Bangladesh shaken by war of the dynasties

By Justin Huggler
Monday 12 February 2007 01:00

Bangladesh has suffered a silent coup. In a country that only a few months ago was celebrating a Nobel Peace Prize for one of its best known sons, Muhammad Yunus, armed soldiers now patrol. Elections have been cancelled, and political leaders are being rounded up. At least nine former ministers have been arrested without charge. Human rights have been suspended. It is now illegal to oppose government decisions. All political activity is banned.

For the past 15 years, politics in the world's third most populous Muslim country has been dominated by twin matriarchs - divas who hate each other so much they will not cross paths, let alone speak to each other: Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed.

They lead the two big political parties, the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League, and they have alternated as prime minister since democracy was restored in 1991. But the feud between them finally boiled over this year as they refused to wait for elections to decide who should be prime minister next. As Khaleda Zia tried to fix the elections, Sheikh Hasina brought her strongmen on to the streets. At least 45 people were killed.

With the chaos at its peak, President Iajuddin Ahmed stepped in on 11 January, declaring a state of emergency, and cancelling the elections. The international community looked on with relief. But the story that was not told was how the military had seized power: how the generals went to the President and told him to declare the emergency, and how they are behind the "caretaker" government.

A country that only months ago was relishing its emergence on the world stage, with economic growth of 6 per cent, is looking, again, into the abyss of military rule. People are asking whether the era of the grandes dames is finally over. Much has been made of the fact that politics here has been dominated by women for more than a decade. But it was no triumph of feminism. Sheikh Hasina's and Khaleda Zia's power came from dead men. They are relatives of the two most powerful figures in Bangladesh's 36-year history as an independent country.

Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the man who led Bangladesh to independence from Pakistan only to be assassinated for his own authoritarian attempts at single-party rule. The cadres of Sheikh Hasina's Awami League still wear the black coats favoured by him.

Khaleda Zia is the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, who seized power and became military dictator shortly after Sheikh Mujibur's death, only to be assassinated himself.Their dependence on dead relatives did not stop them from putting on airs. Khaleda Zia, in particular, ruled Bangladesh "in an imperial fashion", according to Ataur Rahman, a professor of political science at Dhaka University. The word in Dhaka is that they are now under unofficial house arrest, guarded by security forces for their own "protection".

The issues between them in the run-up to the elections scheduled for 22 January seemed relatively minor. Sheikh Hasina's Awami League complained that the election commissioners were biased, having barred the league's political ally, General Ershad, a former dictator, from standing.

But really, the BNP was blatantly trying to fix the elections, says Professor Rahman. "It wasn't just election engineering, it was election designing," he says. "It shouldn't have been an issue for the BNP. They were winning anyway. They were doing it for five or 10 seats. They must be crying now."

What the parties have done is put the country back in the hands of the military. The chief of the caretaker government, in effect the acting prime minister, is Fakruddin Ahmed. "He has his allies in the World Bank, the UN and donor countries, but he is only one actor," says Professor Rahman. "You need a lot of force to back this government, otherwise the political parties would overwhelm it."

All Dr Ahmed's allies would have been powerless against the well-organised party machines but for the military's backing. Only the army can frighten the party cadres, and that means real power is in the hands of a man who until now has been largely silent and invisible: the chief of staff, Lt-Gen Moeen Ahmed.

Gen Ahmed insisted this week that "the army has no intention of taking over". But elections have been postponed for at least three months, and few expect them to be held that soon. "I don't envisage an election," smiles Professor Rahman.

And the "caretaker" government is not just reforming the election process. It has set about implementing its own policies. The hawkers who once sold their wares to passengers arriving by ferry on the Buriganga river - one of Dhaka's few tourist sights - have disappeared. The slums, too, are being emptied. At least 3,000 families have been evicted from Dhaka and Chittagong, and the government is ignoring a court order that they be resettled.

Dhaka may be calm, but in political circles, the climate is fearful. Of the 500 politicians invited to a fashionable party this week, only 50 dared turn up. The press has been warned that the government has the right to censor anything without warning.

"It's a coup, of course. It's a quasi-military government," says Nurul Kabir, the editor of New Age, the only newspaper that has dared to criticise the state of emergency. "The Awami League and the BNP were engaged in a cold power struggle, devoid of any political principles. But now the government has suspended the fundamental human rights of all citizens."

Most Bangladeshis are convinced that the detained politicians are knee-deep in corruption, says Mr Kabir. "The politicians of mainstream parties for the last 10 to 15 years used state power to amass personal wealth. It was visible corruption," he says. "We believe they should be brought to justice. But [the authorities] don't even have specific charges against them yet and they are being sent to jail. This is not done."

Most Bangladeshis have welcomed the state of emergency because it has calmed streets that a month ago were witnessing ever worsening violence, or were suffering transport blockades that had brought the economy to a standstill.

But Mr Kabir says Bangladesh is sailing into dangerous waters. "Politics is forbidden now, there is no politics," he laughs. "Our position is simple; you cannot correct the legal system by illegal means."

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