[I actually wrote this last week but couldn’t get online for a while.]
At around 2am in Dhaka on Monday 16th June, a thousand members of the security forces began to assemble outside the home of Sheikh Hasina, the former Prime Minister of Bangladesh and leader of one of the two main parties, the Awami League (AL). She was arrested on charges of extortion, taken to court, denied bail under the Emergency Power Rules and sent to a sub-jail by midday. After six months of running Bangladesh under a state of emergency, the military-backed caretaker government is finally beginning to lay its cards on the table, in doing so taking a massive gamble with the future of Bangladesh and its 150 million people. Currently, it’s impossible to predict if this gamble will pay off. When the military seized power on January 11th to save the country from an imminent and completely discredited general election, it received huge popular support. In its 36 years of independence, Bangladesh has been run either by the military or elected governments riddled with corruption, which has greatly stifled Bangladesh’s development, and turned ‘democracy’ in to a dirty word. A caretaker government (CTG) of technocrats was installed with the aim to deliver a free and fair election, and remove the institutional corruption that has blighted Bangladesh. Since then, the vast majority of Bangladeshis and foreign governments have largely overlooked the suspension of fundamental freedoms, a lack of due-process in the courts, media intimidation, over a hundred extra-judicial killings and around 200,000 detentions on the basis that the CTG wasn’t really doing much worse than it’s democratic predecessors, and it continued to promise to deliver an election by 2008, although no precise schedule towards this has been published. However, in April the CTG made a chaotic attempt to exile Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and PM for 10 of the last 16 years, and simultaneously tried to refuse Sheikh Hasina entry back in to Bangladesh from Britain. This ‘minus two’ model failed spectacularly and made public the CTG and military’s desire to fundamentally alter Bangladesh’s political environment. Zia and Hasina ruled with inherited authority from deceased family members, but exercised absolute power over their parties and commanded devotion from their millions of supporters; to remove them from Bangladeshi society would create a vast power vacuum, and would be severely stretching the CTG’s terms of reference. Monday morning signalled the second attempt by the CTG to effectively deliver a regime change in Bangladesh from that of the institutionally corrupt AL and BNP towards something else – apparently a new democracy, but military rule as in Pakistan whilst still whispered, is increasingly feared. ‘Corruption’ has being turned in to a carte blanche in Bangladesh to excuse actions in the same way that ‘terrorism’ has been across the rest of the world. As long as the person can be labelled corrupt, they are a sore that must be removed. Yet obviously this is insufficient, the person must be proven through due process in a court of law to have engaged in corrupt practices. Currently this hasn’t always been happening. With Hasina now awaiting trial, the CTG faces a huge challenge under immense scrutiny to prove that it can try her under the rule of law, and give Hasina a fair hearing with all her rights as a citizen of Bangladesh. It’s the equivalent of shaking a proverbial jar of hornets, and only through the most meticulous observations of the rule of law with regard to all due process can the CTG keep the lid on. If Hasina is found justly to be guilty of illegal activities, then it would be a triumphant demonstration of the CTG’s ability to reform Bangladesh. But if there are any flaws in the process, or she is found not guilty, then there could be no better boost to her popularity, and if she were to go on and regain power, it’s highly likely that the political reforms Bangladesh so badly needs would not emerge.
Bangladeshis are anxiously waiting to see what will happen to Khaleda Zia, who has been under virtual house arrest for the last six months already. But a more pressing concern to the ordinary Bangladeshi, 45% of whom still live below the poverty line is the spiraling food prices, the chronic power shortages, the lack of basic welfare. It is just as important that if and when the caretaker government hands back power, it leaves the country in a better state than when it took responsibility of it – and this can’t just be measured by the number of politicians in jail.
For a democracy to function properly in Bangladesh, it is important that those who exploited the people are not allowed to take power again, but it is also crucial that the people are allowed to make that decision themselves. General Moeen, who launched January’s coup has promised people-led politics, but currently it seems to be very much a democratic system imposed by an unelected elite, which is demonstrably unpopular and inadequate across the world. It would be better for the military and the technocrats to stimulate renewal by addressing inflation, lifting the state of emergency, allowing a completely free media and most crucially lifting the ban on politics so that changes in the power balance can occur naturally, without the aid of dawn raids by a thousand policemen.
Rather than adding to an atmosphere of conflict in one of the most politically passionate countries in the world, democracy, the political system that best allows and accommodates consensus should be released from the offices of the Generals and technocrats to flourish. Now the new establishment has moved against Hasina they have made a dramatic attempt to break up the fractious status quo, and if they can not ensure that she faces her charges correctly, then Bangladesh 2007 could swiftly join the club of disastrous military interventions.