Does Awami League Victory Offer Hope for Real Change?

Sunday Column by Dr. Richard L. Benkin

Dr. Richard L. BenkinDr. Richard L. BenkinBangladeshi elections had been put off for so long that it was difficult to predict what they might produce. On December 29, 2008, however, the people of Bangladesh answered that question clearly by giving Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) a landslide victory. That’s both good news and bad news for the left-center party good news in that it need not make any dubious deals to being other parties into its ruling coalition; bad news in that the world will hold Hasina and her party responsible for what happens next. The AL is inheriting an economy in shambles, a still-corrupt officialdom, a nation infested with Islamist terrorists, and a seemingly ineradicable tradition of minority oppression, even ethnic cleansing. Curing those ails is an enormous task, and one key to success will be actions the AL takes to secure foreign support for its effort.

In January 2007, I met with former Bangladeshi Home Minister Lutfuzzaman Babar at his home in Dhaka, three days before a military coup suspended elections scheduled to be held later that month. The reason for the military’s intervention was that Babar’s party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had rigged the upcoming vote so transparently as to render any potential outcome illegitimate. At the time of my meeting with Babar, there it still appeared that the election would take place as scheduled; and Babar along with the rest of the BNP was planning their next move as the nation’s leaders.

Babar asked me how I thought the United States could help Bangladesh and what we could do to secure that aid. I responded that “Bangladesh and your party in particular” are going to have a tough time convincing anyone in Washington or anywhere else to support you until "you take real action to stop three things: massive corruption, tolerating and even sponsoring radical Islamists, and the oppression of minorities, women, and journalists." During the BNP’s long tenure in office, matters grew worse on all three dimensions. Babar himself remains in prison having been arrested by the interim government for his own role in Bangladesh’s seemingly endemic corruption. Often, the Awami League has touted itself the antidote to these ills, particularly the last two; and while there is no question that it is preferable to the BNP and its Islamist coalition partners, the swooning we see in some quarters are pre-mature. The AL has a long and hard road ahead of it, and it ultimately will be judged on its actions and their effectiveness for the people of Bangladesh; not on its fine words or the a priori support of others. And thus far, its actions fail to live up to its words.

Let us remember the unique situation that transpired just prior to its assumption of power. First, the BNP transparently rigged and somehow expected that the opposition, the entire diplomatic community, and most importantly the people of Bangladesh would not notice. By doing so, it revealed a level of corruption so deep that cheating was considered acceptable enough to be done in the open. But the AL only made matters worse. Its rants against BNP mendacity found the entire world on its side, but instead of proving itself to be in a class above the BNP, it showed itself to be no better. When I arrived in Dhaka AL leader Hasina was on television and in the press calling for violence in the street to “shut down” the nation. Instead of capitalizing on her support and going to various embassies in a statesman-like way, she acted like a demagogue that would bring the country to greater misery that it already was. The general impression in world capitals was that both the BNP and AL would bring the country to ruin if it meant scoring points against the other; that their leaders cared less about the national interest than they did about their own petty feuds. The AL’s actions confirmed that impression and so no one saw either party as a palatable alternative. In an historically unprecedented action, every western democracy called on the Bangladeshis not to hold elections.

Not long before that, the AL abandoned its stated principles of religious freedom and a secular government by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the radical Islamist Bangladesh Khelefat Majlis (BKM). In exchange for BKM’s support, the AL stipulated that Islamic clerics’ fatwa would be binding on the entire nation if the AL won the election. The MOU parties also promised to ban any law deemed contrary to Quranic values, put madrass degrees on the par with public schools and universities, and outlaw any criticisms of the Prophet Muhammad. Undoubtedly, AL defenders would remind us that the party rescinded the MOU, but that was only after the elections were cancelled—and almost a month after it at that.

While the Awami League frequently identifies itself as the defender of minority rights, its record is less than convincing. Professor Abul Barkat of Dhaka University has conducted the most authoritative study on Bangladesh’s Vested Property Act (VPA). The VPA was modeled after Pakistan’s Enemies Property Act, and like its predecessor is a racist and retaliatory law aimed at Hindus and other minorities. It empowers the Bangladeshi government to seize the property of non-Muslims and distribute it to Muslims of their choice. As Barkat has shown, the percentages of the spoils collected by the BNP and AL are almost identical with their positions flip flopping depending on who is in power. At the end of its tenure in 2001, the AL passed the Vested Property Return Act, but that was recognized as an empty gesture that would never be implemented.

This is not to say that the world should despair that there will be no change under the new AL administration; but it should caution everyone not to assume things will change based on words alone. There is hope, however. This AL’s landslide victory presents the party with an opportunity it has not had in the past; namely, to operate free of the pressures and interests of coalition needed partners. Sheikh Hasina has stated that the economy and the people’s welfare will be her top priority, and success will require her government to tackle the issues mentioned in this article in order to win international credibility for Bangladesh. Her government can take some basic actions to secure that.

As one of the AL’s first actions, repeal the Vested Property Act and set up a commission to return seized properties to their rightful owner. By this point, even members of the government have called the VPA "a black law" in that it has no justification by any standard of human rights and jurisprudence. All parties interviewed about the VPA said they are looking for the AL to right this historical wrong. It would be easy to do and do quickly as a message to the world that this Bangladeshi government is committed to act and not just talk in upholding the principles basic to the people and culture of Bangladesh.

Secure cooperation of the United States and NATO and announce that Bangladesh will work jointly with them in a grand alliance against Islamist terror. There was a time that Bangladesh was identified as a moderate Muslim nation and one that would stand against terror. That time is long past thanks to a BNP government that abetted the expansion of radical Islamists in its country. It has been rumored that even Osama Bin Laden has at times found safe haven in Bangladesh. To re-establish its anti-radical credentials and win international goodwill, Bangladesh must show that it is ready to back up its words with action.

Control the open border with India that allows contraband and terrorists to flow freely between the two countries. I have been to that border and saw how easily people and goods move illicitly between the two countries. That is not good for Bangladesh or India. It has devastated the border areas and costs both countries enormous amounts in resources dealing with the consequences. The AL has maintained cordial relations with its giant neighbor, and controlling the border could be the first step in building a new relationship that will benefit both countries greatly.

Conduct behind-the-scenes negotiations and then announce that as a moderate Muslim county, Bangladesh will act as an honest broker in the Middle East conflict. In 2003, I published “Dear Bangladesh” in which I recognized that Bangladesh was uniquely positioned to take on this role. Since then, however, hard-line statements by BNP officials (many far more strident that those heard anywhere in the Muslim world except in rogue states like Iran) have made such a role less likely. There have always been efforts to establish some level of contact between Bangladesh and Israel, and one that would not compromise Bangladesh’s support for the Palestinians or jeopardize its expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia. It would be another way for Bangladesh to re-establish its moderate Muslim credentials, and it would change Bangladesh’s role from that of a poor victim to a major international player that needs to be courted.

Immediately allocate police and military resources to enforce laws against minority oppression and attacks on minorities. Make this RAB’s primary role. The AL has said all the right things about supporting an end to this rampant minority oppression and ethnic cleansing of Bangladeshi Hindus; but it has yet to say how it will enforce laws that have proven invulnerable to enforcement. Not only do anti-minority incidents in Dhaka and other large cities proceed with impunity (and this is the case whether the victims are Hindu, Christian, Ahmadiyya, or any other minority), but the countryside has been open season on non-Muslims for decades where even local law enforcement participates in or allows the atrocities. It would be another way the AL can show it is ready to back its words with action. And it might turn its human rights albatross (RAB) into an instrument that enforces human rights.

Continue the mandate of the Anti-Corruption Commission. Strengthen the Commission and staff it with individuals from all major parties and the military so its justice will be handed down equitably. Add provisions to prevent this variety from paralyzing its efforts.

Launch an initiative for international investment and tourism in Bangladesh. A prominent AL supporter told me, "We don’t want handouts, we want joint ventures." The future of Bangladesh lies in its ability to attract foreign capital. There are resources that have not been tapped, unmet needs of this giant population, and natural beauty and wonder that would make anyone’s vacation a memorable one. By showing the world that she truly is leading a new Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina can build the international confidence needed to sustain her people well into the 21st century.

- Asian Tribune -