For successive years 'democracy' to an average Bangladeshi has meant little more than bitter polarized politics, long absenteeism from the Jatiya Sangsad (National Assembly), and unruly mass rallies, demonstrations and pitched street battles between the two main political parties, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). While each of these parties, during their tenure in the Opposition, managed to hold the country to ransom by paralyzing the administration, they utilized their time in government by engaging in rampant and uninhibited corruption. This remained true not just for national politics, but for all forms of representative politics at every level, down to what went on in most of the 64 Districts of the country.
Under the circumstances, the measures undertaken by the interim government, which functions under a limited mandate to prepare the roadmap for national elections, to carry out extensive reforms in both the political and administrative arena, have the appearance of bringing about a much-needed cleanup of the political mess in Bangladesh. At the same time, however, several of these measures have been authoritarian and repressive, and suggest that the regime may be seeking to consolidate its rule, rather than to make way for an elected government in the immediate future.
A state of Emergency was declared on January 11, 2007, by President Iajuddin Ahmed amidst raging feuds between the two main political alliances, and an interim government was installed the next day. The invoking of Emergency provisions also led to the suspension of fundamental rights, all forms of political activity and imposed press censorship in the country. Over the succeeding months, the interim government has systematically graduated to the status of a regime that holds extraordinary -- if not absolute -- powers.
As a result, there is, today, complete confusion regarding the holding of Parliamentary elections, originally slated for January 21, 2007. On February 27, the head of the interim government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, stated that it was not possible to indicate a specific timeframe for elections, as electoral reforms were now under way, a prerequisite for holding free, fair and credible polls. Indications that emerged in March 2007 suggest that the comprehensive electoral reforms, including the preparation of the new voters' list and identity cards for all above 18 years of age, would only begin in the month of July. According to sources in the Election Commission, the massive exercise involving about 76 to 80 million voters, would require at least a year to be completed, thus indicating that the Parliamentary elections might be held no earlier than the end of 2008 or in early 2009.
Part of the reform process that the interim government has undertaken, and one of its priorities, is the
'mission' to rid politics in impoverished Bangladesh of corruption, a move that has been described by the Chief Advisor, Fakhruddin Ahmed, as one that "would help create an environment congenial to holding the stalled polls in an acceptable manner". On January 22, 2007, Fakhruddin Ahmed had vowed to crack down on the endemic corruption and violence which, he said, undermined the country's democracy. The Berlin-based corruption watchdog Transparency International had rated Bangladesh as the third most corrupt country in 2006 along with Congo, Sudan and Chad.
The anti-corruption drives of the interim government have been comprehensive and have targeted the highest and most powerful in the country. The government reconstituted the Anti-corruption Commission (ACC) on February 25, 2007, and has since tightened Emergency powers with provisions barring the corrupt from taking part in any polls. High profile members of both political parties, businessmen and bureaucrats, have been taken into custody for alleged corrupt practices and Taka 26 billion (USD 377 million) in 53 bank accounts have been frozen. Among those arrested are the outgoing Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's son and senior joint secretary general of the BNP, Tarique Rahman; Nazmul Huda and Salauddin Quader Chowdhury of the BNP; the mayor of Chittagong, A.B.M. Mohiuddin Chowdhury; and Mohammad Nasim of the AL. Investigations are continuing into the alleged links between Tarique Rahman and the Indian fugitive mafia don and US designated 'global terrorist', Dawood Ibrahim.
The government has also announced its decision to ratify the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) that would allow Bangladesh to benefit from a comprehensive international cooperation framework for mutual law enforcement assistance, especially in extradition and investigations. The government has further asked the National Board of Revenue to prepare profiles of over 100 former lawmakers or businessmen who have links with political parties, to determine whether their living standards matched their declared incomes. Further, on March 21, the government promulgated an amendment to the Emergency Powers Rules, 2007, suspending the rights to appeal for bail and seek redress from any higher court until a case is resolved in a trial court. The amendment also gave the ACC sweeping powers to seize moveable and immovable assets of corruption suspects without the permission of the government or officials appointed by the government.
Such moves, which have been welcomed by several sections of society in Bangladesh, have also been accompanied by a subtle growth in the power of the Army. It is widely speculated that the anti-corruption moves of the interim government have been blessed by the Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed. It is the Army that has gained the most during the ongoing phase. The long-dormant National Security Council is being reconstituted, giving the military Chiefs a formal means of expressing views about the way the country is run and a potential veto over government decisions. Eight central and 64 District-based Anti-corruption Task Forces have been constituted, comprising members of the Army, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a para-military force under the Home Ministry, and the different intelligence agencies.
On many occasions, Army vigilantism has bordered on the extremes of excessive repression. According to a March 13 Press release by human rights organization, Odhikar, during the first 60 days of the state of Emergency, from January 12 to March 12, 2007, a total of 50 people were killed during operations by law enforcement agencies, while 95,825 were arrested. Similarly, a new-found confidence in the Security Forces has also transformed into several repressive measures targeting the largely free Media. On March 9, 2007, the Police arrested Idris Ali, editor of a local weekly, in Barisal, and M.A. Muhit, correspondent for the newspaper Jugantor. Two days earlier, the Security Forces raided the newspaper Janakantha, arrested publisher and editor Atiqullah Khan Masud, and searched his home. Khan Masud, who in late January had openly criticised the imposition of Press censorship, is in custody for a month on charges of corruption, criminal activities and "tarnishing the country's image abroad". In February, Police searched the homes of seven journalists in Rupgonj, near the capital, after articles critical of a Police officer were published. The editor of Pratham Alo, Matiur Rahman, was also been arrested on March 19 by the Security Forces.
The anti-corruption moves have created another class of victims, the poor, whose houses had come up in unauthorized settlements in many places, including capital Dhaka. The interim government has flattened these structures leaving thousands homeless. Some aid organisations estimate that, in the first two months of the Emergency, more than 50,000 people have been evicted from more than a dozen slums in Dhaka alone.
However, the government's anti-corruption moves, steps to arrest the rise in prices of essential commodities, and the anti-hoarding policy, have found ready supporters in a country where nearly 50 percent of the population is under the poverty line.
Similarly, the government has also done well in targeting the vast network of Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) militants, a task that appeared to have been deliberately left unfinished by the previous BNP-led regime. On March 4, 2007, President Iajuddin Ahmed rejected the mercy petitions of the six convicted JMB leaders, paving the way for their execution, speculated to be scheduled between April 13 and 19. The decision marked an end to the judicial process that commenced with their individual arrests in the first half of 2006. Additionally, as a part of the ongoing drive against the militants, the security forces have arrested a number of the outfit's cadres, including several second and lower-rung leaders from several Districts. Among the arrested are:
- JMB cadres Morshedul Islam and Sirajul Islam, arrested from Gangachara Sub-district of the Rangpur District, on March 19 while planning to carry out subversive activities.
- Madrassa (seminary) teacher Abdulla, arrested from Joyvoga in Gabtoli Sub-district of Bogra on March 12, for his alleged involvement with JMB.
- Mahtab Khamaru, a close aide of JMB second-in-command Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai, arrested at a mosque at Talgharia in the Bagmara Sub-district of Rajshahi on March 9.
- Abul Hossain Master, JMB's Atrai Sub-district chief and a close associate of Bangla Bhai, arrested from Naogaon District on March 2. Mosharaf Hossain, JMB's second-in-command of the same Sub-district was also arrested on the same day.
- Madrassa teacher Abdus Sattar who is also a close aide of Bangla Bhai, arrested in the Bagmara sub-district of Rajshahi on March 1. Sattar was reportedly reorganising the absconding JMB militants.
- JMB militant Russell Ahmed arrested from at Chakpara in Sreepur on January 31. Ahmed was actively involved in the bomb attack at Gazipur on August 17, 2005.
- JMB's northern districts' explosives supplier, Saifur Rahman, arrested from the Lalbagh area of Rangpur town on January 19.
Significantly, however, there are no reports of the Islamist terrorist Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami
-- Bangladesh (HuJI-B), being specifically targeted by the present regime. It is useful to recall the HuJI-B has been involved in a number of recent terrorist incidents in India, has deep linkages with terrorist organizations based in Pakistan, including the al Qaeda, and is considered to constitute a significant international terrorist threat. HuJI-B figures in the US State Department's list of
'other terrorist groups'. The complete absence of action against this group in the sweeping SF operations across the country can only raise suspicions regarding the criteria on which these actions are based.
That Bangladesh desperately needs democratic and political reforms is unquestionable. However, the manner in which these are being imposed by the interim government, without any process of debate or consultation, raises many and disturbing questions. While a complete lack of faith and confidence in either of the two principal political groupings remains the basis of the popular silence on the ongoing transformations in the country, history should serve as a ready reckoner: promises of stability in a milieu of political anarchy have historically catapulted dictators and fascists into the seats of authority. It would be a tragedy if preceding conditions of near-chaos serve as the foundations for a permanent retreat or denial of democracy in Bangladesh.
Bibhu Prasad Routray is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal