Dialogue July-September 2009, Volume 11 No.1
Bangladesh under Awami League Government: An Assessment
After a hiatus of two years Bangladesh held its Ninth Jatiya Sangsad (Parliament) elections in December 2008. Hailed by many as another liberation of Bangladesh, the new year ushered in a Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina on 6 January 2009. The elections signified a new beginning for Bangladesh. Disproving several sceptics the nation returned to democratic track. Not only elections were held as had been promised by the Caretaker Government (CTG) but the overwhelming majority that brought Awami League to the Jatiya Sangsad was unprecedented and most extraordinary.
The Awami League won 231 seats, with its allies securing 31, of which 27 seats belonged to the Jatiya Party of Mohammed Ershad. This Awami victory was the biggest win for any political party in the history of Bangladeshi elections. For the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) this was its worst performance ever with only 29 seats and its key coalition partner Jama’at –i-Islami (Jama’at) winning only two seats.
The presence of a non-elected CTG for over 23 months, had raised number of misgivings both within and outside Bangladesh about the state of democracy in Bangladesh. The military backed Caretaker Government had taken over in January 2007. This Fakhruddin Ahmed led government, was the second consecutive interim arrangement after the completion of BNP coalition government’s term. The failure of the first Iajuddin Ahmed led Caretaker Government, led to crises that were resolved through the second CTG taking over. Soon after taking over it embarked on number of political reforms. According to Bangladesh constitutional provisions the CTG is only meant to assist the Election Commission to hold elections free and fairly. The second CTG that stayed in power much beyond the mandated tenure of three months was obviously much more than just a caretaker government. The technocrat led government assumed powers that are generally held by an elected government.
Given the Bangladeshi history of military dictators the fears of another such take over was not completely misplaced. But not only did elections take place after certain significant reforms were in place, but the thumping victory of the Awami League was a clear reflection of Bangladesh’s secular fabric. With one of the largest turnout of voters (87percent) ever the numbers also signified heightened public expectations. Arguably this government had a huge task to perform given the circumstances. Prime Minsiter Sheikh Hasina would not only have to continue with the reform process that was initiated by the CTG but also ensure that Bangladesh does not revert to the conditions that prevailed prior to emergency being imposed in Bangladesh.
Hasina’s 50-member cabinet including seven advisers makes it the second largest cabinet since the four-party alliance government between 2001 and 2006. The immediate focus of the Awami League led government was agriculture and development of rural economy. In the face of severe energy crisis, where only 60 percent of its demand is barely met, this sector will also receive greater priority than it has in the past.
This paper briefly traces the status of domestic politics and the present equation between the government and the opposition alliance. It also touches upon some of achievements of the government and the Bangladeshi economy. The last section before the conclusion deals with bilateral issues with India
While Bangladesh has successfully held elections, its ability to uphold democratic norms will be closely monitored. And if the trends in first few months are any reflection then the situation has not been much different from the past. As is widely known politics in Bangladesh has been played out on the streets rather than within the parliament. And in continuation of the past the opposition walked out shortly from the Jatiya Sangsad soon after the first session began. The spat over the new seating arrangement that gave opposition four instead of nine front row seats remains unresolved. The government is unwilling to concede to the opposition demands and opposition will not relent. This intransigence on both sides led to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies abstaining from the budgetary session too that began in June this year.
The relationship has not had a chance to improve in the past few months with High Court ruling that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and not Zia ur Rahman who, proclaimed Bangladesh’s independence on March 26, 1971. The government has also budgeted for Tk 10 crore for holding trials of those who committed crimes during the Liberation War, and it has instituted a three-member tribunal headed by a High Court (HC) Judge to expediting the trial process. None of this augurs well for BNP’s coalition partner Jama’at. The government has also been accused of harassing the bureaucrats accused of being sympathetic to BNP or its coalition members. The move to transfer over 300 bureaucrats within the first few months have not been appreciated either.
Similarly the government’s move to legalising some of the ordinances that the previous Caretaker Government had passed has been criticized by the opposition. Ironically the parliamentary committee has been questioning the legality of some of ACC’s moves. The ACC chief was also changed soon after the new government took over given the uneasy relationship between Sheikh Hasina and this organisation that existed during the Caretaker Government tenure. The opposition continue to stay outside the parliament. And accusation and counter accusations from both sides continue.
Awami League has received flak from its lack of control over its youth wing. In the aftermath of the stupendous electoral victory of Awami League, its student faction the Bangladesh Chhatra League unleashed violence and mayhem in several university campuses. There was no public condemnation of the violent acts by the Awami leadership. Ironically Sheikh Hasina chose to step down from its organizational head rather than delink the central leadership from the youth wing as was demanded by Election Commissioner. Rather, Hasina enforcing disciplinary action would have sent a stronger message to the violent students factions.
While some of the above measures earned Awami League censure within Bangladesh, it has also earned good will through some of its other measures. One such was the decision to withdraw the one brigade of troops and the 35 security army camps from the Chittagong Hill area. Indeed complying with the Hill Tracts Peace Accord 1997 the army presence was to be phased out gradually from specified areas. Two hundred security camps have so far been withdrawn in phases since the accord was signed between the then Awami League government and Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity in 1997 to bring an end to two decades of insurgency. But over the years the hill people were dissatisfied with continued presence of troops. To ensure return of peace on the ground the Hasina also appointed Deputy Leader of Jatiya Sangsa, Sajeda Chowdhury the chairperson of a National Committee for Implementation of the Accord. Hasina’s deft handling of a border forces crises was also much appreciated.
Bangladesh Rifles Mutiny
Soon after taking over the new government faced one of its most critical situation. The Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) rebellion that broke out in Pilkhana headquarters at Dhanmondi in the heart of Dhaka in February. Over 5,000-6,000 personnel of the Bangladesh Rifles, the border security guard, attacked their senior officers, killing them indiscriminately and holding several hundreds of others hostage. During the celebration of Rifles Week 2009, just a day after Prime Minister Hasina addressed the force on February 24 at a meeting next morning with Director-General Shakeel Ahmed, beginning with a sudden altercation, and broke out into a large scale mayhem that finally left around 60 army officers and their family dead and several hundred wounded.
The BDR rebels, who had machine-guns, light machine guns, mortars, anti-tank rifles, armoured vehicles, and rocket launchers, seized control and took positions at the five gates of Pilkhana as well as the Rifles Square Market. The suddenness of the violence took everyone by surprise. The civilians caught in the crossfire on the streets of Dhaka added to the severity of the situation. The government was quick to act. Within hours, Sheikh Hasina along with her two senior cabinet members, home minister Sahara Khatun and Matia Choudhury negotiated with different groups to resolve the crises from spreading. 1
While the initials efforts by the Prime Minister and her team was much lauded , subsequently delay in the probe reports and their failure to pinpoint any cause other than those which are widely known have diluted the governments immediate actions.
At the same time, the unexplained arrested BDR personnel’s’ unnatural deaths in custody tarnished the government’ image to a great extent. The government’s belated decision to seek an ‘executive inquiry’ into the ‘unnatural’ deaths of 21 BDR soldiers after the February 25-26 rebellion at the Bangladesh Rifles headquarters was brought on by severe criticism of apparent inaction of the government.
Political issues apart, the government will have to fix the economic problems of Bangladesh to ensure its popularity.
The real challenge for the new government will be to mange the economy well amidst the global economic meltdown. The two main contributing components in Bangladesh’s economic growth consists of export of its Ready Made Garments (RMG) industry as well as its remittance from different parts of the world especially from the Middle eastern countries.
Despite an overall fall in global exports Bangladesh’s RMG industry has not been very adversely affected. For the time being despite domestic problems this industry has managed to survive the downturn. Significantly remittance flow from Bangladeshi expatriates grew to almost US$10 billion, which was 22 percent higher than the previous year.2 Although estimates by international economic agencies point towards a 10 percent drop in the next one year. In view of this both the Foreign Minister Dipu Moni as well as Commerce Minister Faruk Khan have been engaging the countries which hosts large Bangladeshi labour force to ensure the protection of the rights of its workers in the foreign land.3
Given the frequent natural disasters in the past years and consequent food grain crises the government has decided to focus on several measures to address this problem. Indeed coupled with energy shortage the food crops have not been adequate to meet domestic requirements.4 In its national budget worth Tk 1,13,819 crore for the present fiscal year 2009-10, it allotted Tk. 34 billion package for agriculture, energy and social welfare sector. With Bangladeshis expecting Hasina to control the spiralling food prices and improving over all food security, it has an urgent job on hand. A body to monitor commodity price has been proposed by the government to ensure prices stay within a certain range.
The one area that has seen a marked improvement over the last elected government has been in the law and order situation.
Law and Order
Indeed to recall very briefly, Bangladesh faced deteriorating law and order situation under the BNP coalition government of 2001-06. The nation had witnessed a sharp rise in Islamic terrorism during those years. The attacks on several secular personalities included Sheikh Hasina, S A M S Kibria amongst other opposition leaders, and British ambassador, Anwar Choudhury as well as the nationwide blast in 2005 brought Bangladesh under the international spotlight. Thus for Sheikh Hasina, freeing Bangladesh from the scourge of terrorism was one of its priority areas of focus. Within hours of taking over Sheikh Hasina amongst others measures initiated a South Asia anti-Terror Task Force.
In the last seven months of Awami League government, there has been some legal as well operational steps taken to deal with this problem. The new cabinet also approved the passage of Anti-Terrorism Ordinance, promulgated by the Caretaker Government on June 9, 2008 into law, although its death sentence provision had been criticised by many.5 Alongside a 17-member task force was constituted to study measures to counter militancy. The law enforcement agencies had met with some successes in their attempts to capture and arrest militants. The government focussed on the NGOs which often has been misused by Islamic elements. The Finance Minister AMA Muhith referred to this phenomena expressing fear that through these NGOs ‘there are some investments in the country that patronise militant activities. He also made specific reference to the growth of several NGOs under the previous former social welfare minister Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid, the Jamaat secretary general’s tenure.
Indeed, a London-based NGO Green Crescent, that functions as a madrasa-cum-orphanage in Bhola turned out to be a mini-ordnance factory. 6 Their expansion plan for militant training in Doulatkhan and Lalmohan districts was also busted. It was also revealed that members of Ulum Qawmi Madrasa and the Qawmi Madrasa Association supported these activities.7 To prevent such misuses of educational institutions and more effective monitoring the education ministry has expressed desire to bring under its purview all the qoumi, nurani, forkania, hafizia and ahle hadith madrasas and mosque-based religious institutions most of which are presently running without the control of the Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board. The government intends to register all madrasas in the country.
With no governmental control over qoumi madrasas there has been a proliferation of them. According to the first-ever survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics in December 2008, there are 5,230 quomi madrasas with about 14 lakh students. The majority of the qoumi madrasas are located in Sylhet, Barisal Chittagong and greater Mymensingh and 323 qoumi madrassa were identified as locations for militant training.8
According to one of the recent home ministry reports Bangladesh at present has 33 active militant groups. 9 A new group Jamaat-e-Muslimeen with close links to Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) also has begun to expand it operations recently.10 The government has had some successes in arresting JMB members in last few months;
· JMB hideout in Khortoil area raided and captured five of its members in April. 11
· Faisal, founder of Green Crescent charity and NGO, arrested on April 6 in connection with the arms haul from his seminary has close links with banned JMB. 12
· Eight JMB members were arrested and recovered bomb-making materials in the capital’s Khilkhet area.13
· Two JMB suspects from Boiragibagh in Dullah union of Muktagachha Upazila 14
· Explosive expert Mizanur Rahman Mizan, also known as Boma Mizan, of the JMB was arrested in Mirpur, Dhaka in May. 15
· JMB member from remote village Binnakure of Muktagacha upazila were arrested in 16 and four more were arrested from different places in Dhaka and Mymensinghe.17
· Following Mizan’s confession another training location was raided and firearms, grenades and a huge quantity of bomb-making materials were seized . 18
Despite the initial successes, against the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) militants, this group still ‘poses serious threats to national security.’19 Reports of JMB former chief Ataur Rahman Sunny and activist Galib of being trained by the Rohingyan arms experts have also been coming in.20 The JMB has threatened the officials of the UNICEF, IFRC and WFP working in Barisal to discontinue their activities and quit the country. These letters in Bengali were written in the name of the banned Islamist outfit Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh.21
Apart from JMB militants the government has also been able to nab militants with international linkages. In April, seven members of the Pakistan-based Dawat-e-Islami, which operates in 70 countries, on suspicion of their link with militant activities were arrested from Chittangong. 22 The strong evidence of the growing nexus between HuJI-B and terrorist outfits operating out of Pakistan like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has rattled security agencies in India. HuJI’s commander Abdul Hannan’s confession of being trained in Gouhardanga madrasa in Pakistan as well as another HUJI commander Matiur Rehman, accused of attacking Sheikh Hasina, has confessed to receiving support from Pakistan’s officials based in Dhaka23, are significant.
Some have been arrested and some were indicted in previous incidents of terror attacks; Six fugitive Huji militants who were freed on bail in 2001 were arrested once again.24 Some high profile militants involved in the bomb blast during Pahela Baishakh celebrations in Ramna Batamul of April 2004 were handed their prison term. 25 Also Mufti Fazlul Haq Amini, chairman of a faction of Islami Oikya Jote, was charged of bomb attack on a Sramik League procession early this year.26
To buttress its measures against terror, the government formed a National Committee for Intelligence Coordination. This body will coordinate and strengthen the activities of the various intelligence agencies functioning within Bangladesh. This committee will be headed by the Prime Minister besides the chiefs of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, National Security Intelligence, Special Security Force and Police. This apart the Awami League government has shown dexterity in handling one of its first crises after assuming power.
Relations with India
As is known, India and Bangladesh enjoyed stable and peaceful relation during the past two years. With an Awami League government in Jatiya Sangsad the relation was expected to improve further. Indeed soon after taking over the Prime Minister has expressed Bangladesh’s interest in reopening the rail links with India improve connectivity and trade and investment as well as people-to-people contact. With a government that understands Indian security concerns even if not able to address them as comprehensively as India would wish it to, India would be looking forward to resolutions of several of the outstanding issues.
The government reopening the Chittagong arms haul case of April 2, 2004 and arrest of former National Security Intelligence chiefs Maj Gen (retd) Rezaqul Haider Chowdhury and Brig Gen (retd) Abdur Rahim, involved in that case sent the right signals to India. India for long had maintained that not only have insurgents from the north east found safe havens in Bangladeshi soil but that they have enjoyed the support of the Bangladeshi state as well. With the confessional statement of Md. Hafizur Rahman and Din Mohammad, the two accused in the Chittagong arms haul case, the linkages between Bangladesh security agencies and Indian militants were proved beyond any doubt. This was the largest arms hauls in Bangladesh, which had taken place on April 2, 2004 in the Chittagong port area.27
As discussed earlier, the Sheikh Hasina led government’s initiative in addressing terror has also led to arrests of some Indian terrorist from Bangladesh. The investigation into the Mumbai attack had thrown up links with not only Pakistan but also HuJI in Bangladesh. On May 27, Abdul Rouf Daud Merchant, an operative of the mafia organisation headed by Dawood Ibrahim was arrested. Having fled to Bangladesh following his conviction for the killing of Indian producer Gulshan Kumar, Merchant along with a few other operatives of the mafia network had been living in the country with false identities 28 This also led to arrest of Arif Hossain alias Chacha, another Indian fugitive from Dhaka in June. The subsequent arrest of Moulana Mohammad Mansur Ali, an Indian national linked to Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) from a madrasa in Dakkhin Khan area of Dhaka on July 20, 2009 have reinforced the linkages. He was also involved in the attack on American Centre in Kolkata on January 22, 2002. The arrest of Mufti Obaidullah, an Indian LeT member in Dhaka led to flow of further information of other Dawood led LeT members.29
Within days of taking over the Bangladeshi government approved the renewal of the bilateral trade agreement between Bangladesh and India. This agreement allows both the countries to use their waterways, roadways and railways for transportation of goods between two places in one country through the territory of the other. It also approved Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (BIPA)—to increase trade and investment with India.
Despite these successes there has been certain issues that have limited convergence. Dhaka was reluctant to accept the 300 Bangladeshis that India had rescued from Andaman islands. indeed between December 2008 and January 2009, Indian coastguards had rescued at least 300 workers who were trying to seek work abroad.30
In several of the Indo-Bangladeshi bilateral issues Awami League and BNP the two main political parties in Bangladesh have taken contrasting positions. Bangladesh has been opposing the Tipaimukh Dam that India intends to build in Manipur. But lately this issue has been hijacked by the opposition and they are using several foras to voice their protests. A parliamentary delegation came to India to gather all the information about the dam has been the first step taken towards bringing around the opposition views closer to that of the government’s.
While some of the above issues are in the process of being resolved Bangladesh still remains extremely sensitive about the question of Bangladeshi undocumented migrants living in India. Infact Indian High Commissioner comment on this issue being blown out of proportions is a reflection of that Bangladeshi unwillingness to accept few ground realities. Similarly the transit issues have been politicized rather than being seen through the economic prism. Overall Indo-Bangladesh relations has seen an upswing in recent times but there is plenty of room for improvement.
The ability of Bangladeshi leaders to ‘distinguish between the party and the government — in the interest of democratic politics, will be the real test for the Awami League led government.’31 The public expectation for improved governance will weigh heavily on Sheikh Hasina and her team. And having understood that within months of the victory Hasina expressed, ‘Our great victory has created great expectation among people and which is why we must have to work for the changes we pledged.’32 While it is too soon to applaud or condemn the present Awami League led government, it has miles to go before it can come closer to keeping its election pledges. Indeed Sheikh Hasina now need to apply her election slogan din badler pala esche (change we need) more than ever before to make that critical difference that Bangladesh expects from her.
1. Sreeradha Datta, ‘Bangladesh Rifles loses its way,’ Indian Express Buzz , March 3, 2009
2. A.N.M. Nurul Haque, ‘Bringing money home,’ The Daily Star, August 3, 2009
3. Raheed Ejaz, ‘Diplomat recalled from S Arabia,’ The New Age, May 15, 2009
4. Philip Bowring, ‘Bangladesh’s Challenge: As democracy restarts, can the country put aside its historic deficiencies to move forward?’ The Asia Sentinel, February 20, 2009
5. ‘Cabinet okays five bills, Anti-Terrorism Bill empowers police to detain any suspects’ New Age, February 22., 2009
6. ‘London NGO about to open 2 more dens Militants in Bhola found more equipped, trained than JMB, says investigatorsm,’ The Daily Star, March 26, 2009
8. Siddiqur Rahman Khan, ‘Govt tightens noose round qoumi madrassahs, DCs asked to collect info. ’New Age, Aril 14, 2009
9. They are Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Hizbut Towhid, Ulama Anjuman al Baiyenat, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Islami Democratic Party, Islami Samaj, Touhid Trust, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, Shahadat-e-al-Hikma Party Bangladesh, Tamira ad-Din Bangladesh (Hizb-e-Abu Omar) and Allahr Dal. Including the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and Shahadat-e-al-Hikma.
10. ‘Hunt for new militant outfit with JMB link’, The Daily Star, August 3, 2009
11. ‘Militant in handcuffs throw grenade 15 injured at Gazipur SP office,’
The Daily Star, February 22, 2009
12. ‘Faisal’s JMB link found in probe, Investigators say he met Abdur Rahman several times, had , contact with present JMB chief Saidur,’ The Daily Star, April 14, 2009
13. ‘8 JMB men held, bomb-making materials seized,’ The Daily Star, April 14, 2009
14. ‘2 suspected JMB men arrested,’ The Daily Star, April 16, 2009
15. ‘RAB busts JMB den, arrests bomb expert, wife,’ The New Age, May 16, 2009
16. ‘JMB man arrested,’ The Daily Star, June 23, 2009
17. ‘4 JMB suspects held with explosives,’ New Age, May 23, 2009
18. F.N. 17
19. Julfikar Ali Manik, ‘JMB now small, but menacingly poised, Half a dozen veterans led revival of the banned outfit; Rab-police row upsets anti-militancy drive,’ The Daily Star, February 23, 2009
20. Julfikar Ali Manik, ‘Rohingya rebels trained JMB men, Investigators glean it from Boma Mizan; Huji too received training from the RSO, The Daily Star, May 19, 2009
21. JMB threatens UNICEF, IFRC, WFP officials Sends letters asking them, New Age, April 14, 2009
22. ‘Hunt for new militant outfit with JMB link,’ The Daily Star, August 3, 2009
23. HuJI, LeT joining hands rattles security agencies, The Times of India, November 1, 2008
24. ‘Six fugitive Huji militants held,’ The Daily Star , August 2, 2009
25. ‘Ramna Batamul Attack Cases, Mufti Hannan, 13 others of Harkat-ul-Jihad indicted,’ New Age, April 17, 2009
26. ‘Amini sent to jail Charged with bomb attack on May 1 rally, ’ The Daily Star, May 19, 2009
27. Sreeradha Datta, ‘Complicity of state actors, IDSA Strategic Comments, March 9, 2009
28. ‘The merchants of crime,’ New Age Extra, July 3-9, 2009
29. ‘Another Lashkar man captured: The Indian national linked to attack on American Centre in Kolkata,’ The Daily Star, July 22, 2009, a
30. ‘Dhaka under pressure to bring all 300 rescued in Andaman’ New Age, July 20,2009
31. ‘Awami League at sixty, Party must fulfill people’s expectations ’ The Daily Star, June 30, 2009
32. ‘Hasina to lead team in changing AL constitution,’ The Daily Star, March 31, 2009
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