Committed to PEOPLE'S RIGHT TO KNOW
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/