When I left Bangladesh, on the night of the January 8th the last images I saw of the country, through TVs at the airport, was of police beating back protesters and firing rubber bullets in to mass crowds. The quiet departure gate rang to the sounds of screaming women, broadcast across a near airport. So long, and thanks for the memories.
By the time I came back, on the 22nd, much had changed. To give a very brief run-down: to avert a potential bloodbath, on January 11th President Iajuddin Ahmed resigned from his controversial position as head of the Caretaker Government (CTG), and, as President, postponed the elections that were due to be held on the 22nd of January.
The final straw was the UN, EU, and USA all by this point stating that with a flawed voter list and the boycott of the main opposition, the election couldn’t be international acceptable – in effect also legitimising the Awami League’s allegations against the BNP.
Iajuddin declared a State of Emergency and handed power to Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former central bank governer and World Bank official, and placed him in charge of an ‘interim government’, as now, constitutionally the 90-day tenure of the CTG has expired. We’re in uncharted territory.
Far from there being panic across the country, everything is eerily calm. The interim government has an urgent priority to clamp down on the most corrupt officials (hence the current mass flight to India of ‘ senior businessmen’), clean up the partisan civil service, fix the power crisis, keep food prices in check, and most urgently, create a new, legitimate voter list with a functioning id system, and then finally hold elections. Already the national security chief, the top civil-servant in the power ministry, and the attorney general have been ousted. The head of the Electoral Commission has also finally resigned, and efforts are being made to separate the judiciary from the executive.
But to set up a new Electoral Commission and create a new, error-free voter list is a mammoth task in a country with nearly 150 million people, and it needs to be done before the monsoon season starts in July. When the country starts to dry out again in September, it would be almost a year without a democratic government, and it is difficult to predict whether by that time another credible one could still emerge. Why is the interim government suddenly able to make such sweeping changes?
Why is the country so calm, with no protests or media furore? Because of the Emergency Powers Rules of 2007.
The new rules for the country were formally published on January 26th. You can read them here. The state of emergency came with sweeping new powers for the interim government to arrest anyone without charge or a warrant. And they are being brutally exercised; since January 12th over 20,000 people have been arrested, at an average of 1,400 a day so far.
My friend Tom swears to me that last week the main ‘news’ in the paper was that the day before, no-one had died in police custody. I can’t source this, but I have no reason not to believe him. Human Rights Watch issued a press-release on Friday calling for the government to take immediate steps to stop extra-judicial killings, which the Daily Star published on their front page on Saturday 27th, next to a photo of a man being tortured in a police station.
Equally worrying is the clampdown on all public protest, political action, and dissent in the media. Technically this blog entry is illegal. Some highlight from the new regulations: “The Government can ban any meeting, procession, siege, demonstration, speech, statement, any harmful news or information in the interest of government, state or public security and peace.
“The government can also restrict any publication or transmission of any anti-government news, editorial, post editorial, article, feature, cartoon, talk show or discussion in print or on electronic media and any mass media, including the internet.
“On post, radio, telegram, telex, fax and telephone services, the rules of emergency said the government can empower officers and authorities to halt, delay any disbursement of messages or news.
“In case of violation of the restrictions, the offenders will have to suffer a maximum of five years or a minimum of two years rigorous imprisonment along with fines.
“Whatever the existing laws and rules contain, all offences under the emergency rules will be justified by speedy trial court, speedy trial tribunal, metropolitan magistrate and first class magistrate. The offences under this rule will be considered as cognizable, non-compoundable and non-bailable.”
This is deeply alarming, and although the country seems to be calm, it’s an Orwellian sense of 1984 serenity, rather than life being back to normal. Private TV stations are being forced to show State news bulletins. The main-English language papers are publishing news of the mass-arrests, but padding out their comment sections with either speculation about the new election date, or crap.
The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a press-release on Friday roundly condemning the new act. A free media, the freedoms of expression and political association is one of the fundamental keystones to any kind of democratic or free society.
When the governing body effectively bans dissent and protest, it automatically implies that there must be something to protest about. Not only does the media provide an independent source of information for the public, which is vital at any time but absolutely indispensable in the run up to an election, the media provides an indispensable scrutinising role of those in power.
The media is one of the main tools for the public to hold its leaders to account in between elections. Far from tackling corruption, by gagging the media, gagging the people, Fakhruddin Ahmed is almost encouraging corruption and extra-judicial behaviour from those in government. They can now operate without scrutiny, out of the public-eye, and although they have no democratic mandate, that doesn’t mean that they have no power.
The Bangladeshi people trusted their leaders to dissolve their parliament at the end of last September, on the proviso that within 90 days the CTG would give the people fresh elections, they would gain their power back. The Constitution acted as the people’s guarantee.
Instead, the Bangladeshi leaders have flagrantly disregarded the Constitution, abused the trust of the people, and grossly abused the power they have been invested with. Now nobody knows quite what will happen, the Constitution has not provided for this scenario, and we only have the word of the interim government that they are determined to create an atmosphere and environment where free and fair elections can be held – although they haven’t declared a date yet.
The Economist queries here whether there will ever be an election at all, dubbing the situation a coup in all but name. I wouldn’t necessarily call this situation a coup, but I would term it a disaster, and the interim government is standing on a very thin veneer of patience and good-will.
Whilst the interim government must take its time to ensure that elections are free and fair, having a free media to report on the process is a basic starting-point. Media freedoms must be restored, otherwise the freedom to choose a political representative is worthless.