An ill wind blows from the east

An ill wind blows from the east

Vehicles burn in Dhaka in riots following the arrest of opposition politician Fakhrul Islam on January 6

As if things weren’t bad enough, the news of a quantum leap in repression and human rights abuse by the governing Awami League (AL) these past three weeks emanates from Bangladesh. Arrests or threats of arrest of opposition party members on very vague and occasionally creative charges have increased exponentially. The leader of the BNP, the main opposition party, Begum Khalida Zia, has been confined to her office (not even allowed to go to her home) for over 9 days as this is written – a form of house arrest. The constant threats against other potential opposition, as well as anyone who doesn’t accept the government’s version of history and current events, has intensified. The media is under increasing pressure to conform to the government line. And we mustn’t forget those who change sides at the drop of a hat (full of money).

Other senior leaders of the BNP have been rounded up in the past couple of weeks including the party’s acting Secretary General, and its Vice Chairman Shamsher M Chowhury. The latter’s arrest will be particularly distressing to his many friends in the US and other Western countries. It is also especially ironic, given the mythology of the AL, which regards itself as the guardian of the liberation, that it has jailed, for political reasons, an authentic freedom fighter—one who actually risked his life fighting the Pakistan Army in the 1971 war of separation. There is no freedom fighter more authentic that Mr Chowdhury, who fought beside Ziaur Rahman, the officer who announced Bangladesh’s liberation at the beginning of the war, and lost a leg in doing so.

These are only the latest of the long list of BNP leaders who have been arrested and are in jail. And those that have so far avoided arrest are in hiding. According to the Economist magazine, the only important western periodical that keeps a close eye on Bangladesh, a TV channel owner has been arrested on a pornography charge for showing a speech by Mrs Zia’s son, in enforced exile in London, advocating the overthrow of the AL government. Of course, that is a pretty dirty subject in the eyes of the AL.

The AL government suspended long distance bus service into Dhaka on January 5, the anniversary of last year’s one-party election, presumably to avoid people from the rural areas coming in to demonstrate, although it seems to me that if it thought those people were coming to demonstrate support for the government, it would have put on more buses. Obviously, it did not think so. This time it was the government making life difficult for the common people.

Sooner or later, there will be violence

This intensification of the repressive measures against all forms of opposition could signal a decision by the AL leaders (really Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who seems to answer to no one these days) to consolidate the AL one-party government into a one-party state before growing popular disillusion solidifies into popular resistance. If so, it probably also means a cycle of increasing repression, increasing violence, and much greater instability. The violence may have begun before this article is published. The BNP wants to hold a rally to protest government action despite the official ban on street demonstrations put in place recently by the government. Insisting on doing so would be a recipe for violence.

Clearly, the first item on the agenda of an authoritarian minded party seeking absolute power is to destroy any opposition that can claim to be legitimate. The BNP can claim legitimacy despite its abysmally poor record when in office. Both parties have governed very badly. Rumor has circulated for a number of months that Mrs Zia would be arrested on some charge or other, possibly on corruption, or perhaps as the Economist has suggested, on sedition. Given the control the government exercises over the courts, and the authoritarian mindset that seems to be inspiring the AL, speaking as opposition leader against the government could lead to a charge of sedition that the courts would uphold.

One wonders, however, if the sudden crackdown on all opposition is not a preemptive move of a government that feels growing levels of dissatisfaction in the country. The AL has, it is assumed by many observers, managed to avoid popular discontent so far because the economy keeps chugging along at 5-6% growth, and poverty continues to decline, albeit at a fairly slow rate. The Prime Minister took to the media herself the other day to boast of the government’s plans for the future largely on empowering women and the underprivileged. One might infer that it was an effort to take peoples’ minds off the present and focus them on heady promises for the future. It is not clear to me, despite statistics that are almost always manipulated to make the government look better than it is, that the economic outlook is as rosy as many predict, especially in the rural areas. In any case, it is possible that Sheikh Hasina’s legitimacy may not be as solid as she thought it was, and she may have decided to hammer the opposition on the one hand and offer up bucolic visions of the future on the other to the masses.

With most of the opposition locked up or clammed up or bought up—the only voices of dissent I see in the English language press are from the Bangladeshi diaspora – it is not certain that she can be stopped. The international community seems inclined to look the other way, perhaps believing that Bangladesh is a lost cause for democratization. India, which stands to lose most if instability becomes chronic and dysfunctional, seems unconcerned now. This, in itself, is a disincentive for those in Bangladesh who are opposed to the AL’s authoritarian ways to step up and voice dissent. Can the West, and will it try to, keep them out of jail and out of harm’s way?

As one wag recently wrote that Sheikh Hasina has trained the Awami League “in the art of bullying, bashing, muzzling free voice, thuggery (sic.), creating and abolishing movements (like the Shahbag movement), creating an opposition party that is a part of her government and [whose leader] sits in her cabinet and votes in favor of the ruling party…” She has, this anonymous writer says, created the “world’s first model of autocratic ‘democracy’”. (I note the author of this send up did not sign his name to the article. I also note that the BNP wasn’t bad at these same skills when in power.)

My guess, however, is that the democratic elements of civil society and the opposition parties will not bow down without a fight. Sooner or later, in the absence of a peaceful turnover of government, there will be violence—and it may be pretty serious. We may regret our indifference. Among the other unwanted consequences of violence is usually an army takeover.