Monday, September 24, 2007

Will Bangladesh learn from its neighbors about military rule?

Will Bangladesh learn from its neighbors about military rule?
SYLHET, September 24, 2007
Source: UPI Asia Online

Column: Humanity or Humor?
Wherever in the world a military government has been established, a human rights disaster has followed. Few nations have had the eyes to see or the public wisdom to assess the losses they have suffered, however. Some only come to understand years later the national tragedy inflicted on them by the military; sometimes it takes decades to realize and comprehend the wounds caused by militarization.

In two Southeast Asian neighbors of Bangladesh, Thailand and Burma, the people have already awakened to these problems. Within a year of becoming a military state, protests have increasingly taken place in Thailand. A referendum to approve the military government's new constitution failed in some of the country's northern areas, while the total number of votes cast in support of the constitution was disappointing to the rulers.

In neighboring Burma, Buddhist monks have taken to the streets in Rangoon and other parts of the country in recent weeks to protest against the military government that has ruled since 1962. The participation of the monks is rapidly being multiplied, and the protests have been spreading among other communities, such as cultural activists and, most importantly, ordinary people.

Thousands of monks have pushed the military government to such an extent that it allowed the country's top dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, to appear in public on Saturday, which was the Nobel laureate's first public appearance since 2003. Hundreds of bloggers have been disseminating information around the globe with photos, video footage and audio accounts in order to inform and attract more support from other parts of the world.

Meanwhile, the people of Bangladesh, who have been proud of their stance against tyrants since the days of British colonial rule, are in a radically different mood today. Unlike the national consensus before and after independence in 1971, this time the people seem to be dumb and deaf -- they do not protest against the military-backed government's unconstitutional nature and its repressive policies and actions.

The government's mechanisms of suppression, such as those employed with the media, have shut the people's mouths. This voiceless condition prevails all over the country and allows militarization to expand and embed itself everywhere.

People that claim to be intellectuals do not write or speak about the problems related to the present militarization. The renowned faces that always appear on local television are either busy praising the government or carefully avoiding critical comments, to protect themselves from the wrath of the armed forces. The intellectuals that spent hundreds of hours criticizing elected governments in recent years have apparently now forgotten how to speak out.

The so-called civil society personalities, who were tirelessly vocal about their respective political views in the past, have suddenly grown patient and silent at this crucial time. Why? Are there not enough reasons to speak out and enough incidents with which to disagree? Are all of them sleeping? Is not this the time to awaken the people and rulers of Bangladesh about the destruction of the country's democratic institutions? Should they not now be pointing out the current danger to Bangladesh's political system, the threat to the nation's democratic practices and institutions that maintain and protect the rule of law?

Every country needs a strong, committed and impartial group of people who love their nation and can act as the conscience of the country to correct their rulers' mistakes. Such members of civil society who consciously avoid the corridors of power can influence the views and policies of the nation's leaders.

Bangladesh's fate is quite unfortunate in this context, however, for it has failed to generate such a trustworthy group of people for decades: sadly, everyone is deemed politically biased in the country. Is it not possible for the people to lift the country from the depths of militarization to which it has plunged, a political descent that is pushing the nation backward?

In January, in the midst of a chilly winter, the present government took power through an overnight declaration of a state of emergency and a curfew across the country. The winter has been prolonged for months, however, as the nation has not realized its dire dilemma -- an ominous predicament especially affecting the economy, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It is not known how long the nation will suffer from these chilling winds of winter. The spring must come quickly and without delay. Is the spring still far away in Bangladesh? Will the nation learn from its neighbors how to resurrect freedom in a militarized nation?

(Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender living in Sylhet in Bangladesh, who has been working on human rights issues in the country for more than a decade and who was a journalist in Bangladesh in the 1990s.)

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