Government?s self-publicity with public money

by ?Taj Hashmi in The Daily Star

The Daily Star
It is time to protest the ruling Awami League?s self-publicity through billboards at a staggering cost of more than Tk.3 crore (one senior minister would possibly say taxpayers? Tk.3 crore is ?rubbish? as he ?rubbished? the 4,000 crore stolen by Hall-Mark). I am really shocked and saddened by the government?s overwhelming ?billboard campaign? ? whose impact will be grossly under-whelming though ? and the deafening silence of our civil society, intellectuals, politicians and youths over this scandalous act of the ruling party. The removal of commercial billboards to the detriment of commercial firms by the government is also shockingly unwarranted.

Billboards extolling the virtues of Awami League.  Rokeya Sarani. Dhaka. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Billboards extolling the virtues of Awami League. Rokeya Sarani. Dhaka. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Continue reading “Government?s self-publicity with public money”

To Barack Obama

by Babui/Arjun

You have tried to be appeaser,
You have tried to kiss their feet,
You’ve turned your back on backers,
And so, you’ve known defeat.
Perhaps it’s how you’d risen,
Ascending far too fast.
You’ve catered to the Powers,
But Powers never last.
You fought the fight for healthcare,
In which you did believe,
But prudence was your tactic,
Which little did achieve. Continue reading “To Barack Obama”

March 12 Rally

We were, we are, we'll stay, was the slogan on recent Awami League posters. BNP haven't quite gotten to three generations yet, but the dynasty game is certainly one both parties want to play. ??Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The government was hell bent on preventing the opposition rally. Trains, buses and launches were all stopped. Ordinary passengers were beaten up and prevented from off loading at stations and ferrys. The police were out in full force in the city, checking on people to make sure they were not opposition supporters heading for the rally.
Continue reading “March 12 Rally”

Part VI Military-installed caretaker govt, or a 'consortium' govt?

by rahnuma ahmed

Yesterday, I had ended with the words, “there is still hope.”
But, of course, hoping doesn’t mean that one daydreams, or fantasises. Or, becomes cynical when things don’t turn out the way one had wished.
“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” — words attributed to Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, imprisoned by Mussolini. To see the world as it really is, underpinned by the will that humans have the courage to change it. One thus needs to dispassionately examine what occurred later. But before doing so, let me turn to the cat- out-of-the-bag story.
The ‘minus two plan’ was officially confirmed by the World Bank South Asia vice-president Praful C. Patel. While visiting Dhaka, at the end of 2007, he said, “What [had] looked possible before, like the minus-two approach, does not seem possible today, because the two ladies have [a] very strong and powerful power base.” Continue reading “Part VI Military-installed caretaker govt, or a 'consortium' govt?”

Part III Military-installed caretaker govt, or a 'consortium' govt?

by rahnuma ahmed

The incongruencies were many. They helped to sow suspicion among members of the public. The general relief felt in the early period of the caretaker government’s takeover, gradually slipped away.
Having failed to gain legitimacy, the consortium government finally relinquished power on January 6, 2009, after the December 2008 electoral results  declared Awami League the winner, that too, with a landslide victory.
I was reminded of Pakistan’s president Parvez Musharraf because the US government (which headed the ‘western bloc,’ the third constitutive element of the consortium government) had learnt a lesson from Musharraf’s regime. The latter had suffered from a legitimacy crisis (some say, Musharraf had used it at times to stave off some of the demands made by the Bush administration); the lesson which the American administration had learnt was that a government voted to power, albeit, under conditions favorable to imperial policies and interests, is not similarly encumbered. Continue reading “Part III Military-installed caretaker govt, or a 'consortium' govt?”

Part I Military-installed caretaker govt, or a 'consortium' govt?

By Rahnuma Ahmed

As I’d explained in my column published on February 13, 2012,  I’d disappeared from these pages to work on three manuscripts intended for Boi Mela 2012. While they missed the bus — more work needs to be done for them to see the light of day — but what did make it to the Mela is a collection edited by Udisa Islam, for which I’d written the foreword.
Bikkhobh Shonkolon: Joruri Obosthay Bisshobiddaloy 2007 (Dhaka: Shrabon, 2012) is an archival collection, in print, of the student protests which broke out in August 2007, when army personnel stationed in an army camp on Dhaka University grounds beat up university students who were watching a football match. Dubbed a “trivial incident” (tuccho ghotona) by the then chief of general staff Sina Ibn Jamali, student protests mushroomed, enveloping other public university campuses, and college campuses as well. Protests spilled out on to the streets of Dhaka and other major cities, expressing growing popular discontentment and resentment at the military-installed caretaker government’s rule.  The so-called “trivial incident” proved to be a resounding nail in the caretaker government’s coffin. Continue reading “Part I Military-installed caretaker govt, or a 'consortium' govt?”

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.

A Small Bridge to Cross

Landslides are dangerous. Things get buried. People get hurt. The 9th parliamentary elections was to return Bangladesh from a two year military backed caretaker rule to an elected Government. The gathering on the last campaign day was massive, but there were fewer women and more people with white caps than one expected. The BNP candidate in Paltan Maidan boasted of how EVERY household in his candidacy, had assured him of their vote. Awami League candidates, the previous day, postured similarly, but both sides probably felt there was a reasonable chance of winning. The two-year gap between BNP’s misrule and the elections, might have eroded some of the moral gains that Awami League would otherwise have had. Voters sometimes have short memories. A landslide election win for anyone was not on the cards.
The Bangladeshi voter however, is remarkably savvy. They voted out Bhutto in 1971. Despite genocide, it did lead to independence. Since then, in every reasonably free and fair election they have had, they have voted with their heads. Hasina’s lack of repentance about BAKSHAL and previous Awami League misrule cost her the 1991 elections. Khaleda’s police fired upon farmers demanding fertilisers. Even a rigged election didn’t help her in 1996. ‘Safe’ seats of numerous ministers were lost in the re-taken polls. Hasina blew it in her term with her thugs causing havoc on campus and her ministers demanding that journalists be beaten up. The votes went to BNP. Khaleda went overboard yet again, with corruption reaching new heights, and her sons unleashing terror. Rising prices didn’t help. Khaleda made an attempt at apology. It was too little too late. The pendulum swung. History does not appear to be either party’s strong point.
There has however, been a change in the recent script. Political skirmishes in the past, were largely between political cadre, and localised. A few cocktails might have been thrown, but since the killing of general Zia, there had been few assassination attempts. Until recently. Bomb attacks were a new thing. The capture of trucks laden with small arms. The vigilante groups in the rampage in the north. The targeted attacks on secular scholars, were new. Assassination attempts on Hasina took political violence to new levels. The BNP brought in its own vigilante. The black bandanas of the Rapid Action Battalion became another source of terror with hundreds of ‘crossfire’ deaths to their credit.
Against this backdrop, the landslide win of the Awami League, had analysts gushing with excitement. The superlatives flowed. People cheered this ‘historic victory’. A change of government generally starts with a witch-hunt, traditionally meted out to the opposition party previously in power. This caretaker government had stayed rather longer than usual. Given the documented torture of ‘rajkumar’ Tariq Zia (Khaleda’s son and the general secretary of her party), BNP’s return to power would not have been so comfortable for the incumbent government and its unofficial backers. Hasina’s promise of ratifying the misdeeds of this government meant she was the safer bet.
Accusations of the military having actively engineered the Awami League win is probably exaggerated, though news of intimidation was not infrequent, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But that too is history. Hasina’s position regarding her neighbours is more pertinent. She has already declared solidarity towards Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi. The relationship towards big brother India, will probably have more to do with the relationship with bigger brother USA. The US has always played a major role in recent subcontinental politics. The 7th fleet in the Bay of Bengal was needed when the USSR was dominant. Today, the US, Israel and India are close allies, the war on terror being a collective pet project. A pliant military and a grateful Hasina will both play the game. The routing of Jamaat in the elections has to do with people’s sentiments. The war on war criminals to the war on terror is a small bridge to cross. The fluttering flag of democracy will obscure a few indiscretions along the way.

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.