Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Reality redefined

Reality redefined
Source: New Age Editorial
October 2, 2007

While one would have liked to give the chief adviser the benefit of the doubt and feel reassured by his statement, made this time to the global community, that his government had an ‘unswerving commitment to democracy and to the protection of human rights,’ the distorted and misleading version of the past and the present situation in Bangladesh that he provided to the world suggests that he himself is either unaware of what is going on in this country or is unwilling to provide a true picture of the ground reality in this country to the world outside, writes Shameran Abed

THE chief adviser to the military-driven interim government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, has recently returned from a trip to the United States where he gave a series of talks in New York in addition to addressing a near-empty United Nations General Assembly and attending a reception hosted by the US president, George W Bush. The chief adviser also spoke at a reception given in his honour by a section of the Bangladeshi community of New York. Wherever he went, Fakhruddin stuck to the same message that his government does not have any ambition to remain in power for longer than is necessary and that credible and acceptable elections to the ninth parliament will be held by the end of next year, come hell or high water.

That the chief adviser is aware of the fact that there is growing suspicion and wariness about the real motives of his government and its backers, both nationally and internationally, is evident from the fact that he felt it necessary, time and again, to reiterate that his government is not here to stay but that it was working with elections, with the return to a democratic dispensation in mind. While addressing the Bangladeshi community, the chief adviser claimed that he himself was not in favour of the extended stay of an unelected government and that his interim government was working to bring in an elected government as soon as is practicable.

While one would have liked to give the chief adviser the benefit of the doubt and feel reassured by his statement, made this time to the global community, that his government had an ‘unswerving commitment to democracy and to the protection of human rights,’ the distorted and misleading version of the past and the present situation in Bangladesh that he provided to the world suggests that he himself is either unaware of what is going on in this country or is unwilling to provide a true picture of the ground reality in this country to the world outside.

The chief adviser told the United Nations of the ‘ruinous corruption’ in our country that has undermined our democracy in the last two decades. He spoke of the ‘winner-takes-all’ electoral system that made corruption both the ‘means to and end of winning an election.’ This is all true, of course. But can Bangladesh’s democratic failure be blamed on the ‘ruinous corruption’ of the last decade and a half alone? Are the politicians who have been in charge of our destiny since the return to democratic governance in the early 1990s alone responsible for our political and governance failures? What the chief adviser chose not to mention is that the democratic institutions in our country have been systematically weakened since our independence by the unelected and undemocratic military and quasi-military governments of the past, and that the people of this country have time and again, pre- and post-independence, organised themselves for heroic struggles to rid the country of autocratic regimes. Few countries in the world can boast the legacy of struggle that Bangladesh can for the right to self-determination, democracy and human dignity.

Having painted a convenient picture of the state of affairs in Bangladesh leading to the military intervention on January 11 and the coming to power of his administration the following day, the chief adviser then provided a highly misleading picture of the situation in Bangladesh at present. He referred to the constitution to make a case for the constitutionality and hence, the legitimacy of his government by explaining to the UN that ‘the non-party caretaker administration acts as a bridge between successive political governments’ and that his administration’s ‘task, first and foremost, is to ensure a free and fair election.’ He also said the ‘task of conducting a free and fair election is the responsibility of the Election Commission.’ Since the chief adviser had decided to hide behind our constitution, perhaps he should also have also mentioned to the UN that our constitution stipulates that the Election Commission must hold parliamentary elections within 90 days of the dissolution of parliament and that the caretaker government, which is meant to be in power for those 90 days, is allowed by the constitution only to run the day-to-day affairs of the state and not take any policy decisions of the government. Both the Election Commission and his interim government are, therefore, carrying on in gross violation of the constitution that he referred to.

The chief adviser also said his government has ‘already overhauled the Election Commission, guaranteeing its independence and giving it a broader mandate. The Election Commission, on its own accord, has announced a timeline for holding the next parliamentary election by the end of 2008.’ Once again, we find that the chief adviser has been less than honest to the international community. While his government may have reconstituted the Election Commission in February, it is yet to separate the commission’s secretariat from the office of the chief executive, much less make it independent. Not only does the commission not have financial or administrative autonomy, that it is still dictated to by the interim government rather than dictating to it as per our constitution is evident from the fact that its repeated demands since April for a relaxing of restrictions on politics was snubbed by the government till September. Also, regardless of what the chief adviser might claim, few believe that the electoral ‘roadmap’ announced by the Election Commission was done on its own accord. The idea of having a ‘roadmap’, some say, was initiated by a foreign non-governmental organisation to prop up this government and to appease an increasingly restless donor community, and that the preparation of the roadmap was highly influenced by this interim government.

The chief adviser has claimed that his government has ‘initiated necessary steps to fully separate the executive and judicial branches of the government.’ That may indeed be the case, but in introducing the draconian Emergency Power Rules that have turned normally bailable offences non-bailable by taking the power to grant bail away from the judges, in constituting special courts that appear to be summarily sentencing the ‘corrupt’ to years in jail on flimsy evidence that are at times extracted from people under duress, in turning jurisprudence on its head by making people effectively guilty until proven innocent, rather than innocent until proven guilty, the government of Fakhruddin Ahmed has done great harm to the judiciary. What good will the independence of the judiciary do, when it finally does come, if the hands of the judges are tied behind their backs by the emergency rules that have also taken away the fundamental rights of the citizens?

Also, while it is indeed heartening that the chief adviser understands that ‘political parties are among the core constituents of democracy’ – one would not guess that his government feels much utility in having a political establishment in the country at all – the chief adviser has again been less than honest in suggesting that ‘in response to the demands of the people, the main political parties have themselves initiated various reforms.’ The people want the political parties to become more internally democratic for sure, but not a single political party has yet initiated a process of reform in response to those demands.
First of all, the political parties, up until a few days before Fakhruddin flew to the United States, were under lockdown with all political activity banned. Second, those within the major parties who have been pushing the ‘reform’ agenda during the lockdown in complete disregard of the government ban have done so at the egging on of the powers that be and in fear of the wind of the anti-corruption drive sweeping them along with it. It is no secret that the Fakhruddin government and its backers have been actively seeking political alternatives to the leadership of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson Khaleda Zia and the Awami League president Sheikh Hasina. The ‘reform’ agenda within the parties, thus far promoted by the opportunist stooges of this government, has concentrated solely on achieving this objective, not on the real democratisation of the parties.

The chief adviser has also spoken of the need for a National Human Rights Commission, saying his government has taken the decision to establish one, which would indeed be a step in the right direction. However, just as constituting an independent Anti-Corruption Commission was the ultimate paradox for the BNP-led alliance government which is considered to be the most corrupt in our country’s history, so might the constitution of a human rights commission be for this government, which continues to circumvent due process and against which there are widespread allegations of torture and human rights violations of those taken into custody. If the Fakhruddin government could first ensure that the minimum human rights and dignities of those who have been taken into custody during his tenure are ensured, and bring to justice those responsible for those violations in the last almost nine months, perhaps his promise of establishing a human rights commission could be considered a genuine intention rather than an eyewash for the international community and the people of this country alike.

Fakhruddin told the United Nations that his government ‘is fully committed to ensuring that our reform initiatives are comprehensive and irreversible.’ Does this chief adviser not realise that his government is doing everything possible, especially by circumventing the due process, to ensure that none of its reform measures will be sustainable in the long-run?

Most distressingly, the chief adviser told the General Assembly that ‘Bangladesh represents an effective model of civil-military cooperation in crisis prevention. Our experience in crisis management could be relevant for many crisis-torn, nascent democracies.’ That Bangladesh’s political establishment has failed to deliver governance to the extent that the people, at least at the beginning, welcomed an unelected regime that was brought about by the military should be nothing but a cause of shame and embarrassment for our country. An effective model of civil-military cooperation, even in crisis management, can only be found in true democracies, where the military works in harmony with the civil administration but remains at all times subservient to an elected political government. The existence of an unelected, undemocratic and unconstitutional government that is sustained by the military through the proclamation of an emergency that suspends the people’s fundamental rights to speak, gather and protest does not ‘represent an effective model of civil-military cooperation.’

Fakhruddin Ahmed, through his long and distinguished career as a bureaucrat, has gained a reputation of being a man of honesty and integrity. Unfortunately, his speech to the United Nations General Assembly does nothing to uphold that reputation. The country’s president, Iajuddin Ahmed, did irreparable harm to his own reputation and legacy during the short time that he headed a caretaker government. Does Fakhruddin Ahmed wish to take a similar route by concocting his own brand of omissions and half-truths?

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