Nine months after a military-driven interim government assumed power in Bangladesh, the country is facing its greatest peril of the past decade and a half. Despite the promise of free and fair elections, a state of emergency continues to mute dissent, while the spectre of dictatorial rule is visible in the increasing media censorship, intimidation of journalists and arbitrary arrests by the security forces in night-time raids.
In an interview in September, Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed, the country’s de facto prime minister, claimed that the media was operating freely, without any government intervention. A week later, his administration imposed a set of sinister guidelines on televised talk-shows. Printed on plain paper, these new diktats specified the number of talk-shows a station can air per week, while warning against the questioning of the government’s legitimacy. “Any kind of instigating, blind and biased opinions and statements that can create resentment towards the legitimate government of Bangladesh should also be avoided,” stated the stricture. This was only the latest in the government’s crackdown on media.
When Fakhruddin and his cabinet assumed power on 11 January this year, stalling elections scheduled for later that month, they were backed by tremendous popular support and public optimism. Nine months on, much of that backing has waned, turning instead into resentment. Recent signs of this devolution have included student protests in August at Dhaka University against the army’s presence – protests that sparked countrywide demonstrations, during which at least one protestor was killed. The government responded with a curfew and violent raids of the country’s universities, which bludgeoned demonstrators into submission.
Since then, student leaders and teachers have been picked up and questioned, with one prominent Dhaka University professor accusing his captors of torturing him before he was produced in court. Initially, the police filed cases against an astounding number of protestors, although this number was drastically reduced when the government realised that doing so undermined its description of the violence as a ‘conspiracy’ by a mere handful of political elements.
The government faces a crisis of survival due to lack of popular support; but on the other hand, it appears to have no viable exit strategy. Since January, the administration has mauled the top leadership of Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League. While the regimes of both begums were indeed characterised by widespread corruption and abuse of power, many believe the government is now enforcing a Musharraf-style ‘minus-two’ formula, with an eye to forging a more pliant political leadership that will ensure the current regime’s protection when it eventually is forced to relinquish power. Indeed, the evolving similarity between the ‘military’ and‘military-backed’ regimes in Islamabad and Dhaka, respectively, is beginning to feel uncanny.
Despite Fakhruddin Ahmed’s claims to the contrary, it is an open secret in Dhaka that his cabinet has effectively negotiated with ‘reformist’ factions in both major political parties, and that these have agreed to supplant Zia and Hasina within the parties – with the active support of the current administration. How much legitimacy such ‘reformist’ leaders will have in the eyes of the public in the next elections remains a crucial question.
Meanwhile, simmering just below the state of emergency is a growing public resentment over the faltering economy. With inflation at a 36-year high and rapidly growing joblessness, economic woes may soon be an even greater headache for the Dhaka regime than its own lawlessness and civil-rights abuses.
We believe that the only exit strategy for the Chief Adviser and the generals who back him is as follows: to stop the attempt to strangulate the parties; to release all political leaders, including the two begums; and hold an immediate election to decide which political party or coalition should rule Bangladesh.