[This has been cross-posted on The Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog. There are already comments, so maybe contribute to any debate there?]
Bangladesh is rapidly moving from being the world’s fifth largest democratic state, to the world’s largest state of total uncertainty. Since January 11, when the military stepped in to avert certain chaos and cancelled January’s scheduled but highly contentious general election, imposing a caretaker government under a state of emergency, the caretaker government, whilst initially very popular here, is beginning to look less military-backed and more military-run.
On Sunday in London the former prime minister Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the Awami League (AL) was humiliated when she was turned back from Heathrow trying to board a flight home as the military stated they would refuse to let her re-enter the country. Her bitter rival Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) and the most recent prime minister, is desperately fighting against exile to Saudi Arabia with her family. The coup began by the military is near completion.
The previous 15 years of “democratic” rule saw Bangladesh enjoying economic growth matched by an entrenchment of corruption in to every corridor of the political arena. Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina enjoyed a system where once elected prime minister they enjoyed total effective power over their party, the executive, the legislature, judiciary and all other agencies of state.
In an attempt to cleanse the country of their influence, the caretaker government first went on a massive anti-corruption drive, arrested many senior politicians, then banned all politics, indoors and out, and now has exiled the leaders, who many see as the source of all the countries problems. Bangladesh’s tainted past is being purged.
But in spite of the highly extra-constitutional nature of the caretaker government, the 150,000 people estimated to have been detained, the 60 or so people who have died in military custody, the suspension of fundamental rights, the abandonment of due process and the gagging of the media from making any serious criticism, it is the erasure of all signs of democracy that is beginning to cause alarm amongst Bangladesh’s civil society.
The honeymoon is over. To suspend the political process and attempt to lock out or away political leaders without currently offering any alternative is dangerous. Elections are hoped for by the end of 2008 but there is no set timeline and Lieutenant General Moeen Ahmed, who led the coup and is being seen as de facto leader of the country, has stated that he doesn’t want Bangladesh to revert to an elective democracy that might lead to the same problems as before. Increasingly it is feared that any election will be designed to achieve a pre-set goals.
No one denies that the country was being led “democratically” towards destitution, but now it appears to be heading towards an abyss of military rule. A true democratic alternative would be the immediate restoration of rights and the political parties, which enjoy huge grass-roots support to be allowed, forced through the current situation, to reform and seek votes in a proper free and fair election. The despised former leaders should be made to face up to their gross misdeeds in court.
Yet, currently the electoral commission isn’t even allowed to communicate with parties; they have operationally ceased to exist. The longer true politics is banned and the democratic past is denied, the greater the opportunity for Islamic extremists, who are already prospering in rural areas, to take advantage of the vacuum. This is the worst-case scenario for western governments who currently have maintained “satisfaction” with the caretaker regime.
With all politics banned until it will suit the style desired by the military, one wonders when Bangladesh’s civil society might have the courage to publicly speak out of turn. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Charter 77, and although the situation in Dhaka today is radically different to Prague in the 70s, the actions of the Chartists, which they maintained was not organised political opposition and therefore legitimate, offers an interesting precedent.
Something must be done to arrest the attempted “normalisation” of a highly abnormal environment. The Chartists were able to ostensibly highlight their government’s denial of the Helsinki Accords, but this caretaker regime hasn’t committed to anything other than elections when they feel the time is right. Nearly 150 million people have no power, no means, let alone right of protest, and currently no political alternative to go back to, no matter how much maligned. If Bangladesh, a country that’s history is characterised by fighting for freedom, slips back under military dictatorship yet again, then it will be more than its own people made to feel morally bankrupt.