Consider safe exit plan
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
With the beginning of 2008, both people and politicians in Bangladesh and increasingly becoming intolerant about holding of the next general election by December this year, which had already been repeatedly promised by both the interim government as well as figures in Bangladesh army. Certainly, it is well understood from the recent statement of the Chief Election Commissioner that no election can be held under the State of Emergency. Although the Election Commission [EC] is continuing preparation of National Identity Card [NIC], which also shall be used as Voter’s ID, there is no sign of any negotiations between the military backed interim government and the political parties on several points of restoring democracy, continuation of anti-corruption effort as well, ensuring a safe exit plan for the present government. Recently, the chief advisor of the interim government, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed repeatedly tried to say that his government is not interim but caretaker. But, looking into the past record of this unique type of government in Bangladesh, we shall understand that this is the firsts ever ‘caretaker’ government in the country, which is not only supported by army by many of the military personnel are openly giving statements on election, politics, politicians, corruption etc., which does not stand positively to support the claim of the chief advisor that this is a caretaker government. Of course, many of the political pundits may argue saying that where is problem if patriotic members of Bangladesh Army are standing as supporting force for the present government. If I am not mistaking, let me try to understand that, in reality there should not be any problem for Bangladesh Army in being a supporting force for any government in the country, only if members of our armed forces do not start giving political statements. I have read here and there that many of the top officials of out armed forces did say something negative in general about politicians terming them corrupts and culprits. It is painful to draw a conclusion en messe that all the politicians in Bangladesh are corrupts and culprits. I can categorically bring here many names of politicians who are never corrupts. They are cleaner than many of the remaining sections in our society. For example, Awami League leader Motia Chowdhury or BNP leader Dr. Osman Faruk. There are many like these names in our politics who have passed tests of time in proving themselves to be honest, credible, sincere and committed. Yes, it is a fact that, none of them could ever become the leading factor in out politics. But, at least, with many such names, we just can not afford to say that politicians are corrupt in general. But, without considering such realities, many of the officials in our armed forces did say that politicians are corrupt. Now, hypostatically if I shall have to think that there will be any election in 2008, which will be coming in power? Politicians! And, in that case, how these officers can serve under ‘corrupts and culprits’?
People are also predicting imposition of martial law in Bangladesh once the possibility of holding general election as well restoration of democracy is somehow obstructed. Of course to bring credibility in the election, the interim government needs to ensure participation of all major political parties. They will be committing another blunder if they are dreaming of holding any election with minor political factors like Dr. Ferdous Ahmed Qureshi’s or General Syed Ibrahim’s political parties, which were born under the patronization of the present government. On the other hand, none of these individuals enjoys support from the masses in the country. They are already a very minority in Bangladeshi politics whose ambitions might be to capture power, but, this would only repeat the fate of any previously held unpopular elections in Bangladesh. The present government should never ignore the fate of election in 1986 or 1988. The election of February 15, 1996 should also come under serious consideration of the present government or their patrons.
Four important developments in Bangladesh deserve serious attention - the replacement of five 'Advisers' to the 'caretaker' Government, the scarcity and rising prices of rice and crisis on the power front; the Army's efforts to forge a political alliance, and growing demands for prosecuting war criminals who had collaborated with the Pakistanis and perpetrated mass murder and rape during the 1971 liberation struggle. What do these indicate?
Law and Information Adviser Mainul Hosein, Power, Energy and Food Adviser Tapan Chowdhury, Health Adviser Major General (retired) ASM Matiur Rahman and Industries Adviser Geeteara Safiya Choudhury resigned on January 8 on the advice of Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed. Earlier Ayub Quadri had resigned on December 26 as Education and Cultural Affairs Adviser following public outcry over the theft of two Vishnu statues while on their way to an exhibition in Paris. Five new advisers - Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman, Ms Rasheda K Choudhury, Major General (retired) Ghulam Quader, AMM Shawkat Ali, and AF Hassan Ariff - were sworn in on January 9.
The move has to be seen in the context of the continuing steep rise in the price of rice, Bangladeshis' staple food. On January 2, coarse rice sold at Taka 32-33 per kg in Dhaka. According to the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh, the price of course rice had increased by 70 per cent during the last one year and 26 to 30 per cent during the last month. Apart from rice, inflation has generally been riding high. Trading Corporation of Bangladesh’s figure on a point-to-point basis for the whole of Bangladesh was 11.21 per cent in November last year. For food items, the percentage was 13.8 for the whole country and 15.50 for the urban areas.
Clearly, the 'caretaker' Government has failed to crack the cartel of five importers of eight essential commodities, which, according to a May 2007 study by the Centre for Policy Dialogue, is in a position to manipulate the prices of essential commodities. The Daily Star said in an editorial on May 19, 2007, "The CPD findings supported by statistics now provide a clear picture of how the cartel of importers is operating and where things are going wrong."
Instead of acting against the cartel despite a clear picture being available, the 'caretaker' Government sacked Power, Energy and Food Adviser Tapan Chowdhury. As for the entire sacking exercise, The Daily Star said in an editorial on January 10, "Although the step has come several months late, yet we heartily welcome it. A public perception had been growing over time that certain individual advisers were pulling the Government down. Some were performing poorly and others were being vociferous with insensible utterances in their zeal to play to the media that undermined the image of the Government and created confusion in the minds of the people."
Some of the Advisers were certainly not pulling their weight. Besides, some of Moinul Hosein's remarks and what was perceived by many as his use of office to settle family scores did not go down well. But why did the removals came "several months late"? The answer lies in the fact that the 'caretaker' Government, the civilian façade of a junta that staged a coup on January 11 last year, knows that its incompetence and high-handedness are eroding its popularity rapidly and that it will be almost impossible for it to postpone the general election beyond December this year. The junta can only retain power thereafter by hoisting a puppet Government in office through a rigged election with people like Qureshi or Ibrahim in power.
As to the former, the 'caretaker' Government has not removed the Jamaat and BNP supporters who had been inducted in the election machinery in large numbers and critical places during the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition rule.
Forming political parties or alliances that are virtually extensions of the Army is a strategy that Shahid Ziaur Rahman, who had captured power through a coup in 1977, first used when he established the Bangladesh Nationalist Party on September 1, 1978. Gen Zia, who made himself President, sought to build a political base for himself by allying with the war criminals of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh who had collaborated with the Pakistanis during the Liberation War. He allowed the Jamaat and allied organizations to resume political activity, and, in 1978, the principal war criminal, Golam Azam, to return to Bangladesh.
Remarkably, while pressing corruption charges against Awami League and BNP leaders and encouraging dissidence in both parties, the 'caretaker' Government has done nothing against Jamaat leaders. And this despite repeated demands by the Sector Commanders' Forum, a platform of sector commanders of the Liberation War, Bangladesh Muktijoddha Samannya Sangsad, Jatiya Muktijoddha Jana Oikya Parishad and a number of civil society organizations.
The argument that the 'caretaker' Government could not be expected to do what the Awami League and BNP-led Governments did not, and the Chief Adviser's plea, before Amnesty International's Secretary-General Irene Khan, that the present Government was mainly focused on reforms and elections, are specious. The Awami League and BNP did nothing to contain corruption. Yet the present Government has launched an anti-corruption drive and arrested top leaders of both parties, including Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia. Or is the drive a stratagem for crippling both parties before the general election, helping the Jamaat or Islamist parties to do well in these, and ruling with its assistance thereafter? That it could be so is suggested by the police's refusal to register sedition and other criminal cases against top Jamaat leaders like Matiur Rahman Nizami, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujaheed and Abdul Quader Mollah even after a court had instructed it to do so. Jamaat is the fountainhead of terrorism in Bangladesh.
It is witnessed in past with great concern that both the major players in Bangladesh politics, Awami League and BNP aligned with Jamaat for political benefit. Why? Because, Jamaat’s influence is gradually increasing. This party is expanding its grip over economic institutions and in recent years, they also have emphasized capturing Bangladeshi media. But, despite these facts, it is also evidently true that Jamaat’s strength in today’s political ground in Bangladesh is much stronger and wider than any of the remaining political parties save Awami League and BNP. Whether many would like it or not, Jamaat-e-Islami shall continue to be one of the major players in Bangladeshi politics for decades. On the other hand, although many of the political parties as well as social organizations are demanding trial of war criminals, it is well anticipated that, this would possible be a daydream considering the present realities of Bangladeshi politics.
Now, let me get back to the titled point. Many are already giving prescriptions of as to how the present interim government in Bangladesh can resolve the standstill with the political parties and create a smooth exit path for them. If the interim government will consider placing a puppet government in Bangladesh to pass indemnity bills to their actions, they must remember the fact that, in future, any way, either Awami League or BNP or even a joint alliance of the two shall find road to power in this country. And, of course, in that case, such indemnity shall get bogged into the Bay of Bengal. Whoever are giving suggestions to the present government in ignoring the major political players and finding an exit path through the minor political parties are in fact, giving wrong ‘medicine’ to the government of Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed.
The present government should learn from the past and begin immediate negotiations with the political parties both in public and in privacy. It should also instruct law enforcing agencies including Anti Corruption Commission to investigate deeds of the ousted advisors, and in case, they are found guilty, this interim government should grill the culprit former advisors, to bring credibility to its actions against corruption. The nation has certainly witnessed with concern that, former advisor Tapan Chowdhury fled Bangladesh right after resignation, because, he is not an angel. There are numerous allegations against Barrister Moinul Hussain and his son too. If the mission of the present government is to fight corruption, there should not be any hesitation in beginning at least investigations on various allegations against the former advisors. Finally, the present interim government virtually has lost friends abroad. It is another bad sign. This is a failure of the Bangladesh missions abroad as well as the main players in the ministry concerned. For the sake of restoration of democracy as well as a honorable exit plan for the interim government, restoration of relations with the foreign countries, especially the development partners are extremely important. This government also faces sins of a specific comment by Moinul where he said that, this government is not a partner in war on terror. There had not been any counter statement from the chief advisor or any of the elements in the government rejecting such ridiculous statement of Moinul. Any government in the world can not afford to continue as Al Qaeda fan. Moinul did place the present government into such critical position. Now, hopefully, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed shall also take this matter into his consideration.