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Khaleda Zia

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Bangladesh: End of Democracy

1 January 2019

It always looks bad when the ruling party jails the opposition leader just a few months before the election. If only Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had decided to boycott this election like she did the last one, she’d probably still be a free woman. But she decided to run, and so was sentenced to jail time on various implausible corruption charges.

Her rival, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, could probably have won a fair election against the BNP, but even with Khaleda Zia in jail she took no chances and arranged a ‘landslide’ in which her Awami League and its allies won almost all the 300 seats in parliament. The BNP only got seven seats, which is also pretty implausible.

After a decade in power, the Awami League is getting arrogant and careless. In Chittagong, the country’s second city, a BBC reporter actually saw the pre-stuffed ballot boxes being delivered to a polling station. (Hint: when pre-stuffing ballot boxes, ensure that they are opaque, not see-through.)

Just another fake election, you might think, no better and no worse than the shambolic vote in the Democratic (or just Dreadful) Republic of Congo on the same day. The outcome in the DRC hasn’t been announced yet (half the voting machines were burned), but you may be sure that the government will win there too. So why should anybody care?

The DRC has the highest extreme poverty rate in the world, with six out of seven people living on less than $1.25 a day. In six decades of independence, the country’s 88 million people have never seen a democratic transfer of power. They hold elections anyway – even China has ‘elections’ – but nobody expects them to change things. Bangladesh is a very different place.

When Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan 48 years ago after a bloody war, it was seen as an economic ‘basket case’, because its only natural resource was its people – and there were too many of them. There are even more of them now – 167 million –but the pessimists were wrong.

Bangladesh works. It is still a very poor and very corrupt country, but its economy has been growing at an average of 6.5% for the past ten years and is now at almost 8%, second highest in the world. Unemployment is low, inflation is low and steady, and it has its population growth under control.

The region now called Pakistan and the region now called Bangladesh had exactly the same population when they were part of the same country. Today’s Bangladesh has 167 million, while the Pakistan of today has 202 million. Bangladesh’s population will stop growing at about 200 million in 2050; Pakistan will have 300 million people in 2050 and still be growing fast.

Even more impressive is Bangladesh’s literacy rate, up from 47% to 73% in the past ten years. And who has been the prime minister for the past ten years? Sheikh Hasina, that’s who.

She may have locked up her rival, arrested hundreds of BNP party workers and brought charges against tens of thousands of BNP party members. She may have rigged the election. But the country is doing fine. It just has this endless civil war going on between its two main political leaders, both now in their 70s: Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.

The ‘battling begums’, as the Bangladeshi press calls them (‘begum’ is a title used to refer to a Muslim woman of high rank), did not start out as enemies. Shortly after the country got its independence in 1971, it fell under military rule for almost two decades. Sheikh Hasina’s father was the prime minister murdered in the first coup; Khaleda Zia’s husband was the ruling general assassinated in the second coup.

The two women managed to cooperate in removing the last military ruler in 1990, and they have been the most important politicians in the country ever since. They quickly became first rivals and then enemies, but they alternated in power in a more or less functional democracy until 2014, when Sheikh Hasina decided she would prefer to stay in power permanently.

Contrary to previous practice, she declared that it would be her government, not a neutral and temporary caretaker government, that ran the 2014 elections. Khaleda Zia protested that the election would be rigged by the Awami League government, and her party boycotted the vote. That was a bad mistake: she handed everything to Sheikh Hasina on a plate.

This time she tried to correct her mistake and said that the BNP would run in the election – so Sheikh Hasina sent her to jail, and rigged the election so ruthlessly that the BNP only won seven seats out of 300.

So what? The country is doing well by all the usual indicators, isn’t it? Yes, it is, but the street violence grows with every election, and BNP supporters everywhere are afraid to let their views be known.

Bangladesh is now effectively a one-party state in which somewhere around half the population hates and fears the ruling party. For the moment the fear predominates, but sooner or later the Awami League will stumble and the hate will be expressed in actions. It would have been better to stick with democracy, even if that meant winning only part of the time.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 8. (“Just…place”; and “The region…fast”)

Bangladesh in Trouble

How’s this for a staunch defence of free speech in a secular state? Earlier this month, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh denounced anyone who criticised religion or expressed their own lack of religious faith in striking terms: “I don’t consider such writings as freethinking but filthy words. Why would anyone write such words? It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions.”

So does she mean that it’s all right to kill people who write such words? Hack them to death with machetes, usually? She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t exactly say no either. And this is regrettable, because quite a few people are being hacked to death in Bangladesh these days.

In the current wave of murders, most of the victims have been “secular” bloggers who publicly stated that they were atheists and offered reasons for their lack of belief. They did not criticise or mock Islam directly, but merely insisting that religious faith was not necessary or rational was enough to “hurt religious sentiment”. For some people, it was reason enough to kill them.

Four high-profile secular bloggers were hacked to death in separate attacks in Bangladesh last year, in a campaign of murder that was clearly more than just random incidents of religious rage. What was remarkable was the response of the government – or rather, its lack of response.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina leads a country of 160 million people that is officially committed to defending the freedoms of speech and belief of citizens of every religion (and of no religion at all). But while she publicly deplored the murders, she was careful at the same time to insinuate that the bloggers were outrageous people who had in some way deserved to be killed.

She also insisted that these murders were the work of the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), or more precisely of its political ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist party. She firmly denied that foreign extremist forces like Islamic State or al-Qaeda (which would certainly approve of the killings) are active in the country.

This probably seems to Sheikh Hasina to be sound practical politics in a country where 90 percent of the population is Muslim. So while not openly approving of murder, she publicly sympathises with conservative Muslims who think they have the right to live in a society where their beliefs are never publicly questioned.

It’s also good politics for her to blame the violence exclusively on the opposition parties, since admitting that foreign Islamists are involved would mean that she was failing in her duty to defend the country. But the result of her pragmatism and passivity has been a rapid expansion in the range of targets that are coming under attack by the extremists.

On 23 April Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique, who edited a literary magazine and founded a music school – and never blogged about religion at all – was murdered by machete-wielding men as he left his home in the northern city of Rajshahi to go to the university. He was an observant Muslim, but he was involved in cultural activities which many hardline groups condemn as “un-Islamic”.

The following day gay rights activist Xulhaz Mannan, editor of a LGBT magazine, and actor Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were hacked to death in the magazine’s offices in the capital, Dhaka. In other recent violence religious minorities have been attacked: Shia and Ahmadi mosques, Christian priests and Hindus. (Several of the murdered bloggers belonged to the 10-percent Hindu minority, and their issue was religious belief in general, not Islam in particular.)

So is Bangladeshi society drifting into the chronic terrorism against minorities of all sorts that afflicts its former ruler, Pakistan? The answer, unfortunately, is probably yes – and the blame lies mainly with the two women who have polarised Bangladesh’s political life for so long.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is one of only two survivors of the family of Mujibur Rahman, the leader of Bangladesh’s independence struggle and its first prime minister. (He was massacred with all the rest of his family in a military coup in 1975.) The opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, is the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, who led a subsequent military coup and declared Islam to be the state religion, only to be killed in yet another coup in 1981.

In theory, at least, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League represents the ideal of a secular Bangladesh that embraces its minorities, and Khaleda Zia’s BNP depends mainly on the support of conservative Sunni Muslims whose ideal society is explicitly Islamic. Such divisions exist in every Muslim society, but they are made far sharper by the mutual hatred of the two women who have utterly dominated Bangladesh’s politics for the past 25 years.

The BNP’s alliance with Islamist parties pushes it ever closer to the religious extremists, and Sheikh Hasina’s pandering to conservative Islamic sentiment (in order not to lose devout Muslim voters to the BNP) is taking her party in the same direction. And Islamic State and al-Qaeda definitely are active in the country. Bangladesh is in deep trouble.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 12. “In the current…kill them”; and “Prime…1981″)

Bangladesh: When Democracy Goes Bad

19 July 2007

Bangladesh: When Democracy Goes Bad

By Gwynne Dyer

“We do not want to go back to an elective democracy where corruption becomes all pervasive,” Lt Gen Moeen U Ahmed, the chief of the Bangladesh army, told a conference in Dhaka in April. Typical talk from a soldier who has thrust the civilian political leaders of his country aside — but he does have a point, for the leaders in question are a pair of obsessives whose rivalry has poisoned Bangladesh’s politics for decades.

Two political dynasties, alternating in power, have ruled Bangladesh ever since 1991. Among the larger democracies, only in the United States have two families, the Bushes and the Clintons, monopolised executive power for a longer time. But whereas the Bush-Clinton rivalry still continues — if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency next year and goes on to win a second term in 2012, the two American families will have been alternating in power for 28 years — the Bangladeshi rivalry is coming to an end. So, unfortunately, is democracy in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s democracy was never much to write home about. It won its independence from Pakistan in 1971, but there were twenty years of tyranny and military rule before the first genuinely democratic government was elected in 1991. This change had domestic roots, of course, but it was also part of the wave of non-violent democratic revolutions that began in the Philippines in 1986 and swept through Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea.

Two steps forward, one step back. Thailand’s democracy has now given way to military rule, and democracy in the Philippines isn’t looking too healthy either. But nothing compares with the fall from grace of Bangladesh, which is usually ranked among the five most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International. The credit for the disaster goes largely to the two women who have alternated in power there for the past sixteen years.

Sheikh Hasina, prime minister from 1996 to 2001, is the daughter of Mujibur Rahman, the “Father of Bangladesh,” a former student agitator who led the movement for separation from Pakistan and then became the first leader of independent Bangladesh. He was an instinctive autocrat without a single democratic bone in his body, and he died in 1975 in a bloody coup by junior army officers that also killed his wife and all of his children except Hasina and one other daughter who were abroad at the time. So Hasina has a chip on her shoulder.

Khaleda Zia, her bitterest rival, is the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, the army officer who succeeded Mujib after a chaotic interval. He reversed most of Mujib’s policies, including socialism and a strictly secular state — and then Zia also died in a hail of bullets in another military coup in 1981. So Khaleda also has a chip on her shoulder. She became Zia’s political heir, and prime minister from 1991-96 and again from 2001-06. Corruption flourished even more vigorously under her rule than under that of Sheikh Hasina.

Neither woman chose politics as a profession; both were driven into it by family tragedy. Neither woman is a monster: each would probably offer up her own life if it would guarantee a safe and prosperous future for her 150 million fellow-countrymen and women. But each loathes the other, and would rather die than compromise or cooperate. Too many of their supporters have the same attitude.

The view of General Ahmed, who has effectively been running the country since elections were cancelled in January, is essentially that democracy is to blame. Sheikh Hasina, out of power, declared a boycott of this year’s elections because she believed that the incumbent, Khaleda Zia, was going to rig them. In those circumstances, the election result would be meaningless, so the army intervened. And the general just doesn’t think democracy is right for Bangladesh.

But if it isn’t right for Bengalis, one of the most politicised, argumentative populations on the planet, then just who is it right for? Democracy in Bangladesh has gone horribly wrong because of the bitter heritage from the war of independence — which, like most such struggles, was partly a civil war — but the solution is to fix it, not to cancel it.

At the moment, General Ahmed is arresting hundreds of prominent political figures on corruption charges. Doubtless many of them are guilty, for that is how politics has been played in Bangladesh for decades. If they are found guilty by properly constituted courts and banned from further participation in politics, no great harm will be done.

If Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia themselves were among those excluded from politics on the grounds that they engaged in corrupt practices, that would not be a bad thing, either. But politics — DEMOCRATIC politics — needs to continue. It also needs to continue (or rather, resume) in Thailand, and Pakistan, and all the other places where the voters were “deceived by the politicians,” or “made the wrong choices,” or whatever other formula the saviours in uniform use when they grab power for themselves.

People get things wrong. Politics is a messy business. As Winston Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” But he also said: “Democracy is the worst form of government — except all the others that have been tried from time to time.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 7. “Two…Bangladesh”; and “Neither…attitude”