Monday, February 16, 2009

Need to Change -- Bangladesh’s Election and the Hope and Concerns of its People

by Stine Eckert

Change. That was not only the buzzword for the recent U.S. election and President Barack Obama, but also for Sheik Hasina, the president of the Awami League (AL) party in Bangladesh. Just like the United States presidential campaigns, the promise of change brought an overwhelming victory in Bangledesh’s general election on December 29, 2008. The AL party-led alliance won an absolute majority by taking 258 of 294 parliamentary seats against its main opponent, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Before, a quasi-military government ran the country during a state of emergency. During these 23 months, citizens' fundamental rights were suspended. For Bangladeshis the first general election in seven years was a breakthrough in returning to democracy; 70% participated.

What hopes and concerns harbor Bangladeshis for the promised changes of the new government? – An unemployed biologist, environmental analyst, high school student, human rights activist, journalist, and university administrator answer.

No Proper Democracy Yet

“It is true that Bangladesh is yet to get the proper democracy, but we are in the process,” writes Muhammad Aminul Islam, senior staff correspondent at the Dhaka-based daily newspaper New Age in an e-mail interview. He says that it is yet too early to judge the new government. “Absolute power means absolute corruption,” he says. “I am concerned whether this government can control its members.” Mr. Islam says that between 2001 and 2006 the BNP-led alliance enjoyed a similar majority but crushed the people’s hopes with “unabated irregularities by the ruling party men.” Violence after the recent election by AL rulers and its student wing, he says, has brought back the fear that this government might be a déjà-vu of the BNP rule. He says that his hope lies with the young and fresh but inexperienced ministers whose help the AL administration needs to tackle corruption, reduce inflation and hunger in society.

Despair and a Digital Bangladesh

Twenty-year old Dhaka resident Rukshana Sultana, who recently earned a Master’s degree in biology but is unemployed, writes in an e-mail interview that the election means a lot to her. She says as much as the country is approaching the AL-led administration positively, the people will carefully watch its every step. Sultana says that with the number of unemployed young people rising, the new government should prioritize job creation and lower food prices. Nabila Naomi, an 18-year old high school senior in Dhaka said in an e-mail interview that the new government must lower the price of rice and invest in road repair in smaller areas. She says that she “hates politicians.” Meanwhile, 26-year old Sayed Mohammad Mosharof, who holds a Master’s degree in soil and environmental science and works as an environmental analyst in Dhaka, says in an e-mail interview that he had awaited the election with the “hope of an unlimited horizon.” His wish list for the government includes curbing corruption, state accountability, and lowering food-prices, creating a more technologically advanced “digital Bangladesh.”

Self-Censorship, Torture, and Freer Expression

Dr. Kazi Anis Ahmed, Director of Academic Affairs at the University of Liberal Arts in Dhaka, similarly banks on the government’s promise for increased investment in information technology to benefit higher education. Under the rule of the quasi-military interim government, Dr. Ahmed says in an e-mail interview, “a great deal of self-censorship” was going on among citizens but also writers, intellectuals, and journalists. He disclosed that after some riots had started at a university campus “on very flimsy ground” and spread countrywide, thousands of people including students and some prominent professors were arrested and allegedly roughed up in detention.

One of them was human rights activist and independent journalist Tasneem Khalil. A Human Rights Watch report published in February 2008 details the “The Torture of Tasneem Khalil.” At the time of his arrest Mr. Khalil reported for the respected English language newspaper The Daily Star, CNN, and Human Rights Watch. Among other issues, he covered extrajudicial killings and minority rights. In the report he says that on May 11, 2007 men of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the military intelligence agency of Bangladesh, arrested him. Khalil writes that during the 22 hours in captivity he was repeatedly verbally abused and beaten. A photo in the report shows a dinner-plate sized purple-red bruise on his left lower back. Mr. Khalil now lives in Sweden.

In an e-mail interview Mr. Khalil writes he would “love to see” the free press as the main weapon to fight hunger and poverty this time. The overwhelming victory of AL was no surprise to him. He predicted such a victory two years ago if free and fair elections were conducted. “People power has once again won the battle for democracy, something to be excited about.” He says the new government appears to be “very serious” about fulfilling promises such as quickly fixing the steeply rising food prices – an issue he says will make or break it. He says AL president Sheik Hasina has selected “some of the brightest and honest faces” in Bangladeshi politics. This, Mr. Khalil hopes, signals a pro-people, left-of-center government for the next five years. But he also says he’s worried about the “fascist tendencies” AL has shown in the past. “[I’m] keeping my fingers crossed, so that we don't have to watch the orgy of political violence anymore or see yet another sham parliament in Bangladesh.”

Everything possible, even reelection

Dr. Ahmed warns of “a certain tendency of partisan administration in public academic institutions will persist but needs to be kept within limits.” He hopes the urgent help needed for the economy is really coming as the AL-led alliance seems to be more “economically aware” than previous administrations. If the government keeps it own members in check and insures that the opposition does not leave the parliamentary process, he suggests, “it may become the first to get re-elected in five years.”

Bangladesh needs to take one step at a time. “Only the struggle for a democratically elected government,” writes Mr. Islam, “can ensure that the people will get the proper democracy one day.” Whereas Mr. Mosharof is enthusiastic that “everything is possible in Bangladesh;” Ms Naomi remains pessimistic: “Neither this government nor [its opponent] BNP can do anything for our country.”

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