MAC: Mines and Communities

BULLETS AND BALLOTS: Army Takeover in Bangladesh

Published by MAC on 2007-06-04

BULLETS AND BALLOTS: Army Takeover in Bangladesh

Stalls Key Muslim Democracy: US, UN Backed Move To Prevent Flawed Vote; Mass Jailings in Dhaka

YAROSLAV TROFIMOV, Wall Street Journal

4th June 2007

WHEN the Bangladesh army intervened to abort a flawed election in this Muslim nation of 150 million in January, the U.S. and United Nations both offered tacit support for the coup.

But now the army-installed caretaker government is back-pedaling on its pledge to organize a quick, clean vote and then relinquish authority. And the once-bloodless coup is turning into something more sinister. Since January, an estimated 200,000 people, including hundreds of leading politicians and businessmen, have been jailed under emergency rules that suspend civil rights and outlaw all political activity. According to human-rights groups, scores of others, seized by the troops in the middle of the night, have been tortured to death or summarily executed.

Bangladesh's new rulers insist the crackdown is needed to reform what international watchdogs such as Transparency International have frequently ranked as the most corrupt nation on Earth. "We do not want to go back to an elective democracy where corruption is all-pervasivecand where political criminalization threatens the very survival and integrity of the state," the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moeen Uddin Ahmed, explained in a rare speech in April.

But critics say the outcome amounts to this: With the support of the U.S. and the international community, what used to be the world's second-largest Muslim democracy, after Indonesia, has turned into the world's second-largest military regime, after Pakistan.

Bangladesh's new government "is very quickly squandering the goodwill that it had at the beginning," says Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "At this point, it's quite clear: The army is running the country. And they're making it pretty clear they don't intend to leave anytime soon."

For the U.S., this unexpected turn of events presents a dilemma. Bangladesh has long been a U.S. ally at the strategic crossroads of India and China. But its version of democracy had been hijacked by two powerful political dynasties that resorted to violence and graft in their contest for power, and that struck alliances with radical Islam.

By contrast, the new military-backed government in Dhaka is positioning itself as an eager participant in the U.S.-led global battle against Islamic extremists.

Yet a protracted military dictatorship in Bangladesh could end up backfiring and catalyze the so-far limited support for these extremists  echoing what happened in Pakistan following Gen. Pervez Musharraf's coup in 1999. There, the Islamists have become the main political alternative to the regime, as increasingly strict religious observance spreads throughout the country amid violence by fundamentalist groups.

To disrupt this dynamic in other places, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks the administration of President Bush has been pushing to democratize the Muslim world. This strategy has been dented by electoral victories that Islamists often win when given a chance, from Lebanon to Egypt to Palestinian territories.

But Islamists have always fared badly at the polls in Bangladesh, a former province of Pakistan that became independent in a bloody war in 1971. Islamists backed the losing side. Since 1991, Bangladesh also had a democratic system that, however imperfect, allowed the opposition to oust incumbent governments in generally free and fair elections, something that almost never happens in the Arab world.

So far, the Bush administration has abstained from open criticism of the new Bangladeshi government's behavior  though, at a briefing last month, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack urged Bangladesh to "move as quickly and as effectively as it can to elections."

Harsher words are coming from Congress. In a May 14 letter to the Bangladeshi government, 15 senators expressed "strong concern over the ongoing state of emergency" and "custodial deaths" in the country.

They also urged a prompt restoration of "full civil and political rights to all citizens of Bangladesh." Signers include Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, and Christopher Dodd, as well as a handful of Republicans, including Richard Lugar.

Officials in Dhaka respond to such criticism by saying foreigners just don't appreciate the magnitude of the new government's task.

"After the collapse of the civilian government, after a civil-war situation, don't you think it takes time for any government to bring the law and order situation under control?" says Mainul Hussein, the caretaker minister of law, justice and information, in an interview.

Mr. Hussein adds that he's particularly "fed up" with Westerners bringing up human-rights abuses in his country. "Bangladesh is going through a huge crisis," he says. "Is this the time to discuss individual cases? Individuals are not important!"

The civil strife that the army-backed regime stepped in to quell sprang out of a bitter, personal conflict between the two individuals who had taken turns in governing Bangladesh over the past 15 years.

The first, Khaleda Zia, prime minister in 1991-96 and 2001-06, is the widow of the general who led Bangladesh's 1971 independence war against Pakistan and who was later assassinated by army officers in a coup attempt.

The second, Sheikh Hasina, was prime minister in 1996-2001. She is the daughter of Bangladesh's founding prime minister. Along with most of her immediate relatives, he had been slaughtered by soldiers in an earlier coup.

The two women, who still command the loyalty of millions of supporters, cooperated in organizing mass pro-democracy protests that ousted a previous military regime in late 1990. Since then, however, Bangladesh's political life was defined by their increasingly acrimonious feud.

Though Ms. Hasina is seen as slightly more secularist and liberal than Ms. Khaleda, both women built their political parties through patronage networks and dynastic allegiances rather than well-defined ideologies. The two parties sold parliament seats to deep-pocketed businessmen, used criminal gangs to silence critics, and funded election campaigns through extortion, independent observers and Western diplomats say. During Ms. Khaleda's second term, in particular, "Mafia-like structures captured the state," says Kamal Hossein, a prominent lawyer and the drafter of Bangladesh's constitution.

Though this pervasive corruption deterred many foreign investors, Bangladesh's economy  dominated by agriculture and textiles, and dependent on remittances by overseas workers  benefited from the recent economic boom in its neighbors India and China. While Bangladesh's per-capita income still remains below $500 a year, among the world's lowest, the country's economy last year expanded by a healthy 6.7%.

This growth, however, received a hit at the end of 2006, as the long-running hostility between Ms. Khaleda and Ms. Hasina flared up ahead of elections scheduled for Jan. 22. Ms. Hasina was believed to be the front-runner, especially after she put together a broad alliance that  despite her party's secular roots  also included a radical Islamist group that admired Afghanistan's notorious former rulers, the Taliban.

Ms. Khaleda, whose governing coalition already included Islamic fundamentalists, was widely seen as attempting to fix the upcoming vote. A study by the U.S. National Democratic Institute, which was observing the campaign, found that the updated voter rolls inexplicably contained some 13 million more names than would be possible given the country's population. The supposedly independent electoral commission, stacked with Ms. Khaleda's supporters, did little to purge these phantom voters, and to address other concerns raised by the opposition.

In response, Ms. Hasina and her allies angrily withdrew from the election they viewed as irreparably fraudulent, and vowed to disrupt it by force. Strikes, road blockades and clashes of armed gangs supporting the two rivals spread all over the country, derailing economic activity and causing dozens of deaths.

Amid the bloodshed, U.S. Ambassador Patricia Butenis and other Western envoys shuttled between the two warring women in a futile attempt to find a compromise. Ms. Butenis warned Ms. Khaleda and Ms. Hasina that the Bangladeshi army could intervene if the situation deteriorated any further, people familiar with these meetings say. Bangladeshi generals, at the same time, were informed in separate meetings that most Western ambassadors would pull out of Dhaka if the controversial election took place, according to a senior member of the Bangladeshi military.

Ms. Khaleda discounted this talk of a putsch, confident of the army's support; Ms. Hasina says she believed an army intervention would be in her favor.

Indeed, until the very last moment, Bangladeshi generals seemed reluctant to strike. Trying to be seen as a benign, enlightened force after democracy was restored, the army has focused on helping the U.N. maintain peace and organize free elections in the world's trouble spots. Nearly 10,000 Bangladeshi soldiers are deployed today under U.N. command in Lebanon, Congo, Ivory Coast and elsewhere, an arrangement that lets them earn more during a year on U.N. payroll than in a lifetime at home.

Following extensive consultations with the U.S. and other Western nations, which by then had denounced the upcoming election as unfair and pulled out observers, the U.N. on Jan. 11 took action. In a formal statement released in Dhaka, the most senior U.N. official in Bangladesh, Renata Lok Dessallien, cautioned that the scheduled election "would not be considered credible or legitimate." Because of this, her statement warned, there may be "implications" for the Bangladesh army's future participation in U.N. peacekeeping should the election be allowed to take place.

Before the day was over, a delegation of Bangladeshi generals led by the chief of staff, Gen. Moeen, walked into the office of the country's president, a supporter of Ms. Khaleda, with the U.N. statement in hand, according to senior officers. They demanded that the Jan. 22 election be canceled and that power be transferred to a new caretaker administration hand-picked by the army. The army by then had disconnected the land line and cellular phones of Ms. Khaleda and her top aides. The president complied.

In a statement released shortly thereafter, the U.S. government noted that it had been urging Ms. Khaleda's and Ms. Hasina's parties "to engage in dialogue to resolve their differences, and to refrain from violence"  and added that the Bangladeshi authorities "felt compelled to declare a state of emergency." A U.S. official says that, while the U.S. government did not "actively" seek a coup, it felt "relief" that a catastrophe had been averted. Ms. Dessallien of the U.N. has declined to comment on the record about her role in these events.

The new government installed by Bangladesh's army is headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed, a respected former World Bank economist and central-bank governor. Dr. Ahmed insists that he, and not the army, is ultimately in charge. Some foreign diplomats who deal with the regime and many Bangladeshis dispute that. In his first speech, in January, Dr. Ahmed declared he is "pledge-bound to hold new elections within the shortest possible time." Other government officials said at the time that an elected successor would take over within three to six months.

But in his second speech three months later, Dr. Ahmed announced that the election won't be held before the end of 2008, and that the country must first undergo profound reforms transforming it into a "luminous star of good governance in South Asia."

Before any vote, Bangladeshi officials say now, new voter rolls must be prepared, complete with computerized photo IDs  a formidable task in a country with barely functioning infrastructure and a population that is more than 50% illiterate.

"I'm in doubt as to whether they really want to hold an election," Ms. Hasina says in an interview at her tightly guarded residence, minutes after consoling crying wives of her detained supporters.

The army, meanwhile, has attempted to push Ms. Khaleda and Ms. Hasina into exile. Informed by the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence while visiting the U.S. in April that she could not return home, Ms. Hasina kept trying to board Bangladesh-bound planes in London. International indignation forced Bangladesh to reverse the ban. A separate attempt to exile Ms. Khaleda to Saudi Arabia failed because the Saudi embassy wouldn't issue her a visa.

So, while Ms. Khaleda and Ms. Hasina remain relatively free, the new government concentrates on destroying their political parties, locking up former ministers, parliament members, mayors and senior apparatchiks. Those in jail include the secretary-general of Ms. Hasina's party, as well as Ms. Khaleda's son Tarique Rahman, who had amassed great fortune and power as her likely successor. Some independent human-rights campaigners who criticize the army have also been thrown behind bars.

Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, a retired lieutenant-general who was appointed in February to head the country's powerful new Anti-Corruption Commission, calculates that "at least 99%" of Bangladeshi politicians are corrupt. A return to democracy without eliminating the existing political establishment would be pointless, he explains in an interview: "Half of these corrupt ones will come back as members of parliament again, so you will not have achieved anything by having an election."

One method followed by Mr. Chowdhury, Gen. Moeen's immediate predecessor as army chief of staff, in his purges is to demand from his targets a complete statement of assets, which must be prepared within a few days. Those whose statements show even a minor discrepancy with actual assets are detained pending a trial by special fast-track courts. Bail is usually not allowed.

This crackdown, along with daily detentions carried out directly by the army, has caused a panic in Bangladesh's business community, frightened by the seeming randomness of many arrests. As a result, inflation has spiked, and economic growth is expected to slow down this year. "In this country, corruption was systemic  but there are a lot of people who are much more corrupt than the ones they've arrested," complained Abdul Awal Mintoo, former president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry and chief executive of the Multimode Group, a Dhaka-based conglomerate. "All of us are corrupt here," he added over coffee on a recent afternoon. "Can you take everybody to jail in this country?"

A few days later, Bangladesh's military took him into custody, in its latest round of arrests under emergency rules.

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