[Cross-posted at The Guardian’s Comment Is Free]
As Britain bids goodbye to Blair, and the sense of new political hope that he once symbolised, Bangladesh is also rapidly facing the reality that it has lost its chance of an alternative, fresh and progressive political leadership.
The awarding of 2006 Nobel Peace Prize to Dr Muhammed Yunus, confirmed his demi-god status in Bangladesh, and granted him incontestable moral authority. After the military coup on January 11th a vacuum was created and the stage seemed set for him to save the nation by entering its political spotlight. By February 22nd in an open letter, he announced his intention to form a party, ‘Nagorik Shakti’ (Citizen’s Power) in an open letter to the nation, and Bangladesh largely celebrated.
Yunus promised a politics that would “materialise the dream of the liberation war” and would offer a much-needed electoral alternative and clear path away from the democratic nightmare being fostered by the rule of the BNP and Awami League.
The military’s ‘minus-two’ plan to exile the BNP’s leader Khaleda Zia and Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina has spectacularly backfired though, with the result that they now enjoy greater public sympathy and support, their past misrule seemingly forgotten, whilst the military’s authority is rapidly diminishing, both at home and abroad. And with the BNP and Awami League back in business, Yunus’ prospects of success rapidly diminished.
And so on the 3rd of May Yunus published a third open letter, announcing his withdrawal political competition. Somewhat cryptically, he cited a lack of support and complained that ‘those who encouraged me will not join politics themselves and will not publicly support me because they have their own problems’. Whilst Tony Blair possessed great conviction and displayed a great sense of responsibility, two key attributes for any leader, Yunus has shown very little of either, and his timid exit from the political arena has allowed the Begums (women of high rank) to reassert their grip on Bangladesh’s national psyche.
If the military were the unmentioned key backers of Yunus who withdrew their support because of their problems, they have added to them this weekend with the arrest on Thursday night of Tasneem Kahlil, an investigative journalist who also acts as a CNN news representative. Given that the military-led interim government had just insisted that they would never curtail press-freedom, this act was a new low that has already brought huge protest.
It is a lack of good governance that has long plagued Bangladesh, whether under democratic or military rule, and represents Bangladesh’s biggest long-term handicap. Climate change will hit Bangladesh hard, and it is imperative that the country has effective leadership to respond to this. Yet the tragedy is that an intensely patriotic nation has always been ruled by a tiny minority who have always put their own welfare first. With the two Begums in the middle of effecting an incredible comeback it appears they will continue to dominate the political scene, and Yunus, the only Bangladeshi with the credentials to rival them has through his three open letters essentially published a lengthy political suicide note.
I had assumed that the humiliation having power snatched away by a military coup – which enjoyed huge public support – the Awami League and BNP would be forced to undertake wholesale internal reform to become electable again. Instead, the military’s bungled exile attempt reinforced Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina’s personal authority. Despite numerous observers deploring the Begum’s dynastic regimes, Khaleda Zia has just appointed her brother to a senior position in the BNP, and Sheikh Hasina has angrily dismissed calls for reform in the Awami League.
The crisis in governance stems from a massive internal contradiction in Bangladesh – it is their deserved pride in their history which unites and defines the nation, but is the exploitation of this history that is so damaging to Bangladesh’s present, and future. Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina’s power rests on their family’s historical acts; the reverence earned from events more than thirty years ago still sustain their wife (Zia) and daughter (Hasina) today. Hasina saw no irony when blocked from returning to Bangladesh in insisting that she had a right, as an ordinary citizen to enter her country, and then adding that ‘I am the daughter of the father of the nation’.
Rather than his record being a source of authority, it was Blair’s lack of history in 1997 that was an electoral asset; he represented a clean-breakaway from ‘old’ Britain, and characterised Labour around this. With Yunus unwilling to compete now his success is no longer assured, it is very difficult to see how a new Bangladesh might emerge. The military’s recent bungling, exemplified by the arrest of Khalil, has confirmed that they will no longer be allowed, domestically or internationally to maintain power, and their reiteration of their mission to deliver a free and fair election now looks more genuine. But a return to the old ways of highly hostile, feudalistic power politics fought under the hollow banner of ‘democracy’ is not what Bangladesh needs.
Until the obsessive celebration and clinging to of past glories can be swapped for an honest recognition of present realities, it is easy to fear that the hopes and dreams that withstood a genocide in 1971 will be wasted. What is needed is a new hope to be fulfilled, not of 1971 but of 2007. Bangladesh has the resources and talent to do this, but until those in power have the will and true courage that their elder’s displayed, it can not happen. Otherwise the glorious past that guides the nation can only hold it back.