The military in Bangladesh has suffered a setback in its systematic plan to dismantle democracy in what was the world’s 5th most populous democracy. There have been a number of fast breaking developments in the last 48 hours. Early yesterday the military was poised to forcibly send one former prime minister, Khaleda Zia, into exile while preventing another former prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, from returning to Bangladesh. Over the weekend the military had also secured an arrest warrant against Sheikh Hasina on "murder charges". Simultaneously the military accused Hasina of being a "fugitive" while banning her from returning to the country.
But the military may have overreached. The drama over the weekend unfolded on three continents.
The first crack in the military’s plan occurred when the Bangladesh High Court responded to a Habeas Corpus petition filed on behalf of Khaleda Zia protesting the military government’s action restricting her to her house without charge. The High Court has ordered the military government to explain in writing within five days why the court should not order the government to produce Khaleda Zia in court to prove that she is not under house arrest. This apparent challenge to the military rulers by the Bangladeshi judiciary effectively postponed Zia’s forcible removal from Bangladesh. To make matters worse for the military, while a chartered plane hired to fly Zia out of the country and into exile in Saudi Arabia waited on the tarmac at the international airport in Dhaka, the Saudi Arabian government refused to grant Khaleda Zia a visa unless she was brought to the Saudi embassy in Dhaka and affirmed that she was leaving Bangladesh on her own free will. Sensing the shifting winds, Khaleda Zia is now refusing to leave Bangladesh and be exiled.
Meanwhile in London, Sheikh Hasina was denied passage on a British Airways flight back to Bangladesh on orders of the Bangladesh military. The drama at Heathrow finally resulted in widespread press coverage in the western media and around the world. Following the lead of the Bangladesh High Court, a lower court in Bangladesh suspended the warrant against Hasina citing lack of evidence and an incomplete investigation.
In London the British Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, raised the issue of the banning of Sheikh Hasina with the Bangladesh military government’s foreign affairs advisor. US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns was reportedly a little more blunt with the Bangladesh Ambassador to the United States. He said, "The interim government in Bangladesh has become occupied with unnecessary issues although its prime business is holding a free and fair election…It is unacceptable to the international community."
Suddenly, with mounting international and domestic pressure, the military finds itself back on its heels. Today the Bangladesh Election Commission, now led in part by a retired military officer, unexpectedly struck a conciliatory tone. Speaking for the Commission, Brig Gen (retd) M Sakhawat declared that the ban on politics may be lifted on May 8th.
Two government advisors, who earlier had been quite vocal about their zest for "fixing" Bangladesh with army muscle, have suddenly gone silent:
Two influential advisers of the interim government, Barrister Mainul Hosein and MA Matin, yesterday did not speak to the media about politics, unlike they usually do.
They declined to say anything about the prevailing political situation despite repeated requests from the journalists. Earlier on a number of occasions the two had talked about different political issues including reforms of the parties and the role of the past governments.
Reporters waited for Communications Adviser MA Matin for several hours on the corridor to the shipping ministry conference room yesterday. But when they got hold of him, he refused to talk about the fate of Awami League (AL) President Sheikh Hasina and BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia or about the other political developments.
He, however, briefed them about a meeting on various development projects in the shipping sector.
Meanwhile, Law Adviser Mainul Hosein met a scrum of newspaper and TV reporters as he came out of a meeting at the information ministry.
"We are a non-political caretaker government and so I should say nothing about politics," he said when the newsmen wanted to know the latest about the probability of Khaleda going into exile and the arrest warrant against Hasina.
"I don’t know," he replied curtly when asked if the government had requested the British Airways not to carry Hasina home.
As to whether Khaleda Zia would be produced before the court, the law adviser said, "The court will decide on the matter."
"The political situation is difficult and I do not have answers of all the questions," he observed when a journalist wanted to know how come the government seeks Interpol’s help to get back crime suspects or convicts from abroad while on the other hand, bars another accused from returning to the country.
Fourteen leading intellectuals of Bangladesh have signed a statement calling the military’s purge of the political parties and the plan to exile the two main political leaders "shortsighted and injudicious". The press in Bangladesh, which had been under threat of banning from the military, have suddenly found their voice again. They are now openly defying the military’s orders to not report on Sheikh Hasina’s views. They are also suddenly writing articles critical of the military government. The leading English newspaper of Bangladesh, The Daily Star, having relocated to new servers, is now freely reporting on the events in Bangladesh.
Overnight the supposed "popularity" of the military regime seems to have collapsed.
Still these are dangerous times. As the Economist pointed out last week, the military has no exit strategy in Bangladesh. If the military does go back to the barracks, the general who had taken the reigns of power, General Moeen U Ahmed, is likely to lose his job and perhaps his freedom. The fear of prosecution might force the generals in charge to shed the thin veneer of "civilian rule" and impose full-bore martial law on Bangladesh. There is no easy way back to civilian rule if the current army rulers were to lose control. The situation is ripe for another coup in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is now at a crossroads. The courts, the press, and leading voices in Bangladesh have begun to challenge the military. They will need international support and protection to avoid a possible crushing blow from the military. There are still one hundred and fifty thousand people behind bars and held without charge or bail. Human rights abuses are common. Torture and mysterious death in army custody is still the norm. The move to exile the political leaders may have finally exposed the army to international scrutiny; however, that has not yet translated into what should be the goal of all defenders of freedom and democracy – that is, the right of the people to live in freedom and without fear of persecution. That goal remains still elusive. The army is still not back to the barracks.
The democratic spirit in Bangladesh is strong. May it survive this assault upon it.
BDNews24 reports that a petition has been filed with the High Court challenging the ban on Sheikh Hasina:
A writ petition was filed with the High Court (HC) Tuesday challenging the validity of the government press note that barred former prime minister Sheikh Hasina from returning home. The petition asked the government to remove hurdles from her return path. The petition moved by Hasina’s lawyers said stopping her from returning to her country was unconstitutional. The hearing was set for Sunday. Justice Abu Nayeem Md Mominur Rahman and Justice Zubayer Rahman Chowdhury notified Hasina’s lawyers that the hearing of the petition will be held Sunday.
International Herald Tribune reports that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar have refused to accept Khaleda Zia into forced exile:
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar have refused to allow Bangladesh’s former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia into their countries, complicating a plan by Bangladesh’s government to exile her, news reports said Tuesday.
The New Age and the News Today newspapers reported that the Saudi embassy in Dhaka has refused to grant her a visa because the embassy was not convinced that Zia was leaving the country of her own volition.
The embassy did not accept Zia’s signature in the visa application form, saying it does not prove that she wants to go to the kingdom, the News Today said.
Saudi embassy and Bangladeshi officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
The government also tried to convince Kuwait and Qatar to take Zia but those attempts also have failed, the News Today report said.
An op-ed in The Guardian comments on the military regime:
Bangladesh is rapidly moving from being the world’s fifth largest democratic state, to the world’s largest state of total uncertainty. Since January 11, when the military stepped in to avert certain chaos and cancelled January’s scheduled but highly contentious general election, imposing a caretaker government under a state of emergency, the caretaker government, whilst initially very popular here, is beginning to look less military-backed and more military-run.
But in spite of the highly extra-constitutional nature of the caretaker government, the 150,000 people estimated to have been detained, the 60 or so people who have died in military custody, the suspension of fundamental rights, the abandonment of due process and the gagging of the media from making any serious criticism, it is the erasure of all signs of democracy that is beginning to cause alarm amongst Bangladesh’s civil society.
The honeymoon is over. To suspend the political process and attempt to lock out or away political leaders without currently offering any alternative is dangerous. Elections are hoped for by the end of 2008 but there is no set timeline and Lieutenant General Moeen Ahmed, who led the coup and is being seen as de facto leader of the country, has stated that he doesn’t want Bangladesh to revert to an elective democracy that might lead to the same problems as before. Increasingly it is feared that any election will be designed to achieve a pre-set goals.
Yet, currently the electoral commission isn’t even allowed to communicate with parties; they have operationally ceased to exist. The longer true politics is banned and the democratic past is denied, the greater the opportunity for Islamic extremists, who are already prospering in rural areas, to take advantage of the vacuum. This is the worst-case scenario for western governments who currently have maintained "satisfaction" with the caretaker regime.
With all politics banned until it will suit the style desired by the military, one wonders when Bangladesh’s civil society might have the courage to publicly speak out of turn. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Charter 77, and although the situation in Dhaka today is radically different to Prague in the 70s, the actions of the Chartists, which they maintained was not organised political opposition and therefore legitimate, offers an interesting precedent.
Something must be done to arrest the attempted "normalisation" of a highly abnormal environment. The Chartists were able to ostensibly highlight their government’s denial of the Helsinki Accords, but this caretaker regime hasn’t committed to anything other than elections when they feel the time is right. Nearly 150 million people have no power, no means, let alone right of protest, and currently no political alternative to go back to, no matter how much maligned. If Bangladesh, a country that’s history is characterised by fighting for freedom, slips back under military dictatorship yet again, then it will be more than its own people made to feel morally bankrupt.