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Getting Democracy Back on Track in Bangladesh: Sustaining Human Rights and Freedoms for All

Maneeza Hossain

Let me start by stating that I do not question the good intentions of the caretaker government. To the opposite, I will assert that quite a few serving in this government are exceptional scholars and thinkers and role models.

Still, I do have to question some of the measures that the caretaker government and the military are taking—and I do have to point to potential pitfalls that may be disastrous for Bangladesh.

I have argued that the suspension of democracy itself, while justified for the immediate moment, has lasted too long and has—as a result—set a very dangerous precedent, one that I know will be used by the Islamists.

The military, as demonstrated by their action, and the Islamists, as stated by their ideology, have one thing in common—they think they know what is best for the country, and they think they are better at it than everyone else.

Democracy is not a gift that the military may at some point bestow on Bangladeshis—it is the right of Bangladeshi people.

By postponing the elections for so long (almost two years), and even worse—by considering absurd formulas that would exclude major political forces from participating, and by being almost openly intent on tinkering with the elections, the military is telling Bangladeshis that democracy is a farce. A democracy is not a farce.

At face value, the military seems to be at odds with the Islamists:

  • It has arrested some of the Islamists who were members of the past government for corruption
  • It is putting many of them on trial for 1971 War Crimes
  • And, over the past few weeks, it has surely offended most of them by changing the inheritance laws.

Unfortunately, this façade of conflict between Islamists and the military does not pass many tests:

  • Some of the Islamists are indeed tried of corruption, but no where close to what the liberal middle class and progressive secular politicians & businessmen have suffered.
  • As to the 1971 War Crimes that the caretaker government seems to be interested in, it could not have come at a worse time. Is it really the responsibility for an unelected body, tasked with ushering the country to election, to now engage in the thorny issue of sorting the truths and falsehoods of events of yesteryear? Unfortunately, this question is an important issue that is being misused, or abused, and, either way, it is really the function of an elected government.
  • What is true of the trials, is also true of the inheritance laws. It is hard to believe that the caretaker government failed to anticipate the harsh reaction of Islamists to their amendment of inheritance laws. I personally firmly believe that an overhaul of antiquated practices that discriminate against women is necessary. Once again though—I question the timing and the mandate of the action. Cynics have pointed out that this is a textbook manipulation of Islamists in order to lay the grounds for an eventual postponement of elections. I will not question intentions; but I do agree with the cynics that Islamists are pumped up and mobilized as a result of this government action.

Whether the caretaker government and the military are inadvertently or not using the Islamists, is not the most worrisome aspect of the matter. We know from various reports that the Islamists are well represented in the lower echelons of the military. Judging from the experience of other countries that have had the misfortune of enduring years of military rule, it is but a matter of time before synergies become actual alliances.

After all, of all the political groups in Bangladesh, the Islamists alone have the opportunity to remain active even after the suspension of fundamental rights, and the banning of outdoors and indoor politics. All that the Islamists have to do, is take off their political hats, and put on their prayer hats. The mosques are their forums. Their organizational and operational activities are not disrupted.

To sum up, regardless of intentions, the actions of the military:

  • legitimize the Islamists’ paternalistic approach to Bangladeshi society
  • leave the Islamists with more freedom of action relatively to other political parties,
  • mobilize the Islamists through sensational actions with little real impact
  • leave the military open to the type of entanglement between Islamism + the armed forces as witnessed in Pakistan and elsewhere.

On January 11, 2007 the military saved the nation.

It should have completed its favor to the nation by restricting the function of the caretaker government in accordance with the spirit of the constitution, ensuring the proper conduct of elections. Instead, the caretaker government has been engaging in reforms FAR beyond its mandate. The Islamists are not too unhappy.

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