Monday, January 18, 2010
The Awami League has swept an electoral landslide only seven months ago, promising to change the country and its politics. In the council that it has held last Friday, it has been business as usual, with the predictable outcome: Sheikh Hasina has been elected as the party President for the sixth time in a row and Syed Ashraful Islam, assistant secretary general in the outgoing committee, has been elected as the new party General Secretary; for both the posts there have been no other candidates. For the 45 posts of the central working committee, the council has delegated power to the new President and General Secretary; a move that has put the AL, the biggest democratic party in the country, under criticism. What can the party, which was the vanguard of the country's independence, do to infuse intra-party democracy and bring in fresh blood in its leadership, both of which have been miserably missing in the country's politics?
Sixty-year-old rickshawpuller Alam Miah, who voted for the Awami League in the last elections and a member of the party, cannot think of anyone but Sheikh Hasina to lead the party which is as old as he is. Last Friday, he eagerly waited in front of the newly christened Bangabandhu International Conference Centre. His wait was over as soon as Hasina was elected unanimously by 5,253 councillors. He left the venue in an hour, reassured that his leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's daughter would lead the party. "It will be good for the country," he said.
However Awami League's 20th council has failed to impress Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of International Relations at Dhaka University. "I had greater expectations and I think this particular council could not deliver," he says. What Imtiaz finds particularly unimpressive is the way the council has elected the President and General Secretary. "People this time thought that they would go for serious elections, that there would be votes and at least two or three candidates would fight," he says.
Hasina's election in the council has come as no surprise. Even though she has not been elected through secret ballot, given the popularity that she enjoys in the country, not to mention inside the party, there is little doubt that if transparent ballot boxes were used she would still have bagged all the 5,253 votes.
The newly elected President and General Secretary of Awami League.
The council was supposed to elect a 73-member central working committee (CWC), but instead it delegated the power to choose 45 members of the CWC to the new President and General Secretary. The AL constitution empowers the party President to handpick the remaining members of the CWC. "It was told that democratic principles would be followed (in the council)," Professor Muzaffer Ahmed, eminent economist and member of the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), says. He thinks that this is not the way democracy works. Professor Imtiaz Ahmed also thinks voting was necessary. "The prime minister herself said that transparent ballot boxes would be brought. This is an old way of electing leadership," he says.
Even though some councillors say that the council's chief election commissioner MA Mannan made the proposal, the veteran leader however denies any foul play. He told The Daily Star that no one filed their candidacy for other posts; "We even received a proposal from a councillor to empower the newly elected president and general secretary to choose leaders for the rest of the posts. The councillors unanimously delegated their power to the president and general secretary," he said.
Professor Imtiaz says that giving power to two people is a weakness in democracy. "You cannot give power to someone to dominate all," he says. He hopes that three years from now on things will change, and the party will work for more internal democracy. Syed Ashraful Islam agrees. He says, " It is true that the people of the country want the Awami League to be more democratic. We had a voter list for the council; we had all the preparation for elections. But as there wasn't more than one candidate, elections could not be held. That does not mean that the process in which leaders were elected cannot be called democratic. Efforts will be made in the future so that there are more candidates and party leaders are elected through direct votes of party councillors."
There is a popular expectation that the council will elect a set of leaders that will be different from those who are now holding ministerial posts to prevent meddling of party interests in ministerial responsibilities. "That expectation is also foiled because the party president is the prime minister," Imtiaz says. Now that Sheikh Hasina is vested with the power to choose a new team, it can be hoped that she is going to pick fresh leaders, not those who are performing different ministerial duties. "For democracy to work properly the party and government should be run by two sets of people," Professor Muzaffer Ahmed says. He thinks that the party should work as a watchdog, keeping the government on its toes.
Professor Muzaffer cites the famous example of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Kamaraj Kumarasami who, to invigorate the Indian Congress, proposed that all senior Congress leaders should resign from their ministerial posts and devote all their energy to the party. Elected the Chief Minister of his state three consecutive times, he duly resigned from the post of the chief minister to make room for new leadership.
Sheikh Hasina has steered her party towards a historic victory through her statesmanship. Her speeches in the run up to the general elections had shown vision to a nation that teetered on the brink of social and political chaos. Her urge to create a modern 'digital' Bangladesh earned her a huge fan following among the first time voters. History will be kind on her if she rises up to the occasion and picks a young dynamic leadership as her colleagues in the presidium and the CWC. Those who hold the ministerial posts must not be given organisational duties. Only tested young and honest leaders should be picked to run the party.
Historically the ruling party General Secretary has always been bestowed with the responsibility of running the Local Government, Rural Development and Co-operatives (LGRD) Ministry. In effect the ministry becomes a bastion of ruling party lobbyists who try to take undue advantages of their close proximity with the party in power. It is hardly surprising that on several occasions, the ministry has featured in the list of the TIB as one of the most corrupt ministries. Now that Syed Ashraful Islam, the LGRD minister, has been elected the General Secretary of the Awami League, a certain degree of apprehension is there that there will be a conflict of interest. Ashraful was famous for his bold stance during the state of emergency imposed by the last caretaker government. He will set a good example if he decides to resign from the LGRD minister to put all his energy to strengthen his party at the grassroots. It will be a healthy sign for the country's fledgling democracy, not to mention the fact that for the first time since the restoration of democracy in 1991, a ruling party will get the attention of a secretary general who is not overloaded with ministerial duties.
As the requirement of the Representation of People's Order requires that every registered party hold its council by July 24, the AL's last council was a hurriedly done affair and it has left room for improvement. Now is the time Sheikh Hasina infuses fresh blood in the party and concentrates more on the internal democracy of the party. "A democratic party's strength is in its democracy," Imtiaz says, "take Muslim League, one of the reasons why the party has gone into oblivion is because it did not practice internal democracy in its fold. If democracy is not practised rigorously the party might not be able to return to office in the next general elections."
The onus now lies on Sheikh Hasina and her foresight to decide a team that is going to lead the five-decade old Awami League into the challenges of the new millennium. In its chequered history the party has won the general elections in Bangladesh thrice, twice it was blessed with absolute majority. Bangladesh's history is entwined with the rise of the Awami League, it has led the country towards independence, and it has been at the forefront of all the democratic struggles against different military dictatorships that have plagued the country for half its life. "As a party that led Bangladesh towards independence, our expectations from the Awami League are high," says Professor Imtiaz, "This council has not met those expectations. I hope that it will be better next time."
Syed Ashraful Islam assures that it will be different in the future. He says, "We do not want to go back to confrontational politics. We want to change the country and its political culture and for this we need the support from all political parties. Awami League is a part of the society in which we live. It is not practical to think that the party is immune to the disease that has infested the country. But that day will soon come when the leaders of the party will be elected through ballot." One only hopes that he keeps his promise.
History of Glory
June 23, 1949: East Pakistan Awami Muslim League formed, breaking away from All Pakistan Muslim League. Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani was its first President, its first general secretary was Shamsul Hoq and Treasurer was Nurul Islam Chowdhury. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Khondokar Mostaq Ahmad and AK Rafiqul Hussain were its first three joint secretaries.
1952: Awami Muslim League and its student wing play an instrumental role in the Language Movement that can be termed as the beginning of our independence struggle.
October 21, 1953: In a council meeting it drops the word Muslim from its name.
March 8-12, 1954: Awami League takes the lead in forming the United Front (UF), later known as the Jukta Front with Krishak Sramik Party, Nizam-e-Islam and Ganatantri Dal, forming a 21-point charter, written by Abul Mansur Ahmad, with 'Boat' as the symbol to fight the Muslim League in the East Bengal Legislative Assembly elections. Muslim League (ML) faces a humiliating defeat: of the 237 Muslim seats, the ML secures only 9 seats as against 223 seats by the UF, of which Awami League bags143 seats.
March, 1954: Shere Bangla AK Fazlul Haq of Krishak Sramik Party leads the UF government.
May 29, 1954: Using section 92/A of the provisional constitution of Pakistan, Governor General Pakistan dismisses the Jukta Front government.
March 23, 1956: First constitution of Pakistan formed. Awami league welcomes it.
12 September, 1956 to 11 October, 1957: Awami League cobbles up a coalition with the Republican Party at the centre and runs a government that Awami League leader Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy leads.
February 7-8, 1957: Bhashani calls a conference at Kagmari in protest of Awami League leadership's support to the government's move to join the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO). It earns Bhashani the title Red Maulana, he forms his own party National Awami Party; Awami League formally splits.
October 7, 1958: Iskander Mirza, the then Governor General, declares martial law; General Ayub Khan is made its chief martial law administrator.
October 27, 1958: Ayub deposes Mirza in a bloodless coup. Political Parties Elected Bodies Disqualified Ordinance promulgated, which practically disbands all political parties. All major political leaders arrested on charges of corruption. Most major leaders of Awami League are arrested.
February 6, 1962: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is arrested again under the Public Security Act and is released four days later.
Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy
June 1962: Ayub Khan comes up with his own Constitution, modelled on indirect election, through an electoral college, and termed it 'Basic Democracy'. Instead of reviving the Awami League, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy joins hands with Nurul Amin, Khwaza Nazimuddin, Maulvi Farid Ahmed and Hamidul Haq Chowdhury to form National Democratic Front against Ayub Khan's military-backed rule, to restore democracy and force and election.
December 5, 1963: Suhrawardy mysteriously dies in Lebanon. He is found dead in his hotel room.
March, 1964: In a meeting initiated by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, All Pakistan Awami League meets at Dhaka to revive the party. Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan becomes the president and Shamsul Hoq the general secretary. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman becomes the chief of East Pakistan Awami League.
January, 1965: Fatema Jinnah, sister of Pakistan's founder MA Jinnah, is given support by the Combined Opposition Party as the Presidential candidate. She loses to Ayub Khan.
February 5, 1966: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman places the famous Six-points charter at a conference of all political parties in Lahore. Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, the president of All Pakistan Awami League opposes, a break-up of the party becomes imminent.
March 1, 1966: A council meeting of the Awami League is called and it elects Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the President and Tajuddin Ahmed the general secretary of Awami League.
May 8, 1966: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested under the Defence of Pakistan Rules. "Those who speak of the six points will be met with the language of weapons," Ayub Khan says. Major Awami League leaders are arrested.
June 7, 1966: A strike is called to protest the arrests; as all the major leaders are in jail, organisational secretary of Awami League Mizanur Rahman and the party's woman leader Amena Begum call the strike.
December, 1967: Pakistan government lodges the so-called Agartala Conspiracy.
January, 1968: Agartala Conspiracy. A list of 35, the so-called conspirators, which Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman tops, is disclosed.
June 19, 1968: A Special Tribunal starts its proceeding. The judges are Justices SA Rahman, Mujibur Rahman Khan and Maksumul Hakim.
January 19, 1969: Asaduzzaman Asad, Dhaka Hall leader of Leftist East Pakistan Students Union, is killed by the police in a major demonstration. Students place their 11-point demands, which spark a mass upsurge against Ayub Khan.
February 15, 1969: Sergeant Zahurul Haq, an accused in the so-called Agartala Conspiracy Case is murdered in Dhaka Cantonment.
February 19, 1969: Maulana Bhashani declares that he is going to take people to storm the cantonment if Sheikh Mujib and other accused are not released.
February 20, 1969: The house of SA Rahman, the chief Judge of the Conspiracy case, is torched; he leaves Dhaka and never came back.
February 22, 1969: Rear Admiral AR Khan, defence minister of Pakistan, declares that the so-called Agartala Conspiracy case has been withdrawn. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is released after about three years in captivity and receives a tumultuous welcome by the people.
February 23, 1969: In a speech at an all-party student mass rally at the Race Course, Tofail Ahmed, a student leader, on behalf of the All Party Students' Action Committee, bestows on Sheikh Mujib the title 'Bangabandhu', the 'friend of Bengal'. It soon becomes a symbol of adoration for Sheikh Mujib who rises to become the supreme leader of his people.
February 26-March 13, 1969: Bangabandhu places Six-points and 11-points at the Round Table Conference at Rawalpindi. The conference reaches a stalemate as the Pakistani junta refuse to accept Bangabandhu's demands.
March 25, 1969: General Yahya Khan, who two years later would launch a bloody assault on the Bengalis on March 25, 1971, seizes power in a bloodless coup.
January 6, 1970: Bangabandhu is re-elected the president of Awami League.
October 17, 1970: Bangabandhu selects 'boat' as the Awami League's election symbol for the general elections; the party starts its elections from a rally at Dhaka's Dholai Khal.
November 12, 1970: A devastating cyclone rips through East Pakistan, killing around 500,000 people. Awami League joins relief effort.
December 1970-January 1971: In the all Pakistan general elections, of the 300 seats, Awami League wins 160, Pakistan People's Party gets 81. The ruling Pakistani establishment refuses to handover power to the Awami League.
January 27, 1971: Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, leader of Pakistan People's Party arrives in Dhaka to form a coalition with the Awami League. The talk collapses.
March 1, 1971: Yahya Khan postpones the National Assembly session.
March 3, 1971: A general strike called by the Awami League cripples the whole of East Pakistan.
Bangabandhu's historic March 7 speech.
March 7, 1971: Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at a mammoth rally at Race Course says, "This struggle is the struggle for freedom, this struggle is the struggle for independence." He calls for civil disobedience against the junta.
March 16-24, 1971: Bangabandhu, Yahya Khan and Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto have talks about handover of power. The talks fail; Yahya and Bhutto leave East Pakistan.
March 25, 1971: General Yahya and his butchers start one of the most gruesome genocides in modern history. The Operation Searchlight alone kills hundreds of Bengalis on the night of March 25. Before his arrest from the historic house of Dhanmandi 32, Bangabandhu is said to have declared Bangladesh's independence at the zero hour of March 26.
March 26-December 16 1971: Awami League successfully leads one of the bravest resistances in human history. On April 17, the Bangladesh government is formed at Mujibnagar with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the President in absentia, Syed Nazrul Islam as the Acting President and Tajuddin Ahmed as the Prime Minister. Members of Awami League fight hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder with the masses. Three million Bengalis embrace martyrdom.
January 10, 1972: Bangabandhu reaches Dhaka to a tearful welcome, two days later he becomes the Prime Minister of the newly independent country.
March 7, 1973: First general elections in independent Bangladesh held. Awami League wins an electoral landslide; of the 300 seats, it alone wins in 293 constituencies.
October 26, 1974: Tajuddin Ahmed, the man who was the Prime Minister of the government in exile and also led the Liberation War in Bangabandhu's absence, is told to resign.
February 24, 1975: One party-government system is introduced. All the political parties are banned to create Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League. All newspapers are banned; the four newspapers, which are allowed to be published, are government-controlled. Presidential government is formed.
August 15, 1975: On one of the darkest nights of our history, Father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is assassinated along with all but two of the members of his family by a bunch of deranged disgruntled mid-ranking army officers led by Lt Col (sacked) Faruk Rahman.
August 16, 1975: All but five major Awami League leaders take oath in the new cabinet headed by Khondokar Mostaq Ahmed. Those who did not take oath in the cabinet of killers are: Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, Kamruzzaman, Captain Mansur Ali and Dr Kamal Hossain.
November 3, 1975: Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, Kamruzzaman and Captain Mansur Ali, four leaders kept in prison, are murdered.
November 4, 1975-May 16, 1981: Awami League faces the toughest time in its history. For these six years the party has been practically leaderless. Those who have tried to lead the party are: Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, Abdul Malek Ukil and Zohra Tajuddin, of them the latter's contribution is commendable.
Bangabandhu with his daughter Sheikh Hasina.
May 17, 1981: Sheikh Hasina becomes the Awami League's President, following her return from exile after her father's assassination.
May 18, 1981-May 6, 1986: Sheikh Hasina leads the party under the military dictatorships of Generals Ziaur Rahman and HM Ershad.
May 7, 1986: General elections under Gen HM Ershad. Hasina decides to participate in the elections; Awami League wins 73 seats, becomes the main opposition.
January 1989-December 6, 1990: Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) lead a mass upsurge that ousts the despotic rule of General HM Ershad.
February 27, 1991: General elections. The BNP wins the elections with 169 seats; Awami League gets only 92.
1993: Awami League faces a split; Dr Kamal Hossain leaves to form Gono Forum.
1994-1996: Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina leads a popular movement against the BNP government to establish the caretaker government system.
February 15, 1996: Awami League wins the elections, getting 146 seats.
1996-2001: Sheikh Hasina's first term in office. Two of its major achievements are striking the water sharing treaty between Bangladesh and India, and the signing of a peace treaty with Jana Sanghiti Samiti.
October 1, 2001: The Awami League loses the elections. It gets only 62 seats, compared to the BNP, which wins in 193 constituencies.
May 7, 2004: Assailants shoat and kill Ahsanullah Master, an Awami League MP, in Tongi
August 21, 2004: Grenades are thrown at a rally organised by the Awami League. Sheikh Hasina survives the assassination attempt. But 23 party members, including the women's affairs secretary Ivy Rahman, die.
January 27, 2005: Awami League leader Shah MS Kibria is murdered in a grenade attack.
November-December, 2006: Awami League launches street agitation against President Iajuddin Ahmed's caretaker government.
July 16, 2007: Sheikh Hasina is arrested on charges of corruption. Many other Awami League leaders also face corruption charges.
June 11, 2008: Hasina is released from prison.
December 29, 2008: Awami League-led Grand Alliance wins the general elections winning 230 seats. Sheikh Hasina starts her second term in office.
The Awami League-led Mahajote, which won an electoral landslide in the last general elections, has finished its one year in office last week. In the run up to the polls the alliance promised to bring a digital Bangladesh, a country free from poverty and economic exploitation, a golden Bengal where only rule of law will prevail. As the Awami League enters the second year of its third term in office, we try to explore some important issues of the day: What are the government's major achievements? What are the setbacks the government has faced in its rule? And, more importantly, what lies ahead for Sheikh Hasina and her young government, upon which the country has bestowed its future?
In the last general elections, throughout electioneering Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League and Mahajote, showed brinkmanship; unlike her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) counterpart, she had shunned mud slinging and character assassination and, on top of it all, the Awami League's (AL) Vision 2021, her manifesto for change went down well among the young voters, who made up 32 per cent of the electorate. Sheikh Hasina promised change, and the voters answered her call by voting overwhelmingly in her favour. When the results came out, it became apparent that Bangladeshis had rewritten history; a silent revolution had taken place on December 29, 2008. While the BNP, the AL's archrival, lost 163 seats, the AL gained 168.
While forming her cabinet, Sheikh Hasina surprised many by choosing fresh young faces for important ministries. For the first time in the country's history, Home and Foreign Ministries went to women ministers. Most of Hasina's young colleagues have had an untainted past. The parliamentary standing committees were formed in the first session of the parliament and some chairmanship of these important bodies went to opposition MPs. "For the first time in the history of Bangladesh in the parliament all the standing committees are functioning with four chairpersons from the opposition. Committees are the most important part of the parliamentary system; the committees work round the clock in Westminster democracy. It is a big achievement," says Waliur Rahman, a political analyst.
Post-poll violence, however, turned out to be difficult to contain; and no sooner had Hasina and her nascent government tamed the spiralling lawlessness, it faced the biggest challenge in its term in office: the BDR mutiny. On February 25, last year, barely two months into Hasina's second term in office, a bunch of disgruntled bloodthirsty jawans of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutinied at the forces headquarters in Pilkhana killing 57 army officers who were deputed to the country's border security forces. Faced with the prospect of a civil war breaking out for the murderers were armed to the teeth, the government showed maximum restraint, and two days after it broke out, the mutiny was quelled. The government arrested the masterminds of the massacre within a week and the trial of the killers is going on.
This year farmers have got electricity for irrigation at the right time and the supply of fertiliser has been adequate.
One of the biggest successes of the government is the stimulus economic package that it has rolled out to withstand the ongoing global economic recession. By the beginning of its second year at the helm, all the major indicators are showing an upward turn and Bangladesh has shielded its financial interests well. In the last year, manpower export has also increased. Economist MM Akash thinks some of the government measures have successfully thwarted the threat posed by the ongoing global economic meltdown, but he, however, cautions that there might be a thorny road ahead. "The price of rice is increasing on the market, and the manipulation of the middlemen is increasing by day. Only time can tell how it handles the situation," he says.
On the agriculture front it has all been rosy. Enough supply of power have ensured that the farmers have got electricity for irrigation at the right time, supply of fertiliser this year has been adequate and Sheikh Hasina and her government can be given due credit for the food autarky that the country has achieved. Mujahidul Islam Selim, general secretary of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, thinks the success in food production is due to the government's new agriculture policy, which has seen an increase in giving subsidy and agricultural loan to the farmers. "Beside these initiatives, the government also needs to smash the hands of the middlemen and party-cadres who reap the most benefits of the food production, depriving the farmers of their due share," he says.
Awami League MP Abdur Razzak calls food security the most important issue of our time. "There has been some significant progress in this field and if the government continues the help that it has extended to the farmers, we can expect another bumper food production in the new year," he says.
Hasina's government faced the biggest challenge in its term in office: the BDR mutiny.
Political analyst Dilara Choudhury thinks the biggest success of the government is the formation of a non-communal democratic education policy. "After being given the charge of the education, Minister Nurul Islam Nahid has formed a new Education Policy that aims to ensure education for all," she says. This is the first time that textbooks have been distributed free of charge to all the students at different educational institutions on the first day of their class. Nahid also plans to put more emphasis on vocational training to meet the rising challenges of the new millennium. "If he keeps his promise, we can expect our education system to be on a firm footing within a few years," Dilara says. Selim agrees; he says, "The government can claim some big achievements in the educational sector."
The government has also taken some steps to save the rivers from the encroachers, who, blessed with the impunity of the subsequent governments, have grabbed government land. In the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Sheikh Hasina and her government's leading role in favour of the countries adversely affected by the rising Carbon-dioxide omissions has earned her kudos.
The government has successfully fought the legal battle of punishing the killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. " It will, once and for all, flag the fact that nobody can get away with murdering somebody meaning that the rule of law is being established through the process of this trial," says Waliur Rahman. War crime trial is also in the offing.
But the government's success is blotched with its failure to pursue its drive against corruption as vigorously and relentlessly as it should be. "It is, again, a must for the establishment of rule," he says.
Sheikh Hasina promised change, and the voters answered her call by voting overwhelmingly in her favour.
Decentralisation of power got a big blow when the MPs were made advisers of different Upazila Parishads (UP). In the absence of complete rules of business, the Parishads are functioning on temporary rules of business, which does not define the role of the body's Vice Chairperson. "The way the UPs are handled is disappointing," Dilara Choudhury says. She thinks that the government has failed to keep the promises that it has made in the run-up to the elections.
Another problem with the temporary provision is that it gives more power to the elected representatives of the people than the bureaucrats. "The recommendations of the Local Government Commission have also not been implemented," she says, "We expected the government to decentralise power. We hope that in the near future the government will change its outlook and strengthen the local institutions."
Some of the government measures have successfully thwarted the threat posed by the ongoing global economic meltdown.
There have also been allegations that the government has failed to rein in on its student wing, some members of which have allegedly been involved in manipulations of government tenders, and, in worst cases, extortion. "Even though its top leadership has remained untainted by corruption, it has not been able to control some of the leaders of its mass organisations," MM Akash says.
Abdur Razzak is disappointed by the government's performance in ensuring energy security. "The government could not generate enough electricity in 2009. I have remained an optimist though; I think the new projects will generate adequate electricity in the next two years' time. I hope they work," he says.
The Awami League government has promised to set up the war crime tribunals.
Besides a couple of hiccups such as these, the government's stride towards its own Vision 2021 has been a promising one. Dilara thinks the government's first term in office has gone rather well. "There are some major achievements," she says, "and as the first year of any government, it has had some achievements it can be proud of." She says that the law and order situation in the country has been good.
Waliur Rahman suggests that the government restart the jail killing trial. "As a witness of the trial I can tell you that it has not been properly done. The government must immediately restart the trial process," he says.
He also thinks that in the next one year the government must also think seriously to create the post of National Defence Adviser. "I think we badly need it to face the challenges of terrorism and other internal and external threats," Waliur says.
Dilara also suggests that the government ensures energy security. "It is a must. Without it there will be no investment," she cautions. Waliur agrees, but he thinks the new projects that the government has taken will work well. "It is just a matter of time that our energy needs will be fulfilled," she says.
In one of her election speeches Sheikh Hasina had famously said, “Boat (the AL's election symbol) has brought you independence, repeat your choice this time too, it will give you economic freedom.” So far her government has made significant progress in achieving that goal. Only time can tell if her government can strengthen these achievements and bring about the Golden Bengal that our founding fathers have dreamt of.
After many tempestuous years, democracy in the new millennium has gained a firm footing in the country. Analysts and politicians expect politics in the next 10 years to be different from what it has been. They think good governance and rule of law is the key to establishing a truly democratic Bangladesh.
Parliament must be the centre of all political activities.
Democracy in the last nine years has gone through many phases. There have been violent confrontations in the streets that led to the declaration of the State of Emergency and the rule of a non-elected caretaker government, which held power for two years. Even though power has been changed twice through elections, misgoverance and politicisation of the bureaucracy by the ruling parties have been rampant in the last 10 years. Bangladesh is still far away from establishing rule of law.
The biggest strength that democracy in Bangladesh can boast of is perhaps the huge support of the masses that it wields in its favour. In the last four general elections there have been a huge turnout of voters who waited patiently at the polling stations to exercise their right to vote. In all cases, anti-incumbency factor has been crucial for in all these four polls the voters have overwhelmingly voted for the party in opposition in the last parliament.
It also shows the disappointment that the masses have felt in their elected representatives. "In the last 10 years Bangladesh was in the process of democratisation, but we cannot say that the process had produced 100 percent successful return in so far as democracy is concerned," says Dr Syed Anwar Hossain, professor of History at Dhaka University.
Awami League MP Suranjit Sengupta agrees; he thinks the impediments that the country's beleaguered democracy faces now go back to the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. "I think our War of Liberation is an unfinished revolution," he says, "We were supposed to take the path of non-communal democracy, which was laid down in the constitution of 1971."
He thinks Bangabandhu was misdirected, deceived by the defeated forces of the war who eventually killed him along with his family members. "Since then our politics have been divided into two groups--pro and anti-liberation forces," he says, "Before 1975, the nation dreamt of a bright future, a non-communal democratic country free from exploitation, but with the murder of Bangabandhu, the country had moved towards the path of becoming a mini-Pakistan."
It is indeed heartening to see the Awami League government start the process of trying the war criminals along with bringing the perpetrators of all previous political killings to book. Having said that, it must adhere to the principles of rule of low and justice, without which it will be difficult to bring the country back to the track of good governance.
Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader MK Anwar does not see a bright future ahead as he thinks no one in the political establishment has the right mindset to run the political institutions in a democratic fashion. "There is no denying that our democracy is still in infancy," he says, "there are many things that need to be done to make democracy functional and I do not see them coming."
He says that during the first few days of the last caretaker government's regime, he saw some sense of optimism, but later, "within a very short time I was disillusioned." The reason he says, "Either they (the regime) could not identify their real task or they had some hidden agenda."
Anwar thinks political parties should practise internal democracy, which Suranjit says "a must to establish democratic values in all walks of life". He says that the country must reinstate its first constitution: " In the last elections there has been a mass upsurge and a verdict has been given to the Awami League to go back to the constitution of 1972. If we stick to the constitution of 1972 and step into the new decade, people will be reunited, economic emancipation will come. If the killers of Bangabandhu are hanged, it will be a fall of post-1975 politics, and if we do not lose our way, I think, we will be able to march forward because we have enough potential as a nation," Sengupta says.
Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of Dhaka University, however, considers intolerance the biggest enemy of democracy. "Both the political parties believe in 'if you are not with us, you are against us’ kind of ideology, and this harms good governance and rule of law dearly," he says, "and because of this culture of intolerance many a time dubious forces have cropped up to play a determining role."
He thinks true democracy is yet to take root in the country. "Whenever we want a complete functioning democracy, our politicians tell us that Bangladesh has its own version of democracy and we have to make do with it. I think this idea is flawed, democracy is a universal political idea, there can never be a 'different democracy', which is practised only in Bangladesh," he says.
Professor Anwar Hossainalso thinks some of the politicians are not capable of rising up to the challenges of the new millennium. "Some of the politicians are not at all attuned with the tenets of democracy and rule of law," he says, " The common people are democratically oriented; we have democratic rules in our past, in ancient times we had, however small, many democratic republics."
He says that Bangladesh has many expectations that have so far remained unfulfilled in so far as the role of politicians is concerned and in most of the cases the politicians have not been able to deliver. "The democratic norms and values and rules of the game are not properly followed by the politicians," he says.
MK Anwar says emphasis must be put on making the parliament effective. "Parliament has been used for mudslinging and character assassinations, and if it goes on, it will cease to remain an effective institution," Anwar says. He considers establishment of rule of law an integral part of democracy and says, "A democratic society is always guided by rule of law, in our life it has remained absent. The Awami League government has politicised bureaucracy in 1995; we have our fair share of blame too. But this should not have been done…"
Professor Imtiaz says politicisation of bureaucracy has been so widespread that it is lobbying and allegiance to the ruling party only that decides who is going to be the Vice Chancellor of a university or who will be made an Officer with a Special Duty in a particular ministry. Along with getting rid of nepotism and sycophancy, MK Anwar thinks the ruling party must recognise the role of the opposition party and give it its due honour to make parliament functional. "Along with this, the administration must be depoliticised, judiciary needs to work in a free and transparent manner," he says.
Professor Imtiaz says the politicians need to rise up to the occasion to make democracy work. "If we don't do this," he says, "We will remain a 'different democracy', and in such a warped political form of government, dubious forces can always raise their head." So far the Awami League, in its third term in office, has taken some significant steps to fix the anomalies that our politics have been riddled with. It has brought in new faces to the cabinet, and has given the post of chairman of different parliamentary standing committees to the opposition lawmakers. But the power of money and muscle that has made democracy dysfunctional in the pre-2001 politics still remains a significant force. Both the major political parties need to get rid of criminal elements in its fold and make room for young leadership to emerge.
At the beginning of its tenure the Hasina government failed to reign in on some of its young members who indulged themselves in manipulating government tenders and extortion. It needed the Prime Minister's intervention to stop these Chhatra League leaders from their dastardly acts. The biggest challenge that the new government has faced in its one-year tenure is the crisis centring on the mutiny of some members of the Bangladesh Rifles in which 58 army officers were murdered. The trials of the mutineers have already started and are expected to be finished soon.
The biggest test for democracy to work will be to make parliament effective through meaningful participation. This means the practice of boycott must be boycotted. Opposition parties have traditionally indulged in this punitive strategy at the cost of valuable taxpayers’ money and thwarting the support of their loyal voters. The ruling party Chief and Leader of the Opposition have the greatest responsibility of all, by burying their personal bitterness towards each other and bringing in a new era of healthy competition and unity when it comes to issues of national interest. Unless our politicians practise what they preach, democracy has a long way to go before it leaves its infancy.
The new government, which has won an electoral landslide in the last elections, also promises to bring a digital Bangladesh free from corruption and nepotism by the end of the next decade. Whether it sticks to it promises and leads the country to a prosperous future only time can tell.
With the advent of the Internet and mobile phones the number of Bangladeshis visiting pornographic websites is increasing. Sometimes children are featured in these lurid videos; teenagers also download these sexually explicit scenes and pass it on to their friends. There have been occasions when girl students killed themselves when footages of their self shot nude videos or scenes of their sexual acts were caught on hidden camera and were published on the net. There is no strong law in the country to protect children from the threat of porn. New laws and a social movement against pornography is now the demand of the time.
Bangladesh woke up to the nightmare of 'homemade deshi porn' in 2001 when Suman, a Bangladeshi-born American, came to the country and videoed his sexual acts with three local women. Unaware of the presence of the camera, the women fell into Suman's love trap and were shot in compromising postures. The CDs which hit the market later on carried a commentary that degraded the women. A general diary was lodged, but by that time Suman and his lone accomplice had fled the country; the CDs started to be sold in the shops; of the three women, one has left the country, the other two still bear the shame of being exposed publicly in such a way.
Suman's is not the only scandal to plague the country's CD scene. Taking the advantage of cameras in mobile phones, intimate details of individuals are videoed, sometimes with the consent of willing female friends, only to be leaked into the market. Last week, Shobuj (name changed), a ninth grader at a reputed English medium school in Uttara, was caught at school with a CD. "We have gone through it and to our utter horror we have found that it contains explicit scenes of some of our male and female students," says the Principal of the school who wants to remain anonymous.
The Principal thinks it is difficult to handle what she calls 'this new nuisance', as modern technology, like a double-edged sword, has both good and bad sides. "We have banned cell phones at school, but parents complain that without the phone it becomes impossible for them to contact their children in times of need," she says.
Manusher Jonno Foundation, a non-government organisation, has conducted an extensive survey in the country on child pornography. Its report says, " Watching naked pictures through mobile phone is found to be a common trend among the children (covered by the survey). According to some children, they enjoy bad songs by mobile phone. Also, children are found to exchange porno pictures through mobile phone." The report, quoting an owner of a cyber café, says that a boy and a girl of a reputed school of Dhaka recorded their own sex act and sent it to others by MMS.
"Pornography is spreading among the children mostly by the friends through chatting; drawing curiosity on sex or by peer pressure that insist them to view porno picture or movie considering it as a part of their smartness and adulthood," the report says, "Sometimes they simply follow their seniors at school or college. It is noticeable from their discussion that considering growing demand porno movies are prepared in large scale inside the country too and the children are aware about these web sites."
The children who indulge themselves in such activities just for the fun of it know little about the ramifications of their actions. Shobuj says that he has got the videos through the blue-tooth of his friends' mobiles and has made a CD of all the videos because he wants to see them together.
Some of these videos hardly remain a private affair. "There are several ways a video tape can be leaked," says Shanto, a dealer in porn, who only uses his first name, "We mostly get the porn from computer repair shops, where people send their PCs to be fixed."
He runs a bustling shop at the heart of the city's Hatirpool area and his clientele include 13-year-old school goers to 70-year-old retired civil servants. He says that his collections are the best in town; while some of the CDs show Bangladeshi men and women having sex, the rest contain scenes where children as young as 14 are either shown nude or are making love to each other. Asked whether he knows that selling porn is illegal, he replies, "There are many things, which are illegal, smoking in a public place is one, why don't you go and arrest the person who is smoking in front of my shop? I am merely doing entertainment business. If people feel happy after watching my CDs what's wrong with it?"
However innocent Shanto wants to make his trade sound, only a few months ago pornography has taken the life of a young woman in Gazipur. The girl fell in love with a young man of her age and they had sex in a hotel room. Little did they know that the hotelier runs a secret racket of pornographers who kept a hidden camera in the room. Soon the video made its way into the Internet and within days it became the talk of the town. The girl committed suicide by hanging herself from the ceiling fan.
Her family has not yet filed a case with the police, as it will expose its members to further humiliation. "After the video was uploaded on the net, my daughter's friends started to avoid her. There were whispers on the streets. One day she came back from her college and locked herself up. If only I knew!" Nasreen Akhter (name changed), the girl's mother, says.
Her suicide and an attempted suicide of another girl have prompted the police to request the ban on 84 websites carrying nude photographs and sexually explicit video clips of Bangladeshi girls. In fact there are certain websites on the Internet, which are solely dedicated to Bangladeshi child porn. Shanto says that some of the CDs that he sells are downloaded from the net. In its report on child porn, Manusher Jonno Foundation says, "Few students shared that they and their friends searched for porno pictures through Internet and visited porno websites. They said that they visited cyber cafés and downloaded pictures through their pen drive and later it installed them in their personal computer to watch secretly at home. Some students said that at present mobile phone is being used commonly to download porno pictures, as it is easy to install."
As the net is not easily accessible for most young adults, some go to the cyber cafés only to download nude photographs and videos from adult sites. Sometimes they go through Facebook or other social networking sites to download revealing photographs of girls. Some of them even upload their own photos on these web pages and anyone can download and use them.
Borhanuddin Lascar, owner of such a café confesses that most of his clients are students. He however refuses to accept that most of them use his facilities to search for porn; "Sometimes they come to google for important assignments that they have to prepare for their studies. It's true that some succumb to the allure of pornography; I cannot do anything about it. I have no way to track down whether my clients are doing research or watching porn on an adult site," Lascar says.
In fact, there is no cyber café in the city that monitors the activities of its clients; neither do they track the activities of their children or underage customers. Exposure to porn at an early age can wreak havoc on a child's psyche. A child can grow up being aggressive, he might grow to degrade women and can see them merely as sexual objects. Psychologists believe that watching porn at an early age can give a child twisted ideas about sexuality, harming his sexual life when he grows up.
Eminent lawyer Barrister Mokhsedul Islam considers child porn a big problem and he finds the police request to ban websites ludicrous as he thinks that whenever and wherever the police find any such website it must immediately block it: "What is the point of asking permission?" Barrister Islam asks.
Many young people go to cyber cafés to see x-rated films, as there is no system of monitoring the activities of clients.
He thinks existing laws are not adequate to deal with pornography, let alone help the children who have fallen victim to porn. In Bangladesh the law that directly deals with porn is 149 years old, and there is no wonder that it does not cover the Internet or Multi-media Messages. Section 292 of the Penal Code defines porn as "obscene book, pamphlet, paper, drawing, painting, representation or figure or any other obscene object whatsoever", and hands down prison sentences up to six months to a person who sells, lets to hire, distributes, exhibits or circulates to "any person under the age of twenty years".
Section 292 does not even mention children, and lawyer Barrister Raghib Rauf Chowdhury finds it poorly made to fight the rising menace of child pornography. The Children Act 1974 does not cover child pornography and the act which does: Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Act 2006: does not specifically mention any offence committed by or against the juveniles. "If you talk about pornography in general there is no law that singularly deals with it. Even the Children Act does not carry severe punishment. The ICT Act carries sever punishment with a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a fine of up to Tk 1 crore. But the law is not clear enough to cover the situation that we are dealing with nowadays," Barrister Chowdhury says.
He says that of late he has come across an incident where a girl is threatened by her ex-lover that he is going to publish all her photographs online as their relationship has broken up. "It has become so rampant that new laws need to be enacted," Barrister Chowdhury says.
According to the 57/1 of ICT Act a person will be considered guilty if he willingly publishes or transmits anything untrue or vulgar on the internet or in any other electronic format or after reading or hearing of which a person becomes inspired to become corrupt or dishonest; or anything that can cause defamation; deterioration of law and order; or can create a situation that may lead to the deterioration of law and order; or can harm the image of a person or state; or hurt the religious sentiments; or can give incite against any individual or organisation.
The law is inadequate to fight child pornography.
Barrister Chowdhury thinks the ICT Act is meant more for the television channels than the pornographers or owners of pornographic sites. Colonel Mizanur Rahman Khan, Additional Director General of the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab), agrees. He says, "If the law were strong, the criminals would have thought twice before starting their dastardly acts. A stringent law that will curb cyber crime with an iron hand is the demand of the time."
Col Khan, a father himself, thinks to give or not to give mobile phone to one's child is one of the toughest challenges that a parent faces nowadays. "When I was a teenager, we used to go to school early in the morning and get back home in the evening after playing in the field. There was no security concern at the time, my parents were sure where we were; they knew that we were safe and sound. But it is not the same now, I always worry when my child goes out of home and because of the cell phone I can communicate with my child," he says.
Yet he thinks, except for the blessings part, mobile phone is also a curse in disguise. "Only a few days ago the Rab has caught some criminals from Farmgate who were uploading porn on mobile phones at 200 taka per cell phones. We act whenever we get a whiff of porn," Col Khan says.
One of the prized feathers in Rab's crown is the arrests of some criminals who, as a gang, were kidnapping and raping young girls and videoed their acts. Acting on a tip off the elite crime-busting unit nabbed all the criminals of the group, which was stationed in Savar. "It is a social crime and whenever we find any crime we act promptly," Col Khan says.
He believes that as it is a social crime, Rab is not enough to handle it. He thinks a social movement is needed to make people aware against child porn. "After we have raised the issue of yaba, the newspapers have taken up the issue and our joint efforts have kept the use of this illegal substance to the bare minimum," he says.
Col Khan also suggests strong vigilance of the law enforcing agencies. On top of it all he puts the outmost emphasis on making children and young adults aware of the tentacles of pornography. "At the end of the day only a social movement can raise awareness against child porn, as law enforcers we can only kill the source, but if the demand is there the many-headed monster of porn can creep up again in a different form," he says.
It has been more than a mere trial. On August 15, 1975, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, along with 13 members of his family, was brutally murdered by a bunch of disgruntled, degenerate members of the Army. Obstacles were created to bar the trial of the killers, not only that, Zia, Ershad and Khaleda governments gave them protection and diplomatic jobs, creating a society where killers of innocent men, women and children can go scot-free. It has taken the nation 34 long years to bring Bangabandhu's 12 killers to book. Last week's Supreme Court verdict is a giant step towards establishment of a society based on democracy and the rule of law.
Barrister Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, one of the three survivors of the August mayhem, will never forget the dawn of August 15, 1975. Taposh, who was around four years old at that time, was sleeping in his room with his brother when he heard his father's footsteps in the stairs. Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni, one of the organisers of the Liberation War was going downstairs to pick up "the day's newspaper or a book", Taposh could not quite recall. As he reached the landing space of the stairs, a bunch of killers led by Risaldar Moslehuddin got hold of him. Moni, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's nephew, was told to walk ahead. "You are under arrest," said the Risaldar.
"Meanwhile, my mother came down," says Taposh, "Before the killers fired at my father, in an attempt to save him, my mother came before the gun and both were shot." She was seven-months pregnant at the time of the killing.
Taposh and his elder brother were eyewitnesses to one of the grisliest and barbaric murders in human history. "After the massacre, Mrs Fatema Selim, one of our aunts, took us to a safe house, telling us that it was not safe to stay in that house any more," Taposh says.
He was completely devastated. "Even though I was a mere toddler at that time I knew what I had lost," Taposh says. He and his brother have been lucky because within a few hours after the murders, the killers came back looking for Moni's two sons that they had orphaned.
Taposh still bears the trauma of the loss. "I won't be able to tell you what I feel. Parents are a person's biggest assets. I miss them in every step of my life's successes and failures, achievements and defeats," he says. Taposh, who has recently survived an assassination attempt, says that he missed his father when he first became a barrister.
The first attack on the night of August 15 was launched on Abdur Rab Serniabat's house. In the 20-minute-long killing spree that ensued, the murderers killed Serniabat, his wife, daughters and three minor members of his family. Serniabat's son Abul Hasnat Abdullah, a survivor in the family who has luckily escaped on that frightful night, told a British journalist, “I later saw my wife, mother and 20-year-old sister badly wounded and bleeding." He says that his two young daughters, uninjured, were sobbing behind a sofa where they had hidden during the massacre. Lying dead on the floor were his 5-year-old son, two sisters aged 10 and 15 and his 11-year old brother, the family ayah (maid), a house-boy and his cousin Shahidul Islam Serniabat.
On the night of August 15, 1975, the killers divided themselves into several groups. The first one, led by Lt Col (then Major) SHBM Nur Chowdhury and Lt Colonel (then Major) Mohiuddin Ahmed, went to the historic house at Dhanmandi road no 32. The second group, assigned to kill Abdur Rab Serniabat and his family members, was led by Major Dalim, and Risaldar Moslehuddin Khan led the third group, which launched an attack on Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni's house.
Gen. Zia (extreme left), the then second in command of Bangladesh Army at Khondokar Moshtaque's oath-taking ceremony.
When the massacre was going on at Serniabat household, Bangabandhu got a call from the house. "Get the police control room," he told his personal assistant Muhitul Islam. When he could get neither the police station nor the Ganobhaban Exchange, Bangabandhu himself tried to make a call. A hail of bullets poured in and Mujib told Islam to duck under the table. A few minutes later Bangabandhu got up and went out to the veranda. Meanwhile, the butchers had already killed Sheikh Kamal and Sheikh Jamal. By that time Major Mohiuddin took Bangabandhu to the landing of the stairs. Nur appeared in the corner and said something to Mohiuddin, to which the latter moved to one side. "What do you want?" Bangabandhu asked. There was silence. Nur and Major Huda then simultaneously fired volleys of bullets from their Sten guns. Bangabandhu's whole body twisted back and slipped to the landing of the stairs. It was 5.40 in the morning. Mujib's death could not quench the blood-thirst of the murderers, Begum Fazilatunnesa Mujib, Bangabandhu's wife, embraced martyrdom within a few minutes. The killers then went into one room after the other and killed Bangabandhu's two daughters-in-law.
The killers looked for Sheikh Russell, Bangabandhu's 10-year-old son, and found him in a corner. "I want to go to my mother," Russell, merely a toddler, cried. "We are taking you to her," said one of the killers and took him to first floor. There were volleys of gunshots.
Khandakar Moshtaque Ahmed, who declared himself President on August 15 following Bangabandhu's brutal assassination, on 26th September promulgated an ordinance indemnifying the killers. The Ordinance was promulgated, as the Bangladesh Gazette dated that day says, “ to restrict the taking of any legal or other proceedings in respect of certain acts or things in connection with, or in preparation or execution of any plan for, or steps necessitating, the historical change and the Proclamation of Martial Law on the morning of 15th August, 1975.”
The murders have been brutal and barbaric as it is, but to indemnify the killers of pregnant women and children have been something unheard of. With the brutal and barbaric murders of August 15, Bangladesh, as a nation, plunged into an abyss of darkness. Within nine days of the mayhem, the then Army Chief Gen Shafiullah was sent into retirement and was replaced by his second-in-command Gen Ziaur Rahman. Since then, except for the four days of November 3-7, 1975, Zia was at the centre of power. There has been widespread allegation that Gen Zia gave the killers the go-ahead to assassinate Mujib and his family. Lt Col (dismissed) Farooq, in a confessional statement given to the trial court on December 19, 1996 said that Lt Col (retd) Sultan Shahrier Rashid Khan told him prior to the massacre that Zia would support them if Mujib was killed.
"There are multilateral dimensions to the conspiracy," says Syed Anwar Husain, professor of History at University of Dhaka. He says that there is evidence, however a little bit peripheral, to suggest Zia's involvement in the August massacre. "This evidence arises out of his perfunctory reaction upon being informed that Bangabandhu was killed. Zia replied, 'President is killed, so what? The Vice President is there. Uphold the constitution'."
These staccato sentences, Professor Anwar says, when analysed together, lead to disturbing conclusions. "Firstly," he says, "it appeared that he took this very barbaric and dastardly incident very lightly, meaning he had a foreknowledge of the happenings." He also says that Zia said the right thing by urging everyone to uphold the constitution under such abnormal circumstances. "Anybody in a responsible position could have said the same thing; but the core statement, which makes us suspicious is: 'So what?'"
In fact, it was Zia who incorporated the infamous Indemnity Ordinance into the constitution, constitutionally protecting the killers of innocent men, women and children. "Zia was at the forefront of all the beneficiaries of this tragic happening. He was the man who did everything to shield the killers from any legal process and he also managed to provide them with safe passages out of the country," Professor Anwar says.
In fact, Zia's assumption of power was coated with the blood of the martyrs of the August 15 mayhem. The killers have found a benevolent friend in Gen Ziaur Rahman-- he gave them diplomatic jobs, legal protection by incorporating the Indemnity Ordinance into the constitution at his own rubber-stamp, pet parliament.
Even though Bangabandhu's killers are about to walk the gallows in a month, Zia's involvement in the August carnage waits to be unearthed. The murders gave birth to a string of bloody coups and counter-coups. There was a government in Dhaka, but there had been alternative centres of powers at different times in the months of August, September, October and November, 1975.
The culture of coup, conspiracy and murder that was given birth to in 1975, continued. Zia himself survived several coup attempts, all of which he suppressed with an iron hand. During Zia's regime there had been several trials for launching coups, and interestingly in most of the cases those who were on the dock were army officers who fought during the Liberation War; but for the August 15 killers waited only government benefits. On May 30, 1981, Zia himself became a victim of coup; he was assassinated in Chittagong. And those who were put to trial before a martial law court were also freedom fighter officers of the Bangladesh Army. It seemed as though a conspiracy had been hatched to purge the army of Muktijoddha officers.
Bangabandhu's murder has destroyed all the major democratic institutions of the country. Judiciary, in the hands of different military dictators, was used to legitimise the latter's illegal hold on power. Elections became a joke, and one of the worst victims of the August 15 mayhem has been the Armed Forces of the country. For 15 long years the nation was rattled by a culture of killing and impunity that started through the massacres of August 15; and our Army was no exception. Militarisation of governance has done no country any good, and as a result of it both the Army and the country's wobbling democracy suffered.
In 1990, the Armed Forces took the courageous stance of refusing to obey the dictatorial regime of General HM Ershad. During the mass upsurge, at the fag end of Ershad's regime, the army high command refused to fire on the masses that took to the street to bring down Ershad's illegal rule. The mass movement paved the way to restoration of democracy, which we had lost on August 15, 1975 through the brutal murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Khaleda Zia, Ziaur Rahman's widow, who assumed power after democracy was restored in 1991, kept her late husband's policy regarding the killers unaltered. In the February 15, 1996 general elections, held when Khaleda was in office, Khandaker Abdur Rashid, one of the self-confessed killers of the Father of the Nation, was elected uncontested. And the subsequent governments that followed the carnage have all had their fair shares in abetting the killings. One of the basic tenants of democracy is the rule of law and as they did not hold trial of the killers of innocent, unarmed men, women and children, the basis on which Zia, Ershad and Khaleda regimes held power was immoral, if not illegal.
Khaleda Zia's sympathy for Mujib's killers can only be explained if clear evidence of Zia's hand in Mujib murder can be found. Not only did Khaleda follow her late husband's policy on the killers, during her second term in office the Mujib murder case was deliberately stalled through the creation of one government-made obstacle after the other. Zia helped the killers flee: Khaleda made their trial difficult.
The trial of the killers, done in a free and transparent manner, finally ended last week, 34 years after the murders. The Awami League government deserves kudos for not tampering with justice, keeping the judicial system free from undue influences. Last week's Supreme Court verdict that upheld the death penalty of Bangabandhu's 12 killers is immensely significant on several counts. It proves that no matter how long it is or how well protected the killers are, there is no law in the country that can save murderers of innocent men and women. To establish a society based on the basic tenants of the rule of law it is a must that killers are punished; and that is exactly what has happened through the Supreme Court verdict. During the era of military dictatorships, there are several instances where judges, at gunpoint, had to legitimise the despotic rules of different military dictators. This verdict has also absolved the highest court of the land of its previous sins.
Last week our Supreme Court has at last given us the opportunity of heaving a collective sigh of relief. The dark era of misrule, abuse of power and impunity that has prevailed over the years has come to an end. We demand a quick execution of the verdict, with which we also wish to move on as a nation towards the establishment of Golden Bengal that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had dreamt of but could not achieve. Our goal should now be to build a happy and prosperous nation. Establishment of a country based on rule of law, democratic values, and social and economic justice is perhaps the biggest tribute we can pay to our Father of the Nation.
Bangladesh's relations with its eastern neighbour have hit an all time low
Since General Ne Win deposed the country's elected government in a bloodless coup in 1950, Myanmar (Burma) has remained one of the hermit kingdoms of the world. The country has kept itself isolated from rest of the world, and even though it borders Bangladesh, Myanmar has never occupied the attention at the policymaking level that it deserves.
Bangladesh woke up to the reality in early January 2001 when Myanmar started to build a dam on the upper stream of the Naaf River, which constitutes a large part of 340-kilometre long Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Exchanges of fire took place and in the midst of it all, Myanmar pushed in thousands of its ethnic Rohingyas whom the junta had evicted from its Rakhine State. The country stopped building the dam after two battalions of Bangladesh Rifles were posted there, but the Myanmarese generals are still to take all the Rohingyas back.
Meanwhile, those who were giving Myanmar a serious head at Bangladesh's Foreign Affairs Ministry in Segunbagicha again went back to a long slumber. It was rudely broken last year in November when two Myanmarese warships intruded into Bangladesh's waters to build an oilrig. Bangladesh Navy sent its own warship BNS Abu Bakar to thwart the intrusion, which was aided by intense diplomatic manoeuvring.
Myanmar retreated only to come back this autumn, a time when the sea remains tranquil. The country's generals, between last November and this year's August, have augmented its collection of weapons by buying missiles from countries as diverse as China, North Korea, Russia and Bulgaria. Of these ammos, the most lethal is perhaps North Korean Taep'o-dong-2, which is weighed 79,189 kg with a range of 4,000 kilometres, making Tatmadaw, the Myanmar Army, capable of striking anywhere in Bangladesh.
Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, thinks if the news is true then Bangladesh should raise the matter to different international forums so that the junta does not spring a surprise on us. "Equipping ourselves (militarily) should be our first priority now," he says.
In early January 2001 Myanmar started to build a dam on the upper stream of the Naaf River.
All is now not well on Bangladesh's eastern front-- the generals in Naypyidaw started to send troops to the country's border last month and by October 18 its total military strength stands at a whopping 50,000, not to mention the 50 tanks, anti-aircraft batteries it has kept at hand. Two divisions of the army are ready, armed to the teeth, as back-up only 50 miles off the Naaf.
While Myanmar is building up troops, Bangladesh Foreign Ministry has categorically denied any unusual Myanmarese troops reinforcement across the border. Foreign Minster Dipu Moni has told journalists that she cannot confirm the news. " "I had talks with our ambassador, an army officer, in Myanmar and he told me that it is a routine practice," she said, adding, “Foreign Secretary Mijarul Quayes also called the Myanmar ambassador in Dhaka and the envoy conveyed him the same message," she has said.
Reality, however, does not reflect Dipu Moni's claim: Bangladesh Army, however belatedly, has started a massive deployment titled "Operation Nishchidro Prachir" (Operation Fortress), which has seen the country's military presence strengthened.
National security expert Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (rtd) criticises Dipu Moni's comment as "rather strange". He says, "Moving such a large element of a conventional force is not routine movement and is certainly against the norms of border management. Any such movement within a particular distance from the border, as agreed upon by the two sides, has to be notified to the other well in advance. One wonders whether that was done."
Gen Anam says Bangladesh's military strategists have unnecessarily remained indifferent to Myanmar's military ambition. "We have always considered the country (Myanmar) a doormat," he says, "but, now what?" He says that while we had been neglecting Myanmar and did not even consider it worth evaluating its threat potentials, the government in Yangon had been building up its military to a point that has now reversed the force balance in favour of Myanmar by a factor, on the average, of 1:3.
A leaked Bangladesh Rifles document obtained by The Daily Star suggests that the Myanmarese junta has sets its eyes on Bangladesh's St Martin's Island, which is strategically located on the tip of the Bay of Bengal. The report, which has been sent to the government, identifies the island as the main target of the Myanmarese attack should a full-blown conflict breaks out.
Gen Anam thinks it is high time that Bangladesh prepares itself to safeguard its national economic interests by properly arming itself. " One would like to think that the rulers in Yangon understand that coercion or use of force will not help resolve matters. Outstanding issues should be resolved through discussions."
Professor Ahmed thinks the government should take the issue of troops build-up to different regional and international forums. "We can engage different regional and international partners like China with us," he says.
Myanmar, however, has recently assured Bangladesh that its recent activities at the border is routine and Bangladesh has nothing to worry about. Professor Ahmed remains sceptical though; "It is very difficult to trust a dictatorship," he says, "there is no civil society in Myanmar, there is no independent media in that country. As there are no checks and balances, it is hard to take them at face value."
Without any shred of democracy or rule of law, Myanmar poses one of the greatest diplomatic challenges that the Hasina government has faced in its new term in office. Dhaka has to work through its intricate network of friends to create a peaceful solution to the crisis, and should negotiations fail, it must be ready to do what best the country, its people and its armed forces can do to safeguard its political and economic sovereignty.
From India to Edward Kennedy, many nations and individuals had helped Bangladesh during its War of Liberation. Thirty-eight years after its independence, the country is yet to recognise many of its friends who helped its cause at a time when help was badly needed.
On a dark night of 1962 Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, befooling the Pakistani border security guards, crossed the India-Pakistan border at Comilla. Bangabandhu was arrested by the members of the Border Security Force (BSF), and was taken to the nearby police station. Mujib made a call to the District Magistrate (DM) and told him that a plane was supposed to be waiting for him at the airport to take him to Delhi. Throughout 1962, Mujib had been secretly talking to the Indian government officials at the country's Deputy High Commission in Dhaka. Masterminded by Bangabandhu himself, the plan was for the independence of East Pakistan-- Bengali officers and jawans of the Pakistan Army and East Pakistan Rifles would lead an armed uprising to liberate the country from Pakistan; Awami League was going to be at the forefront of the struggle. Bangabandhu secretly crossed the border on January 27 in the hope of going to Delhi to put his plan before the Indian premier. Unaware of Mujib's visit, the DM at Agartala told Bangabandhu to go back home as neither the Deputy High Commission nor Delhi had informed him of Mujib's sojourn. Mujib was dropped near the border, where he sneaked into Comilla again. Six years later, the Pakistan government charged Mujib with sedition, saying that he had hatched a conspiracy in Agartala to create a separate nation.
In fact, Indian hand in Bangladesh's independence can be traced back as far away as 1962. The country was closely watching the political developments on its eastern frontier, and when the Pakistan Army launched Operation Searchlight on the night of March 25, 1971, India was quick to react. From the morning of March 26, Indian government-run radio station Akashbani stopped their regular programmes and repeatedly announced the news of the massacre in Dhaka: "'Civil war has started in East Pakistan,' it declared," says Abul Fateh who tuned into the station at 12 in the morning that day, "it was so reassuring to hear the news amidst the death and destruction."
More reassuring was the song that followed the news snippets. At the dawn of the darkest of night in the history of the Bengali nation Akashbani played Amar Shonar Bangla, Ami Tomae Bhalobashi (My Golden Bengal, I adore you), which later became Bangladesh's national anthem. "We were overjoyed. This one song has given us courage, hope and the dream to fight on," Abul says.
On March 27, Tajuddin Ahmed and other leaders of the Awami League crossed the border and were received with due honour by the BSF. They met the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Delhi. Tajuddin was assured of all help that his fledgling nation needed. “We had Mujib's declaration…Zia's declaration on independence. When the refugees started coming in, I was standing on the border… they were in a very shocking state. Soon we started getting more and more refugees and the government of India decided that we should help the Muktibahini, the freedom fighters,” says Lt Gen (rtd) JFR Jacob, former chief of the Indian Army.
Two days after Tajuddin's arrival, Indira Gandhi declared that India would open its border and welcome Bengali refugees to its soil. "It was an unprecedented decision, for countries usually close its borders when refugees pour in," says Shahriar Kabir, who is researching on India's involvement in Bangladesh's Liberation War.
On March 31, Indira Gandhi herself moved a resolution in the parliament, which went: "The House records its profound conviction that the historic upsurge of the 75 million people of East Pakistan will triumph. The House wishes to assure them that their struggle and sacrifices will receive the wholehearted sympathy and support of the people of India."
Indian help increased as the number of refugees flooded Salt Lake and Agartala. In the first week of April India had started arming the freedom fighters, it got a momentum after the Bangladesh government in exile was formed on April 17 in Mujibnagar, Meherpur. Not only that India also sent its own troops in guise of freedom fighters to fight for the cause of Bangladesh, long before it formally recognised Bangladesh's sovereignty. "Officially," says Kabir, "India joined the war on December 3. But India had always sent its own army men to East Pakistan to fight alongside the Muktijoddhas." In fact, on May 15, the Indian Army launched an operation codenamed 'Operation Jackpot'. It coordinated 30,000 regular soldiers and 100,000 guerrillas who effectively destroyed the infrastructure of the Pakistan Army.
Even though Lt Gen Jacob puts Indian death toll at 1,400; unofficially, Kabir says, it could be as high as 20,000. "Pakistan Army arrested many Indian soldiers in March-November and paraded them before TV cameras," says Kabir, "and all of them were Indian jawans who infiltrated into East Pakistan to fight for Bangladesh." On the diplomatic front Bangladesh got a huge boost thanks again to a whirlwind tour that Indira Gandhi had made to the Western European capitals. By the time her trip was over, Bangladesh had the support of the people of Britain, France, Germany and Austria by its side.
The Soviet Union and its friends, meanwhile, supplied the Muktibahini with arms and military logistics and in mid November the combined strength of the freedom fighters stood at 1,49,000 compared to Pakistani strength of 85,000. At the fag end of the Bangladesh War, the Soviets vetoed thrice at the United Nations against proposals opposing Bangladesh's independence.
US Senator Edward Kennedy, Congressman Cornelius Edward Gallagher played a crucial role in creating opinion in favour of Bangladesh; singers Ravi Shankar, George Harrison and Joan Boaz staged the famous Concert for Bangladesh to raise funds for Bangladeshi refugees; French author André Malraux championed Bangladesh's cause across Europe. But Indians beat them all: in 1971, Indian actress Waheeda Rahman, famous for her roles in 'Kaagaz Ke Phool' and 'Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam', donated signing money of all her films to Bangladesh Shohaok Samiti (Bangladesh Assistance Association), Oscar-winning director Satyajit Ray raised money for the organisation. Artist Maqbool Fida Hussain exhibited his works on the streets of Bombay and donated the earnings.
On December 3, sensing defeat, the Pakistan Army launched Operation Chengiz Khan, a pre-emptive air strike on Indian airbases in Amritsar, Ambala, Agra, Awantipur, Bikaner, Halwara, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Pathankot, Srinagar and Uttarlai. The operation ended miserably and only spelled disaster for the Pakistan Army both on its eastern and western wings-- India declared war on Pakistan; Bhutan recognised Bangladesh on December 6; India followed suit. The next day, India launched a final military push towards Dhaka and within 14 days, the great Pakistan military establishment was on its knees on the Race Course of Dhaka.
Thirty-eight years after its independence, Bangladesh is yet to honour the help that Indira Gandhi had given us when as a nation we plunged into an abyss of darkness. "Bangladesh should name a street after her and Edward Kennedy," Abul says. The government can also erect a monument to honour the Indian soldiers who laid down their lives for Bangladesh's independence. Those who fought in the war can be given an honorary medal. "Bangladesh should also give honorary citizenship to the foreign fighters who fought alongside the Muktijoddhas," he says, "Such token gestures could be a small way of showing our gratitude."
Growing diplomatic and military ties between Myanmar and North Korea pose a security threat for Bangladesh and other Southeast Asian nations
Gen Shwe Mann, right, and a North Korean officer exchange a gift at an air force unit. Shwe Mann (left) and Gen Kim Gyok-sik exchange copies of a memorandum of understanding at the Defence Ministry.
It is indeed a marriage of convenience. Myanmar (Burma), which has been under a vile military dictatorship, has lately reached out to North Korea, which is ruled by the hegemonic rule Kim Jong-il. The relationship between these two countries, however, has never been smooth: even though Myanmar got independence in 1947, and North Korea in 1948, Rangoon and Pyongyang exchanged emissaries as late as in 1974. The friendship lasted no more than nine years; Rangoon severed all diplomatic ties with Pyongyang when some North Korean operatives carried out an attack in Myanmar on South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan.
Both the countries set up embassies in each others' capitals two years ago and since then military ties between Myanmar and North Korea has grown at an alarming rate, so much so that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called it "destabilising for the region". She has said that, "It would pose a direct threat to Burma's neighbours." The irony however, does not escape us: even though Myanmar is an impoverished nation of 50,020,000, whose economy grows at 2.9 per cent a year, one of the lowest in the region, 40 percent of its budget is spent on defence. Military rulers, as the history of the world suggests, are always plagued with paranoia and Myanmar's Generals are no exception. Faced with the prospect of being overthrown by its own people, the Generals have shifted the capital to Naypyidaw. A string of leaked photos and documents received by The Star suggests that the Myanmarese Generals are under this impression that a 'foreign force' is going to invade the country through the Irrawaddy delta, which borders Bangladesh. A photo of a recent briefing of the Myanmarese Army on the National Air Defence Command System show that senior commanders think that foreign ships and naval vessels will launch an attack on the country's army through the region.
A briefing on the National Air Defense Command System to Burmese (background projector shows lower part of Burma and part of the Irrawaddy delta where the regime believes foreign forces and naval ships would enter Burma.
Both North Korea and Myanmar have certain things in common though, and it is indeed surprising that it has taken so long for both the countries, shunned by the world for their disrespect for human rights and rule of law, to have made friends with each other. Ne Win, who usurped power in Myanmar in 1962 and died in 1988, was an ardent advocate of what he called the 'Burmese way of socialism'. It eerily resembles Kim Il-sung (who died in 1994 and till date is called the 'Eternal President of the Republic') who, when he was alive, called his version of dictatorship as the Juche way to socialism.
Even though Myanmar and North Korea have re-established ties after 25 years, there are signs that the Myanmar junta is all praise for its Korean counterpart's infamous 'Songun (military first) policy'. In November last year, North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Young Il paid a visit to Myanmar to sign a free visa agreement. The year witnessed five visits by Myanmarese government officials to the hermit kingdom, which since Kim Il-sung's death in 1994, is ruled by his son Kim Jong Il. According to a report run by the Korean Central Agency, Yangon (Rangoon) Mayor Brigadier General Aung Thein Linn, in a visit to North Korea last year, heartily praised the Songun policy. The enthusiasm in Korean militaristic chauvinism shows that the Myanmarese junta is planning to replicate the North Korean model in its own country.
The most significant of all the visits took place in November last year when Than Shwe, the head of state of Myanmar and Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw (Myanmarese Army) went to Pyongyang last November. On his shopping list were: the technology for building tunnels, aircraft, naval ships and missiles ranged 500-1,000 kilometres. According to the Irrawaddy, a newsmagazine run by Myanmarese in exile, the junta is planning to build Scud-D, E and F missiles. Recently the Japanese government has intercepted the supply of magnetic measuring device that is used to build long-range ballistic missile system; the shipment was made to Myanmar. A raid made by the country's police suggests that North Korea has already transferred the Taep'o-dong-2 equipment to Myanmar. If the news is true, Bangladesh's national defence system is in danger. Weighed 79,189 kg, Taep'o-dong-2 is the longest of North Korean missiles--it is thought to have a range of 4,000 kilometres, which means the entire Bangladesh will be under its range. Worst still, it can carry nuclear warheads.
In fact, the Myanmarese junta has already bought short and medium range ballistic missiles (SRMBs) from China and North Korea, SRMB air defence system from Russia, low altitude surface-to-surface missiles from Ukraine and Bulgaria. Recent intelligence reports suggest that the country is also building an intricate network of tunnels across the country to supply ammos and troops in a possible war with the help of the North Koreans. The project, bombastically titled People's Militia Strategic Operation, has its headquarters in the capital and is thought to be lined with bombproof materials. One of these tunnels, housed under the Pyinmana road, can accommodate 1000 soldiers for several months.
Bangladesh needs to take Myanmar's recent military ambition seriously. The country's relationship with its eastern neighbour remains unstable, and the latest developments in Naypyidaw are particularly alarming on more than one count. Myanmar under the leadership of the ruling Generals is a prison for small ethnic minorities. In 1988, the regime forcibly evicted 300,000 of the country's minority Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh, creating a major humanitarian disaster. In November last year, a fleet of Myanmarese naval ships illegally entered into Bangladesh territory in the Bay of Bengal, an area which is rich in oil, gas and other mineral resources. Bangladesh Navy has repulsed the intrusion, Myanmar, now armed with new military hardware, can turn up again this winter to lay claim to the disputed territory, says an intelligent report.
All the telltale signs are there: last month the Myanmar Army arrived in the bordering Mongdu and Alitanjo and forcibly acquired around 1,000 acres of arable land from the ethnic Rohingyas to distribute it among the Buddhist citizens of Mongdu. The Army has also told the Rohingyas of the country's Sectors 6 and 7 to go to the hills or to take refuge in Bangladesh.
At the same time Myanmar is building its military presence across the border. It has deployed a new string of missiles; in the Arakan state alone the Army's strength stands at 500,000. To make it even worse, Bangladesh's border with Myanmar has remained ill guarded, especially after the Pilkhana carnage. Kaptai power station, which, should the border skirmishes turn into a large-scale conflict, will become a natural target, is not properly shielded from a possible enemy fire. Compared to Myanmar's newly bought military hardware, Bangladesh is lagging far behind.
As a nation that loves democracy and freedom, Bangladesh must take the issue of Myanmar's appalling human rights record to the international level. The country also needs to hold joint patrol exercises with countries like the US, UK and Australia. The free world must also look at Myanmar, where a despotic insane regime has held Aung San Suu Kyi, the elected premier of the country in prison for the last 14 years. In fact, the Myanmarese junta's growing fondness of the North Korean regime spells disaster for the region, especially for neighbours like Bangladesh and Thailand. Bangladesh's ultimate aim should be to get rid of the thorn that has been refusing to go away. As it cannot do away with it alone, it can seek the help of those who wish to do the same. Myanmar under the Generals is risky as it is; the junta's North Korean connection calls for immediate action.