Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bangladesh Elections Minus “Three Begums”

Bangladesh Elections Minus “Three Begums”

Tuesday June 26 2007 13:59:53 PM BDT

Source: News from Bangladesh.


By Abdullah Dewan and Kawser Jamal, USA

After arriving in Dhaka on April 3, 2006, the US ambassador to Bangladesh, Patricia Butenis, gave her first major speech exactly 58 days later (June 1 2006) in the American Chamber of Commerce in Dhaka. The speech was written, structured, and delivered in a manner that suggests Ms. Butenis intends to play a prominent role in Bangladesh politics – more specifically, as the third “Begum” along side former Prime Ministers Begum Khaleda Zia and Begum Sheikh Hasina.

The 2202 word speech read like a developing country’s version of the US President’s annual “State of the Union Address” in the US congress in Capital Hill. She said, “Our overarching goal is to help Bangladesh achieve its full potential. As I look forward to the next few years, I intend to work with Bangladesh to strengthen democracy and governance, to support economic growth and development, and to combat the scourge of terrorism, wherever it seeks to take root. To build the future, we must make sure these foundations remain strong.”

As her speech progressed, Patricia spoke about elections, rule of law, human rights, training police and prosecutors, criminal trafficking of women and children, local governance, combating corruption and financial crimes and terrorists’ financing, foreign direct investment, infrastructure development, rising inflation, high fuel and commodity prices, customs and tax regimes, gas and electricity distribution system, family health and combating HIV/AIDS, education and the list goes on and on. Premise

The speech was obviously very uplifting for the impoverished Bengali nation. However, looking back, one finds that the envoy squandered her 14 months tenure by brokering for political reconciliations among the country’s most pigheaded and rancorous politickers.

The US envoy and to a much lesser degree all the EU diplomats- appear to operate under the premise that their diplomatic assignment is to meddle in the internal politics of a sovereign country. A cliché that is often tiptoed around is that being a development partner doesn’t make one a governing partner.

After the 1/11 state of emergency, all visiting foreign envoys and resident diplomats have been courting the favor of the beleaguered politicians by voicing their demands for lifting the emergency, restoring indoor politics and holding “election as soon as possible”, much to the detestation of the country’s intelligentsia and concerned citizens at home and abroad. Thanks to the army backed government for rebuffing all spurious pressures and continued with its focused mission.

In her June 12 farewell speech at the Gulshan Club, Dhaka, Begum Butenis acknowledged the expediency of institutional reforms and proclaimed that corruption is a “long overdue recognition of an insidious disease that saps the nation’s vitality and promise”. However, she failed to emphasize the dimensions of the effort and time that will be needed to pave the way for a free and fair election.

Her suggestion that “the USA among other interested parties and countries would hope to see the elections as soon as possible, not necessarily wait until the end of 2008” is not merely inappropriate—it’s also shortsighted and dangerously rash. Why can’t the US and other countries “necessarily wait until the end of 2008?” Tell us why? In this respect, the Canadian HC Barbara Richardson’s June 3 observation that “the people of Bangladesh would have to decide whether democracy and state of emergency could move together” appears more sensitive to our country’s government and its sovereignty.

At her Gulshan Club speech Begum Butenis made another insinuating statement: "I’m disappointed that I’m leaving Bangladesh with the ban still in place on all political party activity, a ban which doesn’t seem to apply to some behind-the-scenes activity promoting the concept of a new party."

As if that pointed jab at the government wasn’t undiplomatic enough, she continued to remind the government, "However, it’s also clear that a government that is seen to deny the people their fundamental and sovereign right to pick their leaders and determine their future does so at the risk of its legitimacy and legacy."

She gives an impression that she is a sympathizer of the country’s political parties now in dire disarray? We wonder if the US government sent her to Bangladesh to serve the interest of the corrupt politicians there or the interest of the US citizens. Are her statements and assertions propelled by her personal feelings and associations with corrupt politicians, or are they driven from pressures back home? She may have somehow overlooked the surveys which found that over 90% of the people want the reforms consummated before the 2008 elections?

After meeting with Islamic fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Ismali leader Matiur Rahman Nizami on June 12 the envoy said "Longer the ban is kept in place, the more difficult it would be to enact reforms, it’s as simple as that,” If it’s so simple why does she think the CTG and intelligentsias here don’t see it that way? Are the people in the government lesser intelligent in any way?Begum Butenis made a lot of friends here—unfortunately, many of them are corrupt politicians who are now languishing in prisons. One would like to know many intellectuals and common citizens she had conversed with and made friends during her 14 months as US envoy? On many occasions, she openly wined and dined with some of our most brazenly corrupt and criminal wrongdoers (e.g.,former state minister for home affairs Lutfuzzaman Babar, who hosted her farewell party etc.).

What has she accomplished here as US ambassador other than capturing news headlines for meeting and criticizing politicians? Have there been any improvements in any of the issues listed in her virtual “State of the Bangladesh address” on June 1, 2006?

She claimed that her “biggest regret” was that she didn’t did not witness the free, fair and credible elections. What about other issues she so passionately spoke about? Her overreaching goal- which ostensibly was to serve the interests of the common people of Bangladesh, not its throngs of debauched politicians-- now seems nothing more than baldly rhetorical.

There will be a free and fair election in Bangladesh by the end of 2008, save any devastating natural disaster. We will concede that Begum Butenis was a significant player, largely self-imposed, on recent events.

The ‘minus two’ doctrine (two former Prime Ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina) is a politically astute policy and the government must succeed in debilitating the political wings of both Khaleda and Hasina. The planned election “minus the third Begum” the outgoing Begum Patricia Butenis” won’t change anything except that she may be missed from newspaper headlines.

On a personal note, ambassador Butenis said, "I know that some Bangladeshis believe that I was sometimes too outspoken," but rationalized that by suggesting that in a fast and complex world of diplomacy, "Ambassadors must be clear about their country's interests and viewpoints to avoid misunderstanding."

To judge objectively, there was no “misunderstanding” on our part and we find that she was not just “outspoken”- Ms. Butenis openly meddled, apparently beyond her mandated duty, in the internal affairs of a sovereign country and made it look like a client state of America.

Dr. Abdullah Dewan is Professor of Economics at Eastern Michigan University and Kawser Jamal is an IT Professional at Little Rock, Arkansas (Board Members of http://www.changebangladesh.com/). E Mail : kawserjamal@yahoo.com

Feel free to comments.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Wall Street Journal and Emergency

The daily star, Bangladesh


Vol. 5 Num 1079

Thu. June 14, 2007


No NonsenseWall Street Journal and emergency

Dr. Abdullah A. Dewan

Yaroslav Trofimov's June 4 Wall Street Journal article, "Bullets and Ballots: Army Takeover in Bangladesh Stalls Key Muslim Democracy," convinced many of us that the article was intended to serve the interests of Bangladeshi politicians and their surrogates living overseas. Even the title of the article offers an exaggerated depiction of what really happened on 1/11.

No one heard an echo of a single bullet being fired, except Yaroslav. On the one hand, he wrote "army intervened to abort a flawed election," and on the other, asserted that democracy was stalled by an army backed government with sinister motives.
Instead of lauding the ongoing institutional reforms, he dismissed them as back-pedaling pretences intended to prolong this version of military rule. Lack of objectivity, and the negative tones of the article are evident in the following paragraph:

"But now the army-installed caretaker government is back-pedaling on its pledge to organize a quick, clean election, and then relinquish authority. And the once-bloodless coup is turning into something more sinister. Since January, an estimated 200,000 people, including hundreds of leading politicians and businessmen, have been jailed under emergency rules that suspend civil rights and outlaw all political activity. According to human-rights groups, scores of others seized by the troops in the middle of the night have been tortured to death or summarily executed."
Many of these statements such as "tortured to death or summarily executed" are indefensible fabrications. Was it a military coup, or intervention by the army to avert "blood letting" and "internal security" explode out of control? Isn't it the calling of the country's defense forces to respond to such an occasion?

The jailing of 200,000 people is another indefensible exaggeration, since Bangladesh prisons do not have the capacity to hold one fourth of that number at one time. Knowing that the government is instituting long awaited reforms that'll facilitate a free and fair election by the end of 2008, but calling the process back-pedaling is deliberately deceptive.
He also quoted Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, who said that the government "is very quickly squandering the goodwill that it had at the beginning. At this point, it's quite clear that he army is running the country. And they're making it pretty clear they don't intend to leave anytime soon."

If the government wants to perpetuate its power, why would it reform the judiciary, the Election Commission, and the Anti-Corruption Commission, ensuring that these institutions will remain constitutionally independent of the executive?
The democracy that existed prior to 1/11 was classified as one of the 55 "flawed democracies," (ranked 75th out of 165 countries) in a global survey released by the Economist Intelligence Unit on November 24, 2006.
The survey identified only 28 full democracies. Hopefully, once the reforms are instituted and a free and fair election is held by December 2008, Bangladesh will emerge as a new member of the fraternity of full democracies.

Foreign journalists must desist from propagating tendentious rhetoric against a country struggling to scramble out of a near collapse. Why is it hard to see that the army isn't running the country? It is only backing the government in law enforcement and the all enveloping anti-corruption drives.

The army does not have the expertise to orchestrate the all encompassing institutional reforms that are underway. Besides, what's wrong if the army is backing the government? The country doesn't belong to the corrupt politicians alone -- it belongs to the army and the people as well.
Is there any other country where a state of emergency coexists with freedom of the media and basic civil rights, as it does in Bangladesh today? Which civil rights are being violated, save the prohibition of political violence, lock-outs, street protests, and industrial blockades?
Why not ask the people on the streets if they know what civil rights they're being denied? Although a moratorium has been enforced on political activities, no one has been detained for open political discourses on television talk shows, living room chats, restaurant meetings, or in newspaper columns.

Yaroslav referred to the concern of 15 US senators over the ongoing "state of emergency" and "custodial deaths" in the country. How seriously should we take these senators' concerns about Bangladesh politics when they are persuaded by lobbyists to react to partisan views? When was the last time these Senators took issue with the human rights (HR) violations in Iraq or in Palestine?

Any law enforcing government would imprison alleged and suspected criminals (terrorists, extortionist, drug traffickers, smugglers, illegal gun owners etc) to restore and maintain law and order and, thus, protect the HR of 145 million law abiding citizens.
When the criminals violate peoples' rights the HR watchdogs call it a law enforcement problem. When the law is enforced they call it HR violations; a classic Catch-22 dilemmas for the government.

There is no question that the government should be transparent about any human rights violations that may have occurred, and must prevent such violations at all cost. Interestingly though, after the 1/11 emergency and the arrests of corrupt politicians and wrong-doers, some HR watchdogs have popped up suddenly in the US. These hitherto invisible watchdogs are now clamouring that many of the arrested are innocent victims of the army's indiscriminate campaign to destroy the democratic process.

This bickering can be dismissed as being deliberately fabricated -- a deceitful campaign staged by political fixers in Bangladesh, and designed to distort the foreign media's perception of the reformist government.

The arrested politicians, government officials, and businessmen have no sympathizers except their beneficiaries -- some of whom were educated in the US. Many of these beneficiaries have now turned into internet bloggers and lobbyists, campaigning against the current reformist government to save these corrupt people from rotting in prisons. These lobbyists don't understand how the corrupt politicians exploited their own citizens, who elected them to serve their (the people's) interests.

When the politicians looted funds from development and poverty reduction projects they violated the human rights of 60 million people living in poverty.
When they traveled to neighbouring countries for medical treatment, with money looted from hospitals and health care projects, they violated the HR rights of the sick and the helpless who crowd the hallways and corridors of under-funded public hospitals.
When they educated their children overseas with looted funds, they violated the human rights of the country's children who spoiled their childhood in "child labour" instead of schoolwork.

To human rights watchdogs, these problems originated from a lack of good governance and a disregard for the rule of law. If that is so, then shouldn't we give the reforms initiatives a chance to succeed? Like everywhere else, people here also deserve good governance, and all indications are that the country is moving -- albeit slowly -- in that direction.

Dr. Abdullah A. Dewan is Professor of Economics at Eastern Michigan University and also a board member of Change Bangladesh Initiative. http://www.changebangladesh.com/

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Budget 07-08

Eyes locked on immediate prioritiesTackling inflation, improving power generation, expanding social safety net get major attention in proposed budgetInam AhmedFinance Adviser Mirza Azizul Islam yesterday proposed a budget for the next fiscal year setting his eyes on the current development priorities--tackling inflation, spending on power and infrastructure, expanding the social safety net programme and supporting the agriculture.
He has prioritised power generation as a thrust action for the next three years and has sequenced the generation as 345MW in the first year, 900MW in the second year and 1,050MW in 2010 by when he aims to bring load shedding to nil.
However, industrialists will not find much to cheer about, except for retaining and increasing the current export subsidy to Tk 1,100 crore. Entrepreneurs will need to go through a more detailed work to understand whether the new harmonisation of duty slabs and supplementary duty and withdrawal of infrastructure development surcharge will gnaw away their protection and competitiveness. The textiles sector, which acts as the backward linkage for the main export sector readymade garment, will face a jolt as zero duty facility for textiles machinery import will be abolished.
Aziz has tried to be transparent in a number of areas. He has clearly shown, for the first time, what the nation buys with the resources mobilised--34.4 percent to be spent on physical infrastructure, 34.3 percent on social infrastructure and 19.3 percent on public administration. He has also internalised Tk 7,523 crore of the liabilities of Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation, which from a macroeconomic point of view was the right thing to do to relieve the nationalised commercial banks from losses.
However, in meeting all these goals, Aziz had to go for an expanded budget for the next fiscal year with the expenditure increasing by 19 percent from the revised expenditure of the current fiscal year. The current year's budget was only 14 percent bigger than the previous year's revised budget.
Such huge expenditure crucially needs bigger revenue collection target and effort too. He plans a 15.82 percent higher revenue collection for the next fiscal year from this year's revised figure. This looks higher if one compares it with the poor revenue collection of this fiscal year, which until now clocked a piffling 9 percent growth. Especially, many would view with scepticism the tax revenue collection increase of 17 percent. But then compared to this year's growth projection--19 percent over the previous year's revised figure--one would tend to say that Aziz was more closer to reality in proposing his revenue collection target.
Sensing the enormity of facing the revenue collection challenge, Aziz has talked about expanding the tax base, strengthening tax collection procedures, transparency and accountability of tax administration and quality management in tax regime.
But a bulk of his financing the budget will come from borrowing--both domestic and foreign. He plans to borrow Tk 19,276 crore from domestic sources, up from Tk 10,031 crore of the current year's revised budget, and Tk 6,305 crore from foreign sources, again up from Tk 5,183 crore of the current revised budget. Such huge domestic borrowing, 2.2 percent of GDP, may pose the risk of crowding out effect on the private sector. The risk would even spike if the revenue collection effort falters, leading to more borrowing.
But the impact of the past borrowing was evident in the proposed non-development expenditure analysis as interest payment is projected to account for 20.5 percent of the outlay from the current year's 17.7 percent.
And his budget deficit target--4.8 percent of GDP--is quite high from this year's 3.3 percent. He may have the feeling that a lack of ADP implementation will automatically bring down the deficit. But if his vow to firm up ADP implementation process works, the macro indicator will remain bloated.
But the other good thing the budget proposes is the cut down on block allocation from 16 percent of this year's total development allocation to 5 percent.
Aziz has set a higher GDP growth of 7 percent for the next year, which will depend on the government's spending capacity, growth of the agriculture and industry. He also hopes his measures will bring down inflation to 6.5 percent next fiscal year.
As part of his anti-inflation measures, Aziz proposes strengthening sales of essentials through BDR-operated markets and import of commodities by the government to stabilise the market. He also plans a more productive agriculture through increased allocation for research.
Aziz has proposed setting up of an SME Foundation with an allocation of Tk 100 crore and another Tk 23 crore for a Trust Fund under Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation to give a fillip to the small industrial sector.
The finance adviser has gone quite a way to establish equality in the society. He has increased ADP outlay by 35 percent in Rajshahi, Khulna and Barisal divisions--areas that witness the worst income distribution. Education has received a big boost in his proposed budget with 15.2 percent of development allocation going in that direction with the idea that a better education mass will have better income. A huge number of teachers--15,000--will be recruited to better the teacher-student ratio, 55 lakh primary students will get stipend at the rate of Tk 100 each, classrooms will be built and income generating training will be given to the literate.
In his bid to heavily support the agriculture, Aziz has proposed 23 percent of total allocation to the sector. A Tk 350 crore endowment will help agriculture research and development. More than that, he proposes a Tk 750 crore allocation for diesel subsidy for farmers and Tk 1,500 crore as fertiliser subsidy.
The proposed budget sees an extended form of the current social safety net programmes like VGD, and allowances for the destitute women and a Tk 550 crore employment generation programme for the rural poor.