DHAKA — Ever since its hard-won independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has struggled to shake off something just as unwelcome as foreign rule: its image as an impoverished and politically corrupt backwater.
There is no denying Bangladesh’s problems — so many of which are broadcast by the media when yet another rain storm has ravished the much-battered shoreline in the south. Receiving less attention, though, is the country’s ambitious bid this past year to give itself a fresh start by cleaning up government and spurring growth.
Leaders in this land of 150.4 million people — a primarily Muslim country nestled mostly in a corner of India’s northeastern region but also sharing a short border with Myanmar — have tried to turn political turmoil into triumph over what they consider to be the root of the country’s troubles: its politics.
Bickering between the country’s two main political groups, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Awami League, erupted in October 2006 into Dhaka street clashes that reportedly left more than 50 people dead and disrupted the national economy.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International called arrests made in connection with the chaos “arbitrary.” President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency Jan. 11, 2007, and a military-backed caretaker regime assumed control. A planned election was postponed until late 2008.
The caretaker regime arrested more than 200 politicians, bureaucrats and wheeler-dealers on suspicion of dirty politics and other crimes. Corruption cases have reportedly been filed against 119 suspects, with 45 convictions so far.
Fears of new despotism
With the state of emergency imposed, parliamentary elections were suspended, but the caretaker regime promised to hold them by December of this year, latest. Still, waiting this long has left the government open to accusations of a power grab in Bangladeshi online chat rooms, on the streets — and beyond.
Amnesty International last month published a sternly worded report called “One Year On: Human Rights in Bangladesh under the State of Emergency,” in which it said the caretaker government has failed to sufficiently protect journalists and rights activists from intimidation, and expressed concern over a “creeping role of the armed forces in a range of functions, with no clear rules of accountability, that should rightly be carried out by the civilian administration.”
One middle-aged Dhaka man, sitting with a group of friends, agreed that the caretaker government needed extra muscle to crack down on crooked politicians and the thugs they employed to do their bidding.
“But exactly when the real election (will come), I don’t know,” he said. Justice, he suggested, would be difficult to enforce. “In this situation, who is guilty? And who, among the people policemen catch, has the money?”
Echoing those sentiments was Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research across the border in New Delhi: “This is a long period of de facto military rule that Bangladesh is going through,” Chellaney said in a phone interview. “The arrest of a number of people (and) the attempts to marginalize the two main political parties, this has long-term implications for civil society in Bangladesh.”
Members of the caretaker regime, for their part, say they walk a tightrope between powerful forces trying to re-establish the status quo ante of corruption. They frame the state of emergency as a crucial, albeit imperfect, cooling-down period necessary for fundamental reform. If any lack of democracy is to be found, say these officials, it is in the political parties themselves.
“All kinds of manipulation has taken place in the past,” Chief Election Commissioner Shamsul Huda said. “Threatening people not to go to the polling station, hijacking the ballot boxes — you name it, all kinds of malpractice. This has been going on, to some degree, in all elections since 1991.”
That was the year the BNP’s Khaleda Zia, widow of assassinated President Zia ur-Rahman, became the country’s first female prime minister. Both Khaleda and her foremost rival, Awami League matriarch Sheikh Hasina, are locked up on suspicion of corruption.
Huda said that since 1991 there has also been a worrisome growth in involvement of wealthy businessmen in the affairs of the National Assembly, Bangladesh’s Parliament — a trend in which he said graft has forced aside the popular will as the motivating force of politics.
“This happened for two reasons,” Huda said. “One is, (businessmen) could buy the nomination from the two major political parties. Straight, donating cash to the political parties or political leaders. And second, their ability to spend money during campaigns. Purchasing nominations and buying the voters — in this kind of scenario, you cannot expect good people to come in.”
That is, run in elections.
Fixing what’s broken
So, officials describe an effort to give their democracy a thorough overhaul, one institution at a time.
Take, for example, the judiciary. At least since the era of colonial rule by Britain (1858-1947), Bangladesh’s courts fell under the control of the executive — a reality long condemned by democracy advocates demanding separation of powers.
On Nov. 1, the caretaker government finally granted their wish, repositioning all magistrate courts under the authority of the Supreme Court.
The Amnesty International report cautiously praised this and steps “to initiate police reform, to introduce law on the right to information, and set up a national human-rights commission.”
But most fundamental to a democracy is the election process, and fixing Bangladesh’s many electoral problems required a hard look at the way it compiled its voting lists. Traditional methods were hopelessly vulnerable to fraud, producing wide margins of “ghost voters.”
“We found, oh my God, that we were in the dark ages,” Huda, the election chief, said with a laugh.
So in July, teams of officials equipped with laptops fanned out across the country to start creating a new voter list fit for the 21st century.
In a nationwide exorcism of ghost voters, each computer was equipped with a Web cam for photographing applicants and a scanner to record fingerprints. To entice stragglers to register to vote, Huda said the process also gets citizens signed up for a national identification card — attractive because the card will be made mandatory for 22 varieties of services including opening bank accounts and buying SIM cards.
Huda said the list is heading for completion well ahead of the initial October deadline, making a December election that much more likely.
“Maybe by August it will be all done,” he said.
Brushing aside concerns of any “creeping role” by the military, army chief Gen. Moeen U Ahmed said it is rather in such democratization efforts as the voter-registration drive that armed forces have focused their attention.
Indeed, Ahmed credited the military for carrying out key aspects of the effort: overseeing data entry and providing technical support. In large part thanks to this contribution, he said, some 38 percent of eligible Bangladeshis have been registered.
Like election chief Huda, Ahmed too envisions smooth elections — granted, he says, that political parties make themselves “ready” by means of internal reform.
Ahmed promised that once polls transpire, the military will remove itself from the political arena. He said there has already been a reduction by three-fourths in the number of troops deployed to maintain domestic order since imposition of the state of emergency.
“In our region, military have been ruling. Take the examples of Thailand, Myanmar, Pakistan. Our predecessors did the same thing here,” he said.
No more, insists Ahmed: Though there have been requests from some for a takeover, he said, all have been declined. “Running the country is not our job,” he said. “It is the job of the politicians. Let them re-educate, let them fix themselves and rule the nation.”
For now, Bangladesh must take a deep breath, prepare, and watch how events unfold.
Will voter registration proceed without violence or fraud? Will political parties be “ready” for the election? Will the military really withdraw from public affairs?
The caretaker government knows it must produce dramatic results soon or face consequences from every quarter. Amnesty International is not alone in pushing for quicker democratization.
Last month, Stefan Frowein, head of a European Commission delegation visiting Bangladesh, told the English-language Daily Star that “no donor in the world likes to see (an) emergency situation.”
And, according to the paper, during a two-day visit earlier this month, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged a speedy “restoration of full democratic processes.”
The United States has reportedly also made similar demands. Most important, of course, is what Bangladeshis themselves want — and the last thing they want is for their streets, today teeming with life, to erupt once again into bloodshed, which is something election chief Huda knows all too well.
“If we flop here it will be totally unpardonable,” he said. “And the whole country will flare up.”