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Sheikh Hasina

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Bangladesh: The Deal Breaks Down

8 January 2014

Bangladesh: The Deal Breaks Down

By Gwynne Dyer

Last Sunday they held an election in Bangladesh, and nobody came. Well, practically nobody: turn-out was down from 70 percent in the last election to only 20 percent. Some of the absentees stayed away on principle, but others were just frightened away by the violence: more than a hundred polling stations set on fire, and 200 dead in political violence in the last two months. The past is back with a vengeance in Bangladesh.

It wasn’t actually former US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger who predicted that an independent Bangladesh would be “an international basket case.” It was American diplomat Ural Alexis Johnson, at a meeting in December, 1971, only days before Pakistani forces surrendered and Bangladesh won its independence. Kissinger merely observed that it would “not necessarily (be) our basket case.”

Nevertheless, it was attributed to Kissinger, and it became the defining prediction about Bangladesh’s future. Over the next two decades it seemed pretty accurate: it was a country where poverty was endemic, famine was an occasional visitor, political turbulence was permanent, and there were frequent military coups. But since the restoration of democracy in 1991, the narrative has been very different. Until now.

In the past 20 years the country has seen rapid economic growth, a steeply falling birth rate, and the advent of universal primary education. Average life span is 70 years, and average income has doubled since 1975. Not bad for the world’s most densely populated large country, with few natural resources and 160 million people crammed into the same area as England (New York State, Malawi, Jordan). But now the narrative is changing again.

The problem is politics. Ever since the return of democracy in 1991 Bangladeshi politics has been dominated by two women who utterly loathe each other. Sheikh Hasina, currently prime minister and leader of the left-leaning, secular Awami League, is the daughter of the country’s “founding father,” Mujibur Rahman, who was murdered in 1975 together with almost all his family by rebel army officers.

Her opponent of 20 years’ standing is Khaleda Zia, leader of the conservative, more religiously inclined Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). She is the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, who became president after several more military coups and was then himself assassinated in yet another coup in 1981. Khaleda Zia’s husband was not one of the plotters who murdered Sheikh Hasina’s father, but the latter sees him as having come from the same stable.

The animosity between them can get very petty. For example, none of Khaleda Zia’s official documents list the date of her birth as 15 August, but that is when she chooses to celebrate her birthday. It is the date when Sheikh Hasina’s father Mujibur Rahman, her mother, and all her brothers were massacred . The argument about whether it is really Khaleda’s birthday has been taken as far as the High Court.

Bangladesh might have moved on from its tragic early history much faster if both women had chosen other careers. Nevertheless, they have both shown enough respect for the law and the democratic process that the country has prospered while they alternated in office ever since 1991.

Even in 1996, when the Awami League boycotted the election and the BNP therefore won by a landslide, the two leaders managed to finesse their way out of the crisis. The new BNP-dominated parliament quickly amended the constitution to allow a neutral caretaker government to take over and supervise new elections – which the Awami League won.

But this time the whole thing has gone off the rails. Sheikh Hasina, who has been prime minister since 2009, abolished the “neutral caretaker” system the following year. So when she announced an election on 5 January that would be run by her own Awami League government, the BNP assumed that the election would be rigged and declared that it would boycott it.

The Islamist Jemaat-e-Islami Party, the BNP’s usual election ally, went even further and began to make violent attacks (mostly beatings and fire-bombs) against both Awami League rallies and election officials. As the death toll mounted, the army and police started shooting at violent protesters, and it went up even faster.

In the end, the Awami League won 127 seats where there was no opposition candidate, and 105 of the 147 contested seats. It holds more than three-quarters of the seats in the new parliament, and its political allies and some independents hold the rest. But it has no democratic credibility at all. (The European Union, the Commonwealth, and the United States all refused to send observers to monitor the polls.)

This outcome is all the more surprising because 17 years ago Sheikh Hasina was standing in precisely the shoes Halida Zia is wearing now. Then it was the BNP that rigged the election and the Awami League that staged the boycott. Hasina must have known that her rival would respond exactly the same way this time, and that the only escape from the resultant crisis would be to bring back the “neutral caretaker” to supervise a rerun of the election.

She knew that, and yet she did it anyway. Which means that she must be determined to ride the protests out and not allow any caretaker government or election rerun. This is a formula for escalating violence and an eventual military coup. Bangladesh is in trouble.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 3 and 7. (“It wasn’t…now”; and “The animosity…Court”)


Bangladesh: The Trials

17 July 2013

Bangladesh: The Trials

By Gwynne Dyer

Genocide is always a difficult crime for courts to deal with, and all the more so when it happened 42 years ago. But Bangladesh is really making a mess of it – largely because most of the old men on trial are leading members of a political party that is part of the country’s official opposition.

“It is undeniable that a massive genocide took place in the then East Pakistan,” Justice Anwarul Haque said on 17 July as he imposed a death sentence on Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, the Secretary-General of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. “This massacre can only be compared to the slaughter by Nazis under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.”

That is an exaggeration, but not a very big one. The official Bangladeshi estimate is that 3 million people were killed, and 200,000 women were raped, by the Pakistani army and its local collaborators during the independence war of 1971. Few countries have had a bloodier birth than Bangladesh.

For a decade and a half after the partition of India in 1947, it was just the eastern wing of Pakistan, a country in two parts with a lot of Indian territory between them. But it was always controlled by the western half (today’s Pakistan), and when it attempted to break away in 1971 the Pakistan army tried to drown the independence movement in blood.

It was aided by local paramilitary groups, made up mostly of pious Muslims who believed that Pakistan must be preserved as the single home for all the subcontinent’s Muslims. Initially they targeted secular intellectuals and the Hindu minority for murder, but in the end they were slaughtering whole villages that supported the nationalist cause. The killing lasted for nine months.

Eventually the Indian army intervened and the Pakistani forces were forced to surrender. But the Pakistani soldiers were all sent home, and the leaders of the local paramilitary forces that fought alongside them fled abroad. And then, after some years in exile, the leaders of the genocide came home again and went into politics.

They came home because a military coup in 1975 virtually exterminated the family of Mujibur Rahman, the secular politician who led the country to independence. The generals who wound up in power tried to win popular support by pushing an Islamic agenda, which left the returned exiles free to found the Jamaat-e-Islami Party. By the 1990s, when democracy returned, they were even serving as junior partners in governing coalitions.

Their senior coalition partner was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, created by one of the generals and still led by his widow, Khaleda Zia. The other main party, the Awami League, is led by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the martyred “father of the nation”, Mujibur Rahman. The two women loathe each other, and their bitter rivalry has dominated and often paralysed Bangladeshi politics for the past twenty years.

Sheikh Hasina promised to put the perpetrators of the genocide on trial in her election platform in 2008. She won by a landslide, and the trials began in 2010. There was strong international support for her decision at first, but the conduct of the trials has left much to be desired. Most of the accused were certainly implicated in the killing, but the BNP has quite rightly accused the government of politicising the trials.

The Jamaat-e-Islami has portrayed the trials as an attack on Islam, and when the first death sentence was handed down in February there were violent nationwide protests by the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Youth League, leaving about 150 people dead. When the first life sentence was given out a few days later, hundreds of thousands of other young people demonstrated to demand the death penalty for all of those convicted.

They were driven by the fear that if the BNP wins the next election (due by January), then it will amnesty all the surviving Jamaat leaders to preserve its electoral alliance with the Islamist party. The Awami League has responded to their demand by passing a new law that shortened the time allowed for appeals, so that they can be hanged before the next election. Lynch law.

There is a way out of this, and it could end the twenty-year stalemate in Bangladeshi politics. In a poll before the last election, four out of five young Bangladeshis said they wanted to see the perpetrators of the genocide brought to trial: the crimes have not been forgotten. So give them what they want, but don’t kill anybody.

The Awami League said that it was setting out to exorcise “historical ghosts”, and it can do so without hanging old men. Nor does the BNP need to preserve its alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami: the party only got 3 percent of the vote in the last election.

So let the convictions stand but don’t hang anybody – most of them will be dead in a few years anyway – and just move on. It would take more statesmanship than either party has shown in the past, but it would open the way to a better future for the country.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The Jamaat…law”)

The Trials of Bangladesh

25 November 2009

The Trials of Bangladesh

By Gwynne Dyer

If a Shakespeare should ever arise in Bangladesh, he would have plenty of tragedies around which to weave his history plays. The country is only 38 years old, but the vendettas between the leading families, the murders and plots and coups, have been just as tangled and bloody as the ones in 14th and 15th-century England that gave the great playwright so much of his material. But that kind of history may be coming to an end in Bangladesh.

It’s not quite dead yet. Last February, at least 4,000 soldiers serving in the Bangladesh Rifles, a border defence regiment, mutinied and began killing their officers. Fifty-seven officers and 17 other people were murdered by the mutineers, who dumped their bodies in sewers and an incinerator. The violence spread to military camps all over Bangladesh.

The mutineers said that they were revolting against poor pay, but many people suspected that there was a political motive behind it all. If there was, it failed. The rest of the army remained loyal, tanks surrounded the regiment’s various camps, and the government promised to look into the rebels’ complaints if they surrendered.

That was a lie, of course: they were all arrested. The first nine soldiers went on trial for mutiny before a military court on 24 November and more than 3,500 others will follow in various military cantonments around the country, while several hundred others will be tried before civilian courts for murder, rape and looting.

This is not the kind of blood-spattered Shakespearean ending that Bangladeshis have become much too familiar with. The trials may even answer the question of whether there was a political motive behind the military uprising. But suppose there was. What could it have been?

There has been a second high-profile court case in Bangladesh in the past month. On 19 November the Supreme Court confirmed the death sentences for 12 former military officers who took part in the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975. The five ex-officers who are actually in custody, and whose final appeal was rejected, now face imminent execution for their crime of 34 years ago.

Few countries had a bloodier birth than Bangladesh. For a decade and a half after the partition of India in 1947, it was just the eastern wing of Pakistan, a country in two parts with a lot of Indian territory between them. But the two parts never got along, and when what is now Bangladesh tried to leave Pakistan in 1971 it got very ugly.

The Pakistan army killed up to three million people in rebel “East Pakistan” before Indian military intervention forced it to withdraw. East Pakistan then became the independent country of Bangladesh, and the country’s nationalist political leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (who had spent the war in jail in West Pakistan) came home to lead it.

Mujib was an autocratic man: by 1975 he had closed down all the opposition papers and declared himself president for life. But he did not deserve what happened to him and his family.

In the early hours of 15 August, 1975, a group of young officers stormed Mujib’s house and killed everybody in it, including his wife, his three sons (one was only nine years old) and his servants. Twenty people in all. Only his two daughters, who were abroad at the time, survived. One of them, Sheikh Hasina, is now the prime minister. (I told you it was Shakespearean.)

The young officers who murdered Mujib were overthrown by a different group within months, and another coup removed that bunch before the end of the year. Eventually power ended up in the hands of General Ziaur Rahman, who was also murdered by fellow officers in 1981. His widow, Khaleda Zia, has been prime minister three times, and still leads the main opposition party.

General Zia was not involved in the murder of Mujib, but he did end up allied to the people who had killed him: officers who detested Mujib’s secularism, and in some cases had helped the Pakistani army slaughter their own people during the independence war. They killed Zia too, in the end, but that does not stop Zia’s widow and Mujib’s daughter from hating each other.

That personal vendetta has virtually paralysed the politics of a country with half the population of the United States. Ever since democracy was restored in Bangladesh in 1990, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have alternated in power, each devoting all her time in opposition to sabotaging the other’s initiatives. But now the page may have turned.

The Supreme Court’s confirmation of the death sentences on the ageing conspirators of 1975 may finally enable the country to move past its obsession with those horrific murders. If there was a political motive behind the Bangladesh Rifles mutiny, it was to stop that verdict from being passed, but the insubordination did not spread.

Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League won the last election by a landslide, and the army stayed loyal to the elected government right through the mutiny. The Bangladeshi Shakespeare may be running out of material.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 14. (“This is…been”; “Mujib…family”; and “The Supreme…spread”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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”