Bangla dilemma

Bangla dilemma

The military-backed   crackdown in Bangladesh by the caretaker regime has pushed the BNP and the Awami League on the backfoot. But will it lead to democracy or yet another spell of camouflaged dictatorship

Afsan Chowdhury Dhaka

How bad is the state of affairs in Bangladesh? Corruption, arrests and frozen bank accounts have become regular. Many big-time political and business players are cooling their heels in jail while some have managed to go underground. The government has picked up individuals from parties that were once in power or close to it. There is a massive crackdown led by the caretaker government backed by the army, with an ex-World Bank official as head.

Almost all the courtiers of the former prime minister and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chief, Khaleda Zia, are behind bars, including heir apparent and elder son Tarique Zia. Meanwhile, Awami League chief and former prime minister Sheikh Hasina has been accused of extorting Rs 3 crore (in Bangladeshi currency) when in power in 1998. There is also a murder case against her based on a complaint made by Jamaat-e-Islami activists; this involved a deadly clash between party activists in the past.  Jamaat leaders have been charged for the same case filed by the Awami League.

Meanwhile, the situation changed dramatically with Hasina threatening to return home and face charges in court. She was banned from entering Bangladesh and the murder charge has become an arrest warrant. 

It is Tarique Zia, however, who is drawing considerable attention. Along with him, his principal business partner Giyasuddin Mamun is also in prison. His confessions are regularly published in newspapers. The weekly Probe, considered close to the military—the real power players in this new regime—has published his entire statement made to intelligence agencies on his deals as well as those of others. Just about everyone has been named, including a dozen media tycoons. TV stations have been shut down and many newspaper owners are either in jail or in hiding. 

What the military rulers now in charge want, according to their declaration, is a complete rehaul of the power system and a break with the tradition of dynastic inheritance of power. The call for reforms is now also being heard from within the Awami League and the BNP. 

The crisis generated by the lack of a clear leadership has hit the BNP hard. A member of the advisory committee, Brig (retd) Hannan Shah, has emerged in the limelight, saying he represents Khaleda Zia’s opinion, according to which all senior party committees are to be dissolved, most probably leaving him as the party chief. He has also said that secretary- general Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan is unable to handle the crisis.

Mannan Bhuiyan, a veteran of five decades, hit back the next day saying Hannan Shah had no authority and legitimacy in the party. He called upon the rank and file not to be misled and gathered several leaders in a meeting to display his clout. Both contestants are hamstrung by the emergency that forbids all political activity, including ‘indoor politics’. The BNP is badly hit with several leaders and workers in jail or in hiding and others cowed down by the quick arrests that are taking place.

The Awami League, in comparison, has suffered less. Its hierarchy is intact and despite widespread arrests, there has been no break in the ranks or leadership. Unlike Khaleda, Hasina seems relatively untouched by charges of corruption, perhaps because the recent memory of the Zia brothers is so intense that allegations against her have been forgotten.

The demand for elections has also come up. One thing about military-backed, or direct military rule is that after the first couple of months people want reforms and they ask for political participation as well; this has been seen in the past. The new rulers are saying they will clean up the political structure, improve electoral governance through reforms, make participation in elections difficult for the corrupt and ensure a political environment that will make the people feel that it is they, and not the political parties, who will run the show.

This aspiration is, out of necessity, publicly welcomed by politicians. Both parties have declared the need for internal democracy. A senior military officer, however, has admitted that the army is not familiar with the complicated process of arrests and pressing charges that can finally stand in the court. Now they face a task for which they have not been trained. Indeed, it’s heady and difficult days ahead for Bangladesh.