Sajeeb Wazed’s interview: fact check and commentary

david bergman

by David Bergman

This is a ‘fact check’ and commentary on the impromptu press conference which Sajeeb Wazed, the prime minister’s son and a key member of the Awami League campaign team, conducted with a number of of foreign journalists on 6 January, the day after the election, and immediately after the press conference given by the prime minister.

You can read and hear the whole interview here, and a news report here.

The numbers at the beginning of the paragraphs blow refers back to the interview transcript

A1: Dialogue and terrorism: Is it right for Sajeeb to blame lack of proper dialogue on BNP? In my view neither party was that interested in dialogue. But Khaleda Zia’s failure to take up Hasina’s offer to come to her house, referred to by Sajeeb, was a significant failure (as I said at the time) – and the AL can rightfully point to this as an indicator of a reluctance on the part of the BNP to find a solution to the impasse other than one which involved total victory on its part.

He goes onto say, ‘If the other party is not willing to engage and purely focus on terrorism, then there is nothing you can do.’ This suggests that AL had been willing to dialogue when there were no hartals and sieges (which was most of 2013 until the end of October – which was when the hartals started again) but this was not the case.

And whilst Sajeeb is absolutely right to accuse the BNP of ‘terrorist’ activities in recent weeks, it is also important for him to recognise (in case he is trying to find the moral high ground) that the AL has been involved in very similar activities when it was in opposition. A good example of this is the 2004 bus bomb, that in all killed 11 people (9 immediately) which took place whilst the AL was involved in a movement against the BNP. The article states: ‘Police and witnesses said six people were incinerated in the bus, a fire-burnt man jumped to death on the street and two others including a two-year-old child died from injuries at Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH).’ It talks about a wider set of bombs on that same day: ‘A string of bomb attacks on public transports was also reported in other areas of the city last night, hours before a 24-hour countrywide opposition strike from 6:00am today … The attacks largely came on buses and minibuses near Mirpur Heart Foundation Hospital, National Zoo, Pallabi, Rampura TV Station, Mugda and Shyampur. Explosions also rocked Gulshan-1, Shukrabad, Gabtali, Motijheel and Paltan areas’. In addition, on 31 October 2006, newspapers were reporting that in the immediate prior four day period, 30 people had been killed in various incidents.

In such a situation, it is therefore not really useful for both parties to accuse each other of terrorism. Of course individual acts of violence should be investigated and if there is credible evidence, legal action should be taken, but name calling different organizations as ‘terrorist’ I would argue is simply not that useful, when all of them are so tainted with undertaking the same kind of pre-election terrorist activities.

A4: Concessions: It is true that the AL did make some concessions. It agreed to allow some BNP people to be part of an all party pre-election cabinet, though it was not clear how many people would be involved or in what positions, but this AL offer could have formed the basis of some negotiation. The BNP however were unwilling publicly to move away from its demand for a return to a caretaker government system, though privately may have been willing to come into the elections if Hasina was no longer prime minister.

The problem with looking back on this whole affair, is that the BNP was right in principle, but were wrong in failing to recognise that, despite that, they should still have taken part in an election even if it was on less than perfect terms, since they could have taken steps to ensure that they were good enough.

A5: BNP ‘terrorism’: Until October 24, the opposition protests were basically peaceful – so Sajeeb is wrong to suggest that there was ‘all out war’ in the last six months. Again, it should be noted that if the BNP was at war in recent months, then so was the AL in 2006.

Sajeeb refers correctly to a very foolish comment by Shamsher Mubin on the BBC where he suggested that Bangladesh was in effect ‘at war’. This was obviously very unfortunate terminology.

Sajeeb is also obviously right to criticize and condemn the molotov cocktail, bus burnings – but one must also recognise that far worse use of unlawful force has been used by the state during the last five years (and in the last few months) – including of course disappearances, extra judicial killings and torture which far, far outstrips the violence of the opposition. (Of course when the BNP is in government, there are the same kinds of violations)

A7: BNP illegal:  This is what the AL really wants to do – to destroy/weaken the BNP, perhaps not by making it illegal, but in other ways.

I don’t know if the BNP was considered a ‘failing state’ in the last government. As far as I know that term was not used, though it was certainly considered terrifically corrupt.

Rigging: The allegation that the BNP was going to rig the elections in 2007 is of course  the same allegation now being made by the BNP against the AL – and one must say, that even though the election on 5 January was very uncompetitive there was nonetheless significant allegations of vote rigging to increase the turnout.

Handover of power: To say that the AL’s transfer of power in 2001 was the only peaceful transfer of power is rather misleading. In June 1996, the BNP handed over to a caretaker government who then handed it to the AL once they won the elections was also a ‘peaceful transfer’. Moreover benefit for the 2001 peaceful hand over to power should also be given to the opposition who did not launch a movement pre-election that year – which is a key reason why peaceful transfers of power do not happen. The January 2007 transfer of power did not happen because the Awami League launched a movement (whether justified or not).

A8: Govt credibility: This must have been Sajeeb’s weakest answer. He did not give a real response to the perceived lack of credibility about the election. He also seems to thinks that the only people who do not think that these elections are credible are BNP supporters.

A9/10: Newspapers: This is another dig at Daily Star and Prothom Alo, similar to the one the prime minister made in her press conference. However, he is wrong to think that the reason that these papers are critical of the elections (and one should note that they have of course been also very critical of BNP/Jamaat) is because they want the army to intervene. They are critical of the elections, because there are very good objective reasons to be critical.

It is also wrong to suggest that in 2006/7 the papers in any way called for the army to intervene or indeed supported the army throughout the two years. There was a honey moon period (the AL itself was initially supportive), immediately after the army intervention, but this faded quickly and this was reflected in the coverage of both papers.

Of course one should also note that there are other papers who were critical both of the current elections and also very critical of the army involvement throughout 2007/8 – New Age, for one. So Sajeeb cant make the same accusations against that paper.

A11/12: Nature of movement: Sajeeb seems to suggest that the AL movement was of a different kind to the current opposition movement. I have set out above why they have essentially been the same – though, it is true that the attacks on civilians has been greater this time.

A16: Ghost voters: Sajeeb says that, ‘In 2006, they had written a voters list with 14 million more people than the population of voting age’. There is no evidence that I know of to suggest that the BNP created this list. Yes, there was a voters list which was found to have a huge number of apparently extra voters – but this is likely to have been mistakes inherited  mistakes over the years and also the result of internal migration with people moving from their villages etc. The election commission at that time can of course be faulted for failing to deal with this voters roll – a way should have been found to have corrected it and it may well have been the case that the BNP would have abused the situation – but that is very different from suggesting that they had written the list.

He also says, ‘We have digitized the voters list with photographs.’ That was however not done by the AL, but by the caretaker government – the one which Sajeeb is so critical about.

A17: AL 2001 election loss: Sajeeb is basically correct that the AL’s percentage of vote increased between 1996 and 2001, and that its 2001 loss was very narrow in terms of vote difference. In 1996, the AL got 37.44% of the vote and in 2001, it got 40.13. So more like a 2.5/3% increase, than a 5% increase, but nonetheless, the AL did increase its share of the vote between the two elections. The BNP’s increase was of course greater, which was why its vote share rose from 33.6% of the vote in 2001 to 40.17% in 2006.

A18: Opinion polls:  Published opinion polls do not suggest that the parties were neck and neck during the middle of the year with the AL started to pull in front. In mid year, the two public polls published – one by democracyInternational/Nielsen, the other by Prothom Alo showed that BNP was between 11% and 13% ahead in July and September 2013 respectively. In the last two months two polls showed the AL/BNP neck and neck – one done by the AL itself and another in December by the Dhaka Tribune. No poll – unless you take AL’s analysis of its own poll – shows the AL to have pulled ahead of the BNP.

A20: BNP militancy: It is a fair criticism of the BNP that it allowed militancy to increase under its watch – but the evidence that the party itself was involved in trying to kill Sheikh Hasina and others, is rather circumspect.

A21: No attacks on Zia: Fair point. Many things have happened during the AL’s period. BNP local leaders have disappeared, large number of arrests relating to obviously false cases, and the BNP leader herself detained in her house. But it is true that under the current government’s period there have been no violent attacks on the opposition leader – but when the BNP was in power that did happen.

A22: BNP responsible for disappearances: A rather extraordinary allegation – that the BNP was responsible for all the disappearances that took place in the last 5 years. There is a significant weight of eyewitness evidence involving many different cases that show RAB and Detective Branch has been involved in the abduction of people

A23/24/25: Banning of Jamaat: Despite what Sajeeb said, all the polls show that there is no support for the banning of the Jammat.

In the most recent Dhaka tribune December 2013 poll, 53 percent of people thought that the Jamaat should be allowed take part in the elections with only 33 percent disagreeing. In the Prothom Ali September 2013 poll, 70% responded negatively, with 29% in favor of such a ban. In the Democracy International/Nielsen April 2013 poll, 65% were found to be against the ban and 25% in favour. So the most that could be said is that the opposition to banning the Jamaat is perhaps declining, but still a majority do not support the banning.

His other point about the peacefulness of the Shahbag protest is of course an important point. But it should be noted that it was allowed to be peaceful as the police supported it and did not interfere. The government has not been allowing the opposition to protest without harassment – so violence is an inevitable result of opposition protests whether they like it or not

A26/27: 1971 dead: There is very limited evidence, in fact none, for the 3 million figure of dead from the 1971 war – though of course it is the so called official figure, and one which has been repeated in the ICT judgments. To read about the numbers of dead, read this.

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