Thinking the Unthinkable: Is the Gulf Next?

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By James M. Dorsey | 02 FEB 2011

Thinking the Unthinkable: Is the Gulf Next?
It?s time to think the unthinkable: Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states may be getting in line for their turn at confronting widespread popular discontent.
As a wave of mass protests sweeps the Arab world, shaking the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to the core, rumblings of popular restlessness are bubbling to the service in the Gulf.
Shiite opposition groups in Bahrain, a strategic island kingdom that hosts the U.S. Navy?s 5th Fleet, have called for?protests on February 14 to demand greater political freedom, a halt to attempts to redress the sectarian balance in a Shiite-majority country ruled by a Sunni minority, an end to human rights abuses and improved economic opportunities.
Over the past month,?Saudi Arabia?s dismal soccer performance in the Asian Cup, unemployment, floods in Jeddah that killed at least four people and the granting of asylum to the ousted Tunisian leader have sparked protests and criticism on newspaper op-ed pages as well as on blogs and in Internet chat rooms.
Read more of the story at?The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer
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James M. Dorsey, a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, writes about ethnic and religious conflict. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.
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Dear friends,
Millions of brave Egyptians are right now facing a fateful choice. Thousands have been jailed, injured or killed in the last few days. But if they press on in peaceful protest, they could end decades of tyranny.
The protesters have appealed for international solidarity, but the dictatorship knows the power of unity at a time like this ? they?ve desperately tried to cut Egyptians off from the world and each other by completely shutting down the internet and mobile networks.
Satellite and radio networks can still break through the regime blackout — let?s flood those airwaves with a massive cry of solidarity showing Egyptians that we stand with them, and that we?ll hold our governments accountable to stand with them too. The situation is at a tipping point — every hour counts — click below to sign the solidarity message, and forward this email:
Yasmine Jaffri
?https://secure.avaaz.org/en/democracy_for_egypt/97.php?cl_tta_sign=887eb39ee0031d3012345f2fa90c21cf?
People power is sweeping the Middle East. In days, peaceful protesters brought down Tunisia?s 30-year dictatorship. Now the protests are spreading to Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and beyond. This could be the Arab world’s Berlin Wall moment. If tyranny falls in Egypt, a tidal wave of democracy could sweep the entire region.
Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak has tried to crush the rallies. But with incredible bravery and determination, the protesters keep coming.
There are moments when history is written not by the powerful, but by people. This is one of them. The actions of ordinary Egyptians in the coming hours will have a massive effect on their country, the region, and our world. Let?s cheer them on with our own pledge to stand with them in their struggle:
?https://secure.avaaz.org/en/democracy_for_egypt/97.php?cl_tta_sign=887eb39ee0031d3012345f2fa90c21cf
?Mubarak?s family has left the country, but last night he ordered the military into the streets. He?s ominously promised 0 tolerance for what he calls ?chaos?. Either way, history will be made in the next few days. Let?s make this the moment that shows every dictator on our planet that they cannot stand long against the courage of people united.
With hope and admiration for the Egyptian people,
Ricken, Rewan, Ben, Graziela, Alice, Kien and the rest of the Avaaz team
More Information:
Egypt unrest: Alert as mass protests loom
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12303564
Egyptian government shuts down the Internet
http://www.renesys.com/blog/2011/01/egypt-leaves-the-internet.shtml
North Africa: Will dominoes fall in the region?
http://allafrica.com/stories/201101280659.html
‘Beginning of the end’ for Egypt’s Mubarak as son and wife flee
http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/105117/20110126/beginning-of-the-end-for-egypt-s-mubarak-as-son-and-wife-flee.htm
Amnesty International condemns the crackdown on demonstrations
http://amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/egypt-must-stop-crackdown-protesters-2011-01-26
Regular updates are being posted by Egyptian activists here:
http://www.elshaheeed.co.uk
ACCESS campaign for digital freedom in Egypt:
https://www.accessnow.org/page/s/help-egypt

September 22 is for remembering

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Daily Mirror

THURSDAY, 23 SEPTEMBER 2010 00:00


The 4th article of the Dasa Raja Dharma, Lord Buddha?s incomparable treatise on good governance is about Ajjava, i.e. honesty and integrity. The ruler, the Buddha said must be absolutely straightforward and must never employ any crooked means to achieve ends. This week I planned to dwell on this particular aspect of good governance but am compelled to employ the idea to dissect something more specific. I write about honesty and integrity but only in terms of how they relate to the month of September.
I am writing this on September 22, 2010. September 22 is significant for a specific and personal reason. It marks an anniversary. On this day, exactly one year ago, the Daily Mirror published an article by me titled ?Welcome to Sri Lanka Ms. Patricia Butenis?. Ms. Butenis had just assumed duties as the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka. My comment followed a statement she issued to the press subsequent to presenting credentials to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
She said in that note, ?No country, including the United States, has a perfect record in safeguarding human rights? but said that even while addressing its own shortcomings, the USA has a responsibility to advocate for the rights and freedoms of people worldwide. Ms. Butenis is aware I am sure of the adage that charity begins at home. I expressed in my response to her ?note? the hope that once she recovers from jet-leg, Ms. Butenis would write a lengthy piece informing Sri Lankans about what exactly the USA has been doing by way of addressing shortcomings.
A lot has happened since September 22, 2009. We?ve had Nick Clegg of Britain?s Liberal Democratic Party confessing while acting as Prime Minister that the invasion of Iraq was illegal. We?ve had ?Wikileaks? telling us of the horrendous and systemic perpetration of atrocities by US troops in Afghanistan. We?ve had the US justice system virtually giving a green light to torture of prisoners as long as it happens outside the borders of that country. We?ve had President Barack Obama wanting photographic evidence of excesses perpetrated by US troops in Iraq suppressed in the name of ?national security?. We?ve not had Ms. Butenis saying a word about these things.
Continue reading “September 22 is for remembering”

Murdoch phone hacking scandal

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Murdoch phone hacking scandal engulfs all Britain?s major parties

By Jean Shaoul
22 September 2010

World Socialist Website

A desperate damage control operation is underway as further allegations emerge about the extent of the illegal phone hacking at the Rupert Murdoch-owned?News of the World. The paper?s royal editor and a private investigator were found guilty of hacking into the voice mail of members of the Royal family and their aides in 2007.
It is now alleged that the practice was much more prevalent than was revealed at the time and that the Metropolitan Police failed to investigate all the cases known to them.
Journalist Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were found guilty at the Old Bailey in January 2007 after they admitted hacking into phones. Goodman was jailed for four months and Mulcaire for six months.News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned following the case. He denied knowing about the hacking, but he accepted ultimate responsibility as editor of the paper. Prime Minister Gordon Brown immediately phoned to offer his commiserations. He assured the journalist that he had acted honourably in resigning and expressed his confidence that Coulson would soon have another job.
Coulson is now Prime Minister David Cameron?s director of communications and at the centre of the new allegations. His presence in the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition administration implicates all three major political parties in the affair. It is now suggested that under the previous Labour government, the police and parliamentary investigations were cut short. The Liberal Democrats, who challenged Coulson?s claims that he was ignorant of the phone hacking, are now part of an administration in which Coulson plays a key role and must, as deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg did in the House of Commons earlier this month, defend him.
A network of relationships has been exposed which reveal the incestuous nature of the British political elite and its ties to global corporate interests, in particular to Rupert Murdoch?s News International Corporation. A coalition government has just come to power that supposedly represents a new chapter in British political life after 13 years of Labour rule. But the Murdoch empire has slipped seamlessly from one government to the next. Even if Coulson is never charged with any crime and never found guilty of any crime, this affair will have demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that official politics in Britain is entirely divorced from the interests of ordinary people and in the hands of a criminal oligarchy who act outside the law.
Real political power lies with this plutocratic layer and not with elected representatives in Parliament. Allegations have emerged this month that the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee held back from pursuing its investigation into phone hacking at the?News of the World. Adam Price, a former Plaid Cymru MP who retired from Parliament in May, claims that MPs were afraid that their private lives would come under investigation if they called on News International Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks to testify. Members of the committee discussed getting the sergeant-at-arms to issue a subpoena for Mrs. Brooks.
Continue reading “Murdoch phone hacking scandal”

Democracy Is Dead!

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Sadly, this is not restricted to Sri Lanka alone. SA.
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Editorial, The Sunday Leader, 11 April 2010

Switch off the lights. Rend your hair. Don only white. It is time to go into mourning. An old and ailing relative? democracy, has died an inevitable death. Dead at barely 60 years old though the abuse it suffered during its short life span made it appear much older.
Like the aunt who lingers on long after most of the family believe she is already dead, this week?s death was a quiet one, it was long expected, some would say even overdue. There was no shock, no sudden loss.
Democracy in this country wasn?t overthrown by a dictator, nor shattered suddenly by the chaos of war and revolution. Instead it died a painful, slow death. Strangled by corruption, stifled by authoritarianism and finally snuffed out by the disinterest and apathy of the general public. ?And while it somehow lingered on despite being savaged by decades of war, riots, and attempted revolutions, ?this week we finally saw democracy die in the hearts and minds of voters.
The turn out ?for the 2010 general election stands as the lowest in history? only ?50% of the country?s people made the effort to participate in the country?s political process; not enough to sustain democracy?s ebbing life force. ?While some will criticise the voters? apathy, in reality you can only marvel at the patience of a people who voted regularly for six decades. ??At the devotion of a population who after years of false promises and disappointment continued to vote until finally a lack of credible candidates, tangible issues and the impossibility of effecting real change finally destroyed their interest in democracy.
Of course the truth is and always has been that ?regardless of the final results of this election, thugs, cronies and criminals will continue to rule this country. And regardless of anyone?s vote the present ?situation of lawlessness, ?emergency rule and authoritarianism is guaranteed to continue. The election was never going to address this country?s fundamental issues. Its lack of law and order, its almost medieval levels of women?s representation, the broken education system.
None of these things were even on the agenda. With victory guaranteed ?the most keenly fought battles in this year?s election took place within the ruling party, as the government?s heavy weight candidates fought openly over the spoils of certain UPFA victory; the 20 million vassals and serfs who no longer enjoy even the pretense of rights.
Instead of issues and achievements, candidates ?struggled to display their closeness to the country?s centre of power. ?We were treated to the unashamed sycophantism of ?posters showing Wimal Weerawansa sharing breakfast with our leader and ?Bandula Gunawardena daring to pass the ?phone to the President. ?Eventually ?desperation for inter-party preference votes saw ?government candidates desecrate Buddha statues and violate every section of the country?s election law ?with impunity.
Seeing the ugliness of the government, the impotence of the opposition and the hypocrisy ?of the institutions ? police, courts, charged with safeguarding democracy the people were inevitably disgusted. ??And at ?a crucial moment in the country?s history they ?chose to hide their faces from this mockery of the democratic process. They looked away ?from the hideous posters, meaningless slogans and the futile opposition ?and refused to make the effort to vote.
But while everyone looked away ?democracy died a second death ? that of the two thirds majority. ?Figures indicate that the UPFA ?will receive nearly two-thirds of the votes ?cast. ?And with this majority comes nothing less than absolute power. The ability to amend the constitution, the very basis of ?the nation?s law. The checks and ?balances that ?are the key to democracy have disappeared. ??And with the government in such a comfortable position the reforms that could ?possibly have breathed new life into the islands democracy? the 17th Amendment, quotas for women, a Right to Information Act, will never materialise.
Democracy in Sri Lanka is beyond revival. And in its place we now have just one party or more accurately, one ?family. ?And the country?s citizens have just one choice, either demonstrate their loyalty, obedience and gratitude to the ruling family or risk detention, death or worse the utter irrelevance of ?powerlessness.
This is no longer a criticism or a warning, ?it is simply reality. One chapter of the country?s history is now closed ?? the flickering light of democracy has gone out. ?The ailing opposition, the clapped out General, the toothless UNP will never be able to restore the people?s right to democracy. ?Instead if it is ever to return, democracy in this country will have to be reborn. Instead of ?being imposed by colonial masters it will have to take hold again in the hearts and minds of the people.
If nothing else this year?s low turn-out indicates dissatisfaction ?with the current political system and perhaps ?a longing for a process we can all believe in; ?it is still possible that the country?s people still long for genuine democracy. ?But until that hope manifests itself as a genuine grass roots movement for a return to a politics based on principles, representative politics and good governance we ?have dark years of despotism ahead of us.
Democracy is dead. And today only thugs, cronies and sycophants ?have reason to celebrate; the rest of us will be in mourning for a weak, flawed but comforting old friend.

Siege of Drik Gallery

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New Age Editorial

THE siege, so to speak, of the Drik Gallery by the police on Monday, to force cancellation of a photo exhibition on extrajudicial killings by acclaimed photographer and Drik managing director Shahidul Alam, not only undermined the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution of the republic but also put the entire nation to shame. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Tuesday, the police, along with the Rapid Action Battalion and the Special Branch of police, had, from midday onwards, put pressure on the Drik management to not hold the exhibition on the ground that it did not have official permission and that it might cause ?unrest in the country?, before they cordoned off the gallery half an hour before the inauguration of the show. Subsequently, the organisers were forced to hold an impromptu inaugural ceremony on the road in front of the gallery.
The reasons cited by the police appear somewhat dodgy. As Shahidul Alam pointed out, Drik has been ?arranging shows since 1993 and no permission has ever been required.? Other galleries in the capital and elsewhere in the country would certainly make the same observations. In other words, even if there is a provision in the Dhaka Metropolitan Police ordinance that makes obtaining permission for an exhibition mandatory, neither the organisers of such exhibitions have deemed it necessary to comply with it, nor have the police themselves shown any urgency with regard to its enforcement. The question then is why the police deemed it invoke a provision that is seldom enforced. The answer may be found in the remark of an assistant commissioner of police quoted in the New Age report. ?The organisers did not obtain official permission although exhibitions on sensitive issues require prior permission,? he said.
Indeed, the issue that the Drik exhibition deals with, i.e. extrajudicial killings, is sensitive. It is, perhaps, more sensitive for the police and the Rapid Action Battalion because they are the prime perpetrators of such killings. It is, perhaps, equally sensitive for the government since it has not only failed to rein in the trigger-happy law enforcers despite widespread criticism and condemnation, at home and abroad, of extrajudicial killings and, most importantly, embargo by the highest judiciary but also appeared, of late, to be trying to justify such blatant violation of the rule of law by the supposed protectors of law. It is unlikely that the police acted on Monday beyond the knowledge of the government, which could only indicate that the incumbents may be even willing to foil any attempt at creating public awareness of, and thus mobilising public opinion against, extrajudicial killings, which is what the Drik photo exhibition appears to be. It is ironic that the ruling Awami League promised, in its election manifesto, to put an end to extrajudicial killings.
As indicated before, the police action not only was in contravention with the constitution but also put the entire nation to shame. The inauguration of the exhibition was scheduled to be followed by the launch of the Pathshala South Asian Media Academy, and the guest of honour was none other than celebrated Indian writer and human rights activist Mahashweta Devi. There were also celebrated personalities from some other countries. In other words, the police enacted the shameful episode in front of such an august gathering tarnishing, in the process, the image of the nation as a whole.
While we condemn the police action, we demand that the government order immediate withdrawal of the police cordon around the Drik Gallery and thus allow the exhibition to continue unhindered. It is the least that the government should do.

DAILY STAR Editorial

Police action against Drik exhibition:It undercuts people’s political and cultural rights
THE police action, stopping the Drik gallery exhibition of images relating to the incidents of ‘crossfire’ in Bangladesh, is a case of oppression and curtailment of our fundamental rights of freedom of expression, speech, information and cultural expression. On Monday, just before the exhibition was to be inaugurated by eminent Indian intellectual Mahasweta Devi, policemen positioned themselves before the gallery in Dhanmondi and simply refused to let anyone enter or come out of its premises. By way of explanation, they told the media that Drik gallery did not have permission to organise the exhibition.
The question of permission is totally uncalled for. There are hundreds of photo exhibitions and other such functions of public viewing happening everyday in the capital city. Did their organisers have to seek permission in each case to be holding these? Drik itself has been organising such events since 1993. Never was any permission required or sought or demanded by any agency. Exhibitions such as these have educative, informational and instructive values. Free flow of ideas helps enrich intellectual wealth of the country, broadens its outlook and enhances the level of tolerance in a society of contrary or dissenting views. There may be a debate on an issue but it doesn’t mean people on one side of an issue need not hear or refuse to see the other’s point of view.
This is exactly the level of maturity we crave for and have actually reached in certain areas of national life which must not be allowed to be undone through any ham-handed act of indiscretion. If the police become the arbiter of what is right and what is wrong for our society, then God help us.
Let certain facts be made clear. Democracy entails a guarantee and preservation of the political and cultural rights of citizens. In such a setting, the sensitivities of certain individuals or groups or bodies cannot override the bigger demands of an open, liberal society which the present government espouses as policy. Now, if the police or any other agency is upset at a revelation of the sordid truth that ‘crossfires’ have been, they should be making sure that such extra-judicial killings do not recur. The fault lies not with Drik gallery that it organised the exhibition. It lies in the inability or reluctance of the authorities to dig into the question of why ‘crossfire’ killings are today a reprehensible affair. Besides, why must the authorities forget that by preventing what they think is adverse publicity for the country they are only making it more pronounced before the nation and the outside world?
We condemn the police action. And we would like the home minister to explain to citizens how such acts that clearly militate against the people’s right to know and observe and interpret conditions can at all take place.

News in Netherlands

Widespread condemnation of closure of photo exhibition in Bangladesh (Power of Culture)

Prince Claus Fund partner closed down by police (Metropolis M)

News in UK

?Crossfire? censored ? the power of documentary photography (Prof. David Campbell)

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

PRESS RELEASE

23 March 2010
Bangladesh: Lift ban on extrajudicial killings exhibition. Amnesty International is urging the Bangladeshi authorities to lift a ban on an exhibition of photographs raising awareness about alleged extrajudicial executions carried out by a special police unit.
?Yesterday?s closure of the Drik Picture Library exhibition ?Crossfire? in Dhaka is a blow to the right to freedom of expression,? said Amnesty International?s Bangladesh Researcher, Abbas Faiz. ?The?government of Bangladesh must act immediately to lift the police ban and protect the right to peaceful expression in words, images or any other media in accordance with Bangladesh?s constitution and?international law.?
Hours before the ?Crossfire? exhibition was due to open at a special ceremony in Dhaka, police moved in and demanded that the organizers cancel it. When they refused to shut it down police closed the?premises, claiming that the exhibition had no official permission to open and would ?create anarchy?.
The exhibition includes photographs based on Drik?s case studies of killings in Bangladesh, which government officials have portrayed as deaths in ?crossfire?.
Hundreds of people have been killed in Bangladesh since 2004 when the special police force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), was established.
In most cases, victims who die in the custody of RAB and other police personnel, are later announced to have been killed during ?crossfire? or police ?shoot-outs?.
Amnesty International and other human rights organizations consider these killings to be extrajudicial executions.
Human rights lawyers in Bangladesh see the closure of the exhibition as unjustified and with no legal basis. They are seeking a court order to lift the police ban on the exhibition.
Drik?s Director, Shahidul Alam says he has held hundreds of other exhibitions without needing official permission, and that ?the government invoked a prohibitive clause only because state repression?was being exposed?.
Abbas Faiz said:?By closing the ?Crossfire? exhibition, the government of Bangladesh has effectively reinforced a culture of impunity for human rights violations. Amnesty International is calling for the?government to take action against those who carry out extrajudicial executions, not those who raise their voices against it.?
The ban is also inconsistent with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina?s pledges that her government would take action to end extrajudicial executions.
Amnesty International is urging authorities to allow peaceful protests against the killings and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
END/
News in USA

Police in Bangladesh Close Photo Exhibit







By David Gonzalez

New York Times

Shahidul Alam had hoped his ?Crossfire? exhibit on extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh would ?shock people out of their comfort zone? and provoke a response.
He got his wish.
Minutes before the show was to open on Monday afternoon, the police shut down his gallery in the Dhanmondi district of Dhaka.
But instead of stifling public debate, the government?s action has had the opposite effect: art students have formed a human chain at the university and lawyers are preparing to bring legal action to reopen the show.
?It really has galvanized public opinion,? Mr. Alam said in a telephone interview on Tuesday from southern Bangladesh. ?People were angry and ready ? they just needed a catalyst. The exhibit has become in a sense iconic of the resistance.?
The photography exhibit was a symbolic treatment of the wave of executions carried out by the Rapid Action Battalion, an anticrime squad whose many critics say that it engages in violent social cleansing.
Rather than document actual killings ? something already done at great length by groups like Human Rights Watch ? Mr. Alam created a series of large, moody prints that touched on aspects of actual cases.
[Lens published a post and slide show, “Where Death Squads Struck in Bangladesh,” on March 16.]
Although the killings have drawn international condemnation, they have continued, despite promises by the government to rein in the battalion. Mr. Alam, a photographer, writer and activist, had hoped that his track record and international reputation would offer the ?Crossfire? show some protection.
But the police and officials from the battalion began to put pressure on him around midday, according to a press release from the gallery, insisting that the exhibit did not have the necessary official permission. As the 4 p.m. opening hour approached, the police closed the gallery, saying the show would create ?anarchy.?
With the gallery closed, Mr. Alam, his associates and invited guests put on an impromptu exhibit outside the gallery. The government?s intrusion ? without any apparent court order ? was denounced as illegal.
?The forcible closure of Drik?s premises is a blatant violation of our constitutional rights,? Mr. Alam said in a statement. ?We call upon the government to immediately remove the police encirclement, so that the exhibition can be opened for public viewing, and Bangladesh?s image as an independent democratic nation can be reinstated.?

China-US Politics over Exhibiting Tibet. In Dhaka

By Rahnuma Ahmed

Writer and translator Tarek Omar Chowdhury, a committed Maobadi and a dear friend, was deeply worried. `Of course I do not support what happened, although I must admit I look at it? differently.’ He was referring to the government’s pressure to close down ?Into Exile ? Tibet 1949 ? 2009,? an exhibition organised by the Bangladeshi chapter of Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), in partnership with Drik, November 1 ? 7. `I express my solidarity,’ said his e-mail.
At first it had been the cultural counsellor from the Chinese embassy in Dhaka. Turning up at Drik he told Shahidul Alam, its managing director, “We would like you to cancel the Tibet exhibition.” Tibet was a part of China. If the exhibition was held, the relationship between Bangladesh and China would be affected. Drik, he was politely told, was an independent gallery. They did not have the right to tell Drik what it could, or could not show. But other visits and phone calls soon began: Bangladeshi government officials, police, special branch, members of parliament. Using either intimidation or persuasion, they basically conveyed the same message. The show must be cancelled. Later, the police insisted that Drik needed official permission but were unable to produce any written document. On the 1st afternoon, police in riot gear entered Drik’s premises and locked it up. A symbolic opening, inaugurated by professor Muzaffer Ahmed, was held on the street outside. Having registered its indignation, Drik decided to close down the exhibition the next day as a mark of protest.

Policemen encircle Professor Muzaffer Ahmad, chairman of the Bangladesh chapter of Transparency International, as he went to Drik Gallery in the capital Dhaka to open an exhibition titled ?Into Exile ? Tibet 1949?2009? on November 1.
? New Age photo

I am thinking of writing about it, said Tarek. But of course, you must, I said. His piece, `Tibboter odekha chobigulo onek kotha boley’ appeared in Samakal, 13 November. While highly critical of government interference and heavy-handedness, Tarek voiced suspicion about the SFT and its funding sources, whether the opening was timed to coincide with Dalai Lama’s Arunachal visit, to draw media attention, to villify China by portraying it as an occupying force in Tibet. The US government, more particularly the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), wrote Tarek, has directly funded the Tibet movement from 1956 to 1972, and later, indirectly, through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an organisation best described in the words of its first acting president, Allen Weinstein, ?A lot of what we [the NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.?
What Tarek has written is amply supported in research conducted by many academicians and scholars. The NED was established in 1984 with both Republican and Democratic party’s support during president Reagan?s administration to ?foster the infrastructure of democracy ? the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities? around the world. Created by an act of Congress, it is funded primarily through annual allocations from the Congress. It operates through four core institutes: the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDIIA), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), and the Center for International Private Enterprise. The latter, CIPE, has in recent years awarded a grant to the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and more recently, it has supported an initiative undertaken by the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI). But I will write about that some other day. To return to Tibet and CIA connections: NED-funded organisations include SFT, which was founded in 1994 in New York. Together with five other organisations, the SFT in January 2008 proclaimed “the start of a ‘Tibetan people’s uprising” and co-founded a? temporary office in charge of coordination and financing. Other published sources document how, in the USA, ?the American Society for a Free Asia, a CIA front, energetically publicized the cause of Tibetan resistance, with the Dalai Lama?s eldest brother, Thubtan Norbu, playing an active role in that group. The Dalai Lama?s second-eldest brother, Gyalo Thondup, established an intelligence operation with the CIA in 1951 [although CIA aid was only formally established in 1956]. He later upgraded it into a CIA-trained guerrilla unit whose recruits parachuted back into Tibet.? (Michael Barker, “Democratic Imperialism” ).
So, I asked Shahidul, what made you agree to co-hosting this exhibition? I thought it would be an interesting one, he replied. The public would have the opportunity to see rare photos. And I did tell the embassy officials that we would be happy to show a Chinese exhibition, if the quality was right. Our point is to open up the debate. And it’s nothing new, we have faced pressure before. From the British Council in Dhaka over the European Currency Unfolds show. From Bangladesh government officials over some images of 1971. And then, Dhaka’s Alliance Francaise had backed out from sponsoring my exhibition which was critical of Ershad’s military rule. So did the Art College. Intimidation, fear, exhortations to self-censorship?that too, by progressive institutions?these are not new. But of course, he added, this does not mean that we should not critically appraise ourselves. We are not above criticism. I invite it.
My attention turned to something Barker had written. NED’s funding issue, he says, is clearly problematic for Tibetan (or foreign) activists campaigning for Tibetan freedom. Progressive activists should first and foremost cast a critical eye over the antidemocratic funders of Tibetan groups. Only then can progressive solutions for restoring democratic governance to Tibet be generated by concerned activists. Or else, he says, we get what William I Robinson terms polyarchy, or “low-intensity democracy” which mitigates the “social and political tensions produced by elite-based and undemocratic status quos” and suppresses “popular and mass aspirations for more thoroughgoing democratisation of social life in the twenty-first century international order.? As I read, I was reminded of Mairead Corrigan Maguire, who received the Nobel Peace prize (1976) in recognition of her determined attempts to peacefully resolve the troubles in Northern Ireland. Maguire had gone to Israel in 2004 to welcome? Mordechai Vanunu, on his release from prison after serving an 18-year prison sentence for disclosing Israel’s nuclear secrets.? She was hit by a rubber-coated bullet in 2007, while participating in a protest against the construction of Israel’s security fence outside the Arab settlement of Bil’in. She was taken into custody by the Israeli military this year for being on board a small ferry carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Recently (October 2009), Mairead was one of three Nobel Peace laureates to launch a major `Thank You Tibet!’ Campaign to commemorate Tibetan peoples 50 years in exile. The Campaign statement extends support to “His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet.” It says, ?They are a model for all of us: despite the attack on their people and the displacement of their culture they preach and practice compassion and respect for the dignity of every person.?. Compassion and respect for all? Some may not agree. Recently (October 2009), when asked about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, His Holiness had replied, “I think too early to say.”
To return to Tarek. I did tell him, I don’t agree with everything that you say. One area of contention is an old one, centering on whether Tibet is better or worse off, under Chinese communism. As Michael Parenti, severely critical of the Hollywood `Shangri-La’ myth puts it, old Tibet, in reality, was not a Paradise Lost. But if Tibet’s future is to be positioned somewhere within China’s emerging free market paradise?with its deepening gulf between rich and poor, the risk of losing jobs, being beaten and imprisoned if workers try to form unions in corporate dominated “business zones,” the pollution resulting from billions of tons of industrial emissions and untreated human waste dumped into its rivers and lakes?the old Tibet, he says, may start looking better than it actually was.
The other point has to do with recent news reports of the presence of Chinese interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who had gone to grill Uighurs (a Muslim minority from the autonomous region Xinjiang, in western China). Chinese officials were actively assisted by US military personnel to soften up the Uighurs for interrogation: sleep deprivation, freezing temperatures, isolation, holding up their head by the hair and beard so that Chinese officials could take facial photographs. According to them, it was “their lowest point” at Guantanamo. This active assistance was extended, while Washington reportedly continues to support secessionist movements in Xinjiang by supporting several Islamist organizations through CIA-ISI (Pakistani military intelligence) liaison.
Another friend, a keen political analyst, predicted that the US officialdom stationed in Dhaka would soon enough overcome its prolonged misgivings about Drik, as expressed in an e-mail from the USIA director John Kincannon, `Given what I’m reading in Meghbarta and your apparent active opposition to President Clinton’s visit to Bangladesh, it seems odd that you would expect USIS would have much interest in cooperating with Drik on anything’ (March 16, 2000). My friend was right. An invitation extended by the US ambassador himself arrived, sooner than predicted, for Shahidul.
Published in New Age 23rd November 2009.
Further analysis by Omar Tarek Chowdhury

Charge Of The Light Brigade

?
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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 19, Dated May 16, 2009
CULTURE & SOCIETY ?
photo essay

Charge Of The Light Brigade
Bangladesh?s award-winning photographers are subverting the first world lens, says?SHAHIDUL ALAM
LATE IN 1990 we knew we had a photographic movement on our hands in Bangladesh. General Ershad had imposed strict censorship laws and in protest all the newspapers had stopped publishing for a few weeks. But everyone was still working. We planned to paste the photographs that we took of the unfolding events, surreptitiously at night on the Press Club walls, knowing the police would take them down as soon as they were spotted. We hoped at least some people would see them. Then, suddenly General Ershad stepped down. So we showed the photos at the small gallery of the Art College, Dhaka. We printed on cheap paper and had a crude, impromptu show. Over the next three days four lakh people saw the show. We nearly had riots.
The photographic movement in my country began with the Bangladesh Photo-graphic Society in the mid- 1970s, largely as a camera club where professionals and amateurs got together. I?ve been judging camera club contests around the world. Except that in Iran they do not have pictures of naked women by waterfalls, camera clubs do not vary much from country to country. In 1984, when I joined I was very interested in introducing documentary work and photojournalism. At the time there was considerable friction between Bangladeshi photojournalists and the camera club.The camera club thought their work contributed to the art form and the photojournalists thought the camera club was only into pretty pictures. (Which was the truth, as you would guess from photographs titled Composition 1, Study 2).
BUT SEVERAL events contributed to the growth of the Bangladeshi photography movement. In the mid 1980s we started some basic courses in photography. We set up a very bare, basic gallery. In 1989, I set up Drik, a photo agency. For each of these initiatives we built infrastructure from scratch and got nothing from the government. In 1993, Drik even created Bangladesh?s first email network ? how could we run a photo agency without communicating with the world?

We had a crude, impromptu show. Over the next three days four lakh people came. We nearly had riots

In 1998, World Press Photo kicked off a training programme in Bosnia, Peru, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. We were already conducting workshops but felt our students would benefit with continuity. So we took the plunge and started Paathshala, a photography school in Dhaka. We had one room, some bricks for another room, an old slide projector and 12 students. But we had fine teachers from Bangla desh and abroad. Later, we made another leap and start ed a selfproclaimed BA course. Today we have nearly 140 students, and all the photographers in Bangladesh?s media houses are former Paathshala students. We teach the MA photography course at Dhaka University though the government has still not recognised our programme!
When Chobi Mela happens, all of Bangladesh talks about nothing else. Chobi Mela is the annual photography festival which we have organised since 2000. This year, there were over 60 exhibitions, 35 participating nations, well over 1,000 images, over 50 visiting artists from Asia alone and two lakh visitors. Mahasweta Devi, Noam Chomsky and Stuart Hall spoke via live video broadcasts.
Decades ago, I invited the security guards and caretakers from the company I worked in, to my first show. Later I found out that none of them had even attempted it because they were sure they would not be let in. So to me it is very special that this year I walked into a gallery during Chobi Mela and saw a bunch of street children capering about. Ensuring the general public?s access is an important and complicated task. We try to have photo exhibitions in open-air marquees. Our mobile exhibitions is now a trademark of the festival, where 10 rickshaw vans, plying the streets of Dhaka, move the festival away from galleries to the more public spaces of football fields and open-air markets. Another way in which we?ve made inroads: a monthly television programme. In each episode we introduce a major Bangladeshi and international photographer and something that the ordinary person would be interested in, such as wedding photography or how to get better prints. And this is as important to us as the high-profile guests at Chobi Mela.
Leaning to the other extreme from our camera club days, today most of our best work is being done in documentary photography and photojournalism. Today our photographers have won awards in every international contest and there is a lot of pride in that. And in the fact that I, a Bangladeshi photographer, am the only non-white person to have been the chair of the World Press Photo international jury.
Poverty is a commodity in the world of photography. We started Majority World, a photo agency, with the intention of fighting the making of the images which are the most popular among Western photographers shooting in Bangladesh. Even the name Majority World is a response to the phrase First World. At the same time, we do not deny poverty and we teach our students to photograph people with dignity and to understand that the issues of poverty and exploitation are intertwined.
When we put together the exhibition?The War We Forgot?on Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971, the government asked us to remove the images which showed revenge killings by Bengalis against Urdu speakers. We pulled the exhibition from the National Museum and held it in Drik?s gallery instead. The government was left with egg on its face because visitors kept asking why such a show was refused by the National Museum. The British Council asked us to not show an exhibition criticising the invasion of Iraq on their premises and we refused. This year one of the shows was by a Swedish artist examining terrorism. But her work was strongly sexual, using images involving much nudity. The Indian government was a partner in the Chobi Mela until we had a show of photographs taken by children of sex workers in Sonagachi, Kolkata. Years ago, one night after Drik had hosted a press conference criticising the government, I was stabbed on the street. But we know we are here to push the envelope constantly and we won?t stop.

(Alam is an award-winning photographer and activist)

Elections 2008. Victory, impunity and terror

Rahnuma Ahmed


I?m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.?
? Antonio Gramsci, Marxist theorist, politician, founder of the Italian Communist party

Electoral democracy

It was a victory for electoral democracy.

I was the first one to cast my vote. We had gone, en famille. My mother was next. Rini, my sister-in-law and Saif, my brother, had taken their precious national ID cards with them, only to be told by polling centre officials that these were not needed, that they should go to the stalls opened by political parties outside the polling centre grounds to get their voter registration number. That updated and complete voter lists were to be found there. Rini was astounded and kept repeating, even after she had cast her vote, `But it is the national Election Commission that registered me as a voter, I didn?t register with any political party?. Someone else?s photo, name, and father?s name graced the space where Saif?s should have been. After a lot of running around and long hours of waiting, he gave up. It was close to four, the polling booths were closing. He was dismayed, and perturbed.

Shahidul, made wiser by their experiences, ran off to a political party booth to collect his serial number. After quickly casting his vote, he rushed back to take pictures. A handsome young man, showing-off with a thumbs-up sign, caught his eye. He was proud. He had voted for a return to democracy.

A young voter in Dhanmondi Girls High School in Dhaka, shows the ink stains on his thumb, as evidence of having voted. 29th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
A young voter in Dhanmondi Girls High School in Dhaka, shows the ink stains on his thumb, as evidence of having voted. 29th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

A landslide victory for the Grand Alliance and its major partner, the Awami League. As the results emerged through the night, I remained glued to the TV screen, hopping from one channel to another, listening to election reporting, news analysis, and discussions. As votes in favour of Abul Maal Abdul Muhit tipped the scales, I watched seasoned journalists debate over whether political superstition ? whichever party candidate wins Sylhet-1 forms the government ? would prove to be true. And it did, yet again. The BNP candidate, ex-finance minister Saifur Rahman lost to Abdul Muhit by over 38,000 votes.

In the early hours of the morning, as AL?s massive victory became apparent, I watched Nurul Kabir voice strong words of caution on one of the election update programmes on a private channel: given the rout of the opposition, the biggest challenge for the incoming Awami League government would be to not lose its head. Words to be repeated by others, later. Sheikh Hasina herself, in the first press conference, pronounced it to be a victory for democracy. A victory for the nation. People had voted against misrule and corruption, against terrorism and criminal activities, and against fundamentalism. They had voted for good governance, for peace, and secularism. Poverty, she said, was enemy number one. Expressing her wish to share power with the opposition, Sheikh Hasina urged ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to accept the poll results. Our government, she said, will be a government for all. It will initiate a new political culture, one that shuns the politics of confrontation.

Congratulations poured in, in both the print and electronic media. A new sun had risen over the political horizon. December 29th were the best elections ever, kudos to the Election Commission. Awami League?s charter for change was a charter for the nation. It was a charter that had enabled the nation to dream again. To wake up again. A historic revolution ? a ballot box revolution ? had taken place. Let 2009 herald new political beginnings for Bangladesh. Let darkness be banished, let peace and happiness engulf each home. Let insecurities and turmoil be tales of yester-years. Let us, as a nation, build our own destiny.

There were more cautious, discerning voices too. Promising to lower prices of daily necessities is easy, effect-ing it, is harder. Democracy is much more than voting for MPs, it is popular participation, at all levels of society. In order to change the destiny of the nation, the AL needs to change itself first. Landslide victories can herald landslide disasters.

I turned to analysts who sought to explain the victory. What had brought it about, what did it signal? It was the younger voters, a whole new generation of voters. It was women voters. It was the Jamaat-isation of the BNP, and that the anti-India vote bank, the Muslim vote bank, were now proven to be myths. Khaleda Zia?s pre-election apology had not been enough, people had not forgiven the four-party alliance government?s misrule, and its excesses. The BNP party organisation at the grassroots level had failed to perform their duties with diligence, during the election campaign, and also later, when votes were being counted. The spirit of 1971 had returned, thanks to the Sector Commanders Forum, and to writers, cultural activists, intellectuals, media. People had cast their votes for a separation between state and religion, for the trial of war criminals, for re-building a non-communal Bangladesh. I watched Tazreena Sajjad on television argue that we should not go into a reactive mode, that we should not pre-judge that the AL, since it had gained victory, would now forget the war crimes trial issue. It was important, she said, that war crimes trials be adopted as a policy approach, that the government review the available expertise, the institutional infrastructure, and witnesses needed etc. It was important, added Shameem Reza, another panelist on the programme, that the social pressure for holding the trials should continue unabated.

At a record 87 per cent, the voter turnout was the biggest ever. International poll monitoring groups, including Washingtonbased National Democratic Institute, Commonwealth Observer Group, Asian Network for Free Elections, an EU delegation and a host of foreign observers, unanimously termed the polls free and fair, the election results as being credible. There was no evidence of ?unprecedented rigging,? or of the polls having been conducted according to a ?blueprint?. But, of course, observers maintained, ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia?s allegations should be carefully investigated. At a press conference, the leader of the 33 member NDI delegation, Howard B Schaffer, also an ex-US ambassador to Bangladesh, said that these elections provide Bangladesh an opportunity to nourish and consolidate democracy. As I read reports of the press conference, I think, neither the US administration, nor its ruling classes are known for nourishing and consolidating democracy. The NDI delegation had also included a former USAID official, an organisation that is known for promoting US corporate interests, rather than democracy. Most of USAID?s activities are, as many are probably aware, concentrated in Middle Eastern countries. Many Arabs regard US foreign aid as ?bribe money?, offered to governments willing to overlook Israel?s policies of occupation. Larry Garber had served as Director of USAID?s West Bank and Gaza Mission from 1999-2004, a period that was partially preceded by four years (1996-200) of USAID withholding $17 million in assistance for a programme to modernise and reform the Palestinian judiciary. The Israelis did not want an independent judiciary. They were afraid it would lead to a sovereign Palestinian state. USAID obliged. And of course, there are other, much worse, US administration stories of felling rather than nurturing democracy. After Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature in January 2006, the Bush administration had embarked on a secret project for the armed overthrow of the Islamist government.

Will the victory for electoral democracy in Bangladesh be a victory for long-term, deep-seated democratic processes? This, of course, remains to be seen. I myself, have two serious misgivings.

A ?smooth transition?: impunity in the offing?

Reporters had asked Sheikh Hasina as she came out after her meeting with Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief adviser, on December 31: will your government legitimise the caretaker government? The reply, highlighted in nearly all newspapers, was: it will be discussed in the parliament. Parliament will decide. I have initiated discussions with constitutional experts. A committee will be formed to discuss the matter. Sheikh Hasina also added, government is a continuing process. It is the duty of a new government to continue processes that have been initiated by the preceding government, in the interests of a smooth transition. But I had watched news reports on TV, and had noticed the slip between the cup and the lip, between what was said, and what was reported in the print media: the ordinances passed by the government will be discussed, those that are good will be accepted, and those that are not…

How can something as grave, as sinister as the takeover of power by a coterie of people who were backed by the military, a government that was unelected and unaccountable, the suspension of ?inalienable? fundamental rights of the people during a 23 month long period of emergency, the abuse of the judiciary, the intimidation of the media by military intelligence agencies, illegal arrests leading to already bursting-at-the-seams prisons, custodial tortures, crossfire deaths, the destruction of means of livelihood of countless subsistence workers, the closure of mills, the havoc wreaked on the economy ? be referred to as a bunch of ordinances that need to be discussed and separately reviewed, maybe some of these are to be accepted, others not?
Diluting? Diverting? As I said, I have misgivings.

Allying with bigger terrorists

The separation of religion and politics subsumes the issue of the trial of 1971 war criminals, the local collaborators, the rajakars. But as I watch AL parliamentarians talk on TV channels, I notice a linguistic elision, a seepage occur into discussions of the trials of war criminals. The present is carried over into the past, the past slips into the present. Those who had collaborated in the Pakistan army?s genocide take on Bush-ian overtones: rajakars are religious extremists are Islamic militants are ?terrorists.? A seamless whole seems to be in the making.

And, as I read of Sheikh Hasina?s support for the US war on terror (expressed to the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, 25th of July 2008), and her more recent pledge to work for the formation of a joint anti-terrorism taskforce by SAARC countries, I wonder whether ?the spirit of 1971? will be cashed-in to manufacture support for the US-led war on terror, one that has killed millions, and made homeless several more. All in the name of democracy.

Be Careful What You Wish For

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“I was born in Mirpur, Dhaka, and I have grown up here. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I went to my village home for the very first time. I loved it there. I met my grandparents from my mother’s and my father’s side, and they were very happy to see me. So I asked my mother, why did you leave everybody here and move to the city?”
The words were by Ruhul Amin, a boy the children from the “Out of Focus” group had written a story about, for the Junior Summit Magazine in their New Year issue in 2001. The “Out of Focus” group were no longer children, but young adults, and now my colleagues at Drik. The stories they have told me over the years continue to provide food for thought.
“Desh kothai?” is the most common question a new found Bangladeshi acquaintance will always ask you, unless they have been brought up abroad, or are yuppie urbanites. The question, ‘which land are you from’ is a way of placing you, determining your roots, establishing linkages, forming identity. While many Bangladeshis now live in cities, it is the ‘desh’ that they long for.
Come Eid, or any other of the many holidays we have, the cities become empty, and the rooftops of the outbound buses and launches are packed. Sadly, there are frequent accidents, and many deaths. But still they come to the city. In the hope for a job. In the belief that in the big city, things will change.
So it was that the streets of Dhaka city were quiet on election day. People had gone back to the villages, to their desh, to vote. Rahnuma’s brother Saif, was telling me of how they had to drive in voters in Richmond, in London, and they’d still end up with only 35% voting. Bangladesh’s enthusiasm for elections was exemplary. There was a good turnout all day, and while in every polling centre I visited, many complained about not having been able to vote, it was put down to faulty lists and inefficiency. There wasn’t the suggestion of foul play.

Voting booth in school in Dhanmondi. 29th December 2008. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Voting booth in school in Dhanmondi. 29th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Polling officer in polling  centre in Dhanmondi. Dhaka. 29th December 2008. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Shahidul Alam
Polling officer in polling centre in Dhanmondi. Dhaka. 29th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Woman in voting booth. Dhanmondi. Dhaka. 29th December 2008. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Shahidul Alam
Woman in voting booth. Dhanmondi. Dhaka. 29th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Shahidul Alam

Election updates at Himal Magazine with photos from DrikNEW
Elections posters being printed. Noor Alam
Elections posters being printed. Noor Alam

Attack on Jannat Ara Noor Alam.
Attack on Jannat Ara Noor Alam.

Awami League rally. Amdadul Huq
Awami League rally. Amdadul Huq

Men queuing to vote. Noor Alam
Men queuing to vote. Noor Alam


I met Dadon Mia, the beggar on the pedal chair who staked Satmajsid Road, at one of the polling booths. He didn’t have a fixed address, but his persistence had ensured he was included in the voter’s list. He had voted for the first time. A gentleman I had last seen in Malaysia, when I’d been doing a story on Bangladeshi migrant workers, remembered me. “Do you still cycle? he asked. Yes. “tahole ato mota kan?” (Why are you so fat then?). This Bangladeshi frankness might have been considered rude in other places. But here it was perfectly commonplace. It was with caring concern that he reminded me of my pot belly. The adviser Hossain Zillur Rahman smiled when we briefly met at Dhanmondi Girls School. I had been critical of Zillur in my writing, but on the occasions when we did meet, Zillur had always greeted me with a smile. There was no sign of violence, and apart from the irate, and sometimes tearful voters, who had been denied a vote because the list didn’t have their names, the polling seemed to go remarkably well.
As we stayed up all night, there was initial relief that the visibly corrupt, vote rigging BNP, had not come back to power (it would have given all the wrong signals), and then euphoria upon the knowledge that Jamaat had been routed. But as the enormity of the landslide victory for Awami League sank in, I remembered the? Sir Arthur C Clarke quote that my friend Nalaka Gunawardane often used. “Be careful what you wish for,” Sir Arthur would say, “it can come true.” I had voted for the Awami League. Not because I thought they would form a good government – there was ample evidence to suggest they were incapable of that – but because another five years of BNP misrule would have been intolerable. And since we certainly didn’t want military rule, the Awami League it had to be.
The initial rejection of the results by BNP sounded like the usual sour grapes. Why couldn’t they for once, lose gracefully? But then I started thinking of the excessively high turnout figures. We knew the military needed an Awami League win, but had they overdone it a bit? An Awami League majority was one thing, but could we survive an elected BAKSHAL? As media whispers (not published generally) began to talk of the unreported vendettas being played out across the country, of polling officers having been bought out, doubts began to enter my mind.
My earlier concerns of Jamaat returning to power, or Ershad becoming president again, paled when I considered the horror of an unbridled Awami League let loose on the Bangladeshi public. Sir Arthur had detested astrology, but he was rather good with his predictions. My wish had sadly turned true.
Old woman at voting centre. Firoz Gazi
Old woman at voting centre. Firoz Gazi

Hasina casting her vote. Munira Morshed Munni
Hasina casting her vote. Munira Morshed Munni

Bandarban campaign of shubhashish Barua
Bandarban campaign of shubhashish Barua


Ballot boxes
Ballot boxes

Ballot counting. Amdadul Huq
Ballot counting. Amdadul Huq


SWAT team. Shafiqul Islam Kajol
SWAT team. Shafiqul Islam Kajol

Jamaat, receiving only two seats, were completely routed. Rajshahi. Iqbal Ahmed.
Jamaat, receiving only two seats, were completely routed. Rajshahi. Iqbal Ahmed.


Khaleda voting. Amdadul Huq
Khaleda voting. Amdadul Huq

No tax on words

Elections are a big thing in Bangladesh. Going back to his village at peak season was an expensive option for my neighourhood fruit seller, Siddique Ali. The election wasn’t so critical in his case, as his candidate was going to get elected virtually unopposed. But he was going to vote all the same.


My workaholic colleague Delower Hossain had also taken leave, not only to vote but to campaign for his candidate. Our electrician was working late into the night so he could get to Dinajpur in time. He too faced a one-sided election, but wasn’t going to take chances.
An Awami League Supporter at Sheikh Hasina's pre-election speech at Paltan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th December 2008. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
An Awami League Supporter at Sheikh Hasina's pre-election speech at Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The euphoria in the streets was contagious. It felt good to be milling with the crowds. The smell of the street had its own magic. Contrary to the usual political rallies, These were not filled with hired crowd fillers or party goons, but people who genuinely loved their party and their leader.

Siddique Ali and Delower, like so many other ordinary Bangladeshis, were hard working, honest and politically astute. When I asked Siddique how well his candidate Shahjahan had done in his previous term, he gave a pragmatic answer. “He was an Awami League MP in a BNP government. You can’t expect him to achieve much.” Still, millions like Siddique and Delower voted. Still, they believed in the power of the people.
The security around the two main leaders, particularly Sheikh Hasina was extremely tight. There have been several assassination attemps on the ex prime minister. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. The 26th December 2008.
The security around the two main leaders, particularly Sheikh Hasina was extremely tight. There have been several assassination attemps on the ex prime minister. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. The 26th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Parking my bicycle near the stadium I followed the crowd into Paltan. There were hundreds of policemen along the way, and everyone was being checked. My camera jacket and my dangling camera allowed me to get through several of the checks, but I did get stopped and politely asked to show the contents of my camera bag. There wasn’t the rudeness that greets one at a western airport, but they were making sure. Times had changed.
In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia's victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy.
In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia's victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I remembered crowding around Hasina and Khaleda during the 1991 campaigns. Ershad had just been removed and there was hope in the air. Whoever won, we would have democracy. At least that was what we felt then

As another military government was stepping down, I knew too well, that this elected government was unlikely to yield democracy outright. The young man with Hasina painted on his chest reminded me of Noor Hossain, the worker killed by Ershad’s police, because he had wanted “Democracy to be Freed”. I remembered that the autocratic general Ershad was back, an ally of the Awami League. And the party made up of war criminals, Jamaat, was on course, an ally of BNP.
Mural of Noor Hossain painted in the campus of Jahangirnagar University in Savar. Bangladesh. 1987.
Mural of Noor Hossain painted in the campus of Jahangirnagar University in Savar. Bangladesh. 1987.? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Reminiscent of Noor Hossain, the young worker killed by police bullets on the 10th November 1987, during the movement to bring down General Ershad.
Reminiscent of Noor Hossain, the young worker killed by police bullets on the 10th November 1987, during the movement to bring down General Ershad. He had painted on his back "Let Democracy be Freed". ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

One could have predicted Hasina’s speech. There was not an iota of remorse. Not the slightest admission of wrong-doing. With the arrogance that has become her hallmark, she glorified her previous rule, and villified her opponent. And went on to insult the intelligence of the crowd by promising that every young man and woman would be given a job.

Through her proposed Internet revolution, no villager would ever again need to go to the city. The complete eradication of poverty was thrown in for good measure. The saying in Bangla ‘kothar upor tax nai’ “there is no tax on words” could not have been more apt.
Khaleda Zia at her pre-election speech in Paltan Maidan, chose not to go behind a bullet proof glass while addressing the rally. 27th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh.
Khaleda Zia at her pre-election speech in Paltan Maidan, chose not to go behind a bullet proof glass while addressing the rally. 27th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Khaleda, the following day, had done no less. Her promise of leaving no family homeless, was perhaps less extreme than the promise of a job for every youth, but it was still sheer hype. She too promised the magic of the computer, which apparently, could solve all problems. Having overseen the most corrupt five years of Bangladesh’s history.

Having had her second attempt at a rigged election derailed by a fighting opposition and a defiant public, she spoke of how, if voted into power, she would shape a corruption free Bangladesh! Bypassing the most blatant misdeeds of her sons and their cronies, she spoke of the ill deeds of her opponents. The master vote-stealer even warned of vote stealing. There was perhaps one significant difference between the two. Khaleda did acknowledge that perhaps some mistakes might have been made, and if so, apologised for them. Even such half admissions of blatant misdeeds, is a landmark in Bangladeshi politics.
Apart from briefly emerging above the bullet proof glass, Sheikh Hasina chose to shelter behind her see-through armour during the rally at Paltan Maidan on the 26th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Apart from briefly emerging above the bullet proof glass, Sheikh Hasina chose to shelter behind her see-through armour during the rally at Paltan Maidan on the 26th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The security was less stringent for Khaleda, and I was able to get to the inner corral without being frisked or having my camera bag checked. Significantly, she chose not to use the bullet proof glass that had protected Hasina the day before. I had been surprised by the lack of women at Hasina’s rally, where I estimated less than a thousand women had gathered.
At Khaleda’s a rough head count yielded figures well below one fifty. Predictably however, there were many white capped men, and the yellow head bands of Jamaat’s militant student wing Shibir. Her’s was a more jubilant crowd, with slogans and chanting going on right through the rally, even during her speech. In comparison, Hasina’s rally had been a more reserved affair. Perhaps an indication of Khaleda’s younger following.
Many people recorded the speeches of their leaders and took videos of the rallies using mobile phones. By Dhaka Stadium. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Many people recorded the speeches of their leaders and took videos of the rallies using mobile phones. By Dhaka Stadium. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

They had plenty of ammunition. Hasina reminded voters of the foreign bank accounts of Khaleda’s sons, and that the BNP had teamed up with war criminals. Khaleda reminded them of the one party rule of BAKSHAL, and the irony of Hasina’s statement that the partners of autocrats were traitors to the nation. Despite Khaleda’s tangential reference to ‘possible mistakes’, neither leader made any direct admission to any of the misdeeds that had ravaged the nation.
Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was part of the security team at Paltan during the pre-election rallies. RAB is believed to have been responsible for over 300 extra judicial killings over the last two and a half years. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was part of the security team at Paltan during the pre-election rallies. RAB is believed to have been responsible for over 300 extra judicial killings over the last two and a half years. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I felt insulted and humiliated. But I could not deny, that both leaders had their followers. Many of the people in the crowd did love them dearly, though there was little evidence to suggest that their leaders deserved, or respected this unrequited love.
Members of Chatro Shibir, the militant student wing of Jamaat e Islam, an ally of the BNP lead coalition. Jamaat is accused of harbouring war criminals of the 1971 war of liberation. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Members of Chatro Shibir, the militant student wing of Jamaat e Islam, an ally of the BNP lead coalition. Jamaat is accused of harbouring war criminals of the 1971 war of liberation. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

So why this great longing for an elected government? Why this great love for undeserving leaders? An election offers the one hope for a disenfranchised public to be heard. They cling on to these unlikely champions of democracy as their only real hope for a system of governance that may eventually value their will.
BNP supporters climb a tree to get a better view of their leader Khaleda Zia. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
BNP supporters climb a tree to get a better view of their leader Khaleda Zia. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Hopefully the misadventures over the last two years has taught the military that the Bangladeshi public is a tough nut to crack. Even these two arrogant leaders face a more robust media and a more questioning public than they’ve been used to. Delower and Siddique Ali might not get the democracy they deserve, but their love for democracy, will eventually force a change.
Relatively few women attended the pre-election rally of Khaleda Zia. The female attendance at Sheikh Hasina's rally the earlier day, while larger than at Khaleda's was still low. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Relatively few women attended the pre-election rally of Khaleda Zia. The female attendance at Sheikh Hasina's rally the earlier day, while larger than at Khaleda's was still low. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

More election pictures at DrikNews.
Current election photos from www.driknews.com
Current election photos from www.driknews.com