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Housekeeping in Bangladesh

Several weeks ago, a beloved political figure and ex-governmental minister was killed in a massive explosion. Hundreds were injured and the country is still reeling. No, it was not in Lebanon. The assassinated minister’s name is Shah AMS Kibria, and the country is Bangladesh. Having been through so much to achieve their democracy, the people of Bangladesh deserve much better.

In 1971 Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan after a bloody war. The transition to democracy from military rule came in 1990 after weeks of demonstrations. Bangladesh is a young democracy in the hands of immature parties. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) is currently in power under Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, opposed by the Awami League (AL), lead by Sheik Hasina. Neither has put the national interest before party politics.

Both parties have engaged in the obstructionism. Hartals (nationwide strikes) have been a tactic common to both the BNP and AL when in opposition. Hartals are a hardship on the people, generate violence, and cost millions per day in GNP. With more than 40 AL sponsored hartals since the general election in 2001, the population is weary. The AL is boycotting parliament, again. Many BNP parliamentary ministers don’t show up either, making a quorum impossible and a farce of the parliamentary system.

Bangladeshi politics has nearly ground to a halt. Political polarization is caused in part by ‘the personal animosity between Hasina, the daughter of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Zia, the widow of a former military ruler allegedly complicit in Mujibur’s assassination,’ according to the CIA World Fact Book.

Corruption is another insidious problem. Bangladesh was last on the list of 133 countries in Transparency International’s 2003 report. A new corruption commission has been plagued with problems from the onset. Freedom House notes that ‘corruption cases filed against senior officials are often politicized and lack credibility, and sitting officials are never prosecuted.’

Political violence has been a constant problem. Kibria’s murder was all too reminiscent of the August bombing of an AL rally in Dhaka, which left 21 people dead and hundreds injured. Recent violence has been aimed at AL political leaders and citizens themselves when engaged in ‘non-Islamic’ activities like attending the cinema.

Kibria’s family and the Awami League have charged that the government is complicit in his murder. The BNP has countered that the country is a victim of an international conspiracy and stated that the AL bombed itself in a bid for sympathy. Amnesty International has noted the government’s continuing failure to thoroughly investigate the many attacks with ‘rigor and determination.’ Without impartiality, they say, the investigations ‘lack credibility and the culprits will be sheltered from justice.’

The ruling BNP formed an alliance in 2001 with what Freedom House terms hard-line Muslim parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikyo Jote. Subsequently the government denied the existence of a radical Islamist movement, for years dismissing the notion as propaganda instigated by the media.

In a recent turn around, government officials took action against the radicals. ‘This sudden change in position reflects a clear acknowledgement of government’s patronage to these groups over the last three years,’ AL parliamentary leader Saber Hossain Chowdhury stated. Some observers have linked the government’s reversal of perception and policy to an urgent donors’ conference regarding the deteriorating situation in Bangladesh.

In the crackdown, Dr. Muhammad Asadullah Al Galib, head of an Islamist militant group, was arrested with three of his top associates. Dr. Galib is a Rajshahi University Arabic teacher. His associates are all employed by either madrasses or colleges.

The government also banned the Islamist groups Jagrata Muslim Janata, Bangladesh (JMJB) and Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). A home ministry press release said JMJB and JMB have been carrying out a series of murders, robberies, bombings, threats, and other attacks. With help from Galib, JMB militants utilized 700 mosques across the country built by the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, the Daily Star reported. The bank accounts of the society in Pakistan were seized after the 9/11 attack on the US.

Much international emphasis is currently placed on the emergence of representative governments, especially in the Muslim world. The subsequent progress of young democracies after their first election is critically important as well. The Bangladeshi people have much to contribute to the discussion, whether it is about the enrollment of female students (Bangladesh is a rare South Asian country where enrollment parity exists on the secondary level) or about economic reforms and growth. With a unity of spirit that may arise from dealing with annual flooding over one third of the country, the Bangladeshi people in vast majority are not caught up in the extremists’ rhetoric or the animosity of the broken party system. Perhaps they can come up with some creative solutions on how to hold political parties to account.

One immediate step that could be taken is to require elected members of parliament to attend parliamentary sessions. Parliamentary truancy disenfranchises all the voters by negating not only their votes but their choice of political mechanism.

An anti-corruption measure could be adopted from Palestinians: fire the party loyalists and replace them with technocrats. The bureaucracy and cabinet ministers serve the public interest best when they are neutral, competent and working for the national advantage. When government workers are paid a living wage comparable to the private sector, they are less prone to corruption. The anti-corruption commission could be quite effective if independently empowered to serve its function.

In the interests of de-polarizing Bangladeshi politics, Prime Minister Zia and the AL’s Sheikh Hasina should state their mutual commitment to reconciliation and consensus. Failing their willingness to put aside personal animosity, new faces without historical baggage may defuse the political stalemate caused in part by oppositional personalities.

Another option that may loosen the gridlock of Bangladeshi politics is to replace hartals with petitions. Petitions give a good indication of popular support whereas hartals, in flexing the muscle of the opposition, severely inconvenience the citizenry and damage the economy.

The university system is a mechanism to teach a young person the skills necessary to feed his family, advance in a career, and contribute to society. As such, colleges should be apolitical, neutral and educational. Likewise, madrasses are an important institution, especially for the poor who otherwise have little chance at education. Oversight, accountability and curriculum control are state responsibilities to the nation’s youth, no matter what organization is providing services.

If radical Islamist parties are to be a mechanism of enfranchisement, not of civil jihad, they must renounce violence and respect the premise of permanent democracy as the people’s choice. The responsibility of a representative is to fulfill his duty on behalf of his entire constituency and the nation. Major parties must stand united against threats from within Parliament and without. The acceptance of political violence as a trade off for parliamentary votes is among the most fundamental betrayals of the party politics.

Corruption, a weak rule of law, limited bureaucratic transparency, and political polarization undermine governmental accountability and economic development in many democratic states. If there are a people who have the courage, determination and strength to lead down the path of good governance, it is the Bangladeshis. As a democracy further advanced in self representation than some other states, the example of a good house cleaning in Bangladesh may have an impact that spreads far beyond her borders.

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