Friday, April 20, 2007

How to Take Over a Country

It probably is not making the news at home – indeed it doesn’t even make BBC World’s Asia Today news programme (though Mumbai’s wedding of the century is everywhere), but in the small corner of Bangladesh, the caretaker government is trying to send into exile the two former prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. It is quite an incredible turn in events. Six months ago Zia was prime minister of the eight largest (if flawed) democracy in the world, and Hasina the leader of a vigorous opposition aiming to recover power in January. By tomorrow, Zia will be removed from the country or face arrest, and Hasina, currently in the UK at the end of a month long private tour of the US and UK has been told she cannot return, and the government has told all airlines not to carry her as a passenger.

On one hand it is very exciting to see how quickly political situations can change; and most Bangladeshis are watching with some glee as these women and their offspring and co-corruptees are arrested, charged and humiliated. Some of the accusations are incredible, for example Hasina demanding a 3 crore donation (£300,000) to the Awami League from a power plant company so that a contract would not be cancelled. Many others have been arrested for hoarding corrugated iron in their houses that had been donated for relief housing to the poor. Bangladesh has no iron ore deposits and so gets almost all (80%) its steel from ship breaking. Any one that has some iron can make a great deal of money by selling it to smelters, even if that does mean that poor people affected by cyclones or flooding continue to be without shelter.

However, as much as seeing the political establishment collapse and once arrogant and dismissive characters pleading and protesting their innocence or lack of knowledge, it has to be a worrying trend. Firstly, whilst the caretaker government has severely attacked the political class, it has not gone after the bureaucrats and military figures who have also been involved in corruption. Secondly, as we move into the fourth month of the State of Emergency, more and more powers are going to the military backed government. It is now illegal to meet political inside or outside, to protest, to march, to write against the caretaker administration, and you can be arrested without warrant at anytime for any reason with no prospect of trial because the government suspects you of something. Some events are very distasteful. The director of Uttaran, a VSOB governance partner was arrested on the 27th January and detained without trail because a local former MP made a submission to the local police station. The reason? Uttaran have been working to counter the affect of shrimp farmers pushing the poor out of fishing grounds. The local MP was also head of a big shrimp-fishing cartel in the area.

As time has gone on, the President (a BNP stooge by all accounts) and now also the chief advisor have been increasingly quiet, whilst the head of the army has become more and more vocal. He has contradicted government statements on the role of religion in a Bangladeshi democracy, and has made dramatic statements about who he will arrest. It is felt that the army is behind the moves to remove Hasina and Zia.

The concern now is what happens next? Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Yunus has gone very quiet and seems content to travel the globe and getting free dinners as he talks up microcredit, rather than launching a party. Perhaps with the top brass gone the AL and BNP can be reinvigorated in a new, open democracy, but the other possibility is that the army steps in and takes effective control similar to Musharraf in Pakistan. The problem here is that if Bangladesh goes once more down the road of military dictatorship, the only viable opposition will be the Muslim fundamentalists, which are growing in the south-east of the country. Last time round, it was Zia and Hasina that brought down Ershad’s 9 year rule. Yet with their dynasties gone, there is no real civilian power that can counter the power of the army; as in Pakistan is facing now, Muslim power would seem the only resistance.

Therefore, it seems that rather than offering vocal support for the caretaker government’s actions, the British and American and other Western governments would be better demanding that Zia and Hasina face legal proceedings in Bangladesh, and that democracy is effectively restored. Not only is this the most likely way to keep Muslim fundamentalism marginalised (a major foreign policy concern of these countries), it also rings true with the objectives of supporting and promoting democracy. Despite the appalling things that Hasina and Zia have done, and the smiles their visible distress is causing, these will probably be short lived. They should face their accusations, not be kicked out. Their rapid fall from grace is fascinating, however, and the quiet ways in which freedoms and rights wash away should be a lesson to those in freer, more democratic countries to protect fiercely what they have.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


I have finally left Bangladesh after almost seven months of Muslims, mosques and mosquitoes. I was quite desperate to get a chance to see somewhere new, and get a monetary break from the hugely oppressive Dhaka noise and air, and so Tim, Georgia and I made a quick dash to Kolkata, former capital of the British Raj and Bengal’s eternal city, for a change of scene. We have been reduced to going to Indian cities for some peace and quiet, clean air and relaxed ways of life, which for those that have seen Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata should be an indication of just how miserable a place Dhaka is.

Despite being part of Bengal for somewhere around 600 years, and having only had sixty years and 250 kilometres of separation, the differences between Kolkata and Dhaka/Bangladesh are probably more than between Armstrong’s home town and the moon. The Indians have developed some wonderful innovations that Bangladeshis would do well to emulate. For example, they have underground sewage systems, rather than open ditches in the street. Taxi drivers put the meter on without asking, instead of tell you its broken and they need lots of baksheesh (Dhaka has more broken meters than any other city). Taxis also queue at innovative taxi ranks, where the passenger can approach the lead taxi and ask for a journey, rather than being attacked by rickshaws, CNGs and anything else that will carry you. Once inside, the horn is merely a decoration, used only when necessary, and not a substitute for a battering ram, whilst traffic lights are obeyed and all cars stick to their traffic lanes. In fact, they even have traffic lanes painted on the street! Finally, a driver will actually know where he is going, rather than say that he does and then proceed to drive about the city asking locals for directions.

The trappings of civilisation do not stop there. Kolkata is resplendent with trees, an endangered species in Dhaka, and has wide open maidens stretching through the heart of the city offering citizens a place to play cricket or walk or sit. In Dhaka, this would become a rubbish dump. The few cows that do walk the city streets are big, well fed and healthy looking. No one asks you why you have come to Kolkata – its obvious – a huge contrast with the constant enquiry of Bangladeshis as to why on Earth you want to come to their country.

Our journey to this ‘sub-continent Paris’ began near midnight in the heart of Dhaka, with the usual waiting and waiting for a bus, in fearful anticipation as to how much the real thing would vary against the beautiful picture on the ticket, and then the rush for a seat and contortionist impressions as anyone over 5’6’’ tries to sit down. Typically, some very old, very loud and very annoying film or music is played, and with another budding Schumacher at the wheel a new death-defying (usually) journey in Bangladesh begins. Our bus was not too bad and so I managed some sleep.

At some time around 6 am we arrived at Benapole, a small border town and the main land crossing into India from the Desh. It is a dump of a place (and that is saying a lot for somewhere in Bangladesh), and exists solely as a place for people crossing the border to spend three hours. The bus stopped on the edge of the town, where we all packed on to rickshaws provided by the company and were driven the 2 kilometres to the border post. Last September this may have seemed absurd, but the idea that the bus stops away from the border despite there being a perfectly good road, and that all travellers descend on a fleet of rickshaw vans is no longer odd: indeed, I’d be surprised if such things didn’t happen.

As a hot Indian sun began to rise over our shoulders, we passed lines and lines of Indian goods carriers packed with aubergines, bananas, rocks and all sorts else, lined up and waiting for the border to open. Most Indian-Bangladeshi trade passes through this border, brought by truck drivers that spend hours traversing Bengal. They also bring HIV with them: Benapole is the main route of the virus in this part of the subcontinent, and truck drivers are a major target group for HIV/AIDS programmes.

After buying an exit pass, getting our passports stamped, getting customs clearance, doing it all again because Georgia did not buy an exit pass, queuing to enter India, getting embarkation cards, watching Tim convince the Indian guards his passport was a fake (apparently they put him off signing his card which is why his signature deviated so much from the passport one) and getting some expensive parathas, we were able to board the Kolkata bus on the Indian side, which conveniently had driven all the way to the border crossing. After just 3 hours of a reasonably sensible driving and much less beeping we arrived in the centre of Kolkata.

This city is entirely a British creation. Before the establishment of a trading post by the East India Company in 1690, there was nothing but a few villages here. Over the years the city grew as the East India Company managed to win more trading concessions in deals with the Mughals of central north India and the Nawabs of Bengal. Due to problems in these empires, and fighting amongst different Indian factions trade was threatened, so the EIC built Fort William on the river and cleared the maidens for protection to lay the basics of the city. People flocked there as it offered protection, and the city grew and grew. It became the centre of trade in the subcontinent, and many people (Portuguese, Armenian, Danish, French, Indian, Turkish and British) became filthy rich. Indian princes seemed happy to be bought off in contracts for trading rights for the EIC and its Dutch, Danish, Portuguese and French rivals, and it was only as late as the failed Sepoy revolt in 1857 that they finally realised how much more they were missing out on and the British government took full control.

British power and wealth oozes out of every street and rushes through the air. The wide roads are lined with huge classical style buildings, or mixed with Victorian era warehouses and the memorials to a past Empire. The Victoria Memorial, which we saw on the last day, would put to shame anything that Mussolini, Hitler or Stalin could have created. Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe or Lincoln’s memorial are nothing compared to this hulk of marble towering above the maiden. Do not forget that all of these others had to build their memorials in their capital cities – Queen Victoria’s is thousands of miles of way on the edge of the subcontinent.

We saw the marble palace – a decaying Raj era house full of Italian marble statues, Rubens paintings and rosewood carvings 8 feet high. It screams its historical wealth at you as you enter inside. We were able to eat real bacon, and Chinese cooked by Chinese people, and full fried breakfasts. Tim and I made a trip out to the botanical gardens and saw what could be the strangest tree in existence. The Great Banyan Tree covers 14,400 square metres in area, and the full canopy is 450 metres in circumference. It is a big, big tree. But what makes it more remarkable is the proproots that support the weight of the branches. The branches of the tree spread outwards and are periodically supported by perfectly vertical roots that plunge 10 or 20 metres towards the ground before they enter the earth. It is truly bizarre to behold, especially as it has no trunk (this was removed in 1925) and is over 240 years old. The roots look like pillars supporting the branches, creating the impression of a forest from what is still only one tree.

We also paid a visit to the Motherhouse, Mother Teresa’s mission and now gravesite. It was interesting to see, but there is not much on display other than her tomb (which is in her office) and her last sandals, passport, pen, plate etc. Christianity is quite prevailing in the city, with major churches and St Paul’s Cathedral therein, and hearing bells at sunset instead of minaret calls is a much more familiar and more harmonious sound – bells always ring true, whereas some Imams definitely cannot sing. And of course, we could sit out at night and have a beer.
Sadly, our three days was quickly up and we took a GMG flight (‘first class all the way’) back to Dhaka. The plane was really two vacuum cleaners hooked up with wings, and despite aspirations to be an airline, we had instead tray tables that did not say up, seats held together with duct tape, no cooling at all and a shaky trip. Landing in Dhaka, back into the grime, dust, manic streets, heat and noise was not pleasant. Nor is the requirement to register at the police special branch every time we leave or arrive in the country, a painful two hour trip. Luckily I have a six month India visa, and so can make many more trips over.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Mob Justice

I haven’t written on here for a while, and this is for a number of reasons. I worked for a week in the VSO office helping with the strategic plan review, which was very interesting and more challenging than some of my placement work, and I have added to my collection of tropical illnesses with giardia, a parasite that has seen me lose a fair bit of weight, be sick and generally feel rrrubbish. Then mum and dad came out to visit and that took a lot of time!

On top of all this, however, I also have now witnessed the darker underside of Bangladesh right in the heart of the area that I live. The poor and destitute do not get much attention or recognition anyway, but the viciousness of the beating that I saw on my walk back home was startling.

I was crossing the green by our flat a couple of weeks ago and heard some shouting down the road. I looked to see a group of people dragging a body along the grass. At first I thought that there had been some sort of accident, but as the crowd began beating the formless shape on the ground with cricket stumps and bats, its was clear that something else was the problem. This group, of between 20 and sometimes 50 people (passers-by seemed to just join in for a bit of mob justice on their way home from work) kept up the repeated beating and dragging across the green. The force with which they were hitting the person in their midst was phenomenonal, bringing the stumps down from way above their heads on his feet, shins and back, and then garnishing this with swift, hard kicks to the back and stomach.

Though sickenly compelling to watch, I decided to go back to my flat and collected some water and my first aid kit, and went to see some other volunteers to ask whether they thought I should get involved. I decided that it would be better to at least try to say something, so having walked back out to the green I went over to the group to try to find out what the problem was.

Luckily, even when they are administering retribution, Bengalis seem deferential to authority (which comes with being a bedeshi) and they stopped their work to let me through. Covered in dust and bleeding from his head, shins, feet and eyes was a kid of about 14 or 15, surrounded by standing, towering middle class Bangladeshis. He had no shoes, and was wearing two old rags made grey by years of washing in filthy water and living in this grimy city. I was the only person who was at his eye level, crouching opposite him as he squatted with his hands bound crudely behind him.

I asked what the problem was and the group said that this kid’s friend had stolen a mobile phone from one of them and got away, and they wanted to know where he had taken it, so where beating the answer out of the alleged accomplice. I asked why they did not go to the police, but they told me that police had given him back saying it was their problem: in this way they were given license to exact their own justice. I was told they would carry on until he revealed where the phone had been taken, assuming he knew.

They would not let me give him water or clean up his face and legs, and said that (now the beating seemed to be over) they had called the police and the doctor. I am pretty certain the first was the only one coming, and the way the police will treat kids like this it is unlikely that he made it through the night without more beatings, if he even made it through at all.

The whole thing was very upsetting, especially the absolute righteousness with which these people delivered their mob punishment. There is no care for the poor or marginalised in Bangladesh at all: no one is asking why these kids are on the street and why they are forced to steal and beg. It’s a very vicious society for those at the bottom.