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Flexibility in Political Dialogue Needed to Avert Chaos in Bangladesh

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 11, 2008

    In the ongoing mass arrests in Bangladesh, nearly 20,000 people have been put behind bars. These arrests started on May 28, 2008 after the ban on political activity was lifted. It was expected that after allowing political activity, the government will facilitate the electoral process leading to the holding of elections which were postponed in January 2007. But the mass arrests in the name of deteriorating law and order condition have made the political situation fluid.

    The claim of declining law and order has been promptly refuted by the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Nur Mohammad. He in fact stated that the arrests across the country was a regular affair and launched with a view to further improve the situation. He also claimed that no 'wholesale arrest' is being made. The police chief's comment contradicted that of the Home Adviser, who earlier defended the ongoing countrywide arrests as an operation to check the deterioration of law and order ahead of the elections.

    The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has asked its leaders and cadres to prepare for an agitation. It appears that the release of Khaleda has become doubtful and the BNP is preparing for this upcoming battle in this regard with the caretaker government. The mass arrests are probably meant to blunt the edges of this agitation. The BNP-led four-party alliance, which faced some difficulty after the end of its term, has once again come together. After almost two years, the situation is nearly the same as it was in October 2006 when power was handed over to the first caretaker government.

    Apart from the arrests, another development which may have a bearing on the murky political situation in the country deserves to be noted. Bangladesh Army Chief, General Moeen, removed two top-ranking generals from key positions. Principal Staff Officer (PSO) Lieutenant General Masud Uddin Ahmed Chowdhury, considered the second most powerful person in the military, was initially transferred to a low-key post of Commandant of the National Defence College. Within days, however, he was shifted to the foreign ministry. Major General Abdul Mubin, General Officer Commanding of 24 Infantry Division based in Chittagong, was appointed as the new PSO. While NDC Commandant Lieutenant General Abu Tayab Mohammad Zahirul Alam has been appointed as the new Bangladesh envoy to Australia, the area commander of the northeastern Bogra was transferred to replace Mubin in Chittagong. Masud Uddin Ahmed Chowdhury and Zahirul Alam were among the four senior generals whose positions were upgraded in May 2007.

    Lieutenant General Masud Uddin Ahmed Chowdhury was the most powerful person in Bangladesh Army after General Moeen. He had held the crucial command of Nine Infantry Division based in suburban Savar during last year's proclamation of the state of emergency and installation of the current interim government. Moreover, he is also a relative of Begum Khaleda Zia. There was a possibility that Generals like him could have gone against Moeen. The reshuffle in the top brass of the army may have been brought about to pre-empt this possibility. It will also consolidate the hold of General Moeen. The changes came two months after President Iajuddin Ahmed extended the tenure of Army Chief General Moeen U Ahmed by a year.

    In the political circles of Bangladesh and in the media there is also talk of a national government. Given the track record of political parties in Bangladesh the proposal of a national government may not be such a bad idea. There seems to be a general agreement that the actions taken by the caretaker government have been for the betterment of the country. The only thing that the public now desires is that the same approach be continued under a democratic government, so that their political rights are also protected. In this effort, the national government could be a middle path between a democratic government and a military-backed caretaker government.

    There has also been talk of a “National Charter.” But the Awami League and BNP leaders have opposed any move by the caretaker government to formulate such a charter. If both mainstream political parties were to accept the national charter, it will mean that they have accepted all the actions of the caretaker government as legitimate and justified, something that they would not like to do.

    The proposal of a national unity government was suggested by the Gono Forum leaders. They also proposed a review of the constitution. In their pre-poll dialogue with the caretaker government, they felt that a post-election national unity government would ensure a non-partisan commitment to good governance. They also proposed a four-point set of reforms including removal of black money, violence, militancy and partisan state mechanisms to ensure that the next elections are free, fair and credible.

    The caretaker government’s rule in Bangladesh is entering a very important phase. They are under domestic and international pressure to hold the elections and hand over power. The political dialogue has started and a parallel dialogue is being held with members of the civil society. But this has so far not helped to sort out issues with the two main political parties in Bangladesh, whose participation is very important for holding a credible election. The caretaker government cannot succeed in its minus-two theory. Everything would thus depend on what conditions of the caretaker government Hasina and Khalida accept.

    The civil society of Bangladesh including its business leaders are also in a dilemma. They do want elections, but neither do they want to go back to a chaotic and confrontational political climate. They want an election which will result in a smooth transition of power. In the prevailing conditions where a stalemate has been reached between the caretaker government and the two mainstream political parties, a solution is possible only if both sides show some flexibility in their stated positions. A rigid stand would lead the country towards political chaos. Most importantly, a breakthrough has to come soon as the elections announced are due in December 2008.