The Latest from Bangladesh

By Dr. Richard L. Benkin

On January 8, 2007, I arrived in Bangladesh, and Shoaib and I embraced as brothers for the first time. Having gone through so much together; having been denied the opportunity to see each other so many times (the Bangladesh government either prevented me from entering the country or Shoaib from leaving it); our meeting was extremely emotional for both of us. Shoaib and an entourage (including his attorney, S N Goswami) met me at the airport, presented me with flowers and then escorted me into Dhaka for ten days I never will forget.

The most important thing for everyone to know is that Shoaib is doing well. He is winning more and more adherents to our mission to stop radical Islamists, establish Bangladesh-Israel relations, and supporting interfaith dialogue and religious equality (including an end to minority oppression in Bangladesh). Shoaib has a beautiful family—a wife with an amazing inner strength who has supported him unflinchingly throughout the ordeal; two children who are very proud of their father; and a supportive brother and two sisters. In fact, having been there, I would say that were it not for the hideous charge hanging over him, one would conclude that Shoaib leads a good life in Bangladesh. But of course, the charge remains, which is something we will get to shortly.

I came to a Bangladesh torn by political strife. The ruling BNP had effectively rigged the impending elections, and the opposition Awami League was threatening to boycott them while adding radical Islamists to its coalition. Bangladeshi democracy was so badly compromised that every one of the western democracies was calling on the government NOT to hold elections as scheduled—an odd unanimity upon which I remarked to US Ambassador Patricia Butenis. Then came the final straw.

Despite the fact that the international community had adopted her party’s stance, Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina called for even more violence and rioting in the streets—quite indicative of the vitriolic politics that has been stifling progress in Bangladesh for decades. Her threat brought the prospects of a complete social and political breakdown and a further cancellation of international orders for Bangladeshi garments—the lifeblood of the economy and the prerequisite for millions of Bangladeshi jobs.

On January 11, three days after my arrival, the military called a State of Emergency, canceled elections, and deployed throughout Dhaka and elsewhere. Shortly thereafter, the BNP-appointed Chief Advisor resigned and was replaced by Princeton-educated, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank official. Soon, the government announced a program to uproot the seemingly endemic corruption that has been plaguing Bangladesh. Arrests followed, and it was impossible to find a Bangladesh who was not happy—outside of those who expected to continue benefiting from the deposed system. But although the new government is winning points internationally and domestically, it will face a number of challenges that it will have to overcome.

Prior to the State of Emergency, I told a former high official of the BNP government that his party and government had three problems that will plague Bangladesh until they are eradicated. “One is corruption,” I told him. “Two is radicals—your policy of appeasement and radical infiltration of the society and judiciary.

And three is the oppression of minorities, journalists, women, and dissidents.” According to several sources, the new Bangladeshi leaders will be judged in large part by how effectively they deal with these three problems. So far, they have made a good start down that road, but it remains to be seen how effectively the new leaders will carry out these programs and chart a new course away from Bangladesh’s troubled past.

But there is another way that this government can have an immediate impact on how people see Bangladesh; that is to drop the charges against Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury—charges which the Bangladeshi government has admitted have no basis but are only maintained to appease the radicals. The fact that the radical judge was embarrassed on January 22, when government witnesses refused to appear against Shoaib gave many people worldwide hope that this new government is committed to justice. But previous hopes encouraged by the former government were often dashed by its policy of appeasement and its corruption. But there is cause for hope again. While in Bangladesh, I spoke with leaders among all the major factions, and this government is especially sensitive to how the international community views it. While there and since, we have made it clear—through our own communication and those of various international dignitaries and officials—that their disposal of the false charges against Shoaib will go far in helping to determine international opinion.

Dr. Richard L. Benkin, Special Advisor to The Intelligence Summit on Bangladeshi Affairs

- Asian Tribune -