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Bangladesh’s government targets the country’s troublesome begums

Tanvirul Islam

Exile has replaced execution by noose or firing-squad as the preferred method of getting rid of troublesome politicians in Pakistan and Bangladesh. While two former Pakistani prime ministers (Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto) cool their heels in London, another politician, Altaf Husain, leader of the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), continues to hurl volleys of rhetoric at his supporters, also from the relative safety of London. The MQM operates under the patronage of the military regime, but its guide-leader is still unwilling to risk returning to Pakistan.

Perhaps taking heart from the success of the Pakistani experience of exile, the military-backed caretaker government in Bangladesh has also resorted to exile as a weapon of choice for dealing with the troublesome begums who have dominated Bangladesh’s political scene for nearly two decades. Shaikh Hasina Wajed, daughter of Shaikh Mujibur Rahman (the “father of Bangladesh”) and a former prime minister, was not allowed to board a flight from London to Dhaka on April 22 because the Bangladeshi government made it clear that the plane would not be allowed to enter its airspace with her on board, although a week earlier the regime had accused her of murder. Hasina Wajed had told the BBC that she would return to Bangladesh to clear her name and to be with the people. The other begum, Khaleda Zia, is going into exile to secure the release of her sons, who had been arrested on charges of corruption.

Since the general elections scheduled for January 22 were cancelled by the caretaker government, many supporters of the two leading political parties–the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Khaleda Zia, and the Awami League, led by Hasina Wajed–have been arrested. One court in Dhaka issued a warrant for Hasina’s arrest on charges of murder and extortion, and branded her an “absconder”, ordering the police to confiscate her property if she did not surrender by May 28; another court stayed the charges. Three days later the caretaker government was in retreat, saying that Shaikh Hasina could return, despite having vowed to get rid of the troublesome ladies and try to clean up Bangladeshi politics.

In the mean time, supporters of Begum Khaleda Zia filed a petition in a Dhaka court to challenge her apparent confinement at home, a charge denied by the government. According to initial reports that have now been denied, Begum Khaleda Zia struck a deal with the government to go into exile in Saudi Arabia in return for the release of her younger son, Arafat Rahman, on April 17; he had been arrested a day earlier. Her other son, Tareque Rahman, was arrested in March and is still being held on charges of corruption. Quoting a close associate of Khaleda, Reuters news agency reported that her “departure is imminent” and said she made the deal with the government out of frustration over lack of support from top officials of her political party. “I am frustrated as I have not received [the] desired support and sympathy from my party while I myself and my family are going through a disastrous time,” she was quoted as saying. Reports on April 24 quoted her as saying that she will not leave the country and will face all charges against her and her family in court. The caretaker government, looking increasingly incompetent, said that Begum Khaleda is not under house arrest and that there is no plan to send her into exile.

When Moinul Husein, the caretaker government’s acting head of the ministry of law and information, was asked to comment on Begum Khaleda’s exile deal, he said: “We will not obstruct anyone who wants to go abroad.” He also condemned the persistence of traditional family politics in a democratic system. “We must get rid of family politics, this is the root of bad politics which leads to corruption,” referring to the domination of Bangladeshi politics by the two grandmothers, who are now grooming their offspring for political power.

Begum Khaleda ended a five-year term as prime minister last October, handing over power to a pre-election interim authority, in accordance with the constitution. Immediately, Awami League-led street agitations erupted, first demanding the removal of the chief election commissioner, M. M. Aziz, and once that was conceded that of president Iajuddin Ahmed himself. He was forced out after Moinuddin Khan, the military chief, expressed his displeasure at the continued political mayhem. Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former State Bank governor, replaced Iajuddin and announced the postponement of elections, ostensibly in order to update electoral rolls, streamline the political system and uproot corruption. Widespread arrest of supporters of both political parties followed. The caretaker government then moved into the next phase of its campaign to sweep the political stables by exiling both leaders, but it has faced serious problems. It has had to surrender to the disruptive street power of the leading political parties, although most Bangladeshis would like to see the two grandmothers banished from the political scene so that they can make a fresh start.

Increasingly, the caretaker government is looking like a permanent or long-term arrangement as it attempts to grapple with the myriad problems facing the country. The longer the political turmoil continues, the less likely it will be to hold elections, though all the political parties are demanding that they be held. Like most third world countries, Bangladesh has not yet mastered the technique of peaceful transfer of power. It is heading into uncharted waters, whose consequences may not be favourable to the interests of this impoverished country of 120 million people.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 3

Rabi' al-Thani 14, 14282007-05-01

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