The U.S. Base on Diego Garcia: An Overlooked Atrocity

US Navy photo of bombs with Blu-117 warheads (from WikiMedia Commons)

The largest criminal organizations in the world are governments. The bigger they are, the more capable of perpetrating atrocities. Not only do they obtain great wealth through compulsion (taxation), they also have an ideological mystique that permits them uniquely to get away with murder, torture, and theft. Continue reading “The U.S. Base on Diego Garcia: An Overlooked Atrocity”

WB finds graft rampant in govt, NGOs

By David Bergman
The New Age
Thursday, 2 February, 2012
Five non-governmental organisations have admitted to the World Bank that they made corrupt payments to Bangladesh government officials to receive contracts under a bank-funded project.
The admissions are contained in a report of an investigation which the World Bank?s Integrity Vice President conducted into the disbursement to hundreds of NGOs of part of a $53.3 million loan that the bank had given the Bangladesh government to further post-literacy continuing education.
Four of the five NGOs told World Bank investigators that to get a contract under the project, which lasted between 2001 and 2007, they each had to pay at least Tk 100,000 in bribes to government officials, money that was channelled to the officials through intermediaries.
Some NGOs had to pay as much as Tk 600,000 in bribes to obtain a contract, the investigators were told. Continue reading “WB finds graft rampant in govt, NGOs”

Update on Mishu's health

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Dear friends,
Hello, I’m sorry for not having sent my regular updates for the last two days, caused by writing deadlines.
Moshrefa Mishu’s health has worsened. Her back pain from a spinal injury has increased. She has constant fever, her heart palpitation has increased and medicine, her youngest sister tells me, is not alleviating her condition.
Police who keep her under close watch have begun behaving very badly with her family members and her organisation’s colleagues. Since Friday afternoon, 24 December 2010, they have begun shouting and using abusive language. Only one attendant is permitted to sit beside her, no one else, not even her sisters are allowed to approach her bed, or to speak with her, whether in person, or over the mobile phone.
We are deeply alarmed, both at her worsened health while in hospital, while receiving medical care and attention, and at the changed behaviour of the police on duty, overtly aggressive and abusive, that too, towards a person who has been hospitalised, that too, in a woman’s ward in a government hospital where there are other patients, most of them severely ill, since hospital authorities generally discharge a patient as s/he improves due to scarce resources and pressure for beds, medical attention and treatment.
Left political alliances held protest rallies on Friday, December 24, 2010 in front of the National Press Club, Dhaka, demanding the immediate release of Moshrefa Mishu, and Bahrane Sultan Bahar, president, Jago Bangladesh Garment Workers’ Federation. Speakers said, arresting labour leaders would not contain labour unrest, acceding to living wages and trade union rights would.
Letters of solidarity have been pouring in from both organisations and groups committed to workers rights, and individuals, both at home and abroad who are aghast and angry at the government’s repression of workers and their leaders, who are struggling hard for a bare minimum.
Please keep passing the message around, and also, pls fwd the online petition as widely as you can.
http://www.gopetition.com/petition/41542.html#fbbox
ONLINE PETITION Free Moshrefa Mishu and all detained workers immediately!
In solidarity/rahnuma

Representing ?Crossfire?: politics, art and photography

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Shahidul Alam in an interview with New Age

by Rahnuma Ahmed

Media reports on “Crossfire” exhibition
Latest report in Indepndent
Shahidul Alam?s exhibition, ?Crossfire? (a euphemism for extrajudicial killings by the Rapid Action Battalion), was scheduled to open on March 22, at Drik Gallery, Dhaka. A police lockup of Drik?s premises before the opening prevented noted Indian writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi from entering, forcing her to declare the opening on the street outside Drik. The police blockage was removed soon after Drik?s lawyers served legal notice and the lawyers had moved the Court, and after Government lawyers i.e., the Attorney Generals office, had contacted the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner?s office, and the Home Ministry, during the hearing?on the government. The court commented that even after repeated rules had been issued on the government, crossfire had continued to occur. The court?s response and subsequent events enabled Drik to open the exhibition for public viewing on March 31.

Shahidul Alam in front of a collage, part of his Crossfire exhibition. Cartoon in the background of Home Minister Sahara Khatun, ?No crossfire killing taken place?. ? Wahid Adnan/DrikNEWS

You work in the documentary genre, this work is show-cased as being symbolic, interpretive. Does this mean a change in genres?
I find these categorisations problematic. I see myself as a storyteller. There?s fiction and non-fiction. This is clearly non-fiction, though it draws upon many of the techniques that fiction would use. The allegorical approach was deliberately chosen as I felt it had, in this instance, greater interpretive potential than the literal approach. Quite apart from the fact that one could hardly expect RAB to allow photographers to document their killing (they do sometimes have TV crews accompanying them on ?missions? but they are never allowed to be there during ?crossfire?), I felt that showing bodies, blood and weapons would not add to the understanding people already had. We are not dealing with lack of knowledge. ?Crossfire? is known and, in fact, it is because it is known that the exhibition is seen as such a threat. So, while reinforcing the known with images would have a value, it would be unlikely to be as provocative as these more subtle but haunting images are likely to be.
I wanted the images to linger in people?s minds, perhaps to haunt them. They are desolate images, quiet but suggestive. The attempt is not one of inundating the audience with information, but leaving them to meditate upon the silence of the dead.
Crossfire deaths continue despite regime changes. How do you view this?
Criminals have survived because of patronage of the powerful. The removal of criminals, through ?crossfire?, does not affect the system of control, but merely substitutes existing criminals for new ones. This is why crimes continue unabated under RAB. All it does is to undermine the legal system. Unless serious attempts are made to remove such patronage and, better still, catch the godfathers, the extermination of thugs and local-level criminals (and many innocent people are also killed) will have no effect on crime. The ruling elite knows this. So why use RAB at all? I believe it is to keep control. Dead criminals don?t speak. Don?t give secrets away. Don?t take a share of the spoils. They are disposable, and RAB is the disposal system.
Every government has used RAB and other law enforcement authorities to remove troublemakers. Bangla Bhai had become a liability when he was apprehended. He didn?t die in crossfire, but was hurriedly hanged all the same despite the fact that he wanted to talk to the media as he had ?stories to tell?. Dead people don?t tell stories. So, all governments would rather have RAB, to clean up their mess, than be confronted by their own shadows.
A change of government does not change this structure.
The inclusion of the Google map has turned this exhibition into a collective, history-writing project. Why that added dimension?
Art projects are generally about the glorification of the artist. The audience is generally a passive recipient. I see this as a public project. I have a role to play as a storyteller, but my work is informed by not only the collective work of my co-researchers, but also that of human rights groups, other activists, and most importantly by the lives, or deaths, of the people whose stories are being told. The survivors, the witnesses and others affected by these deaths are important players in this story and it was essential to find a way to make this project inclusive. I would be kidding myself if I assumed this show would put an end to extrajudicial killings. I also believe there are still many unreported cases.
The Google map has the twin benefits of being interactive and open. We have already been told of one person who had been crossfired but his name hadn?t come up in the archival research.
The internet will also allow a much wider participation than might otherwise have been possible.
Besides the Awami League?s electoral pledge of stopping extrajudicial killings, it had also promised us a ?digital Bangladesh?. I think it is appropriate that this digital Bangladesh be claimed by the people.
What is the significance of research?in the sense of dates, names, places, events?for this project, and for the exhibition?
The assumed veracity of the photographic image is an important source of the strength of this exhibition. We have deliberately moved away from the mechanical aspect of recording events through images, but supplemented it by relating the image to verifiable facts. Meticulous research has gone into not only providing the context for the photographs, which has been included in the Google map, but each image, in some way, refers to a visual inspired by a case study. By deliberately retaining some ambiguity about the ?facts? surrounding the image, we invite the viewer to delve deeper into the image to discover the physical basis of the analogy, and to reflect upon the image. The photographs therefore become a portal through which the viewer can enter the story, rather than the story in itself. Yet, each image, relates to a finite, physical instance, that becomes a reference point for a life that was brutally taken away.
Your exhibition is political, with a capital ?P?. Why is political engagement generally not seen in the work of Bangladeshi artists?
Art cannot be dissociated from life, and life is distinctly political. To paraphrase the renowned Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, the price of tomato is political. However, life is also nuanced and multi-layered. Our art practice needs to be critically engaged at all levels. While the war of liberation is understandably a source of inspiration for many artists, there are many other wars of contemporary life that seem to slip from the artist?s canvas. Most artists, with some exceptions of course, claim they produce art merely for themselves. I don?t believe them. Of course there is great joy in producing art that pleases oneself. But I believe art is the medium and not the message, and all artists, I suspect, want their art to have an effect.
I know it is pass? in some quarters to be producing art that is political. Being apolitical is a political stance too. While I can understand schools of thought that have rebelled against the traditional trappings of art, I do not see the point of producing art that is not meaningful. Strong art is capable of engaging with people. It is that engagement that I seek. My art is merely a tool towards that engagement.
I understand what you mean. A lot of the artwork that?s being produced in Bangladesh stems from commercial interests. Producing formulaic work that sells is the job of a technician and not an artist. Sure, an artist needs to survive and we all produce work which we hope might sell, but once that becomes the sole purpose of producing art, one is probably not an artist in the first place.
There is a strong adherence in Bangladesh to an antiquated form of pictorialism. This applies both to representational and abstract art. Ideas seem to take back stage. While I?m wary of pseudo intellectualisation of art, I must admit that the cerebral aspects of art excite me. The politicisation is an extension of that process.
Books on crossfire have been published, roundtable discussions have been held. Why did the government react as it did, do you think it says something about the power of photography?
The association of photographs with real events makes the photographer a primary witness, and thereby the photograph becomes documentary evidence. This makes photography both powerful and dangerous. Way back in 1909, much before Photoshop came into play, Lewis Hine had said ?While photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.?
Today, liars who run corporations and rule powerful nations, also have photography at their disposal. This very powerful tool is used and abused, and it is essential that we come to grips with this new language. Advertising agencies with huge budgets use photography to shape our minds about products we buy. Politicians and their campaigns are also products that we, as consumers, are encouraged to buy into. I see no restrictions on the lies we are fed every day through advertising or political propaganda. It is when the public has access to the same tools, and in particular when they use it to expose injustice that photography becomes a problem. These seemingly ?innocent? photographs become charged with meaning as soon as we learn to read their underlying meaning. This makes them dangerous.
Perhaps this is also why photographic education has been systematically excluded from our education system. A tool for public emancipation will never be welcomed by an oppressive regime. And we will have oppressive regimes for a while to come.
?Crossfire? was curated by an international curator, and you yourself have curated exhibitions abroad. Do you think international curators are more likely to engage with work such as ?Crossfire? on the basis of aesthetic considerations rather than lived, political ones, since s/he will ?be less knowledgeable about its history, meanings, metaphors, how the government has manufactured popular consent, resistance, etc. For instance, and you mention it in the brochure: John Pilger, the well-known journalist, had written when Barrister Moudood Ahmed had been arrested during the Fakhruddin-Moeenudin regime, he?s ?a decent, brave man.? And of course, it?s quite possible that Pilger didn?t know that the Barrister saheb, as law minister, was one of the political architects of RAB.
Ah yes, Pilger bungled that one. I think artistic collaborations create new possibilities. Our art practice is so often informed by western sensibilities that we at Drik deliberately explore southern interactions. The discussions between Kunda Dixit of Nepal and Marcelo Brodsky of Argentina in Chobi Mela V (our festival of photography) pointed to the remarkable similarity between the political movements in Peru and in South Asia. This made the inclusion of a Peruvian curator even more interesting, and Jorge Villacorte is a respected Latin American curator and art critic. Several other recognised international curators, from Lebanon, Tangiers and Italy had seen the show. I was somewhat surprised that while they introduced interesting ideas about curatorial and art practice and were hugely appreciative of the aesthetic and performative elements of the work, not one of them ever asked me about the impact it might have upon crossfire itself. Though it would be arrogant to suggest that this show would put an end to that.
As someone deeply in love with my country (I find words like patriotic and nationalistic problematic), my primary concern is the welfare of my community. If my work can contribute to improving the lives of my people, I will have been successful, regardless of how my art is perceived by critics. If the work is perceived as great art, but fails in its ultimate goal of furthering the cause of social justice, then I will have failed.
That said, the exhibition was only a small part of the larger movement for democracy. The activism surrounding the show, the legal action, the media mobilisation, and the spontaneous popular actions were all part of the process. The international curator had an important role to play, but only as a point of departure. We have since had students critiquing the curatorial process, where they have brought in elements relating to their political practice and social concerns. The debate resulting from the work is more important than the work itself. But it is the power of art, and particularly photography that makes such actions so vital.
There is an interesting sub-text to this exercise. The dinosaurs of Bangladeshi art have been incapable of recognising photography as an art form. Photographers are still not invited to participate in the Asian Biennale (though foreign photographers have even won the grand prize in the event). There is still no department of photography in either Shilapakala Academy (the academy of fine and performing arts) or Charukala Institute (the institute of fine arts). These are 19th-century institutions operating in the 21st century. It is interesting however, that while Charukala Institute refused to show my work in 1989, because it was a photographic, and not a painting, exhibition, it was the students of Charukala Institute who organised the first public protests when the police came and blockaged our gallery to prevent the opening of the Crossfire exhibition. It is reassuring that the students at least can raise their heads and look above the sand.
Drik under Crossfire (Independent)
Posted in New Age on 8th April 2010
Media reports on “Crossfire” exhibition

For the government, by the government

My assistant Irfan just informed me that my permanent accreditation as a journalist was not being given, as I had asked awkward questions to the advisor during the Musee Guimet affair, The assumption that a journalist’s job is to ask ‘safe questions’ is a stark reminder of the perceived role of journalists by governments. The following piece was written exactly seventeen years ago. This ironic reminder of ‘consistency’ in certain sectors is worrying. We had worried about possible repercussions and had discussed strategies had we come under attack. As it turned out, the letter, published in leading newspapers, was simply ignored. They have other ways of controlling us.
An open letter to the honourable
Prime Minister
The People’s Republic of
Bangladesh
The 27th March 1992
Dear Prime Minister,
As a citizen of a nation with a democratically elected parliament, I write with some concern my feelings regarding the appropriation of Bangladesh Television by the government. A media which is paid for and rightfully belongs to the people.
After the fall of the Ershad regime one had expected to see a change in the traditional propaganda that had been passed as news. Last night’s news was a blatant and sad reminder that nothing had changed.
What happened at Suhrwardy Uddayan on the 26th of March 1992, might not have been in the interest of the ruling party. There may be a debate over the validity of the trial, but it is surely impossible to deny that probably the largest public gathering since 1972 had taken place. For a democratically elected government it is shamefully hypocritical to deny that the people had made a statement.
The news last night mentioned the parade in the morning, a small march past in Ghazipur, violence in distant lands, even the man of the match in a game of cricket. Nowhere was there a reference to the fact that almost a million people had gathered that morning for a public trial of a war criminal.
At a time when we are trying past perpetrators for misappropriation of public funds, making people accountable, stealing the voice of an entire nation is a crime beyond redemption. Whatever we may call what television is showing today, it is certainly not “The Whole Truth”.
It is a trying time in our land. The problems are many and the resources slender. What we need most now is national unity. That can surely not be achieved by alienating the people, by withdrawing trust.
The national television is a valuable resource. It can teach, it can inform, it can entertain. Never was it intended to be used as a propaganda machine. It is a powerful medium, and through objective journalism can play a vital role in a nation struggling to rebuild. By shredding away the last vestiges of plausibility it has been reduced to a shameful mockery. Even the truth will now be questioned.
I believe that it is a time for reconstruction, and that the new government must be given a chance. I believe it is time to forget our differences and rally together to rebuild this land that so many have sacrificed for. For that to happen there must first be honesty, and a government of the people must never turn against the people. The government must establish its credibility. For people to believe, the truth must be spoken. Then only can there be a real dialogue.
For this nation to succeed we need a responsible government, a responsible opposition and a responsible citizen. Surely the government can lead by example.
This nation is in economic shambles, millions live below the poverty line, today hunger is our greatest enemy, yet we mark our day of independence with a vulgar, and quite meaningless show of military strength. We trade schools and hospitals for guns and bullets, guns that have too often in the past been turned against us. On our day of independence we forget to once mention the father of the nation, instead we celebrate the weapons that have nurtured autocrats.
The VIP’s from their exclusive seats watch their latest expensive toys, bought with the taxpayer’s money. While the national TV is turned into a home video set. It is true that there are members of the public who like watching the show, that there are little kids who wonder in amazement, but tell them prime minister, how many kilos of rice that aircraft is worth, how much was spent for your expensive seating, you know too well what they will choose.
There is still time, give back to the people what you have wrongfully taken. Let the truth be known, and in time the people will forgive you. Develop the trust that has been torn asunder and the people will rally with you. It is the people who brought you into power, do not turn their strength against you. Do not forget the harrowing nights in March ’71. Do not forget the streets you walked in December ’90. Do not forget the millions who walked with you.
This struggling nation expects a lot from its leader. It needs your strength, your courage, your sensitivity. Above all it needs your sincerity.
Do not disappoint us.
I wish you well.
Bangladesh Zindabad.

Going Boldly Where No Man Has Been Before

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May 8th 2001. 9:49 AM. Zia International Airport. Domestic Terminal:
The water resources minister strides boldly through the security
gate. Not perhaps `to go boldly where no man has gone before’, but in
a manner in which no person is meant to go. Six people, including
police officers follow him dutifully. Like traditional spouses, three
strides behind. One carries an umbrella, one a briefcase, Razzak is
unhampered by baggage. The security officer at the gate, Azhar,
salutes nervously as he walks past, making no attempt to do the
customary body check. Next in line, as I am being frisked, I ask him
if MPs are checked. He nods affirmatively, though an elderly woman
passenger, hearing my question quickly comes up and says, “No, they
never check MPs.” Azhar is silent, but Hasib Khan, the security
officer comes up and politely explains that they have instructions
not to do a body check on MPs. “We do check the baggage though.” On
further discussions he does admit that this is contrary to security
regulations, but is a general practice with VIPs. “We have no written
orders, but do have verbal instructions. However, we do check
everyone for British Airways flights, as they don’t accept this
practice.”
Airlines and airports have their own security requirements, and
though their insurance companies might not allow for this deference
to the mushrooming VIP pool, I suppose they may modify their rules to
suit their requirements. As an ordinary passenger however, I have the
right to feel safe in the airplane I board, and it is part of the
services I pay for. That feeling requires me to know that EVERY
person who has boarded the plane has been checked by the security.
When MPs are known to have bomb manufacturing setups in their homes,
and others are seen publicly with gun toting hoodlums, my security
checked flight no longer feels so safe. On a conspiracy theory mood,
I would have suspected British Airways to have cooked up a devious
plot to increase sales. I suspect it has a simpler basis. That
elected representatives of the people, consider the people who voted
them in, to be have lesser rights. In a country where sons of
ministers can murder with impunity and journalists are open targets
for lawmakers, this is a mild example. The fact that there was no one
at the airport who felt they should protest, and that this letter was
refused publication in a newspaper supposedly concerned about such
issues, are signs of a deeper malaise.
Maybe if British Airways was made the election commissioner?
Shahidul Alam