner in the process. If necessary, the government should be prepared to inject substantial amount of money as well as logistic support to ensure adequate supply and reasonable prices. This is critical for the government to regain public confidence.

Finally, this is an opportunity to bring about improvements in the system of higher education and employment prospects of students. It is necessary to open a direct line of communication with the students, identify the areas of their concern, explore various courses of action and implement the best option to win over the confidence of students. Political reforms will not be effective unless the students can be rescued from exploitation by political parties. The battle against corruption requires sound and corruption-free campuses that will produce citizens of high integrity to serve the nation.

In addition to the holding of elections and peaceful handover of power, a plan to restore trust and confidence in the political system, and the development of a productive relationship with the students could be the contributions for which the government led by Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed will be remembered.
Ahmed Shafiqul Huque is a freelance contributor to The Daily Star.

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