Saturday, November 23, 2013

Bangladesh under international scrutiny

November 23, 2013

M. Serajul Islam

Two editorials, a hearing in the US Congress and a resolution in the European Parliament suggest that the concerns of the international community about the current political situation has intensified following the formation of the controversial all-party government for overseeing the country’s national election.  The New York Times and the Hindu of India carried the editorials.  The Sub-Committee on Asia and Pacific of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held the hearing and the European Parliament passed the resolution expressing deep concerns on the way the political situation in Bangladesh is drifting towards uncertainty and possible disaster.

The formation of the controversial all-party government that the AL-led government hoped would bring about a compromise with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has not worked out. The BNP questioned it because in its perception, the new poll-time government was not an all-party government but the alliance government in a new deceiving name. The drama played by former President HM Ershad was to a large extent responsible for the huge question that has been raised over its credibility. The former dictator who recently said his party would not participate in an election without the BNP - using such statements that the nation would spit on him and his party if he did, made a volte face that received national disapproval.

HM Ershad's decision to leave the alliance and then join the all-party government was too immature a move to convince anybody that the JP's (Jatiya Party) joining would make the poll-time government an all party one. The fact that his party had just one seat in the alliance government but ended with eight seats in the poll-time government left the people with no choice but to dismiss the move of the Awami League as anything but the alliance government all over again. In making the move, the ruling party led people to question its intentions and it achieved just the reverse of what it had tried to achieve. It has lent credibility to the BNP's contention that the government intended to hold one-party elections without its participation.

The BNP dismissed the all-party government as a "farce" and refused to join it although such offer was not made to it through discussion. Ministers just went to the media and made the offers. The failure of the controversial all-party government to resolve the political stalemate came in the wake of a similar fate of the efforts of the US Assistant Secretary. Immediately after Nisha Desai had met the Prime Minister and requested her for "inclusive" elections, Sheikh Hasina went to the President and recommended the all-party government by which she also sent the message to the US Assistant Secretary that she was unable to keep her request for holding elections with inclusion of all parties.

The decision of the Awami League to form the controversial all-party government without reaching a compromise with the BNP made the friends of Bangladesh apprehensive of the dangers ahead for the country. The NYT editorial was a very hard-hitting one. It blamed the Prime Minister for the current political situation. It stated, "Prime Minister Hasina needs to restore autonomy to Bangladesh's judiciary, stop persecuting human rights activists and work with the political opposition to find an acceptable transitional government ahead of next year's election." The editorial ended with a veiled threat "that if violations of rights continue, Bangladesh could face pressure, including perhaps sanctions, from the international community. "

The Hindu editorial stated that "Bangladesh was sliding" and that "Bangladesh's political impasse appears all set to worsen in the coming weeks unless the two main political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, demonstrate maturity of a high order." It did something that everybody knows is critical to a resolution of Bangladesh's problems but no one speaks about it directly, namely what India could do. It wrote: "Already seen as pro-Hasina, New Delhi must do nothing that appears partial to any party.
It is true that Sheikh Hasina has been a good friend of India, but New Delhi's inability to reciprocate with a settlement on the Teesta river water dispute or on the land boundary issue has given the BNP a stick to beat the government with. It is in India's interests to encourage the two main parties to find a way out of this impasse themselves, without taking sides." The title of the hearing in the US Congress "Bangladesh in turmoil: A nation on the brink" said it all.  A Bangladesh academic in America, Ali Reaz and Major General (retired) ANM Muniruzzaman, Chairman, Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, gave depositions before the Sub-Committee.

The hearing underlined the situation in Bangladesh as threatening. It concluded that one-party elections that it felt was likely would push Bangladesh towards the brink but that an "inclusive" election was necessary to bring Bangladesh back.  Responding to the dangerous scenario portrayed by General Muniruzzaman in the event of a one-party election, Sub-Committee Chairman John Sifton concurred that spillover of such dangers could affect India.  John Sifton appeared convinced that the Prime Minister was leading the country towards one-party elections and thus remarked: "I think at some point the Prime Minister will have to come to the reality…she may not realize it today but she eventually will have to realize." The European Parliament's resolution on present situation in Bangladesh expressed concern, asked all parties to exercise restraint and asked upon the Election Commission to ensure a "fully transparent" general election.

The concerns in these editorials, hearing and resolution were that the country needed an election where all the parties would participate to avoid a catastrophe. One has to really look hard into history to find out if Bangladesh has in the past been subjected to such harsh criticisms about its politics as expressed in these editorials, hearing and resolution.  The NYT editorial, in particular, was scathing. At a time when the whole of Bangladesh wants the two mainstream parties to resolve their problems through discussions and also not to allow external hands in our political problems, there is a great dilemma facing the country. No Bangladesh government in the past has shown the type of immunity to foreign pressure for its decisions on politics like this government. Yet, the people are also worried whether the government is taking this immunity too far. The NYT editorial has implied threats; it has recommended to the US Government to impose sanctions.

Bangladesh, despite its excellent growth potentials and results, will fall apart if the powers that it is upsetting really want to take the NYT editorial seriously and there is reason to believe that this may happen in some form or other. There is little diversity in what is driving Bangladesh's economic growth. These western powers have too much power to bring harm to the country's main industry, the RMG (ready-made garments).  Lest we forget, our decision to anger these powers over the Padma Bridge has already delayed the mega economic project that was expected to add up to 2 per cent to our GDP (gross domestic product) growth rate. The World Bank had virtually the cheque ready for this US$ 2.7 billion project at a dream level of interest rate. It is not just that this project has been inordinately delayed, when it is undertaken and completed, the costs would climb up significantly that the country could ill afford.

One, therefore, wishes that the government would look at the concerns expressed by the country's friends and resolve the political stalemate through negotiations. It may blame the opposition to its heart's content but perhaps if it focuses just one thing in the past, it may see the need to accept the opposition's demand. In 2006, the AL had refused to accept Justice KM Hassan as the Chief Adviser of the caretaker government because decades before that in the late 1970s he had some connections with the BNP that he severed to rise through the system to become the Chief Justice. The AL claimed that frivolous connection would make him partial. The same party is now demanding the BNP to contest in the elections under the AL Government that has left no one in doubt what it wants to do to the BNP!

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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