Sunday, January 21, 2007

Still No Word

The State of Emergency is still in place and we are still waiting for an announcement from the (new) interim Government about its aims and intentions regarding the election. In ten days, no statements have been made and speculation has been rife. At the same time, the human rights of people are being continually retracted. The police and army now have the right to arrest anyone at any time for any reason; they also may enter any building at any time for any reason without a warrant and effect arrests therein. The private televisions are banned from playing any news coverage expect that supplied by the state media. Newspapers are not permitted to question the actions of the interim government: those that fail to self-censor will face significant problems.

However, despite these punitive measures (done in the name of democracy, in the best American traditions), many have welcomed them, including Mohammed Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Winner and all round Bangladeshi hero, who seems to support the idea that an army-backed, extra-constitutional government is a good idea. The problem is that the politicians and the parties have been so corrupt and so manipulative, that such a view gets a great deal of support and is hard to dispute.

Bangladesh has descended into a ridiculous mess from which there seems to be no real solution. Either we will see truly open and fair elections, maybe in April or May, or there will be a prolonged suspension of democracy and a de facto military takeover. It should be noted that former military leader HM Ershad, deposed in 1990, has just avoided a prison sentence for corruption activities and has a new party that is growing in strength. Perhaps him, or someone like him, will make the breakthrough.

For us, however, the city is reasonably normal (inasmuch as this city has a state of normality). I am about to start a photographic project as part of our livelihoods programmes, looking at the relationships between rickshaw pullers and society at large. Our main argument is that rickshaws should not be banned but conditions of work must change. There should be a book out of it, and you can all buy a copy.

Dhaka remains a city in which it is hard to find entertainment, but a VSO badminton tournament has proved to be a major draw. Unfortunately, my partner Marufa (a VSOB programme co-ordinator) and I have played two and lost two. We are hoping to avoid the wooden spoon from our last two games. Badminton is about as energetic as most Bengalis get, although the cricket season has just started and there are Dhaka league matches played outside our flat, so a few more of them are running.

Finally, I spent an evening with Michelle’s Dad who was here visiting and met some of his family in Dhaka, who live in a quite amazing house in the plush parts of Ramna Park. The Chief Justice and other luminaries all share the street, so it’s a bit like living in Temple or Lincoln’s Inn or some other barrister locality: not typical Bangladesh. It was good to get some contacts here though, and some home cooked Bengali food.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Bangladesh in State of Emergency

The President of Bangladesh last night declared a State of Emergency and then resigned as Chief Advisor to the interim government. He is still the President of Bangladesh however, and in this capacity has suspended the constitution, and the election scheduled for the 22nd January. As a result, non-State television is banned from showing current affairs or political programmes, whilst newspapers have been warned not to criticise decisions made by the President.

In addition, 9 of the 10 advisors that make up the interim government have also resigned, and a curfew was instigated with no end date, running from 11 pm until 5 am each day. This leaves us house bound from 10 pm, and restricts our movement considerably.

This move will have satisfied the Awami League opposition who were demanding these things, but now makes the election very unlikely by January 25th, the constitutional deadline for it to take place. This will make the BNP (the former government) unhappy and they are likely to head to the streets from Sunday instead. There are also expected to be blockades of Dhaka from Sunday and hartels next week. Hartels are essentially political strikes that are often (or usually) violent.

As a result, Bangladesh is in a political limbo: 5000 people are detained without trial until the election takes place, the police and army have the right of arrest for any reason at any time of any person, the consitutition is suspended, with the legal, freedom of press and freedom of movement sections particularly affected, and there is no election date. We are waiting until tomorrow to see what will be the outcome.

At least we are safe at the moment, and the violence is just to the north of where I am living, not in our patch. We are on a day alert for evacuation if it does get worse for us, but foreigners are not a target, we just need to keep our heads down.

The saddest thing is that this will continue to hamper any progress that the country could make, and the whole episode could be a wider BNP strategy to ensure that they can still win. There are no moves on the voters role and other issues, so it is what this space.

Dont listen to the BBC reports though, they are a little sensationalist and not the full picture. And there is no need to worry about us if anyone is.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Political Violence

The political situation has deteriorated here once again, and I hear that it is even making the BBC at home, which is rare. From reading the Guardian and Independent websites, and some BBC pages, it is clear that the main focus is on militant Islam and whether this situation will allow some force to take hold. Extreme Islam, however, does not have a great foothold here. The political impasse will not create a power vacuum to be filled by such people, but is rather a battle for control of this political space. Two great blocks of wealth, capital and other interests in Bangladesh are struggling for power and using the common people as their means to do. But the benefit for those at the bottom will be minimal: the parties do not even publish manifestos. No one knows what they stand for.

Currently, however, on the streets the tension is clear and can be stingingly felt. Mentioning the Awami League or the BNP, or their leaders Sheik Hassina and Kaleda Zia will bring furious argument from anyone. The AL has decided to boycott the election on January 22nd saying that it will not be free and fair. This is probably true: the President was a BNP nominee from the last Parliament, and throughout that time the Electoral Commission (EC) in charge of producing an election was filled with BNP stooges to ensure that the BNP can win, even though they are widely expected to lose a fair election. The evidence for this is amazing: the voters list produced by the EC has 10 million more names that there are people in B

However, on the other hand, there is a constitutional requirement to hold the election by January 25th, which is 90 days since the handover of power to the caretaker government. If this is not done, then the interim Government will have infringed the constitution and broken the law. What this means is that with the AL demand for a new date or no election, and the BNP ensuring its voter list is used, both parties are forcing the constitution to be infringed and undermining the functioning of the State.

What this is means on the streets is at times stunning. 60,000 troops have been deployed in and around Dhaka to ensure that violence is minimal, but in the areas north of my flat there have been major riots (which are those shown on the television). The police and army have been given special powers of arrest which allow them to arrest anyone at anytime for any reason without a warrant, and to detain them without charge until 25th January. This legal brutality is incredible, and already over 5,000 people from Dhaka have alone have been detained and will not be able to vote. Inevitably, they are the poorer, less powerful members of society. It’s the sort of measure of which John Reid would be immensely proud.

For me, it is rather fascinating. The army occupied the small green outside my flat for the last three days (they got extremely angry when I asked if I could take a photo, see above); three trucks with 40 or so soldiers crowding around this small space. With another blockade on (possibly until the election day itself), there have been protests. On the road by my office, a major place for rallies, a group of AL supporters threw bricks at a police van, out of which about 10 police men jumped and began a lati (large solid stick) charge, and fired rubber bullets in the air which flew over our office. Some garment factories have been burnt to the ground, and five small bombs went off. Also, stashes of explosives have been found.

The British High Commission security advice is typically useless, saying stay in Gulshan and Baridhara, both of which are an hour from where we live and work. It is expected that on the day of the election itself it will be very violent indeed, with perhaps 100s of deaths. A similar situation in 1996 left 160 dead in Dhaka, and a government that lasted 13 days before having to call a new election.

But to other matters, and two useful bits of info on life here that may add some context to what is like. Firstly, we only have cold water, and with the current ‘coldwave’ (as the Bengalis call it), these showers have become too miserable. So we are now heating water on a stove and then use a jug to wash from a big bowl. It is practically medieval, certainly time consuming, but more pleasant than a freezing shower.

The second is that I barely use a knife and fork anymore. All Bengali meals are eaten by hand, mixing the curries and dhals into rice for a few minutes before stuffing it into your mouth in balls forming in the hand. When I do get back, there will be a Brick Lane curry Bengali-style for you all to practice.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Sundarbans Trip

All new years are supposed to start with a bang, and with nearly been shot twice in the space of four hours, I almost ensured that 2006 ended in suitably dramatic style. That I can write this now should be reassurance enough that despite the best efforts of myself and the Bangladesh Rifles, I avoided becoming another cross-fire statistic. And the reason for this dancing with death? A trip to the Sundarbans for New Year that tested Bangladesh’s infrastructure to its absolute limits.

The Sundarbans are a huge littoral mangrove forest that run along the south-east coast of the country and then on into India. They are the largest in the world of this type and a World Heritage Site. They serve a vital purpose in dampening some of the storms that ravage Bangladesh, the trees and channels dissipating huge amounts of wave and wind energy that would otherwise wash away the villages further north. The Sundarbans are home to the Royal Bengal Tiger (critically endangered with only 250-350 estimated to still live in Bangladesh), crocodiles, kites, eagles and other raptors, snakes and otters, dolphins and deer and thousands of other species and animals. As the remotest and most untouched part o
f Bangladesh, it offers a refuge not just to animals, but to ex-pats weary of life in Dhaka.

Hence I departed on a 5 day trip to the forest with Tim and Georgia and some older volunteers as well as Kathy, a new arrival from the UK and Monique, Canadian. Given that it was also Eid-ul-Azru (where cows are slaughtered in the streets as sacrifice to Allah), the roads and rail were jampacked with people trying to get back to their village for the festival. All this meant that either I had to leave on boxing day or get a flight, so the latter was risked. Biman and CMG, Bangladesh’s two airlines, are notoriously dangerous carriers, but given the general disregard for life here it seemed little less risk than a trip on the buses.

We waited at the tiny domestic terminal at Zia airport as our flight was continually delayed, finding other things to entertain us. Whilst reading, I suddenly had a genuine shock when a gun barrel fell into sight, hovering between the pages of the book and my chin. More than a little alarmed that a loaded automatic weapon was pointed directly at my chest, I looked up to find a splendidly regaled policeman/paramilitary looking directly at me and asking me ‘which country are you from?’ I of course hastily replied that it was England, wondering what they thought I had done. Then he asked me what my name was, and suddenly it became a little clearer that he was just engaging the continuous, draining small talk that all Bangladeshis seem desperate to thrust upon any bedeshi. A little more relaxed, I still made sure that the barrel (which was not more than 4 inches from my chest) was pushed away. I suggested that when he wishes to talk to people in the future, a gesture other than a suddenly putting his gun close to vital organs would probably engender more fruitful and relaxed conversation.

More waiting eventually provided a plane that was only 5 hours late, and we boarded a tiny twin engine propeller box that struggled to get of the ground and seemed poised on giving up at any moment. The straining of the engine as we made our ascent was awful, the landing violent, and the cockroaches also travelling with us an unnecessary addition to the cabin. On landing in Jessore 40 minutes later I was able to achieve my second ‘near-shot’ experience of the morning, when I decided that this dishevelled plane was worthy of a photograph. But having not seen the ‘no photography’ sign, forgetting that this was an airport, and not hearing (apparently) shouting from the terminal, it was only the interve
ntion of another volunteer to push down a gun a paramilitary guy was raising that may have prevented me not making the trip. So there is a lesson here: don’t EVER take photos at airports…

Another two hours on a bus and transfer to a minibus and we were able to cross the ladder from the quayside to the boat that would take us down and through the Sundarbans. Khulna as a city has little if anything to recommend it, but to get out on the open water was great, and as the night fell we sailed down the river towards the Bay of Bengal. The boat had five small ½ person cabins that we had to share as a two: Tim and I were able to top and tail and somehow squeeze around the curve of the bow to get some sleep. Resplendent in orange, pink and green, our tutti-frutti ship sailed into the sunset, stopping only for us to see a small cultural show by an NGO where a phot song was performed. In essence this is a song with a general theme (this one was something like logging and foreigners are evil) where different scenes are unravelled from a long scroll as people dance about. It is supposed to be educational, but not speaking enough Bangla, the sounds had to suffice as entertainment.

The next day saw us collect two forestry guards to ward of the pirates that ply the small waterways and tributaries of the forests, and then enter the forest. The sky was almost white due the brightness, and the water a muddy brown with the sun sprinkled across th
e ripples. The mangroves were a hundred different greens and yellows, with deep reflections in the water. And the only other people were the few fishermen in their wide, flat bottom boats who would wave from the river banks.

We spent two 6 am trips slipping among the thin channels in the depths of the forest trying to see a tiger (we did see some huge paw prints), but had to settle for a 3 metre crocodile, egrets, eagles, rhesus monkeys and wild boar. The wildlife was falling out of the place, there was so much: otters and mudskippers, kingfishers and woodpeckers and almost anything else one can imagine. In the early mornings thin mist rises up off the water as the sun begins to burn off the overnight cold, and it leaves a mystical air across the water, like the smoke effects on stage. And when the sun hits the fierce yellows and reds spring from the trees and waters to give a cold glow across the forest. The quietness – save for the soft slap-slap of the small boat paddles – is deep and wide.

The food on the boat was constant and brilliant, including Sundarbans honey, a great local delicacy, and had enough wine and whiskey to make a new year on the water. The moon was full and stunningly bright, but with so much water about we could still not see much further than 25 metres, and so do not know how many people were being forced to listen to the bagpipes CD playing at full volume: Auld Lang Ayne and Scotland the Brave blasting across the water and disturbing all else around. The next morning we found that one speaker was directly positioned under a guard’s bed. He did not get much sleep.

Our trip back to Dhaka was almost as eventful, as we took the Rocket. Do
not be deceived by this name: its pace has more in common with Stevenson’s 19th century version than a Saturn V, but in 30 hours we got to Dhaka. The Rocket is an old paddle steamer built in 1928 and with wooden decks and promenades just like the Titanic. Our cabins were musty and varnished, with only slightly stained sheets and completely indifferent waiters to bring bad tea and worse coffee. But it was fantastic. A little jazz from an ipod added to the roaring twenties feel of the boat. Later, with Robert Johnson’s delta blues, only the type of boats rushing out of our way could remind us this was not the Mississippi in the 1890s. Of course, as is Bangladesh’s way, it also had its steerage section, where the poor crammed into wet, noisy spaces between the spinning paddles and the steam engine. A second class area had a small shop selling stale cake and out of date Bombay Mix, where those with a little more money could cram on to the wooden floors with a little more space and a little less noise.

We got to visit the bridge (these so
rts of privileges are afforded just be being a bedeshi) and saw the old wheel and bells, as well as the gigantic foglight. It is about the only colonial relic in Bangladesh (except for some abandoned steam trains in eastern jungles), and worth every penny to travel on.