What kind of a government does Bangladesh have? Who is in charge and why? When did this begin, and of whom should we be afraid this time around?
The phase that led to Bangladesh’s current crisis began last January, when the electoral term of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government, under Khaleda Zia, came to an end, and preparations for the general elections began. This is one of the world’s few countries in which a special non-political interim government, the so-called neutral caretaker government, is put in place to supervise national elections. Since no one trusts anyone (especially incumbents) in such matters, this is considered the most practical solution.
The caretaker government is supposed to be headed by the last retired chief justice of the Supreme Court, and is assisted by a cabinet of non-politicians recommended by the two main parties, the BNP and the Awami League. Technically, this government is entrusted with the limited task of holding a credible election. The practice of the installation of such an entity began in 1990 when, after the victorious mass movement against the rule of General Hossain Mohammed Ershad, activists suddenly found themselves without a government to hold an election.
While three earlier elections have been successfully held under the caretaker system – in 1990, 1996 and 2001 – this time, things went sour. The opposition, led by the Awami League, which had previously agitated for reforms to the caretaker formula, refused to accept Khaleda Zia’s nomination of Justice K M Hasan as ‘Chief Adviser’ for the caretaker government (the chief adviser functions as the interim prime minister), on the grounds that he had once been a member of the BNP.
The tense standoff exploded in late October 2006, shortly after the BNP government handed over power to then-President Iajuddin Ahmed, insisting that he hold polls as soon as possible. But the Awami League and its allies refused to accept the Election Commission’s chief, Justice M A Aziz, another BNP nominee whose neutrality was disputed. Protests subsequently began in earnest, with street violence of an unprecedented scale leaving many dead and injuring several hundreds throughout the country. Dhaka became a constant scene of riot. The sight of two large columns of activists, armed with sticks, rods and boat oars, squaring off against each other on the main streets of the capital presented a terrifying metaphor for Bangladesh’s pre-modern political culture.
Despite the mounting violence, the BNP appeared to have the situation sewed up in its favour. Most, including the opposition, concluded that the party was executing a plan to return to power by bending but not breaking the law of the land. President Ahmed, a BNP nominee, was playing a key role in this. He was instrumental in nominating several pro-BNP Election Commission members, even as the agitations continued; he also steadfastly refused to put pressure on the head of the commission, Justice Aziz. Meanwhile, the public clamour for Aziz’s resignation grew. Even as President Ahmed was losing all credibility in the eyes of the opposition, the BNP continued to back him. He then went on to announce that since no one was acceptable to either of the contending parties, he himself would take over as Chief Adviser to the President – or, in this case, chief adviser to himself. On 29 October 2006, Ahmed did himself the courtesy of becoming the head of both the state and the government.
Amidst this surreal scene, the Election Commission continued to refuse to dismiss controversial members, extend election dates or make fresh voter lists. But several members of the new Chief Adviser’s own Advisory Council began to resist the Ahmed establishment, which people were saying was being run on the sly by the BNP. Among the critics within the Advisory Council were three key representatives of the establishment: former army chief Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, former cabinet secretary Akbar Ali Khan, and civil-society lawyer Sultana Kamal. The three refused to go along with Ahmed’s plan to hold elections immediately under the discredited Election Commission. In a now-famous televised interview, Gen Chowdhury discussed a meeting that he had had with CEC Aziz, which Gen Chowdhury said had been about finding an acceptable way for Aziz to step down. Aziz denied that the meeting had even taken place. “Well, both of us can’t be telling the truth, and I’m not lying,” the general said, perfectly summing up the situation within the government at the time.
When these three crucial cabinet members resigned in protest on 11 December, anarchy (even by Bangladeshi standards) loomed. The opposition declared that it would boycott the polls, while essential supplies disappeared from Dhaka markets. Amidst the chaos there were reports that grocers were even refusing to sell food to Aziz, prompting supporters from his village to bus down to Dhaka with supplies for his larder. Western diplomats held secret meetings, urging all kinds of crisis management. This period of complete uncertainty lasted for more than a month, during which time the prospect of a military takeover was openly discussed. And then, on 11 January, the other shoe dropped. Suddenly, Bangladesh had a new caretaker government, a new Chief Adviser, a new set of backers (the military), and Iajuddin Ahmed back in his old job. A state of emergency was declared, much to the relief of all at the time.
The BNP had banked on military support to carry it through the crisis. But the military old guard – including many loyal to Ziaur Rahman, BNP founder and Begum Zia’s late husband – did not oblige. The army, as a whole, was keener to keep its lucrative UN peacekeeping contracts, and there was widespread speculation that these could have been threatened by a full-scale takeover. The early-January statement by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, declaring that the Bangladesh situation was causing him much concern, was added to the worry of the men in khaki.
The new government enjoyed immediate public popularity, as it went after the famous and the corrupt, including Tarique Rahman, Khaleda Zia’s eldest son, and his cronies. Government security forces went on a detention spree of taking in leaders and businessmen with links to both the Awami League and the BNP. The initial public hurrah was very loud indeed. The two begums, meanwhile, after a period of catching their breath, indicated that they would not be taking this thrashing lying down. Predictably, Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina welcomed the ouster of the BNP-constructed government and publicly promised to sanction the acts of the caretaker regime which took over. But her later reactions were less friendly, as the ramifications for her own party became clearer.
Despite the caretaker government’s attempts to force both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia out of the country – it had tried to keep the former from returning home from a US jaunt, while moving to exile the latter to Saudi Arabia – both are now very much in Bangladesh. A far cry from the years of animosity, Khaleda Zia even congratulated her arch-rival for her resolve to return despite having been charged with extortion and murder, and despite a global security alert issued to prevent her entry.
Corruption remains the hottest subject in Bangladesh, and every day sees new arrests, new charges and new investigations, thereby providing the media with plenty to chew on. But other issues have also started to become increasingly prominent, such as inflation, which economists at the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the National Economists Association have all flagged as having reached alarming levels. Research shows that price-control measures have not worked (see accompanying article, “Inflation up, government down”). The current members of the caretaker government, led by Fakhruddin Ahmed, a World Bank veteran and former chief of the Bangladesh Bank, are very much a part of Bangladesh’s high elite, a group that enjoys the confidence of international donors and the diplomatic community. Ahmed has told the international media that he was backed by the military, while insisting in the same breath that he is his own man. For many in the intelligentsia, the question remains: Who put him there? On the other hand, do the people at large care? Rumours continue to abound that the military will take over direct power any day. But how would such a situation really change things, barring more arrests? Bangladesh’s ailment runs deeper than corruption lists – though they are an excellent indicator.
The problem is not about what is happening now, but rather lies in what happened in the past and could happen in the future. Even as the newest nation-state in Southasia, Bangladesh does not have a democratic tradition, and autocracy has been the favoured form of governance for both civil and military rulers. This tendency began at the very birth of the nation, with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, head of the Awami League and Sheikh Hasina’s father. Sheikh Mujib first introduced laws that allowed arrest without trial, then created the unaccountable paramilitary Jatiyo Rakshi Bahini, and finally promulgated emergency rule in 1974. He followed all this up with one-party rule, and banned all but four newspapers in 1975. Before his assassination in August of that year, Sheikh Mujib allowed his followers, family members and other ‘connection capitalists’ free run over the economy.
Next came General Ziaur Rahman, Begum Zia’s husband. Although he rose to power on the back of a series of putsches, and instituted martial law from 1975 to 1978, Zia did also allow multi-party rule and a free media. To build an anti-Awami League alliance, however, he corralled all of the country’s political parties into the Bangladesh National Party, which he founded in 1978. Gen Zia is also credited with allowing Islam its first political space in the post-independence era. During the general’s period, systematic abuse of financial institutions flourished, and corruption began to gain the kind of institutional acceptance that has now become ingrained. Like Sheikh Mujib, Gen Zia was also a rigger of elections.
In 1981, Gen Zia was assassinated by his fellow fighters of the 1971 War of Liberation. After two years of semi-martial law and political confusion (which included an election and a referendum, both pre-decided), the Bangladesh Army, under General Hossain Mohammed Ershad, moved to oust the BNP. Gen Ershad may have declared a jihad against corruption, but later became the ultimate symbol of corruption in high office.
The period from 1982 to 1990 is considered the grand era of political resistance in the young country that is Bangladesh. During this period, the culture of street agitation, fuelled by young rebels, was polished to a shine. When Gen Ershad and his party were toppled in December 1990 (the army having refused the general’s request to intervene), Bangladeshis thought that democracy had finally arrived. Although this was an undeniable victory of the streets, it later became evident that no true democratic foundation had been laid. What had been attained was, at best, ‘popular autocracy’.
From 1991 to 1996, the BNP ruled under Khaleda Zia. From 1996 to 2001, the Awami League ruled under Sheikh Hasina. The BNP made a comeback in 2001, again under Begum Zia, a move that is remembered for the large-scale violence against minorities that became part of the subsequent celebrations. Before long, laissez-faire corruption peaked at levels never before imagined.
Although the year 1990 achieved an iconic aura as the time of the birth of democracy in Bangladesh, each Parliament since then has been less effective than its predecessor. Despite court orders passed during the 1990s, the lower judiciary was not separated from the executive branch. Going by the words of K M Hasan, the present chief justice, the higher courts have been so damaged through bad appointments that it will take 20 years to heal them. The country’s economy, meanwhile, has huge potential but remains chaotic, with the power sector in particular in shambles. Economic management is showing significant strain, as a result of many years of malgovernance, and inflation of course stands ready to bring down all who would presume to rule.
Against such a backdrop, how much difference can a regime change make? And would orders passed by a civil-military alliance be able to have any impact on what has taken 35 years of disastrous governance to accumulate? Can Bangladesh truly be improved by executive orders, as it would seem the caretakers believe?
Bangladesh’s critical success has been in alleviating poverty, but this was delivered by the private sector, the non-governmental sector and the country’s citizens rather than by its governments. But winning a Nobel Prize for running micro-credit schemes, as happened this past year thanks to the work of Muhammad Yunus, does not mean that Bangladesh has the political will to achieve macro-economic success. Poverty has indeed declined for the country’s ‘middle’ poor, but the absolute number of poor is actually on the rise. Moreover, the number of people in extreme poverty – those who consume less than the minimum caloric requirement – has now risen to encompass at least 20 percent of the population – and there is no national scheme to address this.
The readymade-garments sector was successful for years, but low wages are a matter of great concern, as is low productivity. The government has had to go as far as to threaten to shut down nearly 100 factories for failing to pay their workers. Violent agitations are now commonplace in the industrial zones. While remittances have increased for many years, the foreign-labour sector is corrupt, unregulated and does not protect those who send their hard-earned money home and help keep the economy afloat. Even the safety valve of overseas labour has become increasingly vulnerable.
Elite to elite
Perhaps the current crisis is not about civil or military rule, nor about the varied hues of rulers, all of whom have been tried and found wanting. Rather, the crucial facet of Bangladesh’s immediate circumstances may well be the nature of political governance that the Dhaka elite has practiced, and which it sees no reason to change at this time. Concern over the past several months over arbitrary arrests and lack of press freedom has been expressed mostly perfunctorily, perhaps because previous civilian governments have picked up and disappeared many more, not to mention muzzled the press. The military may be more active now, but so is the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), now a euphemism for swift justice without accountability. The RAB, of course, is a product of civilian rule, as was the Rakshi Bahini.
Bangladesh has no tradition of rule of law or democratic practice, even within non-governmental organisations seeking democratic or political change. Street resistance is about venting rage rather than channelling it and advancing parliamentary rule. Political memories are built around agitations, not constitutional success. Given that nearly every possible variation of autocratic rule has taken place in Bangladesh in the past, very little can shock the country’s people today. In fact, several surveys have shown that a large proportion of Bangladeshis actually favour extrajudicial ‘encounter’ killings, arguing that this is the only way to keep citizens safe.
Under the shroud of the current chaos, Bangladesh may well have morphed into a new form of state: a post-modern, underdeveloped construction, where each segment has its own political culture. With Parliament never having been functional, the true meaning of ‘political democracy’ needs better explanation before Bangladeshis will appreciate its inherent promises. The current confusion is not about introducing reforms, nor about whether the civil or military elite runs the country. Rather, it is about the non-elite, who will need concrete proof that Bangladesh is run, by whosoever it may be, in its interests too.
For that to happen, those in power need to practice the simplest rules of good governance, such as adhering to the rule of law; ensuring accountability; creating a functional Parliament; eliminating extrajudicial arrests, torture and killings; and, of course, instituting a pro-poor national policy. Doing so will be of direct benefit to the non-elite, because in the current context, not only does it wield no power whatsoever, but there is essentially no system in place to ensure the application of governance that is in any way friendly to it. In most countries, such systems are taken for granted; but in Bangladesh, they remain the exception.
The non-elite cannot govern unless it is in power. In Bangladesh, however, the circumstances do not exist for the non-elite to access power through mechanisms of representation and accountability such as Parliament. A system of genuine electoral democracy forces rulers to share power, because the electorate may otherwise boot them out. The Bangladeshi elite does not suffer from such anxiety, however, as the Parliament is not its only route to political power: the elite is perpetually in power, through non-party-based means of decision-making. Thus it is that no government has had any stake in the Parliament, and there is therefore little connection between the rulers and the ruled. The Bangladeshi elite has absolutely no need for the non-elite: the poor are so poor that they have no surplus to be appropriated.
Organising the non-elite
Since the non-elite does not matter to the elite either economically or politically, it has remained timid in the current context, even though its size is increasing by the day. Although the ‘middle’ poor is probably in the best position to make its voice heard, here it has taken recourse to violence. While it is true that notable political-transformation successes anywhere tend to come from ordinary people who have set out to conduct their own repairs, in Bangladesh, it is long-time diehard Maoists who are taking up the fight against the state with their signature violence. The repercussions are strong and more Maoists are killed as state enemies than any other group.
There is also now a new face on this front – that of the Islamists, who occupy roughly the same economic strata but are better organised and funded than the Maoists. These new entrants have also shown themselves to be willing to directly attack state institutions, and to kill their perceived enemies. They are not a large force as yet, but their numbers are significant enough to worry the elite as a whole. While they are still a local phenomenon, the future of Islamic militancy remains unpredictable.
Apart from the state, the most important counter to extremism remain the NGOs, membership of which now numbers in the millions. If the Islamists could, they would have done away with such groups, especially their credit schemes, which are considered ‘un-Islamic’. NGO penetration nonetheless remains deep and organised, providing services not offered by anyone else in the country. While these organisations powerfully present the multitudinous faces of the non-elite, how exactly the collective voice of that sector of the population might be heard remains unclear. One must wait, and observe the as-yet unseen.
Of those killed by the RAB, 51 died in ‘crossfire’, one was tortured to death, and two others were arrested by the RAB and later died in the hospital. Of those reportedly killed by the police, 12 died in ‘crossfire’, six were tortured to death, four shot dead, one died in police custody, and two more died in the hospital after their arrest. Of those reportedly killed by the Bangladesh Army, four died due to torture, one while attempting to escape, and one more died in the hospital after being arrested. Of the seven deaths attributed to the joint forces, three were tortured to death, one was killed in ‘crossfire’, one died in the hospital after arrest, and two died in custody, including one who committed suicide.
Of these 96 deaths, it has been reported that eight were from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, four from the Awami League, six from the Purbo Banglar Communist Party (Jonojuddho), four from the Purbo Banglar Communist Party, four from the Purbo Banglar Communist Party (Red Flag), two from the Biplobi Communist Party, one from the New Biplobi Communist Party, two from the Gono Mukti Fouz, one from the Jatiyo Shomajtantrik Dol, three from the Sromojibi Mukti Andolon and four from the Shorbohara Party.
In addition, one of those killed was reported to be a freedom fighter, one an indigenous leader, and one an ‘extremist’. Three were also suspected arms smugglers, two were alleged arms dealers, two alleged muggers, one an alleged gambler, two alleged drug peddlers, 10 alleged dacoits and 18 alleged criminals. Other victims included three farmers, one businessman, one police informant, one bus driver, one female garments worker and one housewife.
The Dhaka-based human-rights organisation Odhikar prepared this reportt on the basis of 11 national dailies and its own fact-finding reports. In the course of doing so, on 3 May 2007, Odhikar’s acting director, A S M Nasiruddin Elan, was taken to the naval headquarters, where Captain Zubayer, the director of naval intelligence, along with three associates, allegedly harassed him for preparing those reports, ultimately threatening him with death.
~Afsan Chowdhury is on the Editorial Board of Himal Southasian based in Dhaka