The Awami League and the British Political Establishment: Development, Security and keeping it in The Family

British PM David Cameron with Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina during her visit to London in January 2011  Source: Prime Minister's Office
British PM David Cameron with Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina during her visit to London in January 2011 Source: Prime Minister’s Office

We now know that Bangladesh has a government with a dismal and deteriorating record in human rights, perhaps the worst since the country ‘returned’ to democracy in 1991. In light of the Dhaka Massacre of 6th May where government forces shot and killed protesters, some serious questions need to be asked about the tacit and explicit support the Awami League government has received and continues to receive to carry out its murderous activities. Already, the autocrat Sheikh Hasina’s international supporters have sprung into action to play down the numbers killed and dehumanise them by highlighting their supposed illiberal ideology.

While the moral and public cover that has been accorded to the Awami League is the subject for another investigation, this article will focus on the financial and diplomatic lifeline provided to the current Awami League government and its allies by the British Government and the political establishment.

Through its foreign aid programme, the UK annually subsidises the Bangladeshi government to the tune of  £250 million, despite the country’s dire human rights record. The controversy is not just caused by the amount given but also by the type of aid offered to Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government. One would assume that monies would be spent on poverty alleviation, but instead funds have subsided a corrupt bureaucracy, and a self-serving media and NGO sector.

Recently British Members of Parliament have raised concerns with regards to  aid spending in Bangladesh. They have queried:

  • £5 million being spent on BBC Bangla programmes

  • £21.2 million on a road maintenance project, later pulled due to “fiduciary irregularities” after it emerged that less than 10 per cent of the funding had been spent on roads.

  • £22.7 million to bail out debt-laden state-owned businesses.

  • £13.1 million on training 1,700 civil servants to “develop and deliver pro-poor policy and practice”. The MPs say that this is an enormous sum, considering the average annual salary of such officials is around £600.

  • British training given to the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which as well as gaining a reputation for extrajudicial killing, or ‘cross-fire’, is said to have been involved in the torture and abduction of political opponents including murdered labour activist Aminul Islam.

Since the current government assumed power, civil, political and human rights in Bangladesh have deteriorated. This has happened, primarily through the suppression of civil institutions or NGOs, as well as the ‘physical elimination’ of political opponents the regime. One need only look at the plight of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus whose Grameen Bank was forcibly taken over because the government deemed it to be a threat.

The national scenario is now one in which opponents of the regime have no choice but to come out into the streets and protest. Thelatest being the followers of Hefazat-e-Islam, an apolitical group, whose followers, as stated earlier, were massacred by government troops in the middle of the night whilst they were sleeping.

Complicity of British Security Services in Human Rights Abuses in Bangladesh

Well before the Awami League came to power, Bangladesh has long been a security concern for Western policy makers, particularly for the United Kingdom with its large British Bangladeshi population. This is thanks to the fact that many think-tanks have played up the threat of ‘radical Islam’ in Bangladesh. Sajeeb Wazed Joy, Sheikh Hasina’s son, raised the spectre of extremism in Bangladesh in his November 2008 article in the Harvard Review.

The counter-terrorism dividend was also reaped last year by the delightful Quilliam Foundation, who issued a bizarre note supporting the Bangladesh government’s announcement that it had foiled an Islamist coup plot. Yet, as the Economist revealed subsequently, the officers accused were more prone to having cases of fine wine in their cellars than cases of Kalashnikovs or Qur’ans.

This framing has led to parts of the UK aid budget to be diverted to counter-terrorism in Bangladesh. In late 2010, the Guardian of London revealed how the UK’s Department for International Development was collaborating with USAID to influence government control over independent madrassah curricula as part of their respective government’s counter-terrorism strategies.

The ruling Awami League has been the principal beneficiary of these connections, which have a deadly aspect. Allegations in the regional press have been made that the Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s brother-in-law and security adviser, retired major general Tarique Ahmed Siddiq, has been running a death squad to abduct and kill opponents of the regime. On the purported hit list was the name of Ilias Ali, a popular politician from Sylhet. Tarique Ahmed Siddiq is a former British resident and uncle of British politician Tulip Siddiqui.

Recently, I spoke to a senior Awami League politician with regards to these serious allegations. Under anonymity, he did not deny or affirm them, but instead allowed me access to a confidential email dated June 2012 from the Asia Sourcing House, an innocuous looking import export company, that offers visiting Awami League politicians access to British Lords and Ministers. They would arrange meetings accompanied by themselves to meet with UK politicians.

A Family-run Concern: Party and Country

Under anonymity, the same party member complained that there was no democracy in the party. In Bangladesh, all powers were held by the Prime Minister, and in their UK branch, all powers lay with Sheikh Rehana, the Prime Minister’s sister and trusted aide. AWikiCable and Weekly Holiday article from 2009 bear witness to her and her brother-in-law’s key roles.  Despite repeated attempts to reform the party, to make it democratic, it is run like a family business with no toleration for dissent.

In the UK, my source pointed to the meteoric rise of current UK General Secretary Anwaruzzaman Choudhury from relative obscurity. He rose via close relations to Sheikh Rehana, established by many means including personally redecorating her house free of charge and by greeting the Prime Minister by touching her feet whenever she arrived in the UK, a stand out act of personal submission. He pointed out that Anwaruzaman Choudhury is now the prospective parliamentary candidate for the same seat as the abducted, presumably murdered, politician Ilias Ali.

Some Hard Questions and Soul Searching

The present political crisis is the result is entangled with the policies and practices of the British Political establishment, and the diaspora. Under the current Awami League-led regime, through its systematic destruction of civil liberties and civil institutions, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh has been reduced to a private Zamindari (feudal) estate. People are seen as expendable peasants, as seen recently by the government’s rejection, due to a warped sense of pride, of life-saving equipment and assistance for the victims of the factory collapse in Savar.

In particular, hard questions need to be asked within the Labour Party, especially concerning the close, personal links held by senior Party members with Sheikh Hasina and her family. As Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick MP mentioned in a debate discussing the disappearance of Ilias Ali, the Labour Party has closer links to the Awami League than they do the Bangladesh National Party. No more so than Sheikh Hasina’s niece, and Sheikh Rehana’s daughter Tulip Siddiq. Whilst Ms Siddiq is undoubtedly youthful and energetic, perhaps senior leadership endorsers such as Neil Kinnock are unaware of her position within the epicentre of Bangladeshi politics, much of which is not entirely clean.

British politician Tulip Siddiq (l) pictured beside her aunt Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Russian President Vladmir Putin in Moscow this January as the two governments inked a deal on weapons and nuclear technology. Sheikh Rehana stands second from right.

Maybe Ms Siddiq has nothing to do with the gangster politics of Bangladesh, and she should not be judged for the sins of some members of her family. Yet the question demands asking as she has been by her aunt’s side recently when Hasina met fellow autocrat Vladimir Putin a few months ago to secure a $1billion arms loan, and she has in the past regurgitated Awami League talking points about Islamic fundamentalism on her blog.

Given that her close family are implicated in political corruption, authoritarianism, and extra-judicial killing, is it not in the public interests of Britons, as well as Bangladeshis, to know her stance on these issues before an admirable politician like Neil Kinnock goes about elevating her into national politics?

The current political upheavals in Bangladesh are a reflection of how hopeless people feel, and that they have no option but to demonstrate.  People are demanding the right to be heard, to be visible participants in social, political and cultural processes that are being denied to them under the current Awami League regime. Serious questions have to be raised in the UK, in the media and in the corridors of power in Parliament and Whitehall as to why the British political establishment is aiding and abetting such a brutal regime.

Source: The Khichuri