Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The failure of colonialist politics in Bangladesh

The publication of blasphemous cartoons to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) has again shocked Muslims around the world. However what has proven to be even more shocking is that these cartoons have not been published in any western country; they have been published in Bangladesh by a local newspaper.The cartoons issue together with the recent riots demanding an end to emergency rule by the military has again highlighted the perilous state of affairs for Muslims in Bangladesh today. The seizure of power by a defacto military administration in all but name in January 2007 has proven that the model of democracy has yet again failed in another Muslim populated nation state.

The current crisis was triggered as the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) led by Khalida Zia came to the end of it's 5-year tenure after winning elections in 2001. A 3-month caretaker government took over and was supposed to impartially oversee new elections. Instead protests and violence were the result as the BNP's bitter rival, the Awami League (AL) led by Sheikh Hasina, agitated against what were widely expected to be rigged elections in January 2007. Instead of elections a new technocrat regime led by Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank official, was installed with the blessing of the military. There was little reaction if any from the likes of America, India and Britain. It's apparent mission: to establish the conditions necessary for a free and impartial election to take place.

The failure of a peaceful transition of power shows the bankruptcy of a two party system modelled along a western political system. Even in the West it is clear leading political parties are under the sway of corporate and other vested interests. Undoubtedly in a country such as Bangladesh where most of the population has been denied access by the ruling elite to education and other such tools to allow informed opinion making to take place, it has been easy for Bangladeshi politicians to campaign on cheap sloganeering whilst misleading most of the public. This has been characterised by the bitter partisan politics, which have been the hallmark of Bangladeshi politics. The personalised rivalry between Sheikh Hasina and Khalida Zia has never allowed a stable political system to develop since the end of military rule in 1990. Symbolic of this failure has been the notorious achievement of Bangladesh in being labelled as the most corrupt country in the world, five times in a row by Transparency International.

The crisis in Bangladesh bears much resemblance to the situation in Pakistan, where the failed leaderships of Nawaz Sharif and Benzair Bhutto have been replaced by the military. Backed by America, General Pervez Musharraf has all but virtually ensured that Pakistan has become an American satellite in return for aid and political support. In Bangladesh it would seem that the facade has gone one step further. After seeing the bitter experience being reaped by Musharraf and his regime as it works towards American policy goals in the region, the Bangladeshi military is using the technocrat government led by Fakhruddin Ahmed and other pro-American loyalists as as an essential fig leaf. In essence though the power behind the throne is that of the Bangladeshi military.

The new Bangladeshi regime's apparent reasons for seizing and holding power also seem questionable. Ahmed has cited that he is ‘optimistic' that the Election Commission will decide to hold elections towards the end of 2008 but that the electoral voter list must be updated first. Whilst many would agree that the electoral voter list is suspect, it is clear that the regime intends to stay in power for at least 2 years whilst trying to placate public opinion. This seems a remarkable period of time just to update the electoral voter lists. Indeed one would ask, how does Ahmed's regime already know that it will take at least two years to update the voter list? It has created further hurdles of it's own with the desire to use transparent ballot boxes and the creation of photo based identity cards for an estimated 100 million eligible voters, a monumental task in itself. It seems the regime is deliberately stalling for time as it creates ambiguity over when elections will be held. The regime has said it is up to the Election Commission to decide when elections will be held, convientantly headed by another retired army official, Brig-Gen M Sakhawat Hussain.

The regime's claim to hold free and fair elections as soon as possible though seem increasingly hollow. The regime's other trump card to try to sustain it's longetivity has been the apparent corruption drive which it has seen it arrest nearly 200 politicans, beauracrats and businessman including Sheikh Hasina, Khalida Zia and her son Tarique Rahman. Intially a popular measure, even this has not stopped Fakhruddin Ahmed and the Army quickly becoming just as unpopoular as it's predecessors as the recent riots in August showed. The real issues of price hikes and poverty remain just as real now as they did before. As far as the arrested polticians are concerned, the real test lies in whether any of these people will actually end up being convicted and serving jail terms. Again as seen with Pakistan, it is all too easy to arrest polticians but then to use this as a bargaining chip in any subsequent political deal making.

This puts the recent anti-corruption drive into perspective. The regime knows that it will have to share or cede power eventually. Even now the beginning's of such a policy can be seen. The Bangladeshi regime has recently allowed indoor political party meetings to resume, subject to conditions, after intially proscribing all political activity. This is why it seems highly unlikely that the ‘big fish' will really end up in jail. The announcement by the regime to establish a ‘Truth Commission', where corrupt indivduals may come forth and testify against themselves in return for lenient treatment, is evidence in which direction the regime is heading. The pragmatic regime realises that it will not be in power forever. It is simply not in it's interests to create wounded political enemies, for the tentacles of the BNP and the AL have a wider reach in society. Moreover, such a situation will end up setting an unfavorable precedance for the future, something they could become victims of as well.

The ‘corruption and anti-crime drive' has it's more direct uses to curb and control political activity in the country for the short term. Currently the regime has the power to arrest anyone without charge, deny bail, and conduct summary trials. Where needed the media has also been clamped down upon. Since January 2007 more than astonishing number of 193,000 people have been arrested, hardly all rich polticians, with more than than 96 dying in custody. The reality is that deeper motives are at play. The regime has an agenda which it intends to implement in the limited time it has, whilst playing for time. Fundementally in political and ideological terms it has nothing new to offer. Crucial in all of this are the interests of foreign powers, especially America and India.

Since it's independence, India and America have had an undue influence in the affairs of Bangladesh. Of course, it was India which militarily intervened in 1971 to help then East Pakistan cede from the then West Pakistan to form Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and his Awami League formed the first Bangladeshi government that was secular in it's ideology. Most importantly and not surprisingly, it was very India friendly. Mujibur Rehman declared in Feburary 1972 "I have no doubt that India, our next door neighbour, will proudly march on as the largest democracy, with secularism and socialism at home and non-alignment in international relations." The Awami league government declared, "friendship with India is a cornerstone of the foreign policy of Bangladesh." Mujibur Rehman ended up signing a 25-year ‘Treaty of Friendship, Peace and Co-operation' with India in March 1972 that cemented this close relationship.

This was a tremendous geo-political prize for India. Not only had it dealt a severe blow to it's bitter rival Pakistan but it had also similteanously helped create a friendly state on it's Eastern flank. An examination of the India / Bangladeshi map area reveals why this was particularly sweet for India. Bangladesh is surrounded by the Indian states of West Bengal in the West, Assam and Meghalaya in the North and Tripura and Mizoram in the East. India's territory between it's North Eastern states, including Assam, are linked to the rest of India by a small mountainous, rugged 30km wide stretch of land, commonly known as the ‘Chicken neck' pass. These north eastern states are rich with mineral resources and vulnerable to a Chinese attack. Under Article 10 of the Treaty of Friendship, India had the right to ask for passage for it's military if required.India's relations started worsening with the demise of Mujibur Rehman's government in August 1975, with his assassination and coup led by General Zia Rehman, husband of Khalida Zia. Bangladesh beforehand was not only India friendly but most importantly friendly to the now demised USSR. Zia Rehman's regime established friendly ties with Pakistan and the US. In return for securing American interests he received American aid and assistance. The people of Bangladesh have traditionally resented Hindu dominated India's interference and the new military regime capitalised on this to secure it's grip on power. Zia Rehman adopted rhetoric, which was pro-Islamic, not unlike the situation in Pakistan where General Zia ul Haq overthrew Zulifiqar Bhutto's government in 1979 with the blessing of America.

This trend continued when General Zia Rehman was assassinated and General Ershad came to power in 1981. By the time civilian rule was restored in 1990, Bangladesh had seen a revival of it's Islamic sentiments. Nurtured by the military this was a means to secure their grip on power at the expense of India. Disputes with India over water sharing rights over the Ganges and Farakka Barrage became firmly entrenched. Khalida Zia's first government in 1990 continued with these polices. Even the Awami League when it won power under Sheikh Hasina in 1996 had curbed it's enthusiasm for India and secularism. Under Khalida Zia's second term, the Treaty of Friendship was not renewed.

India has long sought to dominate the rest of the sub-continent. A strong Bangladesh does not fit into this scheme. India would like to see Bangladesh integrated into it's economy as a pliant ally by providing a ready market for it's increasing goods and services. In the summer of 2006 there were severe riots by workers at Bangladeshi industrial textile units. Not only did these help destabilise Khailda Zia's government and pave the way for the current regime, they also gave a direct advantage to Indian textile producers as Bangladesh lost it's own capacity to produce. Sixteen factories were destroyed.

India is also keen to extract Bangladesh's vital resources such as natural gas for it's energy starved industry. India's TATA group has a $3 billion plan for gas and steel projects in Bangladesh which were put on hold by Khalida Zia's government in July 2006. The nature of populist politics in Bangladesh has prevented previous leaders such as Sheikh Hasina and Khalida Zia from giving approval to projects such as these without being accused of being pro-Indian.

Water is another contentious issue. With 54 rivers entering Bangladesh from India and water becoming an ever more precious resource, India again requires Bangladeshi agreement under International treaties for new water barrages and other such schemes to be implemented. Again such agreements have been stalled.

The revival of Islam in Bangladesh though, just like in the rest of the Muslim world, is the biggest fear, which India has today. India in fact has always had fears about Islam in Bangladesh and it's seven north-eastern states including Assam. Mujibur Rehman had a secular vision at the time of Bangladesh's independence, enshrining secularism as one of the four principles in the Bangladeshi constitution. However as early as the mid 1930s the Muslims in this region sought independence from British colonial rule and aspired to have a new state based on Islam. During British rule, Bengal was dominated by Hindu landlords (zamindars) and businessmen, although the Muslims (55 per cent) were in the majority. Muslims in Indian Bengal and the surrounding Indian states together with the region of Bangladesh agitated on the basis of Islam. Leaders such Maulana Bhasani, who was a member of the Indian Khilafat movement, were political heavyweights in the Bengal-Assam region who energised these ideas in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and were firmly against India. Bhasani led calls for Bangassam, a new state carved from what is Bangladesh today and Muslim Bengali speaking Indian states in the region.

Delhi has often accused Bangladesh of failing to control cross-border raids by ‘Islamic extermists'. India has built a border fence with Bangaldesh and alleges that there are 20 million illegal Bengali immigrants in India. That in itself is an astonishing figure and in reality perhaps reflects a desire on the part of Delhi to forcibly re-locate Muslims in Indian Bengal into Bangladesh. This issue has led to border clashes between the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) border force.

India's fear of political Islam is mirrored by America. India's concerns and eventual goals fit in with the wider agenda of America for Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. America's main aim is to establish leverage over India and to coax it into playing a credible role to counter the growing power of China, which naturally has implications for America. America is concerned at China's attempts to gain a foothold in Bangladesh. America would also like to gain control over the Chittagong port by seeing an American company bid for it's control, something that has not materialised yet. India too has tried and failed and has sought an alternative in Burma. China on the other hand would like to establish a large military port at Chittagong as well, just like it has at Gwadar, Pakistan and intends to in Mynamar and Thailand, in it's ‘string of pearls' strategy. Control over the straight of Malacca through which all Chinese oil imported by sea must pass through is integral to this struggle.

To do this, America is helping solve India's problems with it's neighbours as well as doing all it can to earn India's friendship as seen with the recent Indian-American nuclear deal and the desire to sell American arms. In the case of Pakistan, America has helped take the heat out of Kashmir and with the re-alignment of the Pakistan army to the Afghan border under American pressure, has as a by product helped reduce the threat on India's western borders as well. With Bangladesh, America and India have similar objectives in mind.

The current Bangladeshi regime, supported by the top military brass, has shown itself to be hostile to Islam. This is a regime which has not hesitated to crack down hard on dissent. Yet despite this, it has done nothing to either prevent or punish the perpetrators of the newspaper, Prothom Alo, that published cartoons that mocked Muhammad (SAW). On the contrary, it has used violence to attack those who peacefully demonstrated against this blasphemy.

It is clear that the current Bangladeshi regime is not favourable to Islam, something which both India and America seek. This is important because whilst both the AL and BNP have ignored the development of Bangladesh's civil society and institutions, they have opportunistically used rhetoric based on Islam to stay in power and increase the tenure of their regimes. In fact it was during Zia's last government, despite being in coalition with the Jamaat-e-Islami and Islamic Oikya Jote, that a crackdown under western pressure took place in 2005 on alleged Islamic militants after bomb blasts in August 2005. Under Zia's government the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion has been accused of more than 700 extra judicial killings. Zia's government was praised by America as a ‘model democracy' as she allied herself in America's ‘War on Terror'.

This has only helped Islamic sentiment in Bangladesh grow as the corruption that has accompanied these regimes and in wider Bangladeshi society has created nothing but misery for the Muslims in Bangladesh. Together with the failure of both the BNP and AL to provide political stability and continuity, America has realised that it is only a matter of time before a sincere Islamic leadership emerges in Bangladesh. This is the main reason why the army backed by America has seized power directly again. These civillian polticians can no longer secure and guarentee the interests of colonial powers such as America. Just like in the rest of the Muslim world, America and her native cronies are becoming more and more desperate as the re-establishment of the Khilafah becomes an ever increasing prospect.

To stem this tide, the Bangladeshi regime backed by America are preparing to undertake a number of steps to prevent the rise of Islam in politics and secure their interests. Recently the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia John Gastright said that America was "strongly supportive of the reform steps", as seen in this speech recently at the Heritage Foundation, a US think tank, where he strongly defended the Bangladeshi regime. The seizure of power by the army backed regime is the first step. The aim of the regime is to try to evolve and develop a political framework that can provide Bangladesh with a controlled political environment minus those who are sincere to Islam but acceptable to America. One way to do this is to ensure that the army continues to be able to exert continued influence. In time the aim is to secularise and control Bangladesh effectively.

To do all of this the regime wants to reform the Bangladeshi political scene. Specifically it is looking to remove some of the same tired old corrupt politicians and pave the way for new faces. This is why polticians such as Khalida Zia and Sheikh Hasina together with some of their cronies are now behind bars and facing charges. Whether they stay there or are eventually released, will depend on how successful the regime is in controlling and remoulding Bangladeshi poltics. If these same characters are allowed to return, they will continue the policies that have lead Bangladesh to such a situation, something which America desperately wants to avoid and prevent another Pakistan like situation. As the example of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan shows though, even the most courrpt can be allowed back under the right conditions.The regime has also announced that it wants to see poltical parties undergo reforms, which in reality is a means to affect it's agenda and help remove these characters and strenghten it's hand. These new measures have already had the desired effect with intra-party disputes beginning to take hold, thus weakening the BNP and AL together with the other smaller parties such as the Jatiya Party of General Ershad in the long run.This has also been coupled with the declaration by the Bangladeshi army chief Lt General Moeen U Ahmed at a political science conference in April that Bangladesh needed it's "own brand of democracy..... We do not want to go back to an 'elective' democracy'". In the past Bangladesh has had a "National Security Council", something not dissimilar to Pakistan and Turkey. It would seem a new re-packaged version is all but a certainty again, designed to ensure the army keeps a grip on power.

The failure of civillian politics and parties such as the BNP and AL has demonstrated that democratic models are prone to corruption and cannot work. Moreover colonial powers such as America have further exploited the situation and continue to pull strings from behind the scenes. As the months have worn on the intial euphuoria surrounding the seizure of power and anti-corruption drive have given way to rising hatred of the regime and America's meddling. The photo of a civilian kicking an army soldier best captured this sentiment and enraged the regime.

The regime togther with India, America and Britain are desperate from preventing Islamic politics from growing more powerful and re-establishing the Khilafah. In the process the ruling elite has demonsied Islam. The regime has also demonstarted that it is ready to use violence on it's own people at the behest of it's foreign masters. However, like Muslims in other parts of the Muslim world, the Muslims in Bangladesh have seen through such smears and devices. The regime's failure together with that of America's agenda is only a matter of time. This is because America has lost the ideological battle, the battle to convince others of it's ideas. The only option it now has is to try to control Muslim lands through brute force through it's slavish agents such as the current Bangladeshi regime. Despite the efforts of the colonialists and their puppets, the momentum for a sincere and genuine change has gripped theMuslims in Bangladesh and in the wider Muslim world.


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