Bangladesh: Nation at Crossroads

Violence flares in Bangladesh, but will the ‘Battling Begums’ find a way to end the crisis?

Maria Rupa Dhaka 

It was a phone call that didn’t quite break the ice. With the weight of an entire nation’s expectations resting on their shoulders, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed and opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia spoke on the phone for about 40 minutes on October 26, in a dramatic attempt to resolve the political stalemate that has threatened to plunge the South Asian nation into crisis.

While reporters hovered in the background and an anxious nation watched on TV, Sheikh Hasina invited Khaleda Zia to talks at her official residence — the first time the two leaders, who are notoriously hostile towards each other, have talked in years.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. With the government and the opposition at loggerheads over who should oversee parliamentary elections, due in January, the opposition called a three-day general strike, bringing the country to a virtual standstill. At least 16 people died across the country as opposition supporters clashed with police and ruling party activists, police and hospital sources said.

The nationwide strike called by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies closed businesses and schools, and hit transport across the country. The opposition is pressing the government to reform the electoral system ahead of the parliamentary elections.

The latest deaths bring to at least 20 the number of people killed in political violence since Khaleda Zia, the BNP chairperson, called on the Prime Minister to hand over power to a neutral interim administration that will oversee the upcoming polls. The government’s tenure ended on October 24, but under constitutional amendments brought in by the ruling Awami League party, Sheikh Hasina’s administration can stay on until elections. The opposition accuses the Awami League of standing in the way of fair elections by scrapping a neutral caretaker administration system that has supervised elections since 1996. The prime minister has denied attempting to influence the polls.

Police in riot gear patrolled the streets of Dhaka and fired tear gas and rubber bullets at opposition activists trying to bring out processions. Shopkeepers kept shutters half-open, ready to close at the first sign of trouble.

The BNP accused the police of using excessive force against its members. Police say they are acting to maintain law and order.

“We are agitating to ensure that there is a level playing field in the next elections,” said Shamsher Mubin Chowdhury, a senior BNP leader. “But this autocratic regime is meeting our demonstrations with bullets, killing our activists. We will not back down until a neutral caretaker system is restored.”

Bangladesh may be headed for more confrontation in the run-up to the elections. The BNP has declared that it will boycott polls held under the current prime minister.

Yusuf Hossain Humayun, a member of the Awami League’s central committee, said the impasse must be resolved within the framework of the constitution. “What the opposition is demanding is unconstitutional,” he said in an interview. “The current constitution does not allow the government to hand over power to unelected people.”

Political analysts say the key to a resolution lies with Hasina and Khaleda, who hold absolute decision-making power in their respective parties. “If the two leaders decide they want a truce, everything else will fall into place,” said Rafiqul Huq, a senior lawyer. “This is a political crisis, not a legal or constitutional one. It needs political will for a resolution.”

 ‘If the two leaders decide they want a truce, everything else will fall into place,’ said Rafiqul Huq, a senior lawyer. ‘This is a political crisis, not a legal or constitutional one. It needs political will for a resolution’

With so much riding on a breakthrough, intense attention focused on the phone call. Since the leader of the opposition had called on the government to initiate a dialogue without delay and the prime minister’s office had announced that the premier would call her opposition counterpart, expectations reached a fever pitch.

Foreign diplomats were not immune to the excitement. British High Commissioner Robert W Gibson said, “Like so many others in Bangladesh, I welcome news of progress towards a continued and constructive dialogue between the Awami League and BNP, and hope we will not witness further violence over the coming days.”

There was drama befitting a soap opera as the prime minister’s office announced that Hasina had called Khaleda’s official phone — the “red telephone” — many times without answer. Khaleda’s aides shot back that the red telephone was out of order and perhaps the government should ask its telephone department to get its
act together.

In the end, the phone call, lasting all of 40 minutes, was an anti-climax. Although aides to both sides said they were working on a possible date for negotiations, there was no immediate breakthrough. Hopes for a quick end to the crisis faded as the two leaders engaged in bitter, often personal, exchanges.

“You gave me two days’ time [to initiate dialogue] and I called you ahead of your deadline ... I request you to join the talks calling off the strike,” Hasina was heard saying during the conversation, but Khaleda refused, saying it was too late to call off the strike.

Hasina accused Khaleda of celebrating a “fake birthday”, coinciding with the August 15, 1975, assassination of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, along with most of his family. Khaleda said, “If someone is born on that day, can’t they celebrate their birthday?” and asked Hasina not to rake up past issues.

Bangladesh, for decades, has been troubled by political vendettas, largely stemming from animosity between the backers of these two parties. Since the 1990s, Hasina has alternated in power with Khaleda, the widow of a former president and wartime military commander.

Hasina, who came to power in 2009, has won praise from the US and India in recent years for cracking down on Islamist militants and — until recently — has presided over a resurgent economy, powered by garment exports.

The World Bank warned in a recent report that Bangladesh’s economic growth could dip below six per cent in the current fiscal year due to political strife and damage to the image of its $20 billion garment industry caused by deadly industrial accidents.

Stubborn inflation, as well as scandals at the stock exchange and the state-run banks, have hurt the government. The administration’s image was also badly damaged in a high-profile corruption row with the World Bank last year, in which the global lender pulled funding from an important bridge, accusing the Bangladesh government of a “high-level corruption conspiracy”.

The clouded economic picture, coupled with the return of violence, shows that Bangladesh may be slipping back toward instability. “We cannot afford this,” said Akbar Ali Khan, a prominent economist and former civil servant. “Political violence and misguided policies are destroying the country.”  

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2013