[This has been cross-posted in The Guardian’s Comment Is Free section. You can access it, and see comments here.]
General Moeen U Ahmed, who led Bangladesh’s military coup in January and is widely seen to be pulling the strings of the interim government, stated on May 22nd that he had no wish to enter politics formally, and did not intend to implement martial law. He also admitted to journalists that there had been cases of media intimidation, but called them an ‘aberration’, adding that “the government can learn from its mistakes, if there is any, from media criticism.” The paradox is that there isn’t strong media criticism because the military have blocked or banned it, so it would appear that they’re not making any mistakes. And so the State of Emergency continues, and we all remain none-the-wiser.
Bangladesh benefits from an intelligent media, and everyone has an opinion on current affairs. There has been plenty of comment on the proposed mechanisms for holding elections and the internal struggles of the political parties, but criticism of the current military leadership now exists almost solely on the internet. And whilst there is a passionate and highly dedicated network of blogs, these are nearly all maintained by expats, hosted on foreign servers, safe from intimidation but largely ineffectual in terms of proactively influencing debate in their home country. As so few Bangladeshis have access to the internet other than the urban elite, it can not be used as a tool for grass-roots political mobilisation.
Inside Bangladesh, two prominent cases of intimidation and censorship have occurred in the last month. On May 11th, Tasneem Khalil, a young investigative journalist and researcher with many international media links who had been critical of the army was arrested by security forces in the middle of the night. Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch immediately issued press-releases, and by the next day Khalil was released. Tasneem’s paper, the leading English-language liberal daily proudly sports “Committed to people’s right to know” on the masthead, but the arrest was barely mentioned, and nothing has been reported anywhere on Tasneem since. The blogosphere erupted in alarm and protest at Tasneem’s arrest, but soon an anonymous commenter ‘ABC’ who posed to represent the military from Dhaka and claimed to know the real story, began posting threats across blogs.
“May be some of you are thinking that you are indulging in your intellectual efforts sitting in a different country (a safe place) and you are beyond reach. Very wrong. If military wants to get you, it will get you. In fact, you will struggle on your own to catch the next available flight to Dhaka.” ‘ABC’ went on to add that the military weren’t interested in people’s personal opinions, and that bloggers were free to express their views. This is because the military know that nearly all these views will remain unread by the ordinary Bangladeshi.
However, when the Nepali Himal South Asian magazine published two articles stating the country was under a military regime, and reviewing the actions of the interim government, the government ordered distributors to remove them before sale in Bangladesh. Himal publish a Bangladesh special in June, it will be interesting to see if it crosses the border.
So it seems that the military are not that keen on having their mistakes pointed out. In the first 130 days of the State of Emergency, the Bangladeshi human rights agency Odhikar reported that 96 people had died in custody and 193,329 had been arrested and detained during the government’s anti-corruption and anti-crime drives – 11,000 more than normal. Bangladesh is undeniably calmer today than it would have been had the highly controversial elections been allowed to take place. But the danger of ‘anti-corruption’ being a Trojan horse excuse to allow a pre-set result when elections finally do take place is far greater when the media is intimidated in to silence.
The people who benefit most from this are the members of the entrenched political elite. Because unlike the enraged liberal bloggers sitting at smoking keyboards thousands of miles away, the parties that got Bangladesh in to this situation in the first place have the networks and still enough support to mobilise grass-roots action. That is why all politics is still banned in Bangladesh, despite promises of review.
As the parties reform and rebuild themselves, every call for an early election and politics to be restored is playing in to their hands. This is better than no elections and a full military dictatorship, but democracy is more than an election. The military originally seized control to remove the rotten elements and corrupt actors from Bangladesh’s political theatre, but their attempt to exile the former leaders was thwarted and now they are the only ones with the mechanisms to criticise freely. If they win power again without substantial reform of the political institutions and sufficient checks and balances present, it will be a ‘victory for democracy’ and disaster for Bangladesh.
The situation in Bangladesh is showing the limits of internet-based political activism. Unless every village gets equipped with a Blackberry, it is very hard to see how the number of people who want a reformed, truly democratic Bangladesh without the poisonous influence of its former political leadership can be mobilised. By using intimidation to quash strong dissent in the country, the military is acting against its own stated interests.
The people must be allowed to speak out independently of the mechanisms of established political parties, as otherwise new ideas and movements can not develop quickly enough. The media provides such a crucial scrutinising role, especially with the current absence of a legislature or fully independent judiciary, that the freedom to elect a representative without an active free press is almost worthless. General Moeen also said on May 22nd that “The media is the only bridge between the people and the government which has no political bases among people”. If this is really the military’s view, then they have to swiftly remove the mines on the bridge and let the people cross it.