"I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." – Thomas Jefferson
Earlier this week CSB, the only private 24-hour news channel in Bangladesh, was shut down without notice by the military government, allegedly for having filed a "forged" document last year in its application for frequency allocation. This shutdown came on the heels of warnings from the military government that the news channel stop showing "any provocative news, documentaries, talk shows and discussions against the government." The warnings came after television news in Bangladesh showed footage of nationwide anti-government protests. The action against CSB, condemned by Reporters Without Borders, and the intimidation and beatings of other journalists, students, and professors are part of a larger effort by the military government of Bangladesh to suppress dissent.
Ever since it dismantled democracy in Bangladesh earlier this year, intimidation and threats by the military regime have not been limited to within the borders of Bangladesh. Last week an article in the Bengali language newspaper Ittefaq, owned by the military government’s Information Advisor Mainul Hosein, reported that Bangladeshi intelligence agents had been dispatched to the United States to collect information on pro-democracy protesters. The article declared:
It has been learned that a list is being prepared of those who are protesting the arrest and demanding the release of those arrested in Bangladesh for corruption, nepotism and massive looting with abuse of state power. In addition effective measures have been taken to identify the source of funds, the financiers and patrons of these protest events. Three officials from a special law enforcement agency of Bangladesh have already arrived in New York on a special mission. These intelligence agents are contacting professional, political and community leaders and are collecting from various sources the names-addresses as well as the immigration status of the organizers of these protests. According to a reliable source in the Bangladesh embassy in Washington, it will not be at all difficult for the intelligence agents to track a handful of expatriate Bangladeshis. Full details of these protesters will be sent to airports and respective police stations in Bangladesh. The same source also informs us that naturalized American citizens will also not be spared as their photo along with video footage will be sent to special law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh. In addition, those expatriates who under the banner of news agencies, and without any basis and with ill motive, write in our local newspapers inflammatory and negative stories that damage the image of our country will also be tracked. [translation based on Rumi Ahmed]
A similar report appeared in Jonomot, a weekly Bengali language newspaper published in London, England. The report in Jonomot claimed that a similar intelligence team had been dispatched to the United Kingdom to collect information on protesters there.
The report in a major Bangladeshi newspaper, Ittefaq, has already had a chilling effect amongst Bangladeshi expatriates and expatriate bloggers. However, this report is only the latest attempt at intimidation of bloggers and pro-democracy protesters of Bangladeshi origin. Last month, I co-authored an op-ed that examined the increasing relevance of expatriate Bangladeshis. It appeared in the leading Bangladeshi English language newspaper Daily Star. Three days later another op-ed appeared in the same newspaper that accused the same expatriates of "defaming" Bangladesh from the "immunity" of foreign safe havens and urged the Bangladesh government to put an end to these protests:
The most prominent exports from Bangladesh are readymade garments and workers. They contribute to the economy and are appreciated as the key force behind the engine of growth for the country. Less know is a third export from Bangladesh, its politics. This export costs the country its image in the international community and can be a source of embarrassment both for the government as well as other Bangladeshi migrants abroad.
Taking advantage of their immunity in the secure environment of faraway lands, Bangladeshi expatriates have become more active than the political activists within the country. They are holding demonstrations, lobbying leaders of various countries, demanding release of those arrested in Bangladesh, and even threatening to stop the flow of remittance to the country if their demands are not met. They have been successful in extracting statements of support from some second-string American, Australian, and British politicians and officials in support of their demands.
The majority of expatriate Bangladeshis are looking forward to the prohibition of these self-seeking politicians who exploit Bangladesh and harm its image for their selfish interest. If they really want to contribute to Bangladesh, they should return to the country and work under the same conditions as other leaders do. It is unlikely that these people will leave their life of comfort in foreign countries and suffer the hardship of politics in a developing country. Therefore, it will be good to see the government succeed in putting a stop to this undesirable trend. Every migrant carries Bangladesh in their heart, but this does not give them a right to defame the motherland and embarrass fellow Bangladeshi migrants.
Indeed Bangladeshi expatriate lobbying may have contributed to a letter being sent by 15 prominent and bipartisan US senators, including Hillary Clinton and Richard Lugar, to the military government in Bangladesh urging it to lift the state of emergency in Bangladesh and restore democracy. In a show of Orwellian chutzpah another newspaper owned by the military regime’s Information Advisor declared that the letter from the US senators was a hoax.
The latest report in the Ittefaq serves to further intimidate those in the West who are protesting the Bangladesh military government’s suppression of fundamental rights. If the report is correct and Bangladesh has indeed dispatched intelligence agents to the United States to spy on Bangladeshi nationals and US citizens of Bangladeshi origin, it is almost certainly a violation of US laws. The United States government should take immediate steps to protect the rights of its citizens against foreign government spying.
It seems that what the Bangladesh military government fears is freedom of expression. It beats students because they protest. It beats and tortures reporters for reporting on those protests. It shuts down television stations for showing footage of protests. It intimidates and threatens newspaper editors in Bangladesh. It detains and tortures university protesters. It locks up over 250,000 of its own citizens without charge. It carries out a political purge under the guise of an "anti-corruption" drive. While it suspends all fundamental rights, it declares that its goal is to return Bangladesh to democracy by the end of 2008.
Protest and dissent are fundamental to the health of a democracy. It is again Orwellian to suggest that this military regime aims to bring democracy to Bangladesh while it actively works to suppress the very pillars that prop up a democratic culture. As it snuffs out dissent and fundamental rights, it uses fear tactics on those who speak out against these acts of suppression. The military regime would be well advised to understand that it is not the reporting of human rights that is the crime; it is the violation of human rights that is the crime. It is the violation of human rights that defame the image of Bangladesh, not the reporting of them.
It is cowardice to try to silence those who protest against human rights violations. It shows the weakness of the regime. When the Bangladesh military beat unarmed students and reporters, they beat them because the students and reporters exposed the weakness of the regime.
I will not be silenced. I am just one blogger, but there are many like me. While I sit under the comfort, and yes the protection, of the United States Constitution, there are many who are today taking enormous risks from within Bangladesh reporting to the world about the human rights violations taking place there. I will not be silent and allow the military government in Bangladesh to snuff out those voices from within Bangladesh. As I’ve written before, silence is complicity.
A generation ago, Robert Kennedy spoke for those who had no voice. He said:
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
One hundred and fifty million people today are living under the gun in Bangladesh. I will not remain silent and watch the world turn away.