The suspension of politics in Bangladesh – the end of freedom?

On Sunday Fakhruddin Ahmed, the Chief Advisor to Bangladesh’s ‘interim’ military-technocratic administration came to Sylhet. He declared that the administration was directly accountable to the people, and was a constitutional government as it had assumed office taking the oath on the Constitution. He went on to say that his government wanted real democracy, adding that a peaceful atmosphere and social stability were the pre-requisites for holding free, fair and credible elections.

This is all utter nonsense, and I’m disappointed that I was in the office and unable to witness his statements myself.

These are the facts about the political situation in Bangladesh at the moment:

Since the military coup on January 11th, the Emergency Powers Ordinance promulgated on January 12th has suspended these ‘Constitutionally guaranteed’ rights:

  • Freedom of movement
  • Freedom of assembly
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of thought and conscience
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of profession and occupation
  • Rights to property.

The security services have the power to tap the phones of any individual with the Home Ministry’s permission, and apparently requests for this have more than doubled since the coup.

On March 8th, there was a sign that Bangladesh is in for the long haul with the announcement of the reformation of a National Security Council. This shows that the military are realising that the sham of ‘military backed civilian administration’ is beginning to look unsustainable. Fakhruddin will sit as leader, like a dummy to the military ventriloquists, who will be represented by the chiefs of the three armed forces amonst ‘intelligence and security’ officers.

On the same day, a massive ‘anti-corruption and crime’ taskforce was announced that will stretch over the country, including members of the RAB, the army, and the intelligence services, headed by retired army officials.

On March 9th, it was revealed that this new taskforce will have the power to detain without a warrant any individual. The taskforce will be authorised to conduct searches and confiscate the property in
Bangladesh or abroad of any people linked with any type of crime.

And lastly on March 9th the administration issued a complete ban on all political activities, indoors and outdoors, and all processions, meetings and discussions. The administration added (and I think this must be a joke) that it was taking these measures because “different political parties were misusing the government’s liberal attitude”.

So – with all types of protests banned, with no elected administration or elected officials in charge, no indication yet of when any election might be held, and a National Security Council set up coupled with a huge new taskforce that has sweeping powers of arrest and detention – how, Mr Fakhruddin, is this administration ‘directly accountable to the people’? When will you ever hear or be aware of the people’s opinion? When you ask them in prison, after locking them up for having an opinion?

It is indisputable that Bangladesh was heading for imminent disaster before the military took over, and it is indisputable that the offices of the political parties, the elected officials, the civil service, and business leaders were blighted by endemic institutional corruption which was slowly but surely destroying the State, and the lives of 150 million people who entrusted their authority to it.

But this is rapidly descending in to a farce. If politics is the peaceful resolution of conflict, if politics is the lawful representation of disputes, if politics is what makes a State and its people alive, then to suspend all politics and ban all protests is to take away all hope for
Bangladesh. There was such optimism last month when Dr Yunus announced he was entering politics, and wanted to reform
Bangladesh of its ills, but with the blanket ban even Yunus isn’t allowed to get involved. It’s as if the supposed doctor has been banned from visiting the patient.

The Bangladeshi human rights organisation Odhikar has recently reported that since the declaration of the State of Emergency, 95,825 persons have been arrested by security and there were at least 50 deaths. You could argue then that the sick body, Bangladesh, is very sick indeed.

I believe that to cure this patient, the doctor, which is politics, and by that I mean the opinions, the energy, the passion of the people must be allowed back in. Bangladeshis must be allowed to see what is being done to their country, and to discuss it, maybe dispute it, and maybe change it. That is true accountability; it relies on transparency of process and a process that takes place according to set laws guaranteed by the Constitution, which is ratified and made sovereign by having the approval of at least a plurality of the people, speaking either directly or through their representatives.

A free and fair election, which the military-technocrat administration is supposedly working towards, does not require a peaceful atmosphere and social stability as a pre-requisite. 95,825 people have been arrested, is that going towards making Bangladesh more peaceful, more stable? Fundamentally a free election requires all people with a right to vote being able to cast their vote freely, a fair election is when that vote is counted and recorded accurately.

If anything, a prerequisite to having a FAFE is that people cast their votes on a political basis, and this can only happen if there is a free political environment. Voting is a positive freedom, supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution, so if you remove the conditions for a FAFE, then you are acting against the Constitution, and thus invalidating it. How can this be a Constitutional administration if it is acting against the Constitution, exerting extra-Constitutional powers?

Dr. Jalal Alamgir made the excellent point yesterday in his Daily Star column that “it is also not possible to spur democratic politics without ensuring the fundamental rights that forms the basis of a liberal political environment”.

The military administration is currently having success arresting high profile ‘criminals’ most notably Tarique Rahman, the son of the former Prime Minister, heir apparent to her throne and the ‘godfather of godfathers’. But they should instead be concentrating on reforming the institutions that allowed someone like Tarique to abuse Bangladesh in the first place.

Entrenching power in the army, taking it away from the Constitution and the people, and taking unilateral decisions behind a shroud of secrecy, is not the way forward. If the ‘criminals’ really are so guilty, then why can’t they be arrested and tried according to transparent due processes and the rule of law? Otherwise they can become martyrs, or if they are released, they will certainly seek revenge.

If power is eventually given back to the people, all laws and enactments of the interim administration have to be ratified by the Parliamentary government, and the longer the generals hold on to power, and the more aggressively they use it, the less likely their ‘reforms’ will stick. And so you have a vicious cycle. Rather if the generals enact reforms transparently, with accountability, in a political environment, then the positive amendments they are making to Bangladeshi institutions are more likely to be seen as legitimate and carrying permanence, and therefore it is more likely that they will be approved and adopted as legal by an elected government.

Abuse of power breeds abuse. Secrecy encourages secrecy. And with the body politic of Bangladesh lying stricken, it needs reviving, rejuvenating, encouragement, through the passion and political work, beliefs and opinions of millions of people who are proud of their country. Not to be induced in to a coma by the military; because the longer Bangladeshis are prevented from ailing their sick State, then surely the harder it will be to recover again.


1 Response to “The suspension of politics in Bangladesh – the end of freedom?”

  1. 1 Saeed, Dhaka April 14, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    Excellent post. I couldnt agree more. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. This government took power vowing to complete some specific tasks. Those tasks should be completed as soon as possible. I hope for the country’s sake, there is no hidden agenda.

    By the way, I come from Syl myself, although I live in Dhk. How long have you been in Syl? Do you know Jonathan, or the Martins? My email is

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