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WANTED: Political courage before it is too late

Dr. Richard L. Benkin writes from USA                               

Sometimes in the life of individual and nations it takes the perspective of an outsider to identify something that should be obvious but is not.  So, as an outsider, I respectfully suggest that your nation is at a crossroads and choosing the incorrect path will be disastrous for the people of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has struggled against all odds to maintain a democratic government for decades now under some extremely difficult circumstances.  Providence, for instance, has deemed your nation to be the only one to be among the world’s ten most populous and its ten most densely populated.  Your people have survived regular natural disasters and a natural terrain that has made both agriculture and manufacturing difficult.  Still you persist; and still you have resisted the siren’s false call to radicalism and a new order as an antidote to your people’s suffering.  But of late, a decidedly anti-democratic political culture has invaded your society, making it likely that Bangladeshi democracy could be facing its final death throes in the coming months if the major political parties do not show the same courage that it took for your nation to declare its independence from Pakistan 35 years ago.

The paralyzing acrimony between Bangladesh’s two major political parties—the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Bangladesh Awami League (BAL)—has opened the door for a “third force” to emerge in the nation’s politics:  Islamist radicals who have surreptitiously but deliberately gained an unwarranted measure of legitimacy in Bangladesh.  This is the same force that has brought disaster to the people of the Palestinian Authority who thought they would be an effective alternative to the same twin scourge that afflicts the Bangladeshis:  poverty and corruption.  It is the same force that made Afghanistan a laughingstock, mandated a retrograde oppression that brought an internationally blessed coalition to oust it.  It is the same force that said it would form a coalition with a democratic government in Somalia only to seize the capital and try to assassinate the nation’s chief of state.  It is the same force that set up “killing fields” in Iran, reportedly responsible for over 2.5 million deaths, and continues to brutally suppress dissidents and persecute religious minorities.  The Iranian parliament under this force has recently passed a law mandating that all religious minorities wear a colored insignia at all time to identify themselves in the exact manner of Nazi Germany.

They promise nothing different for the people of Bangladesh.  They have legitimated persecution of religious minorities and suggest worse is to come if Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and others are forced to live under their personal version of Sharia.  They and their allies have legitimated the persecution of journalists who dare stand up against them, the most notable example being Weekly Blitz editor and publisher Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury who would not have been persecuted were it not for radical influence over the political process.  These matters, worse, are becoming known among nations whose imports and financial aid keep Bangladesh afloat.  The European Parliament has issued an official resolution noting this.  So has the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.  Members of Parliament in Canada and Australia are asking about the tie between Islamist radicals in the political system and human rights abuses.  If these sources of funding are shut off by the donor nations, will the radicals’ allies in Iran and Saudi Arabia make up the difference?  When funds were cut off to the Islamist Hamas Palestinian Authority (PA), they abandoned their erstwhile allies.  Bangladeshis can expect the same if they vote more power to the radicals in January.

There is only one answer available as those elections approach; and it is one that will go far in developing Bangladesh’s political maturity.  That solution is a “national unity government.”  Various nations have formed such grand coalitions in times of crisis or impending crisis.  They are a statement by the nation’s major political parties that their differences are far outweighed by their loyalty to nation.  There can be no doubt that Bangladesh if not in crisis now is on the precipice of one.  Are either the BNP or the BAL unwilling to place the interests of the nation above those of party?

In most countries that would not be a question.  Israel has done so recently and several times previously.  The Palestinians are trying to do it but so far failing.  Many European countries have done it, as have Canada, the UK. South Africa’s national unity government allowed that country to make a peaceful transition from its apartheid past to its current majority-rule state.  A national unity government composed of the BNP and BAL that shuts out the radicals can save Bangladesh from international isolation, the withdrawal of international markets—which definitely would follow an Islamist takeover—a cutoff of international funds similar to the one that followed the Islamist Hamas’s victory in the PA.

Thus far, however, both major parties adhere to what South Asian expert, Christine Fair of the United States Institute of Peace refers to it as “zero sum politics.”  Zero sum refers to a situation where any gain by one party is seen as a defeat by the other, thus eliminating the potential for compromise.  It takes the form of violent protests by the party out of power in an attempt to sabotage the party in power.  It is taking the form of political paralysis that is deadlocking negotiations about the January elections and filling the streets with protestors.  Neither party has considered the possibility that such actions harm Bangladesh more than helps its people.

The most destructive result of this rivalry has been the parties’ choice to ally themselves with radical (even seditious) parties rather than take the chance of allowing the other to gain governing power.  Do BNP leaders really believe that the BAL poses a greater threat to Bangladesh than do such radical parties as the JMB?

International analysts, intelligence bodies, and this commentator all predict that this pattern of appeasement will result in Islamist gains in the next election.  They could be significant enough to give Islamists control of, for instance, the Justice Ministry, which would allow it to impose Sharia on all Bangladeshi citizens by fiat.  It could force a more radical foreign policy, placing Bangladesh more in the camp of pariah nations like Iran, and further alienate it from donors and markets in the US and elsewhere.

A bold move by either Sheikh Hasina Wajed or Khaleda Zia to offer the other an olive branch to join together in defense of the nation and its people would signal a political maturity that offers the world hope for a stable Bangladesh.  But the clock is ticking. Islamists have bought and built infrastructure in the governing coalition, the courts, the police, the schools, and the media.  Several intelligence reports confirm the presence of Al Qaeda and other Islamists poised on the border areas surrounding Bangladesh. Until now, the major parties have not acknowledged that the danger facing their nation is real.

There is a great sage in the history of my people whose words seem particularly apt at this time and to both political parties:  “If not now, when?”

Posted on 29 Nov 2006 by Root

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