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.